UW News

March 2, 2011

No easy answers to pressing questions in Human Rights and Education seminar

UW News

Fred Mednick was a teacher and then a school principal who was beginning to wonder, “Is this all there is?” Then, in 2000, he founded Teachers Without Borders, and just like that, he became the director of a nongovernmental organization involved in international affairs — an organization that has “consumed every waking moment” since then.

Fred Mednick

Fred Mednick

Now hes teaching again — a seminar at the UW called Human Rights and Education, in which hes introducing students to international documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and asking them to reflect on these documents in light of the reality on the ground, both here and abroad.

The class is an “Inner Pipeline seminar,” designed for students who are enrolled in the Pipeline Project, which requires them to be tutors and mentors to children in community centers and underserved schools. The seminar meets once a week and is offered on a credit/no credit basis. Students work in the community between 2 ½ and 10 hours a week; the amount of credit they receive for the class depends on how many hours they put in.

For Mednick, the seminar is a chance to get back in the classroom again after serving as an administrator for Teachers Without Borders, which “advances human welfare through professional development on a global scale,” according to its mission statement. Its programs for teachers include a Peace Education Program, an Emergency Education Program, a Certificate of Teaching Mastery that can be earned in person or online for free and a peer reviewed journal called Voices of Teachers.

“I founded Teachers Without Borders because I wanted to create a global network of teachers; I believe teachers are the key to international development,” Mednick said. “I wanted to create demand driven programs that teachers need in their communities.”

The work has been satisfying, but Mednick missed the classroom. When one of his staff members brought the Pipeline seminars to his attention, he leapt at the chance to teach. He first taught Human Rights and Education in the fall with Pipeline Project Director Christine Stickler, and now hes doing the job solo.

The requirements for the class are simple but not easy. Students are asked to read documents such as those listed above (or parts of them) and to write a two-page reflection paper each week. The papers are not supposed to summarize or analyze the reading, but rather to “dig into a particular issue, question or concern it raises.” Students are asked to address the connection between the documents and their local service placements. The weekly discussions revolve around the documents and the students reactions to them.

“We always have a lot to discuss, but we never have time to go over all of it in the class sessions, because the scope of these documents and the class’ reaction to them is immense and intense,” student Kelsey Hallahan wrote in an e-mail. “Ultimately, we apply ultra-abstract international human rights documents to our very concrete service learning experiences.  Everyone is passionate about the issues raised in the human rights documents and even more so about the feasibility of fixing what the documents haven’t solved.”

Mednick said that many of the students came to the class unaware of the documents existence, and even those who knew about them hadnt read them.

“Weve discussed such things as whether these documents are just feel-good stuff or connected up to real enforcement, about whether they are living documents that are kept up to date and about whether its even possible to create a document of universal principles, given cultural differences,” he said.

The discussions may pique students intellectual curiosity, but Mednick is aiming for the very practical in the final project that is the class other requirement. Hes asked students to create something that might be used as a resource by teachers. Here are some of the things theyve come up with:

  • Karina Bauza-Schuler has been doing her service work at Casa de los Amigos, which provides shelter and care for undocumented minors who have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For her project, she is creating a book called The North Within that will contain interviews, poems, letters and drawings focusing on the children she has worked with and their parents.
  • Katie Ziegler plans to design a website that allows people to gain information about their own rights, the rights of others around the world and an opportunity to receive help if they need it.  The documents that have been discussed in class would be posted on the site.
  • Emily Nitz-Ritter is creating a lesson plan on human rights. Called History is Never Silent, it will use examples of past events (Rwanda, Darfur, Holocaust, Egypt in 2011) to question the extent of international organizations involvement and commitment to suppressing human rights violations.

Mednick hopes to publish many of the projects on the Teachers Without Borders website — with the students permission of course. And he intends to publish some of their reflective papers in an issue of Voices of Teachers.

In future quarters he plans to create an online component of the course to attract students from other universities, who will receive credit from their host institutions. UW students will interact with them along with colleagues here. Beyond that, Mednick wants to connect the class to human rights projects internationally by video-conferencing class sessions with Teacher Without Borders members in the field.

For the students, the real-world aspects of the class are already stimulating. “The fascinating thing about this class is that we don’t have the answers,” Hallahan wrote. “There are no answers to the highly complex problems that the human rights documents address; our service placements thoroughly illustrate that for us. While we are intellectualizing about the Big Issues, the service placement grounds us in the reality of them. Dr. Mednick is a fabulous teacher and has really helped us come to our own conclusions about these issues, while still shaping our discussions about them and challenging our previous misconceptions.”

More information about the course is available online.