Introducing the Unit (UK) | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
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Introducing the Unit (UK)

Students will come together as a community of learners to develop a contract that establishes a safe, but challenging environment in their classroom.


One 50-min class period


English — UK


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.


About This Lesson

The purpose of this first lesson is to help the class develop an environment that is conducive to learning and sharing: a reflective classroom community.

Throughout this unit, students will be talking about sensitive topics, such as prejudice and discrimination, and how those concepts have impacted historical events and students’ own lives. When students feel empowered to contribute honestly and wrestle with multiple perspectives besides their own, such discussions can be positive and even life-changing.

Prior to exploring the historical case study of this unit, the collapse of democracy in Germany and the steps leading up to the Holocaust, it is important that students and teachers spend some time establishing and nurturing classroom rules and expectations of respect and open-mindedness. These ‘habits of behaviour’ will equip students with the skills to engage with each other in important and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

In this lesson, you will review the classroom rules you may have already established, as well as create new norms and expectations generated by the students themselves. While we urge you to consider the language and expectations that are most appropriate for your classroom context, the lesson and PowerPoint provide examples of the kinds of classroom norms Facing History & Ourselves teachers have used to support a reflective classroom community.

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • How can we create a class that is both safe and challenging? 
  • How can we create an environment in which everyone is willing to take risks, test ideas, and ask questions?

Students will come together as a community of learners to develop a contract that establishes a safe, but challenging environment in their classroom.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 2 activities 
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 handout
  • 1 reading
  • 1 suggested homework

Facing History conceives of its programme as a journey, one that provides a unique and engaging way for students to study history and the world around them. As one student remarked,

Something about our Facing History class felt different. We were studying the very things I was afraid of: being singled out, teased, and bullied; stereotyping; neighbours against neighbours in Nazi Germany. Students couldn’t react angrily to how people treated each other in history and then turn around and do these very things to me.

By helping students develop as moral philosophers, critical consumers of information, and active citizens, we hope to change the way they see themselves as individuals in a larger society.

It takes a particular kind of learning environment to help students achieve these objectives. A reflective classroom community is a place where students are encouraged to voice their own opinions – even when their ideas are unpopular – and to listen actively to others; to treat different perspectives with patience and respect; and to recognise that there are always more perspectives and there is always more to learn. Psychologist John Amaechi explains:

Teachers have to create this emotional space where it is safe but challenging, where people can be themselves, where people can take chances and fail, where people can tell stories about themselves and reveal things about themselves without risk of derision, without fear of being marginalised. Without safety, there is nothing, there is no learning. 1

Journal writing is also an integral part of the unit. See the teaching strategy Journals for important suggestions about how to incorporate journals.

The habits of behaviour found in a reflective classroom community – attentive listening to diverse viewpoints, voicing clear ideas, and raising relevant questions – not only help students deeply understand historical content but also require them to practise skills essential for their role as engaged citizens. Philosopher John Dewey believed that classrooms are not the training grounds for future democratic action, but rather places where democracy is already enacted. Professor Diane Moore has argued that ‘encouraging students to take themselves seriously and inspiring in them the confidence to do so are two of the most important roles of an educator in a multicultural democracy’. 2

These characteristics may be helpful in teaching many different units of study, but they are essential to teaching in a Facing History classroom.

  • 1Quoted from 'John Amaechi Discusses Identity', Facing History video.
  • 2 Diane Moore, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (New York: Palgrave, 2006), 11.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

  • Journals are an integral means of participation in the unit for each student. See the teaching strategy Journals for important suggestions about how to incorporate them into the unit.
  • Typically, student journals are not considered public for the entire class to read. However, informally reviewing students’ journal entries can help you know the questions that are on students’ minds about this unit and can be a place for individual conversations between you and each student. Doing this can also help you correct any misconceptions about what students are learning. If you choose to review students’ journals periodically, it is important to inform them (and remind them throughout the unit) that you plan to do so.
  • Facing History teachers have found that useful class contracts typically include several clearly defined expectations as well as logical consequences for those who do not fulfil their obligations as members of the classroom community.
  • There are many ways to facilitate the development of a classroom contract, and we suggest one method in the Activities section of this lesson. You also might revisit your current classroom contract, if the class has already created one, to determine whether the group wants to make any changes to the existing contract after finishing the Letter to Students and participating in the journal activity.
  • The contract should be considered a living document that can be returned to or altered at any time. For this reason, you may want to structure time to return to the contract at strategic points throughout the unit – for instance, to preface a particularly emotionally charged reading or in-class activity.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  1. Norms
  2. Contract
  3. Community

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan


  • Start by explaining to students that they are about to begin a unit called Holocaust and Human Behaviour. Write this title on the board. Ask students what they may already know about the Holocaust. You can also challenge students to answer why they think it is important to study the Holocaust.
  • Pass out a Journal to each student. This is an appropriate time to establish the expectation that journal responses do not have to be shared publicly. Give students this definition of the Holocaust and ask them to write it in their journals:

The catastrophic period in the twentieth century when Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews and millions of other civilians (including Roma and Sinti, disabled people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, and prisoners of war), in the midst of the Second World War.

