Creating a culture of upstanders

By Jamie Lott-Jones and Mary Sok 

The start of the school year is the optimal time to reflect on your purpose in the classroom. The essential question for educators should be: How can I empower my students?  

In an age where everything is Google-able, lessons need to go beyond what is searchable and focus on skills that equip our students to be upstanding citizens. Students should be encouraged to critically and effectively participate in our democratic society. Asking students to reflect on their choices and how they participate allows them to see that they can effect change.  

According to Dr. Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Level 4 “Extended Thinking,” our goal as educators should be to enable our students to transfer knowledge from one content sphere to another to solve problems in their lives. By creating lessons that encourage reflection, critical analysis and application, we demonstrate to students that they have power to be civic change makers. 

As social studies teachers, how do we connect past to present in ways that cultivate students’ power and ability to effect change? Our motivation came from a letter written by a Holocaust survivor to educators, published in “Teacher and Child” by Dr. Haim Ginott: 

Dear Teacher: 
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: 

Gas chambers built by learned engineers. 
Children poisoned by educated physicians. 
Infants killed by trained nurses. 
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. 

So, I am suspicious of education. 
My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. 
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human  

Educators want students to master content, become critical and creative thinkers, and engage in our school, community, and country. It is important for students to reflect, as the website Facing History and Ourselves notes, on “the power of the individual to make decisions that affect not only oneself and one’s neighbors but also the survival of the entire world.”

Giving students the opportunity to be actively engaged and providing real world opportunities with real people in the learning process, empowers students to understand and value a democratic society (John Goodlad, 2000). So we had to think about how to equip our kids to be upstanders.  

What is an upstander? 

For years, we have employed the term “upstanders,” taken from a 2003 speech Samantha Power gave to capture the essence of what we were trying to instill in our students. An upstander is an individual who sees wrong and acts. After learning from spellcheck that it was not a ”real” word, our Watchung Hills students, Monica Mahal and Sarah Decker, began a campaign to promote a word, upstander, that gave a name to a behavior that is crucial for building stronger communities and a more humane world.  

“Students can easily recognize the bully, the ’bad guy,’ the one throwing the punches . . . and most can point out the bystanders, the individuals in the shadows, watching and doing nothing … so who are the upstanders?” Decker and Mahal challenge, ask, then answer. “A person who takes a stand against an act of injustice or intolerance is not a ’positive bystander,’ they are an UPstander. The word itself has the ability to empower students to make an active change in their schools, in an effort to build communities that support difference and unify against intolerance. The concept of an upstander is critical to the well-being of our society.” 

In 2016, due to their efforts upstander was successfully added in both the Oxford and the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The most important part of the definition of upstander is that anyone can become one! 

Former Watchung Hills students Monica Mahal (l) and Sara Decker are now pursuing careers in law with an emphasis on human and civil rights. 

Empowering students to be upstanders requires critical analysis of our curriculum choices. 

In designing a curriculum, decisions have to be made. Whose history should be included? Whose might be left out? If everyone’s history is included, what may be lost? How do you discover universal lessons from a particular history without trivializing that history? Whose voice is missing? How can we develop lessons that acknowledge, affirm and value what the students bring to class? Their voices and experience matter.  

Use Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors, windows and sliding doors in your curriculum portfolio to expose your students to myriad voices and experiences. “Mirrors” help students see themselves reflected in curricula. Windows enable them to see into the world of others. Sliding glass doors offer the opportunity to enter into the world of other.

Expect your students to nurture a culture of empowerment. Provide opportunities to experience new lenses with which to view literature, history, and current events.  

Begin the year with activities that build community, such as group norms and contracting. Below are examples of group norms to create a culture of learning and respect: 

  • Listen with respect. Try to understand what someone   is saying before rushing to judgment. 
  • Make comments using “I” statements. 
  • If someone says an idea or question that helps your own learning, say “thank you.” 
  • If someone says something that hurts or offends you, do not attack the person. Acknowledge that the comment—not the person—hurt your feelings and explain why. 
  • Put-downs are never okay. 
  • Think with your head and your heart. 
  • Share the talking time—provide room for others to speak. 
  • Do not interrupt others while they are speaking. 
  • Active listening is participating. Talk or listen- do both if you feel inclined. 
  • Foster a safe and supportive learning space 


At the beginning of the school year, have students explore historical themes in relation to their own lives. Identity charts and biopoems allow students to share information about themselves and have them begin thinking about who they are and what type of person they want to become. View more about biopoems visit here. Learn more about identity charts here.

Empowering students to be upstanders makes us reflect on times we have been bystanders. 

Next, challenge students to think about their own choices by examining in-groups and people’s need to belong. Start on their level—when something went wrong at a party, the mall, the school cafeteria. What do they wish they had done once they had time to think it over?  

Our goal is not to judge but to be open to others and to learn tools to help teachers facilitate meaningful conversations and respond in the moment to support our students in the classroom.  

Model responses for students to help them think in the moment and move from bystanders to upstanders. How many times do we all feel stunned in the moment but discover the right “comeback” response hours after an uncomfortable situation? Help kids find their own voice.  

For example, have students identify a moment when they did something to fit in with a group. What did they do? Would they 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? Why do you think people do nothing even when they know something happening around them is wrong? Can they connect these questions to a historic event or piece of literature? Why is it important to have students reflect on their own choices? 

These questions can be woven into the curriculum for critical analysis of the impact of individual and collective decision-making. (See

Give students the vocabulary to be an upstander with statements that help them to interrupt, question, educate and echo what the witness:  

  • Why did you say that? 
  • Did you mean to say something hurtful? 
  • Speak using I statements… 
  • I don’t find that funny.  
  • Using that word offends me 
  • I’m surprised to hear you say that 
  • Tell me more. 
  • Please help me understand…. 
  • You really didn’t mean that? 
  • What did you mean by that? 
  • Do you know the history of the word? 

