Introducing the Unit | Facing History & Ourselves
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Introducing the Unit

Students develop a contract establishing a reflective classroom community as they prepare to explore the historical case study of this unit.


One 50-min class period


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



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.

At the beginning of this unit, which includes an examination of the Armenian Genocide, 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 behavior” will equip students with the skills to engage each other in important and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

In this lesson, you will review the classroom rules you may have already established and also 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 handout Sample Facing History Classroom Expectations provides examples of the kinds of classroom norms Facing History teachers have used to support a reflective classroom community.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide 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-minute class period and includes:

  • 2 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 3 handouts , available in English and in Spanish
  • 1 assessment 
  • 2 extensions 

Facing History & Ourselves conceives of its program as a journey—a journey 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; neighbors against neighbors 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. 1

By helping students develop as moral philosophers, critical consumers of information, and civic agents, 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 actively listen to others; to treat different perspectives with patience and respect; and to recognize 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 marginalized. Without safety, there is nothing, there is no learning.

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

The habits of behavior 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 practice 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 & Ourselves classroom.

  • 1Quoted from the Facing History video John Amaechi Discusses Identity.
  • 2Diane 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 in a Facing History Classroom 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 journals 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 periodically review students’ journals, 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 fulfill 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 might also revisit your current classroom contract, if the class has already created one, to determine whether the group wants to make changes to the existing contract after finishing the Letter to California 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:

  • Norms
  • Contract
  • Community

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.

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Lesson Plans


  • Begin by explaining to students that they are about to begin a unit called Teaching the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Write this title on the board.
  • Pass out the Letter to California 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.
  • 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. Ask students to react to the letter (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.
  • Explain that before students begin exploring new material, the class needs to agree on some rules, norms, or expectations. You can strengthen students’ vocabulary by spending a few moments asking them to define one or more of these terms. Students can record definitions in their journals.
  • When a community agrees on norms or expectations for behavior, these are often articulated in a contract. Students can define the term contract in their journals. A contract implies that all parties have a responsibility in upholding the agreement.
  • 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.
  • Ask small groups of students to work together to write rules or expectations for the classroom community. Distribute the handout Sample Facing History Classroom Expectations to help them get started. Students will discuss each of the sample items on the handout 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, organize 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.


  • Creating a final class contract that can be recorded in the students’ journals and posted on the wall keeps everyone accountable for the learning from this lesson. The real measurement of understanding, however, resides in students’ efforts to abide by the contract throughout this unit.
  • Other possible formative assessments can include the handout Classroom Experience Checklist and the classroom expectations developed during the small-group activity.

Extension Activities

Because this unit is different from many other units students experience in school, 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 Letter to California 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.

Since students will be invited to explore aspects of their identities throughout this unit, you might invite students to personalize their journals with images or words that represent who they are. Journals can be decorated with markers or by pasting on pictures from magazines. We suggest setting some limits for what may not be appropriate to put on a journal.

Materials and Downloads

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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.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif