Human Rights was implemented as the new theme of the eighth grade Social Studies curriculum this year, a change that reshapes a capstone inquiry-based research and presentation project—and partners students with local human rights experts who provide guidance and feedback during the process.

“Eighth graders are becoming increasingly aware of inequalities and injustices that exist in the world around them,” notes Social Studies teacher Kira Senedak. “One of the goals of switching the focus of this project—and the curriculum in general—is to help students use and develop their skills of reading, writing, speaking, and thinking like historians to investigate these events. Their natural desire to know the who, what, when, where, why, and how of these events lends authenticity to the work we do in the classroom.”

The project forges strong interdisciplinary links between Social Studies and Language Arts through rigorous research and presentation. In previous years, students selected any topic they wished, exploring everything from the environment to laser surgery. This year, students formed deeper curricular connections by identifying and examining real world human rights issues such as rights violations in Eritrea, school conditions in developing countries, music’s role in the African American experience from slavery to present day, laws limiting educational opportunities for women, and child labor on African chocolate farms.

“We’ve studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and different views on the role the United Nations and other countries should play in protecting those rights,” explains Senedak. “Then we looked at several specific rights, including the right to life, freedom of expression, social security, and the rights of minorities. We studied historical examples of violations of these rights, what others did or didn’t do to help, and highlighted those who fought for rights. Students then used this knowledge to support their choice of topic.”

The bones of the project remain the same. In Senedak’s Social Studies and Callie DiSabato’s Language Arts classes, and with support from Director of Library Services Eric Schatzman, students select a topic and investigate deeply, honing critical research skills along the way. Students then create visual representations of their topic, and give short presentations. But this year, fueled by local human rights experts and community members serving as research mentors, the project’s depth and dimension expanded dramatically.

“During roundtable discussions and consultations, students proposed their topic ideas to their mentors and brainstormed essential questions, potential directions, and possible resources,” says City as Our Campus℠ Director Adam Nye. “Connecting with local experts not only enriches our students, it also validates what they are doing. It allows students to connect their work with something bigger than a school project.”