Our Voices

2022-23: The School Year that Was

The 2022-23 school year started with great promise. A couple of years post-pandemic, and things seemed to be settling into our new normal.

But for anyone connected to education – teachers, students, parents, and community partners – the new normal meant new challenges. The new year presented new struggles and new pressure from politicians and special interest groups to further control what happens in the school, including what is taught, what is read, and even what is on the classroom walls.

Other issues may not have been new, but remained at top of mind: Teachers leaving the profession in droves, and the struggles with mental health concerns for both students and teachers.

And yet, as is often the case, students and educators rose to the challenges.

As we close out the academic year, we wanted to hear from a few of the folks we work with and share their thoughts, as well as our reflections, on the year that was.

Monica Crossley

Teacher/administrator, Mississippi

The calm before the storm. Bright beautiful warm afternoon with pink azaleas, wildflowers, and birds chirping. You suddenly see dark clouds, and feel the wind blowing with gusto and sirens warning you to find safety, for a tornado is coming. Our year began with great enthusiasm and high expectations. As the year progressed unforeseen challenges arise, such as losing critical faculty, adapting the master schedule, and maintaining a rigorous curriculum. These situations required me to rely on my strong faith. My faith allowed me to lead our students and staff to produce and perform our Speak Truth to Power program. The Speak Truth to Power was a journey of self-reflection, dedication, and exploration. Our school community worked closely together to express the power of truth from various servant leaders and defenders of human rights. Faculty created learning experiences that allowed students to make meaning and students identified strengths within themselves. We at the Piney Woods School are more committed to serving and impacting others for future generations. As with a tornado, you are not able to predict how or when it will come, but after the storm, you assess your situation, focus on solutions, and give thanks.

Peter Passaro

Student, King School, Stamford, Connecticut

It’s funny to think that, out of my four years of high school, only one of them was a full year. Going through life in the pandemic was certainly a new experience, but school was the biggest impact on me. Having multiple seasons canceled, or not really happening, was tough. Only seeing friends through screens and learning was definitely a challenge for all.

My senior year at King School was honestly my best year. My first full year of high school, and I was the captain of both football and track and field. Hanging with friends in and out of school. Having my best academic record of all four years. Coming from such a tough first three years into something incredible has been worth the wait and I can’t wait to see what the following years will bring with it.

Rebecca Stephens

HRE Capacity Building Manager

When I reflect back over this past year – my first as Human Rights Education Capacity Building Program Manager – I am struck most by the innovation and resilience of educators and students who are frontline human rights defenders in their communities, especially in this tumultuous, high-pressure educational landscape. During my travels to schools around the world, I have gleaned many new ideas from my fellow educators and their students, but the unifying thread of all of our partners who integrate human rights education is the incredible love they have for their students, the passion they have for making a difference, and the depth of the relationships that they create. As an educator, I especially enjoy the “aha moment” people experience when the paradigm shifts, and they can begin to see the work they already are doing through a human rights lens and the energy they then have to integrate human rights education in other areas. While I certainly do not have the space to list every incredible classroom experience I have witnessed or every inspiring educator I have met this year, I do want to include a few highlights.

As part of our 2022-2023 Speaker and Film Series, we invited students into conversation with human rights defenders and filmmakers, empowering them to ask questions and see themselves as part of the solution to pressing human rights issues both elsewhere and in their own communities. The joy and purpose on the faces of our student moderators was matched by the strength of their voices as they began to see themselves as the next generation of human rights defenders. In addition to hearing from students as moderators, I had the opportunity to learn from student leaders from the Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language in the panel discussion titled “How To Talk About Race in the Classroom” as they shared their ideas for developing equity rounds to ensure all students at the school have access to high quality and challenging opportunities for learning. In Piney Woods, Mississippi, I watched students deliver moving monologues about human rights defenders that inspired them to take action and be more involved in the fight for human rights.

In the next year, I am looking forward to engaging educators and community leaders at our summer institutes, developing new partnerships and strengthening existing collaborations, inviting more students into the conversation about human rights, learning from all of you as we further our work of human rights education, and amplifying your efforts by sharing what you do with others in our ever growing network.

Pam Schmidt

Lead Educator, teacher, New York

What do we want for our future generations?

As we emerged from the isolation of the pandemic, there’s the start of a rebirth. We are in the process of learning the value of each other. The reliance on only using technology for teaching pulled students further toward their phones and away from empathy and insight – the essential intangibles for cooperation and communication.

This past school year, after integrating social emotional learning within the classroom again, students were able to further develop an understanding of their feelings and the feelings of others through strategic vocabulary and self narratives.

What emerged was leadership, negotiation, and productivity resulting from working within groups with eye contact, and authentic, in-person emotion and connection. Relationships were redefined, conscious choices and responsible decision-making evolved. A community was born, providing a sense of justice and respect for others.

