I interviewed Chris Voutsas, an outstanding junior high history teacher, about the family history project he assigns his 8th graders each year, called “My Story in American History.” After our correspondence, I attended the school’s academic showcase open house which featured the family history projects. I was wowed by the outstanding work each student shared. Let’s hear from Chris about why he does what he does. Be sure to check out the video of the students at the end.
Hi Chris, how long have you been teaching?
Can you tell about the “My story in American History” project?
Of course, like all teachers, when I began teaching I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference for my students, and so at first that’s what I was seeking. So the project really began when I recognized the need to make our study of history more personal in order to truly make it meaningful. That was 35 years ago and it has evolved ever since.
Essentially it is a year long effort which involves not only research into one’s genealogy, but also relating their research to both personal and historical events that add substance and character to their ancestors, bringing them to life. Along the way the kids inevitably come across family stories that are so precious and meaningful that they must be preserved for posterity. We celebrate these by sharing them in personal narratives and reflecting on them. They are only required to do one, but in the end students will often choose to write 2, 3 or even 4 – that’s a real indication of what this comes to mean to them.
Every year by the time we get to the end of our year long endeavor I am absolutely drained, because, and just as I had intended our project to be, it is unique and personal to every individual, a task that pulls me in just as many different directions. But when we see the end results, and see how our kids get really excited about what they’re doing and how it impacts them, it energizes me to do it again! The kids display their projects at an open school event and we invite family members to come in and share the celebration. I can’t tell you how especially emotional it has been for grandparents and great-grandparents to witness these.
When I first started this I was amazed in hearing from both kids and families about the dialogue this effort opened up and how it brought about family interaction that amazingly does not often take place these days. So in the assignment I encourage family involvement in the project. Typically that also involves contact with extended family members with whom they may never have had a great deal of contact. That partially explains why we spend the entire year developing this.
Fortunately we have a number of LDS students at Emily Gray. Their upbringing is a tremendous resource that I tap into as an example for others. FamilySearch.org is a tremendous resource. Ancestry sponsors a limited, but free access in schools known as “Ancestry in the Classroom” which a great first step in research. Of course everyone’s research goes in a zillion different directions so it unfolds from there and so the follow up research into personal contacts and public records is different for each individual and can go on and on.
What happens if a student isn’t able to trace their family tree very far? Or are adopted?
Every year there are students who are adopted or who may have something in their past that at first glance might preclude them from this effort. I’ve learned, though, that if you embrace these circumstances it’s better for everyone involved. So if someone is adopted they may choose to follow either their adopted family, their natural family, or both. Of course that depends on sensitive issues sometimes, but it’s important not to pretend they don’t exist.
I think the most impressive part of our project comes when we’re finished, and the kids individually present their projects in class. Class presentations are tasks most kids detest but with this project the kids often will speak for 20-30 minutes or more sharing their story, their research, and especially their personal reflections. It is often an emotional experience and certainly affirming to all of the significance of the effort. We very often will have family members ask to come and watch. I can’t even begin to identify favorite projects although you wouldn’t believe the incredible creativity that can go into these. My favorite part is inevitably the personal impact this has.
So all of their efforts are developed into a project for presentation. Students have to identify a theme that is somehow reflective of their family or ethnic origin and develop their project in a reflective design. Their projects really become more like museum displays. There is an emphasis on developing dimension within some sort of representative theme, and to that end the personal mementos which have included everything from uniforms to muskets to medals really help bring it all to life.
I think other than simply becoming familiar with their own family history the kids come to realize that we are all a part of a common past and part of the same American story that should be cherished. In the display aspect of the project we emphasize the importance of distinguishing themselves and their families and how that is an important skill that will help as they get older and compete for admissions, scholarships, and even jobs.
Are there certain objectives that your family history assignment helps fulfill?
It’s fairly easy for me to relate this to our state standards, but our district does give me quite a bit of latitude in how we compliment the standards. It’s important to remember that the standards that states issue are “minimal” expectations, so our intent is always to exceed them!
At the end of the year I lead a significant portion of our 8th graders on a trip to Washington DC and New York City and we make sure to visit places like the National Archives and the Library of Congress which inevitably have played a role in their research. A highlight is always our tour of Ellis Island which by that point has become much more meaningful to them.
Too often the things in life we value the most can be the easiest to take for granted. So this is a celebration of who we are, the family we belong to, and everything they have ever been or will ever become. That can be hard to get across to 13 and 14 year olds. Still it never fails – even if the only accomplishment is that now they become aware of what they didn’t know before.
Thank you Chris, for sharing your enthusiasm and insight into how family history helps students! Here are some clips of the students I interviewed at the academic showcase about their projects.