Empowering students to be upstanders requires analyzing historic and current events when action should have been taken by others 

Our history has been shaped by the action or inaction of everyday people. As one of the goals of a lesson found on the Facing History and Ourselves website contends, “The identity of a nation like the United States is the product of collaboration and conflict between a variety of individual voices and groups—some famous, but many not.”

In our classrooms, we examine how in history, bystanders “watched” while events impacting them unfolded. Many students claim they would never have idly watched evils like the Holocaust. Yet far too many people did.  

In order to explore inaction, it is important to look at why people’s reactions were impeded. Socially and emotionally, some students cannot see outside of their bubble; genocides, human rights issues, and civic-mindedness are not really in the forefront of their thinking. Cognitively, many students have not considered that they might have influence in shaping a more positive social awareness in their own sphere. It can be difficult for teenagers to objectively critique the norms of their lived experiences when they enter a classroom. But they are able to critically examine choices people made historically, find valor or cowardice in their responses, and brainstorm alternate courses of action.  

Discussing what should have occurred in history is an entry point for student action. Kids know who has power and influence; they understand clique behavior and the “we” and “they” divisions that exist within their communities. As educators, we empower students to examine institutional power dynamics and injustice, helping them find their voices and equipping them with tools to make systemic changes in their community. 

“Each one of us has the power and courage to rise as upstanders, to stand up against injustice. To change our communities, our countries, and even our world… Together as upstanders, we can change the course of human history towards a future of mindful, active global citizens.” (Excerpted from “What Difference Can a word make? From Facing History and Ourselves Choosing to Participate.”)

Student upstanders who have made a difference  

Raegan Miller, 2022 Watchung Hills graduate and president of the school’s Diversity Club wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper: 

Growing up, I wasn’t taught about the system of privilege and prejudice and its effect on society. It wasn’t until my freshman year at Watchung Hills Regional High School that my understanding of discrimination became clear through the lens of world history. In one lesson, my world history teacher gave out identity charts to everyone in class. We were encouraged to ask ourselves questions like: Who do you want to be? Who am I? What do you want to accomplish? This exercise launched an important dialogue, unlike one I’d ever had before, about recognizing some of the ugly racial biases that people in my community and across America experience. 

It showed us that even young people have experienced this trauma. That same year, we were introduced to lessons developed by Facing History and Ourselves on the experiences of victims from the Rwandan and Holocaust genocides. These pivotal lessons woke me up to painful moments in history and how prevalent bigotry and hate still are in society. 

It is possible to build a brighter future built on equity and justice. We’ve learned that however troubling our history may be, students deserve a complete and robust education.

A 2022 graduate of Watchung Hills High School, Kaylin Davis was born in Newark, but spent most of her life in Greenbrook. As president of the school’s Black Student Union, Davis talks about the racial divide within her school in her TEDxYouth@WHRHS talk titled “Can you see us?” You can view it here.   

“What if your friend makes a racist joke?” Davis asks. “Do you laugh it off or do you call them out on it? Take this time to self-reflect. Not only will it improve your character, but it will encourage your peers to do the same.” 

In 2018 Watchung Hills students Helen Yang and Alanna Margulies created and taught a lesson on Islamophobia to several freshman world history classes. The lesson was featured on NJEA’s “Classroom Close Up NJ.” You can view their story at

Jamie Lott Jones and Mary Sok are social studies educators. They co-chair the Equity Team at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey. They are professors at Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center. Both serve on the executive boards for the Diversity Council for Global Education and Citizenship at Kean University and for Sen. Ray Lesniak’s Stand Up for the Other Coalition. Lott-Jones and Sok have conducted many Diversity, Equity and Inclusion professional development workshops at Montclair State and Kean University. Their equity work is featured in Kappa Delta Pi, NJEA Review, Not In Our Schools, Facing History and Ourselves, Classroom Close-Up NJ and One on One with Steve Adubato. 

Former students reflect on being upstanders

Sarah Decker (she/her) 
Staff Attorney, U.S. Advocacy & Litigation, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights 

Learning history from Ms. Sok and Ms. Lott Jones inspired me to dedicate my life to defending marginalized communities as a civil rights attorney. In high school, we learned that history has repeatedly featured many perpetrators and bystanders, but upstanders—those who witness wrongdoing and act—have the ability to become the real change-makers. We learned that the right thing is almost never the easy thing, and that leveraging the privilege we have to defend and uplift others is an essential part of building a community that supports all of us.  

Monica Mahal, J.D. 
Clerk to Judge Michael Mossman,
U.S. District Court, Oregon 

The word “upstander” belongs in every community, and possibly most importantly in schools. Since Sarah Decker and I worked to define upstander, we’ve been overjoyed to see that upstander has become more commonly used. Just the other day, my six-year-old niece told me that she learned what it means to be an upstander and even acted out different scenes with her classmates. 

My path since being a part of our high school’s diversity club has centered on serving as an advocate. In law school, I worked for nonprofit organizations focused on environmental human rights. I earned my J.D. this past May and will soon move to Portland to clerk for Judge Michael W. Mosman at the District of Oregon. I will always embrace the values of an upstander as I progress through my legal career, and I will continue to stand up for others. 

Facing History and Ourselves

Facing History and Ourselves uses lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. Its classroom resources and professional development offerings examine racism, antisemitism, and prejudice at pivotal moments in history. Facing History and Ourselves helps students learn about the impact of choices made in the past, and connect them to the choices they will confront in their own lives. Facing our shared history and how it informs our attitudes and behaviors allows us to choose a world of equity and justice.