White Teacher Question: Are these race and social justice books enough?

Send me your contemporary social justice book suggestions

I ordered these books for fall 2020 because I’m focusing on the power of literature to effect social change. Of course, recent events in response to the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd make me wonder if there are more topical books I should have ordered instead of or in addition to these.

In other words, what about newer lit?

As educator Kelly Gallagher suggested, I should consider how and to what extent my ELA teaching incorporates Black Lives Matter at Schools.

All my students know I love Frederick Douglass’ powerful narrative and think he is the greatest unsung American hero, but the book was written in 1845.

In addition, according to legend, President Lincoln said that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe started the Civil War.

But again, that was 1861.

I support the enduring power of historical literature, but what about newer lit? Leave a comment with your thoughts and book suggestions.

Thank you.

How to get middle schoolers to write 16-page essays

It’s always a fun moment when the eighth-grade dissertation is finally finished!

Try “The 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation

Want to be impressed by your middle school ELA students? Want to see them rise to the writing occasion? Try this extended writing assignment that I call in my classroom the 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation.

Sidenote: Obviously, this is not an assignment for distance learning. It's designed for a normal full-time schedule with in-class teacher support available at each stage of the assignment.

Pick three books, choose an overarching theme or topic those books all relate to (in my case that’s human rights) and write about it over the course of a school year.

And don’t let the word dissertation scare you because while this assignment might sound complicated, it’s not.

In fact, the only reason I call this extended writing project a dissertation is so kids understand the distinction between a regular essay and this particular assignment, which is actually a compilation of four individual five-paragraph essays.

As for length, each individual five-paragraph essay is three to four pages long. When the essays are combined, the resulting dissertation ranges from 15-17 pages, not including the title page, Works Cited page, and the Appendix.

The official title of the dissertation, when it’s all said and done, is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature.”

My eighth-graders completed this stamina-building project in my previous teaching position. After a couple of years, the dissertation turned into a sort of Language Arts rite of passage for students before they graduated from the K-8 school district.

But believe me, most kids weren’t too enthusiastic about it at first. In fact, at the beginning of the year, when I told my eighth-graders they would be writing a sixteen-page (or more) essay, they couldn’t believe how mean Mrs. Yung could be! (Haha)

However, after I explained that the paper would break down into manageable “bite-size” pieces over the next several months, they relaxed and ever so gradually seemed to look forward to tackling each part of the process and seeing the paper come together bit by bit.

Now that I’ve moved on to another English position at an area high school, I’ve decided to adapt it for my junior and senior English classes and plan to incorporate it for 2020-21. Sure, I’ll make a few changes for the older students. For example, they won’t be required to write traditional five-paragraph essays, and if they want to substitute another text they’ve read that fits with our overarching theme, that’s fine.

I developed this project over the course of four years, adjusting it from year to year to arrive at its current form, which I’ve tried my best to describe below.

There are three goals for this writing project:

1) to read and write about literature and non-fiction texts

2) to synthesize those readings into a study on human rights (or whatever overarching theme you choose to apply to your chosen texts)

3) to build students’ organizational and time management skills

Students essays stack up in March! I purchase these Avery folders for students because I like that they present the papers professionally.

To complete the dissertation, throughout the year students read various texts as a class, and write a five-paragraph essay about how each text connects to human rights. For example, for our study of New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, we read a book called Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin.

This historical account tells the story of the 146 garment workers who perished inside locked doors inside a factory without properly maintained fire escapes or other precautions. When we finish reading the book, we think about the human rights that the workers were denied, using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the UDHR, it’s an internationally recognized document created by the United Nations in 1948 in response to the atrocities committed in World War Two. The UDHR designates and describes thirty non-negotiable rights granted freely to all humans. Students choose three human rights from the thirty listed that the young factory workers were denied (had the UDHR been in existence) and then discuss those three human rights in a five-paragraph essay. For example, a student might choose these three UDHR articles: 23, 20, and 12. Respectively, these human rights are: Workers’ Rights, Right to Public Assembly, and Right to Privacy.

Students follow this basic process for each of three different texts that they read in class from roughly September (right after my 9/11 unit) through February. Each text’s “human rights connection” essay eventually forms one portion of the dissertation.

Here’s a basic outline of the complete dissertation:


1. Human Rights Explained

2. Literature Connections: Flesh & Blood So Cheap

3. Literature Connections: To Kill A Mockingbird -or- Inside Out & Back Again

4. Literature Connections: Frederick Douglass’ Narrative


For my high school students next year, we will obviously read different texts. In addition, the topic we connect with those texts will likely not be human rights. I’m still working out the details on that and as my plans shape up, I will for sure keep you informed.

This photo shows the class handouts for the four individual essays that are eventually compiled and merged to create the human rights dissertation.

Here’s a more in-depth description of the individual essays that make up the dissertation with a brief explanation of each essay:

  1. Human Rights Dissertation Part 1, otherwise known as HR1
    • Students write a first draft of an informative essay about the history and origins of the concept of human rights. I supply students with some basic articles from the United Nations website to use to support a thesis statement for this essay, which we work on together as a class.
    • This is the thesis statement we developed together a year ago: An explanation of human rights, including their history and evolution, as well as the thirty provisions of the UDHR provides a foundation of human rights knowledge.
    • Students also digest some informative materials, including videos, that I find online from various sources, including the United Nations. One important note: Avoid the very professional materials available from the Church of Scientology’s front organization, Youth for Human Rights International. Here’s an article I wrote that discusses how Scientology influences classrooms by aligning itself with human rights, despite its own human rights violations. To find alternative human rights materials, read this post.
  2. Human Rights Dissertation Part 2, otherwise known as HR2
    • HR2 follows the same basic procedure for HR1 except students write an essay that connects three articles from the UDHR with the book, Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (see above for more about the book).
  3. Human Rights Dissertation Part 3, otherwise known as HR3
    • HR3 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 except the text changes. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR to their choice of one of the following texts: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Inside Out & Back Again by Thannha Lai. They again choose three human rights addressed in the book and explain how the characters are deprived (or not) of those rights during the course of the narrative.
  4. Human Rights Dissertation Part 4, otherwise known as HR4
    • HR4 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 and HR3 except the text changes again. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR with my favorite book of all time, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
  5. The Remaining Essential Components
    • These include important additions necessary to combine and weave the individual HR essays into one cohesive essay. These include the following:
    • a title page (Even though MLA style doesn’t require a separate title page, we make one anyway so the finished product looks better.)
    • a Works Cited page
    • an introduction that leads the entire paper and precedes HR1
    • a conclusion that follows HR4 and brings the entire paper to a close, and
    • transitional sentences and paragraphs at the end of HR1-4 that cause the individual essays to flow together conceptually or hold hands, if you will.
    • an appendix that’s actually a PDF of the UDHR simply inserted into the paper
I’ve underlined in red an area where a former student worked to join her HR 1 to her HR 4 on Frederick Douglass. (And by the way, students can arrange their essays however they wish. This student chose to discuss Douglass’ narrative immediately after the human rights background essay instead of the essay on the Triangle Fire.)

In fact, these transitional sentences and paragraphs are one of my favorite instructional aspects of this assignment.

I think it’s important to teach kids that their sentences need to “hold hands.” This metaphor, which I discovered while reading the college text They Say, I Say, illustrates how each sentence’s meaning should flow from sentence to sentence, i.e. each sentence should grow conceptually out of the preceding sentence.

Yes, transition words will help with linking to some extent, but adding transition ideas (such as repeated words or ideas from one essay to the next) will link the individual essays together even more solidly to build a cohesive dissertation. After all, for the dissertation to achieve cohesion, each essay within it must grow out of the one before it.

And fortunately, kids usually understand the need for transitions words and ideas between the individual essays. In fact, by the time that March rolls around, they often bring up this topic themselves. At this stage of the dissertation game, various kids have asked me over the years,

“Don’t we have to do something so all these essays fit together?”

When middle schoolers ask this, I praise them for noticing the need for these transitions. It’s such a good feeling to know that they have figured out — on their own — that they need to make the essays “hold hands.”

Students complete these final essential components at their own pace during the final two to three weeks of revision, editing, and assembly of the dissertations. I provide a final “To Do Checklist” that they work on for two to three weeks as they finish up.

Here I’ve included photos of a Works Cited Page guide, a final TO DO EDITING CHECKLIST, and an example of the title page structure that students use.

Here are the materials I supply to students:

—an instruction sheet for each individual essay (HR 1-4)

—a five-paragraph essay outline that I require students to fill out prior to starting their first drafts

—paper copies of the articles that they will cite in their essay

—timelines and To-Do checklists

this Avery presentation folder

—All these materials are provided on paper and in Google Classroom.

Here’s a variety of materials I provide for students. The sheet in the front is an article from the United Nations for those students without internet access at home. Students include a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights page in their dissertations as an Appendix These are available from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. The Human Rights Toolkit is available from the The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, MN.

