April 2013
March 27, 2013

Share My Lesson blends education, social justice

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: John Heffernan, director of RFK Speak Truth to Power at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights; NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler; Sen. Adriano Espaillat; RFK Center President Kerry Kennedy; NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi; activist Librada Paz; eighth-grade social studies teacher Drew Beiter; Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan; student activist Isabelle Hooker and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Springville eighth-grade social studies teacher Drew Beiter used a special lesson plan to open his students' eyes about farm workers. "I don't think they understood their humanity," Beiter said.

The students, he said, tended to see the farm workers around their own rural Erie County town as being "on the fringe, in the shadows." He used videos, written exercises and other tools to "connect students with their own back yard." They were shocked to learn kids their age were already working on farms.

The students are studying the Progressive Era in American history, when muckrakers exposed the problems of the Industrial Revolution.

They listened to how farm workers are mistreated, yet are afraid to speak out, during a video conversation via Skype with farm workers rights advocate Librada Paz.

Beiter later met Paz in person when he joined union leaders and state lawmakers last month to urge educators to share her story; and to urge passage of the long-hoped-for Farm Worker Fair Labor Act.

Paz's personal portrayal about the hardships of working in orchards and farm fields was adapted into a teacher lesson plan for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Speak Truth to Power program.

An outgrowth of the partnership between NYSUT and the RFK Center, the program provides students with educational experiences to learn about the courageous work by defenders of human rights.

The 19 Speak Truth to Power lesson plans, created for teachers by Beiter and other NYSUT members, are now accessible through Share My Lesson, an online resource by and for teachers sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, a NYSUT national affiliate.

"The most important place to be is at the crossroads of social justice and education," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. Share My Lesson can put teachers and students at that very intersection, he said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten traveled to Albany in March to announce — along with Iannuzzi and Kerry Kennedy, president of the RFK Center — the addition of Speak Truth to Power lessons to Share My Lesson, and to encourage educators to make use of this valuable resource.

Weingarten called the group of lawmakers, union leaders, teachers and students promoting the Farm Worker Fair Labor Act "a full virtuous circle."

They are, in essence, a new circle of defenders. They are protecting farm workers who labor under "the last of the Jim Crow laws," Kennedy said.

Making lesson plans available about these efforts puts their stories before students, she said.

"The Speak Truth to Power school curriculum is introducing students across New York state to human rights defenders who are fighting for justice, whether they're halfway around the world or here in our back yard," she said.

The March press conference was a real-life civics lesson and is available as a video download for educators' use at www.youtube.com/user/nysutonline?feature=watch.

New York has approximately 47,000 seasonal farm workers who often endure conditions that endanger their health and safety.

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, D-Queens, and Sen. Adriano Espaillat, D-Manhattan/Bronx, are sponsoring the act that would protect these vulnerable New York workers, who are the backbone of the state's top industry of agriculture. Farm workers often live in substandard housing, are exposed to pesticides and are subject to abuse. They have no sick time. The act would provide them with a day off a week and overtime pay. The law would make them eligible for worker's compensation and unemployment benefits. It would also allow them to bargain collectively.

By incorporating Speak Truth to Power lessons into Share My Lesson, "we're helping to teach kids about human rights and justice, and making our world a better place," Weingarten said.

Take Isabelle Hooker. The Springville eighth-grader worked with classmates to make a video for the Speak Truth to Power annual student video contest. They chose Marina Piskalova, Russia's leading women's rights activist who focuses on family violence. Hooker and classmates then began a penny drive to help support the School of Leadership in Afghanistan. They also led a day of silence for Syrian children who have no voice as they become refugees and flee violence in their war-torn country.

Students "don't just learn about a hero, they learn how to be a hero. They find that courage within," Kennedy said.

Beiter hopes the lessons on Paz and other human rights defenders let students "become muckrakers themselves. You can argue that farm work is the biggest reform issue in our state."

He plans to hold an "Afternoon of Action" for middle and high school students in the Human Rights Club to send emails to state lawmakers urging passage of the Farm Worker Fair Labor Act. The students also will compose emails to managers of grocery stores, encouraging them to buy as much Fair Trade food as possible to sell to customers.

Share My Lesson, which launched in June, now has nearly 200,000 teachers registered from across the country. It boasts thousands of teacher-generated lesson plans on myriad topics aligned with curricula, including Common Core.

For more information, visit www.sharemylesson.com.