Unit 1: What is a country?

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline.”

-Frank Zappa.

Overview: The goal of this unit is to establish some of the foundations of the course including the concept of the nation-state, sovereignty, and legitimacy. This unit also provides some historical context for the formation and development of our current world order.

Notes: The work listed below was created during remote instruction so all the work was on Google Docs. There are also videos I made to help students work asynchronously. Listed out in terms of “days” but many can be consolidated depending on the class format. The boxes/fields in the docs are meant for students to fill in their own responses. Some may already have text in them from working through the questions with my students after the fact.

Key concepts focused on in this unit: Sovereignty, Legitimacy

Global Political Challenges: Identity, Borders

Other global politics terms:

Unit Question: What is a country?

Final Assessment: Independent research assignment on a part of the world whose status as a nation state is in question.

Prework: Current Events Assignment

Current Events Assignment

This is the kind of assignment I give students periodically throughout the course in order to have them apply what they’ve learned from the course onto topics they find in the news. As the course goes on, I add more elements to it. This version of the assignment was assigned right at the start of the course so there is very little in the way of concepts and language from Global Politics.

Day 1: Introduction

A big theme in the course is that what often seems simple and orderly on the surface (like maps) actually hides immense complexity and ambiguity. I start the course off having kids compare two maps, one with and one without political borders and have them think about what the border lines mean. The kids collectively come up with some great ideas and the activity allows for the beginnings of great discussions.

This is the classwork handout along with the homework reading which discusses the concepts of nations, states, and nation-states.

First class worksheet

Here is a collection of student responses to some of the questions discussed in the class.

First class Group Discussion Notes

Day 2: What are the characteristics of a nation-state?

This lesson asks students to apply some of their understandings from the previous night’s readings. Kids work in groups to complete the activity evaluating the status of various places in the world. The work and associated homework reading introduce the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy.

Nation State classwork and homework

Day 3: History of Nation-States

Asynchronous video I had students watch wrapping up the idea of legitimacy and getting into the history of the nation-state along with some of the underlying logic. This past year I didn’t see my students every day so I put together recorded lectures some times. In person I would approach this differently. The book, The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haas provides some good historical background on the development of our current world order including the nation-state. In the future I may track his approach.

Asynchronous video

Day 3 Lecture Slides

7 Questions on Day 3 video

Day 4: External vs. Internal Sovereignty

Students work independently to complete worksheet that helps clarify and distinguish the two different kinds of sovereignty. Attached here are an introductory video along with slides and the worksheet students complete.


Day 4 Slides

Class Work

Day 5: How are new countries created?

This work is an adaptation of the article titled, From conflict to compromise: Lessons in creating a state

Video introduction to the work

Class Reading

Day 6: Who gets to have their own country?

Students listen to a podcast from the Inquiry from BBC. I made this worksheet to help them with some of the vocabulary and to answer questions as they listen.

Worksheet The Inquiry Who gets to have their own country_

Day 7: Unit 1 Loose Ends and Intro to Final Task

This is a bit disorganized but ultimately the task is to have kids discuss a few questions to help clarify some of their misunderstandings about the concepts and ideas covered in the unit along with some questions students have asked along the way.

Classwork and Homework


Unit Research Final Task

In this task, students will choose from a list of possible places that all have some questions around their status as a nation state. In order to avoid students all choosing the same places, I ask them to choose groups of four and no one else in their group of four can choose the same place. When assignments are due, groups present their research and their cases to each other.

Final Assignment Directions

Here is a sample from a student who chose Western Sahara

Wrap up discussion prompts once the assignment is due

General class feedback on the final assignment after they were completed

Additional Resources for Unit (Not used above)

What is a nation? Reading adapted from Invisible Countries by Joshua Keating

Nation State Reading Imagined Communities

Nations are creations of our collective imaginations. Reading adapted from Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens Nation State Reading

“Beyond the Nation-State” by Claire Vergerio

Interesting discussion on the inaccuracy of the conventional history of the origins of the nation-state and the myth making around the Treaty of Westphalia. Not sure how I would use this essay with students but worth reading and considering its implications.

“Misrepresenting the history of the states-system plays into the hands of nationalist strongmen, who depict themselves as saving the world from a descent into stateless anarchy, controlled by globalist corporations who couldn’t care less about national allegiance…

“Having an alternative narrative of our trajectory does not provide easy solutions, but it does open the way to envisioning an international order that could make space for a greater diversity of polities and restore some balance between the rights of states and the rights of other collectivities.”


Selections from Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points

Provides some interesting ideas for exploring some of the key concepts from the unit.

Copy of Day 6 Wilson 14 points excerpts

“Patrios” by Lionel Shriver

Interesting essay exploring the differences between the terms “patriotism” and “nationalism.” Second half is where the essay gets interesting.

“What is a country? An accumulated history. A culture (whatever that means). A legal framework (up to a point, subject to change). A government (very subject to change). Perhaps a set of values, though what those values are may be up for debate. Obviously, a place. Most importantly, a people.”


Link for all of the materials above in my OneDrive folder