How to Teach the Cold War in 9 Days, Day-by-Day

The Cold War encompasses 45 years of events; that’s a LOT! The unit involves every corner of the globe. There are civil wars, proxy wars, lots of terminology, arms races and space races, military and economic alliances. How is a student supposed to take it all in? Teaching the Cold War can be a challenge.

I have tried different methods throughout the years. One way to teach the Cold War unit is geographically: the Cold War in Europe, the Cold War in Asia, the Cold War in South America, etc. Another tact is simply teaching all the post-World War II history chronologically and covering Cold War events as they happen in each decade. The way that works best for my students is to spend a couple of weeks just on the Cold War as a stand-alone unit.  I cover the major events from 1945 through to 1990. Then we loop back to cover other history and revisit the Cold War as it fits into the timeline. So the kids learn it as a unit and are reminded of various aspects as they learn other topics.

I have a 9-day plan to share with you here. You can truncate or expand it to fit your needs.

Day 1 – Why did the Cold War happen?

The first day is, of course, an introduction to the Cold War. What was the Cold War, why was it cold, why did 2 allies become adversaries? My warm-up asks students what it means to give someone the “cold shoulder” and then extrapolate what a “cold war” might be. Then I created a short video simply explaining why the cold war happened.


why cold war video link
6-minute video Why did the Cold War happen?

After they watch the video and answer the question my little scholars read 2 opposing viewpoints, the Truman Doctrine for U.S. and Brezhnev Doctrine (excerpts, of course). The lesson finishes off with them synthesizing what they read and explaining the 2 points of view.

Working with primary source documents can be difficult for English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs. Some of the ways I differentiate for these students is:

“chunk” the reading into small, manageable pieces

place the questions after each “chunk” rather than all at the end of the reading

highlight the main points

define difficult words in parentheses right after the term in the text

enlarge the text

create sentence-starters for the questions

This can be a daunting task on a day-to-day basis, especially if you don’t have a special education co-teacher to do it for you. However, you don’t have to do all of the scaffolds all of the time. Unfortunately, if you don’t do something — depending on your student population — there will be those who have too many barriers to interact with the document.

Whole Lesson done-for-you

Day 2 – How did the U.S. practice containment?

Day 2 starts exposing the students to some of the endless terminology and events of the Cold War. My warm-up is the famous quote from Churchill, which introduces them to the “iron curtain”. I like to compare the iron curtain to the equator; all kids remember the equator and can tell you it’s an imaginary line separating the earth. Then explain that’s what the iron curtain is, too. But why is it called the iron curtain? What does iron represent? Who put the curtain between east and west Europe? Engage in that kind of short discussion and they will remember and understand.

For the meat of this lesson students will be reading a speech by Secretary of State Marshall about his desire to give financial aid to Europe in order for them to rebuild. There are a few core questions students answer to ensure understanding. The exit is an analysis of the U.S. motives for the Marshall Plan.

Day 2 Lesson Plan Complete

Day 3 – Friends and Foes, Democratic and Communist alliances.

The students are now getting a feel for this topic. They’ve learned the main players, some of the terminology and events. Today’s lesson continues in this vein. Here is the warm-up:

Warm-up: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” (George Kennan) Using the quote above create a definition for the U.S. policy of containment during the Cold War.

Next I show students a short video — you may have noticed that I LOVE videos and use them extensively — that describes the Berlin Blockade and Airlift. As they watch the class should be able to answer the question: What were the causes and effects of the Berlin Blockade?

Berlin Blockade Video

Now students will be reading excerpts of N.A.T.O.’s mission and the Warsaw Pact. In order to force them to read closely the activity asks them to assess each document using any 2 components of the HIPPO method of analysis. If you’re not familiar with HIPPO, it’s an acronym for document analysis. The documents are short and this portion of the lesson should not take more than 15 minutes.

For other ideas on implementing close reads check out this post. I wrap up this lesson with 2 more quick components. There is a short paragraph explaining the building of the Berlin Wall and how it became a symbol for the Cold War. Students finish up by reviewing 6 Cold War terms they have learned so far and having to place them on the side of the Soviets or the United States. It’s a nice, quick-paced lesson that uses various modes of instruction to engage students and differentiate through methodology.

Day 4 – Korean and Vietnam Wars compared

Day 4 covers 2 wars in 1 day, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I know, I know, that’s REALLY fast. The fact is that, honestly, the Korean War didn’t get a lot of press when it happened and doesn’t in our curriculum either.  Minimal knowledge of the event will suffice. The Vietnam War will be revisited when you teach the 1960’s, we’re just giving a snapshot of it as a proxy war of the Cold War.

In order to ascertain the similarities and differences of the 2 wars students watch a short video that gives an overview of both wars. They take notes during the video and complete a Venn diagram after.

Korean War and Vietnam War
Korea and Vietnam Compared Video

The second half of class entails a reading about the Vietnam protests, specifically the Kent State killings. I created statements about the topic that the kids need to prove or disprove with evidence from the reading. A nice touch at the end of this lesson is to play the  Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio” which is about the incident.

Day 5 – How did the Cold War affect life in the United States?

This is a fun and engaging lesson, I always enjoy teaching it! Have you ever seen the Duck and Cover? It is a short film produced by the U.S. government in the 1950’s . Its purpose was to play the film in American classrooms to allay children’s fear of nuclear war. Children are taught what to do in case of suspected nuclear attack. Tony is riding his bicycle when the siren goes off. He knows to drop his bike, duck in a corner and cover his head. Suzy grabs her little brother and throws them into a doorway. A family having a lovely picnic throw all the food and hide under the picnic blanket.

