Choosing To Participate

Ask students what to “participate” means. In a year of a presidential election, would they say it means to choose to vote for the candidate of their choice? Would they say that it means to make a choice about helping victims of storms or natural disasters? Would they see how making choices to participate could begin right in their own schools and communities? The range of answers might be impressive and suggest something about the state of civic education in our nation and the ways our schools help prepare students to participate in democracy.

For twelfth-grader Ibtesam “Sunny” Anjum the answer is sharp and focused: “We talked a lot about that question in my class…. it means helping others and being an Upstander and including others in your Universe of Obligation.” Danielle Cureton, tenth grade, says, “It means to be an active member in your school and take part in creating better community standards.” Olivia McClendon, twelfth grade, agrees adding, “…You need the willpower, motivation and determination to make a difference.” Nicholas Mendez, eleventh grade, says “Choosing to Participate means doing good things not for the perks but for honestly wanting to have good morals.”

How did these students arrive at their definitions? What do Upstander and Universe of Obligation mean? Where did Sunny encounter these ideas and vocabulary? Besides their own experiences, these students share the experience of learning in a Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) classroom. Sunny adds, “After being in my Facing History class, I realized that my Universe of Obligation was very small. Now it includes the whole world.”

As the 2008 school year began, choices about responsibility and participation were everywhere. We are making choices in the 2008 presidential election, which is engaging young people in unusually high numbers. According to the Washington Post, youth voter turnout has tripled and even quadrupled in some primary states compared with the 2004 elections. As our students, preparing to be voters in the near future, think about national and global issues, they are also faced with the decisions each school year brings: What kind of student will I be? What groups do I want to be a part of? The large and small choices students make may not seem important at the time, but little by little, those decisions will shape them as individuals and influence their potential to be responsible citizens.

Facing History and Ourselves
Questions about the meaning of participation and how one can make a difference are always on the mind of adolescents, and they permeate the entire educational framework of FHAO. Its sequence of study begins with an investigation of identity, first individual and then group identities with their definitions of membership. Through thinking about the use of such terms as labeling, stereotyping, obedience, conformity, and resistance, students develop a perspective within which to approach history and the connections that can be made to the present. They then explore an in-depth case study in history—the failure of democracy during the 1920’s and 1930’s in Germany and the steps that lead to the Holocaust, as well as other examples of mass violence such as the Armenian genocide and the Civil Rights struggle in the United States. Students see how such events were not inevitable, but were the result of choices made, or not made, by individuals, groups and nations. They learn that violence and injustice begin with small steps of indifference, conformity and a lack of critical thinking. They make connections to their own world and the moral choices that citizens of the world may need to confront. As they extend those connections to the future they think about prevention and how they, as young people and as adults can make a positive difference.

FHAO students grapple with the use and meaning of language as a tool for connecting past to present. While analyzing historical case studies they use words like perpetrator, victim, and bystander as well as terms that Sunny used above, including Upstander and Universe of Obligation. According to journalist and academic Samantha Power, Upstanders are people whose actions reflect courage and resilience, and whose determination to stand up for human rights has influenced subsequent public policy. Upstanders are “the sharpest challenge to the world of bystanders.” Universe of Obligation is the name historical sociologist Helen Fein has given to the circle of individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends].” Students use this vocabulary to engage with history and historical choices in order to make judgments about the roles they could assume.

The lessons of the past help students confront the necessity for responsible participation to protect and promote democracy, justice and human dignity in the future. Education for a democratic citizenship means encouraging students to recognize that participation can make a difference and is integral to the ethical choices and decisions that citizenship demands. Students are exposed to individuals and groups who have participated by taking steps to build just and inclusive communities. Through examining the meaning of participation in history and the present, Facing History classes help teachers and students think about what it means to be a good citizen in their schools, their neighborhoods, their nation, and around the world.

Examples of Resources for Choosing to Participate:
Facing History is unique in that it is not a packaged curriculum or prescribed set of lessons. It offers long-term support and is designed to have a lasting effect on the life of a school. FHAO provides teachers with ongoing professional development, pedagogy, and content resources to sustain this work.

Believing that no classroom exists in isolation, FHAO has developed a number of community resources, including the exhibit titled Choosing to Participate: a multifaceted and multimedia exhibition with a companion website that challenges audiences to examine biases and consider the responsibilities of citizenship. The exhibition aims to be a modern version of the town common, bringing neighbors together to consider ways to build community and consider the consequences of our choices and actions. The need for such an exhibit grew out of early experiences with students who had taken the FHAO journey and asked: How can I make a positive difference in the world? To help students think about this question, the exhibit highlights four powerful stories about the meaning of civic participation and the critical need to promote a just society. One story is “Crisis in Little Rock,” which focuses on efforts to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957—efforts that resulted in a severe constitutional crisis. Students learn how courageous choices made by young people changed U.S. history, inspiring others around the world. The exhibition has been shown in cities across the country, most recently in downtown Boston at the main branch of the Boston Public Library. More than 100,000 people visited, including 10,000 students who were led on tours by trained volunteers. The next destination is Cleveland, Ohio, where it will be hosted by the Western Reserve Historical society from October 2009 through Jan 2010.

