Author: Demy Cruz Jr.

“It changed everything:” Bringing the Human Dignity Curriculum to a Cameroon school

For the last three months, Jervis Lyonga has been commuting to Bishop Rogan College, an all-boys school in Cameroon, to volunteer teach the Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC). 

“The trip is only fifteen minutes,” he says modestly, before eventually admitting that “the roads are not the best, given the security challenges . . . and the rainy season . . . but if you’re lucky enough to get a taxi . . .” He typically leaves his home around 8am to be on time for his 11am class.

Jervis sits quietly in front of a wall of books. He’s a student himself, pursuing his master’s degree in conflict resolution, international law and human rights. His country is in a state of unrest, with violent clashes between separatists and the Cameroonian security forces. 

“I don’t know how to describe the root causes, but there’s a lot of regional inequality in the two English regions as compared with the French. You don’t know what is going to happen. You don’t know who is responsible. You don’t know if you’re safe. But presently I would say it’s relatively calm especially in the educational sector, as opposed to when it started in 2016.”

Jervis joined World Youth Alliance in 2021. He completed the Certified Training Program (CTP), becoming a trainer of other members both regionally and globally, before doing the Advocacy Academy during an internship with the regional office in Nairobi. “I had HDC in mind as a way to give back to my community. I wanted to do more.” 

It takes the right place and the right principal to implement the Human Dignity Curriculum. Jervis found both at Bishop Rogan College: “Initially the principal wanted me to teach HDC to the whole school, but due to scheduling, I ended up teaching just 40 students. The first day was . . .” he exhales and smiles. “I wrote human dignity on the board and asked students to simply raise their hand if they had human dignity, were important and loved.” Only five students raised their hands.

“I was a little bit shocked,” Jervis admits. “But this one question got the class moving.” At the end of the lesson the students assigned themselves homework: “They wanted to write about their personal purpose, in reaction to the question of personal importance.”

In lesson two, there was silence when Jervis read the definition of treating persons as objects aloud: “using persons for personal pleasure or benefit.” “They knew what it meant,” he says, “They were real philosophers about it.” 

Jervis led his class in discussing Martin Buber’s classic text, I and Thou. “We discussed questions that tied deeply to their day to day lives. HDC bridges that connection between what they have inside of them and what their expectations are for themselves. I think because it’s the one academic class that’s ‘all about you,’ the HDC fits well into their daily lives and students share their feelings.”

But it was the lesson on Freedom that really changed the tone in the classroom. 

Jervis asked the students if they thought they had freedom. They did not think they did. “We discussed the freedom to be here at this school or this choice or that to break rules . . . We discussed this for a long time.” Then, after reading Viktor Frankl, “about how everything can be taken away from you, and yet in that moment being able to somehow decide your attitude . . . It changed everything,” Jervis says. “Their approach to things was different after that.”

By week five, students would be looking for Jervis in the halls. “They were like, where were you? When are you coming back to school? I said, don’t worry, I told you I’ll be back! They loved it. Every day they were following up, asking questions from the previous lessons.”

Jervis included Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” song in the lesson on The Power of Art, to further the discussion: “I said listen to the lyrics, what does it say about freedom? Is it freedom for excellence or indifference?” The Human Dignity Curriculum had given these high school students a vocabulary for thinking philosophically about their lives and the world we inhabit.

He created quizzes and evaluations so that the students would take the material seriously, since there is no formal grading for HDC. “It was a rich experience for the students, as they were really making connections between what they were learning in other classes and these deeper questions in the HDC.”

Before leaving for Christmas break, the students received their HDC graduation certificates in a closing ceremony in the school auditorium, attended by teachers and parents. If class scheduling permits, the hope is that in the new year, the juniors at Bishop Rogan College will start HDC next. 

“People think that human dignity is the same as human rights. But it isn’t. Human dignity is the basis for human rights,” says Jervis. And so, the Human Dignity Curriculum helps students learn something about themselves. As for his personal experience, “I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “All of this has changed my scope. And I think for me, my field of studies is not unrelated—it has helped me a lot in terms of my personal development.” 

