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Harenssing current events in World History class: The Comparative Revolutions Assignment

Asura demonstration in freedom square, Tehran,...

Protesters in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Image via Wikipedia

It’s quite possible that I’ve replicated a lot of work that other teachers out there have already done, and I certainly know that I’m one of many teachers who is trying to capitalize on the timeliness of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere to get their classes engaged in current events and in historical revolutions. For instance, I drew a lot of inspiration, ideas, and resources from Greg Kulowiec, who already put together a neat version a contemporary revolutions assignment.

Given that we’ve just finished talking about the French Revolution and I’ve introduced them to the work and conceptual framework of Crane Brinton‘s “Anatomy of a Revolution,” I thought now would be the ideal time to begin this project. My hope is that students not only build on the research skills they’ve been developing all year long, but also learn about current events, and think critically about the terminology they and others use to describe these goings-on. Are these events best described as “revolutions”? Would “revolt” or “uprising” be a more apropos term? While I don’t have clear answers for them on these issues, I nevertheless hope that they can grapple with that issue in the course of their presentations.

Here’s the assignment:

Comparing Political Revolutions – The French Revolution and Today’s Turmoil

The goal of this assignment is to get you thinking about the form of modern political protests and revolutions, which essentially began with the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and compare the developments and trajectory of those earlier revolutions with the “Arab Spring” protests taking place presently in Southwest Asia and North Africa. In the course of this assignment, you’ll also gain an understanding of Crane Brinton’s model of a revolution (descriptions here and here), get further practice with using the comparative method, and employ the Pecha Kucha presentation technique.

The essential questions that you have to research and answer is the following:

  • What are the greatest similarities and differences between the French Revolution and the events currently taking place in ______________?
  • To what extent is it accurate to call the current events in _______________ a “revolution”?

Things you’ll need to find, read, and process (in this suggested order, and some of which you’ve already done!):

  1. Get context

– Read and study material on the French Revolution

    • Read the textbook chapter on the F.R.
    • Check out the lectures on the F.R. from Khan Academy
    • Read about Crane Brinton’s “Anatomy of a Revolution” (see links above)
    • Participate and take thorough notes on our class discussions
  1. Think comparatively

– See and discuss an example of an application of the comparative method to look at revolutions by reading the TIME Magazine essay that explores similarities and differences between Brinton’s model of a revolution and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

  1. Begin to research

– Choose one of the current Southwest Asian or North African Revolutions of 2011 to study. I’d recommend drawing on the BBC page for a centralized look at the most active countries.
-Here are some examples of strong resources re: the revolution in Egypt:

-Once you’ve decided which modern-day revolution you’d like to study you need to research, read, take notes on, incorporate into your argument,  and create a works cited for the following items:

  • Two factually oriented, objective articles on the current revolution you’re studying.
  • Two editorials that argue opposite or contrasting opinions on the current revolution you’re studying.
  1. Prepare your presentation

– Get acquainted with the format and expectations for a Pecha Kucha presentation. We’ll be doing a slightly modified version of this format, which will consist of 20 slides, with 15 seconds per slide — an adjustment which makes the presentation exactly five minutes long.

  1. Develop your argument

– As you take notes and think about both the French Revolution and the current events that you’re studying, work to constantly consider the two central questions above.
– Make sure that your narration addresses both of the questions, which I’ve placed below.

  • What are the greatest similarities and differences between the French Revolution and the events currently taking place in ______________?
  • To what extent is it accurate to call the current events in _______________ a “revolution”?

– For the first question be sure to use the approaches of the comparative method that we’ve been practicing and refining all year long. Make sure that the details you draw upon and clear and specific enough so that you can make a really strong case in your presentation.
– In particular for the second question be sure to consider Crane Brinton and his stages of a revolution. This general framework can help you answer that question or identify at what particular stage of a revolution the current uprising are at the present moment.

Learning Standards:
The assignment will be evaluated on the following standards. Each of these standards will be evaluated on a 1-5 scale (5=Outstanding, 4=Good, 3= Competent, 2=Approaching Competency, and 1=Unacceptable).

  1. Assignment uses and properly cites at least FOUR scholarly, legitimate sources, from reputable newspapers, journals, agencies, and the like. This information is submitted with the presentation in MLA Style bibliography format. The sources meet the expectations listed above about the types of sources.
  2. Presentation accurately presents facts about the French Revolution with sufficient depth and clarity.
  3. Presentation accurately presents facts about the modern-day/contemporary uprising with sufficient depth and clarity.
  4. Presentation argumentatively addresses the greatest similarities and differences between the revolutions organizing that discussion around clear points of comparison.
  5. Presentation argumetnatively addresses the question of how revolutionary (extent of revolutionary-ness) the current uprising are and does so through reference to and use of Crane Brinton’s model of a revolution.
  6. Pecha Kucha presentation employs pertinent images and adheres to the 20 slides x 15 seconds/slide format. Moreover, the presentation is visually interesting and syncs up effectively and persuasively with the student’s oral narration.


Hmmmm. I’m not sure what happened with the numbering or the links that I’d embedded in there — oh well. Here’s the Google Doc file itself, so that if you’re interested you can see how I formatted there without any goofy copying-and-pasting SNAFUs created in the switchover to WordPress. As I’m sure many others (who are no doubt more timely than myself) have already run through these assignments, I’d love to hear what feedback you have about the challenges inherent in this assignment. My most immediate concern has to do with the overload of information that students will be able to find. Being able to sift through the detritus to get to the meaningful and substantive material is going to be a challenge and there is just so much out there for them to draw on from both official and unofficial news sources.

I remain positive about the value of the Pecha Kucha format. I’ve used it once with my Juniors, and many noted that preparing for their presentations was a bit nerve-wracking, but also forced them to really focus and hone their talks given the five-minute time constraint. I hope the same pattern will hold true for my sophomores, as I think exposure to a new style of presentation and intellectual challenge is a good thing in general, particularly at a time in the year when variety in the course of assignments, etc. can really liven things up. In any case, I’m eager to hear your feedback. Thanks!


One thought on “Harenssing current events in World History class: The Comparative Revolutions Assignment

  1. Very interesting idea. I’m actually about to start my students on a study of the Iranian revolution, and was planning on having them do a presentation comparing Iran and Egypt (to their parents actually, not to the class), and this is helpful for inspiration. I haven’t seen the Pecha Kucha format, but it sounds interesting. However, my students already have problems (sometimes) with too little evidence, and I’d be worried the format would compound that problem.

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