We Need to Teach Our Students They are Never Too Young to Make a Difference

Originally posted on October 24, 2017
My life changed because of coffee…and I don’t even drink it!
Back in 2009, I was attending the Annual Representative Assembly of my statewide teachers union, NYSUT (New York State United Teachers).  Each year I attended, I always walked by the Fair Trade table that was set up there, never quite understanding what it was or why it was there, but always marveled at all the beautiful looking things they were selling.  This particular year, my local union president at the time made a comment to the group that we should start to buy and keep Fair Trade coffee at our union office and encourage others to buy it as well. My immediate reaction was, WHY? So of course I needed to find out more.  Luckily for me, at the time, a woman name Anne Kelly (who now works for Mayan Hands) was the resident Fair Trade expert for NYSUT.  We became fast friends. She not only provided me with the answer of WHY, but also helped to open my eyes to a world I never paid attention to-the real world-our global brothers and sisters.  Through the union’s involvement with the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, I was able to travel to Nicaragua to find out first hand what life was like for people who grew Fair Trade coffee and were part of cooperatives that helped better the lives of those in their community.
At this point in my career, I was a 6th grade teacher, teaching English Language arts in the pre-common core era.  This provided me with a lot of latitude in the way I delivered the standards.  The following summer, I was introduced to a group of teachers that worked with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation and wrote a curriculum to go along with the book Speak Truth to Power, which was written by Kerry Kennedy, one of Robert F. Kennedy’s daughters. In her book, Kerry Kennedy interviewed Human Rights defenders from around the world and told their stories.
I approached the next school years with a whole new mindset of how I would teach ELA.  It was as if the sun, moon and stars were all aligned, because I had a group of students that was like none I could have ever asked for in the 2011-12 school year.  There was a big campaign then to get Hershey to stop using child labor in their cocoa production.  What great conversations this created, as well as a desire to do something. First, my students came up with their own slogan, No Child Labor, Just Love. We made t-shirts. They wore them and asked people to sign petitions (at our school holiday concert) to ask Hershey to stop using child labor-something most people that were there did not know about. Can I tell you how warm my heart was watching these 11 year olds talk to parents and grandparents-telling them about the things they learned?! We made Valentine’s Day cards that were going to be sent to the CEO of Hershey, as well as posters that were going to be used to help spread the information in social media campaigns. I even got my dog, Bronxie, in on theaction.  Then we dug into Human Rights and what it meant to be a human rights defender using the Speak Truth to Power materials.  The students worked in groups to learn about one of the defenders and then they created an information tri-fold as well as an interactive activity related to the person they researched. This was all shared on our Be the Change Day when the school, parents and administrators were invited in to learn. It was one of the BEST years of my teaching career.
…and then everything changed. Enter: Common Core and the new APPR regulations. Up until this point, I had taught math, ELA and science. I asked my principal if I could just teach either math or ELA for the sake of my OCD.  She chose math for me.  I had intentions to try to incorporate social justice and human rights education into my science classes, but I was all consumed with trying to create math materials for a brand new curriculum that didn’t have many resources.  For the past five years, I have felt that a piece of me was missing.
When I started this year as a secondary technology coach, I vowed that although I did not have a classroom of my own, I would help other teachers incorporate these global ideas into their classrooms to help create humans that had an understanding of those that were different from them in other parts of the world.  Most conflict can be avoided if there is a better understanding of those involved…now more than ever we need to nurture and grow human beings who have empathy for and an understanding about the world we live in.
I am excited that already at this point of the school year I have some teachers who will be having their students get involved in the Speak Truth to Power video contestwhich is open to students in grades 6-12.  I have shared information about theEveryone Has Rights PSA contest which is open to elementary aged students.  I stumbled upon Rock Your World which says it is “Flexible, free of charge and fully-aligned with Common Core Standards, Rock Your World inspires global citizenship while developing 21st century skills. Starting with an understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, students research an issue of choice, then create a media-based advocacy campaign to promote awareness and ignite positive change.”  Then, thanks to Twitter I found Belouga. It has only been around for about a year, but WOW, they have really accomplished a lot in that short time.  Belouga is an amazing way for our kids to become “pen pals” – in a modern age – honing their writing skills while learning about other kids around the world.  I think the BEST part about Belouga is the IMPACT CAMPAIGNS.  We want our kids to develop empathy for others beyond our own communities.  By writing to others – kids are rewarded with points that accumulate and as a class, those points are donated to schools in various places around the world that have needs far greater than our kids!
We need to teach our students that they are never too young to make a difference in our world. Help them become a ripple that will help create a better world for all of us.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
~Robert F. Kennedy