Building Background Knowledge: Human Rights | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA G5:M1:U1

Building Background Knowledge: Human Rights

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This unit is designed to help students build knowledge about human rights while simultaneously building their ability to read challenging text closely through a case study of the threats to human rights faced by fictional characters in the novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Students read this novel in conjunction with selected articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which they determine the main ideas and details to support the main ideas, and then summarize. Students also read informational texts related to the story's historical context. Through their reading, they trace the journey of Esperanza, a young girl born into a comfortable life of privilege in Mexico in the 1930s, who is forced to flee to California and must rise above her difficult circumstances.

For the mid-unit assessment, students closely read a new article of the UDHR to use str ategies to identify the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary, to identify the main ideas, and to summarize the text. In the second half of the unit, students prepare for and participate in text-based discussions about the threats to human rights faced by the characters in Esperanza Rising and also their emotional response to these threats to human rights. This prepares them for the end of unit assessment, in which students participate in a text-based discussion about threats to human rights in Chapters 4-6 of the novel.

Big Ideas & Guiding Questions

What are human rights, and how can they be threatened?

  • Human rights belong to everyone, but they can look different to different people in different places.
  • We can better understand how human rights can be threatened by reading about the experiences of fictional characters in stories.
  • We can raise awareness of human rights issues by writing about the issues fictional characters face.

The Four Ts

  • Topic: Human rights
  • Task: Students read a new article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and answer selected response questions and summarize it (mid-unit assessment). Students participate in a text-based discussion about threats to human rights in Esperanza Rising (end of unit assessment).
  • Targets (standards explicitly taught and assessed): RL.5.1, RL.5.5, RL.5.10, RI.5.1, RI.5.2, RI.5.4, RI.5.10, W.5.9a, SL.5.1a, SL.5.1b, SL.5.1c, L.5.4b, and L.5.4c
  • Text: Esperanza Rising and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Each unit in the 3-5 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize their understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block of the school day. However, the module intentionally incorporates social studies content that many teachers may be teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below. 

College, Career, and Civic Life C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards:

  • D2.Civ.3.3-5: Examine the origins and purposes of rules, laws, and key U.S. constitutional provisions.
  • D2.Civ.4.3-5: Explain how groups of people make rules to create responsibilities and protect freedoms.
  • D2.Civ.7.3-5: Apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school settings.
  • D2.Civ.10.3-5: Identify the beliefs, experiences, perspectives, and values that underlie their own and others' points of view about civic issues.
  • D2.Geo.2.3-5: Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions and their environmental characteristics.
  • D2.His.2.3-5: Compare life in specific historical time periods to life today.
  • D2.His.4.3-5: Explain why individuals and groups during the same historical period differed in their perspectives.
  • D2.His.14.3-5: Explain probable causes and effects of events and developments.
  • D3.4.3-5: Use evidence to develop claims in response to compelling questions.
  • D4.6.3-5: Draw on disciplinary concepts to explain the challenges people have faced and opportunities they have created, in addressing local, regional, and global problems at various times and places.

Habits of Character/Social-Emotional Learning Focus

Central to EL Education's curriculum is a focus on "habits of character" and social-emotional learning. Students work to become effective learners, developing mindsets and skills for success in college, career, and life (e.g., initiative, responsibility, perseverance, collaboration); work to become ethical people, treating others well and standing up for what is right (e.g., empathy, integrity, respect, compassion); and work to contribute to a better world, putting their learning to use to improve communities (e.g., citizenship, service). 

In this unit, students work to become ethical people. Throughout Unit 1, students practice respect, empathy, and compassion as they reflect on what the novel makes them think about and also as they participate in text-based discussions in which they describe how they feel about threats to human rights in the novel Esperanza Rising.

The following student learning targets are a focus for this unit. Please refer to Teaching Notes in the lessons:

  • I work to become an ethical person:
    • I show empathy.
    • I behave with integrity.
    • I show respect.
    • I show compassion.


