Lesson One: What are human rights and who advocates for them?

By: Leah Judd

Leah Judd

Education Collaborator

Leah Judd has a passion for teaching Social Studies.  Working in Sechelt, BC, Leah has been lucky to work with students who embrace inquiry learning and created locker museum displays during the pandemic to share their curated stories with the school community.  Leah shares her enthusiasm for Social Studies as editor of Salon, an online quarterly publication from the Social Studies Educators Network of Canada @ssencressc

Suggested Subject Areas

Social Studies

Grade Level

Adaptable across 8-10


60 minutes

Lesson Outcomes

Students will learn about the 30 articles of the UDHR.  They will also draw connections between those articles and a human rights champion in Canada. This lesson brings the UDHR into context with a Canadian perspective.

Lesson Outline 

Part One: What are human rights?

Timing: approx. 25-30 minutes


On the board, the teacher writes or projects UNICEF’s definition of human rights:

Human rights belong to each and every one of us equally.

Use the definition to begin a class discussion. The discussion could happen verbally as a whole class, as a chalk talk, or could begin with small groups or independent reflection (and could include post-it notes or other forms of writing and then sharing ideas). Prompt students with questions about the statement and about their existing knowledge of human rights. What does the statement mean? What does it mean that rights belong to us? What are some human rights that you know about? Do you know of any rights that should be universal (for everyone) but that might not actually belong to everyone equally? Why might that be?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Depending on the age and stage of students, the teacher could either ask the class if anyone knows what the United Nations (UN) is, or the teacher should share a definition as follows:

The United Nations is an international organization made up of almost 200 Member States, who come together to discuss global issues and, ideally, to find solutions to those issues that benefit people and communities across the world. The UN has a founding Charter that guides its work.

In 1948, the UN ratified (made official) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights— a document with 30 articles, each one recognizing different fundamental human rights. The struggle for human rights begins much earlier than this time, of course, and still continues to this day. It is important to know that the UDHR is not legally binding, but is instead an aspirational and guiding document for its Member States. That means the UN cannot enforce the articles in it.

Share with students the illustrated and audio version of the UDHR. Depending on the age and stage of students, teachers can also share the full-length version which is available here. Ask students to spend time reading through the articles, either independently or in small groups, and to make note of 3-5 key takeaways from their reading. Did anything stand out to them? Surprise them? Confuse them? It’s okay not to understand every article or word at this point—what’s important is to get a general sense of the articles and the UDHR overall.

Invite students to share one of their takeaways or any questions/confusions they have about the UDHR at this time before moving on to the next activity.

Part Two: Who advocates for human rights in Canada?

Timing: approx. 25-30 minutes

Human Rights Champions in Canada

Explain to students that they will be exploring the articles of the UDHR by learning about and celebrating the work and lives of human rights champions in Canada. Some of these champions are well-known and are celebrated in public ways (statues, currency, stamps, etc) and some might not be as well-known. Together, the class will build a timeline of 100 years of human rights advocacy in Canada based on their learning about human rights champions.

Introduce students to an example of a human rights champion in Canada. Teachers can use the example included here (Viola Desmond) or choose a champion that might resonate specifically with students given the demographics and geography of the class.

Project the following image of the current $10 bill. Ask students if they have seen this bill in person. Do they recognize the woman on the bill? Do they know anything about her?

Viola Desmond on Canada’s $10 bill. Bank of Canada.

As an introduction to Viola Desmond, show students the following brief videos:

Connections to the UDHR

In small groups (2-3 students), invite students to share what they now know about Viola Desmond. Why is she considered a human rights advocate? What is important about her story?

Ask student groups to return to the articles of the UDHR. They can use the same resource as earlier in the lesson, or opt for this illustrated booklet or this document with plain language versions of each article (p. 1-4). Prompt groups to discuss what human rights Viola Desmond was trying to defend in 1946, and to determine which articles of the UDHR (ratified only two (2) years later) set out to protect those rights.

This process should enable students to familiarize themselves with the different UDHR articles, while connecting those articles with lived experiences of human rights violations and advocacy. This is scaffolding practice for the next lesson, where students choose their own human rights champion to celebrate in a classroom timeline.