Finding the time and tools to teach about human rights

By the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
October 27, 2014

Teacher Anita Maharaj Kuma

When teacher Anita Maharaj Kumar brings the issue of human rights into her classroom, she strives to prepare lessons that will engage and enlighten her students. But every once in a while, the lessons come from the students themselves.

Now an English, History and Global Issues teacher at River East Collegiate in Winnipeg, Maharaj Kumar recalls a previous junior high class with two students who had both emigrated recently from different regions of Somalia. “These young men were constantly at odds with each other and would argue at any opportunity in my classroom. After a couple of weeks, I realized, ‘This is more than just two kids squabbling,” she says. Maharaj Kumar sat the students down to talk and learned they were from neighbouring, enemy tribes back home.

“They explained that it was natural for them to dislike each other as that was how it was back home, and they didn’t ever have to interact with one another. But here in Canada things were different. Nobody had ever explained to them that here, we are viewed as equals within a diverse society, we celebrate differences as this is how we live; this is what makes us Canadian.”

This experience prompted Maharaj Kumar to begin sharing stories in class about empathy and compassion while focussing on different life experiences, as well as teaching the value in learning from injustices and instilling a sense of power in students to make positive change.

“At the end of the year, those two boys came to me and said, ‘If we hadn’t had the opportunity in this classroom to discuss some of the things we did, we would have walked away and never examined why we were doing what we were doing.’ That was a pretty amazing experience for me,” Maharaj Kumar says.

A champion of UNESCO schools like her own, Maharaj Kumar has been incorporating human rights teaching into her lessons for years. However, she knows there is more that she and her colleagues can do to address human rights issues – a topic that all teachers across Canada are required to include in their teaching. Over the past decade, all provincial and territorial departments of education have integrated human rights education into curriculum. However, research shows that only one in four teachers has received any formal training in human rights education, and that there is a gap in resources, especially in human rights education designed for elementary students and in French.

Teaching human rights does two things: it helps students connect with others, and it grows compassion for understanding and empathy. What I have seen in last couple of years in the high school environment is when kids are brave enough to bring their ideas forward and their ideas get challenged, they grow. And the kids that are listening grow. They want to actively start building a world that allows for a peaceful existence.

- Anita Maharaj Kumar, English / History / Global Issues teacher, River East Collegiate, Winnipeg

Thanks to a collaboration between the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, a new resource has been launched that can help teachers with some of the biggest barriers they say they face with teaching human rights: resources on human rights are available, but difficult to find because they are not centrally accessible anywhere or organized in a way that is easy to search.

The Canadian Human Rights Toolkit is a new central online hub for education resources, free to all K-12 teachers across the country. The CTF and CMHR researched educators’ needs in order to assemble the online database, which launched in September with more than 200 teacher-reviewed resources and tools focusing on human rights.

Teachers can search the toolkit for resources including lesson plans, teacher’s guides, manuals, handbooks, study guides, and more, and filter the results by province, language, grade level, and subject area. Still in its early stages, the toolkit will be an evolving database of Canadian and international resources, and will grow with the help of user-contributed content to provide teachers with unparalleled access to new ideas and innovative practices being used by teachers all across the country.

“The online toolkit was built by teachers to respond to a need expressed by teachers, and our plan is to ensure that resources will continue to be reviewed by teachers so that the toolkit will continue to contain high-quality educational resources,” said CTF President Dianne Woloschuk. “We know that teachers will appreciate having one central location where they may find a rich selection of resources to complement their planning.”

A member of the CMHR’s teacher advisory committee, Maharaj Kumar says she knows the resource will be invaluable for her and her colleagues across the province and the country. It will also help them feel connected to Canada’s new national museum, which opens on September 20.

“You can’t teach human rights in a vacuum – it has to be dialogue-based and action-oriented. If we end up discussing an issue during class that I may not be prepared for, if I say ‘Let me get back to you on this’ we would lose the momentum such discussions create. Instead, I can say ‘Let me get some more information about this subject now’. The idea of something right at my fingertips is really exciting,” Maharaj Kumar says.

