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Family History with Students

Posted in Family Biographies/Histories

Those of you who just read this blog may not realize it, but I have compartmentalized my various interests across several different blogs. That means that no single blog I write is updated as regularly as it probably should be if I want to attract regular readers, but then, it also means that if you’re not interested in my ramblings about education or Harry Potter, you don’t have to be exposed to them. For the record, these are my other blogs:

You’ll probably recognize a few of the layouts. 😉

For the most part, my various interests don’t intersect much. Once, I dissected J.K. Rowling’s Black Family Tree (Sirius Black’s family) with all the zeal of the genealogist at my Harry Potter blog. At my education blog, I shared a letter my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1890’s, wrote to my great-uncle Alvin Cunningham about what school was like when she was a girl. Occasionally, I urge readers of my personal blog to pop over here to read something I’m particularly proud of. Aside from these rare instances, however, this blog remains separate from my others, and they, for they most part, remain separate from each other.

I have an American literature lesson idea book I keep at school. One suggestion was to have students do some research into their family histories and connect those to American history on a timeline. I thought perhaps some might argue this is not exactly an English class assignment. My counter-argument is that history and literature are inextricably connected, and in many places, they are combined into courses, such as American Studies. Events going on in the world had a direct impact on the kind of literature that writers created. I thought it might be interesting to see what the students’ families were doing while the works we studied were written.

So many of the students really put a lot of work into their research. All I asked for was a simple timeline, but they created elaborate posters, complete with pictures and documents. They were fascinating. One boy told us of an ancestor who was taken to a concentration camp. She had been a violist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and her playing for the Nazis enabled her to be freed. Another student told how she discovered her immigrant ancestor arrived at Ellis Island on Columbus Day in 1892 and was dazzled by the celebration in her new country. Still another student told a fascinating story of her ancestors’ initial immigration to South Africa — her direct ancestor looked at the label inside his coat when asked his name and gave the spelling he saw; his brother gave a different spelling; his other brother was confused and thought officials wanted his occupation and gave the name “Miller.” To this day, she has relatives from the same family with these three different names. Students told of emigrating from Russia to escape the pogroms, or from Eastern Europe prior to WWII, sensing the climate of the times.

It really underscored for me how each of us has a fascinating story to tell about our own families, and I’m really glad I did the assignment. I think I will take pictures of their projects and post them on the web. I told them I would share mine next week, so I guess I had better get it written out!

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