All About Me: A Personal Heritage Project


Stacia Czartoski and Gail Hickey

How can teachers bring history to life for students in intermediate grades? One way is to involve students, parents, and other family members in a personal heritage project that focuses on students’ own lives and on the lives of their family members.1 Personal timelines, simple family trees, and related activities give students a chance to examine their own lives within historical perspective. Well-structured activities intended to develop historical perspective set the stage for increased understanding of historical concepts, as well as increased appreciation for connections between children’s own histories and a more global perspective.

Using personal heritage projects is by no means a new idea, but it is such an important strategy to increase children’s social studies understandings that it bears repeating. As Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob suggest, “History is never either a neutral force or a complete world view; history is always someone’s history.”2 Each of us begins with our own diverse social history, a personal and continuing story interpreted through everyday events, family lore, and memorabilia.3 Recent research into the ways children learn history shows us that students in elementary grades can and should use primary sources for historical inquiry.4 This research also suggests that when teachers involve students in active inquiry experiences, build on what they already know, and address historical misconceptions, children develop meaningful historical understanding.5


The Personal Heritage Project

Stacia is a fifth grade teacher in a midsized, ethnically homogeneous, midwestern town; Gail is a social studies methods instructor at a midwestern university. Together we developed a personal heritage project for students during which they could explore their historical roots and compare their own personal experiences with other students in the classroom and with children from other geographic areas. Personal heritage projects are one way for students to build on what they already know. As an added benefit, using a family history research approach can help foster children’s continued historical inquiry and generate appropriate attitudes toward cultures different from their own.

When planning for the personal heritage study, we discovered a dearth of accurate and appropriate instructional material for exposing students to a variety of cultures. Social studies textbooks offered little or no help; one study of elementary social studies textbooks suggested “few cross-cultural examples are included in the [textbook] material on families, neighborhoods, and communities, and the world geography [content] focuses on places more than on cultures.”6

A personal heritage project provided opportunities for students to explore the following themes of the social studies standards: 1 Culture; 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; and 4 Individual Development and Identity.7 As we implemented the project, we kept in mind that at the fifth grade level, students should be involved in activities and experiences about culture to help them


> compare similarities and differences in the ways groups, societies, and cultures meet human needs and concerns

> explain how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference

> explain why individuals and groups respond differently to their physical and social environments and/or changes to them on the basis of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs


Activities dealing with time, continuity, and change should promote students’ abilities to


> identify and use key concepts such as chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity

> identify and describe selected historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures

> develop critical sensitivities such as empathy and skepticism regarding attitudes, values, and behaviors of people in different historical contexts


And experiences concerning individual development and identity should lead students to


> relate personal changes to social, cultural, and historical contexts

> describe personal connections to place

> describe the ways family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional affiliations contribute to personal identity

> identify and describe ways the influence of perception, attitudes, values, and beliefs on personal identity

> work independently and cooperatively to accomplish goals 8

To initiate the family heritage study, we shared the book People.9 It depicts photographs of people from all around the world and tells about their belief structures and everyday living practices. A paragraph from Stacia’s reflective journal describes what happened as she shared People with her fifth grade students:


We talked about how people look, act, feel, and believe similarly to and differently from each of us. Traditions, customs, beliefs, and cultures covered in the book that are unfamiliar to students’ experiences were discussed; I stressed that we may not understand or agree with others, but we need to be sensitive to and respectful of their beliefs. This led students to the idea that the more we know about others’ beliefs and cultures, the more prepared we will become to appreciate differences as well as similarities.


The students were cautiously curious about other people’s cultures and beliefs, as many had never seen or experienced firsthand cultures beyond their hometown. Some student comments, however, were critical, even negative, about the diverse cultures depicted in the book. Stacia realized the students were critical of appearances, skin colors, clothing, beliefs, and customs different from their own as a result of their lack of exposure to others unlike themselves. As a way of counteracting students’ stereotypes, we decided to provide students with many opportunities, especially through the use of children’s literature, to learn about the diversity in every classroom and every community, no matter how homogeneous the population may be.

As the unit of study was explained to the students, they were encouraged to learn about their personal heritage and to complete a family history book. The completed book would contain their autobiography from birth to fifth grade, information about family and cultural heritage, and photographs. Students were experienced in process writing and somewhat accustomed to authoring books in the classroom setting.

Interest and learning centers were set up where students could investigate, read about, and engage in cultural heritage activities. During the next two weeks, as students read related books and worked at centers, they brought in photographs of themselves and other family members, baby books or memory books about themselves borrowed from their parents or grandparents, and copies of personal documents such as birth certificates or letters. They asked family members questions, and researched at home to discover what their likes and dislikes had been since babyhood (and how these had changed over time). They also found out many things about their families’ histories they had not known before, such as anecdotes or stories from the oral tradition that had never been written down.

When students began to create their personal heritage books, they were asked to draw themselves as they would like to be represented and to draw their families. One of the first representations of diversity came when a few students asked what a family is. “We had an interesting discussion,” Stacia says. “Students determined that, for them, a family is who you think is in your family.” One student who had three step-dads and numerous step sisters wanted them all to be in his family picture. We found it was important to be open and embracing of each student’s individual interpretation of family—even to including pets as family members!

