We all know that December is special—yet not necessarily for the reasons that might first pop into mind. December is special because it is Universal Human Rights Month! As a teacher, it is always a “coup” when I find that the month I am about to enter has been designated with a special honor. This allows me to engage in “thematic teaching” where many subjects can be integrated by the use of one topic. By now almost all the months are recognized for one thing or another whether by official proclamation or by a special group or agency. Some months, like February, are even over-loaded with honors. February is Black History Month; Dental Health Month; Library Lovers’ Month; National Cherry Month; Wild Bird Feeding Month; and of course the every popular, Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month (this is for real!).
Although we find a plethora of things to celebrate in December, as educators, parents, and adults it would be remiss for us to not acknowledge December as Universal Human Rights Month. Here’s the catch… in order for us to acknowledge human rights and engage in activities around human rights, we first need to know about it and understand it…and that is sometimes easier said than done.
We have often heard the expression, “What you don’t know could hurt you.” This holds true about human rights. If you don’t know about human rights, you may get hurt—physically, mentally and spiritually. Human rights aren’t just about other people and other countries. Human rights are about YOU and begin with YOU! The more that you know about your own human rights, the more you can respect those of others and the more you can do to contribute to world peace!
In 1997 a survey was conducted amongst children and adults to see how they would respond to questions about human rights, (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 1997). In both the children and adult surveys, it became evident that within both groups, there was a lack of understanding not only of the term “human rights,” but also a lack of understanding of how to promote them. I personally can not find fault in those who responded to the survey for not knowing. The fault is more upon us as educators…and we are all educators…whether we have the label of teacher, parent or community member. If we want to promote a more peaceful and civil world then it is incumbent upon all of us to share the burdens and joys of enlightening minds, young and old, to the terms, practices, and advocacy of human rights. In a 2001 document discussing the state of human rights education in K-12 schools in the United States, Dennis N. Banks, Ph.D. emphasizes that, “Education in human rights is itself a fundamental human right and also a responsibility.” He supports this by pointing out the directive found in the 1948 Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which exhorts “every individual and every organ of society” to “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these (human) rights and freedoms.” Excuse me for being trite, but I guess we could say that everyone has a right to be educated in human rights!
So, what are human rights? For most people in the U.S. when they talk about protecting their rights they usually refer to the civil and political rights found in the U.S. Bill of Rights. These include freedom of assembly, right to a fair trial and freedom of worship. Yet we must be more inclusive globally and contextually. Social, cultural, and economic rights such as health care, living wage and housing are all human rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some have defined human rights as “generally accepted principles of fairness and justice” or “the universal moral rights that belong equally to all people simply because they are human beings” or “the basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity” (O’Brien, 1996; Flowers,1998).
Now then, once we understand human rights, how should we teach them to children? As with anything, the most important way to teach all children is not by telling them anything. It is by showing them everything. Model the behavior, attitudes and emotions you expect from children. The rewards of doing this aren’t just found with the children—you will feel better about yourself too!
As we all begin to be aware of educating children about human rights, we must also be aware that in order to be most effective with children, we need to provide activities and experiences that are developmentally appropriate and meaningful for them.
For instance, young children can explore the “concept” of human rights through their family and friends. As they get older, you can begin to expand upon the communities to which they belong to…from family, to neighborhood, to school, to town, to state…all the way to the world! Human rights concepts and vocabulary can even be seen and explored as very young children interact with their stuffed animals and pets, for as we all know, these relationships hold a special and dear place in the minds and hearts of young children.
“Human rights is not a subject that can be studied at a distance. Students should not just learn about the Universal Declaration, about racial injustice, or about homelessness without also being challenged to think about what it all means for them personally. As human rights educators, we must ask our students and ourselves, “How does this all relate to the way we live our lives?” The answers to this question will tell us much about how effectively we have taught our students.”
~David Shiman, “Introduction” Teaching Human Rights
Here’s some basic information about human rights to share with older children and adults:
--In 1950 the UN General Assembly proclaimed December 10 as Human Rights Day to bring to the attention of all people
of world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all people and all
--Human Rights Day is observed on December 10th every year.
--1995-2004 was declared, “The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education.”
--When most people hear the word “Rights,” they usually think of civil and political rights, yet human rights include social,
economic, and cultural rights such as health care, housing, or a living wage.
--Some of the human rights mentioned in the Declaration include the right to life, liberty and security of person; education;
freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression and freedom from persecution in other
The more I think about it the more I am convinced that December is the perfect month to celebrate human rights. In fact, it may have been planned that way. December is often thought of as a time of presents and gifts. Well what better gifts can we give the world, ourselves and children other than those gifts of understanding, appreciation and commitment to human rights?! Remember…December is Universal Human Rights Month and December 10th is the specific day to say, “Happy Human Rights Day!”