I spent some time in my daughter’s classroom last week talking to the second graders about human rights. I’ve been a guest speaker in all of my kids’ classrooms and have done this presentation (a kind of human rightsy mash-up of show-and-tell and career day) pretty much every year since my oldest was in second grade. But this time was different. I discovered the night before I was scheduled to speak in her class that my daughter, who just turned 8, was planning to do the presentation on human rights WITH me.
I have a more-or-less standard routine and she knew it well. (I wrote a post called Same and Different about doing this human rights lesson in my sons’ classrooms.) First, I do an activity that I call Same and Different. I have several photos from West Africa that I had blown up and mounted on foamcore. I show the kids a photo and have them point out what they see in the picture that is the same in their lives and what is different. It always generates great discussion and often the kids see things in the photos and make connections that I never did. Hopefully, by showing that all humans have similarities in spite of our differences, it also plants some seeds of respect and tolerance.
When I got to her classroom, my daughter brought her small plastic chair to the front of the class and set it down firmly right next to mine. After introducing me (with the class microphone), she sat down beside me. She had assigned herself the assistant’s job of holding the photos for all to see while I led the discussion. A couple of times I had to remind her to hold the photo out so that all the kids could see, but overall she did a great job.
The next activity I do is to pass around a selection of items that I have picked up on my travels for work. As we pass them around so that everyone gets a chance to touch them, we again discuss what is the same and different in our lives. This time, I didn’t gather a thing for the activity; my daughter collected everything the night before our presentation. A yak wool blanket from Nepal, a wooden statue of a traditional palava hut from Liberia, coins and bills from Cameroon – all went into a bag I had brought her from Ghana. She even added her pink beaded pointy-toed slippers from Morocco. When I reminded her that she would have to share and let everyone touch them and try them on, she hesitated for a moment. In the end, though, her slippers went into the bag.
To close out the presentation, I usually read a children’s book or two about human rights. I have a couple of favorites. For Every Child, A Better World by Kermit the Frog is one that we own two copies of, but of course we couldn’t find either when we needed it. I went to library to check out a copy and discovered shelved right beside it I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres. This beautifully illustrated book presents the concept of human rights, especially those of children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
When I brought the books home from the library, I asked my daughter,
“Which do you want me to read to your class?”
“I want to read them both,” she said.
She did a beautiful job of reading both books to the class. I was so proud that I teared up, right there in front of all the second graders and their teacher.
In some ways, it is easier to talk to kids about human rights than adults. Because children generally see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, it is easy for them to understand that we all have rights – the right to voice our opinions, to go to school, to be free from violence. The right to have food and shelter and clean air and water. The thing about kids is that they have a very strong natural sense of justice (as it applies to them, at least) they understand the inequities of a world where not everyone is able to access those rights.
One girl came up and hugged me after the human rights lesson.
“It makes me sad,” she said, “to think that not all kids have enough to eat.”
“What you are feeling is empathy,” said the teacher. “And that’s good.”
Knowing about the problem – caring about it and wanting to do something about it – is the first step towards change.
The last thing I heard as I left the classroom was another little girl saying,
“I think I am going to write a letter to President Obama and ask him why we are not part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
There are a lot of things about working in human rights that are not easy, but this was a very good day!
More ideas for human rights activities to do with children: