Social Studies

Human Rights Curriculum Encourages Students to ‘Speak Truth to Power’

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 25, 2015 2 min read
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The refugee crisis in Europe, the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in Syria: Taking an honest look at history and current events in the classroom isn’t always easy.

“It’s crucial to teach those things,” says Andrew Beiter, an 8th grade teacher at Springville Middle School, near Buffalo, N.Y. “But a lot of times kids feel more depressed than uplifted.”

Speak Truth To Power, a program from the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, uses extraordinary personal stories to educate students about history and human rights—while also encouraging them to make a difference in their own communities.

Speak Truth To Power was inspired by a book of the same name by Kerry Kennedy. Kennedy, the daughter of former U.S. Senator and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, profiled 51 human rights luminaries, including well-known figures like the Dalai Lama and activists like Ka Hsaw Wa, who raised awareness of the plight of oil workers in Burma.

The classroom program similarly focuses on the stories of these individuals, referred to as human rights defenders. It includes a series of free lessons and resources, all aligned to the Common Core State Standards and available for different ages and grades. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights also trains teachers in the United States and around the world.

A lesson on Van Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, touches on law enforcement and civil rights and is tied to high school literacy standards. A lesson on Malala Yousafzai includes the young education leader’s remarks to the United Nations and asks students to investigate data on educational attainment.

John Heffernan, the executive director of Speak Truth To Power, said versions of the Defenders curriculum has been used on five continents and in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, law schools, and prisons. Heffernan, a human rights activist, said that after years of responding to human rights crises, he sees education as a way to help prevent them.

“I am convinced that we can build a citizenry that’s committed to holding society to high standards of civil rights, and urging young people to not only care but to do something about it,” Heffernan said.

Each lesson includes a way for students to take action in their own community. The program also hosts a video contest in which students create documentaries about human rights defenders and a songwriting contest called “Speak Up, Sing Out.”

Beiter, who has worked as a teacher trainer focused on education about genocide, said the stories in the Speak Truth To Power curriculum are inspiring for teachers and students alike. Beiter helped connect teachers in Rwanda with Speak Truth To Power as they prepared to teach about genocide in their own country.

For Beiter’s 8th graders, the program is a way to step outside their community and learn more about the world around them.

“It gives kids hope, and not in a silver-lining way,” Beiter said. “The world’s always going to be a tough place, but these people provide role models that give us a blueprint for action.”

While some of the topics are difficult, Beiter says the program transcends political division. “Virtually anybody of any political stripe will realize that it’s very American to speak truth to power.”

Photo: Between October 2011 and September 2012, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights held 15 trainings in the new curriculum across 12 provinces in Cambodia. The trainings drew 1758 attendees, the majority of whom were teachers and monks. (via Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.