Getting Creative: Using Genealogy to Teach Writing Skills

by Stephanie Pitcher Fishman | Sep 25, 2012

As genealogists, we tend to have several passions in common: We love our family's history and we want to share that love with the next generation. What if we could share our passion while also impacting the education of our children? Homeschooling and genealogy mesh perfectly in many beautiful ways, including through the study of creative writing.

Creative writing can be exciting and freeing for some students while appearing scary and terrifying for struggling writers. Homeschooling parents know just how difficult it can be to encourage creative "light bulb moments" when their child struggles with words and ideas. Genealogy helps bridge the gap from blank page to completed product in a way that isn't scary or intimidating. The stories we uncover in our family history research provide ideas and promote creative expression. Because homeschooling allows us the flexibility to meet our children's needs in a unique way, we can use family history to provide a wonderful writing experience for our students.


Why: Family History Brings Inspiration

When beginning a creative writing project, many times simply knowing where to start is the hardest part for children. Using your family's history as a basis for writing projects can make this step easier and less intimidating because there is a natural connection to the subject already in place. The people and locations in your family tree will spark ideas for settings, character types, and twists and turns of plot.


How: Stories Told with Style

When I think of storytelling with family history, I am immediately reminded of stories my grandfather would tell of his experiences on South Pacific islands during World War II. Using his experience as a brainstorming exercise, we can develop different projects. It would be a great way to explore writing short stories using historical fiction. These same experiences could be the basis for a study in poetry. Words, experiences, and imagery could be shared through poetic forms such as acrostics, haiku, or cinquain. By researching his military service and specific events around the time of his active duty, my daughter could write not only a form of personal history but could also be inspired to share his story via historical fiction.


Looking for Project Ideas?

Here are a few ideas to help you start with specific projects. Each project is based on the concept that children process information in different ways at different stages of development. The key is to make your project meaningful and fun for your child. Rather than becoming locked into specific rules, encourage creativity and enjoyment. With these two elements you can't lose!

  • Elementary Grades: Children in early elementary school crave information. Because of this, they are the perfect age to introduce the concept of interviewing. They can understand an interview as simply being a conversation where you ask questions to learn about another person. Make it a fun activity where they are seeking out hidden stories like a detective. Help your child create a list of questions to ask a relative such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Consider using a voice recorder to help them remember the information that they collect. Is your child too young to write the answers by themselves? Allow them to use creative spelling or draw simple pictures. These are great ways to tell the story of their subject. Encourage your child to include captions and descriptions on their drawings to help their reader understand their stories. (See Sunny McClellan Morton's Family History Interviews: FAQ for more tips on interviewing.)
    • Key Genealogical Concept: We each have our own memories and experiences that we can share with other people. Family history is like story time!
  • Middle Grades: Upper elementary and middle school children are transitioning from simply soaking in information as a young child to a wanting a more logical process of gaining knowledge and skills. They are beginning to process the information by forming connections, considering the information analytically, and asking specific questions rather than simply asking, "Why?" Now would be the perfect time to introduce them to your binders of research and information! Encourage your child to research a person in your family whose story interests them. It could be a grandparent who served in the military or a more distant relative who impacted their community. Encourage your child to show the life events of their subject or subjects through a creative project. Suggestions include creating a fictional journal or diary with entries written from their ancestor's perspective or filling a poetry notebook with words describing what their relative may have felt during these events. Your child could also create a series of vignettes - snapshots or short narrative descriptions - about a family or community. This will allow them to practice their research and writing skills on a selection of subjects through smaller projects rather than focusing on a larger, more in-depth piece.
    • Key Genealogical Concept: Our lives create an impact on those around us. By looking at each individual we can begin to see how together as a larger group we create a community. Our families are part of a larger whole.
  • High School: As our students reach high school, they begin to interpret what they have learned in a way that allows them to not only analyze the information, but also to share it to impact others. The focus on the presentation of this information is heightened. They gather, analyze, and use this information to help express their own ideas and interpretations. Larger works such as novels and plays are a great long-term project for this age group. Encourage them to look beyond your basic genealogical research into deeper study. Perhaps you could help them dig into source documents at a courthouse so that they learn the inner-workings of a family during a probate case. Explore a community through cluster research to discover facts and traits that may not be experienced through basic research skills. All of this information can help your student build the basis of a complete storyline with a deeper focus on each of the story elements: character, plot, setting, point of view, style, and theme. Allow them to tell a story as they see it unfold so that it impacts their reader as they see appropriate.
    • Key Genealogical Concept: By sharing the experiences of our ancestors we can affect the lives of others even today.

Summary

Completing a creative writing project is a wonderful way to engage your children in your genealogical research while teaching them valuable writing skills. Don't limit yourself or your children when approaching a writing project that is based on family history. Use the inspiration given from our ancestors' stories as a spark for the imagination. Most importantly, have fun!


Creative Writing Resources to Consider:

Creative Writing Prompts

Poetry for Homeschoolers: A Resource List

Young Writers Program (NaNoWriMo)

Any age-appropriate Student Thesaurus and Student Dictionary


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