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Fifth grade class combats child slavery

on January 17, 2014

Navied Mahdavian’s fifth grade class at Making Waves Academy was in uproar. Nearly two dozen 10-year-olds clustered around a podium in front of the whiteboard, laughing, talking, jostling for a turn to write on index cards and occasionally shouting to be heard above the scrum.

“One…two…three!” Mahdavian said, bringing sudden quiet to the class. Despite his slight build and youthful face, Madhavian’s students clearly know who’s in charge. “Remember, one at a time.”

“How would you feel if you didn’t have food, shelter, and had to live on the streets?” Asked a boy named Dwayne Taylor.  Everyone waited. Another student, Sandy Morales, whispered to Dwayne to look at his card.

Mahdavian asked the class what persuasion technique Dwayne was using.

“Pathos!” The students chorused.

For the past two months, the kids in Mahdavian’s social studies class have been involved in a project to research and combat child slavery.

In his second year teaching, Mahdavian said he’d been looking for an opportunity for the class to participate in a student-directed project. When this topic came up in social studies, the kids gravitated toward it.

Student-led learning has been touted as a way to get kids to “buy-in” to their own educational experience. Though he concedes the experiment “wasn’t without flaws,” Mahdavian is pleased with the results.

Mahdavian has the flexibility to try this kind of educational technique because he works for Making Waves Academy, a charter school in Richmond, which was “founded out of concern about disparities in educational opportunity,” according to its website.

The school was established in 1989 by investment fund manager, John H. Scully, and the late Reverend Eugene Farlough, who saw the need to bring better educational options to low-income students.

“Throughout the history of the organization, our mission has been to save lives by giving our most challenged citizens an educational pathway to success,” Scully said.

The topic of the students’ mock debate this day: “Can child labor be beneficial?”

“With child labor you can get paid. If you’re a child slave you’re never going to get out,” Mahdavian said to the class.

Sandy said they became interested in the topic after reading a book about a child slave called Iqbal.

“We’re kids. If we lived in Africa we’d have to do the same job,” said Alexandra Samson, a soft-spoken girl with long brown hair. The students said they were surprised to learn how many everyday items are produced by child slavery such as clothes, soccer balls, carpets, coffee and chocolate.

“We get an education,” Mariana Carillo said, “We think what our parents make us do is hard, but this is much worse.”

Seeing how involved the kids became in the topic, Mahdavian asked them, “What do you guys think we can do?”

His students were not short on ideas. Since the class began, they have spoken about the topic at assembly, written letters to news organizations such as this one, made fliers to put up at the school, organized a fundraiser, started a blog, and led a boycott of non-fair trade chocolate.

“What’s been most rewarding is the kids’ excitement about this,” Mahdavian said. “They are excited to write and do research.”

Back to the debate. A tall boy named Eric Arandia-Cardenas made the point that child laborers are denied an education. Unconsciously echoing his school’s founder, Eric said, “If they get an education, they can get out of poverty.”

After closing remarks, the students gathered in a circle to critique each other’s arguments in preparation for the real debate, which was scheduled for the following day. Whether a criticism, a suggestion or a compliment, nearly every student had something to add.

“If kids are invested in what they’re doing, then they can produce really amazing things,” Mahdavian said.

Below is the news article that four students wrote describing their efforts. Mahdavian edited the article for grammar.

 Cocoa, Child Slaves, and What One Fifth Grade Class is Doing About It

By Sandy Morales, Xitlalli Santiago, Alexandra Samson, and Mariana Carillo

(5th Graders at Making Waves Academy)

At Making Waves Academy, one 5th grade class is trying to do something to help stop child slavery.  They learned that many of the products they use every day are made using forced child labor and decided to do something about it.

This past quarter in social studies, they have been doing research on child slavery, they have groups working on different projects, and they are boycotting non-fair trade chocolate. Their project began when they learned about Iqbal, a child slave from Pakistan, who was murdered by the “Carpet Mafia” for trying to stop child labor in his country. They learned that there are a lot of places where child slaves are used. In one corner of the classroom, a group is making flyers to hang up around the school and in their neighborhood. In another corner, students are working on a blog. In another part of the room, a group is working on a speech for the school assembly. On the carpet, kids are organizing a fundraiser to help child slaves. Lastly, a group is writing to local newspapers. They are all working to stop child slavery. As part of their boycott, they are only eating fair trade chocolate. They have to be honest when they eat non- fair trade chocolate.

Even though people around the world enjoy chocolate, they don’t know the dark side of it. Child slaves are picking cocoa that Hershey’s, Nestle, and other chocolate companies use. Children are trafficked across borders into countries like Ghana and The Ivory Coast. Children are tricked into thinking they are getting paid but they aren’t. People don’t know that most of the cocoa we need for chocolate is harvested by hard working child slaves. Slaves work in dangerous conditions, like using machetes to cut down and harvest cocoa pods. You know chocolate is fair trade when you see a green frog that says “Rainforest Alliance” around it or if it says “Fair Trade.” The kids of 5B are trying to convince others not to buy Hershey’s or Nestle, even if it’s cheaper.

For their boycott, they signed a protocol. They had many arguments, but in the end they all agreed to sign it, except one student. Here’s what it says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all children are created equal, that they are endowed with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of an education. Whenever any industry becomes destructive of these ends, it’s the right for children to boycott or to change its policies. Its children’s rights, it is their duty, to throw such of an industry, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of child slaves, and such as now the necessity which forces us to boycott the Cocoa Industry. The history of the present Cocoa Industry is a history of repeated injuries.

We, the children of 5B, declare we will no longer eat chocolate that is not fair trade and is the product of child slavery.

Do you want to help their classroom stop child slavery? Here are some ways you can help. You can boycott with them to support child slaves. If you’re in the boycott with them, only eat fair trade chocolate. You can buy it at Marshalls, Trader Joes, Grocery Outlet, and Whole Foods. If you want to see their blog, check it out at On the blog, they will update what they’re doing in the classroom and give resources. Also, check out the documentaries, “The Dark Side of Chocolate” and “Chocolate: The Bitter Truth,” and spread the word.


  1. Leslie Waltzer on January 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Good Article — what a good teacher!

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