For Jervis and his students, that development is well worth the three-hour commute and extra class.

WYA Staff Writer, January 2024

Mirrors and Windows: What Does it Mean to be Human?

A Window into the Human Person

At times, a student’s learning in a classroom can be a window; an opportunity to see both nuance and novelty in the world, an opportunity to examine the range of what it means to be human.

At other times, a student’s learning can serve as a mirror; a chance to see the self in a book, in a discussion, in the experiences of a classmate. In this reflection—perhaps magnified, perhaps distorted—students might see aspects of themselves previously unknown or unexamined.

Our research on the Human Dignity Curriculum—an ongoing mixed-methods study conducted by the University of Florida, St. Mary’s University, and the World Youth Alliance—has illuminated both mirrors and windows in students’ experiences learning about human dignity.

What is the Human Dignity Curriculum?

What is Human Dignity?

In the spring of 2023, we interviewed nearly 60 students with the hopes of understanding their perspectives on and experiences with human dignity after participating in the HDC. 

Students described learning about the nature of subjects versus objects, the value of different types of friendships, and the ability to think and choose and act with agency, amongst other topics.

Ashley, a sixth grader, spoke about seeing what it means to be human and herself in a new way. She told us:

“I’ve been having more confidence in what I do and just not really caring about what the other people say and stuff. Probably just that everything that you do in life is okay. And that if you make a mistake, that is fine. You can just try again.”

The HDC reflects the perspective that human dignity is something inherent and irrevocable. As such, it makes sense that Ashley feels confident, knowing that “if you make a mistake, that is fine.”

Download a free lesson plan.

We can teach students what it means to be human by teaching them human dignity.

Another student, George, talked about how the HDC changed his views on and treatment of others. The fifth-grader told us that

“everybody has dignity, so it’s not okay to bully other people because they also have human dignity.”

What it Means to be Human is to Have Infinite Dignity

Another student, Benny, marveled that “even a criminal [has] human dignity that’s equal with every other person.”

Lily, a seventh-grader, shared a similar perspective. When we asked her about a major takeaway from the HDC, she told us how:

“…everyone has human dignity and it’s important to treat everyone the same, even if you don’t like someone as much…so that they know that the other person has feelings too, and they know that if you hurt their feelings, they’re going to feel bad about it, and they might do the same to someone else.”

The Human Dignity Curriculum 

The HDC offers students the answer to what it means to be human and a window into what’s truly inside another person.

Not surprisingly, the students we interviewed described changes in their views of family members, classmates and even their teachers.

The HDC also offers the chance to see what’s inside each of us.

Isabel, an eighth grader, identified this essential thing as human dignity, reminding us that “I have human dignity, and I shouldn’t treat myself like I don’t.”

Students have questions. The answer is human dignity. Learn more about the curriculum.

Mark B. Pacheco, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the University of Florida’s College of Education. His research focuses on ways that teachers can foster character development for diverse learners within literacy and language instruction.

Kids who Bully and Kids who Get Bullied Learn “¡Soy Digno!”

Why do Kids Bully?

Keep that question in your mind. Before I tell the story of bullying and how it stopped, let’s back up.

Roció Valdez lives in a small town in Paraguay.

There are five schools in the town and she approached each of them to tell them about the Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC). Of these, one gave her permission to present the HDC to the Director of the School and its teachers.

She received permission to teach the HDC to the grade three students and then the pandemic hit.

“At first, students were sent home and school activities were canceled. Then, despite the fact that the school was not allowed to do in-person instruction, the students were told they could go to school on Tuesday and Thursdays to do the HDC.”

I ask Roció what it was like, teaching a room full of grade three students, in masks, in an empty building?

“The reaction of the kids was really great; they were excited about going to the school for a special class and they never missed a class because of how excited they were. We didn’t do certain games or activities in the lesson plan in order to follow the rules regarding social distancing.”

Kids Getting Bullied is Nothing New

At one point, Roció noticed a couple of students bullying another student.

“They were making fun of her because of her skin color.”

“They called her quemadita which means burned.”

