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Family History in the Multicultural Classroom
Molly Crumpton Winter,
Winter, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of American Literature in the Department of English.
This paper discusses two projects, the family narrative and the family tree, that foster multiethnic understanding and help students gain historical perspective in my Multicultural American Literature courses. The basic premise of these activities is that students bring a wealth of knowledge with them into our classes. Through exploring that knowledge and sharing it with their classmates, students come to a greater understanding of history, course materials, themselves, and each other. This project could be used in any course that has a multicultural emphasis.
There has been much discussion in the last decade or so of the paradigm shift from “instruction-centered” to “learning-centered” universities. In “the learning paradigm,” defined by Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, “a college’s purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems” (15). With these goals in mind, I have structured my teaching to incorporate learning-centered experiences that enable students to “discover and construct knowledge” as a collective. This paper will discuss how I came to use activities involving family histories to bring students to a more profound understanding of history and literature.
As a teacher of Multicultural American Literature, I feel that historical context is crucial to my subject matter. Most ethnic-American writers are deeply conscious of the events of the past and often weave this history into their writing. A problem that I became aware of in my first year of teaching was that, while my students seemed to be engaged with the literature, my attempts to interest them in the relevant history behind the literature was falling short. When we would move from the literature to the history, there would be an almost palpable drop in enthusiasm. I came to realize that my method of teaching history (through a history book and lectures) was much too instruction-centered. In fact, the way I taught literature and history were markedly different. My approach to teaching literature has always been learning-centered. The study of literature in my class is a process of individual and group exploration, with students making their own discoveries and coming up with their own interpretations under my guidance. But when it came to history, I expected them to take a passive role. They were “receiving” the information instead of incorporating it into their understanding of the world.
My goal, then, was to get my students to learn about the complexities of the American experience and how creative individual expression is both shaped by and drawn from this experience. I felt if I could just get my students to connect to any history, then they could come to understand the profound relationship between American history and ethnic-American literature. It dawned on me that one history that might interest them would be their own. With this in mind, I have used two projects, the Family Narrative and The Family Tree, to help students develop an historical perspective. I found that once students were able to recognize their own family as part of the American experience, the comprehension of other histories seemed to be more meaningful to them. Though these activities are not new in themselves, the way that I incorporated them into my courses revolutionized my own teaching.
One important component of these projects is that every student is required to share their own with the class. The learning-centered ideal is, as Wilbert McKeachie writes, to “put student learning activities, rather than teaching, at the center” (20). However, this shift can be scary for a teacher. The family history activities center around the information the students bring to the class. My fear was that the information that the students brought might not be “relevant” to the rest of the course material. I have since laid these fears to rest, as I realized that the learning process entails students constructing understanding from shared information. The class does not always learn the same thing from these projects, but they (and I) always learn something unexpected. The students have also been consistent in their ability to use this material in their construction of knowledge as they relate ideas gained from these projects back to the literature and to the major themes of the class. In my courses, students now are connecting to history through their own research and writing, and they are becoming engaged with the American experience through the information that their classmates bring to the table. I have found through these projects that my students have more to teach each other than I could have ever imagined and that “family tradition is one of the great repositories of American culture” (Zeitlin, et al. 2).
The Family Narrative
For this activity, each student tells a family story orally and then later writes a paper relaying the story and examining its significance either in terms of its historical content or in connection to the literature we have read. My instructions for the storytelling sessions are quite brief. I simply ask the class to be prepared to tell family narratives that they feel are related to the American experience. I ask that they not write anything down or rehearse the stories in any way, but to just come in and tell them as they remember hearing them or as they usually tell them. Despite the serious content of some of the stories and the “learning goals” I have for my students, these storytelling sessions are fun, as students get to know each other and swap tales around the circle. Though I have conducted this activity successfully several times, in the interest of space I will focus on some of the important discoveries that came out of just one class and how the students related these discoveries back to the course.
Some students told migration stories in which their
ancestors fled poverty or persecution in their native countries to seek freedom
and opportunity in
The most prevalent motif in these family stories was the cleverness of the individuals who
A few stories dealt with injustice, another common theme in Multicultural American Literature. For example, Brendan’s great-grandfather “was the head of a labor union and he was planning a strike . . . Someone didn’t like it and they found his body at the bottom of the stairs . . . the police investigated and said he fell down the stairs, but my grandmother says he was pushed.” This story begins with rebellion and the power of the individual, but ends with a man losing his life while trying to act on the rights guaranteed to him as an American.
