Teachers: 20 Ways to Motivate Your Students to Learn More of their Family History

tips for family historyIf you’re tired of assigning students projects like working on their family tree or writing a story about the life of an older relative, and getting a tired, bored, unenthusiastic response from your classroom, there is hope for you. Students may be hesitant to explore their family histories and mysteries for a wide variety of reasons: they may be shy to ask their parents for help, they may not have had a comfortable past experience with their extended family, or they may think that their parents will be hesitant to share information about their other relatives. Whether learning their family history means meeting a distant cousin they haven’t yet met, looking over mom’s old scrapbooks, or phoning grandpa to talk about what his childhood was like, your student will end up getting to know their family and getting insight into their own lives.

Motivating your classroom to investigate into such deeply personal and sentimental material can be like pulling teeth – students are scared of what they might find out if they look too hard, and even parents can be wary, shy or maybe even embarrassed of what their family is “really” like. Jump start your kids’ journey into their family tree by learning ways to encourage them to dig deeper, reach out further to relatives, and genuinely enjoy the chance to study their own beginnings. Look no further for nearly two dozen handy resources, references and tips from one teacher to another on how to get your students excited, interested, and proactive when it comes to delving into their past first-hand.

  1. There’s no better way to teach than by example. In this case, there’s no better way to encourage students to become their own detectives of their mysterious pasts than by doing the same. Bring your family tree, a favorite old photo album of your grandparents, your parents’ wedding pictures, or a framed copy of your family coat of arms into the classroom. Do a day of show and tell where students are asked to bring in one item that represents their family and talk about it. Be open about your extended family, and see how much more willing to open up students are once you have taken the plunge and show them how it’s done. Learning and sharing about your family history can be a new and vulnerable aspect of life that students may never have encountered. World history teacher at a Mulrennan Middle School, Andrew Schwartz, shared his deeply personal story of his father’s death in the 9/11 tragedy with his 6th grade students in a shining example of teacher-student communication. Make sure you create a safe space in your classroom that is a judgment-free, bully-free and open to all. Start by being transparent about your background and show kids that there is nothing to be ashamed of in having grandparents who were immigrants or struggled through hard economic times. Learn to use different family backgrounds as a great example of the beauty of diversity, and be sure to be sensitive to children who might be less than forthcoming about their family – they may have never known as much as they do now about where they came from.
  2. The task of studying genealogy shouldn’t be resigned to biographers, retired scrapbookers and historians. Students who learn the art and science behind each individual’s ancestral origins in elementary school can carry this interest all the way through college and gain deeper understanding of their own history as they go. If students are unfamiliar or hesitant to study their own genealogy, get them hooked into the field by having them research the life of a person they are interested in. Ask students to choose one person, living or dead – they could be a hero, a celebrity, a sports figure or a royal princess – and have them investigate their family history. Have your students make a family tree for their person, write a short paper on their life and background, and find out the names and other details of their extended relatives. They could use the internet, local library, or reference books as resources. At Ancestry.com, students can search historical records, use a slick family tree maker, and learn about genealogical preservation and documentation techniques in an easy-to-understand language.

    brizzle born and bred

    Image courtesy of Brizzle Born and Bred from Flickr

  3. Turn students into their own personal historians, but do it using modern day technology as an aid and way of making genealogy a fun and multimedia study. By incorporating audio, video, and web into your student’s family history projects, you will not only make it more fun for them, but you will turn the study of genealogy into a multi-subject lesson combining history, sociology, geography, technology, writing and research. Include interviewing and speaking skills practice by having your students interview an older adult they admire and using a tape recorder, video recorder and/or camera and notebook to capture their words. Good questions that students can pose to their family members include: What was the highlight of your life? What was the town like where you were born? What is your first memory? What was the most memorable decade of your life and why? How would you like people to remember you? Grab more interview questions here at Family Tree Kids.
  4. Make a family tree with your students. Family trees can be as simple or as complex as your students can handle. For younger students, get out the construction paper, markers, and stickers and have pre-drawn tree outlines that they can color in, along with box shapes that they can fill out with relatives’ names and birth years. Older students may want to build online family trees using a software program or application. Family Tree Magazine, a great resource which offers online genealogy classes, monthly informative podcasts, research toolkits and family history reference site recommendations, is a great go-to to help with all things family tree. Their website is chock full with free and helpful information, including plenty of forms and worksheets to store historical data, help with creating various kinds of visual aids, and a special section devoted just to our Junior Genealogists.

