Student Well-Being Opinion

Teaching About Human Rights and Genocide: Content, Connections, and Civic Engagement

By Tom Mueller & Frank Stebbins — July 08, 2019 6 min read
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Franklin Stebbins is a Holocaust and genocide teacher at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark, N.J. Tom Mueller is a geography professor at California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pa.

At this year’s Raphael Lemkin Summit to End Genocide and Mass Atrocities, participants realized the urgent need to build a community of educators willing to teach students about modern genocide and human-rights violations. Lately, as teaching responsibilities and content-area requirements take up the majority of the day, the question is often asked, “How can we possibly include another topic?” Our response is, “How can we not?” By incorporating the 3 C’s (content, connections, and civic engagement), students can receive a cross-curricular education that informs them of current events, including human rights and genocide, while simultaneously developing the skills to have an impact on local and global communities.

Teaching about human rights and modern genocide present opportunities to incorporate whole-child and social-emotional learning. For example, students relate to specific stories and activities while exhibiting a different set of perspectives. As with learning about the Holocaust, content should not focus on the memorization of facts and dates but on the human element, reflection, and engagement. This methodology helps educators provide more authentic, differentiated assessment opportunities. Allowing students to journal about sensitive topics, engage in dialogue as opposed to debate, and be able to create art depicting their responses has led to terrific results, especially from students who have said they do not do well in a traditional history course.

Finding Reliable Content

A common concern about teaching modern-day genocide is the availability of reliable resources. This is one of the main reasons why an educator network was created through the Enough Project, an organization dedicated to supporting peace and ending mass atrocities in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones. While their reports are terrific sources of foundational information for anyone, they also have useful curriculum guides, books, and documentary links.

For example, the recently published book, Congo Stories, co-authored by The Enough Project’s founding director, John Prendergast, and Congolese human-rights activist Fidel Bafilemba, comes with a free downloadable study guide providing curriculum and activities. The book balances historical events over the last five centuries with personal narratives and is accompanied by photographs taken by actor and activist Ryan Gosling. This approach allows students to analyze primary-source documents and artwork, the impact a global economy may have on a region, and the importance of upstanders. The study guide focuses on history but can be successfully translated into a variety of courses. Language arts classes can incorporate the journal entries, vocabulary/terms, and research/letter writing. Art courses have the option of studying the culture of Kongo Kingdom as well as creating displays that showcase maps of mines and diagrams of government structures. Math, economics, or financial-literacy classes can utilize statistical analyses of: actual gold exports versus those officially reported; conflict minerals and their role in cellphone, battery, and jewelry industries; banking regulations linked to monitoring human rights; and the role a consumer has in demanding a change to a business’ practices. The Enough Project has several YouTube videos discussing what conflict minerals are, how they are used in our cellphones, and more.

Students could also be introduced to issues in conflict mining through the documentary, Merci Congo, which discusses several topics including refugee camps, rape used as a weapon, and how college students are working to stop the atrocities. The documentary not only shows the impacts on miners and their families but also how students can make a difference.


The purpose of connecting is twofold. The first is connecting content to students and the second is connecting educators with a passion to teach about these subjects through a support network. The role of educators can no longer be that of content deliverers; technology can deliver access to more information in 30 seconds than a full year of lectures. Students need connections to individual experiences, their choices, and any prior knowledge of the subject matter. Many students are not familiar with human-rights violations occurring in Africa, the impact local upstanders are having, or a basic understanding of the diversity the continent embodies. As with Holocaust education, which has been on the decline recently, the most powerful lessons are those in which students meet and are able to interact with a survivor.

Lemkin Summit participants are able to observe conversations between students, people from Sudan and the Congo, analysts, and investigators. While students may read headlines or see a documentary on events in the region, it is rare for them to share a dialogue with people who are firsthand witnesses to the events being discussed. It is amazing to hear the work of individuals fighting for gender equality, access to basic rights like education and clean drinking water, or advocating for the use of financial institutions to fight against human-rights offenders. Students may then use the Activist Portal, an easy-to-navigate site with information about activist programs, study guides, and ideas for programming and learning, to continue to find ways to leverage their experience.

The IWitness portal from USC Shoah Foundation provides online testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. Students and teachers can access the platform and search, watch, edit, and share videos. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also provides testimony for genocides beyond the Holocaust.

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement in the classroom is a great example of how character education can be linked to subject matter. Often advocacy or taking action is one of the most difficult C’s to bring into the classroom, with a common refrain of, “But how do I even start?” Danielle Harris from Harvard University and Youth Participatory Politics has developed a list of 10 questions that serve as a guide to help students get started. The organization Facing History and Ourselves has created a unit to incorporate these questions into classroom lessons, allowing students to receive guidance in their civic-engagement process.

While topics like ending genocide and mass atrocities are not age appropriate for younger grades, certain engagement activities are. For example, while teaching geographic themes such as location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and region, connections can be made between students and refugees. Dr. Mueller helped students in his university class write letters of encouragement to the Darfur United Women’s Soccer Team, but a letter-writing campaign could easily be translated to younger grades.

Another terrific opportunity is for students to become involved with projects like the Lumumba Children’s Library Book Club Challenge. The challenge encourages clubs to raise a minimum of $25 to donate to the building of the first public library in Goma, DRC. Events like a used-book sale or a bake sale are ways students can raise money. To simultaneously raise awareness and deepen the content connections, have students create informational pamphlets about the cause and distribute them to customers.

Utilizing the 3 C’s to incorporate human rights and modern day genocide into various classrooms can allow for student voice while linking to pre-existing content. Most importantly, it allows for student engagement both within the classroom and the global community.

Connect with Tom, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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