Teaching Critical Family History

I began developing the concept of critical family history after I had retired from the university and had time to “play” with questions about my own family history. Aside from publishing a couple of articles and giving several conference presentations about the concept, until recently I had not had an opportunity to teach critical family history. I am grateful to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the thirty-eight students (who were mainly classroom teachers), for giving me that teaching opportunity.

This blogsite served as the primary text for that portion of the intensive two-week course. We began by considering variations in who constitutes family in relationship to limitations of conventional family trees. After showing the class how to access and use vital statistics records to trace ancestors, I led a discussion about how critical family history situates the lives of one’s ancestors within larger contexts of culture, social structure, relations of power, and historical events. Students were then to select one family unit or ancestor within their past, and, using the various tools and resources elaborated on this blogsite, construct a portrait within the larger context.

What did I learn from this teaching experience?

First, I learned that the concept of critical family history makes sense, and not just to me. Most of the students found it to deepen the kinds of questions they asked, and to provide previously unconsidered avenue for learning. I repeatedly heard that questions about the social or historical context of ancestors’ lives helped students delve into why people in their pasts might have done what they did. I also heard repeatedly that the experience of connecting history with their own families engaged students in history for the first time. “History is no longer an abstraction I can’t relate to” was a common comment. In a discussion about using critical family history with children and youth, however, we agreed that the age of students must be taken into consideration when deciding what aspects of context to probe. Because critical family history has the potential to open up things that may be disturbing or painful, teachers need to be sensitive to wishes of parents and to what is culturally appropriate. Preschool and elementary age children can learn to celebrate the diversity of families they have, while more difficult issues involving racial context, poverty, links between racism historically and on-going white privilege of one’s family, or problems like alcoholism, might be better opened up when young people are more mature.

Second, I learned that the conceptual frameworks in this blog (such as the Context Questions Framework, and the Hidden P Factors) provide very helpful tools for situating family within a broader context. Most students used these tools, and used them well. At the same time, pushing beyond the boundaries of one’s own family narrative can be difficult, especially if doing so involves asking about how ancestors might have experienced privileges. Pursuing the hard lives and hard work of one’s ancestors, while at the same time being asked to consider advantages they may have had over others, can feel contradictory, a negation of their hard work. I suspect that learning to analyze social context, particularly in terms of relations of power and privilege, opens up larger questions worth considering about how one views the social system.

Third, I learned that questions about the context of ancestors’ lives offer many interesting paths to pursue, particularly for students from families who do not appear in most digitized records. Several students, particularly although not exclusively from immigrant families, were not able to find many records online. I encouraged the class to interview family members; interviews were the only source of family information some students had access to. Look into historical and cultural contexts in relationship to the few facts they were able to glean offered fascinating avenue for exploration. For example, a student from Kenya used information her mother shared about her grandfather to explore things like the role of Kenyans in World War II. A student from Mexico was able to identify the indigenous tribes in the area where her family was from, and who most likely her family was related to.

Fourth, I learned that this work provokes a range of strong emotional responses, such as

  • surprise (for instance when realizing names passed down orally were wrong)
  • deep dismay, shame, or pain (for instance when discovering how one’s own family benefited from theft of indigenous land)
  • pride in claiming a subjugated identity (such as recognizing one’s Mexican indigenous identity or previously unrecognized Polish ancestry)
  • startling realization (for instance discovering the active and rich life of an female ancestor prior to marriage and her inability to continue that life after marriage).

Teachers need to be aware that family history is not a neutral subject. It is very personal, connected to the identity of students and people they are emotionally close to. The best way I knew to prepare students for their own emotional experiences was to share some of my own surprises and uncomfortable revelations.

Fifth, this experience reinforced for me the importance of giving students options, not only about who within their family to research, but also the choice of researching the life of someone they are not related to. There can be many reasons for choosing not to research one’s own family, while agreeing to engage in critical family historical research on someone else. An international student, for example, chose this option partly because of the lack of new information he would be able to locate digitally about his own family. He chose someone he admired, and was able to uncover family influences on why that person became who he is today.

“This is what engaged learning should be.” In our final presentations, one student concluded with those words as she described staying up late every night because she was so engrossed in her family research.

This blogsite contains many guides to locating family history information. Readers may also wish to check out Homeguides’ Genealogy and Ancestry webpage.

I invite any readers who have taught critical family history to share their stories. Together, we can create an process for knowing ourselves better, both individually and collectively, and for thinking about the history we now choose to author for future generations.


  1. PJ Ford Slack says

    To everyone that is learning, working, or teaching Critical Family History- it is wonderful and reassuring that you are all having these conversations. I started with teaching a course called Power, Freedom and Change many years ago with a wonderful student of Paulo Friere. We learned a great deal and did something like this but quite frankly didn’t know what to call what we were doing except family case story. It all came up after we took these professionals and Ed. Leadership doctoral students at St. Thomas on a tour called the MN Trail of Tears. The response was angry, frustrated, and puzzling.

    I am about to start again teaching multicultural education for WGU. I love this concept. Thank you again Dr. Christie Sleeter and your students/colleagues. PJ

  2. Christine Sleeter says

    PJ,how wonderful to hear from you, and also to find out that we’ve continued to work on similar things. Thank you much for your comment!

  3. Mark Phillips says

    Dear Ms. Sleeter,
    Thanks for your history of Mr. Dewitt Harris. He is my Great-great-grandfather and I was astounded to learn that he survived the Sultana disaster. I am related through his son, Dr. Benjamin Butler Harris. Dr Harris’s only daughter, Myrtle, is my paternal grandmother. I inherited–and am willing to share– her family photos which include a picture of Dewitt and Susan Bogart Harris, a picture of Charles and Fred Harris as boys, a picture of Lemuel and Effie Harris Copenhaver,and I also can include a picture of two unknown men who I feel may be relations or contemporaries of Dewitt Harris (do you recognize them?).

Speak Your Mind