The end of school every year puts me in mind of former students, meaningful lessons, and funny stories from the past 36 years. Two of my best teacher stories have to do with genealogy.
I’ve been teaching genealogy to students for 20 years. The first time was a 2-week unit with gifted students back in the pre-Internet days. The kids did research mostly through interviews with their parents and grandparents. I taught them how to fill out pedigree charts and how to search indexes with Soundex code. We made one field trip to the genealogy library in Tulsa where they put to use what they had learned.
On the last day of the unit the students were to bring some items from home that they considered to be family treasures. I had brought some of my own treasures to give them the idea: the pouch my great-grandpa carried in the Civil War, my dad’s baby shoe, a book of my mother’s favorite poems in her own handwriting. I told them to be sure they had permission to bring their family’s items, and that I would be glad to keep them in my office until the class met during the last hour of the day.
At the beginning of the day Andrea brought in a plain white box and asked if she could leave it in my office. I told her to set it on the floor, and she left it while she went to class. At some time during the day I needed to move the box, and I tried, but it was really heavy so I left it where it was. 7th hour came, and the students began to make their presentations. They had brought charm bracelets, yearbooks, and newspaper articles about their family members. Finally, it was Andrea’s turn. She got the heavy box from my office, set it on the table in front of her, and declared, “For my presentation I brought…my grandfather.” Yes, the plain white box contained the ashes of her very dead grandfather!
The second story comes from a genealogy class I taught a couple of years ago. One of the history teachers at school is also into genealogy, and she thought that researching family trees would make history more personal for her students. We decided to collaborate on a genealogy unit, and her students came to do their research on our library’s computers.
As I was walking around, I noticed that one student was looking at an Internet article about William Whitley. I said, “Is William Whitley your ancestor?” He said, “Yes, I’ve been to his house in Kentucky.” I said, “I have too! He’s also my ancestor, and that means we’re cousins!” Amazing coincidence, considering that our connection is 6 generations and 3 states away.
Then last year I decided to go on a tour of Ireland, Wales, England, and France with a group from our high school. At the first meeting we all introduced ourselves, and our leader told us who we would be rooming with. It took me a minute to make the connection, but when one mom and her daughter were introduced, I said, “Are you Caleb’s mom?” It turns out she was, and my roommate in Europe was my Whitley cousin!
I’ve always enjoyed the genealogy units I’ve helped to teach. I can think of many times that students found out something about an ancestor that excited them. One of the big things in education right now is doing research with primary documents. What better way to understand a historical period than to examine a photograph, a letter, or military records of your own ancestors? What better way to get kids excited about history?