Anatomy of an Upstander | Facing History & Ourselves
Students sit in a classroom.

Anatomy of an Upstander

Students critically analyze the choices, risks, and rewards that are involved when they are called upon to be upstanders.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

When invited to draw connections between literature and life, students become aware of the variety of ways, large and small, that individuals can speak out or take action in order to bring about more just and compassionate communities. Stories of upstanders encourage students to think about the ways that they too can participate as caring, thoughtful citizens. Such stories also help students to consider the ways in which upstanding can carry great risk, from ostracism to bodily harm. There may be instances when the risks outweigh the benefits, and doing nothing in the moment is the safer decision. 

The following learning experiences support students in thinking critically about the choices, risks, and rewards that are involved when they are called upon to be upstanders. By exploring the factors that motivate real or fictional characters to take action, or not to take action, at key moments of decision-making, students can imagine a range of possible actions and consequences open to them. Through this process, students can come to realize that even though they are young, they still have agency and power to impact others and shape their communities through their choices and actions. 

In order to deepen their understanding of the text, themselves, each other, and the world, students will . . .

  • Describe the factors that influence their moral development, such as their personal experiences, interactions with others, and their surroundings, and reflect on how these factors influence their sense of right and wrong. 
  • Compare and contrast the motivations and actions of upstanders, bystanders, and perpetrators in the text and draw connections to the human condition and social issues in the world today.
  • Recognize that their decisions matter, impact others, and shape their communities and the world.
  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues and existing knowledge.
  • Draw evidence from the text to support analysis of what the text says and what can be inferred about characterization, setting, conflict, and/or theme.
  • Prepare for and participate in conversations to practice expressing ideas clearly, building on others’ ideas, and incorporating evidence from the text.
  • Use technology to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas clearly and creatively.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before using this learning experience, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Facing History learning experiences are classroom-ready activities that you can incorporate into your lesson plans. They are designed to be modular and adaptable, so you can use them over and over again with a wide range of texts to help students explore characterization, point of view, perspective taking, setting, and thematic development through a Facing History lens.

This learning experience is divided into three sections—Introduce, Explore, and Extend—which increase in complexity and depth of analysis, but they don’t need to be used in sequence. The entry point depends on students’ familiarity with the concept and the level of complexity they are ready to tackle. Educators might choose to incorporate just one section into a lesson plan, teach all three over the course of one or two class periods, mix and match, or repeat one multiple times during a unit to help students track character or thematic development.

  1. Introduce: The first activity introduces a concept and helps students develop the schema they will need for deeper exploration. It may involve vocabulary work, schema building, and opportunities for personal reflection and pair–shares.
  2. Explore: The second activity engages students in a deeper exploration of the concept and helps them apply it to the core text of the unit. It includes opportunities for close reading, literary analysis, collaboration with peers, and rich questions for small-group and whole-class discussion about the text and how it connects to the real world.
  3. Extend: The third activity invites students to produce a reflective, expository, analytical, or creative piece of writing (or other form of expression) in order to explore connections between the text, key concepts from the learning experience, and/or their own lives.

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  1. Let students know that they will be thinking about the many reasons why someone might choose to help or not help a person in need. In pairs or groups of three, have students discuss the following questions for one minute each. Let them know when they should move to the next question. 
    • What factors do you think motivate a person to help someone else? List as many ideas as you can in one minute.
    • What factors do you think make it less likely that a person will intervene to help someone else? List as many ideas as you can in one minute. 
    • Now take 30 seconds to add any new ideas to one or both lists. 
  2. Debrief as a class using the Wraparound strategy. Record students’ ideas about the first question on the board or on chart paper that you can reference in the future. Then repeat the process for the second question. 
  3. Facilitate a short class discussion that explores whether or not students see any of their ideas from their small-group discussions reflected in the core text and/or in the world today. 
  1. Write the Oxford dictionary definition of upstander on the board and read it out loud to the class: A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. Working in pairs, have students come up with three examples of small ways they think someone can be an upstander. After they share their ideas with the class, have pairs come up with three examples of big ways a person can be an upstander. 
  2. Explain to students that while the word has been in the English language since the mid-seventeenth century, it didn’t get its current meaning until 2002 and was only added to the dictionary recently, thanks to the efforts of two New Jersey high school students. Distribute and read aloud What Difference Can a Word Make? to learn more about how the word was added to the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries. 
  3. In pairs, have students design a “U is for Upstander” page for a children’s alphabet storybook. Their page should include the word upstander, a sketch or an image, and a child-friendly sentence that uses the word in a way that conveys meaning. Unless you would like to make this a larger project, let students know that they are only designing a rough sketch of their page. Have pairs share in small groups or through a gallery walk
  1. Explain to students that they will be focusing on one or more moments in their text where a character chooses to be an upstander. Divide students into small groups and assign each group a character to analyze or let them choose their own. Then pass out the Anatomy of an Upstander handout and circulate as students gather and discuss their quotations. 
  2. Once students have collected enough evidence on their handouts, explain the Stick Figure Quotes teaching strategy, which you will adapt for an upstander stick figure. On a piece of chart paper, students will arrange their evidence to create a stick-figure representation of their character. They might not use all of the evidence in their diagram, or in some places they might have multiple layers of quotations (the eyes, for example). Encourage them to be creative. 
    • Head: What the character thinks
    • Eyes: What the character sees
    • Ears: What the character hears
    • Mouth: What the character says
    • Torso (heart): What the character feels
    • Arms and hands: What the character does
    • Legs and feet: What the character wants to happen
  3. Share posters in a gallery walk. Then have students return to their groups to discuss the questions on the back of their Anatomy of an Upstander handout. Then discuss these as a class, focusing on the final two questions.
  4. In a journal response, ask students to complete and then expand on the following sentence starter. Have them choose one idea to share using the Wraparound strategy: One small step I can take to be an upstander in my school is to . . .

Using a free infographic tool like Canva for Education or another template, have students create a “Five Ways to Be an Upstander” infographic. 

  1. Start by having students generate a list of ten ways to be an upstander. They can think about an upstander’s mindset (what they think), what they say, what they feel, what they do, etc. Then have them share their lists in pairs, adding new ideas that come up in their discussions. Finally, on their own, have them place a star by their five strongest ideas, which they will develop for their infographic. 
  2. Before students start to draft the text for their infographic, show two or three models, which you can find online, and discuss what makes each infographic effective or ineffective. Identify the purpose of each infographic (what message the designer wants to convey). Then consider how the designer develops their message with text, images, color, fonts, spacing, etc. Invite students to make suggestions for how a designer could improve the infographic to make it even stronger. 
  3. In their notebooks, have students draft their text for the five ways someone can be an upstander. They can share these with a peer to check for clarity and coherence. When they are happy with their written statements, they should generate a list of possible images or symbols, as well as colors that they would like to incorporate into their final product. 
  4. Share final infographics in a gallery walk. Upstander infographics also make a powerful bulletin board or hallway display to educate and inspire others in the school. 

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