Root through family trees

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Looking into the lives of their own ancestors involves students - and their relatives - in authentic historical research, says Chris Higgins

In response to the growing interest in family history prompted by such programmes as Who Do You Think You Are? and websites giving access to national archives of official documents such as birth certificates and census returns, at Invicta Grammar School in Kent we have been encouraging our students to conduct research into their own families.

This type of work offers many advantages. Pupils engage in original research, taking them beyond conventional textbook and source-based studies. It helps improve their understanding of distant or obscure periods of history, because they can relate important events to the impact they had on their own ancestors or members of their local community. It provides meaningful extension work for gifted and talented pupils.

Most significantly, it encourages greater family involvement in children's learning. Parents say they enjoy such projects as much as their children, and that their children have also enjoyed making contact with elderly or distant relatives and having a genuine shared topic of interest to discuss together.

The history curriculum offers many opportunities for family research projects. We have had particular success with three activities, covering the Industrial Revolution, the First World War and cross-school competitions to investigate and write about local history.

Examples of students' work appear on the school website (click index and 'History Politics'), and we are collecting family memories for use in future projects in the 'Family Local History' section.

Working in industrial Britain

As part of a conventional assignment on living and working conditions in Victorian Britain, pupils were offered the chance to include a section in their work comparing national standards with those of their Victorian ancestors. Having first shown them how I had gone about the same task with my own family, using online census returns and family history websites, the pupils then set about their own independent research.

The results were astonishing. Most students not only took up the challenge of the extension task, but produced some revealing and, at times, deeply moving accounts.

One girl discovered that her great, great grandfather worked as a lock-keeper in relative comfort, another that her great, great grandparents' house had been reconstructed brick-by-brick in a museum of industrial life. One girl contacted relatives in Sri Lanka and was able to compare living standards in this far corner of Asia with those in smoggy Victorian Britain.

One of the most moving projects revealed how one pupil's great, great, great grandmother had died in childbirth and how her daughter had been brought up by foster parents because the father had to keep working. He had kept in touch with his daughter, though, and the project included moving examples of the correspondence between father and absent child.

First World War time capsule

Each year, following a trip to the battlefield sites at Ypres, we ask pupils to produce a piece of work exploring the conditions people lived and fought under during the First World War. To develop their research skills and encourage them to think about the different types of information we can use to build up a rich picture of the past, we ask them to imagine they have taken down an old shoe box or photo album from the attic and found a forgotten collection of artefacts, documents, photos etc, that tell the story of one person's experience of war.

Pupils can base this time capsule on either an imaginary character provided for them on a special role card - for example, a war artist, a female factory worker or a conscientious objector - or an actual member of their family. Again, it is important to show students how war memorials or public records such as the Commonwealth Graves Commission website can best be used. but, with a minimal amount of preparation, pupils are quickly poring over original documents and archive materials like professional historians.

Following a few phone calls around her family, one girl discovered that her own great grandfather fought at Ypres and she was able to include in her time capsule a photograph of a letter-opener fashioned from a piece of shrapnel and decorated with authentic regimental buttons.

Another pupil based her capsule on her great, great uncle, who had died during the First World War. She included photocopies of postcards, regimental photos and, most moving of all, the last letter he wrote to his mother, three days before he died.

Local history competitions

We have run two local history competitions this year across the school.

Although the focus is not strictly family history, it does help to foster similar historical skills. Pupils undertake their own detective work; often, they look at original artefacts and this also gets them talking to family members of all ages about long forgotten events in the past. In the autumn, we ran a competition to record local ghost stories - an excellent way to get even the most uninterested children switched on to local history.

This term, we are holding a local hero competition. The gauntlet was thrown down after Giles Guthrie, curator of human history at Maidstone Museum, spoke to the pupils about one of his favourite local heroes - the intrepid Victorian explorer, Julius Brenchley. Giles came into an assembly and used real artefacts to help describe how this latter day Indiana Jones survived attacks from native warriors and falls down volcanic craters.

The challenge is now on for key stage 3 pupils to write about someone they similarly admire, who was born, brought up or lived close to their family home in Kent. Although the competition is still open, I have already had entries from students writing about great grandparents who fought heroically in both world wars, and one girl whose great, great grandmother was a suffragette and chained herself to the railings of Buckingham Palace.

Chris Higgins teaches history at Invicta Grammar School, Maidstone, Kent

* Chris Higgins is planning to produce a short guide to researching family history with students, which will be available from the Invicta History website: www. invicta.kent.

Here he suggests some sites and resources useful in getting started.

Warn parents and pupils that parts of these two sites have pay per view sections and you can expect to pay around pound;6 for a limited time access or a set number of credits: www.1901 national

These sites are completely free:


The Commonwealth Graves Commission:

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