About the Author

Bradley Fogo

Bradley Fogo is currently a post-doctoral fellow working as an instructor in the Stanford Teacher Education Program. A public school history teacher for nine years, he holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teacher Education from Stanford University.

Setting the Tone: Introducing Students to World War II


Photo, American soldier with cattle dog. . . , 1941-1945, Flickr Commons

I teach in the inner city. What's a good opening lesson for teaching World War II?


Any day 1 lesson—regardless of the topic—should align with and introduce goals, objectives, and essential questions for a larger unit of study. Using a backwards design approach to developing curriculum, creating individual lesson plans comes after you have determined what you want students to know and be able to do throughout the unit. A good day 1, therefore, necessitates a significant amount of planning beyond the opening activities. Some sample objectives and questions for a unit of study on World War II might include: Why, after the costs of World War I, did nations choose to fight another World War? Why were the civilian costs of World War II so much higher than World War I? Why were the allies victorious?

[. . .] creating individual lesson plans comes after you have determined what you want students to know and be able to do throughout the unit [. . .]

In addition to introducing the unit, you might consider using part of the first day to investigate what your students already understand—or misunderstand—about the war, introduce key vocabulary for the unit, or preview a timeline of events that you will be studying.

You could also focus an opening lesson on investigating the origins of the war. Activities for this approach might include a multi-media slide lecture on the long and short term causes of the war, an examination of primary documents such as the Treaty of Versailles, excerpts from newspaper reports on German, Italian, and Japanese aggression, or parts of important speeches made by world leaders in the years prior to the war.

Another approach is to begin by considering the significance of the war. To do so, you could examine some statistics that indicate the enormous human cost of the war, or introduce ways that the war fundamentally changed the United States and the world. On a smaller scale, ask students what their family history is with the war and whether the war holds any significance for their family’s story.

There is no shortage of lesson plans and curriculum materials for World War II online. PBS, for example, includes several lessons to accompany Ken Burns' critically acclaimed documentary, The War. The California Department of Education's Course Models contain background information and activities for each of the state's standards, including materials on the war. And, National Geographic’s Xpedition archive includes several lessons on the war. The quality of lesson plans posted online, however, varies wildly. Consider using our rubric for evaluating lesson plans to help you make your choice.

Explore these resources for inspiration, then make some choices. Good luck!