“I told the kids not to say this, but they wouldn’t listen.

Then, when we talked about the value of human dignity and that we have human dignity even when we have differences, by the end of that lesson, the tone in the room had changed and the students were noticeably more collaborative.”

Why do kids bully? Because they don't know that they and others have human dignity.

Students hold signs from the curriculum that read: “I have the power to think and choose” and “I am worthy.”

A Hunger for Human Dignity

Fast forward to 2023, when the same school asked Roció to teach the HDC to the grade four students.

“Post-pandemic, students across Paraguay are experiencing increased difficulty with reading and writing.” Due to the popularity of the program, the school gave the HDC a two-hour time slot, from 9-11am every Tuesday and Thursday.

At first, the teachers gave a lot of homework to students to make up for the time lost to the HDC class. However, since the HDC class was only for one month, the kids were still happy because all they wanted was the HDC and so they didn’t care about other homework.”

Despite the generous two-hour time slot, the HDC class would still sometimes run for three hours, because “the kids would skip their break and eat in the classroom to keep going,” said Roció. “We covered a lot of material quickly!”

When Roció missed a class because she was sick, the following class, the kids were sad and angry with her.

“One kid asked me, why, why, weren’t you there? And then the students told me not to miss another one.”

Bullying Comes from Ignorance of Human Dignity

Remember the question, why do kids bully? The HDC covers a lot of important ideas that kids don’t usually get to talk about in school. “The questions are interesting and deep… so, kids are allowed to show their feelings and be sincere. They like it.”

“There is a lot of poverty, and many of these children are living in a situation where both their parents have left the country to try to find work.

In these families, the kids are taking care of their grandparents. Most kids are sensitive to the topic and don’t want to talk about their parents at all.”

In the lesson on Heroism, the heroes the fourth-grade students selected were their grandparents, their teachers and Roció.

At the end of the class, one student told Rocio that thanks to her, he knows he has value.

I ask Rocio if the kids are surprised to learn that they have human dignity? There is a pause. She is crying.

“Yes. Of course. At the end of the curriculum, all of the kids cried that the classes were over.”

“HDC gives them back an identity.”

Because, in the end, the kids understood what human dignity is and that they were really valued. And it made them so happy.”

Listen to educators talk about the Human Dignity Curriculum!

Kids in Paraguay are learning they have human dignity, and this combats bullying in schools.

Clare Halpine, Director of the Human Dignity Curriculum, 2023.

Little House, Big House (Nyumba Ndogo, Nyumba Kubwa)

Kisumu Juvenile Remand Home is a place where children in conflict with the law are committed by court until their matters are finalized. Some are orphans, others are from situations of neglect, living on the street.

At the Remand Home, they are safe, they have accommodation and food, and now they also know that their human dignity is intrinsic and can’t be given or taken away.

Beginning in April, every other Tuesday, the young people of Kisumu Remand home would gather in small groups, or, little house “Nyumba Ndogo” and big house “Nyumba Kubwa”, to take the Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC), taught by a facilitator.

“Some of these children haven’t been in school for quite some time, and so, based on their level of literacy, they received instruction from either the Kindergarten or Grade 7 level of the Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC),” explains Cynthia Maingi, Director of World Youth Alliance Africa, the organization behind the program.

“They come into this place that is safe, they find themselves among other children and encounter adults who care about them. As a result, they build rapport quickly with the facilitators. Whether it’s a week or three months, sometimes… the facilitators know it’s a limited time to impact this person’s life.”

The homes make do with what little resources they have.

The cost of the Human Dignity Curriculum was covered by World Youth Alliance, but facilitators translated each lesson into Swahili for delivery to the children.

To meet the challenges of the low literacy level, they got creative, bringing salt, lemons and sugar into the room to explain the idea of the human senses.

Gathering plants from outside, they explained the lesson on the Hierarchy of Being, highlighting the powers that plants, animals and humans share, and the two powers that are unique to humans: the power to think and the power to choose.

Most children’s homes in Kenya try to implement programs aimed at teaching life skills, such as financial literacy or dealing with issues of peer pressure.

