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Learning outcomes

Students will learn the causes of the French Revolution.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

90 minutes


  • Popcorn (freshly popped is best!) or M&Ms. Anything that gets the attention of the students.
  • World History journal or some activity that students can be engaged in at the start of class.
  • Juice or some kind of enticing refreshment.
  • Teacher copy of A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Optional: What Your Fifth Grader Needs To Know, “The Three Estates and the Old Regime.” (I know. This is a high school class but this book is a great source even for secondary teachers).


Students need to have knowledge of the idea of feudalism during the Middle Ages, including the roles of the social hierarchy. A review of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence will assist in their understanding of the French Revolution.

Students will need to have an understanding of the following vocabulary: Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Political Revolution, Scientific Revolution, Estates, Ancien Regime, Brocade, Valet, Artisans.


  1. Place freshly popped popcorn in a conspicuous location so that the aroma of the popcorn is filling the room and causing a Pavlovian response to your always-hungry high-school students. Depending on the size of your class, have enough popcorn and drinks to distribute to about one-fourth of your class. In a class of twenty, prepare for five, for example. Make no comment nor give any reaction to what the goodies are for.
  2. When tardy bell rings give an assignment such as writing in World History journals. The journal prompt can be pertaining to an current event. As the students are engaged with their writing activity, begin to share the popcorn and drinks with the five students you have chosen to share with. Again, make no comments to the “peasants” who will no doubt start to complain and comment about what is going on. Observe the outward reaction of the other students.
  3. After about ten minutes, introduce the French Revolution. Begin by discussing background information and how the American Revolution ties in with the French Revolution. Lead into a discussion with a comparison between the behavior and rule of King Louis and your own behavior at the beginning of class.
  4. Continue the discussion with how the students who received no treats reacted and the reaction of the peasants in France. Put comments and reactions on board or overhead.
  5. Have a short lecture and/or prepare an outline for students discussing the three estates: Clergy, Peasants, Nobility.
  6. As a class define “revolution” and relate the term to the revolutions of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, stressing the idea of “change.”
  7. After discussion of topics has wrapped up, read the first (roughly) seven pages of A Tale of Two Cities.
  8. Discuss the quote, which should be written on the board, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  9. As the period comes to a close and since we as teachers are not anything like the arrogant, selfish King Louis, take out your hidden stash of popcorn, drinks, and M&M’s and share with all. See the “assessment” section for concluding the lesson.


  1. Short quiz on the vocabulary to assess understanding of the terms. Grade quiz on a 100-point scale.
  2. In essay form, students will write about how they felt about being left out of the popcorn activity. The students that were chosen to participate will write about how they felt and the reaction of others.
    • Did the “peasants” feel that they were treated unfairly?
    • Did the “nobility” have a feeling of superiority?
    • How did one group feel toward the other?
    • How do they think the real peasants, clergy, and nobility felt?
  3. In this activity, the teacher expects students to see the perspectives of each group. Students should see that the nobility would have no problem with the status quo, while the peasantry would cry foul over their treatment. If students exhibit an understanding of the issue of fairness and its role in the French Revolution, they have met the main objective of the lesson.
  4. Student discussion should follow of the actual causes of the French Revolution. Students should be led to infer some causes from the lesson, and should be guided by the teacher to see the roles of poverty and hunger, the middle class’s desire for power, and the financial crisis in France brought on by the French and Indian War and France’s aid to the colonies in the American Revolution.
  5. Write a letter to King Louis XVI giving advice on how he might avoid a revolution in his country. Teacher assessment for the letter will be aided by the following rubric.
    • 4 — Student addresses all components of causes of the revolution and is able to suggest specific compromise positions for the king.
    • 3 — Student addresses some causes of the revolution and suggests solutions OR student cites all causes of the revolution and makes general suggestions to avoid crisis.
    • 2 — Student addresses two or fewer causes of the revolution and letter is weak in giving reasonable solutions. Specific detail is not present.
    • 1 — Student addresses the prompt, but fails to give any reasons for the revolution or suggest any solutions indicative of understanding the causes of the political crisis.
  6. After reading the first seven pages of A Tale of Two Cities, discuss with the class the quote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and have students respond on paper with their viewpoint. This short essay should be assessed according to the rubric above, with strong supporting detail for the point of view chosen by the student. A “4″ paper will contain several reasons for the student’s choice and will contain elaboration in the form of specific detail and examples. A “3″ paper will contain several reasons with less specific or weaker elaboration. A “2″ paper will have a response to the prompt, but the student will have failed to provide elaboration for his reasons. A “1″ paper might be a simple response to the prompt with sparse to no elaboration and reasons that are vague or do not address the topic.

Supplemental information

To incorporate geography, students may create a large map of France on poster board including the countries and bodies of water that are boundaries. Other feature can be added as the lessons are presented. This project should be graded on the basis of whether or not the maps are correct. Extra points might be given for creative presentation.


This lesson gets the students in gear to understanding why the French Revolution occurred. You can also see students relate this lesson to other revolutions around the world, even present day, due to how people perceive the government not treating the people the way the people should be treated.

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 9

  • Goal 4: Revolution and Nationalism - The learner will assess the causes and effects of movements seeking change, and will evaluate the sources and consequences of nationalism.
    • Objective 4.01: Analyze the causes and assess the influence of seventeenth to nineteenth century political revolutions in England, North America, and France on individuals, governing bodies, church-state relations, and diplomacy.