How I grade the individual essays:

After students turn in their first and second drafts, I methodically read each essay word for word. As I read, I ask myself: Does the essay have a clear thesis statement? Does the paper stay focused on that thesis? Do the ideas ramble? Is the paper backed up with the textual evidence?

Those first drafts mainly contain my notes and suggestions for better idea development. At this point, it’s not about commas and punctuation, it’s about ideas. And to be honest, I don’t focus on editing in any first draft of any assignment actually. (Well, okay, I do hand back work that contains a three or more K-6 errors… y’know, those silly mistakes, such as basic capitalization rules and the dreaded lower case i that students should know about by the time they reach middle school.)

It seems that I’m still deciding exactly how I want to assess this project. This is a simple rubric I used a year ago. I have used more involved versions, including one where students filled out their own grades before me, but that one didn’t work as well as I hoped. I’ll probably go with this simple approach again. Of course, I write comments on these sheets off to the side.

Because those first drafts are just that—first drafts—they are evaluated with a grade that’s akin to a participation grade. As long as the student fills out and turns in their outline, plus a first draft (either typed or handwritten) that contains a beginning, middle, and end (and, therefore, the major parts of a five-paragraph essay) students receive a successful grade.

Still, many co-workers often see the student’s final dissertations and lament to me how time-consuming it must be to grade all those 16-page and longer essays. But really, because I limit my “grading” to the first draft that I mark up, a second draft that I compare to the first draft (to confirm that students made the needed changes), and a final draft that I skim just before binding, this project doesn’t require an unreasonable amount of time to assess.

And since the project extends throughout the year, I get my eyes on their individual essays frequently enough that we revise and repair it as we go multiple times during conferencing. As a result, by the time March rolls around, I am thoroughly familiar with each student’s essay.

In addition, after students compile and merge their essays into one document and add the essential components, they assemble into four-person groups to peer review. This allows another yet stage of revision. When all is said and done, most students’ essays undergo three to four drafts, and maybe even five.

How my students stay on track during the year with this project:

This is a long project and I know that. And yes, it might seem daunting for middle school students to stay organized with an assignment that stretches across several months.

Here are two vital tricks:

1) Students store their drafts in a classroom file cabinet. In fact, I write KEEP in big letters across the top of every draft that needs to be filed. I even tell those who are really disorganized, “See the word KEEP at the top of the page? That means don’t lose it. File it away right now.” Middle school kids are fun, but they sometimes just need me to be as direct as possible.

2) Students put stickers on the giant progress chart posted at the front of the room. Each essay in the dissertation has spaces for two stickers, one for the first draft and one for the second draft, which is generated at least a month after the first draft. (I think it’s important for a good amount of time to pass between these two drafts so kids can look at it with fresh eyes.) The giant sticker chart is actually a big deal to students; it keeps them aware of their progress.

I jokingly tell kids that our progress chart might be the last time, sadly, that they ever get stickers in school.

Plus, the chart is a quick way for me to see who I need to help on any essay they may be struggling with. I do my best to help kids manage their time and stay on track as the project is just too big to complete all at once at the last minute.

And that time management idea brings me to the last reason I like these the eighth-grade dissertation:

Students learn that they can be successful with any big project, in school or in life, if they break it into manageable steps.

I think this is such an important lesson for eighth-graders to learn as they approach high school. It should carry that same message next year for my high school students as they look ahead to college or their career.

This is a schedule or “tentative timeline” I give students as we near the time to compile and merge the various essays they have completed over the school year. This also shows a slip that provides directions for adding page numbers in Google Docs in MLA style.

Disclaimer: Yes, I realize that in the eyes of many in academia and in more progressive high schools, the five-paragraph essay is being disregarded and shunned even for its formulaic and staid structure and style. And while I agree to some point with this thinking, I also know that students — especially those in middle school and some in high school — need the structure of a five-paragraph essay to achieve cohesion in the organization of their thoughts. That’s why I believe the five-paragraph essay definitely has a place in my writing instruction.

However, I am also an advocate for more creative approaches to writing. I feel that when teachers focus too much on academic writing, they stifle the student’s personal expression and originality and actually turn kids off to writing. Balance is needed.

The dissertation gives me that balance. It allows me to teach students academic writing and its more formal organization and structure on an on-going basis throughout the year. This then frees up more time for creative writing pursuits such as poetry, presentations, memoir writing, creative contests, blogging, graphic essays, and headline poetry.

Another dissertation is completed! Happy day!

