Teaching About Rights: Historical Context, Contemporary Challenges

A Primary Source Curriculum Unit for World History, World Geography, and Comparative Government

CoverInspired by Hemispheres's 2008 Summer Teachers' Institute, Recognizing Rights and Responsibilities in the 21st Century, this curriculum unit was designed to examine the development of the concept of human rights over time. Throughout the unit, students use primary sources to examine the gradual bestowal of rights on different groups, the rights currently guaranteed by individual countries and international bodies, and the areas where rights continue to be in conflict. The unit ends with a discussion of emerging areas of human rights.

Activities in this Unit

This unit follows the FIVE E instructional model, allowing students to build on their ideas in each phase of learning in order to construct a deep understanding of the topic under study.


  • What are Human Rights? offers a preview of documents covered in this unit and stimulates student interest through a short video and discussion of what constitutes human rights.
  • Where Do You Stand? gauges student perceptions of human rights issues, providing the teacher with a starting point for their background knowledge and understanding.
  • In Human Rights through History, students analyze a series of documents that demonstrate change over time in the area of human rights. Documents range from ancient to contemporary times.
  • Types of Human Rights helps students understand how rights affect different aspects (social, economic, political, etc.) of people's lives.
  • In Contemporary Human Rights around the World, students compare and contrast human rights-related legal language from contemporary constitutions.
  • Human Rights Crusaders provides student with an opportunity to research and share information on individuals and groups who have fought to advance human rights.
  • Students research Human Rights in the News to assess recent trends and how international pressures affect rights-related issues around the world.
  • In Human Rights Challenges, students "vote with their feet" on a variety of issues that are challenging current perceptions of what constitutes human rights.
  • The Future of Human Rights asks students to respond to questions about their new understanding of human rights, the direction of legal protection for rights, and human rights advocacy.

How to Use This in the Classroom

This unit was designed to be used as a whole and in sequence, with each section building on previous knowledge. However, based on the needs of your classroom, you may choose an individual activity or an abbreviated sequence of activities that fits with your existing lessons. If you have limited time, but would like to explore the full range of issues with your students, we recommend completing at least one activity from each section.

Additional Resources / Classroom Activities

The topic of human rights is also covered in stand-alone activities in three issues of the Hemispheres newsletter: Fall 2008 (Defining Human Rights); Fall 2010 (Historical Documents for Teaching about Human Rights); and Spring 2011 (Crusading for Human Rights). Archival issues of the newsletter are available for free download from the Hemispheres website (as PDFs): http://www.utexas.edu/cola/orgs/hemispheres/newsletter/
We hope that this unit is a useful tool to engage your students in an exploration of the complex issues surrounding human rights. We welcome any feedback or comments you may have.