Human Rights Education: An Elementary School Level Case Study By Megumi Yamasaki Ph. D. Thesis Completed June 2002 University of Minnesota Education Policy & Administration/Comparative & International Development Education Chapter 1



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Comparing with Previous Case Studies


Wade and his co-curriculum developer (1994), who was a social studies teacher, believed that their students were more interested in the rights of children as a human rights issue. Therefore, they focused the definition and contents of their instruction around the Convention of the Rights of Children. As the readers can see from this dissertation, the students who were interviewed and surveyed were also interested in the issues relating to the rights of children and mentioned human rights concepts frequently from the Convention of the Rights of Children in both the interviews and survey. It would seem, therefore, that Wade and his co-researcher’s insight was pretty accurate concerning what topics instructors should cover in HRE for this age (elementary).

According to Wade (1994), he made sure that the unit included interactive activities, such as discussion, cooperative learning, role-play and simulations in his HRE curriculum. This dissertation study also showed that the students enjoyed and learned the most from role-play and simulations. Reading stories and books about human rights issues were also mentioned (for the second) during the interviews.

Brabeck et al. (1998), as Wade pointed out also, states that “the [Facing History and Ourselves], FHAO, program emphasizes classroom dialogue and critical reflection on a variety of perspectives on issues” (p. 334). In this present study, it showed that discussion and dialogue about critical issues of human rights were not mentioned as much, compared to other methods that the students thought effective. When the HRE instructor demonstrated how she taught in her class, she focused on the presentation of issues related to human rights. The discussions and dialogue took place mainly through teacher-students conversation and interaction. Most students talked to the instructor when they had concerns about human rights issues and/or HRE class (interview answers).

However, this does not mean that discussion and dialogue are not important for teaching human rights from the instructors’ perspective. The researcher believes that it is critical to discuss and have a dialogue about why human rights are needed and in what way human rights are violated in various situations, when it is needed. During the Human Rights USA meeting that the researcher attended prior to starting the present study (mentioned in chapter 1, p. 6; refer to time table in Appendix L), a group of school teachers from other states pointed out the importance of discussion especially when students have questions and disagreements about human rights issues.

One Social Studies teacher from Minnesota mentioned that he took a lot of time to elicit different point of views that his students had and tried to understand where each was coming from to think about and deal with human rights violations. A teacher from St. Louis, Missouri stated that she believed that class discussion was critical to her class period. Without discussion among her students, she could not encourage students to develop critical thinking skills. It is interesting to see the difference from the students’ point of view that they did not mention discussion/dialogue being an affective teaching method for HRE. This study suggests that utilizing play and role play, and using visual aid to learn about human rights issues were more affective than having discussions and dialogues about human rights issues.

In previous studies, the classroom teacher paid special attention to making human rights concrete and identifiable in students’ lives (Starkey, 1986; Torney-Purta, 1984; Wade, 1994). This was apparent in the present study as well. When the students could not make a connection to their own lives, most students could not get any meaningful learning about human rights. Some students stated that they learned about human rights concepts and violations that were happening in their communities or in the world, but they did not think that there was anything they could do about it. They told the researcher that the human rights violation were happening overseas and they were here in the U.S. Therefore, there was nothing they could do for the people being violated. They also mentioned that until they become older, more specifically age 20, they could not do much for human rights violation in their communities. They felt that they were too young. However, the researcher wants to point out that the number of these students were very small, in the present study.

Wade and his co-instructor used writing personal stories, and working on art and drama, which reflected concepts of rights and responsibilities, to connect human rights issues and students in their classrooms (1998). From the interviews and the survey in the present study, the researcher can find a similar pattern. When students could identify human rights issues that they learned in the class with their daily lives, they ended up learning more, e.g., remembering after a year of instruction, and making connections between human rights as a concept and human rights in real issues. Issues such as child labor, right to education, refugees/immigrants, and discrimination were the most mentioned by the students in interviews and surveys. The reasons why they remembered these human rights issues were mostly because they had personal experiences related to them.

For example, many students used to make fun of “different” groups of people and acted inappropriately, such as teasing them, name calling them, laughing at them, etc. The students identified that such acts were due to their feeling of discrimination against others. They told the researcher and also answered in the survey that they now treated them differently. They tried to include “different” people when they play at school and in their neighborhood. Similar thing can be said for refugees/immigrants issues. Many students said that they did not know much about refugees or immigrants; how they got to Minnesota, what kind of experiences they had to go through to get to Minnesota. After learning about refugees and immigrants, they mentioned, they now understand why these people were here and what kind of experiences they might have gone through to leave their countries. Most of them said that they no longer talked about them.