Moving into June, the layers of isolation finally peeled away, students found a deeper appreciation for perspectives through their own self-awareness.

It is a new foundation built to assist them as they continue to grow into healthy, happy and thoughtful adults with stronger relationships and useful experiences to reflect on as they end the school year.

Allison Gillmore

HRE Youth Engagement Program Associate

The 2022-23 school year was my first time not actively in a classroom every day. I have spent the last 20 years of my life on the school year timetable. As a spring 2020 college graduate and an ESL teacher from 2020-22, I had to adapt to this new life outside the classroom. But being a part of the Speak Truth to Power Team reminded me of all the great work we can do outside of the schools.

This school year, I was able to visit three schools and interact with five student groups in-person and virtually. Although I was not these students’ teacher but instead a guest speaker, it reminded me of when I was a student and visitors would visit to inspire us. I may not have been taking or administering a final test this year, but I was able to impact more than 100 students and help them realize themselves as human rights defenders – and that’s more than enough for me.

Olivia Mangold

Student, King School, Stamford, Connecticut

At my school, we are given a lot of different opportunities to pursue the things that interest us and we are passionate about. This is what I think really distinguished this school year from past ones; I tried to take advantage of these opportunities.

To start the year I decided to take Intro to Global Studies, and I think this is where I was able to begin focusing on certain topics or issues that I am passionate about.

In this class, specifically, we spent a lot of time learning about how different countries address inequality, poverty, climate, and social issues. I think this is what sparked my desire to learn more about these issues; I had always been aware of these problems, but when I really started to pay attention in this Global Studies class, I felt almost as if the bubble that I was in had popped, and I realized that I wanted to get involved in addressing these issues. I also took AP World History this year, which I really think impacted my view of the world and how current issues developed. We learned about how problems and conflicts from years ago have produced and affected the issues that our world currently is facing, and it really made me start thinking about my place in the world. While my Intro to Global Studies class was what initially sparked my passion to do something about these issues, my AP World History class is what made me recognize that many of these problems are not unique to this day and age; it caused me to start to really reflect on the issues that have been present throughout all of history and never fully addressed, such as inequalities and prejudices, and why they exist.

From there, I started to look for opportunities to get involved. My AP World History teacher and Dean of Students have been very influential in empowering not only me but also other individuals at my school to get involved with social/cultural issues and the things that we are passionate about. The two of them worked with various individuals at RFK Human Rights, and organized a workshop where we discussed human rights, climate issues and any other obstacles that we felt our world and our smaller communities are facing. After that meeting I knew I wanted to take more action independently.

Going forward, I would like to continue pursuing my interests in various ways. For example, one of my friends and I recently started a club for next school year that is centered around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We will focus on how to raise awareness, how to embody them in our own communities, and how to get involved in activities that go hand-in-hand with the themes: sustainability, equality, etc. The RFK workshop inspired me to take action to pursue my passions, and it showed me the different ways that I can get involved within my community.

Karen Robinson

Program Director Human Rights Education/Speak Truth to Power

I entered this school year with the expectation that we would have significantly more in-person time: school visits, local trainings and professional development, time together. While my expectations were somewhat met, economic concerns, political pressure on teachers, librarians and schools, and the continued, non-stop demands on teachers made in-person meetings challenging.

In the end, for me, this year was marked by super-brilliant, inspiring highs: Piney Woods School in Mississippi performing monologues of local and STTP defenders; theater work with El Dia Despues and a group of young women in Torreon, Mexico, creating and performing monologues based on local human rights defenders; our Speaker and Film series with rock star student moderators; and the one-on-one check-ins with educators from around the world.

The not-so-highs, and a roadmap for work to come: Meeting with a social studies school district director and being told I cannot discuss social emotional learning; spending time with a librarian who is being targeted for ensuring the library at her school includes books representing all students; and, of course, there have been more school shootings.

To the educators and students I am fortunate to work with, and to those I hope to work with in the near future, I respect and admire you and I will continue to do all I can to support you. We have a lot of good work and good trouble to get into.

Michelle Haddix

Lead Educator, teacher, Indianapolis

In many ways, there was comfort in this year’s predictability. We were almost certain that our school days wouldn’t be interrupted by major outbreaks that sent us into virtual learning. We knew we would be eating lunch together, sharing tables, and checking out books at the library again. I hadn’t expected how far removed many of our students had become from the world. Many of them wrestled with simple social conflicts or had lost all stamina for classroom rigor. Our students seem to have been in a fog for three years, with little opportunity to grow socially and academically. More than ever, I know my students need authentic learning experiences that support them where they are, bring joy back into the classroom, and allow them to explore socially.