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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Lesson Plans and Lecture Notes

Eleanor Roosevelt and
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
A Lesson Plan for Middle and Upper Grades

[picture: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration in Spanish, 1949]

Simulation Activity (three class periods with some student preparation ahead of time)


When the United Nations established its Human Rights Commission in February 16, 1946 out of concern for victims of World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt was chosen to chair its effort to draft a Declaration of Human Rights. Her selection as leader of this endeavor was particularly appropriate because of her commitment to refugee issues. The commission's mission was to create a document that might help to prevent another such war and serve as a model for how human beings and nations should treat each other. The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the resulting Declaration on December 10, 1948. The following activity gives students the opportunity to simulate this undertaking.


  1. To highlight the importance of documents in history.
  2. To learn about the times through documents.
  3. To reveal the complexity of the creation of such an international document.
  4. To showcase the leadership skills of ER.


  1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  2. "The Promise of Human Rights," Foreign Affairs, April 1948


Date:   January 27, 1947
Place:  Lake Success
Event: Initial meeting of the Human Rights Commission, created by the Economic and Social Council.

People present: 18 members of the commission, each chosen by his/her government as representatives. The representatives came from the following countries: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussia, China, Chile, Egypt, France, India, Lebanon, Panama, the Philippines, Ukraine, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (This plan is based on a class of 18; adjustments can be made by doubling the number of representatives per country.)

ER was the U.S representative and permanent chairman. Dr. Chang represented China and served as vice-chairman, and Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon served as rapporteur.

Goal: to come to some initial agreement about the articles that should be included in the Declaration of Human Rights


Before the first class:

  1. Assign each student a role as country representative and have him or her read the handout providing information about the world at the time. Allow them time to do some research about their country and its status in 1947. Students might use these questions as guidelines: What are the major issues of concern to your country's citizens? Which of these seems most pressing? What effect did the recent war have on your country? How stable is your government? What kind of government does your country have? Are there specific issues of concern involving children, elderly people, women, minorities?
  2. Ask them to come to class with a list of 5 articles for consideration in the initial draft of the UDHR (Only the officers will have read the actual Declaration; it is essential that the other delegates not see the UDHR before class two.)
  3. In addition to these roles as country representative, assign three students to the jobs of officers: ER (chairman), Dr. Chang (vice-chairman) and Dr. Malik (rapporteur)

During the first class:

Divide students into three groups as follows:

  1. Have those three groups meet for 25 minutes to compare notes (in character, arguing for inclusion or omission of certain matters based on their countries' interests) and attempt to agree on a list of 10 articles for inclusion.
  2. Instruct the three officers (who will have read the actual document and "The Promise of Human Rights" so that they know what ER thought was most important) to fill their roles as go-betweens and mediators. They should move from group to group.
  3. During the last twenty minutes of class, have ER and Dr. Chang run a discussion about the commonalities in countries' suggestions for inclusion. Instruct Dr. Malik to record the suggestions for a memo to the drafting committee. Have ER and Dr. Chang remind the delegates to focus on the concepts, not the language, since that will be the work of the drafting committee.

During the second class:

This gathering of the Human Rights Commission occurs after the drafting committee has met and written a draft of the Declaration.

  1. Have ER and Dr. Chang distribute that document (the actual Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to the original groups for their perusal. In those groups, have representatives read the articles, look at what has been included and omitted. They should prepare to explain their reservations as well as the basis for their endorsement of the Declaration.
  2. During the last 15 minutes of class, have ER and Dr. Chang call the full commission to order. They should allow each representative the opportunity to briefly voice the compromises his or her country will be making for the greater good in signing this document.

During the third class:

Have students consider and discuss these questions:

  1. What would make countries agree to such a principled document?
  2. What do you think happened to this document? What effect do you think it had? (After students have speculated about this, the teacher can talk about what actually happened.)
  3. What challenges would ER have faced as chairman of the Human Rights Commission?
  4. What did you learn from this simulation?

For more information see

Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Knopf, 2000).

Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (Norton, 1972), 55-81.

The following web sites provide information about the creation and impact of the Declaration:

Prepared by Kathy Shollenberger, Sally Gilbert, and Allida Black

  Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt > Lesson Plans & Lecture Notes

This educational program was prepared by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
with funding from the GE Fund through Save America's Treasures.