What Does It Mean to Belong? | Facing History & Ourselves
A teacher talking with three high school students in a classroom

What Does It Mean to Belong?

Students identify the range of actions they can take when confronted with exclusion. The term upstander is introduced, as well as key terms such as bystander, perpetrator, and victim.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In Lesson 8, students explored issues of membership and belonging through a fictional and historical example. “The ‘In’ Group,” a short reading included in this lesson, brings ideas about inclusion and exclusion to a more familiar context—a middle school playground. The narrator of the story, Eve Shalen, recounts her experience as an outcast among her peers. She highlights a moment in eighth grade when she was invited to join the “in” group. At times a victim of ostracism, Eve is confronted with a difficult choice about how to behave. Should she join the “in” group in taunting another classmate? Should she stand by as they read a classmate’s diary? Should she try to stop them from violating her classmate’s privacy? As students predict what they think Eve will do, they can identify the different roles people play in a community. Words such as victim, perpetrator, bystander, and upstander help students describe the behavior of individuals and groups they will study in world history. This vocabulary also helps students think about their roles and relationships within their own communities.

Eve’s story also highlights the universal desire to belong to a community—a desire that can be seen in the behavior of ancient Egyptians as well as Mayans. In those societies, like many others, ostracism and exile were considered to be the harshest penalties. To achieve a sense of belonging, individuals often choose to conform to the norms and behaviors of the group. Indeed, Eve Shalen joins the “in” group in mocking a fellow student even though she knows that this behavior is wrong and hurtful. Throughout their study of world history, students will recognize examples of conformity to established customs, religious beliefs, and patterns of behavior. At times, conformity may serve a civilization well by maintaining stability and a sense of cohesion, whereas at other times conformity may lead to a society’s decline, especially in times of environmental, economic, or political change.

  • Students will identify a range of responses individuals have at their disposal when reacting to exclusion, discrimination, and injustice. Students will be able to define the words bystander, perpetrator, victim, and upstander.
  • Students will understand the terms belonging and conformity.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 reading

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Lesson Plans


Before students read Eve Shalen’s story, have them spend a few minutes writing about times when they have felt included and excluded. To guide students’ reflections, a set of warm-up questions have been included in this lesson plan.

Divide the reading The "In" Group into two parts. Part 1 should contain the first three paragraphs of Shalen's story, and Part 2 should contain the the final paragraph (beginning with, "I sat down...). This way, students can predict what Eve Shalen will do and discuss what they think she should do before they actually read about her decision. Begin the activity by distributing a copy of Part 1 so students can read along while you or a student volunteer reads aloud. This story can also be read as a round robin read aloud. This strategy keeps students accountable for following along with the text because all students participate in reading. Typically, one student volunteers to read the first sentence, then his or her neighbor reads the next sentence, and so on.

After the class finishes reading Part 1, ask students to consider the question, “What are Eve’s options?” As students list various choices Eve could make in this situation, record their responses on the board. Students may mention that she could participate in reading the diary, she could walk away, she could ask the “in” group for the diary so she can give it back to its owner, or she could tell the teacher. When you have a range of responses listed on the board, students can answer the following questions:

  • What do you think Eve will do?
  • What do you think Eve should do?
  • What do you think you would have done in this situation?

Next, have students share their answers to the first two questions. One way to structure this sharing is by using the barometer strategy. This teaching method asks students to respond to a question by standing on a specific point along a continuum. For this lesson, create an imaginary line in your classroom. The line should be long enough to allow all students in the class to stand on it. Tell the students that one end of the line represents, “Eve takes a stand against the ‘in’ group” and the other end represents, “Eve makes fun of the girl whose diary was taken.” You can post signs in the room labeling the two ends of the continuum. Then ask students to stand at the point on the line that best represents what they think Eve will do. If students think that Eve will join the “in” group but not make fun of the girl, they can stand near the middle.

Facilitate a discussion in which students at various points along the line explain what they think Eve will do and what leads them to this conclusion. As they listen to their peers’ comments, students can change their position on the line. If you have time, repeat this activity, but change the prompt so that students stand on the point along the continuum that represents what they think Eve should do. Again, ask students to explain their position on the line. After the barometer activity, students can return to their seats and read Part 2 of “The ‘In’ Group.” Then have them respond to the following questions in writing and in a class discussion:

  • What did Eve do?
  • Why do you think Eve made this decision?
  • What does Eve mean when she writes, “Often being accepted by others is more satisfying than being accepted by oneself”?
  • Do you agree or disagree with this idea? Why or why not?

“The ‘In’ Group” provides an opportunity to discuss themes such as conformity, peer pressure, and belonging—themes that resonate with students’ own experiences and that have shaped the behavior of individuals throughout history.

The following activity helps students develop a vocabulary they can use to analyze their own actions, the behavior of those around them, and the actions of individuals and groups in the past. Often when students think about acts of injustice, they divide those involved into two groups: the victims and the perpetrators. Yet others contribute to the prevention or the perpetuation of injustice. For example, a bystander is someone who witnesses or knows about an act of injustice but chooses not to do anything about it. On the other hand, when confronted with information about an unjust act, an upstander takes steps to prevent or stop this act from continuing. Introducing students to the terms bystander and upstander can help them recognize the consequences of their own actions (and inaction) and the choices of individuals and groups throughout history.

As a final activity, review the terms victim, perpetrator, bystander, and upstander with students, and ask them to apply these terms to “The ‘In’ Group.” Following are some prompts to help guide this discussion:

  • In this story, who was the victim?
  • Who are the perpetrators?
  • Who are the bystanders?
  • Who are the upstanders?

In this story, Eve Shalen might represent a bystander. She did not steal the diary herself or do anything excessive to torment its owner. Yet, although she knew that reading the diary was wrong, she watched while the “in” group read it without doing anything to stop them. An interesting question to ask students is, “What would an upstander have done in this situation?”

To end this lesson, have students discuss the question, “Why do you think people do nothing even when they know something happening around them is wrong?” This is an ideal time to introduce students to the terms belonging and conformity. Often, because people want to belong to a community, they will adopt the values and behavior they think are most likely to be accepted by this group. Indeed, Eve Shalen wanted to belong to the “in” group so badly that she participated in reading the diary even though she knew it was wrong.

Curriculum connections: You can use the terms introduced here (victim, perpetrators, bystanders, and upstanders) to help students understand and interpret events in world history such as the trial of Socrates or the Spanish invasion of the Mayan Empire.

Several important issues and new terms are introduced in this lesson. Allow students to choose from one of the following questions to respond to in their journals:

  1. Pick a moment of injustice from your own life, from history, or from current events. Briefly describe this event. Then identify the victim, the perpetrators, the bystanders, and the upstanders. Finally, answer the question, “Why do you think people do nothing even when they know something happening around them is wrong?”
  2. Identify a moment when you did something to fit in with a group. What did you do? Would you do the same thing again? Why or why not? When can it be useful to conform in order to belong to a group? When can conformity be harmful?
  3. Write a short story in which the main character(s) deal with issues of conformity and belonging.

Materials and Downloads

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

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.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif