In the Classroom: Family Tree Assignments

Genealogists have long defined familial relations along bloodlines or marriage. But as the composition of families changes, so too has the notion of who gets a branch on the family tree.

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

Yes!  The above is from “Who’s on the Family Tree?  Now It’s Complicated” in today’s New York Times.  And may I say that the ditching of family history assignments in schools is long overdue.  I’ve always railed against them because they assume an awful lot and marginalize students who may not have traditional family backgrounds, may not know their family history, etc etc etc.  I believe that the family tree assignment came about for a good reason — to bring personal history into the classroom rather than it always being about great men and such. However, it also came about with assumptions about the children in the classroom.  I remember arguing with colleagues who would tell me how children and families were so honored and happy after such an assignment.  All very well, I’d reply, but what about those children who were unable to do it for one reason or another?  They’d be given something else, I was told.  Making them, I’d say, all the more marginalized.

I’ve long been wondering if the changing notions of family are also causing more care with this assignment and was gratified to get the sense from this article that it is being reconsidered.  Good, good, good.

Bottom line: we teachers need to always be very, very, very sensitive to how we invite our students to bring their personal lives into the classroom.  Our reality may be very far from theirs.


Filed under In the Classroom

10 responses to “In the Classroom: Family Tree Assignments

  1. 100% agree on sensitivity when inviting students’ lives into the classroom. I think a lot of times we can find ways to serve this purpose by inviting more options in rather than by leaving projects out. Just as a small example — the “family tree” assignment can be widened into a choice of visual representations of family history — or a family timeline with a lesson on selecting scale to show five years, or fifty years, or five hundred, as desired.

    We can honor children’s different experiences by letting them choose what and how to share, without any sense of stigma or shame or exclusion — we don’t necessarily have to eliminate sharing altogether.


    • Lelac,

      Great to see you here and thanks for weighing in on this. But I’ve got to wonder — I think any sort of family history activity can be difficult for some families. Not all are comfortable bringing their past to school be it five years or fifty. Mine wouldn’t have been, I know that (which is why I’m so sensitive to this issue, no doubt).

      I prefer something broader where family history is simply one of many options. Our immigrant oral history project is for the kids to interview any one, sometimes it is a family member and sometimes not.


  2. 3 loud cheers for your “bottom line,” Monica.


  3. TOTALLY agree. Families with adopted kids who are still figuring out relationships with birth parents, kids with same-sex parents (every kid-version of a family tree chart I’ve ever seen has had a space for “mother’s side” and “father’s side”), kids being raised by grandparents…for all of them, family history can be FRAUGHT. And if even one kid feels marginalized, why do the assignment when there are so many other options? (I like the interview idea!)


  4. Oh yes, yes, yes. I grew up with a single mother, and while I could fill in a lot of family tree stuff, I remember that once I was given an assignment to interview everyone in my family about their dental habits. I came back with two interviews–myself and my mother–and proceeded to get yelled at by all the kids on my team because I hadn’t provided enough data points for our assignment. “Why didn’t you just ask your dad?” I can still hear one girl saying, 25 years later.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. kksorrell

    I agree! As an ESL teacher, I learned the hard way that my immigrant students rarely even knew their grandparents’ names! These kids had been apart from their extended family for most of their lives and had little connection to them or to their family history. It’s really sad to witness, but unfortunately, that’s how life is for them. I had better luck looking at familial relationships in stories we read! Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Family tree assignments (esp those that go any deeper than grandparents) priviliges those families that have that information — so you’re good if you have a family member into this, or if you come from a family where there was both literacy (written records) and preservation of records (which implies ability to keep and preserve same, as well as being the member of that generation who got to keep those records.)

    And yes, I’ve seen the “I can trace my family back x generations and you can’t,” played out, so it’s not just hypothetical that it impacts what is happening in the classroom/group.

    So, yeah — not a fan.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Michelle Davis

    I am torn , my daughter has been givenn a family tree assignment. For us to complete it it leaves us deeply emotional in regard to our loss on both sides of the family. We are more than prepared to talk about the lived ones we have lost, but it also so raw and something I don’t feel should be shared in the classroom at the age of 10 x


  8. Michelle, I’m so sorry. Any chance you could send this link to her teacher?


  9. These trees haunt me years on.
    At the time, I knew I had grandparents. Other students “proudly” traced lineages to the 1500s and 1200s, and teachers insinuated I hadn’t “tried.” It was awful & if they’ve finally done away with it it’s none too soon.


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