“Of the partners we’ve worked with…” begins Cynthia, before re-stating:

ALL of the partners we have worked with, say that what stands out for them is that the Human Dignity Curriculum starts with the question: who am I?” 

For the children of Kisumu Juvenile Remand Home, they may think the answer to that question is confusing, embarrassing, or worse.

“Yes, many of the children feel they’ve been rescued from situations that are so unbearable,” says Cynthia, who has worked with various children’s homes in Nairobi.

Learn more about this K-12 curriculum that changes lives!

“HDC teaches children  that even if you’re going to this Remand Home, that doesn’t negate the fact that you have the same value as every other person.”

At the end of one of the lessons in the Grade 7 Curriculum, the lesson concludes with a True or False quiz that rings true to the images capturing HDC scholars diligently at work, residents of the Kisumu Juvenile Remand Home:

“Society does not give us human dignity; every human being has dignity, whether society recognizes it or not.” True.

If we live in difficult circumstances with a lot of distress, we still have human dignity.” True.

Explore the curriculum in depth and contact us!

Clare Halpine, Director of the Human Dignity Curriculum, 2023.

Human Dignity Heals Memory and Identity

The Effects of Divorce on Human Dignity

The effects of divorce on children is tragic, but reversible.

Isabel waits patiently in the hallway, as I’m still interviewing Jack. “We’ll be just a few more minutes I say” and she eagerly nods her head and closes the door.

Jack returns to the discussion of his sister and how difficult she is to love; and yet, he says, “I can’t hate her. It’s a disability in me.”

He tells me about how angry he is; he asks if it’s normal to feel physically sick with so much anger inside.

He tells me that he has seen his sister harm herself:

“I see how beautiful she is, but she doesn’t. I know she has human dignity, but she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t go to this school and so she doesn’t take classes in the Human Dignity Curriculum.”

Why this curriculum gives us hope.

The Effects of Divorce on the Home

Isabel is interviewed next; she says that her younger sister doesn’t know what human dignity is: she pushes people and calls them names.

Isabel doesn’t retaliate anymore though, as she tries to respect her sister’s dignity.

“Has the human dignity curriculum changed the way you behave at home,” I ask?

“Yes. I get along better with my Mom now. We used to fight all the time, ever since the divorce. I’m really close with my Dad. Then I realized that my Mom has dignity, too. And so I comfort her when she is sad and she comforts me, too.”

A mere three months ago, Isabel said she was unable to talk to her Mom. Her schoolwork was slipping as she was tossed back and forth between two homes.

“After the divorce, I forgot a lot of things,” she says. “The lesson on thinking and choosing helped her remember things.” “Why do you think that is?” I ask. “I can’t explain it, it just did.”

The answer to questions kids have and the challenges they face.

Reversing the Effects of Divorce on Children

The effects of divorce on children are devastating. As novelist Pat Conroy wrote, “each divorce is the death of a civilization.” But as civilizations fall, they can also be rebuilt.

With HDC, that process begins within each student.

To understand human dignity is what the children of divorce really need.        

When I first met Jarvis, he slouched in to the interview with dirty nails and long hair hiding most of his face. He wasn’t interested in my questions and generally dismissed their relevance to his life with a shrug.

Today, he says “hello” when he enters the room, his hair is pulled back from his face and his nails are short and clean.

When I ask if the human dignity class has changed him at all, he says, “oh, definitely.” If actions speak louder than words, as our interview is over, he thanks me for having taken the time to interview him.

What does it mean to be human?

Human Dignity is Critical to Education

The Human Dignity Curriculum is being evaluated by researchers at the University of Florida for its impact on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

The evaluation is taking place in two sites across North America, one in a public school in Kansas and a private school in New Brunswick.

Students in Grades 5-8 in both sites were interviewed, as well as their teachers, to gauge the impact of the curriculum on self-perception and pro-social behaviors.

Download free sample lessons from the human dignity curriculum here.

To protect the privacy of students, all names were changed for this article.

Clare Halpine, Director of the Human Dignity Curriculum, 2023.