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Considering Family Histories in the Elementary Classroom

Posted by Katherine Ireland
12 December 2013 - 8:23am


I found Heather McGregor’s post for this topic insightful, and this statement in particular at the end of her piece stood out to me: “engaging with family history shows students that their own questions about the past are important.” Elementary school is the place where students’ horizons can be narrowed just as easily as broadened, as we begin to teach them which histories are more valued than others. Barton (1997; 1996) notes that students are most likely to progress when they can ask questions and have access to sources that are significant to them; he, like Lévesque (2008), suggests family or community links are an important factor here.

Family histories can be an excellent way to introduce young students to using primary source evidence and evaluating accounts. von Heyking (2013; 2011) suggests that family histories “provide particularly rich opportunities to consider what makes certain episodes and people of the past important”, because they occurred within the living memory of people to whom students have access, such as parents and grandparents (2013, p. 37). Elementary students should be able to explore the kinds of evidence available, and create their own narratives based on evidence, in order to learn that history is not simply ‘made up’. von Heyking (2013) suggests that when they are dealing with an unfamiliar topic, children struggle with determining the validity of evidence, as well as with how historians create narratives using evidence, so using topics familiar to them such as family histories is a way for them to explore this concept with easily accessible content that is important to them (p. 38). Barton (1997; 1997) suggests that sources with personal meaning, such as family histories, help the students develop an awareness that accounts can be biased, that the reliability of sources varies, and that direct and indirect sources provide different kinds of information.

Lévesque (2008) and Letourneau and Moisan (2004) point out that family histories can seem more reliable or more legitimate than histories that have less personal significance, and like Barton, suggest that doing family histories with a disciplinary approach is essential. They also note, as do Seixas (1993) and von Heyking (2006), that family histories provide counter-narratives to the official narratives of the nation in schools, and thus are particularly important to consider in diverse classrooms. This is an important point to keep in mind when working with elementary school teachers, as we have a tendency to romanticize stories and favour emotional over cognitive engagement.

Although some scholars, such as Nichol and Dean (1997) have provided examples such as the Vikings as good content for students to explore local histories, local sites provide a local history component to the distant past in Britain the way they do not in Canada. This leads to an interesting issue: in Britain, there is more continuity from the distant to the recent past to the present than in Canada or the United States, at least from a Euro-centric perspective. If Canadian curricula were to follow Britain's lead, doing local history with distant past local sites, artifacts and stories, a far greater proportion of attention to First Nations history and culture would be required. This would likely foster some very rich learning, but would also throw our colonial history into sharp relief, which would paint every student of European descent as a recent newcomer and require considerable attention to Canada's immigration history, something which governments concerned with national identity narratives are unlikely to find appealing. 

As family histories can serve as entry points into the bigger picture of history for young students, and can help them see where their stories connect with the stories of others, it is important to consider how we can do this with young students without further marginalizing our local histories. As Madeline Knickerbocker points out powerfully in her post: “as they consider the ways in which their roots are embedded in colonial history, students might be encouraged to imagine decolonial futures.”

How do you use family histories in your history lessons?

Photo: Author's photo; Dieppe, France.


Barton, K. C. (1997). ‘I just kinda know’: elementary students' ideas about historical evidence. Theory and research in social education, 25(4), 407-430.

Barton, K. C. (1996). Narrative simplifications in elementary children’s historical understanding. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching 6: Teaching and learning history (pp. 51-83). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Letourneau, J., & Moisan, S. (2004). Young people’s assimilation of a collective historical memory: a case study of Quebeckers of French-Canadian heritage. In P. Seixas (Ed.), Theorizing Historical Consciousness (pp. 109-128). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Lévesque, S. (2008). Thinking historically: Educating students for the twenty-first century. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Nichol, J., & Dean, J. (1997). History 7-11: developing primary teaching skills. London; New York: Routledge.

Sexias, P. (1993). Parallel crises: History and the social studies curriculum in the USA. Journal of curriculum studies, 25(3), 235-50.

von Heyking, A. (2013). Teaching elementary students to think historically. In R. Case, & P. Clark. The anthology of social studies: issues and strategies for elementary teachers (pp. 35-64). Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.

von Heyking, A. (2011). Historical thinking in elementary education: A review of research. In P. Clark (Ed.), New possibilities for the past: Shaping history education in Canada (pp. 175-94). Vancouver: UBC Press.

von Heyking, A. (2006). Fostering a Provincial Identity: Two Eras in Alberta Schooling. Canadian Journal of Education (29)4, 1127-1156.