Mention "genealogy" and "schools" in the same sentence and you will hear
a wide range of opinions on the topic from parents, teachers and students.
The basic worksheets and trees used in genealogical research are difficult
to use in most assignments since families are no longer strictly defined
as a two-parent household and a school's population can include single
parents, adoptive families and same-sex households. Children with families
that defy the traditional design of a family tree and even newer immigrants
can have difficulty completing a narrowly-defined assignment. This presents
a challenge to educators trying to incorporate genealogy into the curriculum.
However, since schoolwork is intended to teach students skills, not become
professional genealogists, teachers need to be aware of that there are
still a lot of ways to expose students to genealogy, no matter what their
For the best success with classroom genealogy projects, teachers should
offer assignments with the qualities listed below.
Not all students may be able to complete the assignment as originally
presented. The student and the parents will remember your sensitivity
in allowing potentially upsetting homework to be modified for the comfort
level of the child. For instance, adoptees and children from one-parent
households may not be comfortable working on a family pedigree chart.
Try to use alternative ways to record family information such as an oral
Why Use Genealogy in the Classroom?
Why should the classroom include genealogy at all? Because it is a great
and engaging learning tool. Here are a few of the things that genealogy
teaches in a classroom setting.
Similarities and Differences
Children in lower elementary grades and even preschool learn about the
world around them through exploration and comparison. One teacher has
children create a chart showing what family members each child's family
contains mother, father, stepsister, right down to the family pet.
The point of the assignment is to appreciate the similarities and differences
that exist between all families. Another educator uses a map of the world
with colored pins to show the points of origins of the children's grandparents
and parents. These classroom projects originated with a simple fill-in-the-blank
form for children to complete with parental assistance.
An assignment for older children that allows them to investigate their
own ethnic and cultural heritage and share it with others in the classroom
introduces the concept of immigration and assimilation. Let students express
their heritage by creating a banquet of foods from recipes traditionally
served at home or reflective of their cultural identity. Yes, there will
be brownies and cookies, but also other interesting dishes. It can make
for an educational event because many children are unaware of how mealtimes
at their friends' houses differ. If food is impractical and the student
population speaks a variety of languages, an alternative is to create
a chart of common words or names in different languages. The examples
can include different alphabets, spellings and styles of handwriting.
While students are learning about themselves, their families and their
communities, they may need to verify some of the facts in their projects.
Unbeknownst to them, they are learning how to develop reference skills
by using libraries, reference books and people as resources. They are
learning how to find the information they need to finish their assignment.
Students with Internet access can use the vast genealogical
resources available online as reference tools. These Web-based databases
and research guides can help them locate material on individuals or guides
to where that data can be found. Schools wired for the Internet can use
family history and local history as a way to teach students to use search
engines, judge the quality of content, and create a web page. Assignments
can include a component in which students are required to compare what
they find online with what is available in traditional print resources.
A key skill learned by working on a family history project is organization.
Developing a research plan to find information is an important component
of any project. Students learn to progress through a set of steps to locate
and analyze data. Defining the scope of the project, creating a outline
of resources, establishing a realistic timetable for completion and then
assembling the final product requires a student to develop organizational
skills they will use throughout their lifetimes. In addition, students
that have a genealogical software package
can use it to organize their work.
How to Integrate Genealogy into the Classroom
So what can a teacher do to integrate genealogy into the classroom? There
are many different opportunities. Take a look at some of the techniques
and tools genealogists use to research families and see how they can be
used for teaching.
Every family has an oral tradition that includes adventures, stories
about places lived and interesting family members. Children, as natural
storytellers, listen carefully to these tales passed on from generation
to generation. By interviewing family members about their lives they learn
a set of skills, including creating a list of questions, planning a project
and transcribing what has been said. This can be done with members of
their own families or residents of an elderly apartment house through
an intergenerational program. Younger students will be incredulous to
learn that the modern conveniences they take for granted didn't exist
during the childhoods of the people they are interviewing.
Photographs, documents and artifacts often provide clues to family history.
Ask students to research the history of one or two significant items in
their homes or owned by relatives that have a prominent place in a their
genealogy. It could be their grandfather's passport, a wedding photograph
or even a piece of furniture. The oral traditions surrounding artifacts
can add data to a family history. Let the students research how and when
particular articles were used to give them a sense of their family's place
in social history.
Calendars and Timelines
Have students create an individual timeline adding historical context
to their lives by finding national and local events that occurred at key
points in their lives. They can document the points on the timeline by
using materials created in their lifetimes. Timelines can lead to a discussion
of calendar changes (Gregorian to Julian) and the different types of devices
used to keep track of time around the world. They can use the timelines
to write a personal memoir recounting the important points in their lives
or focus on a family member and write a biographical account of their
life. If a personal timeline is uncomfortable, timelines for relatives,
famous persons or buildings or places are alternative projects.
An exploration of the origin of student's first and last names can be
fascinating homework. Ask students to find out the story behind their
name including who named them and whether it has significance within the
family. Students may find that they are named for a relative, or that
their first or last name was created especially for them.
Social historians, public historians and genealogists understand that
the lives of individuals become part of local history. Family history
introduces students to a larger historical context. An alternative to
researching their own families is to encourage students to research a
local historical figure or a name they find in a city directory. Students
can work as a team to research their school or even a house in the neighborhood.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum
in New York City researched the families that lived there at various points
in history. It is an example of the changing history of a neighborhood.
Immigration and Assimilation
For older students, genealogy and family history offers a personal way
to view the processes of immigration and assimilation. Again, students
can use their own families, or using passenger lists, census documents,
city directories and other resources to trace the way individuals found
their place in America. The Chicago
Historical Society added information to their Web site on the diverse
populations that settled the city. Students can formulate similar material
for their locale.
This is only an introduction to the many ways that genealogy can be incorporated
into a classroom setting. Family history is not restricted to subjects
that depend on written forms of expression. Students with artistic inclinations
can use photographs, needlework, paint and dioramas to help others understand
their family history. Musically talented individuals can play pieces from
their ancestor's eras while other students can prepare time capsules and
even create tours of landmarks important to their genealogy. Teachers
who creatively approach the topic encourage their students to expand their
base of knowledge about themselves and the world around them.