“The achievement gap is a phenomenon that occurs early in childhood and persists through adulthood. In The Black–White Test Score Gap, Jencks and Phillips (1998) point out that the achievement gap between African American and white students is evident prior to entering kindergarten and continues through secondary and postsecondary educational levels. Second- and third-grade test scores and grades reveal that African American and Latino/a students trail behind white and Asian students (College Board 1999).”
-Georgia L. Bauman, Leticia Tomas Bustillos, Estela Mara Bensimon, M. Christopher Brown II RoSusan D. Bartee. (2005) “Achieving Equitable Educational Outcomes with All Students: The Institution’s Roles and Responsibilities.”
Statistics across the country would predict that my high school students (75% who are not white, over 50% who receive a free or reduced lunch, 25% who currently cannot speak English proficiently, and many more who could not speak it when they came to this country) would not be able to pass our state’s standardized history test as well as other students across our state and county; they would be wrong. My students have consistently beaten the average across my school, county and state, and my “at risk” students are close to peers or score above them. Others have accomplished the same, and yet academic research experts and seasoned teachers agree that there is no magic bullet to close the achievement gap. For me I infuse my teaching with globally inclusive and engaging material that is relevant and challenging to my students, support them as they empower themselves by realizing their true potential and acting on it, and create an environment where the kids feel emotionally and physically safe. The Speak Truth To Power curriculum supports me in all of these efforts. I believe so deeply that this program is life altering for my students that in my own free time I have reached out to my colleagues and county leadership to promote and share the curriculum, aligned all the lesson plans with the social studies and English standards for my state, and even spoke at the State Department about the benefits of this human rights program. Here are my experiences of how it enriches the lives of my students and empowers me as an educator to help them recognize their full potential and worth.
I was standing at the front of my class of 35 junior and senior psychology students when I asked them to name a few facts or characteristics they had learned about serial killers over the last two days; they had no problem giving me answers which I scribbled up on the board. Then I asked them to name characteristics that were the opposite of those they had identified for serial killers which they produced many of those giving me two nice columns of descriptors. Finally, I asked them to name someone famous or that they personally knew who possessed qualities from the second column. The room went silent. Eventually someone ventured “Oprah?”, but I was demoralized by their lack of answers. How could my students be asked to confront injustice and become role models in their own communities when they could barely name folks they admired. Speak Truth To Power’s curriculum educates students about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the stories of over thirty human rights defenders from every continent and background imaginable. It gives my students someone they can look up to, and teaches them that all people have something valuable we can learn from.
As a teacher one of the best functional things about Speak Truth To Power is that the materials are easy to use however you need them. Whether it is a lesson for one day, a week, a semester, or just a few pieces from it to support or enrich or engage the students. For example, there is a lesson with defender Loune Viaud that teaches about the right to health care and potable water and one of its activities has students carry around gallon jugs of water for the day in order to appreciate its value. I use the STTP lesson and activity as a way to introduce an ancient history unit called River Valley Civilizations. Where once my freshman class appeased me by feigning interest in the geographic importance of water sources to developing communities, now they were experiencing the importance of nearby water sources as they had to lug around gallon jugs of water all day and night for their assignment. It certainly made for vivid answers when it came time for them to write an essay about the importance of geography at the end of the unit.
Speak Truth To Power teaches other skills through its lessons that all students will need to compete in the real world as well as to do well on their standardized tests. We know students who are engaged are more likely to work harder to understand the material, and more likely to want to participate in expressing themselves. What I know is that my students (and probably yours too) flourish when they have a curriculum that they can connect with because it is meaningful to them. It acknowledges their struggles and those of their families rather than a curriculum that ignores the continued injustices that students experience daily. Yet often their curriculum and textbooks lead them to believe that those days are over, the fight against injustice and inequality has been won: but this is not what they see. Exacerbating my frustration are those social studies lessons that span thousands of years of history but rarely mention battles won without violence, or successful movements led by people who are not a rich, male and of Western European descent. Never seeing a hero that shares their experience or wins without bloodshed is a dangerous message to send to our students. Speak Truth To Power uses defenders from all over the world with 11 defenders from Africa, 13 from Asia and Central Asia (Middle East), 10 from Central and South America, 10 from Europe, and 7 defenders from the United States. Their backgrounds are as diverse as my students, but their hope and passion is a universal inspiration to my kids and the thousands of students here and around the world who study the curriculum.
During a discussion about the news (we make time to watch the CNN Student News every day) the topic of human trafficking came up. My kids were shocked, and appalled that there were still modern day slaves, and that many of them were children. They wanted to learn more, and wanted to do something about it. The next class I taught them the lesson about STTP defender Juliana Dogbadzi, and even though it does not cover a 9th grade history standard the writing they will do is part of their English standard. After the lesson, one student did her own research on trafficking and presented to students on the issue at our annual Just World Festival. Speak Truth To Power is a resource that has allowed me to bring engaging academically challenging lessons into my classroom and for my students it has been life changing in the terms of how they see who they are and what they can do.
As the co-chair of character education at my school and a partner in our service learning program Speak Truth To Power has given me a resource to help our whole school become a safer and stronger community. Last February I used the lesson about Jamie Nabozny school wide as part of our character education program. We broadcasted the lesson with its free documentary (you can request it from Teaching Tolerance) across the entire school and it was a huge success. Further we are working on using the curriculum to help boost our service learning program where each year students are asked to complete 10 hours of service learning in order to graduate. In “Collateral Damage: Social-justice curricula are jeopardized in high-stakes environments” an article from the Harvard Educator by Lisa Birk in 2001 the benefits of service learning are discussed,
Social-justice learning and preparation for standardized testing don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For example, six years ago, Hudson (MA) public schools superintendent Sheldon Berman tied service learning to district standards K-12. Six years later, Hudson’s test scores are better, and its community ties are stronger. Service learning—a kind of applied social-justice program in which students combine volunteer experiences with analysis—offered rich opportunities for students in Hudson, an industrial town with a large bilingual population.
The powerful lesson plans from Speak Truth To Power are already tied to the curriculum that our kids must be taught, and they are readily applicable to use in strategies that work in the classroom to help ALL students be successful. They provide media (video is what many of my students need to process information), readable text (appropriate length and provides vocabulary), engaging discussion activities, and projects that show the students that they can make a difference giving the students a sense of self worth that makes them want to be part of the classroom and the community. It is incredible to think that these are the same kids that many adults and politicians cast aside as lazy, selfish teenagers, thugs, and gangbangers with no future. What we need is support for our students to defy these stereotypes, to give them the skills so their voice can be heard, and guide them as they empower themselves. If you are interested in using Speak Truth To Power in your classroom, professional development opportunities for human rights education, or would be interested in having local law students come to your classroom to talk about human rights and international law this Fall please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our curriculum website at http://curriculum.rfkcenter.org/?locale=en
Annandale High School
Fairfax County, VA