© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

My Family’s Story:
Discovering History at Home


Stacy Schwartz

“My mother and father came from Nigeria in West Africa.”

“The house across the street was on fire when I was born.”

“My mom is going to have a baby and she thinks it is a pain. I have already chosen a name for her, Buzzronna.”


Five- and six-year-olds naturally want to learn and talk about their families. The more time my kindergarten students and I spent in open discussion at circle time, the more family stories I heard. We had three students about to become big brothers or big sisters. A few students in our classroom had a grandparent living with them; other students traveled between Mom’s house and Dad’s house.

I wanted my students to be able to share who they were and who their families were, to expand their ideas and concepts about family, and to develop their literacy skills. I also wanted to try a manageable, special, and educationally meaningful project with my students. So I decided to undertake a family history project.

I was a bit nervous over the prospect of involving whole families in a school assignment. What kinds of activities did I want my parents and students to do? Would they follow through? What would be reasonable to ask of them? For guidance, I turned to the article “Strategic Learning Opportunities During Out-of-School Hours,” in which Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy offer five suggestions for implementing effective “strategic out-of-school learning assignments.”1


 Five Guideposts

First, I wanted the family history project to provide for expanded meaningfulness and life application of school learning. In our class, we discussed the concept of family for several days. We viewed family from different angles (from the views of grandparents, parents, and children) and broadened our definition of family to include not just the nuclear family, but the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, step relations, adopted relations, and even close family friends, whether near or far. I decorated the kindergarten classroom with material about families and filled a shelf in the reading area with related books (see the bibliography).

Second, I tried to extend social studies education to the home by involving adults in interesting and responsible ways. Through a “letter home” (and a few phone calls), I explained to parents what the project was, how they could participate, and what my educational goals were—I hoped that students would (1) gain motivation for writing, (2) gain motivation for reading, (3) learn how to tell a good story, (4) practice talking about their personal histories, and (5) take pride in talking about their family histories. I asked that family members take the time to write down their favorite family stories—as well as stories that might not have been told otherwise. I tried to impress upon parents my belief that families have an important role in furthering their children’s literacy and knowledge about themselves and their own history.

Third, I aimed to take advantage of the students’ diversity by using it as a learning resource. Among my students’ families, there was diversity of size and composition; of ethnicity and place of origin; and even in the ways that families approached the notebook project. We had many families that had three to four members, and a few had eight to nine. We had one single-parent home (with a grandmother who lived there) and seven students who lived with a step parent. Some of the families had experienced divorce, and one child had already lost a parent to illness. Many of the children lived close to, or stayed in regular contact with, at least one set of grandparents or an aunt or uncle. Some of our families had been living in our town (or surrounding areas) for as long as they could remember, whereas one student’s parents had come to the United States within the last decade from Nigeria.

Fourth, I wanted the family history project to exploit learning opportunities that would not be cost effective to attempt at school. Students were able to learn from a primary source (or from a person slightly removed) about authentic family history, one-on-one. This was an experience that neither a teacher nor any prepackaged unit of study could have provided. Also, the project created the opportunity for students to see adults other than school teachers as role models for reading, writing, and speaking.

The final suggestion, personalizing the curriculum and reflecting the “here and now,” was just a natural aspect of the family history project. Students (and parents) learned to appreciate self, family, and social studies activities more than ever. Family members were the researchers, and family experiences were the objects of study.


Children’s Literature

Our family history project flowed smoothly into our everyday curriculum. We heightened our awareness of families, their diversities, and their histories by reading many related children’s books. We had already read many of Patricia Polacco’s books about family and had related some of our stories to hers during circle time. We filled the class library with many books about family: some factual (When I was Young in the Mountains), some funny (When the Relatives Came), some historical (New Hope), and some that focused on a particular family member (A Chair for My Mother).

To gain a general sense of family stories, we shared Johnson’s Tell Me a Story Mama. We also shared Griffith’s Granddaddy’s Place and MacLachan’s All the Places to Love. These books also got the students thinking about special places like annual vacation spots or one-time visits to a distant relative’s home. They wanted to find out whether their parents and grandparents had also, as children, had their own favorite places. Thus, we formulated “research questions,” a list of topics we wanted to learn about from our family members.

