Author Guest Post!: “Where Are You From? Honing Research And Evaluation Skills With A Family Tree Project” by Lissa Johnston, Author of The Dala Horse


“Where Are You From? Honing Research And Evaluation Skills With A Family Tree Project”

by Lissa Johnston

It’s human nature to be curious about each other. In our caveman days, the ability to detect whether someone was similar to you or very different from you (friend or foe?) was an important survival skill. These survival instincts remain with us today, but we go about evaluating ourselves a little differently. We still observe and make judgments about our fellow humans based on previous experience. As mankind has evolved, we have added the wonderful gift of language – now we can also ask questions! Among adults we see this in the tried-and-true conversation starter,‘what do you do’? With kids, that question doesn’t work as well because most of them ‘do’ the same thing – they’re students. More (and better!) questions are required. A similar question that works well in this process of discovery is not, ‘what do you do?’, but rather: ‘where are you from?’

You may think this is a simplistic question, yielding little in the way of learning opportunities. Everyone knows where they are from, you might be thinking. What’s so special about that? I would argue this one simple question can be more enlightening than it seems, for at least two reasons. One: not everyone, especially not children, are aware of where they are ‘from’. Secondly, when I ask ‘where are you from?’, I hope to encourage you to dig into your family tree and tell me where you are really FROM.

The cool thing about this seemingly nosy inquiry is that it works equally well when turned upon one’s self. One of the main sources of inspiration for my latest book, The Dala Horse, was discovering one branch of my family tree was Norwegian. As a Native Texan growing up in a big city, it was something of a surprise to discover I had Scandinavian roots. The closest I had ever come to anything Norwegian was when the Cowboys played the Vikings, and that wasn’t very often.

Occasionally my younger school-age cousins will reach out to me with questions about our family tree for a class project. I am so thrilled that family tree projects are becoming commonplace in the classroom. It’s the perfect learning opportunity. It combines history, math, sociology, geography, and the golden ingredient: it’s all about the student!

The beauty of a family tree project is that it easily incorporated Into your existing reading plan. There’s no need to add or adjust the reading schedule unless you just want to. Once you start looking at your current assigned reading projects through family tree glasses, opportunities for tying into a family tree project abound. The connection is pretty obvious with social studies, history, or historical fiction books. But if you dig a little deeper, it can also be made with more mainstream books. Most have characters with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. If not, they may take place in locales that vary from yours. Either is a great jumping off point with this simple and adaptable question: ‘[character] in [book] is from [location]. Where are you from?’ And if your current assigned reading is somewhat homogenous, ask the students to write their own version of the story, putting it in a different locale or time period that has some connection to their own family tree.

Some additional ideas for incorporating a family tree project into your lesson plans:

  • Have students work up a family tree project going as far back as they can. It’s okay if it’s only two or three generations. Question marks in the family tree are okay. That happens to professional genealogists all the time!
  • Pre-select a 20 year time period (1900-1920; 1960-1980). Have the students create a fictional biography about one of the family members who was born within that time period. Extra credit if the story correlates with the age that person would have been within that era. For example, if teacher has selected the era 1940-1960, and Uncle Kenneth was born in 1941, his bio should focus on what he would have been doing from age 0-19. Hint: best to keep this within the last 100 years to make family tree research a little easier.
  • Create some tickets, each with different eras written on them. Number of tickets should equal or exceed number of students in class. For example if you have 30 students, create 35 or so tickets. Divide total number of tickets into 3-4 different eras. Write the eras on the tickets and have students draw out of a jar for what era they will be writing about, again featuring a member of their family tree who lived within that era. This helps spread the research around so that everyone is not looking for the same handful of books on a narrow slice of shelving in your library. You can have them work together in groups, or as individuals. The groups can be organized so that each group is working on the same era so that you have a horizontal storyline. Or, group composition can be completely random so that you might end up with a more vertical storyline for the project within that group: one from 1920-1940; 1940-1960; 1960-1980; and so forth.
  • Students select a person from their family tree. Match something about this person with a similar topic from your school library and write a review of this book. Be sure to include the connection with your family/why you chose it. For example, perhaps Granny Louise grew up on a dairy farm. Select a book about farms, or cows, or the state or city where she lived.
  • Occasionally some students will have some difficulty tracing their family tree back very far. To avoid this issue, make the entire project about fictional or non-fictional characters that THEY get to choose. Create an imaginary family tree for that person going back three generations (self, parents, grandparents). Although the characters will be fictional, their significant life events (birth, marriage, school, death), geography, occupation, etc. must line up more or less correctly with the fictional character. So for example a fictional family tree based on Abraham Lincoln would have a very different set of facts than, say, a fictional family tree of LeBron James.
  • I did mention math, up there, didn’t I? So I better include a few math suggestions. Compile a list of the various ethnic identities in your class based on what the students have uncovered going back to their grandparents’ generation. Which group is the largest? Smallest? How would you calculate these two numbers into percentages? Extra points for determining how your class’s stats line up with similar statistics locally and/or nationwide. Extra points for discovering what other parts of the country have similar groups. In other words, if the smallest percentage represented in your class is of Italian ancestry, where are the largest concentrations of Italian immigrants in the US?
  • Place all ethnic groups represented by your students in a jar. Draw three. Have students research whether there are any businesses such as shops or restaurants in your area that share a common heritage with these three.
  • Reverse that project. Have the class compile a list of several shops and restaurants in your town. Have them research the ethnic groups they represent.
  • Family tree programs and software are very popular now. If your students are old enough, you may lead them in researching family tree records online. In order to avoid any privacy concerns you can easily keep it very general and just look at for example census records for your town going back however far. A fun activity with census records is looking at people’s professions. If accessing these programs is not possible, allow family interviews instead.
  • One of the activities I suggest in the book is a good example of demonstrating how cultural traditions persist through time. Cultural traditions of Norwegians in Texas might seem an obscure subset, until you start brainstorming how many of our traditions we follow and enjoy share today had their roots in other ethnic groups. Challenge students to list the various ethnicities represented in the classroom. Pair these with traditions familiar to many. For example, St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish tradition. Mardi Gras = French. Kwanzaa = African American. I mentioned the Minnesota Vikings earlier. Sports teams often have ethnic cultural connections and are very familiar with many students.
  • Popular songs, artists, even instruments are a great resource for cultural variety. What are the origins of the guitar? Drums? What type of music is traditional in Poland, or India?
  • I’ve saved my favorite activity for last. After completing their family tree research, each student must find something in their research that connects them with at least one other student. For example, perhaps student 1 had a grandfather who was in the Navy during World War II, and student 2 had an ancestor who emigrated to the United States after World War II. Be lenient with the connections. This is a great activity for class-wide brainstorming. A spider diagram on a white board or any display that could be left up for a few days would be ideal for this. The project is complete when each student’s name is represented and linked to someone else’s in the spider diagram.

My wish for students is that they experience the eye-opening discovery that even though some of us may look very much alike on the outside, we may be very different on the inside. And of course, the opposite is true! Sometimes the people who look the most different from us on the outside are the ones with whom we find we have the most in common. There may not be many of you reading this now who have Norwegian ancestors who settled in Texas, like I do. But I bet there are plenty of you whose ancestors came here from somewhere else – also like me!


About The Dala Horse

10-year-old Kaya Olson lives in a small Norwegian immigrant settlement in
post-Civil War Texas. When her mother is killed in a stage coach robbery,
Kaya feels responsible. Can she uncover the secrets her family is keeping
to solve the mystery surrounding her mother’s death?

Thank you to Lissa for these great research and evaluation skills!

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