Another resource is the interactive website “Be the Change: Upstanders for Human Rights.” The website explores the stories of five extraordinary people who won the Reebok Human Rights Award for work they did while in their teens and 20s. The website is rich with resources for teachers and gives students connection points between the passions, influences, and motivations of the five Upstanders and their own lives. Although the award winners are impressive because of their accomplishments, students learn they are also everyday people who have chosen to participate. There are multiple ways for students to interact with the website, including posting answers to the same questions posed to the Upstanders. Students can also connect with a growing global network of peers who care about creating a more just world.

Choosing to Participate in Schools
Many FHAO classes and students conclude their study by asking what they can do now to make a difference. Teachers lead students in investigations of essential questions such as: Where do I have the power to change? What is my Universe of Obligation? How can I make a difference? The following are some examples of how teachers and students have responded.

At The Engineering School, one of three small schools converted from Boston’s Hyde Park High School, Darlene Marcano believes it is important to help her students reflect on the impact of their choices and actions on those around them. Marcano created a writing project that would facilitate her students’ reflection on their experiences on the Boston subways, known locally as the “T.” She wanted them to address questions such as: How do people see me? How do I see myself? Where do I have the power for change? The most important thing for Marcano was “students tuning into their own choices and behavior and considering how it affected others…. I think schools need to do a lot more of this type of work.” She worked with a writing coach, Sage Marsters from WriteBoston, to create a curriculum for her ninth grade Humanities class that emphasized literacy skills in addressing these issues. They focused on the students’ experiences on the T since “many students ride the T every day—and this is usually not a passive ride. Amidst all the activity, students must make complex choices about how to engage with the public and who they want to be.”

One particular Facing History resource resonated: Jes?s Col?n’s story “Little Things Are Big.” Col?n shares his internal struggle as a Puerto Rican man about whether to offer help to a white woman with her luggage and children on a late night subway ride in New York City and how identity influenced his decision. Students analyzed the story and visited the Choosing to Participate exhibit, which also features Col?n’s work. The story helped them explore how stereotyping, labeling, and prejudice operate in their own world.

Marcano scaffolded the writing process by explicitly focusing on skills such as observation and the use of dialogue. She created a process for students to focus on moments of civic participation they’ve experienced on the T. The result was a collection of personal narratives on a wide range of experiences from being wrongly accused by police to witnessing an act of violence to a lesson learned from witnessing an act of love. The students addressed personal choices they are faced with in their daily lives and questions such as: How does identity affect the choices we make and who we are? What can we learn from choices we regret? How can writing be a form of participation?

Students discovered different ways that writing can be a form of participation. Several narratives were published in a local student-run newspaper that is distributed citywide. The class used their work in a presentation for their school-wide humanities exhibition night and built a mock T stop to display their work. The T stop was then displayed in their school’s lobby for the rest of the year. Their teachers wrote that the students have begun “to see themselves as people who make powerful choices every day, and they are using their writing to think through their choices.”

As Stephanie Papas, a World History teacher at Logan High School in Union City, California, created curriculum to address state standards on the “Rise of the Democratic Ideal,” she wanted to make the curriculum relevant to her students’ lives. Papas teaches students of many different cultural backgrounds and found that FHAO supported her work addressing issues of identity, membership and participation to build her learning community.

Papas uses FHAO on-line modules, including “The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy,” which focuses on the history of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933.) This creative and crucial period of the 20th century serves as a significant case study and raises crucial issues that resonate with our own time such as: How should a democracy respond to collective violence? Papas helps identify the “tragic flaws” of the period as a cautionary tale of how and why a democracy can fail. She discusses whether the issues in the Weimar Republic are relevant to problems that we face in the 21st century and asks students to use their historical investigation to answer questions about their own values and beliefs: What rights do I value? If there’s something I do not like, how do I change it? How can I make a difference? They draw on their knowledge of the Weimar Republic to grapple with what can strengthen and weaken democracy.

As the culmination to her work last year, Papas took advantage of Facing History’s speaker network to host a guest speaker, Carl Wilkens, who spoke about his choice to make a difference in Rwanda. The FHAO network brings speakers into classrooms to serve as another medium for helping students connect history to the moral choices they make in their own lives. Wilkens was the only American who chose to stay in Rwanda through the 1994 genocide, and was able to save more than 200 children living in an orphanage in Kigali during the conflict. His story is a powerful example of an individual’s choice to be an Upstander. Papas says his visit “was a highlight of the year.”

