Building human rights into the school curriculum at Public School 11 in New York City
by Ron LaJoie
Alonta Wrighton, principal of P.S. 11, an elementary school in a Brooklyn neighborhood undergoing the stresses of rapid development, gentrification and potential displacement, was thrilled when a couple of fifth grade boys marched into her office last year with a wallet they had found in the park. "They were so proud to bring it in," Wrighton recounts. It was precisely this kind of responsible citizenship that Wrighton had hoped for when she and parent activist Nancy Bruni contacted AIUSA last fall to create a human rights curriculum. Karen Robinson, AIUSA's director of human rights education, met with Bruni and the school's Parent Teachers Association in September to build on the idea.
"Our vision for this program is to meaningfully engage all key stakeholders, and parents are key stakeholders," says Robinson. "This is a holistic approach to human rights education, not an add-on. Ultimately, we envision human rights being present across all subject matter and programs." AIUSA provided educational materials and guidance on integrating human rights into the school's established curriculum.
In October, P.S. 11 kicked off the "World of Human Rights Project" with several activities. Students created journals for recording their impressions of specific articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Children also received a "passports to human rights," complete with their photos and pages to be stamped each time they demonstrate understanding of a specific right.
Working human rights into the curriculum has not proven difficult. Teacher Shannon Brown has discussed China's controversial one-child law with her third grade class after reading the book Ying Ying's Journey. The school also recently hosted Chantal Kagaba, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, who spoke of her experiences to a hushed school-wide assembly. Fourth grade teacher Nicola Tomlin had prepared her students by presenting "a brief history of the Tutsis and the Hutus" and says the children understood that Chantal had had to "flee for her life." But the true teachable moment came when Chantal related that she had not only forgiven one of the people who had murdered her mother but that that person was now a friend.
"We weren't quite sure they got it," says Wrighton. "That's when one child spoke up: 'I understand; you need to forgive, so you can move on.'"
Wrighton admits that some parents were initially nervous about introducing issues such as genocide, but she says they have since come on board. Noting the complexity of some of their own students' lives, Tomlin adds, "One of the things I hope we're giving them is the understanding that they have a voice and can change the world no matter what environment they come from."
"It is not every day one is afforded the opportunity to shape the lives of hundreds of children. School mission statements across the city pledge 'to create productive members of society.' But what would this look like in the classroom?" says Brown.
Wrighton and Bruni think they may have found an answer.