From Sympathy to Action


This lesson uses Facing History's publication Choosing to Participate. Reading 5 “From Sympathy to Action” (pp. 28-33) uses two texts to help students think about the factors and encourage and discourage people to act when they confront suffering or injustice. The studies described by journalist Nicholas Kristof reveal that most people will take action to save one life,  before they take action to save many lives. Yet, the story of Nicholas Winton, a British man whose efforts during World War II saved nearly 700 children, many of them Jewish, represents how some people do take extraordinary effort to improve the lives of many. Together, these two accounts help students think about the responsibilities individuals have to address suffering and injustice in larger society. 



  1. Anticipation Guide: Here are some possible statements you could include in an anticipation guide which students can complete before they read “From Sympathy to Action”:

    Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

    • People respond to the suffering of many, more than the suffering of one individual.
    • The more you have in common with someone, the more likely you are to help them.
    • Being altruistic (caring about others and trying to help them) is a personality trait – it cannot be taught.
    • To be a hero you must risk your own life or property.
  2. Text to Text/Text to Self/Text to World: This teaching strategy promotes comprehension by helping students see how the ideas in the text connect with their own lives, society and their prior knowledge.

  3. Silent Conversation
    Once the students have read “From Sympathy to Action,” use the Silent Conversation teaching strategy to debrief this text. Choose quotations from the reading to put on the sheets of easel paper (one quote per sheet).  Suggested quotations are:

    • Evidence is overwhelming that humans respond to the suffering of individuals rather than groups . . . (Kristof).
    • In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child—or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight. (Kristof)
    • Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. . . What starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement. (Erwin Staub)
    • “I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable.” (Winton)
  4. Identity Chart
    After reading “From Sympathy to Action,” students can create an Identity Chart for Nicholas Winton. (For more information about Winton, students can explore www.powerofgood.net). Drawing from the ideas on the identity charts, students can discuss the question, “What factors motivated him to help save children during World War II?” Then have students create their own Identity Charts and then answer the question, “How might aspects of your identity influence your decisions, now or in the future, to help others? What issues or circumstances might motivate you to act on behalf of those in need?”
  5. Journal:
    Here are a few possible prompts you might use: (Read more about using journals in the classroom.)

    • For most people, why is it easier to help one person rather than a whole group?
    • Even though he saved hundreds of children, Nicholas Winton does not think that he is a hero. He insists “I was never in any danger. I took on a big task, but did it from the safety of my home in Hampstead.” What do you think it means to be a hero? Do you think Nicholas Winton is a hero? Who else would you consider to be a hero?
    • What does the title “The Power of Good” mean to you? Identify a moment in your life or in history that you think exemplifies “the power of good.” Under what circumstances are people most likely to help others? What do you think discourages people from helping others? What can be done to create a society where more people take action to help those in need?

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.