For most revolutions you can simply drum into students’ heads: the peasants were starving and had no rights, so they had a revolution to change the government. Seriously, if you think about it, that 1 sentence is the crux of most revolutions.
The Russian Revolution is a tad more complicated (it’s multiple revolutions and a civil war, the February Revolution is really the March Revolution and the October Revolution is …. you get the idea). It would be easy to teach the topic for a whole semester. I have trouble finding a whole week in the overcrowded curriculum to teach this unit.
After years of trial and error I have honed my Russian Revolution unit down to 7 days: 5 days of instruction, 1 review and a test day. This affords students enough content to synthesize the main events and ideas. It also prepares them for a state test, if you teach in one of the states that mandates it (I do). So following is a day-by-day breakdown of the content and suggestions for each lesson. I also have done-for-you lessons that you can click on if time is a factor.
Day 1 – Causes of the Russian Revolution
To begin I ask my students as a warm-up question: when is it justified for people to revolt against their government? This gets them discussing freedom, poverty, abuse of government, etc.
Next they take notes from a brief PowerPoint presentation that lists the main causes of the revolution: the czarist rule, poor economy, working conditions of the the proletariat, World War 1. Students takes notes listing the causes. I like to give a handout, but if copies are a challenge in your school they can write in their notebooks.
Death By PowerPoint
Here’s a short rant on death-by-PowerPoint. I know that many teachers create long PowerPoint presentations in order to cover a lot of content quickly. And they cover each slide with a wall of text. Here’s the problem with that, besides the fact that it’s boring. Most students cannot write and listen at the same time. They will concentrate on writing down their notes — which they are not comprehending — they’re just writing random words. As a result they will not hear you explanation and extrapolation of what is on each slide. That’s why I try to keep PowerPoint presentations short with few words on each slide.
No it’s time for a primary source document and a close reading. There are lots of speeches and letters by Lenin on line to choose from. I used a letter he wrote to the peasants. One resource that offers primary source documents pertaining to Russia and the revolution is alphahistory.
As students read they have to annotate different information by color coding it: Any grievance listed are underlined in one color, actions taken by the government are annotated in another color.
I like this activity for a couple of reasons. It forces students to read the document more than once to successfully complete the assignment, hence close reading. Using colored pencils or markers also engages your artistic students, they naturally wake up a little more when there is anything related to drawing and coloring.
Whenever possible a brief (3-5 minute) video is helpful or your visual learners. I reinforce the PowerPoint and notes at this time with a quick video the restates the causes of the Russian Revolution. The exit is to simply quick-write paragraph describing the causes of the revolution.
This is paced for a 45-50 minute class. Students leave with some historical background of Russia and the causes of the revolution.
Day 2 – Timeline Overview Lesson
One of the difficult concepts when trying to teach the Russian Revolution Unit is the plethora of uprisings and conflicts that take place over a 15 year period of time. You have Bloody Sunday, World War I, February Revolution, October Revolution, Civil War with Whites vs. the Reds — huh?! That’s not including the Sino-Russo War! Which one is the Russian Revolution?
A general overview helps students to synthesize the series of conflicts. I use a gallery walk for day 2’s lesson. Students take in the basics on events from 1905 through to the creation of the Soviet Union by studying pictures which include brief overviews of the events. They create a timeline of the events to organize their notes and thoughts.
Next I have them discuss the timeline in groups or pairs and identify the conflicts that took place. This gets them rereading their work and engaging with it. Finally, for homework they have to write a paragraph of the events that took place, forcing them to once again go over their notes.
Day 3 – Did Lenin Deliver his Promises of Land, Peace and Bread?
Students should be aware of the slogan “Land, Peace and Bread” as the promises that the Bolsheviks made to the Russian people to gain their support. Day 3’s lesson begins with a brief video and the question: why these particular promises? They identify redistribution of land, withdrawal from World War I and famine as the pain points of the Russian people.
