Finding your roots

Lindsay Fulton assisting students at a genetics and genealogy summer camp.

Recently, I had the opportunity to drive through the breathtaking Pennsylvania countryside to teach a group of middle schoolers about family history and genealogy at Penn State University. The kids were attending a genetics and genealogy summer camp cleverly named “Finding Your Roots: The Seedlings,” where the primary goal was to stimulate interest in science by getting kids to study themselves – their DNA, their bodies, and their family histories – as scientists.

The camp program was part of an on-going formal research project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard, and it was developed by Penn State professor Nina Jablonski and Harvard professor (and host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots) Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

When I first arrived in the science lab, the group was very energetic, despite the early hour. I had prepared a PowerPoint presentation with handouts for the students to learn about the very basics of genealogy. We started with vital records (I showed them my birth record, my grandparents’ 1932 marriage record, and my great-grandmother’s death record), and then moved to census records, military records, newspapers, and cemetery records. Each of the examples came from my own family history, as I hoped photographs and family stories would help keep the children engaged in the topic. And, boy, was I right!!

The first story I told was about my great-grandmother, Mary Rogan, who grew up in a workhouse in County Leitrim, Ireland. Together, the class examined a copy of the 1911 Ireland Census, where my great-grandmother was enumerated with her younger sister, Kate Rogan (aged 6 and 4, respectively), in the workhouse in Mohill. I explained that Kate and Mary’s mother had left the two girls with their dying father in Ireland, while she traveled to the United States to find work. Later, when Kate and Mary were older, their mother sent for the girls to come to New York so that they could be reunited.

Each of the examples came from my own family history, as I hoped photographs and family stories would help keep the children engaged in the topic. And, boy, was I right!!

Well, this story caused quite a commotion. Several of the class members raised their hands in distress: “How could a mother do that??! How could she leave her young children behind?” And before I could speak up, another classmate said, “You don’t know the circumstances. Maybe that was the mother’s only choice! Maybe she did the right thing by leaving to find work in New York.”

The discussion went on for some time – some students agreed, while others disagreed. They even tried to give the situation context, and thought about what it would have been like to be a widowed mother in the early twentieth century. She was an immigrant, and she moved to one of the largest cities in the world. What must that have been like? When we moved on to other records, the students continued to challenge the decisions of my ancestors and their friends. It was a beautiful thing.

The students picked up on a concept that I try to convey to genealogical researchers in all of my lectures and consultations at NEHGS: You must put your ancestors into historical context. Therefore, whether we consider our ancestors’ decisions good or bad, we have an obligation to think about the circumstances in which these people lived. What was the political climate like? What were the laws at the time? What was the social situation?

If we take time to think about our ancestors in their own historical context, we not only learn more about our family members, but also a great deal about history. And this is a great teaching tool! Because students (both young and old) are so much more interested in a historical period or event if they know that their ancestors were directly involved.

It is also a very sneaky way to get someone interested in history!


Part of my lecture was recorded and will be shared as an inspiration to STEM learning on the PBS series website; it will also be used as part of the camp curriculum’s teacher support materials as the program spreads out across the country.

Here is more information on the camp project:

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

15 thoughts on “Finding your roots

  1. WONDERFUL experience for the students and you! Discovery of the historical context of genealogy is the best and most interesting part!

  2. May I send this tomgrandchildren-and to the OK Historical Society? What a wonderful program…love to see it spread to all 50 states.

    1. Elizabeth,

      Yes please do! And if you are interested in the camp, please contact Elizabeth Wright at Penn State to learn more. Here is her email address:


  3. Thank you for this blog post. You bring everything together in this project that is important to teach young people and adults of any age. This is my goal as well to bring to my family and others through genealogy and traveling.

  4. Personally I am against this unless this is for religious reasons like the Mormons. This should only be voluntary for kids…making kids trace their ancestry can be boring at such a young age, and with so non traditional families, this can be a very prickly situation with adoptions, foster families, same sex couples….

    1. I think that you are wrong with some of your points of view. First the children, it says signed up for the classes-so there was a peak of interest in them, second-I would have loved to have done this as a child and it would have been so very helpful as one of my Grandma’s was still alive, and I would have asked her so many questions, than having to figure out so much after there was no one to answer my many questions. Third-where would genealogy be without the help of the Mormon’s and their research. Fourth-yes there can be prickly situations as with adoptions etc., but I feel that also it could explain to children the way and why’s of the world we live in.

      1. I can only speak for myself but although I loved hearing family stories when I was a kid and meeting various relatives at family functions, the concept of Genealogy was too complicated to explain at such a young age. If they had signed up for it, and on their own Felician, that is one thing. If they are being dragged to cemeteries and Libraries because the parents want them to also participate in genealogy, it may also turn them off to it. Certainly when I was a teenager, I wanted to come on to anything via my own discovery and not because my parents thought it would be good for me.

        1. As another of the NEHGS genealogists who was involved in another of the camps held in July, I can assure you that the kids involved in these camps are very interested in the subject matter. It is not a result of parents pushing this one them. In fact, most of the parents knew little about their ancestry among the group I was working with. One of the girls, during a break, was so excited that I had mentioned Slovakia in my presentation that she didn’t take her break and instead came up to show me two books she had on the Slovakian language, because her grandparents were from Slovakia.

          Another of the participants, this time a young boy, was so excited when working on a case study–how we showed them the beginnings of compiling a family tree–that his report was full of all sorts of information beyond just the census we were introducing them to. He found marriage information, military information and where the man was buried. He couldn’t wait to share what he found.

          These kids were completely into this and the DNA aspects that were also being discussed. I can honestly say that none of these kids appeared to be forced to be at the camp by desires of the parents.

  5. What a wonderful story, and this camp sounds amazing! I am trying to get my kids interested in my research.

  6. Glad to see a summer camp for kids in regards to genealogy and history. I’ve been meeting once a week this summer with an 11 year old to work on her family’s genealogy. In the process, her mother has gotten very interested as well. I’d love to be able to teach a course like this for our Junior College’s summer youth classes.

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