How not to do family history

Family History AssignmentLast week, while scrolling through Twitter, this image jumped out at me. Oh my god, this is exactly how NOT to do family history in the classroom. Apparently the sixth grade teacher had not thought very clearly about the histories of her diverse students, or the purpose family history might serve in her classroom.

Writing about the mother’s reaction to her daughter’s assignment, Lopez zeros in on how it reflects the teacher’s ignorance of U.S. history. The wording reflects her unchecked assumptions that 1) everyone in the U.S. descends from people who immigrated voluntarily from somewhere else or were not already here; 2) everyone has family success stories that resulted from immigration; and 3) children who were adopted or live in blended families know how to interpret “each side of your family.” The question also assumed fairly recent immigration, traceable to one or two countries on each side. Left out of these assumptions entirely are African Americans, American Indians, Native Alaskans, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, and descendants of Mexicans who already lived in the Southwest prior to U.S. colonization. Undocumented immigrant families would also find the questions uncomfortably intrusive.

Years ago, I witnessed a similar framing in a middle school classroom. The students were about to read a short story set in Puerto Rico, and the White teacher wanted them to think about it in terms of culture. (One may well ask why she didn’t frame stories with White characters in terms of culture.) She began by asking students about their “nationality.” (As U.S. citizens, they could have simply replied that their nationality was American.) While the White students replied with national origins such as Scotland and France, the Black students, sensing the minefield reflected in the image above, shouted out countries they obviously did not come from such as China, thereby ending the discussion.

Should a teacher just avoid family history altogether? No. The suggestions below can help.

1. Become familiar enough with the backgrounds of your students that you can anticipate what digging into family history might reveal, not for purposes of avoiding painful issues, but rather to prepare yourself and the students for what might emerge. In the example above, the teacher apparently did not stop and think about the fact that Africans historically did not “immigrate” to the U.S., or that some of her White students could descend from slave owners. (For help addressing this possibility, see the work of the Tracing CenterElsewhere are suggestions for children from adopted or blended families. Also anticipate some students not knowing much about their family background at all. Families sometimes hide painful information from children, such as mental illness, alcoholism, or being shamed about their ethnic identity.

2. If you aren’t sure what you might open up, talk with a few parents first, or someone who will be able to advise you. For example, if some of your students are children of refugees, how comfortable or helpful will it be for them to find out more about their family’s refugee experience? Sometimes family history interviews open up conversations about extreme difficulties parents or grandparents have experienced in a way that is healthy, but other times they do not. For example, Pang Xlub Xiong, an elementary  teacher of Hmong descent in Minnesota, taught her Hmong students about the brutal escape of Hmong people from Vietnam during the war. In that context, she had the students interview their grandparents, and told me that for many of them, this was the first time the grandparents told their grandchildren what they had been through. Pang was able to open up communication about this painful experience because she gave the students background, and couched her work in terms of respect for elders. If you aren’t sure what to do, ask someone who is knowledgeable, and if possible, talk with some parents.

3. Be clear in your own mind what you want your students to gain from investigating family history, so you can offer adaptations that enable everyone to participate.

  • Are you attempting to link their experiences with a concept in the curriculum? For example, an elementary teacher I know was teaching a unit about immigration in a school with a high proportion of immigrant students. She wanted students to interview a family member about their immigration experience, but since immigration was not a recent experience of all families, she broadened the question to include the experience of moving from one place to another.
  • Do you want to delve into history in a way that is more personalized than simply following a textbook? This is something I enjoy a good deal, but doing so requires familiarizing oneself with history told from multiple viewpoints. For example, how do Mexican Americans tell U.S. history? How do Japanese Americans tell U.S. history? Be prepared for multiple, even conflicting, viewpoints that can emerge from multiple family experiences.
  • Are you developing a writing assignment and want to use family history as the focus? If so, students might have the option of researching someone in their own family, or in someone else’s, such as a neighbor or community elder. One of my students, for example, chose to research the family of the political activist and linguist Noam Chomsky, rather than his own family.
  • Are you attempting to prompt students to get to know each other better? If so, you might invite everyone to bring a story or recipe from home, and to find out as much as they can about its origin or significance in their own family.

4. Finally, since many excellent family history books for kids are available, get one or two you can draw on for ideas, especially if you haven’t worked with family history before.

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