Choosing to Participate | Facing History & Ourselves
Agosin Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love Pg. 76

Choosing to Participate

Students use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.


One 50-min class period


  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

The previous lesson engaged students in an examination of how societies remember and represent their history, especially through memorials and monuments. This lesson brings students into the “Choosing to Participate” stage of the Facing History scope and sequence by asking them to consider how our memory and understanding of history inspires and guides our choices in the world today. In particular, this lesson invites students to envision the ways that they themselves might contribute to the process of creating a more humane, just, and compassionate world.

Legal scholar Martha Minow has observed that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take: “Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” In an effort to help individuals identify concrete actions to take when they “choose to participate,” Minow developed a “levers of power” framework to map out the organizations, institutions, and technologies that can enable us to strengthen the impact of our voices and our actions. In this lesson, students will learn about these “levers” of power and analyze how some individuals and communities have strategically used them to make change. Students will then have the opportunity to think about which levers are most accessible to them personally and how they might use these to bring about changes they would like to see in their own communities.

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?

  • What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a more democratic society?
  • How can we determine the most effective way to make a difference in our neighborhood, our nation, and the world? Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see?
  • Students will be able to explain the term “levers of power” and recognize how individuals strategically use organizations, institutions, and technologies to make social or political change.
  • Students will use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.

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

  • 5 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 0 videos
  • 1 handouts
  • 7 readings
  • 2 assessments
  • 2 extension activities

How does learning about the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust educate us about our responsibilities in the world today? Racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry—which were at the root of so much of the inhumanity of the twentieth century—have not gone away. The principles of international law and the institutions that enforce those principles, which were created after World War II in response to the problems of war, genocide, and statelessness, continue to face daunting challenges. The news from around the world can be overwhelming, and people often wonder how they can help with the enormous job of bringing about a more humane, just, compassionate world and a more democratic society.

This lesson includes stories of individuals and groups who did “choose to participate,” and their stories can help us reflect on the values and actions that will strengthen our communities rather than make them more fragile. But the goal of this final step in the Facing History & Ourselves scope and sequence is not to force students to take action. Instead, its aim is to open their eyes to the different ways of participating that are happening around them and to the tools that others have used to make positive changes in their own communities. Encountering these examples offers an opportunity for students to reflect on who they are, who they want to be, and what kind of world they want to help create. As students explore the stories in this lesson, they should pay close attention to what inspires the individuals who appear in them, to the goals and strategies of those individuals, and to the ways those individuals enlist allies and respond to success and failure.

We often think about civic participation as a matter of politics, activism, and voting. Many people participate in organized campaigns to elect candidates, change laws, and influence the actions of governments and other institutions in our society, such as corporations and the media. But these are not the only ways of choosing to participate. Scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who studies civic engagement around the world, has noticed a trend toward types of participation that do not rely on the power of government and other institutions to make change. The readings in this lesson provide examples of both types of initiative: individuals choosing to participate through politics, activism, and institutions, and others who are attempting to make change through creative uses of art and technology, the formation of small businesses, and attempts to influence the norms and traditions of communities and cultures. Zuckerman concludes:

If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have—that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, . . . I challenge you to find ways you can make change through markets, through norms [unspoken rules], through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build. The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way. 1

Ultimately, Facing History & Ourselves hopes to create a society of thoughtful citizens who think deeply about the way they live—when they are riding the subway to work as much as when they hear about incidents of mass violence that demand a global response. Indeed, at the conclusion of the Facing History & Ourselves journey, we hope that students will believe that their choices do matter and will feel compelled to think carefully about the decisions they make, realizing that their choices will ultimately shape the world.

  • 1Ethan Zuckerman, “Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust,” . . . My heart's in Accra (blog), entry posted October 19, 2015, accessed October 29, 2015.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Teachers must sometimes approach the end of a Facing History unit with flexibility and creativity, as students may be inspired to invest themselves in a class project, or series of projects, to make a difference in their school, community, country, or the world. While this lesson is designed to provide students with some models and inspiration for the various ways in which they might “choose to participate” in creating a more humane world, students may already feel galvanized to do something beyond the scope of this lesson’s activities. We urge you to follow their passion and energy, to be willing to deviate from this lesson’s activities, and to use the resources here (especially the “levers of power” framework) to help guide projects in the school, community, and beyond that are conceived, created, and led by your students. If such energy does not emerge from the class, you cannot force it, and it does not mean that you have failed to produce the desired outcome. Every class is different, and the effects of the learning and growth students experienced in this unit may not reveal themselves until some time has passed, perhaps even when the students are adults.

A variety of different resources will work with activities in this lesson. Feel free to browse additional readings Chapter 12: Choosing to Participate of Holocaust and Human Behavior and use different readings for the third activity listed below.

Also consider using resources from the Not In Our School project. This website hosts a variety of videos describing examples of student-led projects to address issues of bullying, hatred, and intolerance in their own schools and communities. These provide additional examples of participation that are tangible and directly relevant to students’ lives.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Participation
  • Strategy
  • Levers of power

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

If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after teaching this lesson, instruct them to finalize their evidence logs. For suggested activities and resources to help you guide your class through the remaining steps of the writing process, see Refining the Thesis and Finalizing Evidence Logs, as well as Common Core Writing Prompts and Strategies: Holocaust and Human Behavior.

