Lesson 23 of 23
One 50-minute class period

Choosing to Participate

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

Guiding Questions

  • What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a more democratic society?
  • How can we determine the most effective way to make a difference in our neighborhood, our nation, and the world? Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to explain the term “levers of power” and recognize how individuals strategically use organizations, institutions, and technologies to make social or political change.
  • Students will use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.


The previous lesson engaged students in an examination of how societies remember and represent their history, especially through memorials and monuments. This lesson brings students into the “Choosing to Participate” stage of the Facing History scope and sequence by asking them to consider how our memory and understanding of history inspires and guides our choices in the world today. In particular, this lesson invites students to envision the ways that they themselves might contribute to the process of creating a more humane, just, and compassionate world.

Legal scholar Martha Minow has observed that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take: “Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” In an effort to help individuals identify concrete actions to take when they “choose to participate,” Minow developed a “levers of power” framework to map out the organizations, institutions, and technologies that can enable us to strengthen the impact of our voices and our actions. In this lesson, students will learn about these “levers” of power and analyze how some individuals and communities have strategically used them to make change. Students will then have the opportunity to think about which levers are most accessible to them personally and how they might use these to bring about changes they would like to see in their own communities.


How does learning about the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust educate us about our responsibilities in the world today? Racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry—which were at the root of so much of the inhumanity of the twentieth century—have not gone away. The principles of international law and the institutions that enforce those principles, which were created after World War II in response to the problems of war, genocide, and statelessness, continue to face daunting challenges. The news from around the world can be overwhelming, and people often wonder how they can help with the enormous job of bringing about a more humane, just, compassionate world and a more democratic society.

This lesson includes stories of individuals and groups who did “choose to participate,” and their stories can help us reflect on the values and actions that will strengthen our communities rather than make them more fragile. But the goal of this final step in the Facing History and Ourselves scope and sequence is not to force students to take action. Instead, its aim is to open their eyes to the different ways of participating that are happening around them and to the tools that others have used to make positive changes in their own communities. Encountering these examples offers an opportunity for students to reflect on who they are, who they want to be, and what kind of world they want to help create. As students explore the stories in this lesson, they should pay close attention to what inspires the individuals who appear in them, to the goals and strategies of those individuals, and to the ways those individuals enlist allies and respond to success and failure.

We often think about civic participation as a matter of politics, activism, and voting. Many people participate in organized campaigns to elect candidates, change laws, and influence the actions of governments and other institutions in our society, such as corporations and the media. But these are not the only ways of choosing to participate. Scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who studies civic engagement around the world, has noticed a trend toward types of participation that do not rely on the power of government and other institutions to make change. The readings in this lesson provide examples of both types of initiative: individuals choosing to participate through politics, activism, and institutions, and others who are attempting to make change through creative uses of art and technology, the formation of small businesses, and attempts to influence the norms and traditions of communities and cultures. Zuckerman concludes:

If you feel like you can change the world through elections, through our political system, through the institutions we have—that’s fantastic, so long as you’re engaged in making change. If you mistrust those institutions and feel disempowered by them, . . . I challenge you to find ways you can make change through markets, through norms [unspoken rules], through becoming a fierce and engaged monitor of the institutions we have and that we’ll build. The one stance that’s not acceptable, as far as I’m concerned is that of disengagement, of deciding that you’re powerless and remaining that way. 1

Ultimately, Facing History and Ourselves hopes to create a society of thoughtful citizens who think deeply about the way they live—when they are riding the subway to work as much as when they hear about incidents of mass violence that demand a global response. Indeed, at the conclusion of the Facing History and Ourselves journey, we hope that students will believe that their choices do matter and will feel compelled to think carefully about the decisions they make, realizing that their choices will ultimately shape the world.


Notes to Teacher

  1. Capitalizing on Student Energy and Creativity
    Teachers must sometimes approach the end of a Facing History unit with flexibility and creativity, as students may be inspired to invest themselves in a class project, or series of projects, to make a difference in their school, community, country, or the world. While this lesson is designed to provide students with some models and inspiration for the various ways in which they might “choose to participate” in creating a more humane world, students may already feel galvanized to do something beyond the scope of this lesson’s activities. We urge you to follow their passion and energy, to be willing to deviate from this lesson’s activities, and to use the resources here (especially the “levers of power” framework) to help guide projects in the school, community, and beyond that are conceived, created, and led by your students. If such energy does not emerge from the class, you cannot force it, and it does not mean that you have failed to produce the desired outcome. Every class is different, and the effects of the learning and growth students experienced in this unit may not reveal themselves until some time has passed, perhaps even when the students are adults.
  2. Choosing and Assigning Resources
    A variety of different resources will work with activities in this lesson. Feel free to browse additional readings Chapter 12: Choosing to Participate of Holocaust and Human Behavior and use different readings for the third activity listed below.

