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Teaching Social Justice Through Children’s Human Rights

By Susan Zeiger & Ann Marie Gleeson — May 02, 2016 7 min read
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Recently, we featured a blog by TeachUNICEF, on using children’s rights as a pedagogical framework. Today, Susan Zeiger and Ann Marie Gleeson, program directors at Primary Source, recommend children’s rights as a vehicle for exploring global social justice issues across the curriculum—and doing so with culturally responsive approaches. Join Primary Source on Twitter this Thursday, May 5 at 8pm ET to discuss social justice issues in the classroom during #GlobalEdChat.

“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace.”

These words of Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner from Ghana, are a touchstone for all of us as global citizens. But they have a special meaning for educators. Many of the globally-minded teachers we work with each year find children’s human rights an ideal vehicle for introducing global social justice issues to their students. There are many reasons this is so.


  • Children’s rights are relatable. Children are inherently curious and concerned about other children.
  • Children’s rights are transectional, cutting across every other global justice topic including health care access, food security, sustainable development, equitable education, conflict resolution, and so much more.
  • Children’s rights can be taught at every grade level and in every subject area including math and science, literature and the arts.
  • Children’s rights connect global learning to social justice. Teaching your students about their human rights—and those of other children—is one way teachers can advance the goal of making a safer and healthier world for all young people.

Here we share some of the best materials and strategies that educators can use across the curriculum to teach children’s human rights in global context. Along the way, we’ll highlight these key characteristics of culturally-proficient global teaching: cultivating student empathy; engaging with authentic texts; analyzing context; and ascribing agency to people outside of our own society. Integrating these practices can help create a strong foundation for global understanding in your classroom.

The Rights of the Child and the International Community
The foundational document for teaching children’s rights is the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition to the groundbreaking work of UNICEF, other NGOs have developed teaching materials about children’s rights including this high-quality curriculum from Oxfam.

A child-friendly text of the convention or this short film can be used with younger learners. In an elementary classroom students can brainstorm the rights they think children need and want, then compare their list with the UN’s list of rights. They may be surprised or excited to learn that the right to play and having a voice in decisions are among those included in this visionary document! Filmmakers from around the world produced very short animated cartoons for this United Nations project, each creatively illustrating a different right. This can inspire projects for young artists, animators, or cartoonists. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by every member nation of the United Nations except the United States. High school students can research the reasons this is so, or engage in a “Structured Academic Controversy” that poses the question of whether signing the treaty would be beneficial for the United States and its people.

Engaging Student Empathy Through Stories
The UN Convention establishes ideals and aspirations for children’s well-being. Tragically, children around the world are subject to the violation of these rights. This is true in poor countries and also in wealthy ones. Denial of education, employment that is dangerous or involuntary, and exposure to violence and armed conflict are three key areas where children are vulnerable. A valuable approach to these difficult topics is through texts such as memoirs and “told-to” stories, interviews, videos, and other first-hand accounts. These can help students cultivate empathy by making the plights of other children real to them. Students can view these short videos from Human Rights Watch, based on direct testimony of victims, that uncover current abuses such as Filipino children working in small-scale gold mining or U.S. teens employed in the tobacco fields.

Published life stories abound, and support social justice themes in the English Language Arts curriculum. The Queen of Water, for middle-grade readers and up, tells the story of co-author Maria Virginia Farinango, an indigenous child of rural Ecuador forced into abusive domestic service with an urban family; written with humanity and wit, her account sheds light on a practice that often exists in the shadows. The lives of child soldiers are grippingly recounted in Never Fall Down (Cambodia), Bamboo People (Burma), and Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War (Democratic Republic of Congo). The latter, a graphic memoir, treats this painful subject with exceptional sensitivity and clarity; though accessible for upper elementary students forward, its mature and nuanced storytelling make it a fine choice for ELL readers in high school classes. Clouds Over Sidra harnesses the power of virtual reality, to create a sense of “you are there” identification with the video’s twelve-year-old protagonist, a Syrian refugee child in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, and those in her world.

Teaching the Wider Context Through Data
Individual stories can be enormously compelling. But without context, they can also be puzzling, misleading, or worse. Students will have many concerns and questions about the harsh life experiences of children; allow their questions to guide inquiry into the “big picture” context behind these human rights abridgements. How many children are unfree workers, in which industries, in which countries? Where are children’s rights best protected, and where are they the most vulnerable? Has there been improvement over time? What policies or factors make the biggest difference toward improvement? Quantitative and other analytical skills can be honed on important global topics such as these. UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Reports provide a broad overview of issues. Older students can analyze the data by country and indicator or use Gapminder World to compare relationships between variables such as “children in school” and “life expectancy” for various countries. Elementary teachers can select data for lessons that help students interpret or create their own charts and graphs. Human Rights Watch offers a website on children’s rights in all world regions; the videos, data, and articles here would be an excellent starting point for student research.

Introducing Global Social Movements
Finally, introducing students to NGO activism on behalf of children’s rights can inspire their sense of global engagement. Highlighting local or regional campaigns in developing nations can address an important goal of culturally-responsive global learning: helping students see people in the global south as agents working for the betterment of their own societies. A World at School is an NGO initiative that advocates for school access globally; students can explore their Global Youth Ambassadors webpage, where young activists around the world describe, in their own words, the campaigns they are part of and the advocacy work that they do. Children themselves have often been the most effective spokespersons for the cause of children’s rights. There are many ways that students can learn about Malala Yousafzai, history’s youngest Nobel laureate, including the young readers’ version of her autobiography, I Am Malala. Or share the story of Iqbal Masih, a bonded child worker in the carpet industry of Pakistan who gained his freedom at age 10 and campaigned to free others. Iqbal was murdered in 1995; his legacy has been kept alive by generations of students at Broad Meadow Middle School in Quincy, Massachusetts who maintain a fine website and a school in his honor. The children of Broad Meadow and other elementary and middle school youth working for just causes are featured in Phillip Hoose, It’s Our World Too: Young People Who Are Making a Difference—a readable handbook for children’s social justice work.

Conclusion
Teaching students about the human rights of children can open a window for global social justice in your curriculum at any grade level. Many of the teachers we work with each year are drawn to this content for its strong student appeal and its compelling link to other global justice issues. Studying children’s rights can deepen student empathy and lead to greater global engagement. And all of us—teachers and students—become better global citizens by listening to and learning from young people.

Join Primary Source for a free, online seminar, “Children’s Human Rights: An Issue for Global Action,” Wednesday May 11, 2016, 4pm to 5:15pm, featuring Professor Warren Binford of Willamette University College of Law and Primary Source curriculum specialists. Register here.

Follow Primary Source and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo credit: Marlon Kuzmick. Used by permission of Primary Source.

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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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