We also used children’s literature and personal experiences as a springboard for some “mini lessons” about how to tell a good story, how to make one’s listeners feel like they are really living in a story. If a story was about Grandpa and his farm, we would want to feel like we were there meeting him, seeing and smelling the animals, and jumping up on a bale of hay or moving a brush over a dusty horse. Some students shared a family story that they already knew.


Letters Home

To kick off the project, I prepared two letters for children to carry home to their parents. In a “letter home” from the child, there was room at the top for a student to address all the people who the child considered family. The letter listed in bullet form the “research questions” that students wanted to ask their family members: “When did Mom and Dad meet? What were you like as a child? Did you get in trouble a lot? What was Grandpa like? Where did we live when I was born? What was I like as a baby?” I left empty bullets at the end of the list so each student could personalize his or her research interests. Each student then signed his or her letter.

In a separate “letter home” from the teacher (mentioned earlier), I described the project. I also wrote that I would provide a tote bag for ferrying materials between home and school, including these letters and a notebook with blank pages. I asked parents to “take dictation” as their children told stories, to write down their own memories in answer to the research questions, to tell any family stories they wished, and to consider sharing any artifacts that might document a story. (I explained that they should carefully label unique items, like photographs, with a name, an address, and a caption, so as to help explain their meaning—and to help ensure that the items would be safely returned). I explained that we were defining “family” in a broad sense. Sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and family friends could all make entries in the notebook.

My students wrote in different ways and at different levels of ability, so I asked parents to be flexible when requesting the participation of their child. Even if a child just requested a story, or just listened to one, that would be okay, because simply witnessing the parents’ involvement would further the child’s knowledge of self, family, and literacy. Different levels of participation were okay; families could make entries once a week or once a day, but I asked all families to send the notebooks back to class at least once a week, over a period of about two months.


Historians on the Loose

I sent the tote bag home with every student over five consecutive days, placing a different item in the bag each day: the letter from me, the letter from the child, a couple of pens, a new notebook (a notebook), and finally, some of the books we had been reading about families, as well as a bibliography of all the books we used. Each family got a diverse set of books (with a “due back” note and date on each).

Off went the tote bags and I held my breath. Would the notebooks be returned? Would the parents be as excited as the children and I were? This year, the response was great. On any given day, we had four to nine new entries to read. We read every entry on the day that it came in. Afterwards, the students and I asked questions about the stories, and we all related our lives to the lives of other families now and in the past. I also asked the students who had brought in the notebooks to speak about their own experiences. They were the experts on their own life stories, so they answered the class’s questions and added details to family member entries.

The stories in the notebooks, and the authors, varied greatly. In some of the families, only Mom wrote. In other families, Mom, Dad, and student all wrote the story together. Many of the notebooks had guest appearances by a grandparent from another city. Some family notebooks followed a time line; others started with the latest grand event that the family had just experienced.

Kolajo’s family wrote its first story together. Kolajo’s mom wrote about the family coming from Nigeria, the grandparents, and Kolajo’s brothers and sisters. After the mother finished her story about all the (human) family members, Kolajo penciled in, “We used to Have a dog named lacy.” Kolajo was already gaining the ability to read and write, so she actually wrote many of her family’s stories on her own. She said that often she wrote while riding on the bus with her sisters. A family member wrote about the day she was born. Kolajo herself wrote stories about her house, her twin baby brothers, her older sisters, her rabbits, her best friend, what she does when she is “board,” and “when I Suckt my thum.” Her stories were clever and always well received by her friends—they loved it when she wrote about them. Her peers found it interesting that her parents had not always lived somewhere “on the map” (of the United States), but rather emigrated from somewhere “on the globe” (in Africa).

