Family History in the Classroom

Lesson Plans & Inspiration

How many students do you know who will admit to a love of history? Unfortunately, not many. Let's face it - most children live for the moment and just don't see the importance of studying about people and events that predate their own existence. It's not that they hate history, they just don't see its connection and significance to their daily life.

This is where family history comes in. So much more than the traditional family tree, genealogy and family history can make learning fun and interesting by providing students of all ages with the personal connection which is missing from so many classroom assignments.

Seen through a grandparent's eyes, events like World War II and the invention of the automobile take on the immediacy of real life, teaching students that history is not a series of isolated events from the pages of a textbook, but rather a collection of individual choices and memories that still influences their lives today.

The hands-on learning that a family history project brings to the classroom can help motivate students to learn, as well as encourage retention of the covered material. Family history can be used to teach not only history, but also language arts, writing, math, geography, and even science. Family history projects can also be used to teach and encourage communication, information-gathering, research, computer, analysis, and evaluation skills. It is also an excellent method for encouraging the acceptance of individual differences.

You don't have to be a professional genealogist to incorporate family history into your classroom curriculum, though you should be sure to learn how to spell the word 'genealogy' correctly!

Familiarize yourself with some of the basic tenants of family history research, browse through the accompanying family tree lesson plan links for creative applications of family history in the classroom, be ready with alternative projects to meet the needs of all of your students, and you will be well on your way to having one of the most fun and enthusiastic classrooms in your school.

Next page > Branch Out from the Traditional Family Tree Assignment

Genealogy is introduced in hundreds of classrooms around the world through the traditional family tree assignment - a chart of a student's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, perhaps accompanied by a few family facts or stories. It's how I was first introduced to family history, and was my 9-year-old daughter's first foray into family history as well (outside of what she has learned from tagging around with me, of course).

There is nothing wrong with the traditional family tree assignment but, personally, I feel there are better alternatives - ones which are less likely to create an atmosphere of competition or alienation.

Other typical family history projects which I personally would steer clear from include locating a family coat-of-arms and tracing the origin of a family surname. Not that both of these projects can't be fun when handled properly, but I field questions from frustrated students every day who don't understand why they can't locate such information on the Internet. Answers to those questions can actually take years of research, and possibly never be found. Such assignments also tend to encourage students to use the unproven research of others (incorrect information is rampant on the Internet), rather than researching in original and family records and coming to their own, informed conclusions.

Now for the alternatives. Family history can be incorporated into the classroom in so many ways. There are literally hundreds of variations, but here are a few of the most popular family history topics used in the classroom:

Immigration and Migration

It is rare to find a family tree which doesn't include any immigrants, though some people may have to go back hundreds of years to find them. Turn history into a fun detective project by working with students to seek out the real-life adventures of their ancestors, and plot their travels on a map. Immigration and the history of immigrants can also be used to study the building of a country, such as the United States or Australia. Encourage students to talk to any living relatives who may still have immigration stories to tell. Or visit sites like Ellis Island Records to view real life immigration records, and ship histories. Discuss the possible motivations for a family's migration, including how to connect events in history with the movement of ancestors.

Oral History

This is my favorite genealogy project for students and can be incorporated into any type of project, including the others mentioned on this page. Family tree projects should always begin at home, by interviewing and recording the recollections and stories of living relatives before they are lost forever. Ask any genealogist, and you will be hard-pressed to find one who doesn't regret spending more time talking to relatives while they were still alive. Teach students the proper techniques and proprieties of conducting an oral history interview, and work with them to come up with a list of questions that go beyond names and dates and, instead, pull out the stories that will never be found in written records. Oral histories can be collected not only from family members, but also from neighbors, friends, and community members. If you live in a small community, you could even work with students to create a book of collected stories from the area.

Genetics and Health

Genealogy can be used to teach science and health through a genetics or family health history project. Students can look for genetic features, such as eye color or nose shape, that have been passed down in their family; research any common health problems or genetic disorders which may be prevalent in their family tree; or study the methods through which DNA can be used to trace a person's origin. Since health can be a touchy subject in some families, you can also approach this lesson with a well-documented family from history, such as a royal or presidential family, or look for lesson plans on the Web which include primary source documents.

Maps and Geography

I have to admit that I never found geography interesting until I rediscovered it within the concept of family history. As an adult I now find geography fascinating and wish that I had paid better attention to my geography lessons in school. Maps can be created to show family migration or immigration, or a master map can be created for the classroom which highlights all countries which students discover in their family trees. A visit to the cemetery can be used to teach students how to construct their own map, from providing directions to the cemetery, to showing the relationship between the stones. Another fun project entails having the children construct a fictional journey to visit all of their living relatives, including the names and locations of their hometowns, and the logistics and cost of making the trip to visit these relatives.

Next page > Creating Lessons Which Are Fun & All-Inclusive

When someone mentions "family tree" project, the first thing that comes to mind is generally the traditional family tree chart with mom and dad, branching off to grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. This type of family tree project can be a bit difficult in the classroom setting, however, as non-traditional families have become much more commonplace. Students in your class may find a narrowly-defined family history assignment to be challenging or even upsetting if they have been conceived through some type of assisted reproduction such as in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy, or come from a single parent household, adoptive family, or same-sex household.

While the definition of a family can present a challenge to educators trying to incorporate genealogy into the classroom, it should not be considered an obstacle, however. The purpose of incorporating genealogy into the school curriculum is to teach students a variety of skills in a more personal format, not to teach them how to be professional genealogists. With that in mind, there are a lot of ways to introduce children of all family backgrounds to genealogy and family history.

Flexibility is the key to a successful classroom family history project. Providing a choice of assignments or even allowing the child to suggest an alternative project will help to prevent upset students and parents. I receive emails fairly frequently from frustrated students who can't figure out how to complete an assignment because their grandparents don't want to talk about the family, or they can't find the required information for their project (note to teachers - surname origins are really not something that can be easily located on the Internet).

Such situations could be easily avoided by providing flexible and/or alternative assignments.

One last solution to avoiding potentially upsetting or sensitive situations is to research, as a class, the family history of a famous individual. A genealogy lesson plan has been developed, for example, tracing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the best-selling Little House on the Prairie series.

Another classroom family tree lesson traces the genealogy of King Arthur. Local genealogical societies or libraries are often happy to help with locating original documents to support such family history assignments, and many resources are also available online.

When looking for new and unique lesson plans for your classroom this year, just remember that Family History + Flexibility = Fun!

Next page > Family Tree Lesson Plans.