Following the presentation “Poetic Justice” by students at Robert Goddard Montessori Middle School, we asked Gloria Darlington, History Teacher and Social Studies Chair, about how the production came together, and what students learned in the process. We think her comments offer much practical wisdom for other teachers trying to present human rights issues to their students.

How were the students introduced to the UDHR and guided to write their poems?

After receiving the training from TWAICB, I came back and brought some of the “warm up” strategies into the classroom. Upon returning from Winter Break, I thought it would be perfect to connect the ideas from our Constitution and Bill of Rights to the UDHR.

We reviewed the main tenets of the Constitution and made connections with that and the UDHR, looking at how the theory of Natural Rights (vs. Divine Rights) and the English Bill of Rights also helped inspire the writers of the UDHR.

I worked in tandem with Language Arts teacher Gail Tucker and Spanish teacher Carol Galloway. The Language Arts teacher began to introduce her poetry unit. With her honors RE/LA classes (Reading Language Arts), she offered them a variety of stylistic options, and then gave them free rein to create, provided they run the final by her for feedback. With her RE/LA classes, they were given the option to select and interpret a poem by an African American poet, in celebration of Black History Month, or to write their own poetry. All classes focused the subject of their poetry on the UDHR. The poem could describe a Human Rights violation, define Human Rights or explain why protecting Human Rights are important. (They approached it from the perspective that some parents may not know about the UDHR, and it was their job to teach as much as to express themselves).

How did the students respond upon learning about the UDHR?

My students were at first hesitant to learn about the UDHR in our US History  (Colonialism through Reconstruction) as it didn’t fit in the curriculum. They didn’t know why we were zooming ahead to the 1940s from the 1780s. We had walk through how our Constitution, as well as other documents from throughout history and the world, helped inspire its creation. Then they didn’t understand why it wasn’t made law and why all countries weren’t following it. We had to work through these challenging questions, letting them connect their experience to their own lives and the world around them. One of the most impactful portions was the fact that students realized it was their right to receive an education, and when they missed school or deliberately distracted others from learning they were violating that right.

We completed several projects. The first was a writing assignment. After a close read of the UDHR, students were guided to look for a right that was not included or not protected from a vulnerable group. They were tasked with writing a proposal to the UN to amend the UDHR to protect this group! (They came up with several amazing suggestions, including protecting gay rights and marriage and personal health through exercise at work and school).  Next, they researched a Human Rights Violation in American History (from Colonization through the Civil Rights movement). They then had to identify a “Champion of Human Rights,” someone who worked hard to end the atrocities that were occurring. Finally, they put together a paperslide show (recording in one take with hand-drawn slides) of their research to present to the class. The last project they worked on was an extended writing assignment. They had to determine whether or not the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the Constitution and why. It was a way for them to synthesize their knowledge and get back on track with the U.S. History curriculum.

How did you decide to do the poetry event? Were the students involved in the process?

We do a biennial poetry night, so the decision to create a poetry night or make it UDHR themed was not up to the children. However, they did have a huge hand in organizing the event. They stayed after school to brainstorm a name for the event to go along with the theme. They then had to organize the subsections of the program into thematic units (original poetry, a rendition of a poem, Spanish poetry, etc). Finally, our student emcees wrote segues and segments for each section.

Was there any follow-up with the students about the event?

In both language arts and history class, we followed up with the students and debriefed them about the experience. We discussed the impact it had on their parents who attended, the conversations they started and whether or not they felt they educated people on the topic.

How have you felt about presenting the UDHR?

I was very comfortable presenting the UDHR content to my students. It fits so nicely within the curriculum, and it is an important concept to cover with students. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to shape peoples thinking and make them actively work towards making the world a better place.

Are you planning to continue to work with the UDHR and the arts?

I do plan on continuing this Unit of Study, simply because they enjoyed it so much. Whether we make it a biennial human rights poetry night or if we find other ways to incorporate it into a final culminating presentation has yet to be determined.

What else would you like to say?

I’d like to thank TWAICB, Sandra Rose and the PGCPS powers that be who made it possible for us to attend the training. It was such a powerful experience as an adult (working through the UDHR, opening yourself up to new ideas), and I’d like to continue to share that creative process with my students. It is a commitment. It does require advance planning, flexibility and support from administration and other teachers on my team, but it is completely worth it.