Genealogy: Family Trees

Mapping out a family tree can be a great opportunity for younger children to learn more about “where they come from.” Often, seeing their immediate family drawn out on paper will help them to remember relatives better and understand those relationships of how those relatives are, well, related! For older students, mapping out a family tree also opens the doors to creative writing assignments about family as well as History and Geography lessons.

You can find diagrams already made for basic family trees, and even extended family. For a basic template that extends to great-grandparents, click here. Have students bring pictures of their individual family members, and use them along with crayons, markers, and colored construction paper to decorate their trees. Students might also write a story about their family to go with their family tree. This could mean writing about “What My Family Means To Me” or interviewing a grandparent for a story that dates further back.

For older students, have them construct a larger family tree. You may find you are hosting a competition to see who can trace back through more levels., RootsWeb and are just a few of the many websites your students may find helpful. When all their resources have been exhausted by talking to relatives and going through family records, these sites can help students locate relatives they may not have known existed! You can determine the extent to which your students pursue this project, from a basic family tree to some in-depth research.

You may find that very few of your students come from “traditional” homes where they still live with both birth parents. Let these students choose how they want to construct their family tree, as they often have a few different options. If their parents are divorced and the student now has a stepparent(s), they may want to make two trees, or only half a tree (Mom’s side, for example). You might also give them the option of including “common law” marriages, boyfriends or girlfriends.

Adopted students often regard their adoptive parents as their only parents. Encourage them to learn more about their adoptive family’s roots. Foster children may present a slightly different challenge however, and they are probably very sensitive about this subject. If you can speak to the foster parents, they will probably have the most insight as to how to address the project their foster child.

Another suggestion comes from T2T contributor Veronica Dees: “Several years ago, I ran into a “sensitive” family situation. Since then, I offer an option to use a fictional family instead of your own. It must be either from a literary work, a television show, or a cartoon. I reserve the right to refuse a substitute family for my own reasons (i.e.: the Menendez brothers and their family.) Middle schoolers love shocking adults with inappropriate choices. 🙂 Other than that, offering substitute families as an alternative has really worked out well for my class.”

Phyllis Rowland is an author who also teaches writing workshops. “If some children are from families who have divorced, or the chidren are adopted, now is a good time to help them find roots in establishing family traditions for the future. What will their grandchildren want to know about them?” Phyllis also suggests an exercise where your students write as if it were “40 or more years in the future, stories for their own children or grandchildren about their ancestors who lived in 1998. They try to envision the world their descendants would live in, and thereby contrast that with today. A fictitious family tree beginning with themselves and adding their dreams for family continuity is an interesting activity.”

Additional activities you may want to consider:
Journalism – Have students videotape interviews with a Grandparent or Great-Grandparent. Not only is this a great way for them to learn more about their heritage, but the videos will become treasured keepsakes as the years pass.

Geography – Have students map their ancestors’ travels that brought them to America. Plot on a map the various towns and countries their ancestors were born in, and have them write a sentence or two about each location and why it was important.

Timelines – A timeline is a great way to chart the history of a family. Start as far back as a family’s roots can be traced, and then plot a timeline based on each major event: a move from one town to another, marriages, births, and the current events for that time and place in history. A word of caution that one T2T contributor pointed out though; personal timelines that are about the students themselves may not always be a good idea. Sometimes personal information can surface that a family may not have wanted the entire class to know about. (One teacher cited an example where a student set his family’s home on fire and a sibling was fatally burned – this would be difficult to work around in a personal timeline.)

Physical Features – A good collection of family photos makes this activity very entertaining. See if your students can determine which family members passed along the physical traits that make each student unique! Which relatives had the same shape nose or mouth? Which characteristic is repeated most often? Which characteristic will future children most likely inherit?

Name Game – Trace the roots of first names in your class. Were students’ names passed down through their family for generations? In which country did a given name originate?

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