Family History Goes to School
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:
- 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.
- Read newspapers to discover what was important at the time ancestors lived.
- Research what various items cost in particular eras by reading old advertisements.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- Life Skills:
- Have older students plan an event, such as a reunion.
- 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?