Mastering a Masterclass at a Challenging and Historic Time

This year, two major sources of upheaval—a worldwide pandemic compounded by mass protests over continued systemic racism—have presented educators with extraordinary new challenges.

Now that much of teaching has shifted to a virtual environment, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power Masterclass, presented in partnership with Discovery Education, Humanity United, and Fund II Foundation, provides teachers, counselors, and administrators with resources designed to engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders at this critical time. As they juggled virtual teaching, conferences, and home life in recent weeks, several participants reflected on the program’s impact on both themselves and their students.

Rita Mortenson, a teacher at Verona Area High School in Wisconsin, said the masterclass series “allows me to hear from trusted educators around the world how they are incorporating topics such as real-world applications, social and emotional learning, and 21st-century skills to introduce human rights topics. These ideas have sparked ways for me to introduce these valuable topics with my staff and teach students on human rights issues.”

Jessie Erickson, from Grand Forks Public Schools in North Dakota, noted that “today, more than ever, teachers’ roles go far beyond helping students learn materials to pass tests. Adults in our schools are responsible for helping students to build character, supporting social-emotional learning, and working to erase racial inequity.”

Erickson described the Speak to Truth to Power Masterclass as a “scaffold” for educators that helps them successfully encourage students to express their beliefs about issues they face, develop character, hone social-emotional skills, and learn that their voices really do matter.

Students have learned about protests against systemic violence against Black people in their communities from their neighbors and families, and from news reports. The masterclass helps teachers provide students with the tools they need to be active participants in changing society for the better—getting in “good trouble,” as the late Rep. John Lewis, subject of a STTP Truth Teller lesson, would have described it.

“Last week, I had a student tell me she wanted to get involved in activism. At the time, I didn’t have advice for her. But now that I know about Speak Truth to Power, I have a place to direct her,” said a social studies teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina.

Jaime Aquino, senior vice president of Discovery Education and a former distinguished educator at the New York State Education Department, noted that the challenge of having conversations about civil unrest and systemic change is exacerbated by the fact that learning is happening remotely. In addition, many teachers don’t have the experience or background they need to address these issues in the classroom. “Although our country is becoming more diverse each year, the teaching force is not keeping up with the changing racial makeup of America’s children,” he said. “While most pupils in public schools are students of color, more than 80 percent of teachers in the U.S. are white and have not lived through the injustice that many of their minority students face.”

Teachers, he said, “are desperate for curated resources that can guide their conversations around tolerance and inclusivity for all and to help students manage the anger they are feeling. Teachers aren’t looking for worksheets. Programs like Speak Truth to Power are the answer. Speak Truth to Power provides our educators with the tools they need to not only speak to their students about human rights but to help them see how one single voice can change a nation and the world for the better.”