So today I was talking to elementary-school students about being a genealogist. Not being 100 percent sure where everyone’s genealogy awareness level was, I started by handing out a simple three-generation chart and asking them to fill in the blanks — for them, their parents, and each set of grandparents.
I was proud of my awesome planning skills. What could be simpler than an itty-bitty family tree? What could be a better ice-breaker? But very quickly, brows furrowed and hands waved frantically.
“I can’t fill in a lot of the blanks, does it still count?”
“What if you don’t know who your dad’s mom was?”
“What if you only ever call them Nana and Papa?”
“What if they’re dead?”
Just like that, my little icebreaker turned into a surprisingly efficient way to explain a few home truths about genealogy:
• A family tree is the story of a family — both the living members and the ones who went before them. And people can land on the branches of the tree in lots of different ways.
• The only way to start is by writing down what you know, however much or little it is.
• We all have lots of blanks to fill in. That’s why we do this.
Career Day ended up being a lot of fun. There were some things about my presentation that went really well, others that I’d definitely tweak depending upon the age group. I talked to children in grades three and five, and it was remarkable to see the difference that two years made in terms of attention span and ability to focus on a group discussion. After the family tree, I gave a brief talk about what genealogy is, jobs genealogists can do and ways you can study to be one. (This part got shortened considerably for the younger group.)
To wrap things up, I did a simple photo-analysis activity — I passed out some printouts of vintage photos and asked the kids to pick out one detail that they thought would help someone to figure out when the picture might have been taken. I made sure to pick photos with some nice background detail — classic cars, people in distinctive uniforms, things like that. This was very popular. A couple of the kids were fired up to try out their newfound investigative skills at home.
All in all, a nice experience. Talking about something you know very well to an audience who doesn’t can really freshen up your perspective.