We are certain that being English language arts teachers has helped illuminate how much a kindred spirit Jonathan Todres has become to us. However, being a teacher is not a requirement when considering the importance of his work and all of the possible applications in and out of any content-area classroom. Read on to find out how literature and the imagination have grown central to Todres’ work with children’s rights and beyond.
Jonathan Todres is a law professor at Georgia State University College of Law where his research focuses on children’s rights. He is co-author of Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law (Oxford University Press, 2016) and has published extensively on child trafficking and other children’s rights issues. Todres also serves as a regular adviser to nongovernmental organizations working to prevent children’s rights violations. Contact him at http://jonathantodres.com/.
On Becoming Interested in Children’s Rights
I have been interested in children’s rights issues since I was a child. My parents were born and raised in South Africa, and some of my earliest childhood memories are from visits to Cape Town where the effects of apartheid were very visible.
Witnessing human rights violations, and experiencing them myself in the form of anti-Semitism, left an indelible impression. I knew early on that I wanted human rights, and in particular children’s rights, to be part of my life’s work.
On Discovering the Wonders of Literature
I remember loving reading as a young child. Dr. Seuss was certainly a favorite. Then I became obsessed with sports. I read only sports books, including many by Matt Christopher, until one of my elementary school teachers said I could no longer choose books about sports.
As I grew up, my relationship with books changed. In high school, I struggled with reading. I did well enough that no one ever noticed the problems I was having, but that struggle combined with feedback that suggested reading, even of fiction, was done only to find the answers to specific questions led me to fall out of love with reading.
It wasn’t until years later that I rediscovered the wonders of literature—as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, where I read constantly.
On Imagination and Empathy
Children’s literature offers young readers safe, imaginative worlds in which they can confront difficult issues. Through reading, we can step into the shoes of others, feel their pain and share their joy. We can understand people who have different life experiences.
Reading itself engenders empathy, but reading books that take on difficult issues—even if through fanciful characters—can help children make sense of some of the challenging issues they confront in their daily lives.
On Culling Human Rights Literature for All Ages
Dr. Seuss offers his iconic line, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” in Horton Hears a Who! Rediscovering that line as an adult inspired my research on human rights in children’s literature. What I love about the line is that it is a clearer, more accessible explanation of the core principles of human rights—human dignity, equality and nondiscrimination—than any I’ve seen written by legal scholars. I am interested in advancing children’s rights by meeting children where they are. What spaces do they already inhabit? Children’s literature is an ideal example. We don’t need to introduce new material; we can start a dialogue with children about human rights using the materials they already are reading and excited about.
In a book I co-authored, Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law, my co-author and I reviewed more than 500 children’s books, with both positive and less-positive messages about human rights. Our aim was to see how children learn about and understand their own rights and their responsibility to respect the rights of others through the stories they read and have read to them.
I’m now building on this early work in two ways. First, I am in the beginning stages of exploring global perspectives on human rights in children’s literature. Second, I hope to develop a database of resources for teachers who are interested in human rights education through literature.
On Human Rights Education
There is great value in teaching children and adolescents about human rights and children’s rights. The research on human rights education shows that if you teach children about human rights in rights-respecting ways, they demonstrate the fundamentals of good citizenship and, importantly, they appreciate the connection between rights and the responsibility to respect others’ rights.
Conversely, children not exposed to human rights education tend to describe rights as entitlements for themselves. Human rights education has been shown to reduce bullying in classrooms.
More broadly, human rights education is a key component of building a human rights culture. We see too many examples today of bigotry and discrimination. Teaching children about human rights—their own and those of others—can help foster rights-respecting environments that can strengthen families and communities.
Forward Thinking with Kindred Spirits
In our next post, we will welcome guest contributor Denise Nobile, founder/educator of Youth Nation Yoga. Nobile is a registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT), a certified mindful schools educator, and an educator at Somers Middle School in Westchester, N.Y. Nobile’s intention is to bring a movement and mindfulness practice to as many children as possible, helping them to be their best selves—one breath, one movement, one moment at a time. Nobile will be writing about why mindfulness is really attention and resiliency training.
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is a program coordinator for Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in spring 2017.