Our Roots Run Deep: Students Trace Their Family Trees

familytree Back in March, the New York Times published an article entitled, “The Family Stories That Bind Us,” which reported on some research suggesting that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

The article concludes with “The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

After reading that article, I decided that it would be beneficial for all of our students to spend time learning the narrative of their families and building up a sense of their “intergenerational self.” Every September, we conduct four weeks of workshops designed to answer the question, “Who Am I?” This unit would extend that question to the students’ families, not just “Who Am I?”, but “Where do I come from and who has my family been?”

The process for developing their family narratives has included building a family tree using research on the Internet (we’ve been using MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, as well as Google), conducting interviews with family members on the phone and via email, and harnessing research previously done by family members (several of our students are now in possession of whole books or giant envelopes with details on their family histories).

Some of the things they’ve discovered include a great-grandmother who, in September 1915, was about to travel from Europe to the U.S. on a ship named the RMS Lusitania, but an issue with her ticket prevented her from getting on board and she was forced to take another ship. As most of you probably know, during that crossing, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, killing almost 2,000 passengers, including 128 Americans. While not directly responsible for the U.S.’s involvement in World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania stoked America’s passions against the Germans, and two years later, the U.S. would finally enter the war. Our student’s ancestor was supposed to be on the ship went it went down, and because she wasn’t, our student is with us today.

Another student learned that he is related to Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the publisher of the Book of the Mormon, which he claimed to have been revealed to him by the Angel Moroni. Joseph Smith, Jr. was the brother of our student’s direct ancestor, making him something like the grand-grand-grand-grand uncle to our student.

A third student learned all about his relatives who fought in the Battle of Bennington, which was one of the more important battles of the Revolutionary War. Thanks to the colonial’s victory at Bennington, the British troops at Saratoga were undersupplied and undermanned, which eventually led to their surrender. The victory at Saratoga gave the French the confidence they needed to join the colonials against the British crown, and the involvement of the French turned the tide, leading to the colonial victory in the War for Independence.

Another student may be related to Betsy Ross, the woman credited with stitching the first American flag for General Washington (our student is still waiting on some files from a relative before he can confirm the link).

As the advisor, I’ve been participating in this project as well, developing a family tree that I can later show to my daughter. I’ve traced my family back to some of the first settlers of the New World, with direct ancestors being responsible for the founding of several towns in Massachusetts. I’ve also traced my wife’s family (she’s the third and fourth generation descendent of Italian immigrants on one side and Polish immigrants on the other), learning the names of the towns where her ancestors last lived before departing for America, recapturing knowledge lost to the previous generation.

The unit is not quite finished (students will be actively working on their family trees until the end of May), but even now, it’s easy to see how successful the project has been. Students are connecting with their heritage, engaging in long conversations with far-flung family members, and developing a sense of their family’s place in American history. They are starting to really the answer the questions of where their families come from, what obstacles they’ve overcome, and who they are as individuals, family members, and Americans.