“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” 

― John F. Kennedy

“Democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.” 

― Martin Luther King Jr.

Throughout history, our leaders and icons have emphasized the importance of civic action. However, civic education is often ignored in the American public school system. In his latest book, Teaching History, Learning Citizenship, Jeffery Nokes promotes history instruction that nurtures knowledge, skills, and dispositions as tools for civic engagement. Nokes uses key moments throughout American history to demonstrate how civic engagement has always been an important component of democracy, and how it should be a core component for successful social science curriculum.

The excerpt below offers lesson plan ideas for middle and high school social studies classes. These assignments are especially effective when discussing contemporary politics and international relations, particularly surrounding Russia.

Lesson Ideas


The following materials could be used in a series of lessons during a unit on the Cold War, the Reagan administration, or the 1980s. If a course is organized thematically, this lesson could be taught in connection with other lessons on the importance of working with individuals who hold different perspectives. It is recommended that at least two class sessions be dedicated to this investigation, with the first on the critical analysis of the documents, formulating an interpretation, and gathering evidence, and the second on organizing the evidence into a brief argumentative essay.


This lesson is designed to meet three objectives associated with knowledge, skills, and dispositions:

  1. Students will describe the factors that contributed to an easing of Cold War tensions during the Reagan administration, including the summits between U.S. and Soviet leaders.
  2. Students will engage in argumentative writing, developing an interpretation and defending it with historical evidence.3. Students will explain the importance of diplomacy and cooperating with political adversaries. Students will be inclined to collaborate with individuals they disagree with.

Build Background Knowledge

Begin the lesson by building students’ background knowledge of the Cold War and the events leading up the summits between Reagan and Gorbachev. The material provided in this chapter under the headings “Background of the Cold War” and “Reagan and Gorbachev: Adversaries and Friends” provides a basic overview of what students will need to know in order to work with the documents that follow.

Ask Historical Questions

The background information provided above and the documents that follow were designed to help students ask and answer the following question: How were Cold War disagreements between Gorbachev and Reagan overcome? Teachers could provide scaffolding to students by giving them possible hypotheses that they can then test with evidence. Rather than developing their own interpretation, students would then only have to choose between interpretations or combinations of interpretations such as those that follow, which is a much simpler task than developing an interpretation independently. A label for each interpretation is included in brackets to facilitate class discussion about the ideas:

  1. Reagan and Gorbachev, both horrified by the thought of the effects of nuclear war, were highly motivated by the high stakes involved to overcome differences. [high stakes interpretation]
  2. Reagan’s powerful language before, during, and after the summits made Gorbachev negotiate and compromise. [Reagan’s talk interpretation]
  3. Reagan’s and/or Gorbachev’s charisma and optimism built a friendship that allowed for negotiation, leading to mutually beneficial agreements. [friendship interpretation]
  4. Public support for disarmament within their nations and the world motivated Reagan and Gorbachev to negotiate. [public pressure interpretation]
  5. Gorbachev and Reagan exercised patience and resilience as they worked through disagreements that were not resolved immediately. [patience interpretation]

Provide Strategy Instruction and Model Argumentative Historical Writing

The graphic organizer provided in this chapter is designed to help students identify the evidence found in the documents that supports each of the five interpretations listed above or an alternative interpretation. Instead of using the graphic organizer, a teacher could ask students to highlightand annotate the documents in a manner that allows themto identify evidence that supports or weakens the various interpretations. The teacher might explain that starting with possible interpretations and looking for evidence to support each is backwards to the way historians generally work. Instead, historians typically start with the evidence, which leads them to interpretations. The teacher provides possible interpretations from the start to simplify this complicated process of historical argumentation. Students might identify other interpretations, or might determine that a combination of interpretations best explains the success of Reagan and Gorbachev’s diplomacy. When working with advanced students, the teacher might not suggest any plausible interpretations at all.

