10th Grade French Revolution Inquiry

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Inquiry Description

This inquiry leads students through an investigation of the French Revolution. Adolescent students are quite concerned with challenging authority and establishing their independence within the world; the concept of revolution brings those two concerns to their most world-altering levels. This inquiry gives students an entry point into thinking like historians about the French Revolution. The question of success invites students into the intellectual space that historians occupy. By investigating the question of the French Revolution’s success, students will need to make decisions about what the problems of the Revolution were, how to give weight to the events of three different periods of the Revolution, and what distance, if any, was between intentions and effects.

Students will learn about the intellectual, political, social, and economic problems of the French Revolution and track the intended and unintended consequences of these actions through the Revolution’s first stages, the Reign of Terror, and the early Napoleonic period. As part of their learning about the Revolution, students should practice articulating and writing various positions on the historical events and supporting these claims with evidence. The final performance task asks them to synthesize what they have learned and consider how key figures from the past and present would evaluate the Revolution.

It is important to note that this inquiry will require prerequisite knowledge of historical events and ideas, so teachers will want their students to have already studied the period known as the Enlightenment and ensure that they have an understanding of ideas promulgated in that era. For instance, they should understand that John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and other figures from the Enlightenment substituted reason for tradition. They wrote about the purposes of government based on reasoning and natural law, and their ideas shaped revolutions and civil wars in England, British North America, France, and many other places.

NOTE: This inquiry is expected to take five to seven 40-minute class periods. The inquiry time frame could expand if teachers think their students need additional instructional experiences (i.e., supporting questions, formative performance tasks, and sources). Inquiries are not scripts, so teachers are encouraged to modify and adapt them to meet the needs and interests of their particular students.

Content Background

Historians’ efforts to interpret the events of the French Revolution are as complex as the Revolution itself. Practically from the moment the Revolution ended, its meaning was debated. Conservative observers focus on the revolutionary extremes, contending that it went too far and ultimately undid itself. The classic interpretation of the Revolution comes from the Marxist school of history, which interprets the Revolution as a class conflict marked by a joint effort between the bourgeoisie and proletariat to overthrow the aristocratic ruling class, thereby moving French society from feudalism to capitalism. Both of these interpretations pose problems and have been revised significantly over the past 40 years. Fully investigating the debates over the Revolution’s meaning would likely involve more time than most classes can offer to the topic.

Rather than dealing with the significance of it, the compelling question “Was the French Revolution successful?” allows students to wrestle with the complexities of the Revolution in ways similar to those of historians. The compelling question implies that the outcomes were complicated and that an assessment of the Revolution’s success depends on the way in which one measures it. The first supporting question leads students to understand the problems of prerevolutionary France so that they can ultimately evaluate whether the Revolution successfully dealt with the issues. The next two supporting questions examine major periods within the Revolution, including the first stages and the Reign of Terror. Both periods help students understand the complexity of revolutionary reforms and their impact on the French people. The final supporting question allows students to bookend the French Revolution with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

By investigating the featured sources, students will be able to construct multiple, complex claims about the Revolution’s success. In the first formative performance task, they will examine a political cartoon, graphs of the Three Estates, and the Cahiers of 1789 to discern examples of the problems French people faced in the period preceding the revolution. Students will then turn to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, which will be used to help them articulate how the relationship between the king and the people changed over time. The engraving of Robespierre and the guillotine and the Robespierre speech allow students an opportunity to practice the close reading of sources to determine the rationale for the Reign of Terror. Lastly, students will examine a pair of documents to describe Napoleon’s role in the final phase of the French Revolution. In describing Napoleon’s influence on revolutionary ideals, students should note the ways in which he both furthered and challenged revolutionary ideals.

Content, Practices, and Literacies

In addressing the compelling question “Was the French Revolution successful?” students will need to weigh evidence and conflicting evidence from each of the four periods addressed in the unit. In the first period, students will examine the prerevolutionary conditions, including the economic, social, and political problems of the time. Next, students will explore the early revolutionary period (1789–1793) and describe the changing relationship between the people and the king. Students will consider the radicalization of the revolution during the Reign of Terror and how actions the government took under the Committee of Public Safety resulted in significant revolutionary changes at the cost of thousands of heads, as well as the committee’s removal from power. Finally, students will have to consider how Napoleon’s ascendency to emperor complicated the aims of the revolution.

Throughout the inquiry, students are asked to do increasingly complex assignments that will develop their cognitive capacity to deal with the complex Summative Performance Task. At first, students are asked to complete a chart to identify prerevolutionary problems (Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence). The second and third tasks ask students to begin articulating explanations that will later be used as evidence in the Summative Performance Task (Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence; Chronological Reasoning and Causation). In the fourth task, they develop a claim, supported with evidence, as a formative step toward the argumentative Summative Performance Task (Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence; Chronological Reasoning and Causation). Finally, in the Summative Performance Task and the Extension, students need to pull together varying perspectives and support them with evidence from the range of sources used throughout the inquiry (Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence; Comparison and Contextualization).

