Classroom libraries often serve as windows into worlds our students cannot imagine, but must learn about if they are to develop an understanding of human rights. Books with social justice themes can provide our students with insight into what it feels like to be a refugee, to encounter racism, to have to fight against great odds for rights and freedoms, and other important societal issues that may not affect them directly.
Today, for World Book Day, Woven Teaching is sharing some of our staff’s favorite books to use in the classroom, as well as examples of current social justice movements these books connect to. Each book demonstrates why teaching about human rights and genocide in our classrooms is a must. Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights focuses on our “Duties and Limitations,” and as educators, it’s our duty to introduce human rights to our students and community. Through these books educators can explain the basics of human rights in age-appropriate ways with stories and examples, and can set the foundation for a lifelong commitment to social responsibility and global citizenship.
Nina Simone Grotch, Executive Director
Book: The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide by Jean Hatzfeld
Age: 9-12 grade
Summary: This is a powerful examination of life in Rwanda post-genocide. Jean Hatzfeld’s The Antelope’s Strategy offers testimony and remembrances from Hutus and Tutsis, from perpetrators and victims. The honesty and candor from all of the interviews is stunning. The horrors of the atrocity are not shied away from, but the book also offers hope as the reader hears from Rwandans ten years later as they work to commemorate the genocide and look ahead to living peaceably with each other.
Current connections: As students learn about international and domestic conflicts, discussing the aftermath of war and atrocity is also important. The prejudice that provides the foundation for genocide does not evaporate when peace is restored. How do the victims recover? In what ways are they changed? How do they return to “normal” life? All of these questions can help students better understand the complexity of genocide. The first-person accounts also provide a testament to human resiliency and the strength of the human spirit.
Why is this book important for students?: Survivor testimony is crucial in understanding genocide. The first-person narratives presented here are incredibly vivid and emotional. As we commemorate the genocide in Rwanda, teachers can share these as a whole or assign a few vignettes. They offer a striking picture of the realities of living through a genocide and the realities of reconciliation and moving towards a peaceful future.
Nikki Bambauer, Director of Operations
Book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Age: 9-12 grade
Summary: Millions of Americans work full-time in low-wage jobs but still cannot make ends meet. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, author Barbara Ehrenreich provides a glimpse into the realities faced by hard-working people in low-paying jobs. The book details Ehrenreich’s experience going “undercover” in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, working low-paying jobs and trying to survive on the wages she earns from them. She soon finds that securing access to nutritious food and quality housing – not to mention health care – is nearly impossible on these wages.
Current issues: In the United States today, workers in low-wage jobs are banding together to fight for a $15 minimum wage. With the “Fight for $15” campaign gaining steam across the country, Nickel and Dimed is a great resource for students to understand how and why increasing the minimum wage is an important human rights issue – particularly for those students who may come from more privileged backgrounds.
Why is this book important for students?: Ehrenreich’s book provides students a first-hand look at human rights issues that are present in their communities: the struggle for a living wage, the importance of food, housing, and health care, and the near-inescapable cycle of poverty that many people working low-wage jobs experience. It can be used in social studies, English, or economics courses, and there are many free teacher resources available online to accompany the reading.
Shivani Banfal, Director of Development
Book: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Age: 6-8 grade
Summary: Ghost Boys follows twelve-year-old Jerome who is shot and killed by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that's been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing. Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from American history, also killed because of his race. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey towards recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father's actions. Rhodes deftly weaves historical and socio-political layers into a gripping and poignant story about how children and families face the complexities of today's world, and how one boy grows to understand American Blackness in the aftermath of his own death.
Current issues: Ghost Boys is a great resource for students to understand and address many of the issues that disproportionately affect Black boys and men in our current society. Students are reminded of the issues of systemic racism and oppression through different characters, exposing our student’s own roles within these systems. For example, this book’s themes connect to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which grew in protest against police killings of Black people in the United States.
Why is this book important for students?: This novel tackles issues that are both historical and contemporary (racial bias, bullying, class differences with regard to education and upbringing, gun violence) and introduces young readers to important American figures, Emmett Till and Tamir Rice. Ghost Boys is powerful in its condemnation of racial prejudice that marks Black boys' bodies as criminal and dangerous. It's also hopeful in its depiction of Sarah's activism and Jerome's family's journey toward healing. Rhodes asks readers to bear witness and to keep this tale from being told again. It's clear she believes children can be an important part of the solution and promotes student activism.
What are some of the human rights focused books that you have on your bookshelf? Do you teach any human rights focused books in your classroom? Have you talked to your students about issues they want to read about?
Try having a brainstorm with your students about human rights topics they want to learn more about and suggest books that they can read. Remind students about Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and discuss the duties they believe they have in response to those human rights topics and books.
Words Without Borders: 23 Books for World Book Day | New York Public Library and UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Nine free eBooks in celebration of World Book Day | Amazon
Social justice books by topic | Teaching for Change