Genealogy and Family Trees – Adapted Version

“The Mystery of History” Companion Lesson: Genealogy and Family Trees

Essential Questions

What is genealogy?

What is a family tree?

How do you read the different types of family trees?

How can we use genealogy and family trees to understand the past and the present?

What type of family tree will I create to represent my family?







“Blood” relatives

Collateral relatives



Direct relatives

Family group sheet

Family tree



Given name


Maiden name










Lesson Activities



  • Give each student a blank piece of paper. Ask them to spend five or ten minutes creating a visual representation of the people in their family and extended family and how they are related to each other. Some students may have created family trees in the past, while others may not have. There is no right or wrong during this activity and it should be both very interesting to see the creative choices students make as well as very useful as a pre-assessment of existing understandings and misconceptions about family trees. Give students a few minutes for a quick pair or trio share of their work.



  • Set up stations with a different type of family tree at each, along with a blank sheet of poster paper and markers. In small groups, students rotate through stations (~ 5 minutes per station). At each station, students should explore the family tree and record their observations and questions on the poster paper. When the rotations are complete, students may go back to any station to see what classmates have added to the comments chart. Examples of many kinds of family trees include: Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of a boy’s family tree, a fan chart, blank charts created especially for children, charts made for families with blended/step/adopted children; and new formats that use different shapes, like a pyramid. (All available online for free download, see Materials above.) Also check with the librarian, other staff or your local historical society to borrow examples if you don’t have easy access yourself.



  • Class discussion to address the observations and questions recorded during rotations. Clarify how each type of chart is read, discuss similarities and differences, and record any additional questions that arise. Also add that genealogy was first recorded only for kings and queens, emperors and empresses, and then later also nobility and wealthy. The publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, The Saga of an American Family, based on the story of his own family genealogy, really inspired many common people to start researching and writing down their family genealogy and stories.



  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each type of family tree explored today? Discuss that who your family is can be defined by you. It does not have to be people who are your blood relatives. People who are very important to you may feel like family to you even if they are not actually “blood” relatives. Some children have one parent, two mothers, two fathers, foster families; there are all kinds of families, and you can choose how you want to define yours. Show how some charts are already set up to show family members and biological family members.  



  • What style or design elements will you use or invent to make the best family tree for your family? Invite students to use blank forms of various types that you have printed out, or to make their own from scratch. Begin creating in class, save time to share what they have begun to create, and then assign students the task of continuing to work at home with the help of a parent or family member who can help them fill in blanks or expand the tree.




  • Relationship Chart:

If your class has any students who are related to each other, or related to you the students will be eager to share this info. This is a good time to pass out a Relationship Chart and use it to discover how the two people are related to each other. Students are often quicker than adults in understanding how to determine who is a “cousin once removed” or a “second cousin.”


  • Family Group Sheets

Explain that not all family trees have a place to record siblings, and so many genealogists fill out a “family group sheets” for each person on their family tree. Give each student at least one family group sheet to fill out.


  • “I’m My Own Grandpa” was a popular novelty song in the late 1940s. Listen to it online while a genealogy diagram illustrates each line in the song as it is sung by Ray Stevens. (


  • In the introduction of his book Family History Detective, Desmond Walls Allen relates a story about how quickly the number of grandparents adds up as you go back each generation. Read this story to provide a quick math lesson! Going back just ten generations yields 1,024 direct ancestors! Family History Detective, Desmond Walls Allen (Family Tree Books, 2011, p. 8-9)