Reflecting on Our Obligation to Others | Facing History & Ourselves
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Reflecting on Our Obligation to Others

Students explore the concept of “universe of obligation” within the contexts of a work of literature and their own lives.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

Organizing ourselves into groups is a natural behavior. Being part of a group helps to meet our most basic needs. In this way, we share culture, values, and beliefs, and we satisfy our yearning to belong. Like individuals, groups have identities. How a group defines itself determines who is entitled to its benefits and who is not. Sometimes the consequences of being excluded from a group are quite small. For example, someone who does not enjoy running is unlikely to be affected by not being a member of a track club. But sometimes the consequences can be substantial, even dire. If someone is denied citizenship by a country, their freedom, livelihood, or safety may be at risk. Moreover, a society’s universe of obligation can change over time. Individuals and groups that are respected and protected members of a society at one time may find themselves excluded when circumstances are different.

Sociologist Helen Fein conceived of the term “universe of obligation” to describe the way nations determine membership, but we can also recognize that individuals have a universe of obligation—the circle of individuals a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. This concept helps us recognize the internalized hierarchies that influence how we think about and respond to the needs of others. While it is neither practical nor possible that one’s universe of obligation would include everyone in its center (the position of most importance), acknowledging the way we think about and prioritize our obligations toward others can help us act in a more thoughtful, compassionate manner. 

The following learning experiences introduce the concept of universe of obligation and help students consider the benefits of being part of an “in” group and the consequences of being part of an “out” group, both in a work of literature and in their own lives.

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

  • Value the complexity of identity in themselves and others.
  • Practice perspective-taking in order to develop empathy and recognize the limits of any one person’s point of view.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Produce a written reflection that develops a central idea and includes specific details and examples of personal experience.

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. Have students consider times when they have chosen to help or not help someone. Give them one minute to think about each question.
    • Think about a time when you chose to help someone. It might have been someone you know well or a stranger. What happened?
    • Now think about a time when you chose not to help someone. What happened? 
    • Why do you think you chose to help one person and not the other? 
      • What factors did you consider? 
      • What factors that you may not have been aware of at the time could have influenced your choice to help or not to help?
  2. In pairs, have students discuss the following questions:
    • Why do you think you chose to help one person and not the other? What factors did you consider? 
    • What factors might have influenced your choice that you may not have even thought about or been aware of at the time?
    • Which factors do you think are more powerful, the ones that we are aware of and take into consideration or the ones that we might not be aware of? 
  3. Debrief as a class, recording students’ ideas on the board. You can also start to make connections to the text by asking students if any of these factors have influenced the characters’ decisions to help or not help another character. 
  1. Read the Universe of Obligation reading aloud and discuss the connection questions in small groups.
  2. In a class discussion, have students share key ideas and questions from their group discussions, citing evidence from the text and their own experiences to support their thinking.
  1. Explain to students that individuals and societies have their own universes of obligation. At a collective level (a community, town, city, or country), people within a society’s universe of obligation can expect respect and protection, while those outside it become vulnerable. They might be denied rights, privileges, and economic benefits, as well as risk physical harm or even expulsion. Students will be exploring these ideas in the text.
  2. Divide the class into small groups and assign each one a character or group (such as a community, neighborhood, or town in the text) to study. Distribute the Universe of Obligation handout or project the graphic organizer and have groups replicate it on chart paper. Have groups write their character’s or group’s name in the center, and then instruct them to fill in each concentric circle, supporting their claims with evidence from the text. You can have them jot down the page number or a short phrase by each idea. Model by mapping a universe of obligation as a class for a different character or group. 
  3. Then have groups discuss the following questions, recording notes on their handouts or chart paper: 
    • What factors influence the extent to which your character or group feels an obligation to help others?
    • How does the way your character or group views others influence their feelings of responsibility toward those others?
    • What are the consequences for those individuals and groups who are outside of your character’s or group’s universe of obligation?

Alternatively, the whole class can focus on the same character. Before class, write all of the characters’ and groups’ names on large sticky notes (that students can read from their desks) and stick them on the board. Project the universe of obligation graphic organizer on the board and choose a character or group to focus on. Invite students one by one to the front of the room to place one or more of the other characters or groups in a concentric circle. They should justify their placement decision with evidence from the text. This variation can spark lively whole-class conversations about characters’ obligations toward one another.

For this learning experience, students create and reflect on their own universe of obligation. Pass out the Universe of Obligation handout and let students know that they will not be sharing what they write. After they have filled in their graphic organizers, invite them to reflect on one or more of the following questions in their journals: 

  • What was the experience of drawing your universe of obligation like? 
  • What did you think about when deciding where to place certain individuals and groups in your universe of obligation? Which decisions were difficult? Which were easy?
  • Under what conditions might your universe of obligation shift?

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