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Why I Teach Child Labor

by Ron Adams

For ten years I have been surveying my incoming grade 7 students on issues that are important to them. On a local level, they cited school rules such as a ban on cell phones or the ban on wearing headphones in class, which they thought were unfair. Globally, the war in Iraq, climate change and child labor topped the students’ list. The reality is that some adults may accept a world in which war and abusive treatment of child workers exist, but children do not.

In response, I searched my existing curriculum for areas of intersection where state standards intersect with the teaching of child labor issues.

In grade 7 language arts, for example, there are two areas where the teaching of the standards and child labor abuses can be combined. One is in our city’s literature standards in which students are required to read non-fiction accounts of “ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary achievements.”

The other area is in the required understanding and application of MLA standards in the writing of a Research Paper. Also, to make this interdisciplinary, I try to tie my emerging Language Arts unit to our state’s middle school social studies curriculum of World Geography (grade 6) and U.S. History from American Revolution through Industrial Revolution. 

In my language arts class, my students often choose to research a subject that moves or inspires them, those working now to change the current world, especially those trying to bring education, freedom and an end to child exploitation. Other choices include people who were first in a culture or gender to open schools, voting rights, or job opportunities to people of an exploited gender or race.

My students understand they stand on the “shoulders of giants,” but those giants once were ordinary people just like they are.  For example, they discovered that Dr. David Parker of Minnesota is now the Lewis Hine of the global economy. Dr. Parker secretly photographs children in exploitative work in many countries including Mexico, Nepal, Thailand. Iqbal Masih (1983-1995) of Pakistan, slain child laborer, was the Harriet Tubman of Pakistani child slaves. Iqbal helped lead 3,000 children out of bonded labor and into freedom and education. (My students put together an award-winning website to honor the brief but heroic life of Iqbal Masih)

Other inspiring people include adult activists such as Aung san suu Kyi, Alice Paul, and Jackie Robinson, as well as student activists such as Ruby Bridges, Mamie Tape and Sarah Roberts. Many other well known and many not so well known individuals were recognized by my students as role models who saw injustice and did something, overcoming fear, overcoming dangers in an attempt to make the world a better place.

My students understood not only how history shapes today’s world, but students also started to raise questions about the world of middle school. In particular they focused on the clothes they choose to buy and wear. Who made it? Where and under what working conditions was it made? What about the foods we eat? Who picked them and under what kind of working conditions? Suddenly, two end results of child labor, clothing and food, were on the backs and in the hands of the students daily! They ask year after year how they can shop with a clear and clean conscience, eat well and without guilt. They want to look good and feel good about the choices they make as consumers. How?

My students recently discovered a clothing company owned by Irish entrepreneurs Ali Hewson and her husband Paul Hewson (Paul is better known as Bono of U2). The company is called edun-live. Every step in the clothing production process, from growing the cotton to sewing the tee shirts, is completed transparently and only by well-paid, well-treated adult workers in South Africa. My students concluded this is the best way to make clothes. In fact, one of my students remarked, “You can look good and feel good in edun-live clothes.”  In the past ten years, I’ve learned to listen to the students’ fragile voices, to their concerns about their global sisters and brothers.

How can teachers weave those student concerns about child laborers into the classroom? By resequencing and supplementing the curriculum with activities and resources which both meet state standards and meet students’ global concerns, we can create and teach lessons which might be remembered and applied for a lifetime.

Operation Days Work

Ten years ago, there was no “global service learning” option in schools, so my students along with students in MN, DC, VT, WI and SD teamed up with the help of USAID to create a program called Operation Day’s Work-USA.

In 1998, my students accepted an invitation from USAID to team with 6 other U.S. schools to work together to write a Constitution for After School Activism – a guidebook for other students to help children in countries experiencing crushing poverty, low literacy rates, low life expectancy rates and high child labor rates.

About one thousand U.S. students in 12 U.S. schools make up Operation Day’s Work. The student written Constitution calls for students to research countries to aid, vote on a country to help that school year, seek project proposals from reputable non-governmental organizations in that country, debate the strengths and weaknesses of each project proposal received back, then vote on which one project proposal to fund to turn into a reality.

To fund the winning project, students “work one day” and donate that “day’s pay” to the project. Students typically donate $ 30. With a thousand student members, that’s enough to turn a project proposal into a sustainable reality. Winning project proposals have been submitted by: Heifer Project (Haiti ), Salesian Missions (El Savador), Partners in Health/Village Health Works (Burundi ), Chabha (Ethiopia/Rwnada) and others.

Operations Day’s Work has established schools, orphanages, scholarships for girl students, and a health center  in such developing countries as Bangladesh, Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, El Salvador and Vietnam.

After ten years, one reality is clear to me. Our students bring a global caring to our classrooms each school year. I have seen many of my students change; they now appreciate their seat in school more than ever. Furthermore, many of these students learn to be active citizens taking collective actions in a democratic classroom process to bring some of their blessings, especially education,   annually to their global peers. 

For more details about Operation Days Work visit  or by write to Ron Adams at