Understanding Social Systems as an Element of Setting | Facing History & Ourselves
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Activity

Understanding Social Systems as an Element of Setting

Students explore setting by analyzing the impact social systems can have on how individuals think, feel, and care about issues, choices, and actions.

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At a Glance

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Activity

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts

Grade

6–12
  • Culture & Identity

Overview

About This Learning Experience

It is a human tendency to form ourselves into groups. In groups, we meet our most basic needs; we share culture, values, beliefs, and interests; and we satisfy our desire to belong. Some groups overlap, and others come into conflict with one another. Since each one of us is often a member of more than one group, these conflicts can force us to confront difficult choices and dilemmas, especially when the groups to which we belong have a different sense of the common good.

This complex network of intergroup relationships is just one aspect of the social systems that make up our larger society. Each social system is composed of individuals, groups, and institutions. Within each system, everyone has a role to play, which is determined by the expectations society places on that role. The situation can be complicated, since there are often multiple systems operating at the same time: one may give a person a sense of agency in some areas, while another may mean that same person feels powerless elsewhere. Literature can help us to engage with this complexity when we examine how characters understand, interact with, and feel about the social systems they must navigate in the world of the text. 

The following learning experiences help students to analyze social systems as an element of setting and to consider the ways in which individuals may think, feel, and care differently about issues, choices, and actions based on their identity and relationship to these systems, both in literature and in life.

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.
  • 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.
  • Practice perspective-taking in order to develop empathy and recognize the limits of any one person’s point of view.
  • Identify examples of injustice in the literature they read and in the world today. Examine how an individual’s identity, group membership, and relationship to systems of inequity can impact their sense of who they are and their agency when faced with a moral dilemma or choice.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Produce a clear and coherent piece of writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to the purpose and audience

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.

If your students have already done one or more of the activities in the Exploring the Moral Universe of Setting learning experience, consider revisiting the concept of “moral universe” after the Explore and/or Extend sections below. Students can discuss how each system in the text (and real world) has its own norms, rules, hierarchies, beliefs, taboos, and expectations. They can explore what happens when the moral universes of these systems come into tension or conflict with each other. How does that impact the choices available to individuals and groups within these systems? How does it impact an individual’s sense of self and belonging in the world?

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Procedure

Activities

  1. Use the Concept Maps teaching strategy to have students explore the concept of a system. Because students may have a general understanding of a “system” but struggle to explain it in more detail, model the activity by starting your own concept map on the board. Then divide students into pairs or small groups to create their own system concept maps. Give thought to how you group students to support those for whom abstract concepts are a challenge and your English learners, who can benefit from working with peers who share their home language. 
  2. After pairs have finished their maps, have them form groups of four to share their ideas and add to their own maps. Then have each group come up with one question and one comment about the concept of systems to share with the class. 1
  3. Debrief as whole class, adding ideas to the map you started on the board. Then use the following information to lead a systems mini-lesson, pausing after each chunk of information so students can add new ideas to their concept maps and ask clarifying questions. 
    • Systems are made up of different, but interrelated, parts that together form a whole. Societies are made up of social systems, composed of individuals, groups, and institutions. In each social system, there are individuals and groups who have roles to play, and together this forms a coherent whole. 
    • Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm explain social systems as three concentric circles, with microsystems in the center, then mesosystems, and finally macrosystems. As the circles move outward, each one gets increasingly large and more distant from us as individuals. 
      • Microsystems: Family, friends, peers, neighborhood, local religious institutions
      • Mesosystems: Education system, transportation, government, county, state
      • Macrosystems: Global economy, global climate, current information age 2
    • In literature, as in life, social systems are a component of the setting and can help us understand characterization and the world of the text when we consider characters’ relationships with, feelings about, and interaction with the individuals, groups, and institutions that make up the social system. 
  • 1From Kelly Gallagher, Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4–12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2004), 48–49.
  • 2From Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Fresh Takes on Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme (New York: Scholastic, 2010), 66–69.
  1. Use the Parts, People, Interactions thinking routine 1 to help students consider the complexity of a social system in the text. Start by making a list of social systems in the text. Then have students respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • Parts: Choose a social system that interests you. What are the parts of the system? Make a list.
    • People: Who are the characters connected to the system? Make a list.
    • Interactions: How do the characters in the system interact with each other and with the parts of the system? 
    • Affect: How does a change in one element of the system affect the various parts and characters connected to the system?
  2. Combine students into small groups based on the social system they chose. Have them discuss the following questions together and as a class, citing evidence from the text to support their thinking:
    • One at a time, share your lists of parts and people. Add new ideas to your own list. 
    • What impact does this social system have on one or more characters’ sense of who they are? What makes you say that? 
    • What impact does this social system have on one or more characters’ opportunities and experiences? What makes you say that? 
    • What do you think the author wants you to think about or understand regarding the relationship between individuals, groups, and institutions in a social system? 
  3. In their journals, have students use the Parts, People, Interactions thinking routine to explore a social system in the world today that interests them. They can also respond to discussion questions 2c and 2d (above) for themselves. 
  • 1“Parts, People, Interactions” is adapted from a thinking routine developed by educators at Harvard University’s Project Zero.
  1. Use the Think, Feel, Care thinking routine 1 to help students deepen their understanding of the relationship between character and setting by considering a character’s relationship to and feelings about a social system in the text. Start by making a list of social systems in the text. Then have students respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • Think: Choose a character and a social system. How does this character understand this system and their role within it? 
    • Feel: What is this character’s emotional response to the system and to their position within it? How do they feel?
    • Care: What are this character’s values, priorities, or motivations with regard to the system? What is important to this character?
  2. Combine students into small groups by chosen character. Have them discuss the following questions together and as a class, citing evidence from the text to support their thinking:
    • One at a time, share one idea from your journal responses. 
    • What other characters, if any, do you think understand how your character feels about this system? How does having or not having others who understand them impact your character’s sense of self and belonging in the text? 
    • What responsibility do we have to try to empathize with other individuals—to try to understand what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing? 
  3. In their journals, have students use the Think, Feel, Care thinking routine to explore their own relationship to a social system. They can also respond to discussion questions 2b and 2c (above) for themselves. 
  • 1“Think, Feel, Care” is adapted from a thinking routine developed by educators at Harvard University’s Project Zero.

Thinking routines like Think, Feel, Care help to foster empathy, the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking and feeling. Invite students to consider the relationship between art and empathy in a piece of reflective writing that explores the following question: When has art—a movie, play, story, song, painting, poem, or another art form—motivated or helped you to feel empathy for someone else?

Have students choose a character and social system in the text and respond to the following questions in an analytical paragraph that incorporates relevant evidence to develop their thinking: What is your character’s relationship to a social system in the text? How does it impact their identity, relationship with others, and sense of agency?

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