Papas is using interest in the 2008 presidential election to hold a school-wide mock election for which students are creating political pamphlets outlining differences between Democrats and Republicans. Students will vote using an on-line system. Papas is excited to see how this activity “will allow for a larger conversation about who participates, who doesn’t, and why? Who has access? Who has time?” She expects them to draw on lessons learned about the fragility of democracy in their historical case study to “create a lot of inroads for deeper discussions.”

New York City’s Facing History School (FHS), a small public CES high school created with FHAO as a lead partner, uses a curriculum that is rooted in history and choice making. The school is structured to connect academic exercise with practice. Students first experience the FHAO journey with a course titled “We and They,” required of all ninth graders, which focuses on issues of identity and membership. As one student said, “Before you can do any work, you need to know who you are.” Another discussed how “…we discuss serious topics that other high school students usually make fun of.” This work is infused throughout students’ four years at the school. Choosing to Participate has focused the school on the various forms that community service can take.

According to Jeffrey Galaise, coordinator of the FHS community service program, one goal is to help with the transition to college and another is to show students that “… if you do the right thing and commit yourself to your environment, it will open doors for you.” The program will require 400 hours of community service to graduate. Students who complete this requirement by their senior year participate in a year-long class called Senior Institute. The second half of the year involves an independent internship with organizations such as the Good Dog Foundation that trains dogs for use in therapy at various places, including children’s hospitals and elderly facilities. Teacher Emily Haines discussed other developing plans including alternative Spring Break service learning trips to the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

To emphasize the importance that choosing to participate has for their community, each year the FHS gives awards titled “Choosing to Participate Awards” to one student in every grade. Students win the award for being leaders in their school or for service to the larger community. Danielle, Olivia and Nicholas, who spoke about the meaning of choosing to participate in the introduction, are last year’s winners. Olivia recruited students to a school-wide committee that focused on improving the school environment. Nicholas and Danielle are leaders in the student government. When asked how the FHS has impacted their dreams for the future, all three confidently share their hopes and plans to attend colleges and universities such as Yale, Temple, Smith, and Boston University.

At Beachwood High School, outside of Cleveland, Ohio, Gregory Deegan saw that after studying Facing History and Ourselves in his Human Rights class, his students “were chomping at the bit to do something.” Deegan’s class now culminates with a “Choosing to Participate” week. Students form groups to investigate problems and issues that they think need to be addressed. FHAO supported his goals by helping him give students a vocabulary and language to engage in difficult topics. He feels that the Scope and Sequence engages students in authentic discussions about what it means to live in a Democracy. He uses Facing History Resources such as the video “Not in Our Town,” which depicts the ways that Billings, Montana stood up to hate crimes, to shape discussions about choices that people had in history and about the choices they have today.

For the last week of the semester, student groups work to make the entire school aware of their projects. In the preceding month, they meet with teachers and the school principal to make them aware of their plans. They create signs, pamphlets, and tables with information around the school and are required to connect with other students who are not in the class to explain and perhaps defend their work. They prepare by discussing how to find conversation points that help engage others instead of shutting them down.An example of a project is a student who visited an orphanage while traveling in Brazil and formed a group to raise funds for play equipment. Deegan said that the FHAO curriculum helped his project to teach “all the skills that Social Studies teachers talk about promoting.”

One group’s work did not stop with the end of the school year or with students graduating and leaving for college. Over a year and a half ago, students learned that local businesses were throwing away significant amounts of food that was past the sale date but still usable. The students contacted these businesses to donate the food, which they then brought to a battered women’s shelter. When the original group members graduated, students just beginning in Deegan’s Human Rights course agreed to take over. The pride is evident in Deegan’s voice as he explains that students who are new to the course are inspired to participate by what they have heard. On a Thursday night, after a long day at school and on the phone explaining his work, Deegan was headed out again to meet the present group members in the parking lot of their school and help bring the donations to the shelter which has come to depend on their help. The choice of one small group of students to participate has been carried on by those coming after them.

At Wildwood School, an independent K-12 Essential school and Small Schools Network Mentor School in Los Angeles, teacher Tassie Hadlock-Piltz used FHAO material to help create a Human Rights class that has become the required capstone Humanities class for all seniors. The course introduces the fundamentals of human rights in theory and as practiced throughout the world. It begins with a focus on the human rights provisions of the United Nations’ Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and culminates with an action project requiring students to investigate an issue that manifests itself in their communities. Examples of issues they have looked at are educational inequality, sweat shops, and the abuse of local taxi drivers. Hadlock-Piltz emphasizes that she uses Facing History resources “not to get depressed about abuses but to look at examples of healing and reconciliation, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to see how to move beyond hopelessness.” The class participated in the launch of the Be the Change website and gained inspiration from the stories of the Upstanders.

