For some teachers, back-to-school excitement comes with jitters over how best to address new curriculum mandates. And for many parents, there are other worries, including concerns about their children’s social interactions and fears of playground bullying.
As a researcher in children’s literature, I have developed a literary mentorship program that tackles both of these challenges. Read for Your Rights! uses children’s fiction to engage young children on the concepts of rights and responsibility, and with the content of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The program also aims to reduce bullying at school. And preliminary data from a pilot at a Chilliwack elementary school in British Columbia during 2017 shows success.
Participating teachers observed fewer instances of negative social behaviour after their students participated in Read for Your Rights! They also observed scenarios in which an altercation broke out and children made specific references to the program in attempts to elicit better treatment of one another.
Can you imagine hearing the words: “Remember to ‘Choose Kind’!” or “We’re like the Bully Blockers!” ring out over the playground? That’s what happened in Chilliwack after the children participated in the program.
Teaching rights and responsibilities
In B.C., teachers are wondering how to meet new requirements to cover human rights within social studies lessons. Teachers are now expected to teach treaties such as the UNCRC beginning in kindergarten. But how can such a complex legal document be made accessible for the youngest learners when even adults find it nebulous?
The key to making human rights real for children is making them concrete. Connecting some of the UNCRC’s abstract principles with familiar, everyday situations allows even kindergarteners to begin to grapple with concepts of rights and responsibilities. Using children’s books is an effective way to make it work.
That’s exactly what we did in Read for Your Rights! We piloted the program at a Chilliwack elementary school in February 2017. Students from my University of the Fraser Valley English course Children’s Literature and Children’s Rights were involved in mentoring students in grade 5 and then helping those children mentor kindergarteners.
First of all, the students read the UNCRC in child-friendly language. The UNCRC alone is too abstract, so we made it more tangibly real by bringing in a work of children’s literature and drawing connections between the story and the document.
The grade 5s then read Wonder by R. J. Palacio, while the kindergarteners read The Bully Blockers Club by Teresa Bateman. My students, who read both stories, identified the most relevant UNCRC articles relating to each book and used them to create program activities. When that was done it was finally time to bring everybody—and everything—together.
To deliver the program, my students supported the grade 5 children in various activities ranging from group discussions, to literature circles, to skits, to making a (paper) friendship quilt. During four of these hour-long sessions, the children worked to connect Wonder and Articles 2, 12 and 29 of the UNCRC. These relate to non-discrimination, respect for children’s views and the right to an education that helps them develop their talents and live peacefully.
Using a similar approach, my students and the grade 5 children spent two sessions working with kindergarteners to find common ground between Articles 15 and 19—which include the right to protection from all forms of violence—and The Bully Blockers Club. During this portion of the program, activities included small and large group discussions, skits and friendship bracelets.
‘We’re like the Bully-Blockers!’
The program also aimed to reduce bullying at school. There are plenty of studies suggesting that children’s literature can help children understand bullying behaviour and that school-based programs might be effective in reducing it. However, none bring in the UNCRC.
Since I have argued that the UNCRC is the foundation to developing a more child-centred approach to children’s literature, I brought together various well-established practices—mentoring, literature circles, artistic activities and rights education—into a brand new program. My theory was that by linking rights and responsibilities, and at the same time inviting children to observe the emotional consequences of bullying through the “neutral” medium of story, they would begin to take responsibility for treating one another more kindly at school.
But does it work? Can reading for their rights really help children to better understand both the UNCRC and a work of literature—all leading to reduced bullying?
While the pilot was admittedly small, preliminary data collected through questionnaires and field observations does clearly indicate children’s increased understanding and application of their rights and responsibilities.
For example, before participating in Read for Your Rights! only eight per cent of the grade 5 children who responded to the questionnaires reported knowing about the UNCRC or children’s rights. After the program, 96 per cent said they knew about these things.
Before the program, only 46 per cent of grade 5 children believed that bullying relates to children’s rights; after the program, 64 per cent believed this. Before the program, 92 per cent of children didn’t know how to stop bullying. Afterwards, only 72 per cent reported not knowing. kindergarten results were similar (although less pronounced).
In the classroom
Any teacher can use elements of Read for Your Rights! You don’t need two dozen eager university students to begin enjoying some of the program’s benefits. Teachers can tick off a tricky item on the new curriculum To Do list anytime by:
- Identifying an area of human rights that relates to a behaviour observed in your classroom.
- Finding a children’s book that focuses on that behaviour (a work of literature rather than a didactic tale or non-fiction).
- Reviewing the UNCRC to select relevant articles.
- Designing activities and projects that bring together the book and the articles.
- Following up with discussion questions to ensure that children are taking away points of key importance.