Remembering Sir Nicholas Winton and Helping Students Think About Their Own Choices for Participation

Posted by Sarah Shields on July 8, 2015

Sir Nicholas Winton, a British humanitarian who saved more than 650 children through the Kindertransport during World War II, died on July 1, 2015, at the age of 106. Winton always humbly insisted he wasn't a hero; yet his inspiring story illuminates how courage, initiative, and compassion drive people to make a difference.

Recent stories in the news of ethnic and religious intolerance leading to violence — the murder of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, the rise in homophobic attacks in the wake of the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling, and the plight of the Muslim Rohingyan refugees in Southeast Asia — underscores the urgency for ongoing conversations about the responsibility each of has to protect democracy and human rights. Teachers can use Nicholas Winton's story as a catalyst to facilitate discussions about how we treat each other, how we should live together, and what our choices mean. 

In 1938, Winton, a 29-year-old stockbroker living in London, was called to Prague by a friend, who asked him to help evacuate children who were being targeted by the Nazis, who had recently annexed the Sudetenland. Winton said, of his mission, "The situation was heartbreaking...The parents desperately wanted to at least get their children to safety when they couldn't manage to get visas for the whole family..." Winton set up his own rescue operation, finding funds for repatriation costs and foster homes for each child, and battling obstacles every step of the way. "Everybody in Prague said, 'Look, there is no organization in Prague to deal with refugee children, nobody will let the children go on their own, but if you want to have a go, have a go.' And I think there is nothing that can't be done if it is fundamentally reasonable." [1]

sir-nicholas-wintonPhoto of Nicholas Winton with a rescued child in a still from the 2011 documentary Nicky's Family.

Facing History and Ourselves would call Nicholas Winton an "upstander," someone who embraced the challenge to speak out, did the right thing, and made decisions that helped create positive change in our world. Winton made a conscious choice to step in instead of stand by. His story is featured in Facing History's Choosing to Participate guide, one of ten stories to engage young people as they begin to understand that the choices they make as members of a civic society matter to themselves, their communities, and to future generations. While those choices, both large and small, may not seem important at the time, little by little they shape us as individuals and responsible global citizens.

The challenge then for educators is to create classroom settings that can help young people develop as thoughtful, caring, compassionate, and responsible citizens. By using strategies such as contracting, teachers can shape safe and reflective learning environments that are deliberatively nurtured by students and teachers who share expectations for how classroom members will treat one another. Stories from our past, like Winton's, help ground conversations in history so that young people can be better prepared to participate in practices and policies that prevent aggression and promote peace. If education is truly to be a preparation for life, then these lessons cannot go untaught.

Teachers can bring Sir Nicholas Winton's story into the classroom to help students recognize the qualities of an upstander, ask what it takes for people to become involved, and ultimately, to activate their own sense of agency to make a difference in the world. Ervin Staub, in studies of rescuers during genocide, states,

Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve, they aren't born. Very often rescuers make only a small commitment at the start — to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step, they begin to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as a mere willingness becomes intense involvement. [2]

Facing History's From Sympathy to Action lesson uses two texts to help students think about the factors that encourage and discourage people to act when they confront suffering or injustice. The studies described by journalist Nicholas Kristof reveal that most people will take action to save one life before they take action to save many lives. Yet, the story of Nicholas Winton demonstrates how some people do make an extraordinary effort to improve the lives of many. Together, these two accounts help students think about the responsibilities individuals have to address suffering and injustice in larger society.

Teachers can also use the Big Paper Silent Conversation activity with students to debrief these two readings. This peer-to-peer written discussion strategy helps students to slow down their thinking process, draws out students who may be less likely to participate in verbal discussions, and gives young people an opportunity to focus on the views of others. Equity of voice and a chance to reflect on one's own views and those of their classmates are key components of a reflective classroom environment. Teachers can also use the visual record of students’ thoughts and questions created during the exercise as informal assessment tool.

As educators prepare for next year this summer and once again tackle their most important task — shaping a humane, informed citizenry — sharing Winton's story is one way to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for civic engagement. Democracy is a fragile enterprise and can only remain vital through the active, thoughtful, and responsible participation of its people. Education for citizenship means encouraging each of us to recognize that our participation matters, just as Sir Nicholas Winton's did for the hundreds of "Winton's children" whose lives he saved.

Adapted from the Facing History and Ourselves Choosing to Participate guide.


[1] "The Story," Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good, Gelman Education Foundation (2009): Accessed July 12, 2009 and July 1, 2015.
[2] Daniel Goldman, "Is Altruism Inherited?" Baltimore Jewish Times (April 12, 1985): 70.

Topics: Classrooms, Teaching Strategies, Antisemitism, Choosing to Participate, Students, Teaching, Holocaust, Upstanders, Genocide/Collective Violence, Teachers, Holocaust and Human Behavior, Decision-making, Holocaust Education

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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