Posted by Erika Manternach on June 7, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

The final weeks of the school year can trigger anxiety, especially if project deadlines are involved. If younger students are stumped about how to complete an assigned project, consider whether family history could be the key to their success.

Crystal Farish, a researcher at AncestryProGenealogists, helped her own children connect with their past through school work, but she also has seen genealogy-inspired projects light up an interest in the field for many other students. She offered these ideas for bringing the family tree into the homework realm:

  1. History:
  • Research and write a report on ancestors who fought in wars, or focus on the spouses of soldiers, who often had fascinating stories of holding down the fort at home.
  • See what was happening around the country on important dates in ancestors’ lives.
  • Students in 4th-6th grades often study state history. If they live in the same state as any of their ancestors, encourage children to investigate what part their family members played in state history.
  1. Writing/Journalism:
  • Read newspapers to discover what was important at the time ancestors lived.
  • Research what various items cost in particular eras by reading old advertisements.
  1. Geography:
  • Look up an ancestor’s address on Google Earth and if possible, walk the neighborhood to see what has changed and what has likely remained the same.
  • Plan a family trip around a theme. Visit Civil War sites, for example, and use maps and deeds to help.
  • Visit cemeteries and look for connections to history or family.

Because children are comfortable with apps and technology in general, they sometimes need only minimal prodding from adults to find their own answers. Farish recommends that parents and teachers prompt curiosity instead of providing answers.

“I think as a parent the best thing you can do is ask questions and get them looking for answers,” Farish said. “‘I wonder how we could see if his house is still there? I wonder if there are any recipes?’ Ask the kids how to find out. There is so much available, and they know how to find it.”

  1. Art/Music:
  • Draw a picture of ancestors using old photos or descriptions as a guide.
  • Make a costume to depict fashions from the era in which ancestors lived.
  • Learn songs from a particular era, or write one.
  • Watch movies ancestors may have seen.
  • Look up old recipes and see what ancestors ate. Recreate a meal.

Farish finds the possibilities in this category to be especially engaging for young people. “All those things touch all your senses,” she said. “It really helps you experience an ancestor’s life, even if you didn’t know them.”

  1. Science:
  • Focus on DNA technology.
  • Experiment to find traits common among family members. Besides physical traits, what hobbies and talents do family members share?
  • Compare causes of ancestors’ deaths to epidemics or common illnesses of the period.
  • Study how documents age. How do experts date old documents to determine their age? How are they best preserved?
  • Do a geological study. Have students find rock and soil samples from all the places their ancestors lived.
  1. Life Skills:
  • Have older students plan an event, such as a reunion.
  1. Service Projects:

Even outside the classroom, activities intended to serve others can also open the eyes of young people. Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts can use family history to earn badges. Many service opportunities exist for those interested in family history.

  • Photograph headstones for Find A Grave, which relies on volunteers to add cemetery images and information to its site.
  • Help people use Ancestry to build their family tree.
  • Help index documents or digitize records to be shared online.
  • Clean gravestones at a cemetery. Visit our help guide to brush up on your cemetery etiquette before you go.

Farish invites students to explore innumerable other ideas to incorporate family history into their learning. What has worked for you?

Erika Manternach

Erika Manternach writes family history narratives for AncestryProGenealogists and appreciates all opportunities to share compelling stories. Before joining the Ancestry team, she worked for ten years as a TV anchor/reporter in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Indiana, and Utah. She then taught high school journalism and writing for 6 years. Erika and her husband live in Draper, Utah.

8 Comments

  1. Stephanie Gallegos

    I recently visited a graveyard and was compelled to start fixing the items and momentos around the gravestones. Items that had fallen I would place them upright, and try to repair some broken little items. I took several pictures, of random gravestones and of the cemetary entrance. I am very interested in becoming a volunteer for the find a grave program to help people locate family members,friends,etc.- and other people of interest as well. Thank you so much for the time you have dedicated to this wonderful project and site!

  2. Joe

    This is a good article. Getting kids to be ware of their family history is a super idea!

    I’d suggest that Ancestry could help this initiative by providing teachers with a free Ancestry account to be used for teaching classes. The children could build a tree revolving around their classmates, parents, GP’s, etc. as a class project. Or Ancestry could give each child a limited account for the duration of the class, to be used to build their family tree. At the end of the class, the child’s tree could be transferred to a full Ancestry account at the end of the class.

    Of course, anything like this would take some creative marketing by ancestry, which unfortunately is a major weak point for the company.

    Case in point, my active genealogical accounts are not on Ancestry. However, I was considering returning to the Ancestry fold if I could get a very good deal. But after talking to a support person and their supervisor a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that Ancestry people have no flexibility and no ability to negotiate, unlike some of its other competitors. So I remain with the competitor. [shrug]

  3. Paula Johns Vogel

    Approx. I was in an Iowa antique shop and purchased a beautiful red leather that was 100➕ years old. It has beautiful white paper pages that are complete with pictures taken by a photographer. Everyone is dressed. Their is one soldier in his Civil War uniform and gun. Each page is complete. Also in the book it is complete with a curl of baby’s hair. I do not want to remove the pictures to find names. It is very fragile. I would like info on preserving this as long as possible. Thank you. Paula Johns Vogel

  4. Paula Johns Vogel

    I apologize for my errors in my above note. I failed to say that it was approx 25-30 years ago in an Iowa antique shop I purchased foroop a very reasonable price a red leather photo album complete with the very old photos front and back in each page. Also a beautiful blond curl of a (childs?)hair. I am unable to find any writing anywhere. I have not removed any of photos from the sleeves because it is so fragile. Can any one tell me how to preserve this? Thanks.

  5. Member Services Social Support Team

    @Peggy: Hi, it would be very helpful to get some more information about this issue so could you please advise if you could previously see this tree? Did you find it via the public trees or have you been invited to her tree as a guest?

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