The teacher could model the process of drawing evidence from the documents, by analyzing with students Document 2, a letter written by Mikhail Gorbachev to Ronald Reagan in 1985. The teacher could project a copy of the document for the class to consider together. The teacher should think aloud while considering the source (General Secretary Gorbachev), the audience (President Reagan), and the context (shortly after Gorbachev’s appointment and prior to the first summit at Geneva). After reading the source information and before reading the document, the teacher might say something like this: “I remember that this is early in their relationship, before they have met face-to-face. I imagine that Gorbachev was probably more guarded at this point than he might become later in their relationship, after they had built some trust. But I anticipate that this should be a very useful document in giving us some ideas about how they would get along.”

After thinking about the source, the teacher could start to read out loud the document for the students, reminding them that he/she is looking for evidence that supports or weakens any of the five interpretations. After reading the first line, the teacher might pause and think aloud again, saying something like, “It sounds to me like an invitation, an important starting point in their relationship—the idea that there are certain differences between their countries that they are just going to have to accept and overlook. He also implies that patience will be needed to work through these differences.” The teacher might read the next line and again pause and think about it: “It sounds like he thinks wisdom and accepting the facts will allow the leaders to cooperate. He refers to leaders in the past who have been able to accomplish some good through cooperation in spite of their differences. I wonder whether this is evidence that Gorbachev hoped that a friendship would develop between them—possibly evidence for the friendship interpretation. It shows Gorbachev’s optimism and hints at his charisma. It lacks the feeling of an iron-fisted communist dictator. I remember what we learned in the background information and this shows that he was not the cold, heartless Russian dictator suggested in American propaganda.”

After reading the next line, the teacher might pause again and think aloud: “He talks about doing useful things ‘both for our peoples and for all other peoples.’ This seems to start to get into the high-stakes interpretation. Their cooperation is vital for the good of the entire planet. I think I will list this as evidence of both the high-stakes interpretation and the friendship interpretation.”

After reading the entire document, the teacher might model for students how to complete the graphic organizer, or, alternatively, how to annotate or highlight the document. If completing the graphic organizer, the teacher could point out that the document says nothing about Reagan’s talk or public pressure, so those cells can be left blank. It provides some evidence of Gorbachev’s charisma, his realization of the high stakes involved, and that patience will be needed in their diplomacy. In the cell for Document 1 under friendship interpretation, the teacher might write, “Gorbachev’s style shows charisma and a willingness to be friendly.” In the cell under high-stakes interpretation, the teacher might write, “Gorbachev realizes their diplomacy impacts all people on the planet.” In the cell under patience interpretation the teacher might write “Gorbachev implies that they will need to patiently work through their differences.”

If the teacher feels that students need more support, he/she might model with Document 3, a photograph of Reagan and Gorbachev. Alternatively, the teacher might allow students to work independently for a few minutes, then lead the class in a discussion of their analysis of the photograph. In using the photograph, the teacher and students should consider whether the photograph was spontaneous or staged, why the photographer snapped a photo at that moment, why the photographer made choices about the angle from which to take the photo, lighting, and so forth. Most students will see this photograph, taken at the Geneva summit, as evidence of an increasing warmness between Reagan and Gorbachev, supporting the friendship interpretation. Some might point out that their casual manner weakens the high-stakes interpretation—the two men do not look like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Further, the photograph raises doubts that Reagan used confrontational rhetoric in their meetings, weakening the Reagan’s talk interpretation. There is little evidence for or against the other interpretations in this photograph.


Once the teacher is confident that students understand how to draw evidence for the various interpretations from the documents and how to use the graphic organizer, he/she can have them analyze the remaining documents independently or in small groups. The teacher should remind students about their objective: to gather evidence from the documents that supports or weakens each interpretation. Students are preparing to craft an argument surrounding he motivation for Reagan and Gorbachev’s collaboration.

Featured Image:  Berlin wall, Reagan and Gorbachev; public domain via Pixabay.