History education is failing: Addressing the gaps with genealogy

By: Dana Saxon-Founder & Executive Director of Ancestors unKnown

First, we have to admit to the problem: traditional history education is omitting the historical narratives of many (dare I say most?) students.

History is as complex and diverse as the people who lived it. Yet, in history classes, students are learning one side of the limited number of stories that are curated by a select few. So many people, places, events and perspectives are left out. What results is a biased and limited version of historical events with which our students’ can’t identify.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously explained, we face a significant danger when we tell only one version of a story.

Instead of limiting the scope of history to what’s been deemed as “important” by traditional textbooks, let’s introduce students to a multi-layered, more complex version of the past. When we do, we create opportunities for students to see themselves represented in history. And they will engage with the subject in brand new, far more effective ways.

Ancestors unKnown is providing CIS of Chicago’s partner schools with curriculum that introduces students to genealogy research and other untold histories. Participating students are given the skills, tools and other resources to research their own family histories. Simultaneously, teachers guide them through lessons about the past that don’t appear in most history books, such as indigenous communities in the Americas, Black soldiers fighting in World War II, and the U.S. Great Migration. This new approach to history education helps students place their ancestors into the context of both well-known and lesser-known historical events.

What results are truly diverse and inclusive historical perspectives represented in the classroom. Students begin to see their place in history, and the ways in which their ancestors contributed to the past, as well as current events. And not only do students learn from the lives and experiences of their own ancestors, they also learn from and about the ancestors of their classmates.

Here are some more benefits we’ve seen with this approach to history education:

  1. Identity reflection and development. Before students begin their genealogy research, it’s important that they ask, “who am I?” Questioning their own identities and where they come from helps students understand why their personal histories matter. They also gain some insight into how they’re influenced by their families, society, and their own unique worldviews.
  1. Family/community engagement. Oral history interviews are a critical first step in any genealogy research project. This could be an interview with a family elder or a member of the student’s community. It’s a great way to engage family members with a classroom project. And for students who really take ownership of their family history research, families benefit from having their own in-house historian!
  1. Research experience. Archival research (online and in-person) requires both skill and patience. Students practice these skills to find their ancestors’ names in primary historical documents. These are skills that can be applied in all areas of their education, and will especially benefit their understanding of the past.
  1. Expand classroom dialogue. Students don’t have to learn only from textbooks when their classroom discussions reveal new and interesting details about the past. As students begin learning more about their ancestors, they bring this information to the classroom and their classmates. We’ve even heard about these discussions going beyond the classroom into the school yard and after school.
  1. Understanding historical events in context. Sometimes students struggle to understand or remember details about important historical events. This can happen when they lack a realistic view of the past. But if a student knows that her great grandmother lived through the Great Depression, she is more likely to remember when it occurred and how it affected real people. This is a lesson that the student will remember far longer than what is typically memorized for an exam.

Since we all have stories worth telling, our students should be empowered to research, write and share their own histories. It will benefit them in the classroom, at the dinner table, and in life. This is the type of history education that benefits everyone, instead of only a few.

If you’d like to partner with Ancestors unKnown and introduce your students to their untold histories, complete this sign-up form for CIS of Chicago schools. If you have questions, feel free to contact me at dasaxon@ancestors-unknown.org .



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