Lessons for a Lifetime: Belle Sherman first graders explore basic human rights through art

By Rob Montana
Tompkins Weekly

ITHACA – A group of Belle Sherman Elementary School first graders have put the lessons they’ve learned about compassion, kindness and tolerance to good use – designing a calendar that will help benefit organizations that fight for children’s rights.
Students in Emily Graw classroom have created a full color calendar for 2017, featuring their artwork and essays with their hope for the future of human rights. This is the sixth year Graw has undertaken such a project with her students – two years with first graders at Caroline, the last three with Belle Sherman third graders and a return to a first grade classroom this year.

Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly
Emily Graw, first grade teacher at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca, speaks during an event at the school last week to launch calendars created by her students that explore human rights. In addition to helping students learn more about the rights of children, the project resulted in the calendars that are being sold to raise funds to benefit organizations that fight for children’s rights – UNICEF Syria and Heifer International.

“The idea came about from my own experience growing up in the Philippines, where there was, and is, widespread poverty and want, and from my work as a public information officer of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates,” said Graw. “I witnessed poverty and all its attendant ills that affected children mostly: Children weaving in and out of the busy streets of Manila, begging for alms on the streets instead of going to school; children going through piles of garbage looking for scraps of food; children working in sweatshops; homeless children sleeping on sidewalks, with only a thin cardboard box as their ‘bed.’
“I was also inspired by what Dr Seuss said: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It won’t,’” she added. “The project is our small contribution to easing the pain and suffering of some of these children.”
Graw’s students learned about the rights of the child set forth by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said, noting that she shared her experiences of witnessing poverty and human rights violations.
“We read a lot of books about the rights of the child and the problems the world’s children are facing,” Graw said. “We discussed why it’s important to protect and promote those rights. We looked at photos/videos from UNICEF and Heifer International.”
The students were paired up and assigned a right; they created drawings around their interpretation of their assigned right.
“The artwork was conceived with our awesome Art teacher, Sarah-Locke Mountin,” Graw said. “She guided the class through several drafts.”
The partnerships also wrote essays related to their assigned right, going through several drafts with Graw’s assistance.
“They wrote about what they as first graders could do to help make the world kinder, gentler, better,” Graw said.
The class also received help with their project from outside of the school’s walls, from Wendy Kenigsberg, the parent of a student in the classroom and a graphic designer.
“She designed the calendars, coordinated with our parents, and a thousand more jobs,” Graw said, adding that all the classroom parents embraced the project. “We planned the culminating celebratory event – the launching of the full color 2017 calendars.”

Image Provided
The cover of the calendar produced by students in Emily Graw’s first grade class at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca.

That event took place last week, with students reading their dreams for a better world in front of a packed house that included their families ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown and Karen Baer, the director of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission.
Donations collected through the sale of the calendars will benefit UNICEF Syria and Heifer International.
“Syria because there is an urgent need to help the children who are trapped there, children like 7-year-old Bana al Abed from eastern Aleppo, who pleaded, ‘Please save us’,” Graw said. “Both organizations are leaders in fighting poverty and promoting child rights worldwide.
“They also allot most of the donations they receive to helping people at the ‘ground level’ instead of spending big chunk of the donation on administrative expenses,” she added.
Graw is hopeful the lessons learned from the project will extend beyond the present – “that even though they have different skin colors, they all have the same needs, rights, dreams – to the future.
“I hope this project instills in our first graders a lifelong passion for kindness, love and compassion,” she said.
Calendars are available – for a minimum donation of $5 – at the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission office at 120 W. MLK Jr./State St. in Ithaca and the Sunny Days shop (located on Green Street in Ithaca across from the Tompkins County Public Library). Students also will be selling the calendars at GreenStar from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the next two Sundays, January 8, and January 15. People also may order calendars by emailing Graw at edgraw1@yahoo.com.