Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Writing Family History & Culture with Students

The early stages of any digital storytelling project is writing. Lots of it. Before students decide what story they would like to tell digitally, they need to do a lot of writing first. My class has just begun their journey.

Yesterday, my eighth-grade students started sketching family trees. On the white board, I demonstrated one and I repeated over and over again that not knowing something is o.k. 

Not knowing something about our family tree is just as valuable as what we do know. These gaps can provide starting points for questions with our families.

As I sketched a basic family tree, I encouraged the students to try one as well. Some of the questions they asked along the way:

  • how do I handle someone who was divorced?
  • what happens if someone was adopted?
  • what if I don't know a relative's name?
It is important to anticipate these types of questions which may be emotionally challenging to some students. What will you say to the student who tells you they are adopted? How will you guide the student who has step-parents and multiple sets of grandparents? I don't think there is any one right answer because all of our kids are unique; however, being mentally prepared to be encouraging, empathetic, and supportive comes with the territory of this type of writing.

an early example of a student tree
So much of this project is about talking as it is about writing. My class was noisy with students talking to each other about what they know, don't know, remember, don't remember--talk is good! Some students need to talk as a part of their pre-writing. Use it to encourage your students to talk at home--to continue the conversations with mom and day--to reach out to grandparents or any family who might help them.

After sketching a basic tree, I asked the students to write down the following questions which I adapted from NPR's StoryCorp Great Questions list:
  1. What is your ethnic background?
  2. Where are your various family members from? Has anyone ever visited there?
  3. What traditions have been passed down and still exist? What traditions have been lost through the years?
  4. Who are/were your favorite relatives when you were a child or adolescent?
  5. Do you remember any favorite family stories that a specific family member loved telling?
These are questions I want the students to start asking at home. Gather information and gather photographs! Ask at dinner. Email aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins for photographs and keep them in a digital folder online.

We will need these digital photographs for the blogs, podcasts, and videos we compose later.

After this, I turned their attention to a poem, Eating Together, in our textbook by Chinese poet Li-Young Lee. We discussed what information struck us as cultural clues and what information struck as pieces of his family history. In the end, what came out of this was food.

Food is a beautiful conduit for writing about our families and cultures and will be the focus of our brainstorming tomorrow.

Last night, I received this email from a student:

Mr Kelley,
Over dinner with my mother and I told her that we had been discussing the family tree in writing and she told me that her father went crazy years ago and researched his whole Taylor family tree. She got it out and showed it to me where as it dates as far back as to the late 1700's. All the information is extremely precise, with it there is birth, death, cause of death, and burial place for each person. Some people even more background added to that. Of course this is amazing and I've been sitting in my room with the documents reading through and looking up some of the background from it, but there was so much to see as unfortunate for some of these family members. As I read through the generations it showed that in one family a child only lived for two hours. Years later his brother was born and he only lived for one. I don't know how my grandfather did this and managed to find everything spot on, but I think it'd be a great thing to bring in and show you for the family tree unit so that is what I intend to do for tomorrow. I look forward to showing you this for it is pretty amazing.
Young people love writing about themselves and discovering their place in the world. This project funnels the larger world into the manageable and meaningful world of family. With your guidance and modeling, you will find your students compiling many topics to explore. 

Writing about family history and culture provides an opportunity for me to model the importance of primary sources, primary documents, and talking and staying connected with family.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this assignment and your approach to it. I think you are absolutely right about how much writing and talking there is to do in a project that is about discovering who you are and where you come from.

    There are so many ways of figuring out "your own context", but a family tree is one of the easiest ways to contextualize yourself and try to plant roots in a specific time period. The past is so abstract for so many kids, but when they think about their great-grandparent's generation, they can more easily learn about the history of that time period. While not every child is going to have a well researched family history, like the one from this email, every child does have a rich personal history. Each one is worth exploring, writing about, and talking through with others.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here: http://bit.ly/C4C15