Saturday, March 21, 2015

Genealogy Makes History Come Alive!

Student project
Here is my second interview for NERGC. Catherine "Casey" Zahn is the author of two teachers' guides on genealogy, available from Heritage Books (search her last name). She enjoys sharing her passion for genealogy with her students as a way to make history come alive. She was the program chair for the FGS conference in Philadelphia and speaks frequently at state and regional conferences. This will be her first time speaking at NERGC, a conference she loves.

  • Can you tell me a little bit about your teaching background? 
I have been teaching for over 30 years -mainly in elementary school. My school district was a farming community in the early 80s and is now part of the NYC/Philly suburbs. My class is a diverse one represented by many different cultures. I became a teacher because I thought it would be fun to teach...and it has been! I also have been using genealogy with great success for the past 25 years and give lectures/classes at the adult level as well as high school.
  • For those who are not familiar with the Common Core State Standards, what parts are most aligned with the work of genealogical researchers and family historians?  
Believe it or not, many of the aspects of the CCSS are very familiar to genealogists and historians. The state where I teach recently adopted the  newest Social Studies standards that align well with skills a genealogist uses. From learning about a child's neighborhood in the elementary school to discovering how the cultures in the community impact the people who live there parallel nicely with genealogy. Children are asked to study how their communities changed over time, create maps and diagrams, to compare their lives to those of their neighbors in the past and to use digital information to make discoveries. There are even standards on immigration and the immigration process.
  • What is the benefit of using research about one's family to teach or reinforce these skills for students?
There is a huge benefit of using genealogy research -your own or a child's- to make Social Studies come to life for the children. If you are teaching about colonial times and happen to have an ancestor who played a role in establishing the community, what better way to portray his/her life in the community at the time it was established? My students love it when I tell them stories about my seafaring ancestor and when I portray him as the captain of the ship they are sailing on when they  are sailing to the English colonies in colonial times. The best part is that any ancestor can cross time and pop in a conversation on any subject.
Making social studies relevant to a child's place/home/time can also have a huge impact. For example, every year I give a presentation about the township where I teach. The class loves it when they discover Ben Franklin walked through their town when he ran away from Boston. This year was fabulous because one of my children lives on the road where he passed by. Talk about a teachable moment!
  • What has been your biggest challenge? 
The biggest challenge is my most frustrating do we teachers keep not only our own students but colleagues and the public, in general, interested in history? I find it appalling that late night hosts get a laugh at the ignorance of people who can't tell their reporters who was the first president of the US or if Hawaii is a state. (By the way I love to floor my children when I tell them that George  Washington was NOT the first president-He was the first under the US Constitution!) Politicians mess up matters by demanding that teachers need to prepare students for the future and to work in a global economy. But when will they realize it takes social studies to move our children forward to these goals? How can we expect children to work globally if they can't understand their own history, past, and culture?
  • What assignments do your students find most interesting to complete or what assignments do you find most interesting to teach? 
I find that something as simple as a timeline can be very useful for children to understand the concept of time. Children as young as kindergarten age can begin this process by sorting pictures as now and then. Another activity I use with success is my Veteran's project. I invite the children to interview a relative or neighbor who served our country. If they don't know of anyone, they are encouraged to research a president or famous military hero/heroine. It is very moving to read about their stories and invites new avenues and opportunities for a teacher to grab hold of and use.
  • How hard is it to work on your own genealogy interests with all your other activities? 
It is not hard at all! Can we say summer vacation and school breaks? I feel that being a teacher and loving genealogy can be a win/win situation. If I am having a tough day at school, a few minutes on the computer in an online database can do wonders for the spirit. But you have to be careful to limit your time or you can find yourself staring down 8 year-olds after an all night genealogy jaunt!
  • Has working in the field of genealogy helped you be a better teacher?
Yes and being a teacher has made me a better genealogist. Tools of both professions are intertwined and can compliment each other. 
  • What is your favorite thing about attending and/or speaking at genealogy conferences? 
I love attending genealogy conferences -especially NERGC- because I am always looking for new places, records, and ideas to broaden my genealogical knowledge. If I can learn about an obscure collection that is held only at the Connecticut State Library or Rhode Island Historical Society, I am going to plan my trip home for a visit with my family to include a visit at the repository. I have had much success when I do this for genealogy reasons. Being a teacher and having an opportunity to "give back" to other educators is a great way to share my knowledge and to learn new ideas that I can bring back to my students.

Check out her blog and website:

My stories about doing genealogy projects with students

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful! Thank you for doing this interview and sharing.