Another part of the family heritage exploration included research about various types of shelter. Students included a representation of their homes in their personal heritage books. They could either draw or prepare a photograph of the exterior of their home, or represent the interior in blueprint style. This option permitted students to prepare a visual of their home without enduring teasing or negative comparisons among peers.

Students were encouraged to conduct personal family research and to complete a family tree. Help with details, such as names and dates, was sought from parents and other family members. All students were encouraged to research their ancestry as far back as possible, and to include themselves, their parents, and their grandparents. We found that many students wanted to research family trees even farther back, including great-grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Photographs from students’ pasts were brought in and studied. Each student brought in four or five favorite photographs to be scanned into the classroom computer. When the scanned photos were printed, each student arranged his/her photo display, and labeled each picture to represent events from the past. Students could also opt to illustrate with drawings or magazine pictures.

Finally, students wrote an autobiography for their personal heritage books. They were encouraged to write or telephone grandparents and other relatives in order to collect information about their early years for use when writing their autobiographies. If parents kept baby books during students’ first year or two of life, students were encouraged to record what they found out about themselves by reading their own baby books. Guidelines for writing autobiographies included memories and facts surrounding students’ first years of life, their most memorable or most embarrassing experience, hobbies, places they have visited while traveling or on class field trips, and plans for the future.

After students finished the first draft of their autobiographies, they paired up to proofread each other’s writing. This experience allowed them to transfer what they had learned about process writing to writing about historical events. Sharing their autobiographies with one another allowed students to compare and contrast their own life stories with those of their classmates. The fifth graders were amazed at what they did or said when they were a certain age. We found that students tended to compare what they did at a certain age, such as getting their first tooth or learning to ride a bicycle, to the age when their friends and other classmates first did these things. Students were able to see personal similarities and differences, giving them another experience with diversity.

As a culminating activity, students shared and read aloud highlights of their lives and favorite parts of their books. This led to a discussion of likenesses and differences in family units, homes, childhood and family experiences, beliefs and values, and long-term goals. Students began to understand that diversity is all around them. We noticed as well a slowly changing attitude about other cultures and ethnic groups among the students after this assignment. Students displayed their books in the classroom to allow other students to examine them. They concluded that the project was a lot of work, but worth it.

Teachers who wish to try a similar project with their students might consider stimulating students’ interest in learning about the history behind their early years by creating a bulletin board display of “baby photographs”—have students bring a photo or snapshot of themselves as a baby or toddler and, after arranging these photos on the bulletin board, have students try to guess “who’s who.” This activity will lead to “remember when” kinds of discussions, which should motivate students to more thoroughly research their own backgrounds.


Activities, Bulletin Board, and Learning Center Ideas

While students worked on their personal heritage books, other related activities and experiences were planned to facilitate their study and to fulfill social studies curricular themes. Some of these activities included the following:


> Collect postcards from throughout the world and display them on a world map.

> Collect family photographs and find family pictures from magazines like National Geographic. Research other family backgrounds and compare and contrast them to yours.

> Family History Awareness: Display a world map and use colored dots to locate where students’ families and ancestors were born. Gather stories, photos, videos, letters, and postage stamps to represent these locations.

> Family Quilt: Each student makes quilting squares that represent his or her family values, traditions, interests, and important events.

> Find and research foods that people in other countries eat. Compare and contrast their diet to yours.

> First Names: Students find out what their first name means, and create a collage, poem, or special name tag for their desk depicting their name’s meaning.

> Grab Bag: Each student brings in a bag of things from home that represents himself or herself.

> Pen Pals: Each student writes to a pen pal from another part of the country or world.

> Baby Photo Bulletin Board: Each student brings in a baby picture to put up on the bulletin board. After the teacher receives all of the photos, he/she creates a bulletin board display. Students try to guess the identity of each photo.



1. See, for example, Keith Barton, “Historical Understanding Among Elementary Children” (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Kentucky, 1994); Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).

2. Joyce Appleby, L. Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1994).

3. Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, “‘Back When God Was Around and Everything’: Elementary Children’s Chronological Thinking,” American Educational Research Journal 33, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 419-54.

4. See, for example, Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies Teaching for Elementary Students (Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace 1996); Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).

5. Keith Barton, “History—It Can Be Elementary: An Overview of Elementary Students’ Understanding of History,” Social Education 61, No. 1 (January 1997): 13-16.

6. Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Powerful Social Studies Teaching for Elementary Students (Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace, 1996), 25.

7. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

8. Ibid.

9. Peter Spier, People (Chicago, Ill.: Doubleday, 1995).

About the Authors

Stacia Czartoski is a fifth grade teacher at Thorncreek Center Elementary School in Columbia City, Indiana, where she incorporates literature and writing across the curriculum.
M. Gail Hickey is an associate professor of education at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, and chair of the NCSS Early Childhood / Elementary SIG.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.