The video is about 8 minutes long. After watching with the class we discuss the absurdities that are portrayed: You’re going to survive a nuclear bomb by ducking and covering — of course not. So why did the government product the film? I have students singing the duck and cover song weeks after the class.

On the same topic of trying to survive a nuclear attack I introduce bomb shelters, showing a few slides on PowerPoint. Then we begin the main activity. Our class has a bomb shelter. There is a nuclear attack and we have room for a few more people in the shelter. In groups students must debate and decide which people from a list will come into the shelter and which will die.

This leads to a very loud, animated and often intense discussion among the groups; just keep an eye out for the principal. I finish off by having a quick share-out and compare who each group saved.

Day 6 – How the world came to the brink of war – the Cuban Missile Crisis

Day 6 is a lesson I always look forward to because I LOVE the videos. Today we cover the Cuban Missile Crisis. Class starts off with a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation and lecture discussing the main events of  of those tense days in 1962. There is a student handout I use and it guides students with who, when, what, etc to prompt their taking notes.

A handout is not absolutely necessary for this lesson if making copies is an issue in your school. A few years ago each teacher in  my school was handed a case of copy paper and told, “That’s it til January.” I gotta tell you, it definitely drove some of my decisions when lesson planning. I was determined NOT to go to Staples and buy my own case of paper. It didn’t hurt that, as a veteran survivor of urban schools, I had stashed a few reams during a time  of abundance. It’s been years since then, but I still appreciate each and every day when I show up in the copy room and there’s plenty of paper. It’s the little things in life!

Back to the lesson, I try to keep the lecture under 15 minutes. The meat of the lesson involves playing three 5-minute videos, one about Castro, one for Kennedy and the third covers Khrushchev. Each little video gives you background and insight into the character and mind of the decision makers during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I start with Castro’s because his really sucks you in. It starts off when he was a 12-year old boy in catholic school. He created a game that involved riding a bicycle as fast as you can into a brick wall, get up, wipe off the blood, and go another round. The last boy standing won. Castro always won that game. If you’d like to check it out here’s the link.

Students watch each of the videos and take notes as to the characteristics and goals of the crisis for each leader. You can sum up with a class reaction to what they learned and a “what if” Castro got to make all the decisions! I assign a primary source document for homework: A letter Castro wrote to Khrushchev for further understanding.

Cuban Missile Crisis Less
Check out the lesson here.

Day 7 – The Space Race and Detente Tic-Tac-Toe

We’re really getting there, 2 more days of instruction for the Cold War, yay! Day 7 covers 2 disparate topics, the Space Race and detente. It’s not necessary to dive deep into this content, but students need to be familiar with the terminology and concepts. I jump in with the warm-up:

Warm-Up for Day 7

This warm-up kicks off a brief class discussion, then it’s time for a video on the subject. “Who Won the Space Race” by Jeff Steers is a really good 4-minute video that does the trick.

In order for students to learn about detente event I give them a reading and a Tic-Tac-Toe activity. That entails creating 9 boxes tic-tac-toe style. In each box place a different question or little activity. Examples might be: create a timeline of detente events, write a slogan for President Nixon, identify a positive and negative effect of detente — you get the idea. Students have to choose any 3 in a row. If you want students to work in pairs they can each choose a different row and work on a bisecting box together. This activity ensures students choice AND differentiation; bam, you’re a highly effective teacher!

Day 8 – The end of the Cold War AND Review in 1 Day

You did it; you’v reached the end of a HUGE unit in just 8 days, congratulations. Today’s lesson is jammed packed. The kiddos will elarn about how the Cold War ended — spoiler alert, the U.S. won — as well as review the plethora of terminology they were hit with in the last 7 days.

My warm-up is simply to brainstorm as many Cold War events as possible in 3 minutes. It’s not fancy, but gets the kids thinking. Next they have a one-page reading about the end of the Cold War, introducing them to perestroika and glasnost the key terms they need. The activity is to annotate all events that helped to lead to the end of the Cold War. They also have to identify 2 policies that helped lead to the end of the Soviet Union. It should only take them about 15-minutes to complete the assignment.

I created a word search puzzle to review vocabulary. Students have to figure out clues to identify each term.  I create 2 versions, one with and one without a word bank to differentiate for struggling and English as a second language students. They usually work in pairs to do this. Then they can find the words in the puzzle. It’s a relaxing activity and a good way for kids to see which terms they now and which they don’t. For a slew of review lessons look over this post.

Day 9 – Exam

I’m not going to lie, I do love the occasional test day. If the class is not high-maintenance I get to relax, think, plan and even wear a shoe with a heel because I’m not covering as many miles! My Cold War exam includes 28 multiple-choice questions and 4 document-based short response questions. This is enough to keep most of my scholars busy and still allow all but the slowest to finish. A a matter of practice, putting up an extra credit question is always a good idea to keep those who are finished busy a bit longer.

Here is the Entire Unit Done


So what do you think? Did I leave out a topic that you’re saying, “What is she crazy; how can you not cover McCarthyism?” I do that during the 1950’s lessons. “But what about spies, the Rosenbergs?” Again, you can definitely add days or weeks to the unit.When I have the time my students create Cold War board games and have an inter-class competition to choose the best game. On the other hand I think students, and even the teacher can get topic fatigue. “What are we doing today?” “Cold War,” over and over and over again.

I hope this article gave you some guidance and ideas as to how to teach the Cold War and tackle a behemoth topic. You can follow it day-by-day or pick and choose. Happy teaching.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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