Alex was another student who took charge of the family notebook. For the first two weeks, he wrote every day (asking his mom to spell all the words along the way), not allowing any adult to do the writing. He was an only child with a little brother due in four weeks. Many of the entries were about his expected sibling or about the babyhood of other family members. When Alex was born, he weighed only four pounds. Another child told of a baby that weighed nine pounds. We began measuring, discussing, and comparing the students’ weights (a big idea in kindergarten), and from then on, anytime I read a story about a baby, the children organized the babies by weight on a chart (Alex stayed at the low end of the spectrum. When Karen’s family wrote about her baby brother weighing ten plus pounds, he “won” as the heaviest baby.)

Alan’s family wrote a new entry almost every night. His mom started with the day Alan was born, then wrote about the day his brother was born, the day she (Mom) was born, then about Dad’s birth day. Next, she told of her and her husband’s childhood years. She related these stories to each set of grandparents and pointed out the changes in life-style that they had witnessed. She ended the notebook with a description of special places the family likes to visit.

Peter’s family wrote fewer entries than some, but each member wrote at least one entry. Peter was always proud when we read each new, and rather lengthy, entry. First, his big brother wrote about the day they adopted the family dog, then his mom wrote about a family summer vacation, and his step-dad wrote about the family cats. Peter’s mom also shared a story about Peter’s special baby bonnet.


Artifacts and Preservation

Artifacts can be a valuable aid to our understanding of history.2 Peter’s baby bonnet was made from an old handkerchief. The white cloth, trimmed with a blue satin ribbon, was presented to his mother at Peter’s baby shower and was intended to be passed on to his bride on their wedding day as “something old.” Alan’s grandfather had started a fruitcake company when he moved to Georgia, so Alan passed fruit cake wrappers around the classroom. Other families shared special dolls or stuffed animals that had been passed down through the generations. Many of the students added photographs that related to their stories. If I passed around a photograph or document, I first enclosed it in a clear plastic report cover (which provided me with an opportunity to introduce the concept of historic preservation).


A Happy Ending

I was fortunate enough to have a bit of time every day to respond in writing to the families, describing how a story had affected the class.3 I placed such a response in the tote bag. I also collected a set of favorite stories, one from each family, and assembled these into a booklet, “Our Family Stories” (see sidebars).

When the family history project ended, the class hosted a Family Stories Celebration. The students planned a breakfast menu and made invitations. We asked each family to come prepared to share a favorite story (or artifact) with the class. John’s family brought in a mounted, seven-pound, large mouth bass he caught (with some help from Dad) when he was three. This historical artifact had been too big to fit into the tote bag. Kathy’s family shared its Braves memorabilia collection, which documented the family’s tradition of going to baseball games. At the conclusion of the celebration, I gave each family a copy of “Our Family Stories.”

Using family notebooks in and out of the classroom benefited all of us. Students practiced their language arts and social studies skills and learned some basic points of historical inquiry. They also spent some special moments with their families learning about times gone by. Students, teacher, and parents all learned from each other’s families. We compared our diverse experiences and discovered our commonalities. We felt a sense of community. One mother told me that she thought her son “increased his sense of family history and pride.” Another said, “I loved sharing all of the stories with Brian that he was too small to remember. My favorite part was watching Brian’s different facial expressions during the story.” Many parents said that they enjoyed taking time to teach their children something that they knew a lot about. They were, after all, the world experts on their own family’s history.



1. Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy, “Strategic Learning Opportunities During Out-of-School Hours,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 10, no. 4 (March/April 1998): 10-13.

2. Sherry Field, Linda Labbo, A. W. Garrett, and R. W. Wilhelm, “To Touch, to Feel, to See: Artifact Inquiry in the Social Studies Classroom,” Social Education 60, no. 3 (1996): 141-143; M. Gail Hickey, “Bloomers, Bell Bottoms, and Hula Hoops: Artifact Collections Aid Children’s Historical Interpretation,” Social Education 61, no. 5 (1997) 293-299.

3. See, for example, Betty Shockley, Barbara Michalove, and JoBeth Allen, Engaging Families: Connecting Home and School Literacy Communities (Westport, CT: Heinemann, 1995). These authors used daily response notebooks in the classroom.

Children’s Literature

Adoff, Arnold. Black is Brown is Tan. New York: Harper Trophy, 1992.

Buckley, Helen Elizabeth. Grandfather and I. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1994; see also Grandmother and I.

