Exploring the Moral Universe of Setting | Facing History & Ourselves
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Exploring the Moral Universe of Setting

Students explore the concept of "moral universe" and consider how time and place influence our identities, sense of belonging, and moral decision-making processes.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

All too often, the teaching of setting is limited to “the time and place where the story occurs.” This approach fails to engage students with the complexity of setting and the ways in which time and place can impact our sense of self and belonging in the world. Literary critic Wayne C. Booth writes that the plots of great stories “are built out of the characters’ efforts to face moral choices. In tracing these efforts, we readers stretch our own capacities for thinking about how life should be lived.” 1 In order to understand the moral choices that characters in literature make, we must first examine the identities of those making the moral choices, as well as the context in which they are made. Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm remind us that “setting is really about ‘rule setting.’ In other words, setting ‘sets’ or determines rules, constraints, and possibilities, potential conflicts and possible consequences.” 2 Trying to navigate the (often unwritten) rules of a place is a complex task that characters face in the world of the text and that we face in the real world. 

This collection of learning experiences introduces the concept of “moral universe,” the written and unwritten rules of a place that help to determine characters’ interactions, choices, and courses of action and that help students understand the ways in which time and place influence our identities, sense of belonging, and moral decision-making processes.

  • 1Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 187.
  • 2Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Fresh Takes on Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme (New York: Scholastic, 2010), 71.

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, their interactions with others, and their surroundings, and reflect on how these factors influence their sense of right and wrong. 
  • Read critically and ethically to understand thematic development, characterization, conflict, and craft in order to make personal and real-world connections between the text and their lives.
  • Evaluate a text for the ways in which it upholds and/or challenges stereotypes of individuals and groups.
  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues and existing knowledge.
  • Analyze how and why individuals, ideas, and events interact at a specific moment in the text and over the course of a text.
  • 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.
  • Produce a written response that integrates evidence from the text with written analysis, personal reflection, and visual elements.

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.

The activities in this Learning Experience invite students to analyze the norms, taboos, hierarchies, rules, expectations, and beliefs of a setting in a text and in real life. Depending on your students’ experience discussing these concepts, you may need to set aside class time to help them define one or more of these terms.

You can modify the Create a Moral Universe of Setting Web activity by focusing on fewer categories at first (for example, rules, expectations, and taboos) if you think your students might struggle with all six at first. Then in your next unit, repeat the activity, adding 1-2 additional categories. Repeat until your students have all six. Alternatively, divide the class into six groups and have each group focus on one category and then share their findings with the class. Then have them focus on two in the next unit, and so on.

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  1. Introduce the concept of “moral universe” by having the class list spaces in the school where students congregate (cafeteria, locker rooms, certain hallways, library, buses). Then have each student choose one space to reflect on in a journal response that explores these questions:
    • What are the written rules of the space? 
    • What are the unwritten rules of the space? Who creates these unwritten rules?
    • How are the written and unwritten rules communicated to the school community? 
    • Who enforces the unwritten rules? 
    • How do the written and unwritten rules impact how you feel and the choices you can make in this space?
  2. Debrief in pairs and then as a class, noticing patterns that emerge across spaces. Then explain to students that just as in real life, the setting of a work of literature is much more than the time and place where the story happens. Setting also refers to the “moral universe” of the time and place. Write or project the definition of “moral universe” on the board: “The rules, constraints, possibilities, potential conflicts and potential consequences that affect the choices the characters make.” 1 Characters must negotiate the written and unwritten rules of the setting in order to navigate its power hierarchies and systems of values, norms, and expectations. So, when talking about a story’s setting, in addition to concrete information like where and when a story takes place, we must also take into consideration its moral universe in order to fully understand characters’ identities, their sense of belonging, their choices, and their course of action. 
  3. To the extent possible, have students work in small groups, based on the spaces they identified in their journals, to apply the definition of moral universe to that space. The following questions can guide their discussions. You may first need to review the definitions of norms, values, and hierarchies and provide examples if these are new concepts for your students. 
    • How would you describe the norms, values, hierarchies, and expectations that shape this space?
    • What possible conflicts happen there? 
    • What are potential consequences of these conflicts? 

Invite each group to share one or two ideas from their discussion with the class. Encourage students to look for patterns across spaces. 

  • 1Smith and Wilhelm, Fresh Takes on Literary Elements, 71.

Most works of literature include more than one setting. The narrative may progress through time and place, or it might include the points of view of more than one character, all of whom may exist in and move through different spaces. For this activity, choose (or let your students choose) a specific setting in the text for the class to focus on. Alternatively, you can assign or invite each group to choose a setting that interests them, for example, a character’s home, school, neighborhood, town, or region.

  1. Divide students into groups and assign or let them choose their setting. Pass out the Moral Universe of Setting handout or have them create a web on a piece of chart paper and write the setting in the center. If they are using chart paper, they should create six “spurs” and label them as follows: Rules, Norms, Beliefs, Taboos, Hierarchies, Expectations. 

    Define the categories as needed and explain that students should use quotations and examples from the text to analyze the moral universe of their setting. Model the activity as a class by starting a web on the board and finding one text-based example or inference for each category. Then have groups create their “moral universe of setting” webs on their handouts or chart paper. 
  2. If groups analyzed different settings, have them share the ideas from their webs in a Jigsaw activity (handout) or a gallery walk (chart paper). Then have them discuss the following questions in small groups and as a class, prompting students to provide specific examples to support their reasoning:
  • How do individuals and groups in the text determine who belongs and who doesn’t? How are those messages conveyed in the text? 
  • To what extent does the moral universe of setting influence the characters’ identities, sense of belonging, and choices? 
  • What are the consequences for characters if they challenge the rules, norms, hierarchies, power structures, and/or values of the setting?
  • How is the setting in the text and its moral universe similar to or different from our world today? What makes you say that?


Connect the concept of moral universe to students’ lives by asking them to create a “moral universe” web of a space in their school or local community.

  1. Have students reflect on the space or review and add to their reflections from the Introduce learning experience.
  2. Next, have them list all the individuals who inhabit the space, as well as the related written and unwritten rules, hierarchies, norms, expectations, and taboos. They might include quotations from the student handbook, things they overhear or that others have said to them, images, and/or symbols. 
  3. Then have students create a visual representation of the ideas they generated, using sketches, images, words, phrases, and quotations to create a map of the moral universe that conveys the rules, constraints, possibilities, potential conflicts, and potential consequences of choices people make in the space.
  4. In a multi-paragraph piece of reflective writing, invite students to explore the following questions: 
    • How does your map depict the moral universe of the space you chose? Discuss at least three specific choices you made when creating your map.
    • How do individuals and groups in your school determine who belongs and who doesn’t in this space? How are those messages conveyed? 
    • What would you like other people in your school to think or know about this space? Consider students, teachers, administrators, adult staff, families, and visitors.

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