In closing, next year I plan to adapt the dissertation project for both my high school juniors (who read American Literature) and my seniors (who read British Literature). I’m excited to return to this project!

I know that I definitely missed including it in my curriculum this year.

Thanks for reading again this week! Just so you know, I plan to upload materials pictured in this post to my new Teachers Pay Teachers store, where you can download for free a Google doc with five simplified AOW rubrics. See this post for more about those rubrics.

What kinds of extended writing projects do you tackle with your students? Let me know in the comments and make sure to become a follower to catch more posts from my high school ELA classroom.

Dear Teachers: The Church of Scientology is one click away from your students

My laptop screen that shows the Youth for Human Rights curriculum sign-up form.

Be careful: the church’s Youth for Human Rights lessons are now available online.


A lot can happen in two years.

Two years ago, I wrote on Medium.com about a variety of educational materials offered by Youth for Human Rights International, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based human rights advocacy group. Back then, after doing some quick online research, I discovered that Youth for Human Rights International is actually a front organization of the Church of Scientology.

Note: In this story, I have intentionally omitted links to websites owned by the Church of Scientology or its front organization; however, here’s the link to the article I wrote two years ago: Dear Parents: Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom

Read this story on Medium.com here.

Recently, I checked back on the Youth for Human Rights website to see if it was still there, and if so, I wondered if it still offered the same materials and other propaganda extolling the virtues of the organization and its questionable humanitarian work.

What did I find?

A full online course. An app. A teacher dashboard so teachers can monitor student progress in the course.

Instead of sending away for the printed materials I wrote about two years ago, teachers can now instantly open an account, register as a teacher, and enroll their students to deliver human rights content from the Church of Scientology.

But don’t.

And don’t order the printed materials either.

Despite lots of United Nations name-dropping, the Church of Scientology has no business proclaiming itself as a human rights leader.

United Nations, New York City | Photo: Pixabay

After all, there are several human rights that the Church of Scientology policies violate, which discredit its claim of being a leader in the field. I’m not an expert on the Church of Scientology, but if one reads even a moderate amount on this so-called religion, you’ll discover many questionable, unethical activities.

For now, here are three that I’m aware of: 1) the cult’s Rehabilitation Project Force, a forced-labor camp where cult followers are imprisoned to perform hard labor to compensate for violations they have allegedly committed; 2) the cult’s disconnection policy, which requires followers to separate themselves from friends and family members who criticize the Church of Scientology, and 3) the documented charges of physical violence and assault by David Miscavige, the church’s “ecclesiastical leader,” and other higher-ups.

Teachers beware: The Church of Scientology doesn’t make it obvious that it’s the force behind Youth for Human Rights International. Visit the YHRI website and you’ll find no connection to Scientology; however, visit Scientology.org and you’ll find numerous mentions of YHRI, its partner front United for Human Rights, and a heavy dose of grandiose language extolling the progress being made globally to advance human rights.

To be honest, human rights violations or not, when a cult is making inroads into American schools – even to promote an innocuous and noble cause – it’s unacceptable and dangerous.

In addition, providing a way for students to sign up for a Church of Scientology online human rights course is even more disturbing.

Despite negative publicity accrued over a few seasons of Scientology and The Aftermath, the Church of Scientology and its myriad front organizations are still operating.


The Church of Scientology’s attempts – including its new online course – to provide a curriculum to schools and to sign up students online is underhanded and dishonest… not qualities I would expect from an organization supposedly dedicated to the advancement of human rights around the world.

I keep tabs on the Church of Scientology and how it attempts to connect with classrooms. Thanks for reading again this week. And please let me know via email (marilynyung@gmail.com) if you are ever contacted by the Church of Scientology or its front organizations. I still receive emails from their offices regularly regarding their human rights curriculum.



The Triangle Fire and My Students’ Human Rights Dissertations

Triangle Fire forms the first literature unit for my 8th-graders’ human rights dissertations

Here’s the chart that shows the progress each student has made during the school year. This goes up on my wall in early September and remains up until the project is finished in March.

This week I’ve been writing about the unit on the Triangle Waist Co. fire that my 8th-graders start the year with. For them, the last few weeks of seventh grade was an introduction, a sort of “paving the way” for the more in-depth reading and studying that we will begin in just two short weeks. Check out my Monday post on the Triangle Fire resources that I use and some of the activities that we do. Check out my post from yesterday that discussed how I connect Triangle Fire to another horrific disaster, the 9/11 attacks.

Today, I’m going to write about how the Triangle Fire study forms the first section of a project that I call the 8th-grade human rights dissertation. Human rights education is vitally important in my view.