Each unit is made up of a sequence of between 5-20 lessons. The “unit at a glance” chart in the curriculum map breaks down each unit into its lessons, to show how the curriculum is organized in terms of standards address, supporting targets, ongoing assessment, and protocols. It also indicates which lessons include the mid-unit and end-of-unit assessments.

Accountable Independent Reading

The ability to read and comprehend texts is the heart of literacy instruction. Comprehension is taught, reinforced, and assessed across both components of this curriculum: module lessons and the Additional Language and Literacy Block. Refer to the 5M1 Module Overview for additional information. Independent reading is launched in this module. The Independent Reading: Sample Plan (see the Tools page) contains suggestions for lessons to launch independent reading and lessons to review and share knowledge and vocabulary gained from independent reading. Consider using this document as a guideline if you do not have your own independent reading launch and review routine.

Vocabulary log

In Lesson 4, students receive a vocabulary log to collect new academic and domain-specific (topical) vocabulary. An example of a vocabulary log can be found in this unit's supporting materials.

Supporting English Language Learners

The Meeting Students' Needs column in each lesson contains support for both ELLs and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and some supports can serve a wide range of student needs. However, ELLs have unique needs that cannot always be met with UDL support. According to federal guidelines, ELLs must be given access to the curriculum with appropriate supports, such as those that are specifically identified as "For ELLs" in the Meeting Students' Needs column.