Bunting, Eve. Dandelions. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995; Going Home. New York: Harper Collins, 1996; The Wednesday Surprise. New York: Clarion Books, 1989; Night Tree. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1991.

Flournoy, Valerie. The Patchwork Quilt. New York: Dial Books, 1985; Tanya’s Reunion. New York: Dial Books, 1995.

Griffith, Helen. Grandaddy’s Place. New York: Green Willow Books, 1987.

Johnson, Angela. Tell Me a Story Mama. New York: Orchard Books, 1989.

Johnston, Tony. Grandpa’s Song. New York: Dial Books, 1991.

MacLachan, Patrick. All the Places To Love. New York: Harper Collins, 1994; Three Names. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Polacco, Patricia. My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother. New York: Siman & Schuster Children’s Books, 1998; Babuska’s Doll Brother. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, 1998. (Many of Polacco’s books are perfect for family stories.)

Rylant, Cynthia. The Relatives Came. New York: Bradbury Press, 1985; When I was Young in the Mountains. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Shelby, Anne. Homeplace. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Sorensen, Henri. New Hope. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1995.

Williams, Vera. A Chair for My Mother. New York: Green Willow Books, 1982.


About the Author

Stacy Schwartz is a doctoral student in elementary education at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She taught kindergarten, second, and fourth grades in McDonough, Georgia.



The Day Kelsey Was Born

It was still dark outside on August 1, 1993 when I awoke. I was too excited to sleep because today I was going to the hospital to have a BABY! A little something in my brain kept saying, “Look out the front window,” so finally I got up out of bed and peeked out the window—WOW, oh my goodness! I saw the big new house across the street on fire. Luckily, nobody had moved into the house yet. Huge red flames were shooting out the windows. I ran to the phone and dialed 911. Four fire trucks came, but the house was still totally demolished. The firemen could only control the blaze—not put it out. It was extremely windy that morning—embers were blowing everywhere. Kelsey’s dad had to get on our roof with a water hose and spray it so the embers wouldn’t start our house on fire too.

Everybody in the neighborhood came out. They thought I was having my baby at home, with all the excitement going on. Kelsey’s dad got a picture of me and my big belly standing on the fire truck. All of our neighbors and friends will never forget the day Kelsey was born—the day of the big fire!

After the last fire truck left, Kelsey’s dad put me in the car and drove me to the hospital. Kelsey was born!

— Kelsey’s Mom


The Monster Under My Bed

My name is Ally, and I am five years old. I have a monster under my bed. My monster is the same age that I am, and sometimes I play with her. Some people even say that my monster looks like me, but I do not think so. At night time when I am getting ready for bed, my monster brushes her teeth with me. When my Mom and Dad come in to give me a kiss goodnight my monster gets a goodnight kiss too. Sometimes my monster and I talk when we are supposed to be going to sleep. Mom and Dad have to tell us to be quiet. At night time I can hear her snore and sometimes it can keep me awake. I am glad that I have a monster under my bed. You see, it is my twin sister Rebecca and she sleeps in the bunk below me. We have a lot of fun. –Ally


Our Family Welcomes Andrew

On January 10, 1999, Mommy went to the hospital about 11:30 at night. Kara and Courtney were both asleep. Our neighbor, Nancy, came over until our Meemaw and Grandy came over about 5:30 in the morning. About 1:00 in the morning, Mommy called Grammie and Grampa and told them it was time. Andrew was born at 2:06 a.m. It was January 11, 1999, a Monday morning. Meemaw drove Kara to school and Meemaw and Courtney went back to her house. Later that day, Meemaw, Grandy, Kara, Courtney, and our cousin, Micah, went to the store and bought a plant for Andrew. We took it to the hospital. Daddy met us downstairs and we walked upstairs to meet our brother, Andrew, for the first time. We got to wear our “big sister” t-shirts that we made. The nurses brought some “big sister” stickers for us. Our friend, Michelle, and her daughter, Emily, gave us some pencils that said, “It’s a boy!” She also sent some candy bars that announced our baby. Mommy came home the next day. It was a Tuesday.

— Kara