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How not to do family history


How not to do family history

The question also assumed fairly recent immigration, traceable to one or two countries on each side. Left out of these assumptions entirely are African Americans, American Indians, Native Alaskans, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, and descendants of Mexicans who already lived in the Southwest prior to U.S. colonization. Undocumented immigrant families would also find the questions uncomfortably intrusive.

Years ago, I witnessed a similar framing in a middle school classroom. The students were about to read a short story set in Puerto Rico, and the White teacher wanted them to think about it in terms of culture. (One may well ask why she didn’t frame stories with White characters in terms of culture.) She began by asking students about their “nationality.” (As U.S. citizens, they could have simply replied that their nationality was American.) While the White students replied with national origins such as Scotland and France, the Black students, sensing the minefield reflected in the image above, shouted out countries they obviously did not come from such as China, thereby ending the discussion.

Should a teacher just avoid family history altogether? No. The suggestions below can help.

Become familiar enough with the backgrounds of your students that you can anticipate what digging into family history might reveal, not for purposes of avoiding painful issues, but rather to prepare yourself and the students for what might emerge. In the example above, the teacher apparently did not stop and think about the fact that Africans historically did not “immigrate” to the U.S., or that some of her White students could descend from slave owners. (For help addressing this possibility, see the work of the Tracing Center. Elsewhere are suggestions for children from adopted or blended families. Also anticipate some students not knowing much about their family background at all. Families sometimes hide painful information from children, such as mental illness, alcoholism, or being shamed about their ethnic identity.

If you aren’t sure what you might open up, talk with a few parents first, or someone who will be able…

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