Teaching the Nanjing Atrocities | Facing History & Ourselves
A flower is left on a wall engraved with victims names at the Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre.

Teaching the Nanjing Atrocities

Lead students through a study of the Nanjing atrocities, beginning with an examination of imperialism in East Asia and ending with reflection on justice in the aftermath of mass violence.


At a Glance

unit copy


English — US


  • History




Multiple weeks
  • Genocide


About This Unit

This unit draws upon and adapts resources from the book The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War and its related media collection. This unit consists of five lessons designed to lead high school students through an examination of the war crimes perpetrated by Japanese troops in the Chinese city of Nanjing during World War II. 

Focusing on the historical context for the atrocities committed in Nanjing, the unit also incorporates elements of the Facing History & Ourselves scope and sequence. Students bear witness to the event through the voices of Nanjing survivors, reflect on the consequences of human action and inaction during times of crisis, and consider how to achieve justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities. 

Above all, the five lessons in this unit stress an appreciation of the dangers of unchecked nationalism and militarism. By examining what happens when a nation fosters a climate of superiority, intolerance, and dehumanization, students will gain a deeper understanding of the Nanjing atrocities and the events of World War II in East Asia.

The following essential questions provide a framework for exploring this unit’s main ideas and themes:

  • How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”?
  • How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

These essential questions challenge students to make important connections between history and the contemporary world. We do not expect students to determine a single, “correct” answer. Essential questions are rich and open-ended; they are designed to be revisited over time, and as students explore the content in greater depth, they may find themselves emerging with new ideas, understandings, and questions.

This unit supports a multiple week exploration of the Nanjing Atrocities. It includes:

  • 5 lessons
  • Videos, readings, and handouts that correspond with activities
  • Student materials in English and Spanish
  • Unit assessment

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.

In this unit, students will confront the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the city of Nanjing. While they will engage with the subject matter intellectually, studying some of the contributing historical, social, and political factors, it is also important to acknowledge students’ emotional responses to this history. This unit includes historical descriptions and firsthand accounts that some students may find emotionally challenging. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of previewing the readings and videos in this curriculum to make sure they are appropriate for the intellectual and emotional needs of your students.

Even for historians who have devoted their lives to studying it, Nanjing, like other mass atrocities, can elude understanding and simple explanation. It is difficult to predict how students will respond to the challenging readings, documents, and films in this unit. One student may respond with emotion to a particular reading, while others may not find it powerful in the same way. In addition, different people demonstrate emotion in different ways. We urge teachers to create space for students to have a range of reactions and emotions. This might include time for silent reflection or writing in journals, as well as structured discussions to help students process content together. Some students will not want to share their reactions to emotionally challenging content in class, and teachers should respect that in class discussions. For their learning and emotional growth, it is crucial to allow for a variety of responses, or none at all, from students to emotionally challenging content.

We believe that a classroom in which a Facing History & Ourselves unit is taught ought to be a microcosm of democracy—a place where explicit rules and implicit norms protect everyone’s right to speak; where different perspectives can be heard and valued; where members take responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole; and where each member has a stake and a voice in collective decisions. You may have already established rules and guidelines with your students to help bring about these characteristics in your classroom. If not, it is essential at the beginning of this unit to facilitate a supportive, reflective classroom community.

Two ways in which you can create a strong foundation for a reflective classroom are through the use of classroom contracts and student journals. Even if you already incorporate both of these elements in your classroom, we recommend taking a moment to review both strategies.

Each lesson includes one or more guiding questions. Unlike the unit’s essential question, which is broad and open-ended, guiding questions help to direct student inquiry at the lesson level and are aligned with its specific learning objectives. Answering guiding questions requires deep thinking and textual interpretation. Unlike essential questions, guiding questions might have a clear answer, which students should be able to support with specific evidence from the lesson to demonstrate their understanding of the content.

The readings and videos in this unit introduce some vocabulary and concepts that may pose a challenge for your students, especially for struggling readers, so you may want to consider using the Word Wall strategy to keep a running list of critical vocabulary posted in your classroom that you and your students can refer to over the course of the unit. Students might have a corresponding list in a section of their journals or notebooks, and you could also challenge them to incorporate Word Wall terms into their writing and discussions to help them internalize and understand these challenging terms and concepts.

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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.

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY