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Family History in the Multicultural Classroom


Molly Crumpton Winter, California State University, Stanislaus


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 America.  Amy began her family history with her Jewish grandparents migrating from Europe when Hitler started coming into power.[1]  Jane’s family came over from England after World War II because they felt their nation was in ruins and had little to offer.  Vickie explained that her first relative to migrate, a great-uncle, came to America from China because of fears of a communist movement.  The class was able to relate these stories to some themes, like exile, immigration, and the American dream, that we had been discussing in the literature.  They also came to see that world history is part of American history, as the world, through immigration, comes to America.


The most prevalent motif in these family stories was the cleverness of the individuals who immigrated to America, left the farm, went to college, accumulated a fortune, or started a business.  Jane’s grandparents, who came from England to Canada, knew that they could cross into America if they offered the border patrol a bribe of “five hundred dollars and a case of whiskey.”  Vickie also had several relatives who were sharp enough to know how to sneak into the country.  One ancestor “snuck over on a ship”; other ancestors who came over from China in the 1930s knew they could not gain entry into America, but they also knew, as Vickie put it, that the records at Canadian immigration offices “were all screwed up.”  Her great-grandparents, therefore, went from China to Canada, and then crossed the American border as Canadian citizens.  Other stories that tell of the cunning of relatives include descriptions of men with “a knack for making money” or of female ancestors who attended college before it was common for women to do so. All these stories had to do with those who were clever enough to know how to cross borders, get around rules, and beat the odds.  These examples point to an appreciation of the trickster in family histories.  The trickster is a major element in Native American, African American, and Chinese American literature, so it was interesting for the class to see that, no matter what their ethnic background, almost every student had a trickster story.


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 America that students could point to and claim as part of their own heritage.  Brendan remembered that his grandfather was the foreman of the crew that built “that famous tunnel in Baltimore.”  Vickie saw as part of her family’s achievements the fact that her great-uncle’s first job in America was “working on the East-West railroad,” and that other predecessors were proprietors of “the oldest Chinese restaurant in New York.”  And finally, Kelly, while describing her father’s life as a drifter, only specified one of the many jobs he worked, and that was “flipping burgers in the first McDonald’s.”  By remembering and retelling these details, the students were conveying that their people had a hand in building this country.  In a land where families may lack roots, an association with a physical monument struck them as being significant.  We were able to compare these associations to monuments with the act of writing itself.  Many ethnic-American writers, especially those who published near the beginning of their respective traditions, were writing themselves into the American literary landscape.


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 Europe for no apparent reason and three others of men who made it to distant lands because they joined the military.  Of all the stories gathered, only one was a tale of staying put.  Fourteen of the narratives begin with a location, but move immediately to a migration.  It is as if Americans and their stories both hit the ground running.  A typical introduction begins like Brendan’s:  “My granddad was born in Canada.  He joined the merchant marines during World War II and went to Scotland where he met my grandmother.”  Or like Vickie’s: “This begins a long time ago with the East-West railroad.  I had a great-uncle who snuck over from China in a ship . . .” We found this element of movement intriguing, and we discussed it as a quintessential characteristic of American literature.


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 America in ways that formal histories never could.  Together we learned, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “that not all of American history is recorded. . . . we possess two basic versions of American history: one which is written and as neatly stylized as ancient myth, and the other unwritten and as chaotic and full of contradictions, changes of pace, and surprises as life itself” (594).


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 camps in Poland during World War II.  We all agreed that we were fortunate that Joe was here at all. 


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 pogroms of Russia, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the rise of the Nazi Party, the Chinese Exclusion Act, women working in garment factories during the Industrial Revolution, and so on.  Most students only had a sketchy idea about the historical elements in their stories, but this too turned out to be a catalyst to learning, as they were interested to know exactly what their own stories were referring to.  Close analysis of family narratives lead students to ask intriguing questions like “why weren’t Chinese allowed into the country in the 1930s?” or “why was my great great-grandfather killed for trying to organize a union strike in New York?”  or “what was it like for my great-grandmother to work in a garment factory at the turn of the century?”  A typical research paper may have little relevance in a student’s life, but a research paper based on family narrative makes history come alive as the students learn not just about history, but about their own history.  And as they share their new knowledge with the rest of the class, their classmates feel a link with that history as well.


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. 



[1] Students’ names have been changed for this article.



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Kenner, Hugh.  A Homemade World.  New York: William Morrow, 1975.

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