What's the best way to approach the theme of families for upper-grade and middle school students? Instructor talked with fifth-grade teacher Sandy Kaser of Tucson, Arizona, about a family studies unit she developed to encourage her students to explore different ethnic groups and types of families. Sandy has had a diverse group of students in her classroom, including Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and Caucasians, but she's had mixed reactions from them on past multicultural units. Sandy started talking with her colleagues about a family studies unit that would draw students in. The following activities were the result of her search. Sandy says this unit, which has also been spotlighted in If This Is Social Studies, Why Isn't It Boring (Stenhouse, 1994), was one of the most successful in her 17 years of teaching.
Start with Reading
Begin by assembling a variety of resources into "text sets" focusing on specific family themes, such as fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, family stories, and family issues (including foster families and families with people with disabilities). Stores the materials for each theme — including quick-to-read picture books, arcticles, and poetry, and longer fiction and nonfiction in separate plastic bins. To introduce the sets, schedule 45 minutes for small groups to browse through each set and choose one to read more thoroughly. During the next two weeks, encourage each group to pore through its bin, reading, discussing, and recording responses in logs before selecting several subjects to research in depth. In the end, have each group present two of the issues they discussed, which might inspire students to share their own family stories.
Raise the Comfort Level
Kids can feel uneasy when discussing personal issues such as family backgrounds and cultural identities. To help them feel more comfortable, be willing to share about your own experiences and family history. You can also use literature to introduce sensitive issues. For example, introduce a discussion on racism after reading Angel Child, Dragon Child by Michele Maria Surat, a story of a Vietnamese girl who attends an American school. Or begin a discussion of homelessness with Eve Bunting's Fly Away Home, the story of a father and son who live in an airport.
Get to Know Each Other
Invite students to interview each other to gather information and to practice these skills for future activities. Before students ask questions, have them check out interviews on television and in magazines. Students then can brainstorm what they want to know about each other. Later, encourage students to publish their completed interviews in a classroom newspaper.
Where's My Name From?
Challenge students to find out the how and why they got their names by distributing the What's in a Name Reproducible (PDF), below, for them to take home and share with their families. Is anyone named after a famous person in history? A family member? Encourage students to present their name "mysteries" to the rest of the class. Not only do students like researching their names, but the activity encourages them to engage their parents in a discussion about other family memories!
I Remember When...
Invite students to collect family memory stories by asking their parents to relate a memory such as "I remember when you were born," or "I remember when you broke your foot." Have students record these stories in writing for their classmates; later, collect the stories into a class book. To help students present their stories orally, invite a storyteller into the classroom to share drama, music, and movement techniques. You might also try creating a "story rope," on which students tie objects that represent their memories; once the items are in place, students take turns telling the stories behind the objects.
Time Line of My Family
Encourage students to explore their own lives and the lives of their families through time lines. Have students first do a time line of their life from birth to their current grade, recording such events as learning to read, learning to ride a bike, losing a first tooth, and starting school.
Next, challenge students to create a 100-year time line of their family's history! Since most students can't immediately recite a century of family history, this project prompts family research and lots of reminiscences and discussions about cultural heritage. Events students record on their time lines can include immigration dates, moves across town and across the country, work history, marriages, divorces, births, and deaths. In addition to dates, have students post objects such as photos, postcards, and souvenirs on their timelines. Later, ask students to write up the mini-stories behind at least ten of their dates or chosen objects. After students present their projects, challenge the class to find similarities in all the timelines. Do several make reference to other events of the time period, such as "around when we saw the Beatles" or "the year Kennedy died"? This can become a great prompt for students to learn about historical events.
After reading Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooly and Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris, invite students to collect recipes from as many different cookbooks as they can find, as well as from family members. Then have each student select one bread recipe and one rice recipe to prepare at home and bring in to share with the class. On the feast day, have the kids select music, and light candles to create a festive mood. Afterwards, have your students collect all the recipes in a cookbook that they can take home to their families.
This Is My Place
Share with students My Place by N. Wheatley and D. Rawlins (Kane/Miller, 1992), a collection of stories about a town in Australia, each narrated by a family member from a different generation going back to Aboriginal times. Ask students to read a few of the stories each day, taking notes on how the place of the book's title changes over time. When the class has finished the book, ask students to review their observations and group their lists into different categories, such as jobs, historical events, family relations, and Australian words. Divide the class into groups corresponding to these categories, and have each group re-read the book, looking for information related to its chosen category. Challenge each groups to decide on a creative way to share its information with the class, such as a giant map, a word wall, or an in-costume tableax. Finally, distribute the Our Place, Now & Then Reproducible (PDF), below. Invite students to explore their own personal histories, then share these with the rest of the class.
Biographies are a perfect way to tie family studies and a literary genre together. Brings in a collection of biographies and say to students, "Here is a box of people's lives — read about anyone's life you are interested in." Since the students have just written about their own lives, they will be excited to find out about the lives of other people. Invite them to browse through the biographies and select at least one to read completely. Then help students organize themselves into discussion groups focusing on different categories, such as Artists and Authors, People of Great Courage, Famous People in History, and Western Heroes. While they read and talk, challenge students to consider: How did this person's family influence him or her? What can I learn from this person's life that I can use in my own?
Show and Sing
To finish the unit with a flourish, invite parents for an art show and choral performance. Display all the projects that students have worked on in your unit, including the time lines, "my place" maps, and "I remember when" stories, and have students perform songs or recite poems about family.
Adam Berkin is a NYC-based education editor and former middle-school teacher. This article, originally published in the November/December 1995 issue of Instructor, has been exclusively adapted and upated for Instructor Online, © 2003.