Discovering Your Heritage
Students are asked to interview their families about their cultural heritage, create a family tree, and map their journeys to America
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
This lesson will give students a better understanding of why America is thought of as a mosaic of cultures and the role they play in the picture. We will discuss why immigrants have come to the United States from all over the world and what makes America's diversity special. Students will interview a family member to learn more about their heritage and what brought their family to the United States. They will build a family tree and record a part of their family's oral history to preserve it for generations to come.
- Write at least three interview questions that help them gain important information about their family background.
- Interview a family member about their heritage.
- Listen to and record part of their family's oral history.
- Correctly create and label a family tree going back a minimum of two generations.
- Compare and contrast cultural traditions and influences among class members.
- Use a map to chart the path their parents, grandparents, or other ancestors took from another country to the United States, leading to the student's current hometown.
- I use the following two books when teaching this lesson, but you may substitute an appropriate title of your own or one from my booklist for this unit: Coming to America: The Story of Immigration and Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia
- Family Interview (See Day 1, Step 8)
- Family Tree (PDF)
- Large World Map
- World Map reproducible printed on 8.5 x 11 inch paper
- Multi-colored adhesive circles or small stickers
- Chart paper
- Yarn or ribbon (optional)
- Dry-erase or chalkboard
Set Up and Prepare
- Check your school calendar and decide on a date that you would like to hold the culminating event, Diversity Day. Plan to begin your unit approximately five weeks beforehand.
- Read through all of Lesson One's four parts thoroughly before you begin. Set up a time line for each activity's due date. I recommend approximately two days be given for the interview, one week for the Family Tree (PDF), and one week for the Page From History. In the past I have been very successful beginning this unit right before Thanksgiving or the winter holidays and assigning all three pieces to be due after vacation. This works well because many students are able to gain insight from the extended family members they see during the holidays.
- Prepare the Family Interview questions and Page from History assignment for your class. (See the sample texts for both of these below.) Cut and paste the text into word processing documents, then personalize it with your own formatting or clip art. Print and make a copy of each for all your students.
- Print and make enough copies of the Family Tree (PDF) reproducible for your students. Make a transparency if you plan to use this with an overhead for modeling.
- Using geography resources you have or one from my booklist, make each class member a copy of a reproducible world map that outlines countries and continents clearly.
- Display a clean sheet of chart paper you will use to list names of countries.
- Cut several pieces of yarn students can use to link their hometown with their countries origin. Coordinate the yarn lengths with the size of the world map you will be using in Part Four and the distance of the country.
- Gather colored adhesive dots for the students to use on the maps. Use one color for every continent you have represented in your classroom. I use small star stickers.
The directions for Lesson One are divided into teaching days, not consecutive calendar days. For example, Part One: Discovering Your Heritage is taught in two days, but the duration will be longer because there is a homework assignment involved that requires a few extra days for completion. You may also choose to overlap some of the parts in Lesson One.
Part One: Discovering Your Heritage
Duration: 1 day
Step 1: Read and discuss the book Coming to America: The Story of Immigration.
Step 2: Tell your students that for many years America has been called a melting pot. Discuss the possible meanings of that term with your class. Revisit the book you read in Step 1 to discuss the differences and similarities in the vast number of immigrants who have come to America.
Step 3: Introduce and read this famous quote from Jimmy Carter: "We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams." Introduce the definition of a mosaic.
Step 4: Discuss the differences between a "melting pot" and a "mosaic." Ask students why they believe the term "mosaic" may or may not be more accurate than "melting pot" when describing Americans. Inform students that they are an important part of the American mosaic. See the optional Mosaic Americans activity in the Extensions section below. Choosing to do this activity may add one extra day to your timeframe.
Step 5: Ask students to share the country their ancestors originally came from. Record answers on chart paper. From my experience, those in the lower grades will often give you the name of a state or the name of any country they have heard of regardless of their heritage. Redirect students who do not name countries, but record names of all countries given. Save this chart.
Step 6: Tell students that in order to find out more about their heritage they will need to conduct an interview with an expert source, and the most informed expert would be a member of their very own family. Brainstorm different questions students could ask their parents or another family member in order to gather facts about their family background. Explain to students that they will gain the greatest information from open-ended questions.
Step 7: Distribute copies of the Family Interview to all students you created. Provide class time for students to write three to five more questions they want to ask a family member. Allow approximately two days or a weekend for the interview to be completed at home.
Step 8: Have students share their interview findings with the class after they're completed.
Family Interview Sample Text
Pick an adult in your family to interview. Tell that person the purpose of the interview is to gather information about your heritage and ancestors. Ask your questions and write down their responses. If the person you are interviewing is unable to answer the questions, try to find another family member who may have the information you need.