  • Pass out the reading Letter to Students. You might choose to adapt this letter to become your own version instead of using the one we have provided. Either way, read aloud the letter as a group, as students highlight any words or phrases that stand out to them.
  • Ask students to react to the Letter to Students (or your own letter) in their journals. Specific questions you can use to prompt students’ writing and prepare them for the contracting activity include:
    • What does it mean to have to use both your head and your heart while learning?
    • What does it mean for a classroom to be a ‘community of learners’? In what ways does your classroom feel like a community of learners?
    • What might help it feel more like a community of learners?
  • Debrief the journal prompts. To help students understand the idea of using both head and heart while learning, draw a blank head and blank heart on the board. Ask students to brainstorm what words might fill the diagram for ‘head learning’ and the one for ‘heart learning’. For example, students might suggest words like events, facts, or vocabulary for head learning and relationships, morals, or connections for heart learning.
  • Transition to the class contract by explaining that in this class, you will ask students to think about history both from an intellectual (‘head’) angle and from a more emotional or ethical (‘heart’) angle.
  • Remind students that they will be learning about different stories in the classroom and engaging in challenging discussions that might spark debate and disagreement in the group. In preparation, they will need to establish norms and expectations for behaviour that will allow everyone to feel as if they can voice their ideas, pose questions without fear of ridicule, and be heard by others. 
  • Explain that in order to create and maintain this kind of safe and brave space, they will be working together to develop a classroom contract. 
  • Ask students to define contract, to share ideas about the purpose of contracts and the types of things they can protect, and to define a norm. 
  • Review the definition of contract. Make sure students understand that a contract implies that all parties have a responsibility to uphold an agreement. You might have students give examples of situations where people create and sign contracts. 
  • Then define and discuss norm: ‘a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behaviour.’ 3 Have students make connections between the two terms. 
  • Next, to prepare students to develop a class contract, ask them to reflect on their experiences as students in a classroom community. Pass out the handout Classroom Experience Checklist, and ask students to complete it individually.
  • Then ask table groups of students to work together to write rules or expectations for the classroom community. 
  • Project the following sample Facing History Classroom Expectations on the board to help them get started:
    • Listen with respect. Try to understand what someone is saying before rushing to judgement.
    • Make comments using ‘I’ statements.
    • This class needs to be a place where we can take risks in the questions we ask, perspectives we share, and connections we make. If you do not feel safe making a comment or asking a question, write the thought in your journal. You can share the idea with your teacher first and together come up with a safe way to share the idea with the class.
    • If someone says something that hurts or offends you, do not attack the person. Acknowledge that the comment – not the person – hurt your feelings and explain why.
    • Share the talking time – provide room for others to speak.
    • We all have a role in creating a space where people can share ideas, their questions, and their confusion honestly.
  • Invite students to discuss each of the sample items on the board and decide whether they should adopt it in their class contract, modify it, or omit it. Have each group select three items from the list (or create their own) to share with the class.
  • We suggest keeping the final list brief (e.g. three to five items) so that the norms can be easily published in a visible place in the classroom and remembered. As groups present, organise their ideas by theme. If there are any tensions or contradictions in the expectations that have been suggested, discuss them as a class. While the process is inclusive of students’ ideas, ultimately it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the ideas that make it into the final contract are those that will best nurture a safe learning environment.
  • Finally, discuss with students what they think should happen when someone violates one of the norms in the contract. It may be useful to help students distinguish between school and classroom rules and the community norms outlined in the class contract. When rules are broken, adults will often need to respond. But the students themselves should outline potential responses for rebuilding the community after an individual breaks with the norms in the class contract.
  • After the class has completed its contract, reaching consensus about rules, norms, and expectations, it is important for each student to signal his or her agreement. Students can do so by copying the contract into their journals and signing the page. If there is no time, the teacher can create printed contracts or a poster to be signed in the next class period.
  • Finally, ask students to write one question that they would like to explore and find the answer to during their study of this unit on a sticky note and post to the wall.
  • 3 ‘Norm’ (dictionary entry),, accessed 23 June 2018.

This unit is different from many others that students will experience in school, so some Facing History teachers like to provide an overview of the unit to parents and guardians. One way to do this is to send a letter home. The reading Letter to Parents and Guardians provides a sample that you can use or adapt to inform parents about what students will experience in the weeks to come. Or you could ask your students, as homework, to tell an adult about what they discussed in class today, what they thought of it, and why it is important for what they will be studying. The adult can then sign the student’s journal.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

This is the handout that students use throughout Introducing the Unit (UK) lesson plan.

Download the Files

Classroom Experience Checklist – PDF
Ask students to reflect on their experiences as students in a classroom community as preparation for creating a classroom contract.

Get Files Via Google

Classroom Experience Checklist – Doc
+ Share to Google Classroom Ask students to reflect on their experiences as students in a classroom community as preparation for creating a classroom contract.

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY