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13 November 2014

Think kids don’t like Family History? Think again.

by Shannon Reese

You would think we were going for a big presentation to the board-- instead, we were on our way for our first talk with an even tougher crowd: 1st and 2nd graders.  If there’s one thing kids are, it’s that they’re honest, so we knew we had to be on our game to hold their attention.  With that in mind, Linda Okazaki and I made our trek over to Los Altos to teach the children about family history and genealogy. 

Teachers announce special visitors to Ventana School. Photo: Shannon Reese 
Let me back-up and give you an idea as to why we came: In late June, a first grade teacher, Corinne Fischer, at the Ventana School in Los Altos contacted CGS President, Ellen Fernandez-Sacco about a possible field trip.
Ventana is a small, private school housed at an Episcopalian church. The students come from mostly affluent families, yet there is some ethnic diversity. The educational philosophy of Ventana ( is “Reggio-inspired”, and the curriculum is largely driven by the students.   We knew these kids were thinkers and were prepared for the onslaught of questions that were to come.

Excited, we agreed to participate in this experimental outreach opportunity (2 different days with similar presentations for 2 different classes) on behalf of CGS. Linda created a curriculum (her background is child development and education) to introduce family history to children ranging in age from 4-8 years old.  Although my background is in sales and marketing, I agreed to participate because I have a kindergartener and enjoy learning how to inspire these little learners!

Linda (LR) consults with students at Ventana School. Photo: Shannon Reese 
Back to the kids:  One classroom, split between children in grades 1 & 2, consisted of two teachers, Corinne Fischer & Courtney Priddy, and 19 children that ranged in age from 6-8 years old. The other classroom was 1st grade only with two teachers, Elisa Merrifield & Julie Kelsey, and a total of 20 children. Most, if not all of the children came from traditional families.
Students work on their pedigree charts. Photo: Shannon Reese
Prior to our visit, the teachers in both classrooms had previously discussed families, interviewing, and story telling.  The classroom that was split between 1st & 2nd graders had even discussed heredity. 

So what happened?  The children sat on a carpet ready for a performance. We used a giant (well, at least to the children) flannel board to display our terminology: Family History, Genealogy, Parents, Grandparents, and Great Grandparents.  We broke-down the words “Family History” into “Family”, then “History” and finally “Story”---we emphasized that stories were the end result of the research and were really what everyone could get excited about and remember about their loved ones.

Family stories by students at Ventana School. Photo: Shannon Reese
After a discussion about terminology, the children returned to their tables and completed “pedigree charts”.  Given the wide range of skills within each classroom, children could choose between a traditional four-generation pedigree chart and one in which they could draw their family members. 

Naomi's three generation family tree. Photo: Shannon Reese
All hands were on deck as the adults (teachers, Shannon & Linda) worked simultaneously with the children to provide help throughout the exercise. The children also wrote their full names on paper leaves that we left for the teachers to use for a “community tree”, a concept that was directly related to a previous classroom discussion of the difference between families and communities.

Afterwards, we told the children two different stories about our own families using laminated photos of ourselves, parents, grandparents, etc. (to create a visual family tree), along with our trusty friend, the children’s classroom globe. These stories were limited to a few generations and included concepts of immigration, relocation, intergenerational families, and geography.  I told a story about my own Nordic ancestry and asked “Snakker du Norsk, anyone?” Amazingly, one little girl responded in fluent Norwegian.

All children love to talk about themselves and their own families, so we kept this in mind as we continued the lesson. Dozens of little hands clamored for the sky as each student had a seemingly endless stream of questions for us. We heard wonderful little tales from other students who told of their Chinese, Russian, Korean, Indian, French, Irish and English ancestry.

We told the children to think about what they might ask their own grandparents. One little girl said she would ask her great-grandmother, “Did you lose your front teeth, too?” She was so charming and endearing that we couldn’t help but assure her that, “yes, your great-grandmother also lost her front teeth”.  After receiving this affirmation, all seemed right in the world for her.

Reviewing trees with the teacher. Photo: Shannon Reese
What did we learn?  Family History can be introduced to different age groups, as long as the curriculum is presented in a developmentally appropriate manner. The experience at Ventana was overwhelmingly positive. The children were engaged, as were the teachers.  It was a pleasure representing the California Genealogical Society at this event! 

Have a group (children or adults) that you’d like us to speak for?  Then contact Shannon Reese at

Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Fernandez-Sacco,  California Genealogical Society and Library.


Sheri Fenley said...

What a wonderful opportunity you were given to make those presentations at the school. I think your presentations were very age appropriate and I love the concept that everyone is not only a part of a family, but a part of their community as well.

Sheri Fenley
San Joaquin Genealogical Society
Stockton, California

Lisa Gorrell said...

This is a great story. I can see that Linda and Shannon had a great time, as did the students. I teach young children science lessons and 2nd grade is the best! Would love to help with this endeavor.