Tanya Lemoine, Teacher

Tanya Lemoine, who teaches a Grade 5/6 combined class at Winnipeg French Immersion school École Saint-Avila, builds human rights into her classes by emphasizing respect, equality and children’s rights around the world. But she says she would like to go even further in teaching about human rights.

“Finding the excellent resources needed to support my students at a developmentally appropriate level can be really challenging. You want to do more than just give them a book to read – you want them to see video, hear songs, to get to hear different perspectives through all kinds of media, so you are reaching those different types of learners.”

The challenge lies in the time it takes to gather those appropriate resources, she says.

“When teachers have 30 min of prep time and they have to consult five or six different resources to prepare one lesson, you know it won’t get done in that time,” says Lemoine. “To have that go-to spot and access this toolkit and all the resources from a national level that we can use to build a lesson is just going to help make our time so much more efficient. I’m really excited about it.”

Before assembling the toolkit, the CTF and CMHR joined forces to survey 2,585 teachers across Canada about what, how, when, why – or why not – they incorporate human rights teachings into the classroom. The results showed a pressing need for more: not just more time, but also more resources and more trust in those resources.

Students can feel the empowerment to make a difference in the lives of those closely around them, as well as at greater distances. Teachers need access to those most current resources, so we can help young students understand what’s happening around them right now.

- Tanya Lemoine, Grade 5/6 French immersion teacher, École Saint-Avila

“These new resources will fill gaps in human rights education and better equip Canadian teachers to prepare appropriate lessons to engage students and enrich their human rights learning experiences,” says CMHR President and CEO Stuart Murray. “Wherever teachers live and teach from coast to coast to coast, regardless of whether they are teaching early, middle years or senior years in English or French, access to the toolkit and the Museum is theirs.”

Because the content of the toolkit is entirely chosen by teachers and peer-reviewed, it is more trustworthy than materials that a random Internet search might yield, Maharaj Kumar feels.

“I can search for anything on my computer at any time, but I’m not always confident about where the information is being sourced from or how accurate it is,” she says. “When I go online to use the Canadian Human Rights Toolkit, I know I’m getting information and resources that are accurate and vetted. It won’t be slanted or partisan in any way. That’s really significant for me as an educator.”

“The goal of the toolkit is to make the task of finding information and tools as easy as possible for the teacher, while also offering tools to build lesson plans that will deliver rich educational opportunities for the students, all with a view to increasing students’ understanding about human rights, and building empathy and strong citizenship in students,” says Woloschuk.

“The toolkit goes beyond the geographical borders of a province or a territory to encompass the world. It breaks down barriers and creates a human rights presence in the classroom.”

For Maharaj Kumar, the challenge isn’t in getting started, but in ensuring diverse experiences for students.

Schools and classrooms are more than vehicles to ‘teach’ children literacy and numeracy and to prepare them for the world of work. They are ‘Human Development Institutions’ that provide opportunities for critical thinking, creativity, empathy, character development and citizenship, all with a view to the betterment of society.

- Dr. Calvin Fraser, Secretary General, Canadian Teachers’ Federation

“As an educator, you have to make sure you have different ways of talking about the same things. Our students are much more divergent as thinkers than they’ve ever been. They become bored in the classroom very easily if they aren’t being challenged, and the reality is that if students are interested in a topic, they can find information on their own. I think this toolkit will help give teachers new ideas and new ways of talking about the same subjects. As a teacher I’m always looking for such resources!” Maharaj Kumar says.

The toolkit is just one of many education resources that the Museum will be offering teachers throughout the year, both online and in person. School programs starting in January 2015 will be curriculum-based, age-appropriate, inclusive, and accessible using a diverse range of exhibits, activities, and methods for exploration.

A new national hub for education, the Museum has carefully designed material appropriate for all ages. For example, children in elementary grades will learn about inclusion and human rights with games and stories that will educate and inspire them. More information about school programs is available on the CMHR website at

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. It is the first national museum in Canada to be built outside the National Capital Region. Using immersive multi-media technology and other innovative approaches, the Museum will create inspiring encounters with human rights as part of a visitor experience unlike any other.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 238,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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