by Zach Davidson, AmeriCorps member serving with the Condon K-6 School
International human rights abuses and cultural appropriation are topics from which most adults will shy away. Oftentimes these issues create a quiet, uncomfortable tension in the room that dissipates only after someone makes a dry joke about the weather. However, lacking the acquired reservation that some adults have, the students of my ELA class tackled these conversations with the candor and simplicity that are the hallmarks of any 5th-grade class.
My role in these conversations is to be a facilitator and use thoughtful, carefully planned questions to allow students to shape their own opinions and identities. However, on the final assessment for my class’s unit on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, my teacher opted to go a different route. The final question on the test was simple: What are human rights?
Not knowing what to expect, their responses surprised me, made me laugh, and left me feeling as though my own fifth grade years were ill spent. After taking a hands-on role with my students in previous classes, working through issues on the level of illiteracy in Nepal and racism in major American institutions, I got the chance to take a step back and see what they had to say. Pointed, refreshing, and insightful, these excerpts show a clarity of thought that is typical, though unfortunately not always expected, of 5th graders.
They can still make us laugh with their no-nonsense optimism.
“Human rights are ‘laws’ that make this world the way it is: awesome.”
They understand the issues as they relate to the important things in life.
“Human rights means like you have a right to jump, laugh, read.”
They can enumerate ideas found in the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution.
“Human rights are fundamental rights that humans promote and follow. Every single human should be treated with dignity. Kings shouldn’t be able to inalienable your rights.”
They even take on issues like workplace discrimination.
“For example ‘You’re doing really good in work then all of a sudden he or she starts promoting people that don’t do good, and he doesn’t promote you.”
They can offer us timeless advice.
“We should be protecting each other like we are brothers and sisters.”
One student in particular offered a critical view that challenged the premise some of what we had read in class.
“All people wanted to do was be free but people are still not free. All around the world some kids are starving of hunger, some grown-ups can’t even read. Why are all of these things happening if we all have human rights? Human rights are a symbol of freedom but people are still being controlled today. If you want to be free don’t let anyone get in your way. If you still have to fight for human rights fight but never give up because in the end you will win.”
I think we are leaving our futures in more than capable hands.