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Article posted: August 7, 1998

Keep Family Trees Out Of School?
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

‘Keep family trees out of school’ said a recent newspaper headline.

It was on a column by Ann Landers who has been offering commonsense advice for more than forty years. This time, her sense deserted her.

An adoptive mother wrote expressing concern about children who were given assignments to look into their family history. Her own children, she explained, were well aware of their status and happy to look into their adoptive parents’ backgrounds. But what of those who weren’t? What about children from broken homes who knew little about parents they may not have seen in years?

Ann condemned using genealogy as a teaching aid and proudly pointed out that she had no knowledge of her own family, and didn’t want to know. Teachers who make these assignments are usually thinking about genealogy second. The real point of the work is to show children how research is done. By pinpointing a clear objective, designing a search strategy and then implementing it, they acquire skills which will be useful in many later classes.

I have been helping students who have these assignments for more than fifteen years. I can tell you that the ones who have very little information about their families are usually the ones who most want to know. As for adopted children, in the modern world most of them know their status. If they do not know anything about their birth parents, they can research their adoptive families. Many share the attitude of an adopted friend of mine, who says, “Adoptees are luckier than other genealogists. They have twice as many families to research.”

Teachers who make these assignments are usually aware that their classes include children who may not be able to find much about their own families. They often have other, similar, tasks which will develop the same skills. I have worked with children who are researching the history of their house, their neighbourhood or a famous local person instead.

It may be that the questions children ask at home when working on this project will reveal new sides to their family life. A friend who read Ann Landers’ comments said that his children had brought home a research assignment which resulted in their grandfather describing his war experiences to them. This enriched their relationship with him and also gave them a new perspective on the war. They will always be grateful for the insight this schoolwork offered into their own family’s past.

If teachers make an error in assigning genealogical work, it is in not preparing themselves. One of the commonest of these tasks is to suggest that students visit the library to find ‘their family coat of arms.’ Since families do not have coats of arms, only individuals, this is a wrongheaded thing to ask a child. It grows out of a widespread misconception about heraldry.

Teachers who are going to ask their students to research their families should visit the library first. Talk to the reference librarians about what is available, and what students can actually discover. There will be plenty of work for them, if it is channeled correctly.

Landers makes a comparative statement about families who ‘came over on a slave ship or the Mayflower.’ It is clear she considers one better than the other. This is an old-fashioned view which no one takes seriously any more.

Whether our families crossed the Atlantic in a first class cabin of the Queen Elizabeth or in the stinking hold of an immigrant ship, they are all part of our experience. Understanding their lives will help us understand our own. Landers may not care about her own background but plenty of people want to know about theirs.

Ten years ago Waterloo county (Ontario) historian Kathryn Hansuld Lamb told me that she thought genealogy was just a fad. Modern life, with its shattered and remixed families, would make the idea of family history obsolete. Instead, we find that people whose relationships are very complicated are often those who most want to straighten them out by writing it all down.

School may be a good place for them to start learning how.

Books By Ryan Taylor

Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.

Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997

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