Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Family History in the Classroom

This past weekend I attended the American Historical Association (AHA) Conference in New York City. The focus of my recent studies has been on the development of oral history collections so I tried to get to as many presentations on that topic as possible but I did also get to see a session on Sunday, January 4, 2015 entitled "Connection and Community: Teaching Family History in the Classroom."

I suppose I should state that I am not a K-12 teacher; I am an academic librarian who from time-to-time has volunteered to speak to K-12 groups on local and family history as well as on how to conduct various types of research. I attended this session to see how educators are using the power of genealogical research to connect their students to history and I was not disappointed.

In addition to a representative from, an arm of that is free for school/classroom use, the presenters included three teachers from North Carolina; Kristen Ziller and Laura Richardson both from Wake County Schools, and Elizabeth Wiggs from Lee Early College.

The three of them worked with an organization called LEARN NC which is a program through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Education. LEARN NC "provides lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina."

These educators were great advocated for the use of family history in the classroom because, like myself and I suspect most genealogists, they too realized the incredible potential genealogy research has to connect individuals with the past. Through the interaction with primary resources about one's ancestors a researcher can develop a real relationship and understanding of who those people were and what they endured. It makes history - the events we read about in text books (immigration, wars, epidemics, etc. - it makes history personal. It makes history part of our family.

Although impressed by the full presentation, I was most moved by Ms. Wiggs discussion of her paper At-Risk Adolescents: Using the Past to Help Find the Future. That subtitle embodies exactly the way I feel about my own family history research. The more I have come to learn about my ancestors the more I understand myself and the world in which I live.

For those of you who do not know what "at-risk" really means, the term is often used to describe students who are considered to have a higher probability of failing or dropping out of school. These students often face circumstances such as homelessness, foster-care, incarceration, health issues, or other conditions, or it may refer to learning disabilities, low test scores, disciplinary problems, or other learning-related factors that could adversely affect their educational performance. 

Ms. Wiggs shared one case study of a middle school, At-Risk, African-American girl who through reading the book, Help Me Find My People by Heather Williams and using sources such as North American Slave Narratives website,, and, this student researched her own family history and formally presented to her family. We were shown that once given the opportunity to explore her own family history this girl became engaged with reading, writing, and research for, really, the first time in her whole education. It doesn't get better than that.

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