Good history project topic
November 4, 2011 5:27 PM   Subscribe

I have to help my fifth grade daughters with their history fair project and they think I'm smart. Help!

The topic is the French Revolution. It just has to be presented on one of those standing posterboards and a little report written I think. It seems like there is a lot of info to cover on the French Revolution. Should we pick a subtopic to focus on instead? And if so, what would be a good subtopic (for any of you very familiar with the French Revolution)? The theme of the History Fair is Revolution, Reaction, Reform.
posted by daydreamer to Education (22 answers total)
One interesting subtopic of the French Revolution with good conversation-starting modern day resonances and juicy parallels/contrasts in US history is the issue of slavery under the Revolution--and specifically the sad history of Haiti's revolution. For a revolution premised upon a "philosophical" rigor and absolutism (liberte, egalite, fraternite etc.) the various betrayals, compromises and hypocrisies involved in the French attitude towards slavery serve as a useful testbed for the practical value of abstract ideals in political movements.
posted by yoink at 5:38 PM on November 4, 2011

The French Revolution was a direct consequence of the Enlightenment and led to the Belle Epoque.
posted by nickrussell at 5:40 PM on November 4, 2011

Have you read the Wikipedia page? It's pretty long and detailed. I certainly wouldn't cite Wikipedia in a paper (and it's good to establish good research habits early), but it's good for background information.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:44 PM on November 4, 2011

If it's not too narrow, it might be interesting to focus on the role of food supply/shortages as one of the causes of the French Revolution. "Let them eat cake" would be a great exhibit title.
posted by argonauta at 5:46 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might find some interesting ideas in John Green's videos on the French Revolution... they certainly make learning about it it a lot more digestible than it might be otherwise!
posted by miratime at 5:49 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would say pick three important general things to say (the expansion of representation under the national assembly (tennis court oath), some beheadings to keep it interesting, and the descent of the revolution into terror and dictatorship (napoleon)) and then maybe have a little more specific box maybe on the relationship between the French and American revolutions.
posted by shothotbot at 5:50 PM on November 4, 2011

Except that Marie Antoinette never said it, argonauta.
posted by joannemullen at 5:51 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Depending on your area of general knowledge and your daughter's areas of general knowledge, perhaps the subtopic of women's fashion before, during, and after the revolution could be really interesting? There are lots of pictures of it! You can get into supply shortages and the overwhelming wealth of the wealthy when talking about fabric costs and how a peasant's dress looked vs. a queen's dress, you can talk about the gradual increase of fabric and decoration of the middle class after the most violent parts of the revolution were over, and there are lots of sub-movements in the fashion during the course of events that are talked about in good sources like translated newspaper articles and things. And of course, fashion is a quintessentially French thing.
posted by Mizu at 5:57 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

True, joannemullen. But to me, it's a prominent part of the lore of the French Revolution, and at the fifth grade level, maybe not such a bad way to draw attention to the exhibit and/or to spark a discussion about the disconnect between the aristocracy and the commoners (in the context of food availability and otherwise).

Good luck to your daughters, daydreamer!
posted by argonauta at 6:02 PM on November 4, 2011

One strategy would be to pick a single person who lived through this period and follow the story of the revolution from before to aftermath, through their eyes. It helps to keep all the swirling strands of history straight if you're following one person, or one group. Obviously they should ask their teacher if this strategy will work for their project.

For example, if your kids are into art, look up Jacques-Louis David - follow the art history of the change from pre-Revolution to post. Take a look at what paintings were in style fifteen years before the revolution (fluffy and fat and silly pictures of aristocrats goofing around), then see what kind of art is in style at the time of the revolution (heroic and dramatic, depicting scenes from the ancient world that had relevance to current politics in France - highly controversial) - what kind of ideas are being represented? who are these paintings speaking to?... and then what happens to the style of art as Napoleon comes to power. The poster could have a few nice examples of each type of art to show the changes.

Another fun project would be to do a timeline that is illustrated with newspaper cartoons (popular prints) of the day. The kids would do some work decoding the cartoons - what do the different pictures symbolize, as far as making fun of the different factions? This is another fun way to get history to "stick".
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:05 PM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Mizu beat me to it - the fashions changed a lot! That's a cool topic.

Would they like to highlight a particular group (such as women) or a subject like painting during that period (I was fascinated by David's Death of Marat in school because OMG picture of a dead guy in a bath tub! why yes, I was an odd child).

