Today is #CharacterDay, a movement that’s bringing together people from around the world to talk about the traits, characteristics, thoughts, and actions that build, shape, and make up our unique and individual characters.
Check out this 8-minute video "The Science of Character."
After viewing, consider the following questions:
- How do we develop our characters?
- What and who shape who we are, who we were, and who we will become?
- Can thinking about our characters and coming together to talk about positive characteristics help us create a better, more informed, and more thoughtful society?
As part of #CharacterDay, schools, classrooms, and communities worldwide are screening “The Science of Character,” then logging on to join a free online conversation hosted by experts in the field of character development. You can join in, too. Check it out here.
Keep reading to find multimedia Facing History resources that you can use in the classroom to continue the conversation. Each one can be used in a flipped classroom exercise, and each looks at a specific moment in history when an everyday person acted in empathetic ways to help out another person – sometimes people they knew, sometimes total strangers – or community. Here at Facing History, we call these people upstanders.
Facing History’s online guide The Rescuers explores stories of rescue during World War II. The guide is a complement to the documentary of the same name, which features diplomats who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania in the summer of 1940. Against the wishes of his superiors, Sugihara decided to provide transit visas to thousands of Jews who had escaped German persecution in Poland. Many of them used this opportunity to flee Europe into safety.
Watch this clip or, for a flipped classroom exercise, assign it as homework then follow up with an in-class discussion activity:
- What was Sugihara’s dilemma?
- Sugihara disobeyed his superiors three times and issued visas, ultimately saving thousands of Jews. How do you explain why Sugihara disobeyed orders from Japan?
- Can you think of another time in history when someone disobeyed authority and listened instead to his or her own conscience? Do you have an example from your own life?
In the film Reporter (available to borrow for free from the Facing History Lending Library for educators in our network), New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof explores what it takes to make people care about others – strangers, living far away – who are suffering from war, famine, and disease. Watch the following clip, in which Kristof discusses what he calls “psychic numbing,” which is a tendency for people to care less about a cause or issue as the number of victims increases.
- What is empathy? What is compassion? When have you felt empathy and/or compassion for something or someone? What provoked this feeling in you? Did you do anything as a result?
- Under what conditions is psychic numbing helpful? Under what conditions is psychic numbing harmful? Identify a time when you may have experienced psychic numbing—when you may have felt numb to disturbing information and images. Why do you think you felt numb to this information? What could have been done, if anything, to get you to pay thoughtful attention to this information?
You can download the Facing History guide Teaching 'Reporter': A Study Guide Created to Accompany the Film 'Reporter' free here.
The Courage of Le Chambon
“The Science of Character” argues that three things determine your character: you, those around you, and genetics. During World War II, the influence that others can have on our characters was powerfully demonstrated in the small village of Le Chambon in southern France where residents, aware that Jews were being murdered, took action to save as many people as possible. The people of Le Chambon were Protestants in a country where most people are Catholic. They turned their community into a hiding place for Jews from all over Europe. The story is featured in chapter eight (pages 385-388) of Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior. Magda Trocme, the wife of the local minister at the time, explained how it all began:
Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done – nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not?
Interviewed 40 years later, the people of Le Chambon said they did not regard themselves as heroes. They did what they did, they said, because they believed that it had to be done. Almost everyone in the community of 3,000 took part in the effort. Even the children were involved. When a Nazi official came to organize a Hitler Youth camp in the village, the students told him that they “make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to Gospel teaching.”
You can find the entire “The Courage of Le Chambon” reading here.
- As Protestants in a nation of Catholics, the people of Le Chambon knew what it was like to be an oppressed minority. How do you think that experience shaped their response to the plight of the Jews? Encouraged them to respond as a community?
- Elsewhere in the reading, Magda Trocme is quoted as saying, “In the end, I would like to say to people, ‘Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances that will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision of your own, not about other people but about yourself. I would not say more.’” What does she mean when she says the decision she and others made was not about other people, but about oneself? What circumstances today require that kind of courage? For what reasons?
Not in Our School
What can your school do to become a more tolerant place, and a community that encourages each person within it to be their best selves? Not in Our School is a peer-to-peer learning program that uses film and storytelling to encourage safety and inclusion. A partner with Facing History, Not in Our School uses videos and online action tools to start conversations about bigotry and harassment, and engage students and teachers in activities that promote respect and acceptance.
Watch the video “Students Take on Cyberbullying,” one of Not in Our School’s videos that feature Facing History students:
- What were students responding to in this video? What problem were they trying to solve?
- What did they do? What strategies did they employ? What community or school resources did they draw from?
- What risks did they take? What challenges did they confront?
- What do you think of their response? What did they accomplish?
You can find a more detailed lesson plan for using this video here.
Find more videos that address issues related to character:
- How does bias impact the way we respond to difference? What can we do about it?
- What can neuroscience tell us about prejudice?
- How stereotypes affect us and what we can do about it.
If you could be a better version of yourself, how do you want to be? Fill in the blank with a comment below: “I want to be…”