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Kimberly Powell

Genealogy in our Schools

By October 31, 2013

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While I applaud any effort to get school students interested in genealogy, I can't help but cringe every time I get an email from a student who needs to know the meaning of his surname for a school project. There are so many better applications of family history as a learning tool - oral histories, immigration, DNA.... One teacher who recently contacted me takes his students on annual field trip to Ellis Island where they learn about the immigrant experience, and search for names on the Wall of Honor. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., from the PBS documentary series African American Lives, has spoken about the many opportunities for using genealogy and DNA research to "revolutionize the way we teach history and science to African American students." For teachers who don't want to get into student family histories and the emotional finds that can sometimes uncover, there are also other options - including researching an influential figure from the local community, or interviewing local WWII veterans and preserving their stories.

What ideas do you have for incorporating genealogy in the classroom? Share them below in the comments. Let's help get students excited about the past!

November 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm
(1) Merv Scott says:

I agree but add that teachers shouldn’t be afraid of researching family tree activities. remember there are charts for step families or adopted children etc. We recruited teachers to help our non profit fhs design student activities and teacher resources that discuss this dilemma. Check them out at Http://www.victoriags.org/school. All free. Merv Scott

November 3, 2013 at 11:56 am
(2) Dave says:

When my daughter was a freshman in high school, her world history teacher gave the class a family tree assignment. The idea was apparently to find out where the students’ families originated, and then research those places.

To this day, my daughter is still extremely interested in her “roots”.

November 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm
(3) Marci Bowman says:

First, a teacher should NEVER assign a family tree project without a few lessons in basic genealogy research. Without general direction, the project is a total waste of time.

If the teacher is too lazy to research and plan the lessons, I would suggest contacting a local DAR or SAR chapter. They would be thrilled to be invited to a classroom to teach some basic research tools.

November 4, 2013 at 10:07 am
(4) Patty Donohoe says:

I would recommend having the students create a 4 generation pedigree chart and write two family stories about their ancestors. Extra credit for ancestor photos and power point presentations. Of course the instructor should begin by presenting his or her own power point on their family. Stories and charts can be shared in small groups. Writing, research, creativity and computer skill work are just some of the areas students touch on as they come to know their personal heritage.
A follow-up lesson on DNA testing or an excerpt from “Genealogy Road Show” or “Who Do You Think You Are?’ on YouTube would be great. A field trip to clean up a local cemetery might bring some social consciousness to the project and at the same time lead to identification of local stone marker designs and materials. Endless possibilities!

November 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm
(5) Karyn says:

I love all the ideas in the comments, but teachers do have to be sensitive to step families, adoptions, and inevitable family dramas when creating family trees.

I loved the suggestion of interviewing family for stories. Sometimes just connecting a child to one of their elders and the lives they lived is eye-opening. “Grandpa was in the Navy!” or “Grandma backpacked Europe!” can be a lovely way to connect generations even when the generations may not be tied by blood. As with all things in education, it is those eureka moments you strive for.

Our school does a lovely activity in the second grade. The students study immigration and its effect on the US. Then they hold an immigration day where each child creates a persona for themselves with the help of their parents. Their persona can be from anywhere in the world with skills and some change in their pocket and their reason for coming to the US. The kids wore clothes to match their character. The auditorium was then turned into Ellis Island with parent volunteers manning the 20 or so checkpoints where each child would be checked and questioned. Every kid got ‘deported’ once (and were given a reprieve at the deportation station). Every kid got sent to the medical station for testing (skittles were the remedy of choice). The objective was to give the kids a feel for the frustration and excitement of every immigrant that went through Ellis Island – though granted on a small scale. At the end of the day they took a quiz on the requirements for citizenship and then all said the pledge of allegiance. It remains one of my favorite teaching moments both for the conversations we had about our family coming to the US in preparation for the day and helping out on that day.

November 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm
(6) Debby Worden says:

I was 12! I sat cross legged on my great grandparents living room floor listening to my 2 great grandparents talk of their trip to Canada, Quebec in 1897. My great grandmother spoke of managing 3 young children on a passage ship. My grandmother was #2 and then relayed what she remembered. Her younger siblings there and related what they remembered growing up in Quebec. Moving to Ontario (Ottawa) and then 1921 moving to Detroit MI. OH! If only I had had a take recorder!
The best thing is to share old photos at holidays.

November 24, 2013 at 2:54 am
(7) Anne Varberg says:

Researching the neighborhood via census records can be fascinating. Take the blocks right around the school, and see if from one census to the next if the same families live there, etc.

November 25, 2013 at 9:07 pm
(8) mrstinylady says:

Oh to be a kid in YOUR class!

Genealogy is the one thing that taught me history in the most unique and memorable way. History was a subject that had sent me to dreamland all though school. Blah to the 1000th power. But one day–about 40 years ago–a caller wanted to know about our family for their tree. They had wills and a civil war diary and wanted to say hello, etc. That one phone call forever changed my life!

I teach people how to hunt and record their genealogy any time I can. I then work on their troublesome people who escape census and basic township records or family knowledge for them if they hit that wall. In so many ways it sets a person FREE. And to know America and the world and all its cultures and traditions is incredible.

Many parents won’t go near this subject due to problems with parentage and, additionally, their thinking that a younger person can’t digest the docs or the data or personal stories. Ha! I get everyone going for family pictures, tombstone pictures, favorite family recipes, holiday customs (and simple “family rules” are a kick!), handed-down memories, and any bio they can get their hands on.

The journey makes TV shows and novels of all kinds about families or history or place information enticing. Not to mention that history and geography and archaeology, etc. classes become totally engrossing. And let’s not forget that you also get cusious about OTHER people and their lives and stories, related or not. I even learned how to really interview people and learn to pose questions that provided off-the-beaten-path stories I’ll cherish forever!

It’s one of the best seeds to plant. It provides a person with a place in the world, and understanding of the world, tempered with some mercy, understanding, and other spices of life.

KEEP GOING! MANY APPLAUSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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