Measuring Human Rights: High School Mathematics Unit

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Explain what a primary source is and how primary sources can be used in mathematical studies.
  • Understand the context in which a primary source (The UDHR) was developed and has been used.
  • Read and interpret complex text from a primary source accurately (UDHR Preamble and Articles).
  • Identify important textual details and use those details to support an observation.

Standards Addressed


RI.1.11-12: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Instructional Notes for Learning Activities

Preliminary Homework

Have students engage in informal research in response to the following questions: What is a primary source? How might primary sources be used in mathematical study?

Introduction to Primary Sources

Explain to students that in this unit they will be using a variety of information from primary sources (text, tables, graphs, etc.) to study an important question about the world’s population and human rights. Have students share (first in pairs, then as a class) what they know or have learned about what a primary source is. Present them with the definition of a primary source from the ISKME Primary Source Project and have them annotate the definition for key words that might be related to mathematical study:

Primary sources include observations, data, artifacts, first hand accounts, records and evidence collected from witnesses, scientists, and others, that convey information about the natural and social world. Examples of such sources are: informative or explanatory texts, scientific literature, specimens, data sets, oral histories, autobiographies, memoirs, opinion pieces, journalistic accounts, photographs, maps, realia, graphs, documents, charts, and speeches in various media and formats.

Discuss the homework question: How might primary sources be used in mathematical study? Ask students to speculate how information from primary sources might be used in a study of the world’s populations and human rights.

Close Reading of The UDHR Preamble

Provide students with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Before they receive any background on the document, have students follow along as you read the Preamble aloud.

Following the reading, have students make observations about the structure and nature of the text. [Sample answers: It is one long sentence (321 words); It has a lot of “whereas” statements; It has something to do with the United Nations and Human Rights; It is a Declaration.]

Discuss the structure of the text; in mathematical terms, its structure might be related to “if… then” statements in mathematical reasoning. Have students use this analogy to discuss/explain the ideational structure of the Declaration. [It presents a series of seven reasons for why human rights should be protected – “if” each of the reasons is a given, “therefore” it follows that we should do something to protect human rights].

Divide students into small groups and assign each group one of the seven “Whereas” paragraphs. Explain that reading and interpreting a primary source entails: 1) careful attention to details (whether those details are words, data, graphics, or other information); 2) close reading to accurately understand what the details mean; 3) interpretation of the details to make an evidence-based observation; 4) use of information/evidence to support a claim or conclusion. Have students use the following text-dependent questions to do a close reading of their assigned paragraph:

  1. What words or phrases stand out in the “Whereas” statement?

  2. What is the meaning (dictionary definition and/or personal interpretation) of those key words?

  3. When connected into a statement, what do those words present as a “given” or reason why human rights should be protected?

  4. What does the statement imply about how nations should treat their people, and how the UN should hold its members accountable? (Use specific details from the text to support this conclusion.)

Do a student report out: After student groups have used these questions to do a “close reading” of one paragraph of the Preamble, have them report out to the class – paraphrasing their paragraph and explaining its meaning. Have someone record the “givens” that emerge in a list that all students can see.

Now move to the final paragraph of the Preamble, projecting it in the classroom so that all students can see it. Ask students to first note the words presented in all caps, then highlight for them the phrase “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Have students respond to and discuss these text-dependent questions:

  1. What does the phrase “common standard of achievement” imply? How might mathematics be involved in setting or monitoring such a standard?

  2. When the UN General Assembly “proclaims” this “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” what expectations is it setting for the nations of the world? [Here it may be helpful to highlight the core statement in this long and complex sentence: “every individual and every organ of society… shall strive… to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and… to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”]

Understanding the Context for the UDHR

Explain to students that reading and interpreting a primary source, such as the UDHR, involves knowing something about the context in which the document was generated, its history, and its authorship. Have students learn (and record details) about the context of the UDHR through one or more of these instructional options:

  1. If computers/tablets are available in class, have them read and study the two tabs of the UDHR website: History and Human Rights Law. Have them make a list of key details about the document’s development and use, then discuss these in class.
  2. Alternatively, assign this task for homework.
  3. Watch an informational video such as Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and have students take notes.
  4. Present key contextual information about the document and have students record details, e.g., its date, its authorship, its historical context in 1948, its adoption process, its use since adoption, etc.

Close Reading of the UDHR Articles

Assign each student to do a close reading of one of the 30 Articles – leaving out Article 25 (which will be the focus of the unit’s study).

Instructional Support and Differentiation: The Articles vary in terms of the complexity of their ideas, sentences, and wording; students might be assigned an Article based on their demonstrated level of reading/thinking skills. For students with limited English proficiency or low reading skills, a simplified version of the UDHR Articles can be found on the Youth for Human Rights website:  

Have students use the following text-dependent question set to produce a short written analysis of the Article they are assigned [which will be turned in as an informal assessment of their close reading skills]:

  1. What words or phrases stand out in the Article? [Have students copy the text of the Article and highlight or annotate the key words they identify].
  2. What is the meaning (dictionary definition and/or personal interpretation) of those key words?
  3. When connected into a statement, what do those words present as an expectation for “every individual and every organ of society”?
  4. What does the Article imply about how nations should treat their people, and how the UN should hold its members accountable? (Use specific details from the text to support this conclusion.)

In partners or small groups, have students paraphrase and explain their text-based interpretation of the Article they have read closely. Then ask each student to summarize briefly for the class what human right(s) is implied by their Article, i.e., “the right to…” List these rights, by Article #, in a place where all students can see them [this list might be maintained throughout the unit, and used to set up the summative assessment activity.]

Conclude the lesson by projecting the text of Article 25 so that all students can see/read it. Highlight and discuss these key words: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food…” Explain to students that they will be reading and interpreting other primary sources in this unit to study this right to nutritional health from a mathematical perspective. Introduce and discuss the unit’s essential question:

How do we measure the attainment of human rights?

Extension/Homework Activities

  1. Present students with the following historical quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt from the UN’s Human Rights Indicators Guide, and have them do an independent close reading, highlighting key words and details:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”   Eleanor Roosevelt, 1948

Have students do a short written response to this text-dependent question: What do Roosevelt’s words suggest are the realms in which we should be monitoring and measuring the attainment of human rights?

  1. Ask students to generate a list of ideas about how one might use mathematics to measure the right they have analyzed in class, and the right to nutritional health implied by Article 25.
  2. Have students informally research the meaning of the word “indicator,” as used in a mathematical sense. (E.g., something observed or calculated that is used to show the presence or state of a condition or trend.)


Discussions, both small group and full class, present multiple opportunities for informal observation and assessment of how well students are using close reading skills to accurately interpret the complex text of this primary source document.

Students submit a short written analysis of their assigned Article, which can be reviewed to see how well students are annotating key details, interpreting their meaning, and using them to explain their thinking.

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