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Lesson Plans


  • Tell students that they have learned about a variety of choices and actions from history in this unit that we might categorize as “upstander behavior.” To begin this lesson, ask them to review some of those examples and then respond to the following prompt:
    • What examples of upstander behavior from this unit were most meaningful to you? Which provide models for how you might act as an upstander in your life today?
  • Ask students to share some of their examples, perhaps using the Wraparound strategy. As students name examples, emphasize the range of ways that an individual can act as an upstander—a range that includes both public and private acts, as well as extraordinary and mundane ones. Tell students that in this lesson, they will analyze a variety of contemporary examples of upstander behavior.
  • Explain to students that they are going to think about what it takes to get involved in making their school, community, and country better, more humane places. Explain that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take. As legal scholar Martha Minow puts it: “Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’”
  • Now explain to students that they will look at a framework for planning what to do in order to respond to injustice and make positive changes in society.
  • Distribute the handout Analyzing Levers of Power. Spend a moment exploring the metaphor of the lever in the title. Ask students to define the meaning of the word lever, and then ask them to make an inference about what the phrase “levers of power” might mean. Tell students that in a literal sense, a lever is a tool that allows one to pick up or move something much heavier than could be lifted without it. In other words, a lever allows someone to use a small amount of force to have a big impact.
  • Briefly walk students through each category on the second side of the handout, which outlines the individuals, organizations, and technology platforms that can have this sort of amplifying effect at a societal level. By influencing or making use of these “levers,” individuals might have a larger impact on their community or society.
  • Ask students to come up with examples of individuals or groups that belong to each category in order to make sure that everyone understands them.

Students will use the “levers of power” framework to analyze examples of individuals who “chose to participate.”

  • In teams of two, assign students one of the following readings:
  • Alternatively, if time permits, you can preview each reading for students and have them select the reading that appeals to them the most from a table at the front of the classroom. (See the Notes to Teacher section for suggestions about customizing the readings for this activity.)
  • After they choose or are assigned their reading, pairs should read and answer the questions on the first side of the handout Analyzing Levers of Power.
  • In each row on the second side of the handout, students should write a sentence or two explaining how the individual(s) in the readings used the lever described in the heading. If such a lever was not used, students can write “N/A” in the row. If a “lever of power” was involved that is not listed on the handout, students should describe it at the bottom of the page.
  • After students have completed their handouts, have them meet briefly with a classmate who worked with a different reading. When they meet, they should introduce the story they each read, describe the strategies that the people they read about used, and explain which levers of power were most useful to those people. Time permitting, ask students to change partners one or two more times so that they can learn about additional examples of choosing to participate.
  • Finally, lead a whole-group discussion in which you ask students to share their observations. Guide the discussion with the following questions:
    • What patterns did you notice? Did certain “levers of power” seem to come up in more readings than others?
    • Which of the strategies for change that you learned about seem most effective? Most difficult? Most creative?
    • Which of the “levers of power” on the handout seem most accessible to you? Which seem most difficult to influence? Which are you struggling to understand?
  • End this lesson, and this unit, with a broader reflection on our responsibilities to participate together in the process of creating a more humane society. Share with students the reading Walking with the Wind.
  • Read aloud John Lewis’s story, and then discuss its meaning with the class: What does Lewis suggest about the work of citizens in a democracy?
  • Finally, ask students to write a reflection in their journals in response to the following question: What does choosing to participate mean to you? In what ways might you participate in the communities around you?


  • Assign students to write a paragraph outlining an issue that they care about and a change they would like to bring about regarding that issue. The paragraph should describe specific actions they could take to try to help make that change happen. Their plans should also include at least two of the “levers” of power outlined in this lesson, and students should describe how the specific action they could take might make use of those levers to increase their impact.
  • Collect students’ reflections in response to the Walking with the Wind reading, in which they have interpreted the meaning of John Lewis’s allegory and described what choosing to participate means to them. If you have established that journals are private in your classroom, ask students to write their reflections on a separate sheet of paper to turn in.

Extension Activities

Ask students to analyze the potential benefits and pitfalls of using the internet for civic participation. Pass out the reading Online Civic Participation and ask students to read through Danielle Allen’s ten questions. Then lead a discussion using the following questions:

  • What examples do you know about of people using the internet in their attempts to bring about change? How might they have answered Allen’s questions?
  • What do Allen’s questions suggest about the potential opportunities and difficulties in using the internet to make positive change? Do you think these questions would be helpful even if one’s plan of action does not involve the internet?

The reading Not in Our Town tells the story of how the town of Billings, Montana, responded to intolerance in their community. Analyzing this story can provide students with additional insight and inspiration for how to work together to create a more humane and democratic society. Consider sharing the reading with students, discussing the connection questions that follow, and using the “levers of power” framework to think about the strategy used by the residents of Billings to address the incidents of hate in their community.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Choosing to Participate lesson plan.

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