Classroom roots

Teaching Of Plimoth Plantation in 1983.

A time of major transition – I just retired from teaching after a wonderful run of thirty-five years. No one who knows me well asks: What will you do [more of] next? While genealogy, per se, was not part of the prescribed English and history curriculum, that quest always played in the background and sometimes assumed center stage. Particularly in the teaching of American history, it became the hook which anchored students to a personalized past.

Every Thanksgiving, I would manage to sneak in a lesson on William Bradford, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, that usually began with a recitation from Of Plimoth Plantation, committed to memory: “It is well known unto the godly and judicious…” What impressed my students more than a hearty declamation of the text was that I could recount my descent from Bradford. During my first year of teaching, when seniors just a few years younger than I sorely tried me, one student stayed after class to talk to me. “Don’t tell my friends I told you this, but I am a descendant of John Alden. Have you heard of him?”

His secret remained safe with me for the short term. Fast forward twenty-years: A friend volunteered me for a WCAX news story on how some local Mayflower descendants spend Thanksgiving. The film crew first came to school to interact with a couple of my students who had ties to the Pilgrims. How times had changed! Ian, a junior, thought it was cool to be related to his teacher. On Thanksgiving Day, my family, however, was slightly apprehensive while the cameras filmed our turkey dinner.

Another meaningful episode of early teaching days occurred when I asked students to investigate an immigrant ancestor to Rutland County, Vermont. That assignment, long before the emergence of the internet, required students to conduct live interviews with older relatives. Two of my juniors just did not like each other. Jim presented his report first: “My immigrant ancestor was Bridget Gillfeather of West Rutland.” Farrell jumped up: “You copied my paper!” It did not take me long to ascertain the obvious. “Farrell, meet your cousin Jim. Jim, meet your cousin Farrell.”

Many of my Vermont students have French-Canadian ancestry, often obscured through names directly translated, like Shortsleeves for Courtemanche, or others somehow garbled: Benware instead of Benoit. Thelma Bosley liked me much better after I revealed her original name as Beausoleil, “beautiful sunshine.”

Their assertion revolved around a story passed down about a great-great-grandmother, with dark hair or high cheek bones, who belonged to a certain tribe, etc.

The most recurrent research request among my students and their families: to find their Native American ancestors. Their assertion revolved around a story passed down about a great-great-grandmother, with dark hair or high cheek bones, who belonged to a certain tribe, etc. In almost every instance, these stories proved untrue. For senior Ashlee Bird, a consolation discovery was learning her Quebec-born ancestor, Edward Bird, a Vermont Civil War veteran, had been baptized as Antoine Loiseau – first and last names transformed.

In assisting my students to discover an immigrant grandparent, no matter how many generations removed, we go beyond filling out names on a pedigree chart to connect individuals to the larger forces that shaped their lives. In prefacing a unit on World War I, I asked students if anyone in their family had a connection to the conflict. Hunter, a junior, said a World War I helmet sat on his father’s television set, and he thought “it belonged to someone in the family.”

With a snippet of information from Hunter the next morning, I said that I would search during lunch. Lunch had hardly begun when Hunter asked me if I found anything.“Give me another ten minutes,” I said. When I printed Hunter’s great-great-grandfather’s World War I draft registration, Hunter displayed it in the plastic cover of his loose-leaf notebook for the rest of the year. Several weeks later, during parent conferences, Hunter’s father asked me, “What have you done to my kid?” He added that while he and Hunter were running errands on the other side of Vermont, Hunter had said, “Dad, can we stop at the cemetery up the road? I want to see if there is a World War I marker on your great-grandfather’s grave.”

Ripples in the pond will continue long after my departure from the classroom. If I were to give advice to any aspiring history teacher, I would say: “Teach not only significant content on how our nation’s history has shaped the present, but also inspire your students with the tools to continue the discovery, over a lifetime, of the past lives of their own ancestors.”

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. He heads the English Department of Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Vermont. The Vermont Department of Education named him 2004’s Vermont Teacher of the Year.

36 thoughts on “Classroom roots

  1. Bravo Michael! Indeed, good advice for us all. Wonderful stories. This is what it is all about. Thank you so much!

      1. Congrats on your retirement! I wish you many years of enjoyment. Looking forward to some great work (and more awesome posts!) from you in the near future.

