Teaching Genealogy in the Classroom: Tips for Teachers

by Jennifer Holik | Sep 3, 2013

Jennifer Holik

Genealogy helps give students roots, helps them understand where they came from, and understand their world today. Teaching genealogy in the classroom allows students to not only discover their roots, but also focus on several different skill building areas that cross many disciplines. These are solving problems, communicating, using technology, working on teams and making connections. To engage youth you should do two main things. First, create a unit of study focusing on your goals. Second, create a project to meet your goals and help students develop the various skills areas that cross disciplines.

Create a Unit of Study

Determine the goal of the unit. Are you teaching science and heredity and now want to incorporate genealogy into the discussion? Are you looking at historical events and want to discuss how each person has an effect on the course of U.S. and world history? Determining your goal will help you shape your presentation and the project you will have the students complete.

Teach the basics of getting started in genealogy using pedigree charts and family group sheets. Discuss the various records available at home and in libraries, archives, and online. Talk about the importance of photographs to research and family stories. Talk about interviewing family members as this is an excellent way to learn things about the family and share stories.

Create a Project

Once your goal has been determined, the type of project you will require of each student will be the next step in the planning process. One example of a science and heredity project is a health history.

Science and Heredity Project
Doctors are always asking for our health history. A health history is a way to track diseases and causes of death of your family members. The U.S. Surgeon General offers a free website, My Family Health Portrait, to help families create and share their family health histories. The process works the same as a pedigree chart because the student starts with themselves. The histories can be saved or printed on the website and the results can be used in a health history project. An additional resource is the Utah Department of Health's Family Health History Toolkit

Due to privacy, you may not want to require students to discuss every disease and cause of death they uncovered during the research process. Instead, consider asking them to discuss the process, who they spoke with, what notes they took, and how they created their presentation.

Historical Events Project
Learning history can be dry and boring to many students because they cannot relate to what is being taught. The names and dates mean nothing to them. So change it up a bit and discuss social history and the concept of historical context. This means to look at our ancestors through the eyes of the times in which they lived. Look at the choices they made regarding various decisions based on the information (or lack thereof) and events of that time period.

If you are talking about women's suffrage with older students, consider a project during Women's History Month in March. Discuss the concepts of suffrage and ask the students to trace their family history and examine the women who lived during that time period. It might be impossible to discover if an ancestor believed in and fought for suffrage, but perhaps students can research old newspapers or county histories to discover if this was an important topic at that time in the location where their ancestors lived. Discuss what the women were fighting for and why it might have been a more important topic to some women than others. Examine why this might have been.

For younger students, discuss general concepts and ideas. TIME for Kids offers a few articles on women's history, as well as other topics. Discuss the basic concept of women's history month and ask the students to trace their family history back a few generations. Ask them to specifically look at the women in their tree. Did they hold jobs outside the home? Were they educated? Were they involved in church groups or other social organizations? Did they have an impact on their town, city, county, or state in which they lived?

Placing our ancestors into historical context helps us see things through their eyes and examine and discuss how things used to be compared to how they are today.

More Project and Activity Ideas

classroom.jpgPicture Pedigrees
This project is excellent for younger students. Discuss the concept of a family tree and ask students to complete one with their families. Ask students to bring in copies of photos of family members on their tree. Provide a scrapbook page or larger version of a family tree to which the students can attach the photos to and build a family tree.

Memory Cards
An alternative to a picture pedigree for younger students are memory cards. Send home pre-cut pieces of scrapbook paper the size of playing cards. Have students paste a photograph or drawing of an ancestor on one side and write vital information about that ancestor on the back. If they knew the individual, they can also write their favorite memory of that person.

Create a Scrapbook
Ask the students to create a scrapbook about their family or one particular individual. The scrapbook can be created in a notebook and students may paste in copies of photos and documents and write the information they discover.

Prepare an Oral Presentation
Ask the students to research one family, one individual, or an entire line and then write a report, create a tri-fold board or PowerPoint detailing the information they discovered. Allow them to use their communication skills to present this during class.

Ready, Set, Go!

You now have a foundation on which to build a genealogy unit for your classroom. Seek out additional websites and books that will help guide your students in their research based on your project goals. Bring in a local genealogist or librarian to talk about the process and help the students get started. Ask them to provide local resource information and finding aids for the library or local genealogical society. Encourage students to record as much detail as possible and let them know it is ok not to have all the answers. Above all, make the unit fun for the students for there is a far better chance they will stay engaged after the project is over.

Additional Resources

Archives.com Expert Series: Youth. (Several articles about working on genealogy and family history with young people.)

Hart, Cynthia. The Oral History Workshop. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2009.

Holik, Jennifer. Engaging the Next Generation. Woodridge: Generations, 2012.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves, editors. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo: Ancestry Publishing, 2006.

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