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Bringing global issues into the classroom

Few issues have the potential to resonate more for young people than the fight for human rights and social justice. When a 15-year-old girl in Pakistan can be shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking up for the right of girls to go to school, students across the world take notice and ask why.

When a building collapse in Bangladesh kills more than a thousand factory workers who were making the Gap, Banana Republic and other trendy clothes that teenagers thoughtlessly toss on for school each day, students take notice and wonder if the rubble might relate to their lives.

This summer, a handful of teachers came together to find the lessons embedded in those events and craft them into Common Core-aligned lesson plans that they unveiled at the AFT's 2013 TEACH Conference. The 40-minute lesson plans on Malala Yousafzai, the advocate for girls' education who survived an assassination attempt, and the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh use videos, online games, interactive classroom activities and social media to help students make real-world connections to the issues of their time.

The lesson plans are now posted online and are available to all teachers for use in their classrooms.

In U.S. schools, we train our students to be complacent, to be good listeners and to not question authority, noted New York State United Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, a former English/humanities teacher, at the TEACH workshop. But that can undermine their learning what it means to be part of a functioning democracy. "Our students have little appreciation and knowledge of the power they have to make a difference," he says.

In July, the AFT brought together teachers from Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York and Washington, D.C., to take human rights concepts they are already working with in their classes and design complete lesson plans to share.

The plans "serve the Common Core, which says 'individual mastery of content often no longer suffices,'" says Donna Bryan, an English language arts teacher from Coxsackie, N.Y., who worked on the lesson plans and presented them with others at TEACH. The plans allow argument, expression and a way for student to get involved, if they wish. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the overarching theme that pulls them all together.

For teachers, she adds, materials are just two clicks away.

"Kids often just don't know about these things. They don't know Taliban doesn't adhere to the idea that girls should be educated. I have found that when students are given a little bit of information, the world just opens up for them."

The lesson plans can be used for grades 5-10. Tammy Vinson, a special education teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union, notes that they allow for "a lot of things to be brought home—for example, local minimum wage battles in the context of international workers' rights."

Students learn that the world can be a good and a bad place, says Bryan. "To only learn about what is good and positive keeps a student a child forever. Learning about these things helps them to look at things in an adult way." [Barbara McKenna]

September 9, 2013