Responding with Humanity

Helping Students Raise Their Voices Against Genocide

Last Updated: May 16, 2018

In many Facing History and Ourselves classrooms, students learn about the history of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other examples of collective violence. But genocide and mass violence aren't confined to history. They are also current events, as recent and ongoing crises in Myanmar, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria show. As students confront these troubling events from the past and present, they need the opportunity to consider how they might raise their voices to educate others about the devastating impact such atrocities have on individuals, communities, and entire countries.

The following teaching ideas can help you discuss genocide with your class, explore past and present instances of mass atrocities, and consider ways that individuals, communities, and governments can respond:

Learn about Raphael Lemkin and the Genocide Convention

To help students understand the historical context of the word genocide and the adoption of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations in 1948, read aloud Ralph Lemkin and the Genocide Convention and discuss the connection questions in small groups. You might discuss the final question as a class, asking students to first share examples of genocides that they have learned about before responding to the questions.

Examine a Genocide Prevention Bill before the US Congress

Currently, the US Senate and House of Representatives are both considering the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, a bill that would “strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities around the world.”1 One of the bill’s advocates, Mike Brand, spoke with Facing History to explain the importance of the United States and other countries taking action to stop and prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. Consider sharing the interview from Facing Today with your students, reading the text of the bill, and exploring ways to build support in your school and community for its passage.

Learn about the Current Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have been under attack by the country’s military since August 2017. Since that time, approximately 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and are currently living in refugee camps in bordering Bangladesh with little to no hope of returning to their homes. Draw from the following lessons, teaching ideas, and a recent newspaper article to help your students understand a mass atrocity occurring in the world today:

  • Understanding the Conditions that Lead to "Ethnic Cleansing” introduces students to key concepts such as nation and self-determination and explains the relationship of these ideas to the conditions that make ethnic cleansing, which falls under the umbrella of “mass atrocity” but is not defined in international law, possible.
  • Responding to the Rohingya Crisis helps students put this crisis in historical context, while contemplating the international community’s obligation to respond.
  • In I Saw Genocide in Slow Motion, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof provides insight into the lives of Rohingya men, women, and children who have remained in Myanmar since the outbreak of violence in August 2017. After reading the article, ask students to respond to the below prompt. (Note: Kristof’s article includes descriptions of violence committed against Rohingya people and might not be appropriate for all classrooms. It is important that you read the article in its entirety and consider how you will frame its contents before sharing it with your students.)

    Kristof quotes from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

    What does it mean for a group of people who have been persecuted to “become at the center of the universe”? What factors influence the extent to which we feel an obligation to help others? How does the way we view others influence our feelings of responsibility toward them? What responsibility, if any, do you think the international community has to respond to the Rohingya crisis and why?

Hear the Story of a Survivor from Darfur

In her powerful TED Talk A Young Poet Tells the Story of Darfur (10:52), Emtithal Mahmoud, a young poet and activist, shares her story of escaping the genocide in Darfur through a spoken word poem. In the poem, she draws connections between Darfur and the current crisis in Syria. After watching Mahmoud’s TED Talk, ask students to discuss the following questions:

  • How does the experience of hearing about a mass atrocity like Darfur from a survivor through spoken word poetry differ from learning about it in a textbook, newspaper, or online article?

  • In response to questions about why she has raised her voice to speak out against injustice, Mahmoud writes:


    I believe that when we are spoken to politically, we are compelled to respond politically, when we are spoken to academically, we are compelled to respond academically, when we are spoken to with hate, we are compelled to respond with hate; but when we are spoken to as human beings, we are compelled to respond with our humanity. In this global moment with endless pressing questions and not many daring to answer them, my challenge to you is to respond with your own humanity.”2

    What does it mean to be spoken to as a human being?


Provide Outlets for Reflection and Personal Expression

After learning about genocide and mass atrocities, students need time to reflect and respond. It is crucial to give students the opportunity to think quietly, write in a journal, and process together the emotional and painful stories they learn about when studying genocide. The following teaching ideas and strategies can be useful in facilitating reflective and thoughtful responses to difficult stories:

Students, and even entire classes, sometimes channel their empathy and outrage into creative expressions that can galvanize those around them to also take note and take action. Listen carefully to your students’ questions, observations, and ideas, and look for ways for them to work individually or collectively to raise their voices or take action.

Consider sharing the short video Projections (05:16) with your students. A high school class created the video in 2005 after learning about the genocide in Darfur. Ask the class to consider the impact making the video may have had on both those who have viewed it and the students who made it.


Want more teaching tips and strategies to address current events with your students?

Visit our Current Events page to see our latest teaching ideas and strategies for connecting breaking news stories to your curriculum.

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