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Teaching human rights through the creative arts

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Teaching human rights through the creative arts

30 May, 2018

When considering how to teach human rights to pupils, most of us probably don’t immediately think of doing so through the creative arts. However, there are actually many ways to use art, music, literature and drama to help pupils understand their rights and the rights of others.

Recently, the GLP team and Amnesty International UK held a number of joint training days on how to adopt creative approaches to human rights teaching at primary level. For those of you who weren't able to attend, we have summarised some of the best ideas from the sessions in this article.

Human rights through literature

We Are All Born Free

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a hugely important document that sets out fundamental human rights to which everyone in the world should be entitled. Many different versions of the UDHR have been created for children. We Are All Born Free is one of the very best examples. This award-winning book contains a series of beautiful illustrations, each drawn by a different illustrator to represent one of the human rights declarations found within the UDHR. The book can be ordered directly from Amnesty and is suitable for use with pupils from age five onwards. You can find some activities to use alongside the book via this link.

Amnesty offers many other (free) resources that can help you introduce the UDHR to children. Browse Amnesty’s full resource library here. Older pupils can really benefit from being given their own copy of Amnesty’s ‘My Rights Passport’. These small booklets summarise the UDHR in understandable language and can be ordered for free from Amnesty.

There’s a Bear in My Chair by Ross Collins

What would you do if you came home after a long day only to find a pesky bear sitting in your favourite chair? In the colourful storybook, There’s a Bear in My Chair, an indignant mouse has his chair taken away by a polar bear, who won’t budge despite his continued protests. The book is an excellent way to get young primary pupils to think about what happens when someone’s human rights are not being respected like they should be. You can order There’s a Bear in My Chair here. Alternatively, a video of the author reading the book is available for free on YouTube.

You can easily use the book as the basis for a role play exercise in class: First, divide pupils into small groups. Half should come up with ideas to persuade Bear to move from the chair. The other half should think up ideas to convince Mouse to move from the house.  After a bit of prep time, each team should pair up with one representing the opposing view to allow them to try out their arguments on each other.

Amnesty has produced an activity sheet containing some additional ideas about how to use the book in teaching human rights, which you can download via this link.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna

The striking illustrations on every page of The Journey will stay in your mind long after you’ve finished reading the book with your pupils. It tells the moving story of a mother and her two children who are forced to flee their home to escape the turmoil of war. The book doesn’t flinch from exploring the difficult situations they find themselves in as they try to reach safety. As a result, it is an excellent starting point for opening up discussions about refugees and exploring related human rights issues with your pupils. Order your copy here.

An excellent guide has been published by Amnesty to help you successfully use The Journey to teach about human rights. This provides questions to explore with pupils as you read each page.

The book can also be used as the inspiration for pupil-led creative projects. In small groups, challenge pupils to retell the whole story (or part of the story) using either art, music, drama or poetry. This will help build their empathy for the characters and hopefully deepen their understanding of the issues at play in the story. Make sure pupils have an opportunity to showcase and explain their work to each other at the end of the lesson.

Fun & games

After you’ve already spent some class time introducing pupils to basic human rights concepts, there are some excellent activities and games you can use to further reinforce pupils’ understanding of human rights.

Human Rights Pictionary

It's very easy to adapt Pictionary into a human rights learning tool. The game is best played in small groups of three or four:

1. Nominate one person in the group to draw.

2. Give this person a human right (from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to illustrate for their teammates. Some rights will be easier to draw than others so it’s probably best to select them carefully!

3. The rest of the group will attempt to guess the right depicted in the drawing. If you want to make this a bit less tricky, provide your pupils with a simplified version of the UDHR or their own individual copy of Amnesty’s My Rights Passport for reference.

4. Nominate a new person to draw. Continue until everyone in the group has been given a chance to be the illustrator.

There are various ways to adapt this game to suit the specific needs of your class. For younger children, it might be best to simply get pupils to work together in small groups to draw one of the most straightforward rights, such as the right to an education. Additionally, you can make drawing the human rights into a full art project – why not get pupils to paint, make collages or even use needlework?

No matter what exact method you end up using, you should gather all the pictures up at the end and put them all together to create a human rights ‘quilt’, which pupils can then proudly put on display somewhere in your classroom. This will act as an excellent reminder of what they have just learned.

Right Up Your Street

Amnesty has created a brilliant poster, Right Up Your Street, which contains visual examples of human rights in action. Ask your pupils to look at the poster in groups. Challenge them to find examples of rights being denied, rights being exercised and rights being protected. The interesting thing about the poster is that some of the scenes are open to interpretation, with leads space for pupils to debate exactly what is being shown! The whole activity is a fantastic way to help pupils understand how rights apply to everyday life. Download full instructions for the activity and order copies of the poster here.

Human Rights Bingo

This game can be used to get pupils talking to each other about human rights during class time.

The rules are very simple:

1. Give pupils a special bingo card made up of various questions related to human rights. You can download a template to use. This includes suggested questions, but it’s very easy to adapt them to suit your class as needed

2. Challenge pupils to find a different person in the room to answer each question

3. The aim is for them to gather as many answers as they can. When they get all their questions answered they should shout, “Human rights bingo!”, to let everyone else know they’ve won the game.

The art of debate

Having a debate in class is a great way to get pupils to explore various viewpoints on human rights. There are many different types of debate you can stage with your pupils:

Parliamentary debate

Divide the class into two opposing sides, with one person acting as speaker to control the debate. Each team has 10 minutes to create their opening arguments and decide the key points for they will put forward.

Goldfish bowl

A group of students present their arguments to the rest of the class, who critique them thus starting a whole class discussion.

TV chat show

The class is split into different groups, each focusing on arguing a particular view. After some preparation time, one student from every group is called to the front to present their arguments. The other students form the ‘audience’ and can question the speakers.

Six thinking hats

Each participating student takes on a different ‘thinking role’ within the debate and must discuss the issue being discussed using only this hat. For example, someone could focus on data/information, while another could focus on feelings/emotions or creative thinking. To make things clearer for pupils, you could give them colour-coded paper hats to wear during the debate!

Socratic method

This type of debate is centred on cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals. It requires all participants to accept that other people’s views of a topic are also valid if they can be justified and explained. Though this sounds complicated, it’s not at all difficult to put into practice. Pick a simple statement for pupils to debate. Divide participants into both an inner and outer circle. The inner circle debates the statement from a given viewpoint (either for or against), while the outer circle are provided with written prompts to help them to observe the debate critically and give constructive feedback.

Youth activism

For the young activists out there, Amnesty has established a Junior Urgent Action Network. Every term, a new e-newsletter is sent out across the network, which summarises an ongoing human rights case in a way that is appropriate for children aged 7-11. You can explore back issues of the e-newsletter here. Each edition includes simple actions children can take in support of someone whose human rights are being infringed.

To sign up to receive the e-newsletter on behalf of your pupils, visit this webpage.

A final note

While the ideas included in this article are intended for use in primary teaching, many can be adapted to make them appropriate for post-primary pupils. Don’t forget to check out Amnesty’s teaching resources for further ideas and advice.

Feel free to email the GLP team on if you have any questions or comments about this article.

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