The issue of child labor could potentially be a difficult one to connect directly to the students’ lives because this takes place mostly overseas. However, this was child related and caught the students’ attention. Child labor was also related to the right to education which was high on the students’ list of concerns. The students compared their own situations with those of the children who are in child labor and felt that they needed to do something about it.

The right to education was relatively easy for the students to connect to their daily lives. They felt that because of HRE, they now value their education, as well as their peers’ education, more than before. It was interesting that when the students were asked on the survey how they have changed their attitude toward their own and others’ education, they were more concerned about and felt more responsible for their peers’ education than for those overseas. Although the issue of child labor made a strong impact on these students, and they made frequent comments on the right to education for the children who were in child labor, when they were asked specifically about the right to education, they made connections to their immediate peers. This confirms Wade’s point (1994, p. 79) that HRE curriculum needs to be connected directly to “students’ personal lives.”

Refugees/immigrants and discrimination issues were also directly related to the students’ personal experiences. In both cases, the students had some negative feelings/stereotypes toward certain people or groups of people. They gave detailed examples of their daily experiences in both interviews and surveys. These included the fact that they had immigrants and refugees in their classes but did not know why these people were here in the US, they made fun of obese people, they laughed at people with disabilities, they talked about poor and homeless people, and so on. Because they had direct experiences with discrimination, they could make a close connection to the issues that they talked about in HRE.

Wade pointed out that “the development of student ideas [regarding human rights issues] were strongly influenced by their prior knowledge, values, interests, and motivation to learn” (1994, p. 89). The researcher found similar comments from the students through the interviews. Many students who got involved in human rights activities in their daily lives were those whose mothers/parents therefore encouraged them to do so. One student said that she kept working at homeless shelter, because her mother was involved and encouraged her to continue. Another student mentioned that her mother was so interested in human rights issues that they always talked about what she learned in class at home. They also were involved in food drive for several shelters. These examples show that if students’ families already cared about human rights issues, and, from the beginning, these students were interested in getting involved.

Their mothers seemed to have an especially important role for students’ motivation to learn. In addition to the previous couple examples, many more students told the researcher that they shared what they learned at school. The more interests their mothers showed, the more interested the students became. One student commented that he could not wait to go home and talked to his mother what he learned and what he could do about it. Another student said that because his mother believed in peace, she encouraged him to get into School X. Even after his family moved out the district, he wanted to stay at School X because of HRE.

Another point commented on by Wade (1994) was that although most students could recognize human rights issues with the assistance of lists and relevant classroom experiences, they could not think of examples in their daily experiences on their own. However, in the present study, through the interviews, the researcher found opposite results. The students found it difficult to list human rights concepts that they learned through HRE. However, they did not have any problem giving examples of human rights violations in and outside of the United States. The reason could be due to the time that had elapsed since the HRE instruction. Wade’s study (1994) was done three weeks after instruction. The interviews of the present study were done after a year of instruction. Perhaps, after a year, it was hard for the students to remember exact human rights concepts and topics that they learned through HRE.

At the end of his study, Wade identified a need for research on conceptual change, i.e., how to develop students’ “ability to apply relevant concepts to their future schoolwork and their lives as active members of their communities” (1994, p. 92). The researcher believes that the present study illustrated the students’ ability to apply learned concepts of human rights to their school work (right to education for self and others) and in their lives as active members of their communities (being involved in food drives, working at the Human Rights library at the University of Minnesota, helping the HRE instructor to prepare materials, and so on). It was impressive to the researcher to find out how much these students have done and are still doing for human rights issues.

Brabeck et al.’s study (1994) found that discussion about human rights abuse in “Facing History and Ourselves” (FHAO) contributed to the development of moral reasoning and did not have a negative impact on students’ psychological well-being (1998). This was one of the challenges to HRE (refer to chapter 2, p. 9). According to Brabeck et al., moral reasoning was increased through FHAO, and the curriculum did not negatively affect students’ levels of depression, hopelessness or self-esteem. The researcher feels the same way that teaching human rights to the students does not affect students’ mental health and self-esteem in a negative way. As the results show, a year-long HRE instruction to these 5th and 6th graders had mainly long-term (the time of the interviews was a year after the instruction) positive impact on these students’ consciousness about human rights issues for themselves and others and their actions.



