Academic Skills, Pedagogy, Research, teaching, Technology

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!

Academic Skills, history, Presentations, Research, teaching

Trans-historical Comparison Assignments: Great, or the Greatest?

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lyi...

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lying down on pier, New York City docks, or "how my students might feel after completing this assignment and explaining their complex comparison in the course of five minutes." - Image via Wikipedia

In my U.S. History classes we’ve finished up the era of imperialism and WWI, and are now moving into the 1920s and building toward the Great Depression and the New Deal.

As this is the first time I’ve taught through a U.S. History survey, there’s a lot I’m learning as I progress through each era and try out different types of assignments. One type of investigation and analysis I’d like to have my students do more of is working to understand how contemporary patterns, trends, and dynamics developed in and transformed from earlier eras. So, as I’m moving into this next topic, I thought it’d be an ideal time to work to get the students to explore the links between these present-day phenomena and parallel phenomena that occurred earlier in U.S. history.

To accomplish this goal, I set up a comparative (a trans-historical comparison, no less, the merits and perils of which I suppose we could discuss as well) assignment that gets the students to investigate certain themes and topics from the 1920s and then explore how those are similar to and different from the developments of the past decade. In framing this assignment, I’ve used economic downturns (Stock Market crash and the Great Depression vs. the “Great Recession“) as the focal points of the comparison.

As with any trans-historical comparison (or I suppose any comparison in general, but I don’t want to get to methodologically wonky here, which I probably just did by writing the words “methodologically wonky”), there’s the risk of fitting proverbial square pegs into round holes and seeing events and patterns from a past period as being similar to current developments. However, my goals with this assignment center less on the precision of the comparison, but are more about getting the students to employ their research skills, hone their presentation skills, and gain a fuller understanding of the contemporary history of the past decade.

In order to avoid re-writing the whole assignment sheet in this intro, I’ll cut myself short and go ahead and post the assignment I distributed to my students today:

The Roaring ‘20s and the Boom Years of the 2000s (or aughts, or whatever)

Purpose:The goal of this assignment is both to get us to understand the major developments, dynamics, trends, and events of the post-WWI period in the United States, and also to help us think comparatively.

This assignment frames our study of the 1920s as a narrative progressing to the 1929 Stock Market crash and subsequent Great Depression. However, beyond simply studying these events as constrained just to the 1920s, we’ll also be working on our skills of using the comparative method and thinking transhistorically by considering in what ways these early-20th century developments have parallels to the major developments, dynamics, trends, and events of the past decade. In order to facilitate the comparison, we’ll be viewing the 2000s as a narrative building up to the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009, which will enable us to look as the developments of the decade in a more-or-less side-by-side way.

Finally, in terms of sharing this information with your classmates, this assignment will challenge you to become more comfortable with and well versed in oral presentation aided by meaningful images. We’ll be using a slightly modified Pecha Kucha (pronounced “Pe-chach-ka”) format to make our comparison clear. In the course of this presentation you’ll be expected to convey the important points about both decades and advance an argumentative stance about the most significant similarities and differences in terms of that category.

In completing this assignment you’ll need to draw on your skills of saliency determination, categorical identification and analysis, research for pertinent sources, “crap detection” of those sources, use of the comparative method, and argumentative development and articulation.

Topics: (please note how I have oh-so-generously provided you with the page references for the topics on the 1920s. However, you’ll have to do to meaningful research for the information about the 2000s, and of course, do the heavy-analytical-lifting on making the comparison).

  1. Xenophobia in the decade prior to the decline (pp. 561-562)
  2. Domestic intolerance, persecution, and violence (pp. 562-563)
  3. Technological innovation and quality of life in the U.S. (pp. 563-564)
  4. Changing nature of business and industry in the U.S. (pp. 564-566)
  5. Transformations in real estate and property development on a NATIONAL scale
    (pp. 566-567)
  6. LOCAL Fort Worth city development and transformations of the 1920s vs. those of the rest of the nation (pp. 566-567)
  7. Communications technology and its cultural effects and ramifications (pp. 567-569)
  8. Religious dynamics and developments (p. 570)
  9. Immigrations laws, policies, and dynamics (p. 572)
  10. Race relations, culture, and civil rights (p. 572-573)
  11. Women’s rights, their role in moral advocacy, and other cultural developments (pp. 574-576 and pp. 581-582)
  12. Economic stratification and the condition of laboring populations (pp. 576-577)
  13. Relationship and connections between big business and the federal government
    (pp. 577-579)
  14. U.S. foreign policy and international involvement (pp. 579-581)
  15. Economic decline and collapse in major markets (pp. 583-584 and 587-589)

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 (with a Chicago Style bibliography handed in with the presentation) at least TWO contemporary, legitimate sources, ideally from reputable newspapers, journals, and the like. Moreover the bibliography also includes a citation for the textbook.
  2. Presentation accurately conveys and explains the most important concepts, dates, events, figures, and other material about the 1920s pertinent to that topic.
  3. Presentation accurately conveys and explains the most important concepts, dates, events, figures, and other material about the 2000s pertinent to that topic.
  4. Pecha Kucha presentation employs pertinent images and adheres to the 20 slides x 15 seconds/slide format.
  5. Narration to accompany Pecha Kucha presentation offers meaningful interpretation and analysis that addresses  the most significant similarities and differences in terms of that category.
  6. Narration to accompany presentation also addresses the sources of the information for the material on the 2000s, explains its validity to the comparison, analyzes the authorship of those sources to explain the credibility of those sources.
For the material about the 2000s, I encourage you to draw on Proquest Historical New York Times (accessible through our school library webpage), Google News, and Google News Archive. Those three resources should provide you with access to solid and reputable primary sources about the events of the 2000s, meaning you can likely avoid the treachery of AskJeeves,, and Yahoo Answers.
I should note that I built the fifteen topics listed above from Gary Nash, et al’s The American People textbook, and the list effectively follows the structure and major topic headings of the chapter. I broke it into fifteen topics as I have fifteen students. Also, the modified Pecha Kucha format to which I refer is just a slightly condensed one — instead of giving the students 20 slides with 20 seconds for each one, I’m giving them 20 slides with 15 seconds for each one. This time condensation brings the total time for each presentation down to an even five minutes, which should allow us to cover all the students in the course of two 45 minute class periods.
It’s likely that I’ll be making minor (or perhaps major) adjustments and tweaks to the assignment over the next few days, so if you want to stay tuned in to the latest goings-on (and who doesn’t?!?) you can access the Google Doc of the assignment sheet.
If anyone has experience with a similar type of assignment — either in terms of subject matter, comparative structure, or presentation style, I’d love to hear what worked and what didn’t as my students embark on their research and on assembling their presentations over the next few days.