Teaching World History: World War I Lesson Plan and Activities

This blog is part of a Shaped monthly series providing teachers for Grades 6–12 with downloadable world history classroom resources and discussion topics.

World War I was known as the Great War, and it lasted from 1914 to 1918, eventually claiming more than 16 million lives. 

It began in June 1914, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were fatally shot in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, by a Serbian nationalist. This triggered a chain of events that ultimately pitted the Central Powers—including Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—against the Allied Powers, including Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States.

At first, the United States adhered to a policy of neutrality and continued trade and commerce with both sides of the conflict; however, maintaining neutrality proved difficult for President Woodrow Wilson. Among other events, public opinion supporting the United States' entrance into the war was influenced by a German U-boat sinking the Lusitania, a British-owned ship traveling from New York to Liverpool, England, in 1915, with a more than 100 Americans onboard. The United States wouldn't officially enter the war, however, until 1917, after Britain intercepted the Zimmerman telegram proposing a military alliance between Germany and Mexico.

World War I saw the horrors of trench warfare and the use of new weapons that had never before been used in conflict. It shaped lives at the time, as women entered the workforce to support and replace the men who were fighting overseas. To teach students more about the legacy of World War I, have them look at this timeline (with a supplemental enrichment activity available for download as a PDF). Then, distribute the accompanying resources: a transcript of a speech by President Woodrow Wilson (primary source enrichment activity) and a writing enrichment activity about the role of Edith Wharton.

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