  • Prioritizing lessons for classrooms with many ELLs: To prepare for the Unit 1 assessments, consider prioritizing and expanding instruction in Lessons 3-6, which slowly build the routine of reading, making connections, close reading, determining the main idea, and summarizing for Esperanza Rising and the UDHR, and Lessons 10-11, which help students prepare and practice for text-based discussions. If necessary, consider placing less focus and condensing instruction in Lessons 1, 2, 7, and 8, which provide helpful background, practice, and repetition but don't introduce as many new concepts. However, be sure to guide students through the Language Dives in Lessons 7 and 8.
  • Language Dives: All students participate in their first Language Dive in Lesson 7. ELLs can follow up with an optional, connected Language Dive in Lesson 8. These Language Dives are designed to help students continue to notice and apply the English subject-predicate structure they review in Lesson 6. Most lessons also offer optional Mini Language Dives for ELLs. Language Dives are guided conversations about the meaning of a sentence from the central texts, models, or learning targets. The conversation invites students to unpack complex syntax, or "academic phrases," as a necessary component of building both literacy and habits of mind. Students then apply their understanding of language structure as they work toward the assessments and performance task. All Language Dives follow a Deconstruct-Reconstruct-Practice routine, in which students discuss and play with the meaning and purpose of the sentence and each chunk of the sentence; put the chunks back together into the original order and any possible variations; and practice using the chunks in their own speaking and writing. To maximize language practice and accommodate time, consider dividing or reviewing each Language Dive over multiple lessons. A consistent Language Dive routine is critical in helping all students learn how to decipher complex sentences and write their own. In addition, Language Dive conversations can hasten overall English language development for ELLs. Avoid using the Language Dive Guide to lecture about grammar; the Guide is designed to prompt students as they grapple with the meaning and purpose of the chunks and the sentence. Consider providing students with a Language Dive log inside a folder to track Language Dive sentences and structures and collate Language Dive note-catchers. Assure students that this log will not be graded; however, consider inviting students to use their log and note-catchers to gauge the progress of their speaking and writing skills. For more information on Language Dives and supporting English language learners, see the Tools page
  • Diversity and inclusion: Investigate the languages, routines, practices, rituals, beliefs, norms, and experiences that are important to ELLs and their families. An ideal context for inclusiveness emerges as students are invited to add their feelings and experience with regard to Esperanza Rising and the UDHR. Create a safe space for students to express their experiences and feelings, in both their home language and English, about the sensitive issues embedded in the texts, knowing that these discussions may help create equity or unearth trauma or both. Consider integrating this background into the classroom as students discuss Esperanza's immigrant experience, culture, history, and language in Esperanza Rising and as students read about human rights in the UDHR. Consult with a guidance counselor, school social worker, or ESL teacher to further investigate diversity and inclusion.
  • Goal 1 Conversation Cues: Encourage productive and equitable conversation with Conversation Cues, which are questions teachers can ask students to help achieve four goals: (Goal 1) encourage all students to talk and be understood; (Goal 2) listen carefully to one another and seek to understand; (Goal 3) deepen thinking; and (Goal 4) think with others to expand the conversation (adapted from Michaels, Sarah and O'Connor, Cathy. Talk Science Primer. Cambridge, MA: TERC, 2012. Talk Science Primer. Based on Chapin, S., O'Connor, C., and Anderson, N. [2009]. Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn, Grades K-6. Second Edition. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions Publications). Refer to the Tools page for the complete set of cues. Goal 1 Conversation Cues are introduced in Lesson 3. Heightened language processing and development is a primary potential benefit for ELLs. 
  • Strategic grouping: Students work in pairs to make connections between Esperanza Rising and the UDHR and prepare for text-based discussions. Seriously consider grouping ELLs with partners who have greater language proficiency. The conversations that happen as a result of such strategic grouping will greatly serve the language development of both partners. Be aware that partnering with, looking at, talking with, or touching the opposite gender may be uncomfortable and inappropriate for some students. In addition, some students may believe it is inappropriate to speak with other students at all during class. Let them know that in the United States, speaking with a peer of either gender when the teacher gives the signal is appropriate, and it is one way that students can become independent learners and develop their content knowledge and language ability. At the same time, tell them you respect their needs, and if necessary, seek alternative arrangements for students according to their cultural traditions.
  • Summarizing: ELLs are encouraged to verbally summarize the events of Esperanza Rising in each lesson as the unit progresses. All students receive explicit instruction in how to write a summary of a UDHR article in Lesson 6, during which ELLs are also invited to compare these two types of summaries. Some students may need additional support with determining a main idea and effective supporting details (as part of writing a summary), as they are still learning to comprehend the language itself in the UDHR. Help students understand and discuss the details in each article, guiding students to notice any main idea patterns that emerge. Note that these summary criteria may be different from other summary criteria that students are familiar with in their home languages. Compare and contrast the criteria whenever possible.
  • Text-based discussions: Students participate in two text-based discussions, during which they will have the opportunity to discuss how human rights are threatened in Esperanza Rising. Students complete a series of note-catchers to help them prepare for these discussions. This format is ideal for language development, as it invites students to orally negotiate with classmates about the meaning of what they are trying to say, pushing them to change their language to be more comprehensible. Additionally, students can celebrate their successful attempts at communication and their ability to extend and enhance the discussions. 
  • Celebration: Celebrate the courage, enthusiasm, diversity, and bilingual assets that ELLs bring to the classroom.

Texts to Buy

Texts that need to be procured. Please download the Trade Book List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World
by DK Publishing
1 per classroom
ISBN: 9780756618032
Esperanza Rising
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
1 per student
ISBN: 9780439120425

Preparation and Materials

  • Prepare the Performance Task anchor chart (see Performance Task Overview) and Module Guiding Questions anchor chart (see Module Overview).
  • Ensure that families are aware of the sensitive content of Esperanza Rising and prepare students who may be affected by this context in advance.
  • Prepare vocabulary logs (Lesson 4) and independent reading journals (Lesson 2). 
  • Prepare Academic and Domain-Specific Word Walls. These are two separate areas of the classroom to which you will add new vocabulary as students encounter it in texts. The Academic Word Wall is a permanent Word Wall that will continue to be added to throughout the year. The Domain-Specific Word Wall will change from module to module as the topic changes. Prepare cards or paper of a clearly visible size to be seen throughout classroom to keep near the Word Walls. 
  • The following materials are introduced in this unit and referenced both throughout the module and the school year:
    • Academic Word Wall
    • Discussion Norms anchor chart
    • Working to Become Ethical People anchor chart
    • Close Readers Do These Things anchor chart
    • World map
    • Independent Reading journals
    • Vocabulary logs
    • Affix list
    • equity sticks
    • Strategies to Answer Selected Response Questions anchor chart
    • Criteria for an Effective Summary anchor chart
    • Tracking Progress folders

