Enlightenment in the abyss

17th October 1997 at 01:00
OUR WORLD, OUR RIGHTS. Edited by Margot Brown Pounds 16.50. ASSEMBLY PACKS. Free of charge. WORKING FOR FREEDOM. (includes video) Pounds 30. WHY HUMAN RIGHTS? II. (interactive video pack) Pounds 39.75.

FREE EXPRESSIONS. Art Education Pack Pounds 18.50. All from Amnesty International, 99-119 Roseberry Avenue, London EC1R 4RETel: 0171 814 6200 Fax: 0171 833 1510

Tom Deveson on Amnesty International materials to guide pupils through the moral minefield of human rights

December 10, Human Rights Day, sees the start of a year-long celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 50th anniversary falls next year. Amnesty International's materials for schools could provide a useful starting point to promote debate, insight and understanding in this complex moral and factual area.

Our World, Our Rights is aimed at primary schools. It builds on children's own notions of equity - "that's not fair" can be heard in any playground any day - and provides a broad set of classroom activities, with information to support them. This comes in varied forms - fact-sheets, cartoons, stories and news extracts. The historic line of legislation is traced from the Greeks and Magna Carta to the European Social Chapter.

Children are invited to work on a mnemonic alphabet about rights, to solve theoretical and practical problems, to explore the relations between the political and the personal, and to engage in their own Orwell-like cleansing of bureaucratic jargon.

Much of this work has been derived by practising teachers, and covers key areas of the national curriculum at the same time as introducing pupils to inspiring examples of courage and justice.

The Assembly Pack (also appropriate for older students) develops this work into shared public forms. The aim is not to lead children to despair at cruelty but to show what difference even a few resolute people can make. The assemblies will need good organisation - clear voices to read the antiphonal texts and a determination to stick to the quoted words of prisoners and victims. The examples given (backed up by factual testimony) may soon become out-of-date, but the message that such persecutions are happening today is sadly permanent.

Working for Freedom is for secondary pupils. The video is strong stuff. A sprightly animated version of the declaration of human rights will be popular, but the preceding black-and-white film shows beating, torture, rats in a cell and a man crying in pain and fear. Teachers will need to exercise care when using it.

The accompanying folder is huge, sturdy and full of detail. Like the primary pack, it uses a vast range of sources and means to open up the issues. And each activity is clearly marked for a suitable age range and curriculum area.

Pupils are encouraged to practise many learning skills, including co-operation, critical enquiry, and the abstraction of information. It's good to see such varied texts as Nawal el Saadawi on women's rights under Islamic fundamentalism and Dickens's Mr Podsnap pontificating on How Our Constitution Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. Nor does it avoid ethical dilemmas, such as understanding the role of the torturer. The only doubts arise from its publication date of 1991. We no longer have no women priests or Cabinet ministers, for instance.

These anachronisms are amended in the much more recent Why Human Rights? II, which takes into account the end of apartheid and the fall of the Soviet Union. The folder's many worksheets cover politics (what actually happens during a state of emergency?) and moral issues (when is it acceptable to suspend rights?). No easy answers are given. Students have to look at prosecutors' cases and are asked how we should deal with known terrorists. There is also story-boarding, a game of asylum lottery, and exercises on dealing with public enquiries.

The video with the pack is powerful. There are horrible scenes, and chilling and subtle testimonies. We meet an executioner and his paintings, a condemned man and a murdered child's family. Perhaps the most disturbing sequence is one in which cuts from scenes of a Turkish woman being tortured with electric shocks to secretly filmed footage of a British firm cheerfully selling the kind of baton with which the torture was carried out.

Free Expressions, for older secondary students, looks at three art forms in relation to three issues - cartoons and the death penalty, monuments and asylum seekers, and prints and prisoners of conscience. The first draws on sources as varied as Manet and graphic novels like Maus. The second focuses on the Statue of Liberty, whose demure liberal decencies are contrasted with the bare-breasted comradely passion of Delacroix's goddess. The third moves from Breughel, Hogarth and Goya to the work of contemporary Korean artist Hong Song-Dam and his portrayal of the repression of protest.

All these materials in their breadth of approach, and their commitment to arousing subtle as well as sympathetic responses, should leave young people feeling hopeful about human decency rather than despairing about recurrent wickedness. Their idealism fires a desire to change the world. But it can be just as important to help them towards the more achievable aim of changing the landscape of their minds.

Tom Deveson is an advisory teacher for the London Borough of Southwark

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