Family History in the Elementary Classroom

Teachers sometimes ask what advice I would give for family history projects with students. Since I was asked this question most recently by an elementary classroom teacher, and since developmental age of children does matter when deciding what is appropriate, I decided to devote this blog to teaching critical family history in the elementary classroom.

For those of you who are new to my blogs, why the term “critical”? This question really asks a teacher to think about the purpose for engaging students with family history. In many classrooms, teachers use family history for students to get to know themselves and their peers better, the focus being mainly on the individuality of children in the classroom. Adding the concept of “critical,” as I use it in this blog, suggests situating one’s family within a wider context of relationships among socio-cultural groups.

This consideration leads to what I think is an important question for any teacher to ask about doing family history in the classroom: Why are we doing this, what kinds of questions are developmentally appropriate for your students, and how does family history relate to the curriculum? Whether you will encourage the children to think about a wider context of relationships or not, family history by itself may open up sensitive questions that the teacher must be prepared to deal with. For example, what should children who were adopted do? What about children of refugee families who may be reluctant to talk about a painful past? What about children whose parents feel this activity probes too much into private matters?

So I believe it is important to begin by thinking about how family history will relate to the curriculum. For example, several years ago I spent time in a fifth grade classroom in which the teacher was teaching a unit on immigration. About two-third of her students were from immigrant families. She wanted to start the unit by having her students investigate their own family experiences with immigration, so the first assignment was to interview someone in the family, preferably an older person, about the family’s experience with immigration or with moving. Note the flexibility she built in here: students had a choice in who to interview, and the focus of the interview could be immigration and/or moving from one place to another. Before students did their interviews, the class brainstormed interview questions, and she showed them how to take notes, so the children would be prepared. When they came back to the classroom with their notes, she showed them how to write their notes up into a story, linking this part of the activity with the writing curriculum. Students posted their write-ups, then read each other’s. As the unit on immigration unfolded, their family stories became an important part of the larger unit. Because of her preparation, her linking with the curriculum, and flexibility in what the children could do, the family history work turned out very well.

Teachers can help children, even very young children, uncover painful or sensitive issues in their pasts, but I don’t recommend attempting to do so without knowing what you are doing. One of the best examples I have seen of a teacher doing this is third grade teacher Pang Hlub Xiong’s work with Hmong students in her school. Pang is a daughter of Hmong refugees, and because of her own family experience, is aware of the painful experiences Hmong families have endured. She created an informal club, Hmong Club, in her school to provide a place where Hmong students could come together to learn more about what it means to be Hmong. As she explains here, as she became aware of how little her elementary students knew of Hmong history, she decided to have them interview their grandparents. She explains that for many of them, this interview provided the first time the grandparents opened up to their grandchildren about what they had been through. Like the teacher above, Pang prepared the children with open-ended, flexible questions that allowed relatives to share what they were comfortable sharing. Doing so encouraged very rich conversations between grandparents and their grandchildren, but the grandparents did not have to share anything they preferred not to share. By constructing the interviews flexibly, Pang opened the door to communication but did not impose requirements on what should be shared or discussed.

Many good books are available for working with children on family history; elsewhere I have reviewed three of family history books for kids . There are helpful family tree templates available that allow for all kinds of family structures; Family Tree is a great resource. There are also helpful lists of interview questions children can ask family members, such as this list in Family Tree Magazine.

In other words, a lot of help is available for how to do family history. Why you want your students to work on their family history, and what is appropriate for your students to look into, are questions other people cannot answer for you. If some of your students would rather not look into their own history, would it work to explore the family history of someone else in the community or of someone famous? I have seen teachers provide both these options when the project is linked to history or to story-writing. If very little information is available beyond interviews with parents or grandparents, or if a parent objects, is there something else the students can research that contributes to the purpose of this classroom project? As students are learning about their families’ histories, how might you build on this rich experience, so that it isn’t an isolated activity? And finally, since family history is a popular activity, have your students already done a family history project in a previous grade? If so, how might you build on, rather than duplicating that earlier work?

I invite comments to this blog, especially comments by teachers who have worked with family history in the classroom, or teachers who are considering doing so but have questions.

Speak Your Mind