Lesson 10 of 15
One 50-minute class period

Defining Human Rights

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

What is a right? What rights should belong to every human being on earth?

Guiding Questions

How did the international community decide upon a universal set of human rights?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will create a working definition for a right and then compare and contrast it to UNESCO’s 1947 definition.
  • Students will record information about Eleanor Roosevelt’s inspiration behind, and role in, the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Students will identify three universal human rights and explain their importance.


In this lesson and the next, students will consider what rights should belong to every human being on earth, as well as the challenges of trying to create an international framework of rights for all. First, students will define a right and then reflect in their journals about the rights that they feel they have, and those that they don’t have but should, at home, school, and in their communities. Then students will compare their definitions with the 1947 UNESCO definition of a right and work with a group to reach a consensus about three human rights they feel every person is entitled to enjoy. Next, students will learn how the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, grappled with these same questions as UN representatives worked together to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the aftermath of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust.


The devastation of World War II sparked an international desire for peace. It also encouraged the attempt to create a system of principles that could ensure the protection of basic human rights and dignity. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the first American delegates to the United Nations, which was founded in 1945. A longtime activist on behalf of minorities, women, workers, and refugees, Roosevelt became the Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She worked with a small group of representatives from countries around the world to define the most essential universal rights and to establish them in an official document. On 10th December 1948, she urged the United Nations General Assembly to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In giving our approval to the Declaration today, it is of primary importance that we keep clearly in mind the basic character of the document. It is not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms, to be stamped with the approval of the General Assembly by formal vote of its members, and to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.1

The UDHR was drafted and approved by a large group of international representatives. In order to bring this group to agreement, Eleanor Roosevelt painstakingly facilitated a process that would reflect a shared vision from the diverse perspectives of committee members; representatives including Charles Malik of Lebanon, P. C. Chang of China, and René Cassin of France negotiated carefully to ensure that their values were reflected in the document and that the document could speak for all people. They repeatedly asked, "Does this reflect our interests well enough? Does it speak for others as well?"

The United Nations approved the declaration, but the work of the commission was only partially done. The UDHR, in Roosevelt’s words, “would say to the peoples of the world ‘this is what we hope human rights may mean to all people in the years to come.’” The second part of the commission’s work was to be “a covenant which would be in the form of a treaty to be presented to the nations of the world.” Every nation that ratified the treaty “would then be obligated to change its laws wherever they did not conform to the points contained in the covenant.”2

The commission thought a treaty might be worked out within the next few years, but this hope proved to be too optimistic. The work to secure human rights around the world remains an ongoing struggle.


  • 1 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in Great Speeches by American Women, ed. James Daley (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), 128–29.
  • 2 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights,” speech delivered 28 September 1948, in Paris, France, American Rhetoric website, accessed June 26, 2016.

Notes to Teacher

  1. Creating a “Working Definition” of Right
    In this lesson, students will use their journal responses to help them construct a “working definition,” which is a less formal way of explaining what a word means. Unlike dictionary definitions, working definitions are often multi-layered, using less formal language and examples, and students can revisit and revise them as they learn more about a topic.

  2. Understanding the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    While this lesson’s Context section provides background information about the formation of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, your students do not have to have studied this time period to engage with the content and activities in this lesson and the next. It is important that you preview this lesson’s materials and then decide what, if any, historical context you might want to provide before showing the video in Activity 3. If you would like to create a mini-lecture for your students to help frame the lesson in the context of World War II and its aftermath, you might draw on information from the first five paragraphs of the reading Introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  3. Classroom-ready PowerPoint Slides
    Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

    Defining Human Rights

    Defining Human Rights

    This PowerPoint for Lesson 10 of the Standing Up for Democracy unit is ready to use in the classroom with student-facing slides and complete teaching notes.



  1. Reflect on Your Rights
    • For this journal entry, students will respond to a series of questions about their rights. Reveal the questions one at a time so students have a chance to think and write about each one before seeing the next question.

