Getting started

10th June 2005 at 01:00
* Start pupils off with a clear learning objective and provide them with a clear question to follow up. For example, the First World War time capsule project asks students to look for evidence of what life was like for one generation of their family at a particular moment in time.

Similarly, the industrial Britain assignment requires them to find out what living and working conditions were like for their ancestors during the late 19th century, by examining census returns to find out how many members of their family were living in the same house at that time, at what age they were working, the age they were living to, and so on.

* Organise the research: advise students to think carefully about how they are going to organise all the information they find. A card index or a ring binder with inserts will help to categorise information into individuals, surnames or generations. Plastic wallets will also help organise copies of important documents and certificates. If they want to look at original documents, for example at the Public Records Office, they will need to bring a pencil and notepad. Strictly no ball-point pens.

* Presentation and computer software: To set out the research as a drop-line chart (the classic family tree diagram) freeware can be found at websites (eg - but be prepared to share data with other researchers. Or invest in specialist software; there are many examples on the market. The one I use, Family Historian (published by Calico Pie, pound;50) is extremely user-friendly. It can process text and pictures, and produce different family tree configurations. You'll find more examples of genealogy software at websites such as or computer shops like PC World. If you use software, make sure it saves your work in GEDCOM files, the universal family tree file type, that enables you to share data with other researchers.

* The best source of family history is your family. Pupils are often amazed by just how much family and relatives know but have never shared with each other. I have tried filming and recording interviews with relatives, but often people, especially the elderly, are inhibited by microphones and cameras. It is far better to put pen to paper and write to relatives with a request for specific information. Planning a lesson on the Battle of the Atlantic, I asked an aunt for information on her brother who had died during the conflict. She then contacted naval veterans via a specialist magazine, and I was eventually inundated with letters from sailors who had been present when my uncle's merchant ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

A few words of warning

* I always advise pupils that before they start an investigation it is wise to discuss what they hope to find out with their parents. Pupils may discover "skeletons" in family cupboards. Often these are merely intriguing, but sometimes they can reveal deeper, more personal stories.

Quite early on in my research I was amazed to find out that my mother had been brought up by her grandparents after her own mother accidentally became pregnant by the local bobby: pupils may need to be protected from such chance discoveries.

* Many genealogy websites provide information on a pay-to-view basis, so adult permission and supervision is needed.

* Finally, pupils may be keen to use original documents or artefacts as part of their presentation. Discourage them from doing so as authentic items such as these are priceless and relatives won't forgive you if they are damaged or stray from the final display. A clear photograph or photocopy works just as well.

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