April 5, 2021

Repurposing the Family Tree

Caroline Lamarque

Our mutations storyline, ‘In Your Blood,’ features Arthur, a boy who looks into his genetic history to see where his gene for sickle cell anemia originated. To illustrate the inheritance of the sickle cell gene through the generations of Arthur’s family, we created this family tree:

Arthur's Family Tree(s)

You may notice that there are actually two family trees in this illustration. This is because Arthur is adopted. Although only Arthur’s biological family is relevant to the learning objectives of this storyline, we didn’t want to alter Arthur’s backstory just for simplicity’s sake. This double family tree was the result!

The "Dreaded Family Tree Project"

The Family Tree research project is a common one in schools. This can be a fun and interesting assignment that allows students to research their family history and practice data organization, and many students and families enjoy it. There is a limit to the usefulness of a family tree, however. Family trees can only show blood relationships and marriages; they may include the names of great-great-great-great grandparents that no one living has ever even met, but have nowhere to place Honorary Aunts and Uncles, guardians and unrelated caretakers, or--as I used to complain about when I was a kid--pets! Creating a typical, symmetrical Family Tree can even cause anxiety or even shame for students with non-traditional family backgrounds, including adoptees. In our mutations storyline, Arthur happens to have maintained a relationship with his biological family (called an open adoption) but this is not the case for many adoptees. Many fostered and even non-adopted children may not know who one or both of their parents are, and family histories that include abuse or trauma may not be pleasant (or even appropriate) for the adults in a student’s family to discuss with them. As such, many in the adoption and foster community oppose the assignment of family tree projects in school (as well as Mother’s and Father’s Day activities and assignments.)

The family tree project is not just a research project; it facilitates communication, it’s a getting-to-know-you exercise, and it’s a useful tool for self-reflection. Also, many kids enjoy the project and love to share important facts about themselves with peers. Luckily, there are alternatives to traditional family tree projects that can fulfill the same goals.

Introductions/Getting-to-Know-You Activities

  • “All About Me” Posters. This project emphasizes the “getting-to-know-you” aspect of family trees. It’s all in the name: ask students to create a poster that tells everyone a little bit about themselves. What is their favorite color or animal? What types of media do they enjoy? What are they best at? What would they like to learn about this year? The project is suitable for any age, but can be easily adapted for very young students or students who have difficulty reading or writing. Simply ask students to find pictures of things they like and use paste or tape to affix them to the poster.
  • Class Reporter. This activity is ideal for smaller groups and/or older children. Have each student pair up with a classmate whom they’ve never met or don’t know very well, then have them ask each other getting-to-know-you questions. After “interviewing” each other, have each student write a report introducing the person they’ve just met to the rest of the class. (It’s important to note that this activity provides a way for kids to be insensitive without meaning to, so it may be a good idea to have them choose from a list of appropriate questions instead of thinking of their own. Alternatively, you can have students write short answers to the list of questions--allowing them to skip questions they don’t wish to answer, and making sure to tell them ahead of time that anything they write will be shared with the class.)
  • Sensitivity Note:  The linked list of 50 questions is a good place to start, though some questions may still be inappropriate. These include, “would you rather have 3 arms, or 1 leg?” or “where do you like to go on vacation?” The former has ableist undertones, while the latter assumes that all children have had the chance to go on vacation.

Education (vocabulary-building, data organization)

  • Playing Genealogist. This project can be useful for ESL or foreign language teachers who want to introduce family-related vocabulary to students in a comprehensible and relevant way. Ask students to take on the role of a genealogist for a family that is not their own. This allows students to create a traditional family tree without revealing or delving into their own histories. Students can learn vocabulary or simply practice data organization by labeling the different relationships in a fictional family, such as the Simpsons, Harry Potter, or Greek gods. Aspiring writers may even choose to make up their own fictional family tree from scratch! You can also have students track the heritage of a royal family of their choosing (though these trees can be very large, and quite confusing for a layman to parse!)
  • Creative Cladograms. This project is creative and educational! It may be a good idea to pair this activity during a genetics or evolution lesson. First, students should be familiarized with the concept of cladograms, and how they are used to portray common ancestry in different organisms. Students can let their creativity shine by applying this concept to something silly, like gardening tools or recyclables. How recently did a soda can share an ancestor with a glass bottle? What about a washcloth with a towel? Students can have fun explaining their reasoning and even (respectfully!) challenging their classmates on their own interpretations of data (just like real scientists do!)


Socio-Emotional and Reflection Tools

  • VIP Garden. This project blends the getting-to-know-you aspect of the All About Me poster with a found family twist. Instead of creating a tree with standard relationship types linking each leaf, students simply brainstorm the most important people in their lives and give each person a “flower” in their VIP Garden. Encourage students to include pets, impactful teachers, romantic partners (if appropriate) and even imaginary friends and original characters if they like! The best thing about a VIP Garden is that--just like a real garden--it can grow and change throughout the school year (and throughout a student’s life.) New friends may be added to the garden, old acquaintances may fall away. Students may enjoy comparing their VIP garden at the beginning of the school year to their garden at the end of the school year. (This project is highly personal in nature, so it would be best to think of this project as something students can talk about if they wish, but can keep as private as they like.)
  • Non-Traditional Family Tree. Finally, one can simply make a family tree that incorporates non-traditional family structures! This website offers more than a dozen templates for family trees that can be used for blended families, foster families, adoptive families, single parents, gay parents, and even families with surrogate and donor parents. When assigning school projects of a personal nature, however, always make sure that you consider your students’ backgrounds, and remember that while all families are valid, not all families look the same.

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