Social Education 59(2), 1995, pp. 92-94
National Council for the Social Studies

"Grandma Book":Writing to Discover Your Past

John Marshall Carter
A good lesson plan is where you find it. I've found some good ones at the movies, at K-Mart, and strangely enough, in teacher education courses. Sometimes, I have taken an idea that might have originally been geared for third or eleventh grade (or one that wasn't intended for pedagogical use at all) and adapted it to my middle school history classes. Such was the case with the "Grandma Book."
I got a good idea from a former colleague of mine at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The colleague had decided to do something special for her grandmother for Mother's Day. She decided to draft a form letter and send it to as many relatives as possible. The letter asked each relative to write a page or so of memories about their trips to and experiences at Grandmother's house. She assured her relatives that grammatical and syntactical errors would be overlooked. Once she had received the letters from her relatives, she organized the letters into a booklet. She created a title page and a cover. Then, she presented the booklet to her grandmother on Mother's Day (Knight 1990).

I thought this was a stimulating and meaningful enough idea to incorporate into my history classes at Thomasville Middle School. I saw that the idea had much pedagogical potential. It allowed students to discover their relatives' role in the historical process-they might come to understand that they and their relatives were a part of history, a part of the historical process, not far removed from it (Hoopes 1979). I also saw the potential for developing a full-scale writing unit on the idea. Here seemed to be an idea that would allow my students to go through the writing process while learning more about the historical process.

As I devised a method for implementing the "Grandma Book" idea, I happened to read a very relevant article in an issue of Perspectives (published by the American Historical Association). The article described a history professor's activity for discovering what his students knew on the first day of the course. He administered a simple questionnaire to students in several sections of western civilization classes on the first day of class. The professor asked his students to list at least ten historical figures whom they would study during the semester. His findings were both interesting and alarming. Only two responses out of more than 700 were "me"; that is, only two students listed themselves as subjects of study in the history of western civilization.

The professor concluded from this response that students generally do not see themselves as a part of the historical process, but as removed observers. He, like me, was very interested in devising ways of helping students see themselves as part of the historical process. For me, the professor's article underscored what I was trying to do at the middle school level. The "Grandma Book" provided the vehicle for helping me to help students increase their sense of historicality ("a sense of empathy for peoples of the past")-a vital task faced by all teachers of history and social studies, from kindergarten to graduate school. A keener sense of historicality would help students feel closer to peoples of the past and would possibly aid in their awareness of themselves as a part of history (Poster 1973). Finally, I wished to give students opportunities to write to discover the past-their past (Macrorie 1987)!

I assigned the family history project ("Grandma Book") as a nine-weeks' project. I gave each student a one-page typed instruction sheet describing a possible approach to creating their family/oral history project. In class, we used a couple of writing invention strategies. (For these, I leaned heavily on a 1991 publication by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, B.H. McFarland's Preparing for the State Writing Assessment: An Instructional Guide and Workbook.) Students were asked to list family members to whom they could write asking for information about their subjects. Then, students were asked to make another list including possible foci for their projects. Student lists included such themes as (l) family gatherings at holidays, (2) family summer vacations, and (3) celebrations of older family members' birthdays (one student explained that her family-both nuclear and extended-gathered each year for her great-grandmother's birthday). At this early juncture, history had given them a chance at finding a topic; writing had given them the tool for discovering it.

After the students decided on a theme, their job was to write a general letter explaining to their relatives what their assignment was and asking their relatives to take the time to write a page or more on memories of the particular family theme (gathering, celebration, etc.): "Memories of Christmas at Grandma's House," "Our Beach Vacations," "Great-Grandmother's Ninety-Third Birthday," among others. This segment of the nine-weeks' project enabled us to work on drafting skills and strategies. Of course, some of the first drafts of letters were one or two sentences that did not communicate what the students really wanted to communicate to their relatives. So, I asked the students to take back their letters and to rethink just what they wanted to tell their relatives. I suggested that they choose either a clustering or branching strategy for elaborating their ideas. These strategies helped tremendously. Soon, students had well-elaborated letters that they sent to relatives. When they received their relatives' responses, the students were gaining a firsthand look at a historical event in their own past-through primary sources created by their relatives!

After the students collected their relatives' "primary oral sources," they had to devise a way of publishing or presenting their projects. Lots of work and writing opportunities were contained in this segment of the family/oral history project. For one thing, students had to transpose the handwritten letters from their relatives into computer or typewriter print. Second, students had to use the journalistic heuristic (Who? What? Where? Why? When?) to create a newspaper account of the event that would form part of the front matter of the booklet. Next, the students had to write an introduction to the book. Both of these latter activities required that students be especially aware of their audience. Next, the students had to include an original poem about the person or event chronicled in the booklet. In this activity, students were able to write in a different mode.

The writing activities associated with the "Grandma Book" allowed each student to go through the stages of the writing process. I had conferences with the students at various stages of their writing. We also shared writing in class, in triads (sharing groups of three students each). The triads allowed for peer evaluation. I gave each student a revision sheet asking that the students read each other's paper and focus on one or two points of revision. I also specified that each student find at least two positive things to say about the papers that they read. Proofreading and editing duties were performed by both teacher and students. Many students illustrated their projects with appropriate family photos and/or their own artwork. They also were required to include a timeline of the focus person's life. Finally, students were required to write a brief biography of the focus person by extracting information from the family/oral history documents that they received from their relatives. The students compiled their booklets and put them within original, creative covers. Many of the projects were so impressive that I encouraged the students to give the books as Christmas, anniversary, Mother's or Father's Day, or birthday gifts. The books were published by being placed in the school media center for a period before the students took them home and gave them as presents. Many parents reported to me how involved they themselves became as their children worked on the projects. One mother told me that she and her husband cried as they leafed through the pages of their son's book called "Christmas at Grandma's."

On the whole, my students did remarkably good jobs, generally got excited about what they were doing and, I believe, got valuable experience in some aspects of historical research and writing. They also, according to their expressive mode self-evaluations, contributed to the development of their own sense of historicality.

Several positive (I would argue important) outcomes came from the project. Students learned firsthand about their relatives and their relatives' written reconstructions of a past historical event. Students created inquiry letters, mailed them to relatives, collected responses, and organized the responses into booklets. They also came closer to history through their writing. In this activity, they dealt with their own past (and that of their relatives). Furthermore, students generated oral history documents, read them, collected them (and, in some instances, transposed their relatives' cursive into typed print), and presented them in a booklet. In writing the biographical sketches of the focus person in the booklet using the letters from relatives, students were doing what historians do: (l) collect primary sources, (2) organize the sources, (3) read them, and (4) interpret the event based on their reading and analysis of the primary sources.

Writing allowed the students to discover their own pasts. They wrote to generate additional information about their families. They encouraged their relatives and friends to write and, in so doing, created a temporary writing community (Harris 1989). Their initial letters, the newspaper story, the introduction to the book, the poems, and the follow-up writings (self-evaluations) provided a variety of writing activities that included opportunities for (l) improving their developmental writing abilities, (2) writing for a variety of audiences, and (3) writing in different modes of discourse. Another important outcome of the project was an opportunity for students to see how their ancestors' lives paralleled national and international historical events. For example, one student's project chronicled the life and times of his relative from seventeenth-century Massachusetts. He learned that his relative was directly involved with the Massachusetts witch craze of the seventeenth century. Other students, most of whom wrote about ancestors who were born and died in the twentieth century, came to realize that their relatives were alive and in some cases had taken part in some of the great historical events of the century. Some ancestors had served in World War I and World War II.

Still others, some still living, could recount the hard times of the Great Depression. For example, one student included copies of his great uncle's pay statement from a local dairy for which his great uncle worked during the early 1930s. Students were amazed that a person then could support a family on twenty-five dollars a week (for a forty-hour work week). Students asked countless numbers of questions related to economic and social history as well as about political history once the students presented their history booklets. I met with the students and gave each a timeline of important historical events of the twentieth century. I asked the students to compare the timelines of their relatives with the timelines of more well-known national and international events. This direct comparison appeared to provide the students with an opportunity to see how someone related to them had actually lived at the time of more famous historical events. The "Grandma Book" idea that was not originally intended for pedagogical usage was transformed into a stimulating nine-weeks' project that integrated history and writing in a most meaningful, personal way.

Harris, Joseph. "The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing." College Composition and Communication 40, no. 1 (February 1989): 11-22.Hoopes, James. Oral History. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.Knight, T.F. "Grandma Book." Unpublished Family/Oral History Project, Greensboro, NC, 1990.Macrorie, Ken. "The Reawakening of Curiosity: Research Papers as Hunting Stories." In Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process, edited by Carol Booth Olson, 127-130. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, 1987.McFarland, B.H. Preparing for the State Writing Assessment: An Instructional Guide and Workbook. Wilkesboro, NC: Northwest Technical Assistance Center, NC Department of Public Instruction, 1991.Poster, J.B. "The Birth of the Past: Children's Perception of Historical Time." The History Teacher 7 (1973): 587-598.John Marshall Carter teaches history in the Thomasville City Schools, Thomasville, North Carolina.