      • What is a right?
      • What rights do you have in your home?
      • What rights do you have at school?
      • What rights do you have in your community?
      • What rights do you think you should have in your home, school, or community but don’t feel that you do?
    • Ask students to debrief in a Think, Pair, Share, adding ideas to their “What is a right?” response if they agree with something their partner wrote but they didn’t think about at the time.
    • Then ask students to work with their partner to create a “working definition” for right and share it with another pair of students or with the class.
  2. Compare Working Definition with UNESCO’s 1947 Definition of a Right
    • Project the following definition of right and explain to students that in 1947, the United Nations Economic and Social Committee (UNESCO), a United Nations agency that was founded in 1946 to advance “. . . peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms,3” defined a right as: . . . condition of living, without which . . . men cannot give the best of themselves as active members of the community because they are deprived of the means to fulfill themselves as human beings.
    • Ask students to work in small groups to answer the following questions about the UNESCO definition of right:
      • In what ways is the UNESCO definition similar to and different from your working definition of right?
      • Do you think the UNESCO definition is too broad, too narrow, or just right?
      • If the United Nations asked your group to provide them with feedback about UNESCO’s definition of a right, what would you suggest?
      • What are three rights that your group unanimously believes are "universal"—that apply to all people from every cultural and political background? Why are these rights important to everyone regardless of age, gender, geography, history, politics, religion, etc.?
  3. Learn about the Creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    • Tell students that they will now watch a video to learn about the process by which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by representatives of nine countries in the United Nations, who also grappled with the question of what is a right and what rights should belong to every human being on earth.
    • Play the video Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Holocaust, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (09:15). Pause the video 2–3 times so students can capture what they learned in a 3-2-1 response without missing any of the images that help tell the story of the historical events leading to the creation of the UDHR.
      • 3: Details about what inspired Eleanor Roosevelt’s work
      • 2: Challenges UN members faced writing the UDHR
      • 1: Question about the UDHR or the process of creating it
    • Debrief the video by completing three wraparounds. For each round, students share a phrase from their 3-2-1 responses, starting with details that inspired Eleanor Roosevelt’s work in round one.
  4. Reflect on Human Rights and the UDHR

    Ask student to respond to the following questions on an exit card that they will submit at the end of the lesson. They will be building off of these ideas in the next lesson.

    • Who is responsible for protecting people’s fundamental rights?
    • What responsibility do individuals have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected? What responsibility do governments have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected? What makes you say that?
    • Who should be included in a country’s universe of obligation? Anyone in the country at a given time? Residents of the country? Citizens of the country?




Get Prepared to Teach This Scheme of Work in Your Classroom

Prepare yourself to teach this unit by reading about our pedagogy, teaching strategies, and the unit's structure.

Lesson 1 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Understanding Identity

Students consider the question "Who am I?" and identify social and cultural factors that shape identity by reading a short story and creating personal identity charts.

Lesson 2 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Transcending Single Stories

Students reflect on how stereotypes and "single stories" influence our identities, how we view others, and the choices we make.

Lesson 3 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Why Little Things Are Big

Students reflect on the power of being labelled and use Jesús Colón’s essay to reflect on their own experiences of being misjudged.

Lesson 4 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Challenge of Confirmation Bias

Students define confirmation bias and examine why people sometimes maintain their beliefs in the face of information that contradicts their understanding.



Democracy & Civic Engagement
Step 1:

The Individual and Society

Students explore their identities through a mask-making project.

Lesson 5 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Costs and Benefits of Belonging

Students learn about group membership and explore the range of responses available to us when we encounter exclusion, discrimination, and injustice.

Lesson 6 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Responding to Difference

Students explore a poem by James Berry about the ways we respond to difference and complete a creative assignment about their school or community.

Lesson 7 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

When Differences Matter

Students consider what happens when one aspect of our identity is privileged above others by society.

Lesson 8 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Blending In and Standing Out

Students use an excerpt from Sarfraz Manzoor memoir to reflect on identity, belonging, and wanting to feel invisible.

Lesson 9 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Defining Our Obligations to Others

Students are introduced to the concept of universe of obligation to better understand how societies create "in" groups and "out" groups.



Democracy & Civic Engagement
Step 2:

We and They

Students work collaboratively to create illustrated children’s stories that explore issues of conformity and belonging.

Lesson 10 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Defining Human Rights

Students create a definition for a "right" in order to explore the challenges faced by the UN Commission on Human Rights to create an international framework of rights for all human beings.

Lesson 11 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Making Rights Universal

Students analyse four rights in the UDHR and decide whether they are universal and enjoyed by all in the world today.



Democracy & Civic Engagement
Step 3:

Understanding Human Rights

Students work collaboratively to create a School Declaration of Human Rights Infographic.

Lesson 12 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Standing Up to Hatred on Cable Street

Students study the Battle of Cable Street in London by examining testimonies of individuals who demonstrated against fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

Lesson 13 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Public Art as a Form of Participation

Students analyse the Battle of Cable Street Mural and reflect on the role of public art to commemorate, educate, and build community.

Lesson 14 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Protesting Discrimination in Bristol

Students use the historical case study of the Bristol Bus Boycott to examine strategies for bringing about change in our communities.

Lesson 15 of 15
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Speaking Up and Speaking Out

Students analyse a spoken word poem about bullying and consider how they might use their voices to call attention to injustice in their schools or communities.

Final Assessment


Democracy & Civic Engagement
Step 4:

Choosing to Participate

Students have an opportunity to explore one issue in-depth and to create an action plan that inspires change in their schools or communities.

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