Name of person being interviewed:
Relationship (mother, grandfather, etc.):
Tell me about my relatives/ancestors. What country/ countries did they come from and when?
What is my heritage? (Example: African-American, Italian-American, Chinese-American, etc.)
Tell me about the path one of our relatives took from another country or another part of the United States. How did that lead to us living in our hometown?
Make up at least three more of your own questions to ask. Each question should help you gain more information about your family's cultural background. Make sure you do not ask questions with yes/no answers.
Part Two: Your Family Tree
Duration: 1 day
Step 1: Draw a large picture of a tree on the board. Include roots and branches that extend outward.
Step 2: Ask students if they have ever heard of a family tree. Discuss what a family tree is and why the name is fitting. Make reference to the concepts of family roots and branches. Model the creation of a family tree by writing your name near the bottom of the tree trunk. Above your name write the names of your mother and father, explaining what you're doing. Continue labeling your tree back another generation or two in order to illustrate how these trees "branch out" with each prior generation.
Step 3: Distribute copies of the Family Tree (PDF) reproducible. Together, have students fill their names in the very bottom blank at the base of the tree. Students can then fill in names of their brothers and sisters. Next, tell the class to fill in the first and last name of their father and mother on the appropriate blank line. Students may provide maiden names if possible. Stop students at this point.
Step 4: Establish a due date and have students complete the tree at home with the assistance of a family member. The expectation is that it will be carefully filled in to the best of their ability and neatly colored. I always keep extra copies of the Family Tree (PDF) on hand and give students the option of using the first one as a rough draft and the second as their final copy. If you have students whose family situation leaves them unable to fill in a name at any level, modify the assessment of this activity to allow for only one side of the tree to be completed or for some blank lines to be acceptable.
Part Three-Your Family's Oral History
Duration: 1 day
Step 1: Introduce the book Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia or another book of your choice that depicts distinct family traditions. Activate prior knowledge and ask for volunteers to define the word "tradition." Discuss the author's childhood traditions in her rural Hispanic-American community as described in the story written in both English and Spanish. Point out that in writing this book, the author was recording her family's history.
Step 2: Ask students to share any of their family traditions with the class. Compare and contrast cultural influences in holiday traditions, the area in which most students are likely to have customs and traditions.
Step 3: Tell students that as they grow older it can be important to pass along family stories and traditions. Let them know that their own family has many valuable memories and stories that should be preserved for future generations.
Step 4: Inform students that they are about to become family historians. They will be listening to a story about their family and transcribing it for posterity. Hand out the assignment, A Page from History. Go over the directions with the class. Establish a due date for the assignment to be completed at home and returned in a timely manner.
Step 5: Allow students to share their stories with their classmates when they are completed and returned to school.
A Page from History Sample Text
In many families stories are handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Ask someone in your family -- a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, etc., to tell you a story about a relative or ancestor who came to America. Listen closely to the story.
The story should be of importance to your family and be related to your being here today. Examples include: how your grandparents met, why your family settled in your hometown, or why someone came to the United States in the first place.
Rewrite the story in your own words. Try to remember as much as you can about what you heard. You are recording your family's oral history. You may publish your story using the computer or in your neatest handwriting. This project will be due ______________.
Part Four: Charting Their Course
Duration: 1–2 days
Step 1: After the interviews and Page from History stories have been returned, discuss with your class what they have learned about their family's heritage. Revisit the country list that was created on chart paper in Part One, Step 5. Ask the class to once again share the countries in their cultural background. Add or cross off countries on the original list as needed.
Step 2: Using a large world map, work with students in small groups, having each child put one adhesive sticker on every country listed in their interview as part of their heritage. You may choose to color code the dots, one color for each continent. For an even stronger visual impact, have students attach yarn or ribbon to one end of their dot and secure the other end of yarn to your current hometown with a second sticker.
Step 3: Compare and contrast where the stickers have been placed. Which countries and continents have the most stickers? Do members of your classroom seem to have similar or different backgrounds? Discuss how the map may look if this activity had been done in classrooms in other parts of the world or even in other parts of the country or your state.
Step 4: Using a transparency of a world map, or a large write-on wall map (without stickers on it!) model how they are going to chart the path that a member(s) of one side of their family took from a foreign country to their hometown. For example, I would make a dot in Krakow, Poland where my grandfather was born, because he was the nearest family member born outside of the U.S. I would explain that he immigrated to New York, so I would put a second dot there. Next, he moved to northern Michigan where my father was born, so I would plot a point there. My next dot would be in Detroit where my father moved to from northern Michigan and met my mother. I grew up in Romeo, Michigan so I would put a dot there. I currently live in Rochester Hills, Michigan, so my final "hometown" dot would be placed there. Finally, I would take a ruler and "connect the dots" in order to show the class how my ancestry has led me from another country to where I live today. While you're modeling, remind students not to include every city where their family has lived, only those of significance.