One of the most tragic (to me) things about the French Revolution is that while it was born from some Enlightenment ideas, the Revolution claimed the life of a great scientist, Lavoisier. There are so many fascinating stories like his.
posted by pointystick at 6:06 PM on November 4, 2011

-Another obvious choice of a single person to follow through the whole event would be Danton (a little less obvious than Robespierre)

-You could try to dig up something on French military men who had fought in the American Revolution and then returned to France and had roles in the French Revolution - most famously, Lafayette. (How did their military experience, and their experience of the political situation, in America influence their actions later?)

- do a project that involved making maps of some of the events, comparing the distances to distances in your hometown.

- pick just one important event within the revolution and do a detailed timeline and report on its causes and effects. Most famous: storming of the Bastille (bonus, they could sing the song)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:20 PM on November 4, 2011

Pointystick beat me to it - but the role of scientists in the war might make a good focus area.
posted by unmake at 6:27 PM on November 4, 2011

How about the French Revolutionary Calendar? They tried to convert everyone to decimal time.

"Each day in the Republican Calendar was divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds. Thus an hour was 144 conventional minutes (more than twice as long as a conventional hour), a minute was 86.4 conventional seconds (slightly longer than a conventional minute), and a second was 0.864 conventional seconds (slightly shorter than a conventional second)."
posted by free hugs at 6:27 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Fifth grade sounds like the perfect age to do a report on La Guillotine.
posted by bq at 6:28 PM on November 4, 2011

They could do a philosophical project, comparing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (and later versions) with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. (Or comparing other major revolutionary documents with similar ones from the American Revolution)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:30 PM on November 4, 2011

If it's not too narrow, it might be interesting to focus on the role of food supply/shortages as one of the causes of the French Revolution.

I think that's a great idea, argonauta, and it ties in very nicely with a fascinating assertion about the French Revolution I saw in a 2004 New Yorker article, and which might be particularly pointed for modern American fifth graders:

the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. “They didn’t look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale,” the economist Robert Fogel told me. “They looked like thirteen-year-old girls.”
“In other words, misery . . . produces short people.”

I'd guess at least a few of your daughters classmates are significantly bigger than those men who changed the history of the world so very much.

On preview, there is a very famous and affecting remark about the unjust execution of Lavoisier:

Lavoisier's importance to science was expressed by Lagrange who lamented the beheading by saying: "Cela leur a pris seulement un instant pour lui couper la tête, mais la France pourrait ne pas en produire une autre pareille en un siècle." ("It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century.")[13][14]
posted by jamjam at 6:31 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am a former hisotory teacher, who judge several history fairs.

Yes, you need to pick a sub-topic. The tighter the thesis, the better. The folding board should be formatted like a history essay. Left Panel - Thesis, Intro, and Background. Center Panel - Specific Examples with detail. And the big picture. (like the body paragraphs of an essay). Right Panel - Conclusion. How did it end up? Why does this matter today?

A thesis could be: Literature and Writing impacted the French Revolution. Give an intro to 18th Century French Literature. Background on 18th Century printers. Info about the role of pamphlets.

A big piece of Voltaire as one example.
posted by Flood at 6:32 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is also a card game called Guillotine, in which you're the executioner executing (cartoon) aristocrats - which might be fun to play with the kids or with their class (depending on their sensibility).
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:32 PM on November 4, 2011

Oh my gosh...these are AMAZING ideas so far. I think I love you guys! Thanks!
posted by daydreamer at 7:04 PM on November 4, 2011

I was just coming in to suggest Guillotine as a way to make the topic interesting to kids. Or just a fun activity to break up the work of making the poster, or as a reward after the fair. The noble cards, with all the different titles and different categories, might even be a good way to explore class and social structure in pre-revolution France. It even has Robespierre.

Fair warning though, one of the nobles is the piss-boy. Poor downtrodden piss-boy.
posted by postel's law at 8:49 PM on November 4, 2011

The demise of the harpsichord as a symbol of the ancien régime, the rise of the fortepiano and the harp as symbols for new bourgeois interests and pastimes. It's however not an entirely straightforward story, see below:

Focus on the harpsichord- and later piano maker Sebastien Érard, who had been rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy before the revolution, and had to go to London for a few years, only returning to Paris in 1796. He then built up a famous factory for the new bourgeois instruments.

Quirkily, the prototype of the guillotine was made by a harpsichord maker. Another quirk is (as I hear) that the guillotine was painted red not only because of the obvious associative impact but also because the guild regulations forbid harpsichord makers to use any other paint than red and black. If a harpsichord was decorated, that was a painter's job.

One of the composers to mention would be Claude Balbastre, an organist, harpsichordist, and - eventually - fortepianist, who had been close to the ancient régime too, and then began to set revolutionary tunes for his organ (a pdf of the Marseillaise here, if you click on the "complete score" link).
posted by Namlit at 3:58 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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