Planting the Seeds of Interest in Research — Help Kids Find Their Roots!

By Kristy Mall on March 28, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5

With the Ellis Island Webcast and Scholastic's new Immigration unit, you have a terrific resources to create a research project that your students will really be interested in: one about themselves! Your students will love learning more about their heritage, and you can teach them how to research using different sources — and integrate history, geography, and math into a fun project that will really impact your students' lives.

Most of us descended from immigrants, and all of our families have a story to tell. America is such a wonderful blend of cultures. By encouraging your students to celebrate their wonderful heritage, you can teach them to appreciate and respect the different cultures found here.

Introduce Immigration

Introduce the unit by teaching students about immigration to America. Many wonderful books describe the struggles that your students' ancestors might have faced coming to this country. At Ellis Island: A History in Many Voices by Louise Peacock is the story of a girl who imagines what her great-grandmother would have faced when she immigrated to America 100 years ago. It's a great story to read to the class. In addition, Scholastic has a terrific set of books for grades 3–5 called Immigration that covers everything from how to become a citizen to how names were changed at Ellis Island. There are several other sets that you can find by searching for "immigration" in the teacher store.

Ease Your Students Into Researching Themselves

An easy way to get your students started is to have them research their names. Begin by having them research their first and middle names and share what they find. There are numerous baby name Web sites and books that will explain the meanings of their names. If you have a name that you are unable to find, have them ask their parents or guardians. I had a student whose name was a combination of his parents' names, and he was very proud of the fact that he had such a unique name!

After they find the meaning of their first names, introduce the history of surnames. Surnames were given as a way of identifying which person you were referring to as the populations continued to grow. A very informative resource for this is Behind the Name. My students are always fascinated to learn, for instance, that Smith is one of the most common last names because it comes from the occupation: a blacksmith, silversmith, etc. Sometimes last names would identify an area or distinguishing feature, or would even indicate that you were the son of someone. For example, in Scottish, "McDonald" means "son of Donald"; in Irish, "O’Donnell" means "son of Donnell"; in English, "Johnson" is "son of John," and so on. I like to either project this information for them to read on my SMART Board or give them a handout so that they can see this information and really absorb it.

After you have given them some background, have them start researching their own last names. In many families, someone has already begun researching the family tree. Other families are new immigrants themselves and are a great resource for this information. Additionally, many grandparents are very excited to share this history with their grandchildren. It can be a wonderful family opportunity. The Internet is also a terrific resource. I have my students go to Behind the Name (above) or Ancestry.com, or I help them do a search for their specific ancestry (Asian name research, Spanish name research, etc.). One important fact to note is that names were often changed or misspelled as immigrants came into the country. This can make the research more difficult.

Create a Culture Project Checklist

It is easy for kids to get off track as they research, so give them a checklist of items to find. Below is an abbreviated version of what I am using this year. It integrates social studies into the unit.

Part 1

  • List at least two of your family’s last names.
  • What countries do they come from?
  • Did you find any special meaning for the name (for example, Miller is from the job of a miller, Hill could be the area that they lived, etc.).

Part 2

  • Draw maps of at least two of the countries.
  • What continent are they on?
  • Label the capitals.
  • Draw the landforms (rivers, mountains, plateaus, deserts, etc.).

Part 3

  • Find a folktale or fairy tale from your country. Read the tale and share it with the class. You can act it out, read it, or tell it (recite) from memory.

You can have your students create a notebook out of this information to turn in and then keep when they are done with the unit. Additionally, you can make it more detailed, as is appropriate for their grade level.

As they are researching, if they find any stories that they would like to share about their family, or if you are able to invite someone into the classroom to tell their story of coming to America, it really adds a lot to the lesson! I like to share what I have learned about my family history as a way to break the ice.

What to Do If They Hit a Snag

Sometimes, I have students that are adopted and have no idea about their heritage. In that case, I help them research their adopted family names. Additionally, I have had students that were Native American or whose relatives were slaves. In those cases, I have them research their Native American tribe or let them choose an area of Africa that they would like to research. In addition, sometimes students are not able to find their names because they are uncommon or haven’t been entered into a database. In that case, we research as much as we can, and I adapt the unit to fit what they are able to find.

End With a Celebration!

I like to end our unit with a cultural celebration. You can have students bring in foods or items that represent their family, such as tartans or crests; have them dress in costumes; or even create centers about their countries. Invite other classrooms to the celebration, and use it as an opportunity to celebrate that although we come from different places, we are all immigrants of one sort or another. We should all be proud of who we are and celebrate our differences as well as our similarities!

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