  2. Brilliant! I only wish I had been your student of history but wouldn’t have that required a trick of time?

    1. The trick of time…30 years ago, I taught many sessions of Elderhostel. On occasion, when I would meet these folks in other contexts, they would enjoy telling their friends they were my students. Often it took a minute to figure out how that could have worked.

  3. How I wish I could get my adult children to understand the relationship between their ancestors and history, that their ancestors are the ones who gave us this great land. If I were teaching history, I’d sure use genealogy as a “hook”!

  4. When I was in about the 1st or 2nd grade, a teacher asked if anyone had Mayflower ancestors. One girl raised her hand and I remember being very impressed that she was ~ and that she knew that! At the time, I wondered if I had any Mayflower ancestors. Many years later, I discovered that our family had nice long New England roots … tracing back to John Howland – so that made 4 Mayflower ancestors (JH’s his wife Elizabeth Tilley and her parents too). Love your story.

    1. When I first learned about the Pilgrims, right around the same age you described, I had no idea that I would be connected to them. Thanks for the response.

  5. It was a great teacher and a school assignment that got me started down the wonderful path of family history. I will be forever grateful to her. I’ve been researching for over 40 years and look forward to each day and new discoveries.

    1. Last night, during dinner conversation with friends, I have a new assignment to figure out if his great-grandparents are related. The adventure continues.

  6. Again wonderful teaching to echo Martha. We do not know what gets our children interested exactly. But Fourth Grade teaching about the Civil War hit the spot with our Grandson, he had seen a Civil War tintype of my husband’s paternal Great Grandafther. This Great Grandfather at the age he was when he served, looked so much like my husband even this boy could see it.. We knew where he is interred, so on one trip he asked the way your Student did, take me to that gravesite. We have the best photo of himself next to that gravestone, Is his own paternal direct line as 3rd Great Grandfather.

    1. My grandfather was a serious student of the Civil War. I did not share his enthusiasm to that degree until I watched, several times, Ken Burns’s Civil War on PBS.

      1. In New York State part of the Fourth Grade History Study, most teachers start out with having their students find out if they knew of an Ancestor who fought in it. Have had nieces in Ohio wanting to know the same, Have always thought History has to being with knowing something about how our families were connected. Seems as if there would be no history if no people in so many subjects, unless of course one is studying the time of the Dinosaurs. Yes, Ken Burns has been instrumental in bringing the Civil War to life as applied to History of the United States.

  7. Great article. Wonderful hook to make history “real” to students. They were so lucky to have you as a teacher. My love if history didn’t blossom until I went back to college after my children were adults. And, genealogy is fascinating. The more I learn the less I know, which keeps me digging.

  8. The “hook” of genealogy can occur at any age. My father started chasing his roots when he was in his 70s just for fun. About 8 years ago, he sent me his work on his lineages for Revolutionary War societies. I had a look at one line in particular and remarked “I think we might have a Pilgrim here–” and sure enough, he dug some more and found our Mayflower ancestors. At the age of 88, he became a proud member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants– and continues to this day!

    1. I am still hoping for a lost and unconnected Rachel who married someone in Plymouth during the 1750s. To be so close and yet not have an answer…

  9. Congratulations to you for passing on the love of history to your students. A great account. Have a happy retirement and with your love of history, I know you will.

  10. So interesting. Reading this brought back memory to when I started flirting with genealogy in 5th grade on the day when my English teacher read an story about girl named Fanny, who went to Ellis Island. I came home to dinner conversation with my parents where my dad mistakenly said that his grandfather came through Ellis Island. Many years later, we found out that it was my great great grandfather who came through New York from Ireland. My dad’s other great grandfather also came through New York from Ireland too.

    1. For many years, I took kids on an overnight trip to NYC and Ellis Island. They especially enjoyed finding names on the wall. Of course, with Irish immigration, there is a chain of relatives to track when one family member sponsored the next one to come.

  11. Good teachers are priceless!! Your students were lucky to have such a caring, innovative teacher. I hope you get to enjoy a long, fulfilling retirement!

  12. Excellent post! I’m a history teacher in Arizona, and I stress the essential question for the year, “What is the American Spirit” and combine it with a genealogy assignment. You are absolutely right in suggesting that students become engaged when it becomes personal.

    1. Thank you for your response. As you know, in this age of standardized testing, students do not get enough exposure to history.

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