    Family Art Studio

    Image courtesy of Family Art Studio on Flickr

  5. Build a time capsule to commemorate special family heirlooms, treasures, books, jewelry or relics from the family’s past. At Your Library is a superb resource on time capsules that features historical capsules from long ago, ideas for future capsules, and archival projects for young historians. Have each student choose 5-10 items that are significant to their family and that they can borrow for a period of time. Hand out written assignments that involve these objects of importance, asking questions like: How were they used? Who used them? Where do they come from? Are they part of the past, or could they be used also in the future? Are they something you might want to inherit or pass on to your kids? They can then add these pieces of writing to the time capsule, along with photographs, video or audio they choose to record. Advanced computer students may opt to store time capsule information on a free website of their own making, along with sound, pictures, or movie clips from their family or writing assignments they have completed.
  6. You don’t have to wait until Halloween to tour a cemetery with your classroom. Chose a local cemetery, perhaps one where a volunteer or employee can give you a tour. Practice reading gravestones and tombstones with your students, and have each child pick out a favorite quote or phrase from one of the stones. Take the opportunity to learn about symbolism on tombstones, such as a flags or flowers, and how they speak to the life of the person. Be sure to be sensitive to any uneasiness or sadness this may bring up in your students. This would be a great time to read a book that opens a conversation about family members who have passed on. Family Tree Kids also has some great ideas for cemetery tours as chances for kids to be detectives about their own history.
  7. Reading Stu Feinstein’s story of his penpal dialogue with his grandson Brandon is an inspiration to get kids to learn about their family history by writing letters. Ask students to choose an appropriate older relative who does not live locally and ask them to be their penpal, communicating in the old-fashioned style of handwritten letters and stamps. With each letter exchange, have the child ask questions about a different time period or a different event or place in their relative’s life. Have the student write to their relative about the place and time where he or she lives. This historical exchange will play two roles: to increase the student’s knowledge of their relative’s life in their own words, and to help them to better express themselves through letter-writing about the times they are living in. At the end of the semester or year, take the letters the student has received from their penpal and ask the student to put them into a scrapbook or other form of record keeping journal for a keepsake.
  8. Read with your students. Beyond biographies and historical fiction, though, there’s a great and succinct freebie resource from a prominent genealogist that is a go-to resource for tips and hints to get kids raring to go on their family history projects. Learning Through Family History, by Stephanie Fishman, co-founder of the In Depth Genealogist and Editorial Director of Corn and Cotton Genealogy, is a short and downloadable ebook aid to help kids, parents, and teachers connect more easily and deeply with their roots by using writing exercises, integration techniques and social studies material to include genealogy in every day life and learning. It’s a great start to a classroom year full of learning about pedigrees, census records, birth and marriage certificates, and family trees. Sign up for the newsletter and then access the guide here.
  9. Get students hands and voices involved with their family history by having them act out short vignettes from their families. First, assign each student to go home and ask an older adult about a time in their life that they remember clearly when they were happy, sad, scared or excited. Have the adult tell the child a story about that time, either orally or in writing. Back in the classroom, each child should pair up with another and the two should act out a skit about each relative’s story. For instance, the two students could act out one’s grandmother trying to scrape enough food together to make it through the toughest times of the Great Depression, and they could then act out the story of the other student’s uncle driving his first brand new Chevrolet. These intergenerational skits will help the students to live those small moments of history that become so important, as role-playing adds an extra dimension to learning that will be memorable, exciting and expanding.
  10. Check out census records from around the times of the births of students grandparents or even great-grandparents. Community centers, museums, newspapers, schools, churches and libraries can be great hubs for this kind of information. Students will be able to find out details about the who, when, where, and how many of their family histories all by looking at the historical data that is collected using a census. Print off the most recent US census form that is distributed and see if your students can fill it out to the best of their ability. Compare the census in your town between 100 years ago and now, and let your students see if they can distinguish the differences. Why might there be smaller average family sizes than a century ago? Why is a family’s typical income so much higher now? The National Archives have the best access to free census information from the federal government. Ancestry.com and Heritagequest.com, however, also provide access to plenty of federal census data.
  11. Ask parents to get involved with their own genealogy. Encourage families to have “Family History Night” at their house, where the parents and the children cook a traditional or favorite family dish for dinner, perhaps something that Grandma or Aunt Kathy always used to make. Then have parents dig out all those old photo albums, holiday pictures, or vintage heirlooms that are hiding in the attic and do a show and tell with the kids. Ask parents to tell stories of their childhood or their extended family. Parents can make a matching game by writing story hints, events, or trigger words on index cards, and then writing a family member’s names on other cards, and having kids match the event or cue word with the relative. Or play a personalized version of the Family History Game that you make with your own stories and life happenings.
  12. Transform one wall of your classroom into a Coat of Arms Hall of Fame. Have each student obtain a copy or print-out of their family name’s coat of arms. If none is available, have students design their own using a basic template and then have them draw in objects of significance or things that best represent their family (i.e. a dog, sports medal, or tree). Some teachers may choose to even use a resource like Make Your Coat of Arms, a company that will design a family crest for you based on your specified family values and interests. Alternatively, plenty of coat of arms templates can be found online for common use, printed, and then colored in by students. Then have each student tape or paste their coat of arms to the wall to admire them. Activities that can take place at this point might include a guessing game to match the family to the image, or a drawing project where students design family flags to go along with their coat of arms.