If students don’t know what human rights are, how will they know when those rights are being violated?

There are many materials available to use in teaching human rights. Whem I began this project, I used materials produced by an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International. However, since I learned last year that YHRI is a front organization for the Church of Scientology International, I have decided not to use them anymore.

Read my post, Dear Parents: The Church of Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom, about that topic. This year, I will be developing new curriculum based on materials from other organizations.

Read my other post, Dear Teachers: Avoid These So-Called Educator’s Kits from the Church of Scientology for alternative human rights education materials I’ve located.

The human rights dissertation is a project that I have done with my 8th-graders for three years now. The first year was a complete trial-by-fire and I hesitate to even let it count since we literally ran out of time toward the end of the project. The second year was a success. Students completed the dissertations in the way I foresaw the project culminating. This past school year was again a successful year, and I would say an even more successful year than the first because I modified and/or improved the project in several ways, which I will discuss later.

The human rights dissertation is actually an expanded five-paragraph essay. Throughout the year, as we read and study these texts, students determine three human rights that each text supports or are revealed in the text that need protection or upholding.

It’s really up to the student to determine how they wish to discuss the rights; as the year progresses I am aware of the direction that they are taking with respect to the human rights and the literature we read. The founding document that we study even before we write the Triangle Fire section of the dissertation is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 document drafted by a United Nations committee led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in response to the atrocities of World War II.

There are six sections to this project:

  • an introduction
    • Students write this usually after all their second drafts have been finalized, usually in mid-February. This introduces the entire scope of the paper. We spend a lot of time honing these sections and massaging them into being revelatory personal statements.
  • an explanation of  human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in September.
  • a section that connects the Triangle Fire to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in October.
  • a section that connects “Inside Out and Back Again to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in November.
  • a section that connects Frederick Douglass’ Narrative to three human rights
    • -Students usually write their first draft for this section in late January/early February.
  • a conclusion
    • Students usually write their first draft for this section in February

First drafts and second drafts are assigned as homework. I have very detailed take-home packets that provide students what they need to know for their drafts. First drafts can be any length, but second drafts will have a two- to three-page length requirement.

Second drafts for each portion are written throughout the year, i.e. they are not written immediately after their first drafts. I believe in taking a break from a piece of writing so the second draft will be a homework assignment a month or two after the first draft is written.  This also gives students time to get that first draft written if they failed to do it on time initially.

Students keep paper copies of their first drafts, which have my notes and revision suggestions, in the file cabinet in the classroom.  They also have digital copies in Google Drive.

As students turn in their drafts, I put a sticker on a large chart on the wall. At any moment, students and I can see their progress.

After we write our second drafts, students must pay special attention to connecting their “essays within the essay.” They complete several rounds of revision as they attempt to make their individual sections blend from one to the next. This gets interesting and students know by this time that this is a needed task.

I’ve even had students, before we get to this point of the project, ask me in class, “Mrs. Yung, how are we gonna make this flow? It can’t just sound like individual papers.” And then to myself, I think, “Hallelujah! They figured it out on their own!”

It’s so wonderful to know that they have learned how important it is to make our ideas connect smoothly in our writing.

This paper gives me the opportunity to reinforce the concept of what I call “interpretation,” the explanation that is needed when quoting from a source or text. This is a skill we practice all year, but the human rights dissertation is the project where this skill really shines. I require at a minimum that each quote from each text be followed by four to six sentences of explanatory exposition that reveals how the quote supports the point they are making.

My go-to piece of advice for students is to make their first or second sentence after a quote begins with “In other words,…”

Last minute additions to the paper include a comprehensive Works Cited page and a title page. The details for these items are included on a final to-do list that students use as they go through the project. The title for these papers is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature;” however, students may use another title if they wish.

This sheet also has several editing and revision requirements listed, as well as an approximate timeline. We devote about three to four weeks to revising and finalizing these papers in class. Lastly, I provide them with a heavy-duty Avery Flexi-View report cover.

It’s such a good feeling when students start turning in their dissertations– for them and me!

The human rights dissertation is really my “piece de resistance” of my language arts classes. By the time students finish theirs, they’ve been my students for three years, and I’ve learned so much about their abilities, their interests, their personalities, and their goals for the future.

I truly enjoy watching students wrap up their dissertations and they are always excited to see their accomplishment. Many of them will end up with a paper that is fifteen or more pages long. Some even really go “all out” and see just how much they can write. It’s always a discussion to see who has the longest paper! (And yes, I make a point to tell them that more doesn’t mean better, but for middle schoolers to be excited about writing “just one more page,” who am I to shut that down?!)

