As a genealogist and a former teacher, I am fascinated by the idea of students discovering history by researching their own ancestors. When I taught U.S. and World History to 6-8th graders, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of work required, that I barely had enough time to create each of my 3 lesson plans per day! Now that I stay home with my children, I’m constantly thinking how I would incorporate genealogy and family history research into my curriculum if I were teaching again. With all the new research about how students retain information better and engage more through Project Based Learning (PBL), there’s no better time to use genealogy research as a tool to engage children in authentic learning about the past.
Project Based Learning
PBL is all about solving a real world question or problem, often while collaborating in a small group environment. In a history class, students can solve the real world question, “What were my ancestors doing during this time in history?”
PBL is an extended process where students ask questions, research rigorously, and apply the information to their question. This is exactly how genealogists go about their task. They define a research question, create a plan to find the information, then research to find information that answers the question. They then write their results in a report or proof summary. PBL and genealogy research go together so nicely.
The Challenges of Doing Genealogy at School
One question I always ask myself is this: Is it really feasible for students to research their own ancestors at school? Family history research is unpredictable, often challenging, and for beginners, it would require much one-on-one assistance. Student’s families may know a lot about their past, or nothing. With so many different starting places and paths to go down, family history research poses many challenges for the teacher.
However, these challenges already exist in each classroom: students are at different skill levels and have different strengths and weaknesses. Project based learning gives students the chance to collaborate and work together with a group so that their strengths can be utilized. PBL and genealogy research are a great fit, but they aren’t easy to implement. What worthwhile teaching method is? PBL projects take an incredible amount of planning and sustained guidance from the teacher, but they provide real learning and opportunities for students to engage and enjoy the subject. In my mind, it’s worth the effort.
Implementing Genealogy at School
With all the challenges mentioned above, how can students realistically learn how to conduct genealogy research in the classroom? I’ve seen a few approaches that I want to share:
- get one-on-one help from the genealogy society members as they research their ancestors
- research someone from local history using genealogical documents and databases like Ancestry.com
- choose a person to research who has the same last name as the student (for example when studying the Revolutionary War, many students will not know if they have a Revolutionary War veteran in their ancestry, so they can choose a soldier with the same last name or from the area their ancestors lived).
- research a historically significant person using genealogical documents and databases
- students research one of the teacher’s ancestors
I read about an incredible educator named Michael Williams who helped write a chapter in the AncestryK12 book, “Family History in the Classroom.” He did the last suggestion above and gave his students a PBL project to research his own ancestor. He did not tell them that the subject of their project was his 4th great-grandfather, but revealed it toward the end of the project. He says the look on his students’ faces was priceless.
But before I go into this, have you heard of AncestryK12? It’s Ancestry.com’s education website devoted to providing resources for history teachers. It includes information Ancestry’s grant program for schools to receive free access to Ancestry’s U.S. Collection, Fold3, and Newspapers.com for use in the curriculum. AncestryK12 also has 19 lesson plans created by teachers using history standards created by the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA under the guidance of the National Council for History Standards in 1995. What an incredible resource. With all the schools who have access to laptops and computers for every student, the free Ancestry.com and other websites access for use on campus is an exciting possibility.
The Cornerstone Project with Mr. Williams
Back to the fantastic educator I mentioned earlier, Michael Williams.
Mr. Williams is a high school teacher in Warren County, North Carolina. He was selected create curriculum incorporating Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and Fold3.com into a history project and then write a chapter in the book, “Family History in the Classroom.” This book was a project created by Learn NC, a former program of the University of North Carolina School of Education, and funded by Ancestry.com, to help other teachers learn ways to incorporate family history research into their history classes.
According to an article about Mr. Williams’ family history project at The Warren Record, he brainstormed subjects from the local area, but then started researching his own ancestors and realized their connection to the community and national events would provide the perfect project for his students.
His ancestors Jacob Seward and Mumford Smithson and their descendants participated in events during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Mr. Williams named the project “The Cornerstone Project” and hoped his students would find the same records and make the discoveries that he had during the project. Beginning with Jacob Seward, born in 1810 into a farming family, students were to trace the family forward in time and connect what they already knew about local history to larger historical events.
Students were divided into groups to collaborate. Each student in the group was given a different task: the Ancestry.com correspondent, Newspapers.com correspondent, Fold3.com correspondent, and local history correspondent. They were then given tasks to complete to research these family members, including finding newspaper articles, building family trees, and creating final products like infographics.
Mr. Williams wrote, ” Now that the project has concluded, I would recommend that all teachers allow themselves to become a subject in their classrooms. My personal research was amplified when placed in the hands of 24 enthusiastic and invested learners.” (Family History in the Classroom, p. 33-34.)
Later, Mr. Williams shared the project with fellow teachers at a district professional development program. He said,
“During the session, we discussed my personal investment in the project, the community connections, and the study of family history as a means of empowering marginalized communities. Many of the teachers share similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to mine, and, until now, could not see the value in researching their families beyond their respective oral histories. This changed after our Cornerstone session. During our discussion, the teachers began to see the wealth of information that could be uncovered in the three websites and our local archives. They began to see how their ancestors’ lives and experiences were cataloged in the census enumerations, birth, death, marriage, newspaper and military records. The teachers, all with different levels of classroom internet access, immediately brainstormed way to bring family history into their classrooms. In the end, the most telling responses were the smiles, the “Wows” and the collective “We didn’t’ know.” (Family History in the Classroom, p. 34.)
Let’s get the word out about the fantastic possibilities of using family history research in the classroom. Like Mr. Williams found with his colleagues, many people don’t know what resources are out there to help us discover our families.
What teacher do you know who could benefit from this article, or the AncestryK12 book “Family History in the Classroom,” available free online? Please share! Let’s help engage students in history through genealogical records, databases, and personal family history research.
This is part of the #FHforChildren blog link up – School and Family History. Check out the other posts!
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