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Why I love teaching the French Revolution

Storming of the Bastille

I first became fascinated by the French Revolution when I was in the lower 6th in the late 1980s. Back in the day being in the lower 6th generally meant sitting in the 6th form common room, talking pretentious nonsense  and doing very little work – well it did for me. That was until we started studying The French Revolution.

It gripped me from the beginning. Not because we had a great teacher, sorry Miss Pridham, as bonkers as you were, sitting on the front desk and lecturing is definitely one way of teaching but if this was the only method that I can remember you had in your armoury. That and setting us essays. No, it wasn’t the quality teaching that gripped me.

The French Revolution gripped enough to wake me from my pretentious common room slouching, and get me reading around the subject. Luckily, the Simon Schama’s brilliant Citizens was published in the same year!

512uj4YKFuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_And , because of this love of the topic, ever since I started teaching, I have taught a unit on the French Revolution.

At first this was because I was told to. I had to use the awful Societies in Change books to a very weak year 8 group. Nightmare!

I was generally excited when I heard that Citizen Minds was to be published in the noughties. But when I saw a copy, I knew that it was too hard for my council estate kids to access (although there is a brilliant ‘if only’ section on Napoleon).

So over the years, together with Alec Fisher, we have developed a really tight, exciting and accessible unit, this is why I love teaching the French Revolution.

The French Revolution is really engaging for kids for loads of reasons. The personalities are brilliant. Beit the poor Louis XVI, or Marie Antoinette, or the finance minister Calonne, or the bonkers and blood-thirsty Jean-Paul Marat, or the contradiction that was Robespierre… All of these personal stories are engaging and interesting.

Picture1We are big fans of using the personal story to link to the general story here at history resource cupboard. We love the question, Did Louis live up to his portrait? The students look at evidence about the hapless Louis before deciding how he should be painted. Then we show them his portrait and they have to work out why he looked so much better on the wall than in real life?  Louis’s flight to Varenne is a ripping yarn. And Charlotte Corday’s murder of Marat is simply fascinating and a great use of a story as a hook.

The gripping story lines provide great opportunities to make sense of today’s world.  It is great to  draw the parallels between Calonne’s attempt to solve the financial crisis of the 1780s with the financial situation that we have faced over the past few years.

The lesson is here and it gets a mention in this book by Clive Erricker.

Thirdly, the French Revolution is brilliant for getting across history concepts. The build up to and outbreak of the revolution creates a perfect opportunity for an unseen causation assessment.

We created a mark-scheme years ago that is fail safe way of assessing what students can do independently. Simply teach the build up lessons and then, when you are convinced they can do it, set them the question to do on their own.  You can find the mark-scheme here.

The French Revolution allows us really push our classes to make progress as we build on the this by looking at higher order causation work in the form of thinking about inevitability.  We have a fascinating and accessible lesson where our students decide when / if it was inevitable that the French would kill their King. This works as a great enquiry and it is a good way to introduce this tricky concept.  By dripping in new evidence the students are forced to change their minds about what point they think the revolutionaries had had enough of Louis.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_La_Mort_de_MaratThe French Revolution also allows us to share our love of art and art history with our classes. David’s Death of Marat is such a masterpiece. We have an enquiry in which we tell the story of the murder, get the students to make inferences to decide what David wanted us to believe Marat was like, namely serene, peaceful, hard-working, humble…

We then brogiervanderweyden-deposition1350353877512uild on this by comparing David’s composition with deposition pictures to get the students to see parallels. Then we ask them if this work was ‘an awful, beautiful lie?’  The students use source material about Marat for a purpose – they cross reference it with what they think the painting suggests. Next they think why David would have wanted to paint Marat in this light before writing an audio guide for the painting. Having taught and refined them loads, these are great lessons and they are accessible to all. Alec did a brilliant job here.

Also, you could argue that this  could be classed as interpretations work, if you dare call it that. We will leave the somewhat futile and false argument over how long after an event can a source such as a painting become an interpretation to those who actually care, or have the time to consider such nonsense. All we know after many years at the chalk face, is that this enquiry really works!

It is also great to ask the students at the end of this unit: Why bother with the French Revolution? By looking at how the revolution has affected France and the world ever since our students can make up their own minds about the significance of this fascinating topic.

The French Revolution woke me from my 6th form slumber and has continued to enthrall and engage me ever since. I hope my enthusiasm has rubbed off on some of kids I have taught over the years.

Happy History teaching!

The lessons can be downloaded here

 

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