Ancestry, family tree and family holiday projects in schools

The first of probably many ancestry projects has appeared in our house for the first grader along with a host of emotions that always emerge for me regarding these types of projects.  As an adopted person, I hated these projects as a child.  I was raised in a Polish American home and love the culture, but the fact was always there for me that I really am not genetically Polish.  I resented having to do projects about a heritage that really wasn’t my heritage.  As a child, I don’t think I knew my genetic background to be able to use that instead and really I’m not that interested in that either since it never played a part in my life either.  Now, having two children with an anonymous donor, this issue becomes even more complex.  Being yet another generation removed from our adopted Polish heritage, there are really no cultural remnants left in our lives.  I do know the cultural heritage of the donor, but of course that does not play any part in our lives either and I really haven’t talked to them about it yet since at 7 and 4, they are not very interested in this type of information and so it is virtually meaningless to the kids at this point since.

I was talking to a friend about it and they have part Irish heritage and use that when these projects come up because they are interested in the Irish culture, but they really don’t have any customs left in their family either.  It seems to me that as a nation, as many of the descendants of the original immigrants become more and more generations removed from their original culture, there comes a point when we just become American and don’t need to stretch any further than that, but then how do we answer all these questions?  In the course of the discussion we also recognized that there are probably all sorts of families that feel removed from an original culture.  My friend mentioned the Black Americans who are descendants of slaves who may not even be able to trace their origins to any particular country.  We are, however, a diverse country and I still think it is important to learn about different cultures, but maybe these types of ancestry projects are not the way to go.  Why not take a geography tour and randomly hit some countries on each continent?  If the projects are in the spirit of getting the kids to share about themselves, more generic questions about family traditions or other non ancestry related things would work as well. In later grades, many of the projects I remember were just to get us to research.  This would not have to be framed in an ancestry way at all; why can’t students just pick a culture that is of interest to them?  I think all teachers need to consider the learning objectives of such a project and find a way to frame them in a more broad and inclusive manner so as not to create an uncomfortable assignment for some students.

While we are on the topic of projects that can alienate and make kids feel bad, I would be remiss not to mention the all too common family tree project.  As a single mom by choice, there is much talk in my community of single moms about what to do when this assignment comes home.  Mikki Morisette, author of Choosing Single Motherhood, has developed a family tree tradition with her kids where all the people that are important in their lives are written on the stem, leaves and petals of a flower.  This depiction does not make it seem like an entire branch of the tree is missing, because in reality, nothing is missing, we have all we need to sustain us, it is just different.  In today’s day and age, there are so many different kinds of families.  Dads may be gone through death, divorce, incarceration or mom may be gone.  There may be two moms or two dads.  Kids may be being raised by grandma and grandpa.  Who knows?  The possibilities are endless.  Again, I think it is important for educators to look at the assignment and figure out what the educational objective is and find a way to make it an inclusive assignment that will not make kids feel bad.

There are also the typical family related holiday assignments that appear around mother’s day,  father’s day, grandparents’ day.  I have already had a father’s day gift come home saying things like “my dad’s name is Jim” (that is grandpa’s name), “my dad’s favorite food is…”, etc.  The kids took it in stride, but I was a bit peaved.  How hard would it have been to reprint the fill in the blank page with Grandpa instead of dad all over it?  I sent the daycare this email in response:

“I just want to give you a heads up that it seems your staff could use a bit more training in diversity awareness. Today my kids came home with father’s day projects saying “my dad’s name is… my dad likes to do… etc” and my kids do not have a dad. It would not have been hard to reprint this fill in the blank activity with grandpa or uncle or friend or whatever might be appropriate for any untraditional families to share with those who are like dads to them to celebrate this holiday with their friends. Also what a great opportunity to talk to the kids about how all families are different. I recommend The Family Book by Todd Parr to read to kids. It is a fun colorful age appropriate book.”

Of course I got no response, but I did my part to educate the “educators” on diversity.  Part of the ancestry assignment we just got home had a line on it that said: “my dad was born in (city, state)”.  I politely asked for another one to be sent home with that line deleted so that my son would not feel like he is missing something or give kids a reason to question him about it.  Kids will ask and my kids are comfortable saying they don’t have a dad, but there is no reason to create extra opportunities for questioning.  I promptly was given a copy without that line and apologies that it wasn’t done before I got it the first time.  I don’t get mad when these things happen, as I expect them to, but I also am not afraid to ask for changes to be made to make assignments more sensitive to the diversity in our world. It is a hard job to be sensitive to all sorts of situations, but it is possible!


As evidence of my thoughts that a 7 year old doesn’t really understand or care about cultural heritage and proof that we are truly American and no longer tied to any other culture, here are the answers my son provided to his assignment (even after brief explanations of what the questions meant):

My ancestors are from “Ohio”

Some interesting things about my culture are: “we celebrate Christmas, Santa visits us on Christmas Eve, the Easter Bunny visits us on Easter”

Some ethnic foods my family likes to eat are: “tacos, macaroni and cheese and pulled pork”


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One Response to Ancestry, family tree and family holiday projects in schools

  1. I come up against this issue regularly. The first time it happened I said something to my little boy’s kindy teacher and reminded them that not everybody has the traditional family make up. They were actually very responsive to this and made an effort to be more inclusive. Off to check out the family tree tradition…

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