How to teach students to hate human rights (and other subjects)…


As a teacher “implementing” Common Core, I’ve enjoyed reading the Burkins and Yaris blog. Their writing is pretty accessible, and they are great at separating the wheat from the chaff with the standards. A recent post on their blog was pretty disheartening. Kim Yaris’ son had come home after a week of lessons on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in tears hating the lesson, and the document. His teacher was using a module purchased from Expeditionary Learning.

This started a whole back and forth about whether having 11 year olds read college/law school level texts was a good idea and led to a second post where Expeditionary Learning defended their module, and a couple teachers commented, one talking about how she “made it work” by improving her attitude (and changing some of the writing instruction). I’m not a great believer in attitude overcoming overly ambitious standards and materials, since that smacks of “reformy” bromides about raising students up one and half grade-levels, etc. Also, I know something off this subject. I was involved in human rights work in my undergrad years when my husband introduced me to Amnesty International. This was well before I was teaching, but in a local group I belonged to there was a middle-school teacher who regularly had her students writing letters on behalf of political prisoners (human rights is supposed to be part of California curriculum). They and the UN have lots of documents that are in “plain language” (the UN term for documents that are translated out of legalese).

I’ve also done similar lessons of my own using the plain language version of human rights documents, and like the teacher Danielle, this has led to students engaging in some incredible discussions. Instead of me being stressed out and kids crying because they were forced to read college-level text, everyone enjoyed the experience, while still engaging in higher-order thinking. But, I had a different goal than the designers of this curriculum were after. They are very concerned with students reading primary or source documents, and comparing them to other versions. I wanted my kids to appreciate their own rights, and the rights other people have, and that these rights are inherent and inalienable, and I’m hoping that some will become advocates for their rights and the rights of others. Those are two very different goals. I’m concerned because if this keeps up (and I regard this as the continuation of a longer problem of what has been called “readicide“), we’re not going to have to worry about not giving a sh*t about what kids think, but the kids not giving a sh*t about what we think (or more precisely what we want them to think). I’m pissed off by this lesson because I want kids to learn about human rights, and if this is the way to do it, I’m not perplexed, I AM FURIOUS!

Some other thoughts…

  • My husband studied International Relations and Political Science before going onto law school at Boalt Hall and was required to read this document in an upper-division college level course to give you an idea of the “lexile” level this is at.
  • I always used Declaration of the Rights of the Child, since it’s about them, as a means of building interest. I also used the plain text version, as it was adequate for the job at hand. Also, there are a lot more activities and materials at an appropriate developmental-level for them to access.
  • Last, what’s wrong with using the plain language versions? It’s an international document with multiple and myriad translations, these are just one among many. Claims Expeditionary Learning makes that this level is “required” are not supported by their own scope and sequence. There is NO standard in the ones listed on the lesson module that support giving 11 year old students a college-level text, as it states students should be reading 5th grade level texts (which this isn’t) and claims that this is “standards” aligned are either a fabrication, or show a lack of reading competence on the part of the designer.

For your illumination, the actual text:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Plain Language version of UDHR

Right of the Child (legalese version)

Rights of the Child (plain text)

2 Comments to

“How to teach students to hate human rights (and other subjects)…”

  1. October 9th, 2013 at 1:51 am      Reply Kim Yaris Says:

    For me, one of the most important ideas that you touch upon in this post is that they aren’t just reading documents like UDHR because the authors of the CC thought that kids should read more primary source documents but rather, because there is some lifelong value to knowing and understanding human rights. When that lifelong goal becomes our primary target (vs. meeting the standards), we begin to think differently about how to approach our teaching. It increases the likelihood that we favor the plain text version over the original so that we can focus on ideas and purpose rather than increased rigor.

  2. October 9th, 2013 at 7:42 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

    I want to thank you for your post, because I have meant to add this lesson back into my teaching (the Rights of the Child) since switching to sixth grade. It fits well with an upcoming unit theme, and I’ve enjoyed doing it in the past. This is giving me the push to do that, in an age-appropriate way.

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