Step 5: Hand out the world map copies and ask students to use the information they've learned to mark their plot points on the map, and then connect them with a ruler. When completed, these lines should lead from a foreign country to the child's hometown. Some students in your classroom may have very few dots to plot on their maps if they immigrated recently. Because those children will be complete their maps quickly, have them act as peer coaches.
Supporting All Learners
I have had great success teaching this lesson with students at all ability levels and learning styles. While teaching the different parts of this lesson, please be sensitive and accommodating toward varying family structures in your classroom. When the unit begins, I let my students know that heritage is defined as the customs and traditions that are passed on from generation to generation. Never allow children who are adopted or from a non-traditional family setting to think for one moment that they do not know their true heritage. Make it clear to all students that your heritage comes not from your bloodlines, but from the cultural traditions you are brought up with.
There are multitudes of extras you can do with your students when teaching a multicultural unit. Some ideas include:
Bilingual Students: Your students who speak a second language may want to publish their Page from History in both of their languages just like the author of Family Pictures did. It would also be appropriate for students to write the story in one language and for their parents to translate the story to a second language.
Classroom Décor: When teaching this unit, I have students decorate our room and the school hallways with crafts from around the world. Working with parents or your school's art teacher, consider introducing your class to multicultural crafts such as Native American sand painting, Oriental scroll painting, Scandinavian quilling or Columbian weaving. See my booklist for resources you can use to bring out the creative side of your students.
Mapping: Students can extend the Charting Their Course Activity by plotting points on both the maternal and paternal sides of their family. The plot points from the two different lineages would come together wherever their mother and father settled together.
Mosaic Americans: During this project, students create one "American" made up of several different people the students find in magazines. In the top half of a sheet of construction paper, have students draw a large oval that will be the head of their "Mosaic American." On the bottom half of the paper students draw an outline of their person's body, including arms, legs, hands and feet. Going through magazines, students tear out several pictures of people. Tell your students to search for as many different skin tones as they can find. Have students cut out the prominent facial features they will need for their person such as two eyes, a nose, mouth, and ears. Instruct the students that no two features should come from the same person's picture. Next, have students cut the skin colored pieces they have found into small squares (anywhere from between one half to one inch wide.) Working with one small part of their person at a time, students should spread liquid glue over a small area then cover it with the cut pieces of varying skin tones. The facial features should be glued on top of the skin that has been laid down. Once the face is completed, students can use other colors from the magazine to design an outfit, shoes and/or hairstyle for their person. After their Mr. or Mrs. Mosaic American is finished, have students cut them out and name them. Before displaying these multicultural people, I have students write a brief personal narrative explaining what it means to them to live in country that is like a "beautiful mosaic."
Persuasive Paper: Students can write a persuasive paper taking a stand on whether the United States should limit the number of immigrants who can enter America each year.
You will need more than usual parental support for this lesson. Students must be able to find a reliable family member/adult who can give them accurate information about their ancestors. With each piece of homework that goes home with your students during this lesson, provide a note for the parents explaining exactly what their child is expected to do and how they can help. You may want to ask parent volunteers to come in to help students during Part Four while the students plot their ancestors' path to America. Many students may have geographical questions and parent volunteers will allow more students to be assisted in a timely manner.
- Write a minimum of three interview questions about their heritage.
- Conduct an interview with a family member and transcribe all answers on their paper.
- Work with an adult to label at least three generations on a family tree (PDF).
- Listen to a story about their family history, write it down and publish it.
- Chart the path their ancestors took before them that has led them to their hometown today.
Did you model each part of the lesson enough?
Do students understand that the ethnic backgrounds in this country are more diverse than in many other countries of the world?
Do students understand the importance of family traditions and customs?
Are they more aware that they their lives have been touched by cultures from different countries?
Do they know why one or more of their relatives came to America in the first place?
Did you schedule the timeframes appropriately?
Did students have enough knowledge of geography to use the world maps correctly?
Did they have enough time to work with family members on the homework assignments?
Did parents need more information concerning how they were to help with assignments?
- Were students able to write questions that would provide them with important information about their families?
- Were students able to use follow directions and use the family tree template effectively?
- Did the students choose an appropriate story to publish for their Page from History? Was the story clear, sequential, easy to understand and relevant?
- Did students correctly locate the countries of their heritage on a world map?
- Was the work that was completed the student's own? Once the assignments became homework were the student's responsible for their own learning?