There were also stories that linked families to monuments,
to certain places in
Finally, we were struck by the incredible amount of movement
described in these narratives. In
addition to four migration stories and four leaving the farm stories, there
were six narratives that told of individuals and families that just seemed to
drift around this enormous country.
There was one story of a relative who ended up moving around
Even these relatively few examples from the family narrative project conducted in one class reveal what great stores of information students have before they even enter our classrooms. The experience of sharing family narratives accomplishes the goal of learning-centered education, which is to “elicit student discovery and construction of knowledge” (Barr & Tagg 16), and it also serves to foster a multicultural atmosphere. As Margie Kitano notes, in a truly multicultural classroom “methods capitalize on the experience and knowledge students bring and encourage personal as well as academic growth” (23). Through this activity, students not only come to a deeper understanding of history and literature, they also enter into a more profound knowledge of themselves and each other.
The Family Tree
Sometimes I give my class
the option either to write a family narrative or to create a family tree. I warned them that the family tree project
would be time-consuming and that I expected them to talk to relatives so that
when they presented their family trees to the class they would have one or two
interesting stories to tell. Nine
students decided to tackle the family tree project. Each of these students not only came out of
this project with an expanded perception of themselves and their past, but they
gave the rest of the class a greater sense of American history and
diversity. The family trees, like the
family narratives, also helped students to really grasp the concept that our
individual, unwritten histories tell the story of
Like the family narratives, these family trees revealed many
typical American stories, motifs, and types.
There were the trickster characters: the mobsters and moonshiners, the immigrants who entered the country through
clever means, and so on. There were also
the connections to monuments, including the founder of a church and someone who
was rumored to have died in the first electric chair. And, again, the connections to world and
American history made the relationship between the individual and historical
events tangible. We were struck by Joe’s
family tree, for example; it charted nine ancestors who died in concentration
Perhaps the most profound learning moment of the project came when Paula, an African American student, was sharing her extensive family tree with the class. The tree was very confusing, because, as she explained, two brothers generations back went by different last names. When someone asked her why this was so, she explained that at some point one of the brothers was sold from the family that owned them into another family. There was practically a gasp as students came to a new understanding of slavery that books and lectures simply could not “teach.” For that moment they were intimately connected to the history of American slavery through their connection to this fellow classmate. Through her matter-of-fact presentation of her family’s experience, the rest of the class was able to learn what slavery meant in terms of families and individuals. I will end this section with this example because I think it most clearly demonstrates the benefits of the use of family projects in the learning-centered classroom. This was a moment when history was not just received: it was felt and understood.
I have heard the argument, and have made it myself, that
today’s students are a-historical, but my students’ family narratives and
family trees have made me reevaluate this assumption. As you may have gathered, most of the
students placed their stories within a historical context. There were references to slavery, World War
II, the Depression, the Communist movement, the unionization of labor, the
Though I have only used these projects in Multiethnic American Literature classes, with very little modification they may be useful in many other courses in the Humanities. History, Political Science, Sociology—any course where an in-depth understanding of history is necessary—could benefit from learning-centered family history activities. As noted literary critic Hugh Kenner has said, “our newest knowledges always seem to coincide with our oldest” (221), and this is the truth that underlies the effectiveness of family history projects in the learning-centered multicultural classroom.
 Students’ names have been changed for this article.
Barr, Robert B. and John Tagg. “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for
Undergraduate Education.” Change 27.6 (1995): 12-25.
Ellison, Ralph. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. J. F. Callahan. New York:
Modern Library, 1995.
Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World.
Kitano, Margie K. “What a Course Will Look Like After Multicultural Change.”
Course Transformation in Higher Education: A Broader Truth. Eds. Ann Intili
Morey and Margie K. Kitano.
McKeachie, Wilbert J. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Tenth Edition.
Zeitlin, Steven J., Amy J. Kotkin, and Holly Cutting-Baker. A Celebration of American