Social Education 58(7), 1994, p. 435
National Council for the Social Studies

When Our StudentsAre Teachers

Joanne Dufour
"Why it's easy to teach about the United Nations and its structure. It is all in your hand." And raising her left hand (palm facing the class) as a model, the teacher demonstrates:
"The index finger-why that's the Security Council charged with directing its attention (pointing) at the world's trouble spots.

"The thumb-the General Assembly: as the main representative organ, it connects to all the others.

"The middle finger is the Economic and Social Council-with its thirty-two specialized agencies and its fourteen special programs, it's the largest part of the UN.

"The ring finger is the International Court of Justice. Just as the placing of a ring on that finger is a sign of a legal contract in this culture, on the international arena, the ICJ has been called upon to judge breaches in international legal contracts.

"The pinkie-why that's the Trusteeship Council whose job is nearly successfully over.

"And the palm-the secretariat and the staff of international civil servants working to keep all the other 'fingers' operating."

And so begins the lesson on the UN at Central Washington University to a class of prospective elementary Social Studies teachers. Enrolled in a Social Studies Methods and Materials class, new teachers are introduced to the wide-ranging work of the UN and ways to integrate it into their teaching.

One successful way of doing this has been to explore the range of international days1 and prepare week-long lessons designed to culminate in celebrating the day. While the new teachers select a range of days to focus on such as the International Day of Peace (the third Tuesday of September), World AIDS Day (December 1st), Human Rights Day (December 10th), World Health Day (April 7th), and World Environment Day (June 5th), a popular day chosen by many of the teachers is the International Day for the Elderly (October 1st).

One student described how she would organize a curriculum around that day this way:

This day is of special interest to me because every person on earth who does not meet an untimely death will face old age. This process of aging is a humbling one, and we must all work to ensure that each human life is treated with dignity and sacred respect. To instill this value in children, I would not want them to feel the burden or guilt of the disgraceful way some elderly are treated. Rather, I would like them to sense the joy of treating others how they themselves would wish to be treated, and develop the quality of empathy within them.

I'd spend several days preparing. We would share about the old people we know or see, what our impressions are, and how they differ from younger people. We'd read a poem written by a woman who died in a geriatric ward about the person alive with memories inside her withering body. Their homework that evening would be to share the poem with their family and write down responses to be discussed the next day. Another activity would be to listen to Joan Baez' recording of "Hello In There" about the loneliness of old age. We'd end the discussion with readings from When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple, and talk about some ways the elderly are freer than younger people. A writing assignment would follow, which would begin, "When I am old I shall..."

The lessons would include information about the effect of medical technology on the human life span, how the Social Security system works in the United States, how different cultures care for and/or revere their elderly, and how the world can benefit from the vast resources of experience and wisdom which the elderly have, culminating in a field trip to a retirement home near school on the International Day. The students will have planned a party for the residents, including interviews. Throughout the year, other activities would be planned to include them, such as compiling a book containing their "stories" from interview information, remembering them on Valentine's Day, putting on plays for them, reading to them, and/or making things together.

This plan for the International Day for the Elderly is just one example of the way weaving the themes of UN celebrations into the curriculum can enrich the educational experience of students throughout the year.

1 See the accompanying list of international days, p. 436.

Joanne Dufour, who is a co-editor of this special issue of Social Education, is NCSS Non-Governmental Representative to the UN and a social studies educator in Washington.