Next the class reads secondary source documents in order to analyze whether or not Lenin delivered on his promises. This lesson meets several goals. First, they are investigating a key idea: did communism bring about the changes desired? Secondly, students are absorbing new content about the revolution and its results. They read about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the civil war, collective farms and Lenin’s New Economic Plan.
You can create a Google doc and upload it to Google Classroom OR give pairs of students the documents to work through together OR have the kids work individually with the reading, then perhaps peer assess their answers.
The lesson ends with a comparison of Lenin’s leadership to that of the czar’s. Looking over the first 3 days students have studied the causes of the revolution, gotten a broad overview of events, looked more deeply into key events and analyzed outcomes of the revolution.
Day 4 – Collectivization and 5-Year Plans
Joseph Stalin may have been one of the meanest men to ever live. I actually have students investigate the question: who was the most evil leader in history? But that’s another post. Day 4 starts with students reading Stalin quotes, such as his famous “Death is the solution to all problems. No man, no problem”. Some of the kids like the quote, they think he’s gangsta.
I use a brief PowerPoint presentation and short video to enable students to take notes. The two terms and concepts they need to take away today are collective farms and industrialization through 5-year plans.
After the whole class lesson — again individually or in pairs — kids analyze 2 documents, one chart with numbers about collective farm output and another first person letter about the results of same. They must find the cause and effect between the 2 documents. There is a homework handout to reinforce these important concepts.
Day 5 – Communism of Marx vs. Soviet Union
Almost done with this unit, yay! Honestly, I find the Russian Revolution fascinating, but most kids do not; it’s just not their favorite. Maybe because there are so many terms and concepts and a plethora of events to keep track of. I mean, what other unit do you need to explain that the February Revolution was really the March Revolution and The October Revolution was not really in October?!
So today students will compare Karl Marx’s communism to that of the Soviet Union. You probably covered Marx during the Industrialization Revolution, but it’s good to revisit.
The warm-up is a quick survey of students’ opinions on basic ideas of communism (in a perfect society everyone is equal, the government knows what is best for us). To help engage them I use emojis.
As you can see on the student handout, a brief lecture enables the class to take notes on Karl Marx. For the analysis of ideologies students read ideals of communism from Marx and compare them to communism in the Soviet Union. That’s it;’ students now have a survey of the main ideas and concepts of the Russian Revolution.
Day 6 – Review
There are sooo many ways to review a unit! This review is not fancy-smancy, but students like it. I create clues to identify key terms and people of the Russian Revolution. Once they have completed that they can find the terms in a word search.
Most students like word searches (as opposed to crossword puzzles). They can work in pairs to figure out all the clues and it’s rather relaxing to try and find the words in the puzzle. You can differentiate this assignment by creating a word bank for ELLs and Special Ed students. There are several sites, such as Puzzlemaker, where you can create the word search very easily. For other test review ideas click here.
Day 7 – Exam Day
Day 7 is LOVELY — exam day! I know a few teachers that give an exam every Friday in order to get a break from teaching. It’s not my thing for a few reasons, but I must admit the occasional test day is a nice break. The exam I made up is a combination of multiple choice questions and short answer questions.
There are many places to find multiple choice questions on line. Perhaps your school has a license for a test making site. Creating multiple- choice questions by hand is not fun; don’t do it if you don’t have to! Even though it’s super easy to grade multiple-choice only tests I don’t think it always gives a good picture of how well the kids learned content of a particular unit. By adding a few short response questions you get a much better big picture of their mastery of the content.
There you have it; The Russian Revolution in 7 days, start-to-finish. I feel like this hits the most important concepts, terms and events for most curricula. I teach in New York and we have a Global History Regents Exam that students must pass to graduate. This unit fulfills what they need for that assessment. If there is a particular area you want to add, and have the time, great! I mean, who doesn’t love Rasputin, and I don’t even mention him.
I hope this helped give you ideas and a blueprint for teaching the Russian Revolution unit. After 18 years of teaching I find that it gets tweaked every year, but this article covers the “meat” of the content. Happy teaching!
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