How do we get 14 and 15 year olds to understand and care about human rights issues that might seem distant? How do we lead them to consider what does this have to do with me, with my neighborhood, my school?

In 1958 Eleanor Roosevelt famously remarked at the United Nations, “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.”

Inspired in part by Roosevelt’s words, the 10th-grade Humanities team, which also includes Hawken teachers Andrew Cleminshaw, Katie Scott and Heidi Wilbrandt, developed a student-driven project that aimed to initiate community conversations about human rights with student voices at the center.

The project culminated a year-long interdisciplinary course exploring the history and literature of the modern world through the lens of human rights. We closed the year with study of 20th and 21st century human rights institutions and issues through a research and infographic project focused on topics that students cared about. Teachers structured the project through skill-based lessons in the research process, but student interest and choice drove the work:

  • Students did preliminary research on human rights issues and then pitched broad topics to the class.
  • We formed teams loosely clustered around the favorite topics that included women’s reproductive health, the use of chemical weapons, the death penalty, racism in international sports, etc.
  • Each team member researched a case study or angle of the problem that they found most compelling.
  • In the research stage, students worked individually but came together as a team to coach each other, practice important note taking and citation skills, and offer and receive peer feedback on writing.

Then we came to the hard part – collaborating to develop a single argument about their broad topic based on their most important collective findings. This was the most challenging part of the project for many students because it asked them to

  • Prioritize the most important information and ideas from their individual research
  • Identify common trends and outliers in information across specialty topics
  • Synthesize complex and diverse information that didn’t always seem to connect
  • Develop a single thesis statement that spoke to all projects yet remained coherent on its own

The wrinkle: we then tasked students with communicating their research and their new, collaborative message, not in prose but through a visual infographic combining words, images and important statistics.

After introducing basic skills in graphic communication, we left it to students to

  • Map out a visual argument that would appeal to their audience – other high school students.
  • Gather evidence in the form of images, primary source quotations, and statistics.
  • Select and learn how to use an infographic generator or graphic design program.

At the end of the project, we assembled the results of the 10th grade research and collaboration into a school-wide exhibit that organized the infographics in clusters following the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The exhibit invited the Hawken community to learn about international human rights issues by reading the infographics, but also to debate them in two graffiti walls asking,

“What actions can I take as an ally and rights holder to protect the human rights and dignity of others?”

“What human rights issues are important to you?”

When my students and I visited the display together, they were not only proud of their own infographics but impressed by the interesting and complex work of their peers. As they browsed, it was exciting to watch them ponder a new idea or issue, and to exclaim over a beautiful detail in one of the infographics.

It was especially gratifying to see the dialogue about human rights questions and priorities develop on the two graffiti walls as students and adult members of the community visited and commented on the display in the days that followed. All told, the project met its goals – it allowed students to engage in meaningful, self-directed research and then collaborate to communicate their ideas in order to get our community talking about human rights.

Here is what students had to say about the project and their big takeaways:

“My biggest takeaway from the project as a whole, including the display, is that there are stories frequently silenced and not brought up enough, and the student body recognizes these issues and wants to change that. There is a lot of controversy surrounding many of the topics, but there are similar issues in a variety of countries. I feel that with more communication and awareness, as well as perspective brought from younger generations, change can be made. It seems that many of the issues brought up are avoidable and common sense to change; however, through this project, I learned the complexity of silenced human rights violations. My final takeaway is the power of communication and education regarding changes in society.” – Gabi

“I really liked the interactive part of the display. It was a way for people to emphasize the issues they felt were important. It connected the community because people could see what other people were thinking, and I could put check marks next to other people’s ideas if I felt that I agreed with them. As far as research goes, I liked that we could choose whatever specific topic was special to us, and I really connected to the research I was pursuing. Learning about human rights made me significantly more aware of how fortunate I am to be able to sustain the rights that I have. I’m also able to recognize when rights that I haven’t recognized are being broken. My mindset has been somewhat changed.” – Wilson

“The infographic was very hard to start because it was a new concept. I really was proud of our infographic. All the previous designs we made were wonderful, but I really liked our end one. We learned how to organize information in an effective way and how to put our message in our infographic. It was wonderful seeing everyone else’s infographic, but it was also very sad to see many problems going on in the world. I think this exhibit really helps people get a glance at some important issues going on and helps them learn about these issues. The wall where everyone could write was wonderful to see  because there were actually a lot of people looking at our infographics and thinking about some actions. It was also good to see everyone building off each other, which shows how connected these issues can be and how connected we all are as people. Overall, this project was a good experience, especially because we had the opportunity to research something and put it out for others to see. I think it made an impact on many people in our school community.” – Lydia

“This project has helped me give effective feedback through reviewing other teams’ infographics, consider my duties as an ally and rights holder from experiencing the display, and consider the importance of multiple, severe human rights issues around the world. As a whole, I have practiced so many new real-world skills that fall outside of the realm of humanities while concurrently learning about important current events that actually affect me.” – Natalie

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Katrina Hagen

Katrina Hagen

Katrina completed a B.A. in History at Portland State University in 2000, and then went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2008. After a few years as a historian and college teacher, she left academia for Hawken School so she could spend her time helping teenagers discover the complexity and joys of history and literature.