6th Grade Humanities Talks Dignity, Local Community & Current Events

By: Megan Saxelby
Middle School Humanities Teacher

Sometimes when you teach, there are moments where it feels like the whole world is trying to get involved in your curriculum. Every day there is a headline that connects to your studies, and kids who come in eager to discuss something they heard about or read, particularly when the central theme for our Humanities class this year is the idea of dignity, defined as the fundamental value of every individual, and the theme guiding this current unit is tolerance.

We’ve been analyzing how/why people violate dignity through the study of history and literature, and how these conflicts might be avoided by spreading open-mindedness and empathy.

One can only imagine how often all of our units of study connect in meaningful ways to the real world, and especially our current unit which revolves around the study of Islam and the text is I Am Malala.

Recently I had the unique mission and joy of guiding students as they grappled with how to confront indignity with positivity, even when the messages we see can be so challenging. In particular we focused on a recent court ruling that may result in negative, emotionally charged images running on city buses in their own neighborhoods. We read a New York Times article about a recent ruling that the MTA must allow anti-Muslim ads to run on city buses.

The class had deep, complex conversations about how difficult it is to see this kind of hateful advertising and students emphasized how hard it is to not want to engage in revenge cycles when confronted with this level of indignity.

We also talked about how important it is to prioritize communication, reflection, and open mindedness when dealing with any complicated issue because, as one student put it, “We have to learn how to take a step back and try hard to see other perspectives, otherwise these tribalistic divides are only going to get deeper and more violent.”

Students discussed ways to engage positively with these images, and reclaim them with dignity.  See below – their results speak for themselves!

It was an amazing day in 6th grade Humanities, which left me reflecting on how profoundly lucky I am to get to spend each day with such excellent young people.

We’re also privileged to have Dr. Donna Hicks from Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs as an intellectual partner and active supporter this year. My colleague Mike Wilper initially contacted her after reading her book Dignity and using her approach to anchor a conflict resolution unit in humanities class.

Dr. Hicks expressed deep interest to us in how her ideas translated to an educational setting and offered valuable feedback to our burgeoning humanities curriculum. She has also connected us with other schools so we can collaborate. We share our curricular success/struggles with her and her research is now the guiding force behind much of our curriculum.

This fall she gave a seminar at Columbia University and asked Mike to attend as a guest and share our work using the dignity model in education. More information on her work can be found here: http://drdonnahicks.com/