Responding to Unfairness and Injustice | Facing History & Ourselves
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Responding to Unfairness and Injustice

Students develop the vocabulary to talk about the range of human responses to injustice and then apply these labels to their analysis of a work of literature.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

Unfairness, exclusion, and injustice are part of many students’ everyday experience on some level. So when these themes appear in literature, there is a valuable opportunity for students to make connections between their experiences and the text, and to carry over some of what they learn in class into their own lives. Often when students think about acts of unfairness or injustice, they divide those involved into two groups: the targets (or victims) and the perpetrators. Yet it is important for them to consider other responses that can contribute to the prevention or perpetuation of injustice. For example, a bystander is someone who witnesses or knows about an act of injustice but chooses to do nothing. Alternatively, when confronted with an unjust act, an ally offers support in large and small ways, while an upstander takes steps to prevent or stop it from continuing. 

The following learning experiences can help students develop the vocabulary to talk about the range of human responses to injustice and then apply these labels to their analysis of a work of literature. When students develop the vocabulary to reflect on moments that call for acts of courage and kindness, they are better able to grapple with the complexity of the choices and decisions they will encounter, both in literature and in their own lives. 

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, interactions with others, and their surroundings, and reflect on how these factors influence their sense of right and wrong. 
  • Compare and contrast the motivations and actions of upstanders, bystanders, and perpetrators in the text and draw connections to the human condition and social issues in the world today. 
  • Recognize that their decisions matter, impact others, and shape their communities and the world.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The meanings of the terms introduced in this learning experience can help students understand that the range of responses to unfairness and injustice are complex and fluid. For example, under the label upstander, we often list those who take a variety of actions, including resistance and rescue. The term bystander can be even more complicated. In most dictionaries, it means a person who is simply “standing by” or who is present without taking part in what is going on—a passive spectator. But some scholars, like psychologist Ervin Staub, believe that even passive spectators play a crucial role in defining the meaning of events by implicitly approving the actions of perpetrators. The choice not to act or speak up is still a choice.

It is important that students recognize that it is not these labels themselves, as words, that matter. Rather, it is the way we think and talk about the actions (or inactions) of others that can help us better understand the decisions we make in our everyday lives. In addition, it is important to remember that individuals and groups usually do not fit into only one category. Instead, they may move into and out of these roles throughout their lives, or even within a single event.

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  1. Divide students into pairs to complete the “Predicted Meaning” column of The Range of Human Behavior Vocabulary Terms handout.
  2. Debrief by asking volunteers to share their predicted meanings. Then share the definitions of the terms. Explain to students that targets can also be called victims. Because these are roles and not parts of our identities, we say “He is a target of bullying” rather than “He is a bullying victim.” Explain that individuals and groups do not fit solely into one category. Instead, they slip into and out of these roles throughout their lives and because of extenuating circumstances. They can even take on more than one role at the same time.
    • Perpetrator: A person carrying out a harmful, illegal, or immoral act.
    • Target: A person who is the object of the harmful, illegal, or immoral act(s) of a perpetrator. 
    • Bystander: A person who is present but not actively taking part in a situation or event.
    • Ally: A person who supports an individual or group who is either actively being targeted or vulnerable to being targeted. 
    • Upstander: A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.
  3. Finally, invite students to critique the dictionary definitions. 
    • Do you have any questions about these definitions? 
    • How are the dictionary definitions similar to or different from your own definitions? 
    • Are the dictionary definitions adequate, or do they need to be further clarified?

Before class, familiarize yourself with the Four Corners teaching strategy. Make four signs—Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree—and hang them in the corners of the classroom before the lesson.

  1. Pass out The Roles People Play Anticipation Guide handout so students can practice applying some of the new vocabulary terms to their own lives. Have students complete the handout and then choose one or two statements to reflect on in their journals, explaining their response and/or any questions the statements raise for them. 
  2. Use the Four Corners teaching strategy to discuss a few of the statements that most interest your students. 
  3. On an exit card, have students respond to the following prompt: What conclusions can you make about the complexity of the roles we play in society?

If you didn’t use it earlier, before class, familiarize yourself with the Four Corners teaching strategy. Make four signs—Perpetrator, Bystander, Upstander, Ally—and hang them in the corners of the classroom before the lesson. Then choose three or four moments in the text where one or more characters perpetuate an injustice while others must grapple with how to respond. 

  1. Explain to students that they will do a Four Corners activity in order to deepen their understanding of characters’ motivations when deciding how to act in the face of an unfairness or injustice.
  2. Start by calling out the name of a character and/or group (such as a sports team or clique in the text) along with a specific scene. Have students move to the corner that they feel best represents that character’s role in that moment. Discuss what factors may have motivated or influenced the character’s decision-making process. Then repeat the activity for the other moments you chose. 
  3. Have students discuss the following questions in small groups and then share their ideas with the class: 
    • Why do you think people do nothing even when they know something happening around them is wrong?
    • What role do one or more of the following factors play in characters’ decision-making processes in the book: fear, love, difference, similarity, conformity, obedience, and/or societal expectations? What role do these factors play in real life decision-making? 
    • Is upstanding always visible? Can it be something other than a specific action? What makes you say that? 
    • What lessons can you take from the text to help you understand how individuals react in the face of exclusion, unfairness, or an injustice in the world today? 

In their journals or in a piece of reflective writing that they submit, have students choose one of the following prompts: 

  1. What new, different, or deeper understanding do you have about how individuals respond to exclusion, unfairness, or injustice? What makes you say that? Include ideas from the text, class discussions, and your own experiences to develop your response.
  2. Complete the following sentence starter and explain your reasoning in a written reflection: I used to think . . . about how individuals respond in the face of injustice or unfairness, but now I think . . . Next, I will . . . Include ideas from the text, class discussions, and your own experiences to develop your response.

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