As this project kicks off in the fall, I will be posting about it and providing news and photos about any changes that I decide to make this year.  One change I may make is to allow students the choice to add a World War II text to their paper. This change is discussed in this post I recently wrote called “How to Forget the Holocaust.” I plan to eventually add the handouts, timelines, and editing checklists to my future TpT store.

Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to find out more about this project and to receive updates about changes I make to it this year! Do you do a similar project with your students or do you have any suggestions for me? Feel free to leave a comment!

Past to Present: How Triangle Fire Connects to 9/11

History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today

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Photo: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode


Reading and writing about the Triangle Waist Co. factory fire allows middle school language arts students to make connections between events from more than one hundred years ago to more recent events. This is the unit my 8th-graders will be starting the new school year with next month. Read here for how we start building knowledge for this unit in May and then continue it during the first days of school.

Find this on Amazon.com.

These connections to present-day events are made explicitly when we read a book review written by Gregory Stein entitled, “Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, the World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.”

This review analyzes the book Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle and a book called 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.  

In doing so, Stein draws upon memory and the human tendency to forget the lessons we learn as we progress (or fail to progress).


Photo: Pixabay

Stein specifically focuses on building code changes instituted following Triangle Fire that were later modified (and by modified, I mean relaxed) during the preliminary planning for the building of the World Trade Center towers in the late 1960s.

Here is an important passage from Stein that shows how he draws connections between the two tragedies:

Now imagine this: “Roughly sixty years have gone by (since the Triangle fire), and there have been no major building disasters since 2001. The building industry argues, with decades of recent history to back it up, that buildings are excessively safe and that the number of tragedies in which the excess safety has mattered has proved to be low, and perhaps zero. Spirited dissent from the few remaining old fogies who have personal recollections of 2001 sounds as antiquated as memories of Pearl Harbor do to most of us alive today. It has not happened in so long, it probably will not happen again. That, more or less, is what happened in New York in 1968. Fifty-seven years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, in which 146 people trapped in the upper floors of an unsafe building burned, jumped, or fell from a collapsed fire escape to their deaths, New York City relaxed its safety rules for high-rise buildings. Technology had changed. Firefighting skills had improved. High-rise fires could be restricted to a few stories, and in most cases people could move a floor or two away from the danger and wait safely for emergency responders to complete their jobs.”

This powerful paragraph powerfully engages my students and shows them how studying something buried in the past like Triangle Fire can indeed have ramifications upon contemporary times. This book review is an incredibly important part of my Triangle Fire and 9/11 unit. I am so grateful I stumbled upon it while researching online.

Another important passage: “The towers, like many lesser high-rises, were built under the assumption that there would never be an occasion in which all occupants would need to vacate at once.”

When I read the following paragraph, I am amazed at the leniencies given to the WTC developers.

And still another: “The Empire State Building, completed in 1931 under the more demanding standards required by an earlier code, has nine stairwells at its broad base and six that run the entire height of the building, one of which serves as an air-locked fire tower that is supposed to be more impervious to smoke. Each of the 1,350-foot tall World Trade Center towers, with slightly greater height, nearly double the rentable square footage, and the capacity for about 33% more occupants, had only three stairwells throughout-the same number as would have been required for a seventy-five-foot building-and no fire tower. All three of these stairwells were bunched together in the least rentable space in the core of the building. Two of the three stairwells in each building went only as far down as the mezzanine, a feature that one fire chief had described as ‘a major building design flaw”‘ in a report commissioned after the 1993 bombing.”

As we make connections between Triangle Fire and the World Trade Center attacks, I make it clear to students that I do not intend to place fault on the WTC engineers and architects for any part of the 9/11 atrocity.  After all, Stein’s review and this World Trade Center evacuation study notes that 87 percent of the people in the towers evacuated safely within two hours. The remaining 13 percent, however, causes me to grieve when I know that it’s possible that some shortcuts (and other factors out of the control of builders) may have contributed in some way to their inability to escape. See the evacuation study for more on this.

Photo: Unsplash

It’s important that we link events from the distant past to those of the present, relatively speaking. History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today and then ask students to reflect upon those effects through writing.

Thanks for reading! Tune in tomorrow when I discuss an assignment about Triangle Fire that finds its way into a culminating project known as the 8th-grade human rights dissertation.


Dear Teachers: Avoid these so-called “educator’s kits” from the Church of Scientology

Try these human rights resources instead.

