20 Resources for Getting to the Roots of Family Trees

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Genealogy can help your students build an emotional connection not only to their past, but to our nation’s history. Help your students get to know the personal side of history by digging into the roots of their own family tree. Use the PBS LearningMedia resources below to inspire your next lesson plan.

Exploring the Past | Lesson Plan | Social Studies | Grades 2-4
This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson, based on the series Faces of America, will challenge students to gather clues about the past through photographs, drawings and other primary sources.

Citizenship & Language | Video | Social Studies |  Grades 2-8
Use this video to help students understand why early German and Russian immigrants to the U.S. had different feelings about becoming U.S. citizens. Students will examine challenges related to language and assimilation and learn about the discrimination experienced by descendants of immigrants.

Writing a Biography | Lesson Plan | ELA & Social Studies | Grades 1-4
Students interview a family member or friend and write a short biography of that person.

Faces of America | Collection | ELA & Social Studies | Grades 2-12
What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the PBS series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The lesson plans and media resources based on the series address a wide range of topics including historic waves of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment, family genealogy, and state-of-the-art genetic research. Through this collection, students will gain a broader perspective of America’s immigrant history (both past and present) and learn what it really means to be an American.


We are the Music | Videos | Performing Arts & Social Studies | Grades 3-4
Explore the 700-year history of Santa Fe, New Mexico through the music and dance sequences of 11 cultural groups who have settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico over the past 700 years. These diverse communities include the Native Americans, Spanish, Mexicans, Crypto-Jewish, Celtic, German, Greek, Japanese, Tibetan, Sikh and the Central Americans. All performers and narrators in these segments are of school-age.

WWII Prairie Memories | Video | ELA & Social Studies | Grades 3-12
WWII Prairie Memories is a collection of segments of history communicating the personal challenges that define these heroes. This video gives current students a human side to WWII including perspectives on death, humanity, levity, and leaving home.

Family History | Lesson Plans and Videos | ELA & Social Studies| Grades 4-13+
Family stories are a rich window on the past. They can paint pictures of an important period in history through the experience, perspective, and memories of people who lived during that time. These lesson plans and videos which spin off of artifacts and family heirlooms featured in History Detectives episodes offer students opportunities to dig deeper into their own family history. Through activities that emphasize genealogical research and oral history interviews, students can begin to discover and access new information about themselves—as well as acquire the skills required to become history detectives in their own right.

Family History & Genealogical Research | Videos | ELA & Social Studies| Grades 4-13+
History Detectives' collection of resources illustrating research methodology for investigating genealogy and family history. Students examine resources and methodology designed for investigating genealogy and family history.

Digging at the Roots of Your Family Tree | Lesson Plan and Video | ELA & Social Studies | Grades 4-13+
In this activity drawing on material from Latino Americans, students reflect on their own family’s arrival to the U.S. by filling in a family tree of as many generations as possible. Students research and fill in as much information as possible on the names and birthplaces of themselves, their parents, grandparents and so on.

Historic Archaeology at Camp Nelson | Video | U.S. History| Grades 5-12
During the Civil War, Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, Kentucky was the site of an important Union supply depot, training center for U.S. Colored Troops, and refugee camp for families of African-American enlistees. Today the site is a Civil War Heritage Park. Archaeological research has uncovered artifacts left by the soldiers and their families.

The History & Legacy of U.S. Slavery | Lesson Plan | U.S. History | Grades 6-12
This lesson plan is designed to be used with the film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which shows one family's journey to come to terms with its roots as the largest slave-trading family in the history of the United States. Classrooms can use this lesson to explore the history and legacy of U.S. slavery and whether or not reparations should be made to the descendants of slaves.

Meet Genealogist Kenyatta Berry | Video | U.S. History |Grades 6-13+
This clip from Genealogy Roadshow introduces genealogist Kenyatta Berry, the president of the Association of Professional Genealogists, and provides an overview of genealogical research focusing on slave genealogy. Berry describes the benefits of tracing African American ancestry prior to the 1870 census (the first year in which African Americans were enumerated) as well as her interest in genealogy as a way of giving people an emotional connection to the past.

Genealogy Roadshow | Videos | History | Grades 6-13+
Resources include an introduction to genealogical research from two prominent genealogists, clips from the show demonstrating how personal stories connect to larger events in history, and brief historical introductions to key people, places, and events in U.S. and world history.

A Careful Cultural Balancing Act | Video | U.S. History | Grades 6-13+
When immigrants move to the U.S., many of them find it important to maintain their native country's culture. Whether it's the food, the music or different types of entertainment, continuing with traditions from their home country can help immigrants feel a sense of familiarity in a new place and also a sense of pride in their heritage. In this clip, a German woman talks about some the traditions her family has maintained now that they live in America.

All in the Family | U.S. History | Grades 9-12
In this video from Faces of America, historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discusses the difficult process of documenting family history and tracing linage back through the maternal and paternal lines, especially for African Americans. Gates examines his own family history—both what he knows about his great-great grandmother Jane Gates, who was a slave, and his great-great grandfather, a free white man who he knows nothing about. Gates then meets with poet Elizabeth Alexander and speaks with her about her ancestral lineage and her ties to British royalty.

Inheritance of Genetic Disorders | Biology | Lesson Plan| Grades 9-12
In this activity, students learn how mutations in a gene can cause disease. They simulate the inheritance patterns of several different diseases caused by recessive genes. They learn how some recessive genes confer an advantage in the heterozygous state in certain environments. Finally, they identify and research five genetic disorders they would like to know more about and present their findings to the class.

Migration Sensations | Video | Social Studies | Grades 9-12
This video segment from Faces of America follows the routes of human migration through the haplogroups. We learn that all humans have their origins in East Africa. Over time they migrated from Asia to Europe and later to North and South America. Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines the haplogroups of Elizabeth Alexander, Kristi Yamaguchi and Meryl Streep.

I Dream of Genome | Video | Biology & U.S. History | Grades 9-12
One of our strongest desires as humans is to know our roots – where we came from, and why we are the way we are. In recent years, we have been able to discover more information about ourselves than ever before, thanks to the sequencing of the human genome. Biologists, geneticists, historians and genealogists have all studied this fascinating and complex structure to find out what it can tell us about ourselves and our origins.This lesson, using segments from the PBS series Faces of America, explores the various types of genetic information contained in the human genome.

A Piece of the Pie | Video | Biology  | Grades 9-12
In this video from Faces of America, historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines how DNA can communicate ethnic identity in a manner that genealogy can’t always articulate. Gates meets with Joanna Mountain from the genetic ancestry firm 23 and Me to complete an admixture test. The test reveals not only ancestral geographical origins over a number of centuries, but also illustrates ethnic breakdown. Gates reveals the ethnic breakdown (in the form of a pie chart) of his guests including Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert, Eva Longoria and Elizabeth Alexander.


Why We Moved | Lesson Plan and Videos | U.S. History | Grade 11
In this KACV educational unit, students will learn about how efforts to help win World War II forced many American civilians to migrate. This unit includes a lesson plan and video interviews with individuals who moved during the war. Students will define migration, understand why people move, and learn about family migration within the United States during World War II.