Saturday, February 1, 2014

“I found my grandfather!”: Students researching their family history.

Combing the stacks of the 
New Brunswick
Provincial Archives
by Cynthia Wallace-Casey,
PhD Candidate
University of New Brunswick

Last December, the THEN/HiER blog was abuzz with interesting discussions about family history in the classroom. As my colleagues have pointed out, family history can “maximize student engagement and learning” (Maddie Knickerbocker, December 3, 2013); it can “build an enduring and evolving connection to the past” (Heather McGregor, December 5, 2013); it can “serve as entry points into the bigger picture of history” (Kate Ireland, December 12, 2013); and can “open the door of possibility for building research skills” (Jesika Arseneau, December 20, 2013). All of these arguments are valid and worthy. They speak of history as a construct of the beholder—assembled from traces and accounts—that, with a little bit of guidance, might enable students to re-construct the narratives that frame their lives. With each of these arguments, however, the writers have concluded their entry with a challenging question.  This is what I would like to address.

This month, I have been given the rare opportunity to work with a group of 11 middle school students, helping them to research their family history. This practicum has evolved out of my dissertation, which relates to ways in which middle school students remember their past.  Hence, as part of a school-wide enrichment program, one morning a week, over the next four weeks, I will be attempting to integrate family histories into students’ social studies. I’d like to share with you my experience of leading this group of students through the archival maze of family identities.  In so doing, I hope to add to the discussion around benefits and challenges associated with this approach to history education.

Because family history research can be equated to looking for a needle in a haystack, I have organized my lesson plans around four broad themes:  What I already know; What I want to know; What I can find out; and What I have learned. As a result, the students are being requested to undertake a bit of family sleuthing each week; expand upon these clues by consulting primary sources in the archives or online; and draw meaning from the subsequent evidence they discover. The final project will involve creating a memory book that documents what they have found, what it means to the individual, and how it connects to larger events in Canadian history. Such an approach is not without its challenges however.

First of all, it is important to remember that for these students, “history” is anything that has happened before their birth, and “the past” includes memories of their own childhood.  So, in this sense, family history means working backwards from their birth, in approximately the year 2000. Likewise, when they speak of their grandparents, they are referencing a birth-range between c. 1940 to 1960. This poses a challenge, because, although many of the students have wonderful stories to tell about their family’s distant past (stories that have been handed down through the generations), it is extremely difficult to engage in archival research unless they have a specific name and a specific date with which to work.  To make matters worse, in many provinces, records of birth for this time period are not available (unless one wishes to pay a fee and wait several months for a written response).  So, in such cases, vague references to grandparents are all that we have to begin with. Telephone directories (available on are proving to be extremely valuable for this purpose, because they enable students to make that first connection with a past that stretches beyond their immediate memory (although even this source is not universally beneficial to all students). Ultimately then, my first challenge is to help each student to find someone in their family who was born before 1922, because with this information they can tap into the most recently available census returns of 1921.

Secondly, although I am only working with 11 students (and assisted by a parent volunteer), undertaking this type of activity with an entire class would be extremely difficult. Not impossible however, and not unfeasible either; because, with the appropriate scaffolding tool anything is possible. What I am finding, is that scaffolding tools are required that can be quickly adjusted to meet the specific learning needs of each individual student—as their unique research problem arises; and although there are endless streams of generic teaching resources to be found on the Internet, with exception to the tools developed by Library and Archives Canada (which provide a good start), very few Internet resources actually enable students to engage in serious research that is both genealogical and historical in nature.

So, in order to sift through the haystack of records available online, while also accommodating diversity in prior knowledge along with learning differentiations, I have found it necessary to design tools that enable every individual student to unlock a ‘clue’ about their unique past, from a large variety of archival sources. This is no small feat, since the online archival sources for each province within Canada are woefully inconsistent, and knowledge of digital records in other jurisdictions (outside of Canada) require an expertise that I do not possess. Hence, my second challenge is to ensure that no student be excluded from the inquiry process; and that every student experience success (in some way) of finding something relating to their family.

Undoubtedly—and very unlike the popular television advertisements, in which one click of a mouse opens the doors to your past—these students are discovering that there are no easy answers. Instead, they are learning that family history research requires precise examination, perseverance, patience, and meticulous record-keeping.  Along the way, they are also experiencing (first-hand) how historians ‘piece together’ the past from seemingly minuet scraps of evidence.  Yet, at the same time, they are reaping great satisfaction; because within those eureka moments—when someone pipes out: “I found my grandfather!”—they are beginning to feel exactly what it’s like to be a researcher. These are the real-life moments that, in the words of Ted Christou (2010), confirm history to be “sometimes messy, often tentative, secretively delightful, and wonderfully exciting”.

I look forward to sharing our journey with you…

References: (February 1, 2014). Retrieved from 

Arseneau, J. (December 20, 2013). Family history as a gateway to learning about archives [Web blog post]. Retrieved from 

Christou, T. (2010). “Get thee to the archive: The teaching of history and the doing of history”. Education letter: A publication of the faculty of education and the education alumni committee. Fall/Winter, 15-17.

Ireland, K. (December 12, 2013).Considering family histories in the elementary classroom [Web blog post]. Retrieved from

Knickerbocker, M. (December 3, 2013). Family histories in the colonial classroom [Web blog post]. Retrieved from

Library and Archives Canada (February 1, 2014). Genealogy and family history: Youth corner. Retrieved from

McGregor, H. (December 5, 2013).Using identity, family history and family artifacts to connect with the past [Web blog post]. Retrieved from