Church_of_Scientology_building_in_Los_Angeles,_Fountain_Avenue (2)
Photo: By Pictorial Evidence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I recently wrote a post on Medium and my sister blog called “Dear Parents: Scientology Wants to Get Inside Your Child’s Classroom” about how an organization known as Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI) offers a human rights educator’s kit for teachers to use in their classrooms. Not realizing that the YHRI was a front organization for the Church of Scientology, I had previously and inadvertently ordered and used these materials in my English Language Arts middle school classroom where my students connect the literature they read to specific human rights as listed in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the Church of Scientology has no business extolling the virtues of human rights and here’s why. I ended my recent post by promising to provide some alternative human rights teaching materials. If your child’s teacher discusses or teachers about human rights, suggest they check out the materials from these organizations instead:

  1. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights offers a Human Rights Education Series. First, download the PDF called “Teaching Human Rights: Practical Activities for Primary and Secondary Schools.”


Photo: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


While teachers are at the UN website, they may also peruse a publication called “Human Rights Education in the School Systems of Europe, Central Asia, and North America: A Compendium of Good Practice.” This is a directory of human rights education practices around the world. Educators may browse the listings and description to find an idea that might work for their classes and then contact the organization that produces the resources for more information. They may also download this color poster of the UDHR to hang in their classroom.

  1. The Advocates for Human Rights (AHR) offers a comprehensive range of teaching materials. Located in Minneapolis, AHR’s mission, according to its publications, is “to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.”

On the home page, click on Our Work and then Educators. Here teachers will find a useful Human Rights Toolkit that surpasses the YHRI’s booklet for its breadth of information and critical thinking content. In fact, the AHR’s toolkit specifically addresses several questions that my students have asked but not found answers to within the pages of the YHRI materials. Some of these questions include How can human rights be enforced? How does the United States Bill of Rights fit with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Which document addresses human rights for kids?


Photo: The Advocates for Human Rights


I’m thinking about downloading the PDF, copying, and binding a class set of these toolkits for my students to use. The toolkit includes chapters entitled Human Rights Primer (basic definitions and vocabulary terms), Human Rights System (UN legal bodies, regional and international groups such as the International Criminal Court), Human Rights and the U.S. ( a timeline of human rights in this country, analysis of the U.S. Constitution and human rights).

Some of the information provided by the AHR is not without political bias, especially in discussions of the death penalty, health care, and post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies, among others. Teachers should review this material before discussing with students, so the information is used to assist students in developing their own opinions on human rights policy.

  1. Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) is a non-governmental nonprofit registered as a charity in the Netherlands. HREA supports human rights education through materials that focus on children’s rights, gender equality, women’s empowerment, human rights teaching, global advocacy, and e-learning courses. Watch this HREA video about the right to education.

HREA’s Path to Dignity human rights film surpasses the ten-minute film from YHRI in quality and content. It contains accounts of human rights activity and education in India, Australia, and Turkey. Teachers can view the entire 28-minute film or the portions that best meet their curriculum needs.


Photo: Human Rights Education Associates


So there you have it. Three alternative resources to consult regarding human rights instead of those offered by the Church of Scientology and its front organizations, Youth for Human Rights International and United for Human Rights.

And by the way, the materials from these sources are superior in content to those by the cult. While the Scientology materials are colorful and well-produced, the information contained inside is shallow. The publishers have merely reworded the UDHR, restating each of the thirty human rights into shorter sound bites. The booklet and DVD contain some brief historical information on the evolution of human rights, but little else.

There is no mention, for example, of the International Bill of Human Rights, which provides a framework through international treaties and covenants that allows the force of law to be applied when violations occur. There is also no mention of the many human rights treaty bodies around the world and the obligations governments assume when its leaders sign a treaty or covenant.

Like all those website photos of Scientology’s sterile, empty church facilities and imposing high-rise towers, YHRI’s educator’s kids are slick but superficial. Teacher of human rights can do much better. They should avoid the Church of Scientology, Youth for Human Rights International, and United for Human Rights and try these alternative resources instead.

Thanks for reading. Click “like” if you found this informative. If you want to be even more awesome, leave a comment! Follow this blog for more articles about teaching middle school English or check out my sister blog.

Dear Teachers: Scientology wants to get inside your classroom.

tom cruise
Tom Cruise | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

And they don’t need Tom Cruise to do it.

A year ago last fall, I scanned the first page of a glossy teacher’s guide, part of a free educator’s kit sent to me (at my request) from Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI), an organization I had discovered in an online search for some teaching materials on human rights for my middle school classes.

