Teaching Strategies

Getting to Know Students Through Their Histories

March 10, 2017         Updated March 8, 2017

When I was 17, my father died from cirrhosis of the liver.  He had been so sick for so long that his death was a welcome relief for us. When I was 27 years old, my mother passed away from esophageal cancer. From the day she told me she was sick to the day she passed away, it was eight weeks. When I was 42, my brother, Jim, passed away from breast cancer. As a morbidly obese individual, I had never thought he would succumb to what one might think of as a “woman’s risk.” Recently, my 78 year-old half-brother, and the only member of my immediate family, has been diagnosed with cancer. 

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As I thought about my family history and the mortality facing all of us, I realized, perhaps more acutely than ever before, that sooner rather than later, there will be no one who knows my history. I will not be able to ask, “How old was I when I . . . ?” or “Do you remember when?” There will be no one with whom I can share family memories, traditions or secrets.

This got me to thinking about our students. Today it is not unusual for students not to know their family history. There was a time that a teacher could find common family ground among students or offer a shared story that resonated with the class. We could relate to family stories because often those stories transcended the specifics and rather focused on the collective.  

Unfortunately, experiences or situations that were once shared among children or adolescents are few and far between. Our students may not have any stories to bring to class; they may not be able to share the bond from a grandparent because they have never known that connection. They may not be able to relate to summer vacations spent at a cabin because their summers have been spent babysitting siblings. They may not have the humorous narratives from the family historian because their own history is so ambiguous that they can only briefly recall the buried cobwebbed memories.

How do we help students to create their family history when much of it may be lacking? Here are some ideas:

First, begin with something simple. Ask a student to interview any member of his/her family and gather any memory. Don’t ask students to interview their parents about when they took their first steps. We adopted our daughter from a Bulgarian orphanage when she was 5 years, 11 months. As a result, she wouldn’t be able to participate in this experience because there is no history of her first steps. But, I could share the very first time she went swimming. 

Second, anybody can be family. Ask students to share the person in their family they most admire and why. Don’t ask students to specifically explain why they admire their dad. There may not be a dad in the picture or if there is, he may not be admired. As a young child, my son referred to my half-brother as his Uncle, and my adult cousins as his Aunts and Uncles. We didn’t bother with traditional lineage – anybody could be a member of our family.

Finally, it’s okay at any age to introduce classic children’s stories. Don’t assume your students had been read to as children; the traditional nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak may be unfamiliar to them. When I coach teachers in how to teach presentation techniques, I bring in several copies of Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose; The Cat in the Hat; One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; Where the Wild Things Are and the Polar Express. I model to the students how to read Dr. Seuss. Some students remember being read to; others never had the privilege. But, for a few minutes in English class, they are all children again listening to the classics.

As you spend your summer planning for next year’s get-to-know you activities, be aware of the pauses within your students’ history. Be mindful that their background might have a gap in it, a space here or there. Give them the opportunity to remember their history or an opportunity to make one; with admiration, affection and appreciation.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.