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 family backgrounds.
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 history project.
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.
Cultural Diversity 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.
Reference Skills 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.
Computer Skills 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.
Organization 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.
Oral History 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.
Home Sources 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.
Names 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.
Local History 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.
Maureen A. Taylor, Owner and Principal of Ancestral Connections, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) and a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns on genealogy appear in Ancestry Daily News and in Reunions magazine.