On that first page was a list of well-known human rights leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and L. Ron Hubbard.

My eyes rested on that last one.

I asked myself, why is the founder of the Church of Scientology included on a list of human rights leaders? Nelson Mandela and the others I could understand, but L. Ron Hubbard?

I questioned Hubbard’s name because I knew a little about the Church of Scientology. I had read “The Apostate” by Hollywood director, screenwriter and former Scientologist Paul Haggis in The New Yorker magazine.

I had read former Scientologist Amy Scobee’s Scientology: Abuse at the Top. I had also watched HBO’s documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

Out of curiosity, I had even read a Scientology text from my local library that, had I been a lost soul looking for some easy—and expensive—answers, would have been convincing; however, for all its ostentatiousness and extremely happy people holding e-meters, the text felt empty and false.

Human rights curriculum from the Church of Scientology.

With all the media attention focused on Scientology, it’s easy to conclude Hubbard’s “church” is no religion at all, but rather a dangerous money-making cult that uses Tom Cruise and other celebrities, its 501(c)(3) status, and hyperbole to convince its followers that it’s a major force for good in the world. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

But on that fall day at school, I was in a hurry to get my classroom put together, so I cast from my mind Hubbard’s name on that list of human rights notables.

I looked through the rest of the educator’s kit:

  • lesson plans
  • a set of thirty professionally-photographed human rights posters
  • a class set of booklets that explain each of the thirty rights, plus
  • a well-produced DVD that discusses the Cyrus Cylinder, Natural Law, the American and French Revolutions and other global watershed moments in human rights.

I filed the DVD away, laminated the posters and hung them on a wall of my classroom, and then shelved the booklets, which would be used later when my eighth-grade students would start connecting the literature they read to human rights.

Then, over the next few months, I watched Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, the actress’ documentary series on A&E. Alongside consultant and former Scientology Mike Rinder, Remini exposes the Church of Scientology’s abuses, violence, and inhumane practices through interviews with former “parishioners” now disconnected from the group.

During one episode of Remini’s series, I learned about the many front organizations Scientology uses to gain credibility.

And that was my light bulb moment: Youth for Human Rights International must be one of those front organizations, I thought. That’s why Hubbard’s name was on that list. A few minutes of online searching confirmed my suspicion.

Indeed, Scientology doesn’t make it obvious that it’s the force behind YHRI. Visit the YHRI website and you’ll find no connection to Scientology; however, visit Scientology.org and you’ll find numerous mentions of YHRI, its partner front United for Human Rights, and a heavy dose of grandiose language extolling the progress being made globally to advance human rights.

On Scientology.org, you’ll also find lots of United Nations name-dropping.

Clearly, it enhances Scientology’s image to rub shoulders with the UN, but it baffles me why the United Nations would align itself with Scientology.

Here’s a link on the UN’s website to its annual International Human Rights Summit held last August at its New York City headquarters. According to the article, student attendees spent day three of the summit at the Church of Scientology Harlem Community Center, which is right next door to the Harlem Main Church.

The UN summit was co-organized by the permanent UN missions in Cambodia and Panama and YHRI, which has been a co-sponsor of the summit since its inception fourteen years ago.

Photo: United Nations News and Media

Based on the alliance with the UN, many people likely assume YHRI is a reputable, forthright group worthy to publicize in public school classrooms. Heck, that’s what I assumed.

However, there are several human rights that Scientology policies violate, which discredit its claim of being a leader in the field of human rights. I’m not an expert on Scientology, but if one reads even a moderate amount on the subject, you’ll discover many questionable, unethical activities.

For now, here are three that I’m aware of:

  • The cult’s Rehabilitation Project Force, a forced-labor camp where cult followers are imprisoned to perform hard labor to compensate for violations they have allegedly committed
  • The cult’s disconnection policy, which requires followers to separate themselves from friends and family members who criticize Scientology, and
  • The documented charges of physical violence and assault by David Miscavige, Scientology’s Ecclesiastical Leader, and other higher-ups.

To be honest, human rights violations or not, when a cult is making inroads into American schools—even though that inroad, human rights, may be innocuous and noble—it’s unacceptable and dangerous.

So, parents and teachers, please know that if you or your child’s teacher discusses human rights, do not consult Youth for Human Rights International or United for Human Rights because if you do, you will be actually consulting the Church of Scientology.

Thanks for reading again this week! Please leave a comment or thought below and become a follower to read this follow-up post about the reputable organizations out there that are ready to provide teachers with classroom-ready, cult-free materials.