Shaping Human Rights Education for Years to Come

Do you remember your favorite teacher? The one who made you eager to learn, who got you excited about school, who helped you find your voice and your place in this fractured world? Imagine being in a room full of such teachers—the kind for whom teaching is not just a job, but a true calling.

At a retreat in early November, the staff of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power (STTP) program was fortunate to have that opportunity when 15 experienced human rights teachers gathered for the first time to provide insight into the design, real-life implementation, and impact of the STTP lesson series. To assist RFK Human Rights with developing the 2020 Speak Truth to Power strategic plan, these STTP lead educators explored the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) in the context of the development and growth of students. They noted the possibility for students to take action, and begin defending human rights in their communities and beyond, through the STTP music and video contests, advocacy projects, after school clubs, and more.

The retreat gave the teachers an opportunity to speak candidly about the many expectations, demands, and challenges they face in and outside the classroom. Lead educator Joe Karb, a social studies teacher from Springville, N.Y., acknowledged that although teachers struggle with time constraints, making the effort to add STTP content is worthwhile as it complements, and in many ways transforms, the current curriculum. He said STTP’s lessons and music contests have changed the nature of his classes, and in turn changed students’ mindsets about human rights forever.

At one point during a discussion, the issue of trauma arose, spurring lead educators to share stories about experiences and issues that have hindered students’ social and emotional development. Teachers play a critical role in their students’ psychosocial development, and many said they have used the STTP lesson plans to help students gain self- and social-awareness, manage their emotions and behaviors, build healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. Several mentioned using the STTP lesson plan on Malala Yousafzai, which allows the children to identify with a youth who used self-management skills to handle stress and organize a movement for girls’ education. The discussion touched on the importance of teachers supporting and believing in students, and holding them accountable for their choices and actions. The teachers acknowledged that they must be willing to hold themselves accountable as well, and should model the SEL competencies for their students by, for instance, apologizing to them when they realize they’ve made a mistake.

The educators also had a frank discussion about how to teach social studies and history in today’s supercharged political climate. They shared their successful methods for using the Speak Truth to Power lesson plans to encourage students to view the world from a range of perspectives; all the teachers indicated that when students read the stories of the STTP defenders, they empathize with them and feel empowered to take action in their own communities on issues that they find meaningful. Incorporating SEL into classroom instruction encourages students to empathize and identify with diverse viewpoints, and teaches them how to calmly and objectively articulate their perspective on potentially polarizing issues. Catherine Hammons, a lead educator who teaches middle school social studies in Memphis, Tenn., said her students enjoy learning about human rights defenders like Martin Luther King Jr., for example, and are inspired by the call to action of “Become a Defender.”

Meredith Towne, a language and composition teacher and lead educator in New York City, said STTP has been powerful in providing a voice to students and learners who previously felt like they did not have one. As such, students are able to “Become a Defender”, speak out, and take action on human rights causes that are important to them. She sees STTP as a great option for schools that are looking for ways to become involved in human rights and social justice work.

By the end of the two-day retreat, the participants had framed a strategic plan focused on the STTP program’s three main objectives:

1. Helping teachers make human rights education an integral part of their pedagogy.

2. Using social and emotional learning to equip students with the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors they need to defend human rights.

3. Educating students so that they will identify as human rights defenders, undertake mindful action using the Becoming a Defender toolkit, and increase their involvement in their communities.

Would you like to participate in future STTP activities? Do you want to receive STTP materials, join a training session, or even serve as a lead educator? Write to [email protected] or visit