Technology and Multimedia

  • Google Docs - Complete note-catchers: Students complete their note-catchers, write their essays and monologues, and create their programs in Google Docs.
  • Speech to Text (Many newer devices already have this capability)- To create writing by speaking: Students complete their note-catchers and create written work by speaking rather than writing or typing.
  • Seesaw - Create student learning portfolios to share with other students, families: Video/audio record students reading aloud their monologues to share with families and other students.
  • The Mexican Revolution - Additional reading and research: Students read more about the Mexican Revolution with adult support. 
    • Knight, Alan. "The Mexican Revolution." History Today May 1980: n. pag. History Today. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
  • The Mexican Revolution: November 20th, 1910 - Additional reading and research: Students read more about the Mexican Revolution with adult support.
    • "The Mexican Revolution: November 20th, 1910." EDSITEment. National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 3 June 2016.
  • Mexican Revolution - Additional reading and research: Students read more about the Mexican Revolution with adult support.
    • "Mexican Revolution." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
  • Immigration Past and Present - Additional reading and research: Students read more about immigration.
    • "Immigration Past and Present." Accessed June 3, 2016.
  • Teach Unicef - Additional reading and research: Students read about current events that are threats to human rights.
    • "Teach Unicef." Unicef. Web. Accessed Jun 3, 2016.
  • Human Rights Education - Additional reading and research: Students read about current events that are threats to human rights.
    • "Human Rights Education." Amnesty International. Web. Accessed Jun 3, 2016.
  • Human Rights Watch - Additional reading and research: Students read about current events that are threats to human rights.
    • Human Rights Watch. Web. Accessed Jun 3, 2016.

Additional Language and Literacy Block

The Additional Language and Literacy (ALL) Block is 1 hour of instruction per day. It is designed to work in concert with and in addition to the 1-hour Grades 3-5 ELA "module lessons." Taken together, these 2 hours of instruction comprehensively address all the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

The ALL Block has five components: Additional Work with Complex Text; Reading and Speaking Fluency/GUM (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics); Writing Practice; Word Study and Vocabulary; and Independent Reading.

The ALL Block has three 2-week units which parallel to the three units of the module.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • If students have families with experience with some of the issues described in Esperanza Rising, consider inviting them in to speak to students about their experiences.
  • If students come from Spanish-speaking families, consider inviting adults to come in to share some words with students in Spanish.
  • If you have a number of English language learners speaking the same native language, invite family members to come into the classroom to talk with ELLs in their native language about human rights.
  • If students have families with experience of some of the current threats to human rights that students will read about in research in Lesson 9, consider inviting them in to speak to students about their experiences.


  • Invite experts on local human rights issues or immigration in your area to come in to talk to the students about the work that they do and about the local population.
  • Have experts on human rights or immigration come in to talk with the students about the work that they do.
  • Have experts on dramas and plays come in to talk with students about writing and performing monologues.


  • Take students to exhibitions about immigration or about Mexican history or culture.
  • Take students to performances of monologues.


  • Reach out to local immigration charities to find out if students can participate in any charity events or work or if they can raise funds for a specific cause.
  • Identify a local threat to human rights that students could learn more about and take action on.


  • Encourage students to read other articles of the complete version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Encourage students to consider other ways to raise awareness about human rights issues.

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