It isn't very hard to get middle school students thinking about their individual rights, but asking them to consider the rights of others can be like walking uphill against the crowd!
Realizing that many of my grade 6/7 students grappled with feeling friendless, mocked or disrespected by their classmates, I set out to create an online project We the Children based on the 1989 Charter of Children's Rights. We zeroed in on the right to safety.
Weaving in curriculum standards, I created "A Safe Place," a writing assignment that challenged students to consider the attributes of a nurturing school environment. The goal was to expose unhealthy attitudes and behaviors prevalent in our middle school classroom.
Our class identified 30 qualities for a safe classroom, for example:
- There is no peer pressure
- Forgiveness is freely give
- Students are respected for who they are
- There is zero tolerance for verbal abuse
- No one talks behind your back.
The 30 descriptors were posted around the room. Each student then chose five and shared in a reflective essay why those qualities were key. In addition, they cited concrete examples of whether these descriptors were present or absent in our classroom.
One student wrote:
Giving 'lip service' or 'not walking the talk' is worthless. Unless everybody is really prepared to stop gossiping, peer pressure, bullying and lying, we cannot feel safe. And bullying is not only kicks and punches; words hurt, too! The worst form of bullying is constant put-downs by a large group of people.
Other project activities helped bring children's rights to life. Links to interpretations by artists and young people — Unicef's Voices of Youth and the Human Rights Internet program — helped to expand students' understanding. They reflected on Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings and chose a creative medium to express their feelings about these rights.
Our students corresponded with students in Israel and followed the news of political unrest in the region. I watched as students' focus shifted from their rights to how the rights of their peers around their world were being compromised.
Finally, as a "youth delegate" to the United Nations, each prepared a report on how well children's rights are being implemented. Students reflected on their roles to ensure that the rights were extended to all children.
Recognizing that their classroom wasn't safe for every student was a humble but powerful beginning. In the words of one 7th-grader, they have learned to "see the world from a different point of view, even if for just a second."
Master's Academy and College
Calgary, Alberta, Canada