    P Gordon

    Image courtesy of P Gordon on Flickr

  13. Perhaps there is no surer way of getting kids off their chairs and excited about a project than the old-fashioned method: baiting them with a prize. The National Genealogical Society sponsors an annual contest that does just that for us. That means all teachers have to do is the easy part: assigning work. The NGS heads up the Family History Writing Contest as well as the Rubincam Youth Award. Seniors (between 16-18 years) or juniors (between 13-15 years) can enter separately. Lucky winners receive a $500 cash prize, a plaque, a home-study course and membership in the Society. These generous awards go to the most impressive correctly-prepared genealogies and are meant to encourage students as the future generation of family historians by getting them in touch with their roots and educating them on how to properly store historical data. The deadline is the 31st of December.
  14. Make your own book of your family history using one of three binding styles: accordion, hot dog, or stick and elastic. The junior section of At Your Library includes links to resources that, through video, teach students how to make their books with the hope of archiving their information for safekeeping. Over a month, have students collect weekly stories from important relatives in their lives, including ones who they may know the least and ones who they may be closest to. Compile these stories on notebook paper, assemble them with a cover as shown above, and then have students design family trees to act as the front of the book. Each student will come away with a collection of vignettes of their aunties or cousins, and the chance to call themselves a book-maker while they’re at it.
  15. Introduce junior researchers to the fun of family trees and history exploration through the hands on activities at Family Tree Kids. The website is packed with colorful and interactive games and word puzzles that help young children learn about themselves and their past, and great craft ideas for making photo-magnets, doing a scavenger hunt in grandma’s attic, and more. Kids can even learn how to make a grave or tombstone rubbing here to preserve some of that priceless historical value from a deceased relative’s place of rest.
  16. Make family history lessons tie in seamlessly to your literature classes by reading books that tell the tales of family units from around the world. Scholastic has a great list of book suggestions for diverse and kid-friendly reading that will sneak bits and pieces of genealogy so effortlessly into their learning, that the kids will never notice they’re gearing up for their next family history assignment just by reading. Some of the Scholastic recommendations may even be found right at your school library, like Elvira Woodruff’s The Memory Coat, the narrative of a family who immigrates to the US through Ellis Island when Russian soldiers invade their home.
  17. What’s in name? Well, kids, just about everything. Get kids to tune into their cultural identities and family heritage by exploring their first, middle and last names to find out where they originated from, what they mean, and who else might share them. Teachers can use the reproducible What’s In A Name worksheet, offered here by Scholastic through the We Are Family curriculum, to pass out to students and have them complete at home. Ask students to discuss their name choice and reasoning behind with their parents, do research about their family name, and then offer to the class the information they discovered behind their name and its origins.
  18. Kids and teachers both love time lines. They are easy to create, great aids for visual learners, and a super way to condense a lot of valuable information into a simple format. Teachers, have your kids make a timeline of their mom’s, dad’s, or grandparent’s lives, from birth to the present. Timelines could include special memories, birthdays, holidays, important life events, moves and career changes. Then have your students create a special timeline for themselves where they can write things they may want or dream of in the future. For instance, a student could have “Graduated from college” ten years from the present on their timeline, or “Became a pro football player.” This exercise is a great way to tie dreams into reality, and gives young children a visual connection between themselves and their older relatives.
  19. Practice makes perfect. Take a break from the oral or written tradition of passing history down and try something a little more hands on with your students. Ask students to discover from parents, grandparents or extended relatives a craft, hobby, skill or trade that someone in their family has done that they don’t know how to do. It could be cursive penmanship, basket weaving, cookie making, using a typewriter, playing an instrument, or cross-stitching. Have that relative teach the student their hobby, or at least the first few steps of how it’s done. Next, have each student write an assignment beginning with the sentence, “I never knew how to ____ until my _____ taught me to…” For instance, “I never knew how to make a cat’s cradle out of yarn until my Grandmother Patricia taught me to…” and have them illustrate the process of that skill being passed on to them from their family. Bonus: Have kids think of something they might want to pass on to future generations when they are older adults.
  20. Get connected on the net. Though family history is about connecting with the past, sometimes the best way to do it is by plugging into the future. Databases, forums, photo websites and blogs like the Genealogy for Kids facebook page, MyHeritage.com, and 1000Memories.com allow kids to find out information about and create family history profiles that are safe, secure and private. Encourage your older students to get active on these kind of websites, as they are probably already using the internet and can use these tools productively and simply with a little guidance from you. If your students have histories involving immigrant parents or cross-cultural heritage, point them to Scholastic’s Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today website for virtual field trips, data, and first-hand accounts to add some details of the past to their memory banks.

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