    Also consider using resources from the Not In Our School project. This website hosts a variety of videos describing examples of student-led projects to address issues of bullying, hatred, and intolerance in their own schools and communities. These provide additional examples of participation that are tangible and directly relevant to students’ lives.
  3. Previewing Vocabulary
    The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:
    • Participation
    • Strategy
    • Levers of power

    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.

  4. The Unit Essay Assessment
    If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after teaching this lesson, instruct them to finalize their evidence logs. For suggested activities and resources to help you guide your class through the remaining steps of the writing process, see Refining the Thesis and Finalizing Evidence Logs, as well as Common Core Writing Prompts and Strategies: Holocaust and Human Behavior.



  1. Reflect on What It Means to Be an Upstander
    • Tell students that they have learned about a variety of choices and actions from history in this unit that we might categorize as “upstander behavior.” To begin this lesson, ask them to review some of those examples and then respond to the following prompt:
      • What examples of upstander behavior from this unit were most meaningful to you? Which provide models for how you might act as an upstander in your life today?
    • Ask students to share some of their examples, perhaps using the Wraparound strategy. As students name examples, emphasize the range of ways that an individual can act as an upstander—a range that includes both public and private acts, as well as extraordinary and mundane ones. Tell students that in this lesson, they will analyze a variety of contemporary examples of upstander behavior.
  2. Introduce “Levers of Power”
    • Explain to students that they are going to think about what it takes to get involved in making their school, community, and country better, more humane places. Explain that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take. As legal scholar Martha Minow puts it: “Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’”
    • Now explain to students that they will look at a framework for planning what to do in order to respond to injustice and make positive changes in society.
    • Distribute the handout Analyzing Levers of Power. Spend a moment exploring the metaphor of the lever in the title. Ask students to define the meaning of the word lever, and then ask them to make an inference about what the phrase “levers of power” might mean. Tell students that in a literal sense, a lever is a tool that allows one to pick up or move something much heavier than could be lifted without it. In other words, a lever allows someone to use a small amount of force to have a big impact.
    • Briefly walk students through each category on the second side of the handout, which outlines the individuals, organizations, and technology platforms that can have this sort of amplifying effect at a societal level. By influencing or making use of these “levers,” individuals might have a larger impact on their community or society.
    • Ask students to come up with examples of individuals or groups that belong to each category in order to make sure that everyone understands them.
  3. Analyze Strategies for Making Change
    Students will use the “levers of power” framework to analyze examples of individuals who “chose to participate.”
    • In teams of two, assign students one of the following readings:

      Alternatively, if time permits, you can preview each reading for students and have them select the reading that appeals to them the most from a table at the front of the classroom. (See the Notes to Teacher section for suggestions about customizing the readings for this activity.)

    • After they choose or are assigned their reading, pairs should read and answer the questions on the first side of the handout Analyzing Levers of Power.
    • In each row on the second side of the handout, students should write a sentence or two explaining how the individual(s) in the readings used the lever described in the heading. If such a lever was not used, students can write “N/A” in the row. If a “lever of power” was involved that is not listed on the handout, students should describe it at the bottom of the page.
  4. Share “Levers of Power” Analyses
    • After students have completed their handouts, have them meet briefly with a classmate who worked with a different reading. When they meet, they should introduce the story they each read, describe the strategies that the people they read about used, and explain which levers of power were most useful to those people. Time permitting, ask students to change partners one or two more times so that they can learn about additional examples of choosing to participate.
    • Finally, lead a whole-group discussion in which you ask students to share their observations. Guide the discussion with the following questions:
      • What patterns did you notice? Did certain “levers of power” seem to come up in more readings than others?
      • Which of the strategies for change that you learned about seem most effective? Most difficult? Most creative?
      • Which of the “levers of power” on the handout seem most accessible to you? Which seem most difficult to influence? Which are you struggling to understand?
  5. Discuss the Persistent Need for Participation
    • End this lesson, and this unit, with a broader reflection on our responsibilities to participate together in the process of creating a more humane society. Share with students the reading Walking with the Wind.
    • Read aloud John Lewis’s story, and then discuss its meaning with the class: What does Lewis suggest about the work of citizens in a democracy?
    • Finally, ask students to write a reflection in their journals in response to the following question: What does choosing to participate mean to you? In what ways might you participate in the communities around you?


  • Assign students to write a paragraph outlining an issue that they care about and a change they would like to bring about regarding that issue. The paragraph should describe specific actions they could take to try to help make that change happen. Their plans should also include at least two of the “levers” of power outlined in this lesson, and students should describe how the specific action they could take might make use of those levers to increase their impact.
  • Collect students’ reflections in response to the Walking with the Wind reading, in which they have interpreted the meaning of John Lewis’s allegory and described what choosing to participate means to them. If you have established that journals are private in your classroom, ask students to write their reflections on a separate sheet of paper to turn in.


