Everyday Life in Eastern Europe
Three 90-minute class periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.
- One set of copies of primary sources for each group (the number depends on how many groups the class will be broken into)
- Lecture materials on Everyday Life in Communist Europe
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
- define common elements of a society’s “daily life,” in its material, intellectual and informal aspects.
- understand and communicate the basic elements of a Communist political and cultural system.
- discuss the roles and relationships that impact upon how “daily life” was constructed in a communist regime in Europe in the 1980s.
- interpret the challenges and issues facing ordinary people living in a communist country and how they experienced their lives as the transition to democracy happened in the late 20th century.
1. Opening Activity: Begin by asking the entire class “What is (or was) Communism?” Record and organize student responses. Allow the students to struggle, wander and reflect. Be sure to direct the conversation so that the essential elements of a communist government and social structure are commented upon and recorded. Corollary questions might include:
- What is daily life like in a communist country?
- What social challenges does a communist country face?
- What are politics like in a communist country?
Keep in mind the connotation of “normal”: what is normal for the U.S. is not normal everywhere else. Students often equate different and bad” and that ethnocentrism will be a common response during these activities. Note and comment upon this tendency as it appears throughout this lesson.
Change directions by asking students what an average or routine day is like for them? For their parents? What kind of goods/materials make up that life? How do they go about obtaining those goods? Each question focuses on creating a clear picture of daily life in America today and the materials associated with that life.
The goal of both of these exercises is to begin the process of identifying two kinds of structures that help a historian define daily life in any period: the formal and informal structures of a society. Examples of formal structures include economic conditions, government policies and laws, as well as social norms. Informal structures are less-direct and include the material culture of the society along with the tones and color-words that people use to describe their society (“healthy,” “diseased,” “challenged,” “prosperous”)(“color words” are words that carry descriptive meaning beyond their precise definition. Thus, the difference in meaning between “problem” and “challenge” reflects more than meaning but also a tone).
Another way to describe these structures of daily life might be the rules of the social game (formal) and the material aspects and tone of the language used to describe those rules (informal). The importance of these structures will become clear when the primary sources are investigated.
2. Small Group Activity: Divide the primary sources into groups. Note that Primary Source 2 is the longest document of the set and may be difficult. Suggestion: Read document 2 aloud as a round-robin in class and highlight important sections via pre-prepared PowerPoint or overhead slides. The remaining 13 documents easily break into sets such as:
- Consumer Goods: Documents 1, 12, 13, 14
- Health: Documents 3, 4, 5, 6,
- Youth: Documents 7, 8,
- Social Life: 9, 10, 11
- (there are other possible groupings)
Divide the class into groups and assign each a set of documents. Their task is two-fold:
- identify the challenges and issues observed by the authors of each source and
- identify the language (color words) used to describe those challenges and issues.
Students should choose important details as well as powerful phrases (or ‘color words’) that were used to define the set of sources. Have each group record and be prepared to share their findings. Using a common set of focusing questions might help the students, such as:
- What is the author’s overall view on daily life?— what main point the author is trying to establish about that life?
- What are the important parts of the author’s argument or description concerning daily life?
- What evidence is used to support the argument or description?
- How successfully does the author support his/her thesis?
- Does the source convince you? Do the sources support the argument or description adequately?
- What is the tone of the piece?
- Who is the author’s intended audience?
- What additional questions does the source raise for you?
Again, the overall direction of these analyses and reviews should be towards identifying the formal elements of daily life in communist Czechoslovakia as well as the informal elements i.e.: how people felt about their lives.3. Lecture: Drawing on images such as Primary Source 1, present a lecture on images of daily life in Communist Eastern Europe. Materials from this website abound as do textual materials and video interviews. The goal is to build on the students’ understanding of communist daily life developed in Activity 2 and anchor that understanding in materials beyond text. Allow students to use the primary sources to link their work to your lecture (“which one of our sources does this remind you of? How/why?”).
- Key Points: the Case Study will provide a short overview for this:
- If necessary, briefly review the Communist Consumer structure (i.e., how supply is decided, priorities for production assigned, etc.)
- Review work-structure and education routines for a communist worker.
- Describe access to housing, food and other necessities in Communist culture.
- Summarize access to higher-end consumer goods and Western products in Communist countries.
4. Group Role-Play/Debate: Assign roles to students in groups in order to form a debate about how to improve daily life in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Roles might include teenagers, factory managers, state leaders (of various roles and levels), state news agents, working mothers, working fathers, elderly or retired parents and the like. Doubling (or tripling) up on roles will allow for fuller development of questions and observations. One group should include a panel of State Planners (i.e. judges) whose task is to listen to the debate and form a prioritized list of actions to be taken in order to meet the demands of Czechoslovakian society.
Give students access to the primary sources to allow them to direct their demands, questions, and fears based upon the sources. Thus, no plan should be directed without a reference such as “as all Czechoslovakia knows from
Give the students time to reflect on the debate, elucidating the elements of daily life. What has the debate added to their understanding? How important were the roles to their participation and understanding?
5. Homework: Give each student a copy of the prioritized list of action steps. As homework have them reflect on how accurately and efficiently they track the observations made in the primary sources. An informal writing would assist in their keeping track of these reflections. Which action steps really address the concerns of the source creators? Which really miss the mark? What might explain both hits and misses? Have students come prepared to share these reflections.
6. Discussion: Allow the class to share their informal reactions to the State Plan created during the debate. The focus here, again, is to root out the formal and informal elements of daily life.
Return to the Opening Activity. How would students define communism now? What have they learned about daily life in Eastern Europe at this time? What might this mean for the sustainability of communism? Using notes from the second part of that activity, have students reflect on the differences between daily life in America and in Czechoslovakia? Importantly, look for common experiences as well as differences. What, now, can the students observe about daily life?
Document Based Questions:
Choose any grouping of the documents referenced in the Lesson Plan (or create new ones). Using at least 7 of the documents:
- Summarize the central concerns of the authors about the challenges facing Czechoslovakia in 1989. Students should be able to accurately and directly review the main points in every document.
- Analyze the features of daily life in communist Czechoslovakia, drawing upon the information contained in the primary sources.
- Explain how these issues might have affected the attitude of people in Czechoslovakia toward their government? What kind of informal tone is present in the documents and what impact might that have on the future of communist rule in that country?
- What differences and similarities can be seen when comparing daily life in Czechoslovakia to daily life in the United States?
Provide summaries or highlighted redactions of the documents to assist students in processing the primary sources used during the activities. Similarly, pre-organized note sheets (containing key words, ideas, and foreign topics) will aid in comprehension. For the mock debate, provide some short suggestions or summaries to guide student participation. When administering the Document Based Question, allow additional time and provide outline guides for student responses. Allow for differing types of responses rather than simply essay format (editorial cartoons, short audio news “programs,” dictated responses, etc.).