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Grant Recipients Lisa & Matt Laker – Western Europe’s World Court & Human Rights

September 21, 2009
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Traveling and learning is invigorating for teachers during summer months, and many of us have our own “wish list” of places we have heard about and want to truly understand.  My husband, Matt, who teaches sixth grade language arts and social studies at Edgewood Intermediate School in Franklin Township, Indianapolis, and I, an English teacher at Franklin Central High School, also located in Franklin Township, ventured to the Netherlands to explore the United Nation’s World Court in Den Hague, located within a 45 minute train ride of Amsterdam.  Here we were given a private tour of study of the Peace Palace which houses the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as well as an arbitration court. This is considered the World Court. It has many, smaller peace gardens surrounding it, and it has added on a new wing for visiting international law students.  It was funded by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900’s. 

Even though we could not take pictures once inside the Peace Palace, I still remember the intense thought and symbolism that went into each room’s design.  Most rooms’ carpets, woodwork, tapestries, sculptures, and paintings were goodwill gifts from around the world.   For example, Tzar Nicholas gave the most extravagant gift in the form on a six-plus-feet elaborate vase that was displayed in its own, ornate room!  (You didn’t want to knock that one over!) The United States gave oak wood for the woodwork in many courtrooms as well as a statue of Lady Justice.  The busts of such humanitarians as Nelson Mandela and Ghandi were displayed in hallways winding around the courtrooms echoing the theme of peace and goodwill.  The palace was magnificent and inspiring!

We became interested in developing a lesson plan on the “World Court and Human Rights” for IU WEST’s program because of a project we had collaborated on this spring:  a community peace garden.  We connected it to a Socratic Seminar speaking unit from an article from then-political candidates Senators John McCain & Barack Obama on youth giving back the community earlier in the fall; students were inspired to begin an initiative to give back to our community by creating a peace garden through the Indy Parks Department by a pond located on our corporation’s grounds.  This spring, over 100 youth and parent volunteers planted over 75 butterfly bushes and lilies, along with a student-made peace sculpture.  Funding came from Teaching Tolerance magazine (www.teachingtolerance.org) as well as our Student Council.  We had a “human rights” dedication ceremony where some of our Punjabi students danced and played the tabla, students recited poems by Lao Tzu, as well as sang solos such as “What a Wonderful World.”  It was a successful outreach that we felt we needed to take a step further and look into organizations who work on keeping peace internationally.   So we thought, why not travel to the Netherlands this summer and investigate the World Court?

What we found most profound at the World Court was their motto, “Words– not weapons.”  The current case that was in session when we toured the Peace Palace was between North and South Somalia.  The ICJ judges spent any “off” days deliberating extensively before making a recommendation to the presenting parties.  The ICJ is represented by judges from one of fifteen countries; the judge’s term lasts nine years.  This court is the main judicial organization of the United Nations that stemmed from the League of Nations in 1922.   Typically, the court is in session 1-2 times per month, with cases heard on an as-needed basis.  Our tour guide explained that many times each country being heard in a case is pleasantly surprised by the judges’ recommendation, and a peaceful solution is solidified. 

On a side note, we toured the Anne Frank Home in Amsterdam; this also is a great tie-in to a human rights unit.  There is a room dedicated to contemporary human rights issues after touring Anne’s secret annex and diary—which is absolutely moving and will bring tears to your eyes.  It is specifically designed for teachers and students to debate human rights issues that have “gray” areas.  A short video synopsis plays of the issue, then students take clickers and vote on the issue prompt; a screen calculates the totals and shows what the room decided on in the form of a pie chart and how students around the world have voted on that topic.  For example, a London-based police officer wears his turban while patrolling; the question is:  Should police officers be forced to wear their required hat/uniform while on duty, or may police officers wear religiously-affiliated clothing?  So, if you ever get a chance to visit the World Court, don’t forget to explore the Anne Frank Home in Amsterdam! 

We are looking forward to collaborating again this year on a multi-aged Socratic Seminar, human rights poetry and readings, and writing letters to our State Senators, President Obama, and UN Secretary Ki-Moon regarding current local, national, and international human rights issues of our students’ choice.  The World Court and Peace Palace in Den Hague, Netherlands will be a focal point of our unit.   Our experience seeing this international focal point for peace was an educator’s dream!  Special thanks and appreciation to Indiana University’s WEST Travel Grants for Teachers Program for allowing us to fulfill this part of our “educator’s wish list!” Check one for PEACE! 

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