Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

When Family Tree Projects Frustrate Students, Community Maps Are an Inclusive Alternative

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Paper people on the blue paper background
 (5second/ iStock)

From Nourishing Caregiver Collaborations: Elevating Home Experiences and Classroom Practices for Collective Care by Nawal Qarooni © 2024 by Stenhouse Publishers/Taylor & Francis. Reproduced with permission.

No doubt, you’re familiar with the traditional family tree project. My own kids come home with these year after year, a stenciled outline that they need to fill in with great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and siblings. For my children, being raised in a two-parent household with strong connections to both sets of grandparents, this has been a fine project that goes fairly smoothly in each instance. A few phone calls to Mama Mahnaz and Abuelo get them the names of family members from Iran and Puerto Rico that they need. But as we know, all families are different. These family tree projects have the potential to be both frustrating for students and alienating to their caregivers. When I spoke with longtime educator and school leader Nefertari Nkenge, she shared such an example of frustration about her daughter’s experience, particularly around a “normed expectation of who lives in the house.”

“It would have just been Mom and her. But she made it about 12 brothers and sisters, and that made me grin. The teacher interrogated her and made her feel some kind of way. Jendayi considered her godsiblings who spend the night; I’m Mama Nefertari to all these children; my daughter calls their mothers Aunties — so she’s listing names. The teacher says, these are your siblings? The teacher just couldn’t understand.”

A more inclusive and culturally sustaining approach would replace these experiences of othering and frustration. Nefertari contended: “Our family experiences — verbal tradition as an African people — it’s not something that’s going to be captured in a paper-and-pencil family tree. Nor is the respect we give our non-blood relatives, many of whom are elders we learn from. It would never get the depth of what I shared now, or what my daughter understood in the third grade. To visualize and draw illustrations of experiences with this large family — even though it’s just the two of us — it needs the narrative for us. For Black and Brown people, for you to see the depth of what we’re describing . . . in the end, I wanted to communicate: see how rich the narrative is in who we are? That is never captured in literacy assignments in schools, nor is it captured in the ways we give credence to it in our own traditional way.”

Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, especially, have longstanding and deep understandings of the importance of the collective and, furthermore, the far-reaching relational ties that shape knowledge of ourselves and who we are. Indigenous scholar Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner writes, “Kinship, as conceived of by Indigenous scholars, does not refer merely to hetero-nuclear families or biological relatives (TallBear 2018; Whyte 2021). Rather, ‘kinship’ is used to describe the relationships between all entities that share responsibilities for one another.” And also, “Indigenous conceptions of kinship expand beyond Western conceptions of family and include relationships among humans, non-humans, animals, plants and spirits — these relationships inform Indigenous knowledge systems.” We can learn from these deeply rooted ways of being. If we are to honor all families and their ways of being, we must design curricular activities with collective inclusivity in mind.


I imagine the objective of the original family tree exercise was never to fill in box after box in rote fashion but to foster curiosity among children and conversation with their elders around history, connection and contribution. An alternative that acknowledges a more nuanced reality of family structures, while, at the same time, speaking to a broader collective behind every child, would be a free-form community map, taking the same concept of illustrating connections between the child and those who have an impact on their lives, while still eliciting conversation between the students and adults around the history of connections. Community maps can thoughtfully tease out a literacy ideal we all appreciate, weaving a textured tapestry of unique individuals with myriad experiences toward a greater collective that is inherently beautiful because of its nuances.

Some people who have played an enormous role in raising me would never have shown up on a traditional family tree graphic organizer. Amu Hamid, with his ceaseless guidance, unending support and unconditional love, wouldn’t have had a place on a simple stencil, because he was my father’s sister’s husband. But the reality is, he was one of the people who raised me. I was one of his daughters. He piloted my daily decision making with compassion, care, and experience. If I were a student able to design the outline of my adult community, he would’ve shown up as the family giant.

To get started with community map projects, you might offer students and their caregivers an open-ended set of ideas along with a few quick parameters and find this is plenty to inspire a variety of individual products. Leaving the process open allows for families to cocreate and coimagine with their children. And, when they share their final projects, I often marvel at folks’ oohing and ahhing, which almost always results in an even greater degree of imaginative iterating and dreaming of interesting projects further down the line. I generally make the following suggestions and leave the rest to them:

  • Visually represent the people in your collective who support you.
  • You’re welcome to use a tree form to guide you, but feel free to diverge from that template to represent your loved ones in the way that makes most sense to you.
  • Draw connections between the people in your life using visuals.

Just as my Amu Hamid had superhero-like individual strengths that contributed to our family collective as a whole, as students and their caregivers work on this project, invite them to highlight how different individuals have made them stronger together with prompts like:

  • Who is this person to me?
  • What makes them unique?
  • What talents do they bring to our family/group/community?
  • How does having them with us bring us closer and make us stronger?
  • What might our collective look like if we were missing this person’s contributions?
  • How did our loved ones who have passed contribute meaning to our family? How did they shape us? How might we keep their legacies alive?
  • How do we ensure their memories are a continued blessing?

Dream big here. Read aloud from books where families look different. Prompt children to share with peers before brainstorming on paper. In one second-grade Chicago classroom, students discarded the tree image altogether and, instead, talked about who grows in their hearts after their teacher mentioned all the different contributors to her garden: bees, flowers, weeds, birds. All of those elements contribute to and nurture the garden’s vibrancy, just like all of the people in our hearts.

These community maps can even be co-constructed with caregivers or orchestrated as a collaborative family project in schools, which is particularly impactful with siblings in multiple grades. They can begin on family literacy nights and end in a cumulative showcase, or they can be smaller-scale and more personal in nature. Either way, the conversations that ensue as a result of creating community maps are invaluable representations of a literacy ideal that ultimately frames much of what we aim to accomplish as teachers.


Nawal Qarooni is a Jersey City-based educator, writer and adjunct professor who supports a holistic approach to literacy instruction and family experiences in schools across the country. Drawing on her work as an inquiry-based leader, mother and proud daughter of immigrants, Nawal’s pedagogy is centered in the rich and authentic learning all families gift their children every day. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work with schools and districts to collectively grow teacher practice and children’s literacy lives. In addition, she is a member of the National Council for Teachers of English Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English; she evaluates manuscripts for Reese Witherspoon’s LitUp program, which platforms historically underrepresented voices in publishing; and she serves on the Library of Congress Literacy Awards Advisory Board, which funds powerful literacy programming across the country. Nawal holds a Bachelor of English from the University of Michigan, a Master of Teaching from Brooklyn College and a Master of Journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. She won a New Jersey Press Association Award for her international reporting and transitioned into education as a New York City Teaching Fellow.

lower waypoint
next waypoint