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Coming to America — The Ancestor Project

By Christy Crawford on February 23, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

What’s the best resource for students to use in tracing their roots or unlocking interesting family stories? Is it pricey ancestry Web sites or DNA testing labs? No. The cheapest and most reliable account of family origins come from relatives! Assign your students “The Ancestor Project,” an oral history project they will thank you for this year and for many years to come. Read on to get kids to use technology to discover their roots and preserve their heritage.

In our Ancestor Project, my students interviewed family members, collected artifacts for a personal history museum, and photographed their families. And thanks to a nonprofit organization called StoryCorps, students took part in a national effort to record and preserve interviews with loved ones.

StoryCorps touts itself as "one of the largest oral history projects of its kind." If you haven't heard of StoryCorps, check out their weekly broadcasts on NPR's Morning Edition. At StoryCorps.org students can upload their interviews to share with family and friends worldwide. And with several recording locations around the country, StoryCorps allows participants to record their stories on a free CD. All conversations are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Your students could create a piece of audio that will be treasured for generations!


Tools and Tips for Making History

You’ll need . . . 

1. A premade packet of interview questions created by you and your students. See our Ancestor Project question list below and use the StoryCorps question generator. Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford's To Our Children's Children is also an excellent source of provocative questions.

2. Recording equipment. In the past we've used just a pen and paper to document family history. My technology students use a computer OR Flip camera OR cell phone OR tape recorder OR whatever is available in their homes.

Easiest route? Demonstrate for your students the use of the recording equipment on a standard PC or Mac. Designate one or two laptops and flash drives to be signed out by school families for recording purposes. Or assign times over the next month when families can use the school's computer lab for recording. Kick off your project before the next big holiday so students have plenty of time to lobby holiday guests (“Great-Aunt Hazel or “Dad’s talkative sister”) for interviews.

3. Disposable cameras. Ask students to bring in two photos of their interview subject on a flash drive. For families without access to a digital camera, offer disposables. A camera with 15 exposures can be ordered for under two dollars, including shipping. Spend $10, and you can give 25 kids without cameras three wonderful chances to take a family picture.

4.Do-it-yourself video. Watch a quick video with your kids for great tips on setting up your interview space, getting the best sound quality, and more.

5. Model recordings. Listen to the subject-based stories suggested in the StoryCorps' education toolkit. To show off their family culture or history, students don't need to bring in the stereotypical food items or over-the-top traditional costumes typical of many "diversity" assignments. StoryCorps audio samples show kids that incredible family audio can come from a simple moment — a joke, a short song, or the response to a direct question.

Too often fourth and fifth generation immigrants who have assimilated into American life think they are devoid of culture. This assignment and the questions that follow ensure that all families have something unique and important to share. (Check out StoryCorps’ list of questions specifically for African-American students and Latino students to tailor questions for your student population. I also allow families to substitute other questions for particularly difficult ones, or to opt out of some questions altogether. For example, many African-American families have no knowledge of their ancestors' country of origin, and a few of these families prefer to answer questions about their migration from the South to the northern region of the United States or to other hometown settlements.

7. Interview questions. The questions in bold afforded great details or insights during my students' interviews.

A. What was your childhood like? How was it different from mine?

B. Tell me about my relatives/ancestors. Where is our family from? What country/countries did we come from and when? Did you or our ancestors want to come to the United States, and why or why not?

C. Have you ever been to any of the countries or places we are from? If you have, what is that place or country like? Make a mental movie for me. What would you often see, smell, and hear there?

D. How did our family get to the United States or our hometown? How did they travel? Was it difficult? Was the journey long?

E. What did you (or Mom, Dad, etc.) think America or our hometown would be like? What has your experience really been like? Was it everything you hoped for?

F. Did you or any of our ancestors who came to the United States speak another language? What languages did they speak? If they did not speak English, how did they learn?

G. What things did you or our ancestors bring with them to the U.S. or our hometown? What was your or our ancestors' most valued item and did they bring it with them? Did you or our ancestors leave anything special behind?

H. What did you or our ancestors miss from the country or town they came from?

I. What traditions have been passed down in our family? (For example, if I were being interviewed, I would talk about the ancient tradition of "jumping the broom." In the United States, the "official" marriage ceremony commonly experienced today was not afforded to slaves. Marriage was acknowledged in the slave quarters by an exchange of vows sealed with a united jump over a straw broom. So at my wedding, our united jump over an elaborate straw broom symbolized the traditional 18th century wedding of my great-great-grandparents!)

J. What were the lives of your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents like? How did they live? What do you remember them saying over and over again?

K. Do you know what their schools were like? Can you tell me? Can you tell me how they got to school?

L. Do you remember any of the stories anyone in the family used to tell? Tell me one . . . please!

M. Do you remember any of the songs sung or jokes told by family members? Sing me a song. Tell me a joke.

N. What is your first memory of leaving your homeland or coming to America? Or what is your first childhood memory?

O. Make up one more question to ask. The question should help you gain additional information about your family's cultural background. 

P. What artifact could I bring in that represents our family? (If I were doing the project, I would show off the doorknob to the room where my mother was born in my great-great-grandparents' house.) What thing is really important to our family that I could use for our ancestor museum? Please tell me about that treasured item.

Before the Ancestor Project, I often heard the following comment, reiterated several ways by parents: "I try to help him with his homework but he says, 'No.' He thinks I'm stupid because I don't speak English." After the project, the children of these parents returned to school with a new sense of pride and a much better appreciation and understanding of their family’s “Coming to America” story. Use this project to spark powerful cultural conversations with your tech-savvy class historians.

Check out StoryCorps’ latest project, The National Teachers Initiative, to discover the power of talented, dedicated educators. View the Miss Devine animation for a heartfelt laugh. It will inspire you to make a recording with or for your favorite teacher or remind you of why you started teaching in the first place.

Comments (1)

that crazy we have the same laptops

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