Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching The Children of Willesden Lane
Resources to help you teach the book in middle schools and high schools


Classroom Video:
Introducing the “Universe of Obligation”
(High School)

The Children of Willesden Lane asks students to confront an enduring human question: What prompts some people to help others in a time of crisis, while other people turn away? Teachers can explore this question with their students by using the concept of a Universe of Obligation. Sociologist Helen Fein defines the Universe of Obligation as the individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.”1 Throughout their reading of the book, students who have thought about their own Universe of Obligation will more easily see a connection between their own lives and choices and the events in the story. Ideas for introducing the Universe of Obligation are on pages 14–15 of the curriculum guide.

In the video, New York City teacher Martina Grant prepares her tenth-grade students to read The Children of Willesden Lane. The families of these students come from dozens of countries and, like Lisa, have journeyed far from home. The class is a Facing History and Ourselves elective, and Martina has already used Facing History techniques to help students understand their own identities as individuals. As a homework assignment, students have written about a time when they witnessed a wrong and chose not to act. Now Martina invites them to go deeper, by asking them to the following things:

  • list and discuss the reasons that people sometimes choose not to act—fear, avoidance, embarrassment, etc.
  • define and draw their own Universe of Obligation— who is close to the center and who is on the margins.
  • think about how events like September 11th and Hurricane Katrina altered our Universe of Obligation as a nation.

Questions for Reflection

  • Why is it important to understand the reasons that individuals and nations fail to act in times of crisis?
  • Based on the video, is the Universe of Obligation a successful tool for helping high school students connect history with their own lives? Why or why not?

1. Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide, Free Press, 1979, p. 4.

Teacher Martina Grant with an illustration of the “Universe of Obligation”


Teacher: Martina Grant
Grade: 10
Subject: Facing History and Ourselves elective
Location: Queens, New York City

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