Fourth- and fifth-graders don't always realize that the desk they sit at, the food they eat and the shelter they have at night isn't something everybody has.
These past few months, many of New York's elementary students found out how and why the rights of other children worldwide can be crushed, and what they can do to help. Now, their discoveries are on show in public service announcements as part of an "Everyone Has Rights" video contest for elementary students sponsored by NYSUT and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights' Speak Truth to Power program.
This week, triumphant students from 20 classrooms will be having classroom parties to celebrate winning the inaugural video contest out of 187 entries. Each winning class was awarded $175: $75 for a party and $100 for classroom supplies. Their projects were based on an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations document, and highlighted it in a public service announcement. Teachers and Springville Faculty Association members Ben Higgins and Joe Karb organized the competition.
Students looked hard at the rights of dignity, religion, education, and food, clothing and shelter. They uncovered how many children cannot go to school because they have to work; because girls are not allowed to pursue an education in certain countries; because of natural disasters that have destroyed school buildings; or because of war or violence. They learned how some children have no heat or electricity in their homes and how some live under dictatorships in countries such as North Korea. They learned about war in Syria and violence in Afghanistan that keeps girls, especially, from school. One group of students used stuffed animals to show how a husky was not allowed onto the playground or the pond where the retrievers frolicked, demonstrating how bullying can be prevented.
On Thursday, some of the winning students will Skype with John Heffernan, director of the Washington, DC-based Speak Truth to Power program. The winning classrooms will receive an autographed copy of Kerry Kennedy's book "Speak Truth to Power." And, after the rush of victory, many of these 9-,10- and 11-year-olds are forging ahead with fundraising and educational projects to support organizations that help those in need.
Rockville Centre students made 21 PSAs, and then voted on the best four to enter into the contest. They scored three winning entries.
"The whole project spoke to our children so eloquently," said Viri Pettersen, library-media specialist and enrichment STELLAR teacher, who made a certificate for each participating student. "It's just beyond."
She and School-Related Professional Ilene Madden, a NYSUT member, put together research packets on PSAs and on human rights. Each group at this school chose to focus on the right to an education.
Teachers Ginny O'Sullivan, Kara Spinelli and Billy Chiofalo, members of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association led by Pettersen, all submitted winning student videos. O'Sullivan's class sold string bags to increase awareness about the negative effects of plastic bags in the world, and chose five charities to which to donate proceeds. She also had the students read "Beatrice's Goat" by Page McBrier, a picture book based on an actual Ugandan family whose lives were changed by the gift of a goat, which enabled Beatrice to go to school.
"Social Justice is a fabric of the labor movement. What is special about us as an organization is the extra importance of spreading such messages," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale. "These videos by children in our schools demonstrate how to share the values of furthering human rights. It is truly our honor to support such efforts."
The "Lights! Camera! Action!" part of the contest took awhile – from January, when the video contest was announced – to the deadline on May 1.
That's because these young students first had to learn what a public service announcement was. Then they had to learn about the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They had to research details about those rights. Then they had to learn how to write scripts and how to make a video.
"Our goal at Speak Truth to Power is to teach students to abandon the role of bystander when faced with injustice or inequality," said Heffernan. "This needs to start at a young age and be a fundamental part of one's educational trajectory".
The charities selected by Rockville Centre students were Canine Companions, Heifer International, Wounded Warriors, Fur Babies (a local animal no-kill shelter) and Nothing But Nets ($10 nets that are sent to Africa to protect families against malaria).