One outcome of this approach was when students at Wildwood advocated for the formation of the Human Rights Student Task Force. The group developed over the last five years and is now the most active club at the school. Hadlock-Piltz says “that as a CES school, we believe that students are the participants and leaders who set the agenda for the group.” The group created an internal leadership group for which it “has become an honor to be a member.” The Wildwood Human Rights Student Task Force has taken on many interesting projects such as a “Movies That Matter Festival.” Wildwood students invited students from other schools, showed movies such as China Blue, which looks at the garment industry in China, and led reflective discussions. One of their most ambitious projects was hosting a “Camp Darfur” day at the school.

According to the website of Stop Genocide Now ( “Camp Darfur is an interactive awareness and education event that brings attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan.” The group provides canvas tents that represent what more than 2.5 million internally displaced persons in Chad and Darfur are living in. Tents house exhibits on the genocide in Darfur and historical genocides such as in the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda. Hadlock-Piltz is clear “that while nothing can get close to understanding the experience of the refugees” the goal is education and making students aware of the choices to participate that are available to them.

Members of the student task force educate themselves and then work in the tents as other students visit. This year, Friday, November 21st will be devoted to Camp Darfur. The group plans to have classes from the entire upper school visit. At certain points during the day, they will gather all those attending to hear testimonies from children around the world who have been victims of conflicts. The task forces members work to become educators for the day and to emphasize a global context for Choosing to Participate.

How did Sunny, who spoke about expanding his Universe of Obligation, arrive at his beliefs? He explains that his life experiences, including separation from family members and emigrating from Pakistan in 2005, laid the foundation. It wasn’t until being in a Facing History class that he was able to appreciate what education made possible for him: “I thought education was just another way of making money. Now I realize that education is the key that will make my life positive.”

A senior at Boston International High School, a school for recent immigrants of high school age, Sunny was part of a project in Jocelyn Stanton’s classroom called Digital Storytelling. The project is the result of a collaboration of FHAO with the Pearson Foundation (see that teaches students to write, organize, shoot, assemble and edit their own curriculum-based digital films. Stanton focused her class by framing their pieces on moral dilemmas in the students’ lives. Sunny created a piece called “Together We Can Make a Change,” in which he addresses the question of whether or not he was obligated to include Pakistan in his universe of obligation. Sunny wrote: “I kept asking myself: am I, as a citizen of Pakistan living in this country, obligated to my country of origin? As violence in Pakistan erupted and I saw and heard the violence in the news, I wondered if I should include Pakistan in my Universe of Obligation? After making the movie, I concluded that Pakistan was just the beginning. Instead, I realized that my Universe of Obligation includes everyone: in my class, in my community, and in the world.”

Sunny’s experience is validated by Stanton’s thoughts on her work with Facing History. She believes that students “become conscious about the choices they are making by really slowing down to process of choice making itself.” She believes that young people feel respected when educators bring tough, intellectual conversations to them: “Students feel this is real. That this is what they go through, too.” Their Universe of Obligation can grow through learning about the struggles of others. Sunny’s words, digital narrative, and writing exemplify this possibility. His thinking has grown and evolved as he has taken the FHAO journey. Striving to be an Upstander and choosing to participate is now a part of his identity.

The impact of this work for students is seen in their words. After visiting the Choosing to Participate exhibit Sunny felt compelled to create a painting titled “Our Colorful World,” featured on the cover of this issue of Horace. Writing about it, Sunny says, “I decided to make a painting of Upstanders who want to turn this world into An Ideal World by adding others in their Universe of Obligation. As I started to work on my artistic project, I discovered that I, too, am one of those Upstanders who have this dream to turn this world into An Ideal World and Colorful World where there is love, peace, and equality.”

As we move forward in the 21st century knowing and confronting the collective violence in our past and pitfalls for democracy in the future, the value of investigating choosing to participate in our schools is clear. As Margot Stern Strom has written “The educator’s task—to shape a humane, informed citizenry—has never been more urgent or more vital to the preservation of democratic values and human rights.” Another Facing History student adds, “If one by one, hundreds of children learn the evils of hatred in history, then learn to face and change that history in their own world through art, language, and service and begin to build communities of educated committed citizens, who is to say that Facing History cannot be the catalyst for an end to prejudice, violence, and injustice?”

Jeremy Nesoff is a program associate at Facing History and Ourselves. He is a graduate of the Principals Residency Network and was a teacher and administrator in two small schools: the New York City Museum School and the Compass School (a CES school). Horace Volume 23, Number 4, features his article “The Belmont Zone of Choice: Community-Driven Action for School Change,” available at He can be reached at