Making Human Rights Come Alive
A middle school team sets aside a day weekly for field trips and classroom visits
`MY name is Iqbal,'' begins the 11-year-old Pakistani boy, whose shaggy hair just covers the scar above his right eyebrow. ``I began work in a carpet factory when I was four years old.''
Iqbal Masih, half the size of the average seventh-grader in his audience, toiled from 4 a.m. until 7 p.m., he says through a translator. Sometimes he was sent to a ``punishment room,'' where he was hung upside down by a rope tied around his knees. And at the age of 10, he finally escaped from bonded labor.
Students at the Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Mass., south of Boston, are sympathetic, eager to learn more - and moved to action. For the last seven years, teachers here have taught one of the most active middle-school human-rights curricula in the country.
When questions are allowed, half a dozen hands shoot up.
``What do the children in Pakistan think of America?'' one student asks.
A spark is lit in Iqbal. ``Children are told by the owners that all the carpets are bought in America.'' He grins broadly. ``The children don't know what that is. They just know that they buy a lot of carpets in America.''
The children laugh. A connection has been made.
This is the moment that Ron Adams and the other 7th-grade teachers here hope they can reach every Friday - the day set aside for guest speakers, field trips, and other less-bookish lessons. ``It makes the curriculum come alive,'' Mr. Adams says.
But sympathizing with a subject is only half of the learning equation. And the students know it. In Adams's class, there is a rule: Once you are made aware of an injustice, you must take action to change it. ``What [Adams] has done is a model that many of us look to,'' says Janet Schmidt, chairwoman of Amnesty International's educators' network.
Even before meeting Iqbal - flown to Boston last week to collect the Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award - the students had taken on child labor as a cause. They sent electronic letters via their school's computer to senators in Washington on the day of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade vote and marched to their own school lobby to make sure Broad Meadows didn't have a carpet produced by child labor.
After talking with Iqbal, Adams's class burst into action. In the days following Iqbal's visit, the school's 325 students wrote more than 600 letters: 400 to the prime minister of Pakistan, 150 to Massachusetts Sens. John Kerry (D) and Edward Kennedy (D), and 60 to local carpet stores asking about their policies on selling rugs made by children.
Action on those three levels - international, national, and local - is key to Adams's philosophy of teaching human rights.
The programming is based on the United States Bill of Rights, a text that Quincy students are required to learn in 7th grade. Next, the class examines what Adams calls ``the global bill of rights'' -
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Adams says he uses these documents as standards for how people should treat one another and then encourages the students to look for and act on violations of those standards.
``We decided to go right for the most ideal documents, to study those, and to challenge the students to act,'' he says.
The action most often taken is letter-writing, in part because it was a natural outgrowth of the language-arts lessons Adams was teaching. ``Why write phony business letters out of the book?'' he says. Why not make the lesson coincide with current events or social studies?
The inspiration for teaching human rights came in 1987, when, Adams says, Quincy experienced a wave of Asian immigrants. ``And I was looking at the curriculum and asking, `How is our curriculum going to change? How can we help our new neighbors and maybe break down some stereotypes?' ''
He decided to focus first on human-rights violations overseas. He contacted Amnesty International for material and began to teach about apartheid in South Africa and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The next step was to bring those subjects closer to home. Learning about powerful international examples makes students more comfortable responding to issues closer to their personal experiences, he says.
``That's where I think we saw a change in attitude. That's where we saw gains: fewer fights, fewer suspensions because of fights, and discussions where we heard real quality arguments being made,'' Adams says.
Broad Meadows Middle School is not, as principal Anne Marie Zukauskas says , ``all fantasyland.''
The hallways need paint; the computer in Adams's classroom is there because he wrote a grant proposal for it. Students here come from three areas of Quincy, one of which is the low-income housing neighborhood.
The school has been hit by a series of budget cutbacks. At one point, the staff was so demoralized by the cuts that the senior teacher at the school brought the staff together and said: ``We can either give up or team up.''
Out of that meeting grew a plan for four interdisciplinary units - the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, civil rights, and World War II - that have subsequently won national awards.
Zukauskas credits teachers and a supportive administration for the school's victories. ``We're free to take risks,'' she says. ``We don't have to be bureaucrats, we can be educators.''
Teaching human rights in the classroom can be risky. ``People perceive this sometimes to be very political,'' Amnesty's Ms. Schmidt says, but Zukauskas and Adams have not run into opposition. ``It's pretty hard to call the Bill of Rights controversial,'' Adams says.
Students approve, too. ``I respect [Adams] a lot,'' says Amy Papile. ``It's not so much teaching out of the book.... It makes you feel like you are there.''