The origin of our Human Decency website began back in February, 2019. All through the year, we had been debating the way characters in our literature book treated one another and how figures in our state’s history regarded one another. It was clear that through our history, ethnic groups were treated poorly, and the fourth graders were quick to point that out.
Even though it was easy for the students to see that others treated people poorly, they didn’t necessarily see that they were not always treating each other properly. The social dynamics were getting more and more tense, and it didn’t seem to matter how much we discussed the way people in our studies treated one another; the kids were not connecting that to themselves.
There came a day where things somewhat exploded at lunch with students piling on the mistreatment toward one student in particular. We met outside as a class in a circle and discussed the social dynamics of our class. Students were soon pouring out ideas which had been upsetting them over time, all the way back to first grade. Some of the mistreatment they shared did not occur at school, but instead was in their other daily activities. There were some courageous students that day as they shared their thoughts and shed some tears. The discussion was positive, and it was a start toward making the dynamics better in the classroom.
About the same time, we were reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. As we came to the final page of the story, we read about a Danish Resistance Fighter from World War II who had been captured by the Nazis. Lois Lowry unfolded the story for us, and we learned that the young man of 23 years was to be executed. The day before his sentence was carried out, he wrote a letter to his mother, and in that letter, he called for the ideal of a world of human decency. We had a photo of the young man hanging in our classroom for the duration of the reading, but no one had really paid much attention to it. Suddenly, the photo had meaning.
The question was asked of the students, who are really good at analyzing literature, can we achieve human decency all over the world? Some said yes, and some said no. It was an interesting discussion. It was posed to them, “How can we achieve a world of human decency when we struggle to attain it in our classroom of just 25 people?” That made them stop and think.
The ensuing conversation was that we can achieve worldwide human decency if we start small and move outward to bigger and bigger groups. As a class, we became dedicated to achieving human decency in our room. The kids took part in activities to help build human decency within the classroom, and soon, it became our rallying cry. Things were beginning to shift. When the fourth graders formed a 25 person conga line out to run the Jog-a-Thon, I knew things were heading in the right direction.
In April, after things had really changed in the classroom and the group was becoming a strong, interconnected team, we went to Westminster Woods for a week of environmental education. The hope was that we were strong enough to support one another and assist one another through the week, and show that the kids of room 15 not only have human decency, but also are models of such. The week was incredible; the kids all got along so well, and helped each other out when help was needed. The camaraderie was high, and smiles abounded.
At the end of the week, there was a closing ceremony. Rather than sitting in a circle and telling what we were all grateful for, as we have done for many years at the camp, one of the naturalists asked if I had ever seen the “Wish and a promise” activity. I had not.
This year, the closing ceremony took place along Dutch Bill Creek under the cover of the redwood forest. The entire group, kids, naturalists and parent chaperones all wrote a wish that we had for the world, and our personal promise to make that wish come true. We took turns telling our wishes and promises, and some of them were very heartwarming. There is nothing like children telling adults their wishes for a better world.
Once the wishes were told, the papers that we wrote them on were given to the naturalist, who had a piece of bark from a tree that was in the shape of a small canoe. Each paper was placed in the bark and lit on fire. Everyone handed their papers over one at a time in a very peaceful, solemn manner. When all had been placed in the boat-like structure and were aflame, the boat was cast downstream. As the smoke from the papers went into the sky, our wishes and promises became part of the world. I would like to thank Redwing, an amazing naturalist at Westminster Woods, for bringing that activity to us.
When we returned to school, the thought of framing all our wishes and promises under the umbrella of human decency came to mind. If we could just get the time to put the ideas together and promote human decency and our wishes and promises, we thought we’d have something to contribute to the world.
As the end of a school year always is, our lives were busy trying to finish our studies. Then, a small window opened. We had nine days of school left when the idea for the website was presented to the students. They had each made a webpage for some spectacular writing that they did earlier in the year. There was some background knowledge as to how to work the software. They were excited to take on the challenge. We needed our topics though.
We held a brainstorming session where many ideas came forward. We consolidated them, and the students realized that there were two categories: social human decency and environmental human decency. We broke those down into five topics: promoting peace, eliminating discrimination preserving our forests, our oceans and our resources. The students chose their interest topics, and the work began. It was made clear that they would have to be on task 100% of the time as we had no minutes that we could waste.
The research began, the text was written and shared, images were located, links were found and the webpages began to take shape. The kids had no templates; they had a white screen to fill with their work, and they needed to design their pages the way they wanted them using all the pieces they had found and created. They needed a session or two of reminders as to how the software worked, and as a team, they pounded out their topics. An after school session was offered if they wished to stay and work. There were 22 students who took part out of 24; they stayed an extra hour after school to make their websites happen. It was a fun hour that went quickly! That teamwork that we needed so much back in February was on display every day of the project. The fourth graders were writing about human decency and showing it at the same time. The website was finished in just seven days.
We hope that our story, and our website encourage people to take time and think a little about how they can each promote human decency in the world. It worked for a group of amazing young people in Sacramento. We hope that it works for those who read our ideas.
Below are photos of each team planning their piece of the project
The Promoting Peace team
The Eliminating Discrimination team
The Conserving Forests team
The Conserving Oceans team
The Conserving Resources team