Inside The Program Teaching Teens To Fight For Human Rights

By Jess Burnquist

When the 10-minute video about the effects of conflict mineral mining in the Congo ended, Jacob raised his hand. I figured he wanted to ask to go to the bathroom.

Yes, Jacob?

I don’t understand.

What don’t you understand?

Why don’t more people know? Why don’t more people care about this?

Other students looked at him. The post-movie mumbling stopped. Jacob, a student who typically stares at the clock every five seconds as if willing the bell to ring with his eyes, had just become invested in his learning. He was genuinely interested in the effects of mining for minerals that are implanted into cellphones and computers around the world, and his interest gave a silent signal of permission to other students that it was okay for them to be involved as well. My students were beginning to understand that their written work would be the force compelling others to care.

I explained that their next step would be to research an issue — conflict minerals or otherwise — that they deemed deserving of attention. In this moment, I felt validated in my belief that teens, especially, deserve classroom instruction that is engaging. High schoolers deserve work that moves beyond the walls of a classroom, work that applies skills they have been fine-tuning since elementary school. In my experience, teens truly thrive when they are able to work for the greater good. They are able and willing to take positive action — they just need to be given a chance to do so. And why not be given such chances at school? If teachers are expected to help students develop character and to become productive members of society, why not incorporate lessons that nurture these areas of growth? Providing students with the opportunity to do just that while meeting their instructional needs is a win-win.

I also understood that my Google search two weeks before had struck gold.

***

Like most teachers, I spent some of my winter break planning for the next semester. I was pleased with my lessons overall, but I longed for an exciting way to address the district-established standard “writing for change” that’s in line with national instructional requirements — a standard teachers love, as making the content interesting for students can make or break chances for comprehension.

When I googled lessons for this standard, Rock Your World was one of the first results to appear. The wording on the program’s homepage piqued my interest:

“Teachers are eager to make classroom curriculum more relevant and engaging. You want to ensure that students acquire the 21st century skills needed for success in today’s globalized society. At the same time, you are responsible for preparing students for mandated standardized tests. This can detract from unique learning experiences that empower students to use their ideas and creativity. Rock Your World is an innovative, media-based curriculum that inspires students to take positive action toward issues they care about. Flexible, free and fully aligned to the Common Core.”

For the next few days, I pored over lessons and activities designed around exploring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) passed in 1945 by the United Nations, largely in response to the atrocities committed during WWII. Rock Your World provides a structured educational program that culminates in student campaigns of awareness about violations of the UDHR. Contemporary resources about individuals (living and dead) who have changed the world, public service announcements about each article in the UDHR, and detailed lesson plans are just part of what is included in the RYW resources.

I was so impressed with the program that I sent off an email noting my gratitude and desire to learn more about its creation. Within a week, I was able to speak with program advisors. Tricia and Carolyn are full-time teachers in a school district in New York, so we had an immediate connection in spite of our distance — I teach in a semi-rural district in Arizona. Perhaps it is because they are practicing teachers that their lessons and activities are so easily incorporated into any curriculum in the United States or elsewhere. Currently, Rock Your World is used in 25,000 schools and in 72 countries.

Tricia and Carolyn discussed in more depth what I’d already gleaned from the feature film on their website. Rock Your World is a part of Creative Visions Foundation. This foundation was established by Kathy Eldon, mother of Dan Eldon, and by Dan’s sister, Amy Eldon Turteltaub. Dan Eldon was 22 years old when he was killed in Somalia while on photographic assignment for Reuters. His legacy is rich with artistic journals, and though his life was all too brief, he spent it making a humanitarian impact on the world. As Tricia and Carolyn explained, Rock Your World seeks to infuse students with inspiration, knowledge, and skills that they can use to improve the world. Active learning and participation in events that matter to students are the heart of this program. Teachers can use the resources to supplement classroom instruction, as I am doing, or employ Rock Your World as a self-contained curricular unit. Regardless of how it’s used, I can report that I have never seen my sophomores as excited to participate in any other learning activity. In fact, my students, of their own initiative, started a club to extend their learning and participation. They’ve called it CHS Coyotes for Change.

The creative activism that Rock Your World promotes transcends political boundaries — it is global in scope. By permitting adolescents to increase their awareness regarding violations of human rights, then act on that awareness, teachers are saying to our students that we believe in their ability to “inherit the earth.” We are sending the message that students don’t have to wait to be adults before they begin to make a positive difference in the world. We are letting our youth apply their learning directly and in meaningful ways. This is both relevant and timely.

On the day that Jacob asked me why more people aren’t aware of what is happening to families in the Congo, students across the valley from our school made national news for spelling a racial slur with letters on their T-shirts. For days, I watched and listened to the fallout — there were endless commentaries on the lost youth of our country.

Meanwhile, my students were illustrating their understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My students were creating content for websites to address discrimination, poverty, and homelessness. My students were making videos to draw awareness to food waste, the right for all children to receive an education, and the need for recess at every age. My students were filing paperwork to start a club so that they could give attention to global and local issues beyond regular class hours.

Hopefully, around this time next year, students in the club will be able to attend a We Day conference sponsored by we.org. This is another web-based organization that seeks for youth to “empower people to change the world . . . through our work at home, abroad and though our social enterprise.” The creators of we.org host yearly conferences with speakers ranging from Malala to Kid President to actors like Marlee Matlin and performers like Demi Lovato. Students can’t buy a ticket to We Day. They have to earn it through social service. Wouldn’t it be amazing to attend such an event because you took action to help others?

I feel so lucky to have stumbled across Rock Your World during an Internet search. Since my first conversation with Tricia and Carolyn, I have been appointed as a Teaching Ambassador for Rock Your World and I am looking forward to presenting to other teachers how to incorporate RYW resources into their classrooms in partnership with the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles this spring. My instruction is also changing. Teaching commas when writing to a member of Congress or to a person of inspiration makes addressing the rules for correct usage more meaningful for me, too.

Kids and teens are doing phenomenal things to improve the world and they are applying Common Core skills to do so. Adolescents have historically received such a bad rap in the United States. Yet, as my students have demonstrated, they are deeply willing and able to make such a positive impact on the world. Like Jacob, I find myself wondering: Why don’t more people know about this? Why don’t more people care?

***

Lead image: Screenshot via Rock Your World

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