The New York State P–12 Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy offer social studies teachers numerous opportunities to integrate literacy goals and skills into their social studies instruction. The Common Core supports the inquiry process through reading rich informational texts, writing evidence-based arguments, speaking and listening in public venues, and using academic vocabulary that complements the pedagogical directions advocated in the New York State K–12 Social Studies Framework. At the end of this inquiry is an explication of how teachers might integrate literacy skills throughout the content, instruction, and resource decisions they make. The Common Core connections are listed on the last page of this inquiry.

Staging the Compelling Question

Compelling Question

Was the French Revolution successful?

Featured Source

Source A: Image bank: Photographs of the Egyptian Revolution, 2011–2013

The compelling question “Was the French Revolution successful?” asks students to deal with the unpredictability of revolutions. To help get students warmed up for the inquiry, it will be important to have them start thinking about the concept of a revolution and the messiness that accompanies radical change.

One way to do this is to have students look at images from Egypt—the most recent “revolution” with widespread recognition—as a way of generating curiosity about the nature of revolutions. A teacher might start by showing the first image: a clash between protesters and the police, noting the date (January 2011). The teacher could ask students to think about what they see and what the protesters’ goals might have been. The teacher could then show the second image and offer some background about Hosni Mubarak and his resignation (February 2011).

The teacher may want to work with students on making distinctions between a series of terms, including “uprising,” “reform,” “movement,” “insurgency,” and “revolution.” The teacher should guide students toward the notion that revolutions are characterized by radical change that fundamentally transforms a political, economic, or social paradigm. At this point, the teacher should ask students, “Why do some people currently refer to the series of events in Egypt as a revolution?”

From these initial understandings, the teacher should then show the third and fourth images, making note of the dates (August 2013) and asking students to consider the goals and feelings of the people pictured. The teacher should move the students toward the compelling question by asking them, “At what point will the Egyptian revolution be a success?” The goal of this activity is not for them to come to a definitive answer—the goal is for students to recognize their hesitation and the fact that the answer is not clear. If there is an answer, it must certainly be a complicated one, and it might depend on when the question is asked. It is essential that the teacher names this tentative or hesitant point for students so they can recognize it again when they return to it throughout the inquiry.

At this point, the teacher might want to show similar image sets from other political or social revolutions that further engage their students. Alternatively or additionally, they might want to lead a more general conversation with students about what might make a revolution successful.

It is important to note that making direct comparisons between political revolutions is challenging, so teachers should avoid oversimplifications or anachronistic connections. Additionally, students may know very little about the Egyptian revolution, and, if so, it would be important for the teacher to provide enough background knowledge so students can examine the images and thoughtfully engage in the discussion.

The goals of this exercise are two: First, to help students recognize that revolutions are relevant in today’s world and that history, although a study of the past, has important implications for the world in which they live; and second, to help students understand that the French Revolution lasted more than 10 years and that the goals changed over time. Often students see these kinds of events as overnight successes, and it is hoped that by examining both the Egyptian and the French revolutions, students will come to understand that shifts occur during revolutions, creating unforeseen consequences, and that radical political and social change is messy.

Staging the Compelling Question

Featured Source

Source A: Image bank: Photographs of the Egyptian Revolution, 2011–2013

Image 1: Egyptians protest against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

Copyright © 2011 AP Photos/Victoria Hazou.

Image 2: Egyptians celebrate the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.

Getty image/AFP by Pedro Ugarte.

Image 3: Egyptian soldiers take positions alongside armored vehicles as they guard the entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday, August 16, 2013.

Copyright © 2011 AP Photos/Hassan Ammar.

Image 4: A man checks a list of names of those killed in the government crackdown on August 15, 2013.

Getty image by Ed Giles.

Supporting Question 1


What were the social, economic, and political problems in prerevolutionary France?

Formative Performance Task

List social, economic, and political problems in prerevolutionary France.

Featured Source(s)

Source A: Political cartoon of the Three Estates

Source B: Graph of the Three Estates in Prerevolutionary France

Source C: Cahiers de Doléances of 1789

Conceptual Understandings

(10.2c) Individuals and groups drew upon principles of the Enlightenment to spread rebellions and call for revolutions in France and the Americas.

Content Specifications

Students will examine evidence related to the preconditions of the French Revolution and the course of the revolution, noting the roles of Olympe de Gouges, Maximilien Robespierre, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Social Studies Practices

Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence
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