Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama, the 14th Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Mikhail Gorbachev, and Mother Teresa. What do they all have in common?
That’s the question I posed to several of my 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classes last week. “They all fought for civil rights,” one said.
Not quite what I was looking for…
“All of them are religious,” said another.
“They wanted peace.”
I explained to the class that all of these famous people had won the Nobel Peace Prize. We discussed the accomplishments of each, and why we thought they were deserving of the award. I found it interesting that more than one class was surprised that Barack Obama won the award. “Want to know who was more surprised than you are?,” I asked. “Barack Obama.”
After discussing the history of the Nobel Prize, and the categories you can win it in (Chemistry, Physics, Peace, Literature, Medicine, and Economics), I asked the class what happens when someone wins an award.
“They get a medal!”
“They get lots of money!”
“They get fame.”
…true. “And what else gets attention?,” I asked.
Right. “And that’s why I want to talk about the two winners of this year’s Nobel Prize,” I said, “because it’s important to understand their causes.” None of my classes knew the recently announced Nobel Peace Prize winners. Some students knew details about one or the other, but I was happy that this would be new information for the majority of them.
I started off giving a brief overview of Kailash Satyarthi. I explained that he started an organization called Save the Childhood Movement, and that thanks to his hard work, thousands of children had been plucked from dangerous working situations, and were given shelter, care, and hope. Child labor was a new concept for some of my students. To make it more real, I showed them a few images:
We then read the story of Santu, a 13-year-old boy who was sold into child labor by his father. After covering some new vocabulary from the article (establishment, toil, grave, exploitation, halfway house, reunite, vocational), I asked my students how it made them feel. Their responses ranged from incredibly sad to hopeful (Santu’s story has a happy ending, fortunately). I tried to make child labor come alive for my students. “How many hours are you in school each day?,” I asked.
“7 hours, maybe 8,” they responded.
“Okay, now double that. And let’s assume that instead of sitting relatively comfortably at your desk for 15 hours that you are chopping vegetables and sweeping floors. Nonstop. Oh, and don’t forget about the routine beatings you are forced to endure.”
We then talked about how Santu ended up in a much better place. He is now receiving an education, pursuing his interests, and making new friends. He wants to be a doctor so that he can “help when children like [him] are cut or burned.” Santu and 83,000 children like him have been saved thanks to the hard work of Kailash Satyarthi and the Save the Childhood Movement. “Do you think Mr. Satyarthi is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize?,” I asked.
I was met with a resounding “YES!”
“Now can you imagine that there is someone out there who the Nobel Prize Committee felt was equally deserving of such an important award?,” I asked. The class looked back at me skeptically.
But then I told them Malala Yousafzai’s story. As a young Pakistani girl, all Malala wanted to do was attend school like a normal kid. Unfortunately, the Taliban in that region issued an edict declaring that women could not be educated. What had once been a normal walk to school suddenly became a life-threatening situation. To bring Malala’s story to life, we read three posts from her blog (I AM AFRAID, I HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL, and DO NOT WEAR COLORFUL DRESSES), which she had written under a pseudonym (great vocabulary word for the students!). The students were in awe that a man had threatened to kill her and that hearing about “another three [dead] bodies” seemed like a normal routine.
“Answer me honestly,” I asked my classes: “Would you go to school if it meant risking your life?” Most of my students said “of course not! This is my life we’re talking about here!” And as much as I value education, I would have to agree with them! I also had a few students who said they would probably risk it. Either way, I think everyone understood just how brave Malala was for pursuing an education in defiance of the Taliban.
Unfortunately, Malala’s blog attracted some negative attention, I explained. On her way home from school one afternoon in October, 2012, Malala’s bus was stopped. A couple of men asked for her by name, and when they found out who she was, they shot at her three times. One of the bullets found its mark, piercing her left temple before lodging itself into her shoulder. Two of her classmates were hit as well. Needless to say, Malala was in critical condition for quite some time, but after a long recovery, she is once again standing up for her beliefs. In fact, she has become more vocal than ever about women and children’s rights to education. We watched this video clip of highlights from her recent speech to the United Nations.
Once again, I asked my class, “Do you think Malala is deserving of this award?”
“Yes!” my class replied enthusiastically.
We proceeded to talk about characteristics shared by Nobel Prize winners and who we thought might win the award next year. I asked the class if there were any Bulgarians (past or present) who they thought were deserving of such a high honor (Ivan Vazov and Vasil Levski came up several times). And finally, I think all of my students hated me just a little when I asked them who they thought was more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize: Kailash or Malala. But there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy debate, right?
In summary, I think it’s important to talk about all the good work people are doing in the world, and be moved and inspired by the causes they support. The Nobel Prize is just one form of recognition, but the truth is that there are many people out there accomplishing amazing things that make the world a better place, most of whom will never earn a Nobel Prize. Learn about these people. Talk about these people. Share what you know with each other. And most importantly, find a cause that’s important to you and get involved!