Active bystanders

Video-based English class on taking action and not being a passive bystander

I was recently teaching a variation on the Toxic Masculinity class I posted here, including some work on the Gillette “Best Men Can Be” advert, inspired by this great lesson plan by Kieran Donaghy. Having had to split the lesson over two separate classes, I was looking for a short video I could use as a warm-up / engage activity to kick things off on the second week. Semi-spontaneously, I decided to show my students – in this case, B2/C1-level adults – this short Australian public service announcement made by the State Government of Victoria, Australia.

Part of an awareness campaign calling for greater respect towards women, it is one – an in my view the best – of a series of adverts encouraging men to not ignore the misogynistic behaviour of male peers but to “call it out”. As in the Gillette advert, men are asked not to be passive in such situations but to become “active bystanders”.

I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction from my (mostly female) students, who were very animated in their appraisals of the clip, which they found genuinely effective. They particularly appreciated the way the “active bystander” listens to his “inner voice” (their words), hesitating momentarily before taking simple but decisive action.

The word “bystander” struck me as a curious one and one that warranted further discussion and analysis. There is a wealth of language that can be elicited from it, from conditionals (What would you do if … ?) and modals in the past (I should/could have) to other structures to express regret (I wish/If only … I had). It seems that there is an abundance of material out there that could interest both adults and younger learners of English, emcompassing the issues of both sexual harassment in public places and bullying. Some take a more serious approach whereas others use visual humour.

When I did my research for clips I could use in tandem with the Victorian public service advert, however, I fell upon this animation by Osnat Epstein, entitled (of course) The Bystander. What I liked about this short film is the way that its “twist” could be harnessed for student speculation and prediction in the classroom, maximising its final message; namely that in being only a passive bystander to cruelty or harassment we become complicit. This message is achieved, as you will see, in a surprising way. Moreover, the lack of dialogue or voiceover provides space for the students to imagine the character’s own “inner voice” or simply speculate on his thought process.

Level B1 +

This class would suit adults and particularly teenagers.


To introduce and/or elicit the idea of a (passive or active) bystander you could show students the image at the top of this post by (I believe) Don McCullin. I apologize for not having a full credit for this image, I have tried at length to locate it to no avail.

Alternatively, you could start with some discussion questions to get the ball rolling (e.g., Have you ever witnessed a crime or someone in trouble? What did you do?).

As always, have students describe the picture and/or discuss the questions in pairs or small groups before holding a class discussion, noting down useful vocab for all to see.

Clip one

Step one

Show the students the first 15 seconds of the State of Victoria advert and have them discuss the following in small groups/pairs:

  • Describe the scene (who? where? when? etc.)
  • How does the scene make you feel?
  • What do you think happens next?
  • What do you think the clip is for and why?
  • What would you do in this situation (if you were the woman, or another passenger)?

Once students have shared their ideas with each other, solicit suggestions from the group, noting down vocab for all to see. Help students with the structure for the conditional sentence if necessary (If + simple past / I would …).

Step two

Play the students the rest of the clip, and have them discuss the following questions:

  • What happens, why and how?
  • What do you think of the man’s act?
  • What is the purpose and message of the clip?
  • Do you think it is effective? Why (not)?

Once they have had time to share their ideas, solicit ideas from the whole class. You might want to further the discussion by eliciting the meaning of “Call it out” and “Active bystander”.

Clip two

Step one

Show the students the first 45 seconds of the second clip and have them discuss the following gist questions:

  • Describe the scene (who? what? where? when?)
  • Describe the mood of the scene (colours, music)
  • What do you think happens next and why?
  • What would you do in this situation?


Once students have shared their ideas with each other, solicit suggestions from the group, noting down vocab for all to see.

Step two

Show the students the rest of the clip and have them discuss the following:

  • What happens (who? why? where? etc.)?
  • What do you think the message of the film is?
  • How does the clip make you feel?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the two clips?
  • Which do you think is the most effective? Why?

Once they have discussed their observations in small groups or pairs, have them share their ideas with the whole class, extending the discussion with their own experiences. This would be a good way to elicit structures related to regret (second conditional, wish/if only, should have done etc.).

  • Have you ever witnessed an incident like the ones shown in the clips?
  • What did you do?
  • What would/could you have done differently?

Productive-creative activities

Students could do one or more of the following tasks, or you could assign different tasks to different groups:

  • Have students write and present the “inner voice” of the character in The Bystander.
  • Similarly, they could imagine that the animation is in fact part of an awareness campaign against bullying for which they could write a voiceover and a specific “Call It Out”-style slogan. For inspiration, they could study these videos about being an active bystander in cases of sexual harassment and bullying. 
  • Have students write and present an alternative ending for the video.
  • Have students imagine what the victim in the animation would say to the passive bystander, thus making use of the structures studied. This could take the form of a letter or email (e.g., “You should have helped me”, “I wish you had intervened” etc.).
  • Have students write and present storyboard for a short film, animation or advert to raise awareness about being an active bystander.
  • If you have the time and resources, you could have the students make their own films on the subject.

Language focus

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