  1. Analyze the Role of the Internet in Civic Participation
    Ask students to analyze the potential benefits and pitfalls of using the internet for civic participation. Pass out the reading Online Civic Participation and ask students to read through Danielle Allen’s ten questions. Then lead a discussion using the following questions:
    • What examples do you know about of people using the internet in their attempts to bring about change? How might they have answered Allen’s questions?
    • What do Allen’s questions suggest about the potential opportunities and difficulties in using the internet to make positive change? Do you think these questions would be helpful even if one’s plan of action does not involve the internet?
  2. Explore a Community Response to Bigotry
    The reading Not in Our Town tells the story of how the town of Billings, Montana, responded to intolerance in their community. Analyzing this story can provide students with additional insight and inspiration for how to work together to create a more humane and democratic society. Consider sharing the reading with students, discussing the connection questions that follow, and using the “levers of power” framework to think about the strategy used by the residents of Billings to address the incidents of hate in their community.



Get Started

Begin here to find useful information and rationale for teaching this unit.

Lesson 1 of 23

Introducing The Unit

Students develop a contract establishing a reflective classroom community in preparation for their exploration of this unit's historical case study.

Lesson 2 of 23

Exploring Identity

Students identify the social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analyzing firsthand reflections and creating personal identity charts.

Lesson 3 of 23

Stereotypes and “Single Stories”

Students create working definitions of stereotype as they examine the human behavior of applying categories to people and things.

Lesson 4 of 23

Universe of Obligation

Students learn a new concept, universe of obligation, and use it to analyze the ways that their society designates who is deserving of respect and caring.



Step 1:

Introducing the Writing Prompt

Students draft a working thesis statement for an argumentative essay about the impact of choices in history.

Lesson 5 of 23

The Concept of Race

Students analyze the socially constructed meaning of race and examine how it has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.

Lesson 6 of 23

The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism

Students explore the long history of discrimination against Jews and come to understand how anti-Judaism was transformed into antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

Lesson 7 of 23

World War I and Its Aftermath in Germany

Students begin the unit's historical case study by exploring the brutal realities of World War I and the impact of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles.

Lesson 8 of 23

The Weimar Republic

Students reflect on the idea of democracy as they analyze the politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.



Step 2:

Introducing Evidence Logs

Students start to gather evidence that supports or challenges their initial thinking about the writing prompt.

Lesson 9 of 23

The Rise of the Nazi Party

Students examine how choices made by individuals and groups contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lesson 10 of 23

European Jewish Life before World War II

Students analyze images and film that convey the richness of Jewish life across Europe at the time of the Nazis’ ascension to power.

Lesson 11 of 23

Dismantling Democracy

Students examine the steps the Nazis took to replace democracy with dictatorship and draw conclusions about the values and institutions that make democracy possible.

Lesson 12 of 23

Do You Take the Oath?

Students consider the choices and reasoning of individual Germans who stayed quiet or spoke up during the first few years of Nazi rule.

Lesson 13 of 23

Laws and the National Community

Students are introduced to the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” and examine how the Nazis used the Nuremberg Laws to define who belonged.



Step 3:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 1 of 3

Students respond to the writing prompt in a journal reflection and begin to evaluate the quality of the evidence they are gathering.

Lesson 14 of 23

The Power of Propaganda

Students analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda and consider how the Nazis used media to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individual Germans.

Lesson 15 of 23

Youth and the National Community

Students learn about the experiences of people in Nazi Germany through a variety of firsthand accounts and identify the range of choices that they faced.

Lesson 16 of 23


Students learn about the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht by watching a short documentary and then reflecting on eyewitness testimonies.

Lesson 17 of 23

Responding to a Refugee Crisis

Students think about the responsibilities of governments as they consider how countries around the world responded to the European Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.

Lesson 18 of 23

Race and Space

Students examine the Nazi ideology of “race and space” and the role it played in Germany’s aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals.



Step 4:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 2 of 3

Students share their ideas about the writing prompt in groups and continue to build their evidence logs.

Lesson 19 of 23

The Holocaust: Bearing Witness

Students are introduced to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and look closely at stories of a few individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality.

Lesson 20 of 23

The Holocaust: The Range of Responses

Students deepen their examination of human behavior during the Holocaust by analyzing and discussing the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations.

Lesson 21 of 23

Justice and Judgment after the Holocaust

Students grapple with the meaning of justice and the purpose of trials as they learn how the Allies responded to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.



Step 5:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 3 of 3

Students approach the unit writing prompt in its entirety through journal reflection, evidence, gathering, and discussion.

Lesson 22 of 23

How Should We Remember?

Students both respond to and design Holocaust memorials as they consider the impact that memorials and monuments have on the way we think about history.

Lesson 23 of 23

Choosing to Participate

Students use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.



Step 6:

Refining the Thesis and Finalizing Evidence Logs

Students complete activities that help them think about the unit as a whole as they prepare a strong thesis statement for their essay.

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