Sunday, March 18, 2018

Genealogy: the "Unit Study" Approach
to Life and Everything

Lately, it turns out that I am teaching beginning genealogy classes at various locations about twice weekly. After doing this for a few years, one thing has become clear to me: people come into these classes with one question in mind. Something happens during the class process, though, that turns them around, leaving with several concepts in mind. I've realized that genealogy can do that.

People often come into my classes thinking that finally, they'll learn how to prove the story that their mother's family really did have Native American roots. Or that Papa came from Tuscany. Or Alsace-Lorraine.

Once they learn the basic techniques for starting their own genealogical research, though, they realize how many other areas they need to learn, in order to fully comprehend just what it was like to be that person from Tuscany. Or that Chickamauga native. They gain an appreciation for the impact of those key historic events which may now be mere murky memories from high school history class. Now, for instance, the Civil Waror the Chinese Exclusion Act, or westward expansiongets seen in a whole different light: events which had made a difference in their great-great grandparents' lives.

Of course, an experience like that can turn even the most reticent student of history (like me in my high school years) into an avid pursuer of the truth of the matter.

High school history classes, at least the ones I had to endure, were often taught in a linear format: first, this thing happened on this date, then it was followed by that event. Names blended into dates into wars or elections or inventions or newspaper headlines in one big blur of so what?! For me, it became a matter of how well I could memorize factsand remember them long enough to spill them out on paper at exam time.

Fast forward another generation, and I became part of the homeschooling movement in our country. Homeschoolers have a name for a particular approach that was much different than my own high school experience. They called it "unit studies." That meant, for any topic they studied, students learned everything there was to know about that one subject.

If they wished to learn about, say, sugar, they would examine it as a commodity, but they would learn about its chemical composition, its impact on diet and health, its origins, and its role in history and even economics. While learning about a simple topic like sugar, students would end up exploring a world of other topics as wella learning odyssey similar to that traced in the Sidney Mintz book, Sweetness and Power, taking in everything from the history of sugar's position as treat for kings to its place as a "slave crop" to its more commonplace modern role as the additive on more foods on our table than we care to admit.

It's surprising what one can learn from taking an in-depth look at one single topic, like sugar.

Or genealogy.

Genealogy becomes the catalyst to learn the universe of everything there is to know about the 1920s, just so you can understand what drove grandpa to do what he did. Or discover the angst of the 1930s. Or 1890s.

I have class members coming away from sessions, amazed at how much they have learned about the Civil War, for instance, just because they discovered a family member fought for the Union. Or shocked to learn what their immigrant ancestors endured, just in the process of boarding a shipor worse, arriving on American shores. There is a universe of learning out there, waiting to be discovered, just for having taken that first step of wanting to discover one's family history.

Genealogy has become the gateway to learning history. In a personal wayand yet, a universal way. And that has made all the difference for people.

And yet, we are surprised to make that discovery.


  1. Interesting perspective! As a former homeschooler and hopeful second-generation homeschooler, I was just talking to my husband yesterday about what history can look like in the homeschool classroom (and how great it will be to be able to tie into it, "Your ancestor was a part of this or that!").

    1. Oh, Melanie, I forgot about your homeschooling connection. Yes, that does give an entirely different perspective to history class.

      In the process of homeschooling our daughter from K through 12, I'll never forget those project fairs she participated in when she chose to do a display juxtaposing a history timeline with that of her various great-grandparents and grandparents. On seeing this, other students and parents shared their observations with us on how history came alive for their students when they aligned the macro-history with the micro-history of their own families. It's much more of a hands-on approach, but it really sticks in students' minds.

  2. How wonderful that you take the time to teach the classes and teach others how to trace their ancestors:)

    1. Thank you, Far Side! Actually, there is nothing to compare with the experience of watching the face of new students, once they actually see a document which contains the name of their ancestor--or better yet, an ancestor's actual signature. At that point, students are converted from mere class participants to avid researchers, determined to search out more about their own ancestors' lives. You can almost feel the instant that realization hits!


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