The French Revolution

French Revolution lessons can help students explore the political, social, and economic issues of the time.

By Daniella Garran

French Revolution lesson plans

The French Revolution was a result of the social and economic inequality in France at the time. The First Estate had absolute power and untold wealth, and the Third Estate had no political or economic power. Characterized by beheadings at the guillotine, the storming of the Bastille, and a queen who allegedly, when told that her subjects couldn’t afford bread replied, “let them eat cake,” the French Revolution unfolded as an era of tremendous contrasts.

The history of the French Revolution can be taught by itself, as part of a European history course, or as part of a comprehensive look at revolutions in general. Students can evaluate the causes and effects of the French, American and Russian revolutions from a popular perspective. They should also be encouraged to analyze the philosophies and documents that may have inspired or motivated people to rise up.

It is beneficial to have students analyze the portrayal of the French Revolution through art and literature. You can have students listen to and analyze songs from "Les Miserables," in addition to reading excerpts from Victor Hugo’s novel. While some students may be familiar with the musical, it will be the first time that many students hear these songs; this is a particularly beneficial activity for auditory learners.

An exploration of the art that was influenced and inspired by the French Revolution is crucial to any study of this historic era. You can show students the work of Eugene Delacroix, focusing in particular on his masterpiece "Liberty Leading the People."  Also be sure to include a study of Jacques-Louis David’s work, including "Coronation of Josephine" and his paintings of Napoleon. The work of Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, though mainly Impressionistic, can also be evaluated through the lens of the Revolution. Manet makes political statements in his paintings like "Rue Mosnier," as does Monet in "Rue Saint-Denis."

For students who have studied the American Revolution and/or the Russian Revolution, you can have them compare and contrast the causes and effects of the events leading up to these revolutions, as well as the results of each. An interesting twist to this lesson might be to have students role play and debate which nation was most profoundly affected by its revolution, and which groups benefitted the most from the revolution. For more lessons relating to the French Revolution see below.

French Revolution Lesson Plans:

Is Freedom Really Free? A Closer Look at the French

This comprehensive lesson provides teachers with a list of key vocabulary, elaborate material lists and clear step-by-step instructions for ten lessons. Students engage in a host of activities and discussions that explore the French Revolution from a variety of perspectives including art, religion, philosophy, government and societal. This lesson is truly “one stop shopping” for those teaching about the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution

In conjunction with its film, PBS created this interesting lesson which guides students through an analysis of issues surrounding freedom of the press under oppressive governments. Students compare and contrast the role of the press and censorship in the French and American Revolutions. Also available on the web site are two additional lessons, the Politics of Revolution and Women in Power, which provide additional curricular opportunities for those teaching about the French Revolution. 

The French Revolution: “Those who have and those who have not”

This lesson is designed to quickly catch the attention of students by giving only ¼ of the class (the First Estate) snacks. Students quickly develop a concrete understanding of the plight of the Third Estate (the peasants) in eighteenth century France, and their frustration with King Louis XVI. This lesson also provides an introduction to Charles Dickens’ "A Tale of Two Cities," as well as various writing opportunities, and an opportunity to compare and contrast the French Revolution with the American Revolution.