Comparing the Study Result with Reardon’s Theory

According to Reardon (1995), there are appropriate human rights concepts and content for HRE based on developmental level. The students who were interviewed for the present study were from age 10 to 11 at the time of the instruction. Reardon lists core concepts and values for this age group: law, citizenship, community rights, charter, constitution, freedom, declarations, and social responsibility (p. 14, see Appendix C). As the readers could see in the analysis, the students mentioned law, community rights, freedom, declarations and social responsibility through their interviews and survey. They often gave examples of what kind of freedom and rights they were talking about as well as what kinds of actions that they were taking to show their own social responsibility. Several students mentioned law and rules that they/people should know in order not to get into trouble.

Although justice, equality, equity, global responsibility and international law were listed for the 12- to 14-year old group, the students in the present study mentioned many aspects of these concepts and values. They mentioned unfair treatment toward children in other countries, which included justice, equality, and equity issues. When the students talked about what they could do about child labor and/or simply were answering to the question of what they were doing for human rights issues in their daily lives, they pointed out that they have a global responsibility to stop using children as labor and how international law should be applied to deal with child labor issues.

According to Reardon (1998), human rights standards and instruments best used for this age are “community standards, the Declaration of Independence, the African Freedom Charter, the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child” (p. 14). The analysis in the present study showed rather limited standards and instruments that the students remembered, such as the UDHR and Convention on the Rights of the Child. The researcher is not aware if the HRE instructor used other standards beyond these two; however, the students did not remember any others.

Issues and problems that the students of this age group can deal with are prejudice, discrimination, poverty, and injustice (Reardon, 1998, p. 14). These are well matched with the issues and problems that the students pointed out during their interviews. The most popular issues were discrimination and poverty. These often included comments on prejudice and injustice. The issues and problems of racism, sexism, and hunger are listed for the 12 to 14 age group, many students commented on these issues. Many students pointed out racism and sexism in answer to the question about what they remembered the most from HRE. They were stunned by the discrimination toward groups of people based on their race and sex in many different areas of our lives. For hunger, the students talked about homeless people and people in other countries who did not have enough food. Some students were taking actions to give food to people who were in need.

Comparing the Study with Meintjes’ Theory: Human Rights Education as Empowerment

Kreisberg defines empowerment as “a process through which people and/or communities increase their control or mastery of their own lives and the decisions that affect their lives” (cited in Meintjes, 1997, p 64). When education empowers students, according to Meintjes, students who are empowered should “become conscious of their own participation in the creation of knowledge and of their own critical ability to conceptualize and re-conceptualize their experiences of reality” (p. 66). This echoes the Partner’s definition of HRE. As the researcher mentioned in Chapter Two page 30, the guidelines of HRE as follows:



(i) Knowledge of the major ‘sing spots’ in the historical development of human rights.

(ii) Knowledge of the range of contemporary declarations, conventions, and covenants.

(iii) Knowledge of some major infringements of human rights.

(iv) Understanding of the basic conceptions of human rights (including also discrimination, equality, etc.)

(v) Understanding the distinctions between political/legal and social/economic rights.

(vi) Understanding the relationship between individual, group, and national rights.

(vii) Appreciation of one’s own prejudices and development of tolerance.

(viii) Appreciation of the rights of others.

(ix) Sympathy for those who are denied rights.

(x) Intellectual skills for collecting and analyzing information.

(ix) Action skills. (Meintjes, 1997, p. 69; Torney-Purta cited in McNeilly, 1993, p. 111)

The analysis shows that the students who went through HRE at School X commented on many of these guidelines. Some students listed several historical figures who worked toward people’s rights, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Iqball, etc. (Knowledge of the major human rights activists in the historical development of human rights). Most students mentioned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (knowledge of the range of contemporary declarations, conventions, and covenants). The previous section of this chapter illustrates students’ understanding of the basic conceptions of human rights, including discrimination and equality. Also, the analysis in chapter 3 shows students’ ability to be aware of their own prejudices and appreciate development of tolerance, to appreciate the rights of others, and to sympathize with those who are denied rights, and to take action for human rights.


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