Monday, September 14, 2015

Ancestor Snapshot Sheets: A three week Sunday lesson curriculum

The effort to teach youth about genealogy often focuses on finding new ancestors. I think this is a mistake. Sometimes.

It's exciting to find a new ancestor, and for LDS youth it often completes a goal to find ancestor's names to bring to the temple. It's good for them to complete their goals and the excitement can fuel a love of genealogy for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, finding new names (or finding existing names that still need temple ordinances) doesn't teach the research skills that will help youth become the kind of people who do family history on a regular basis.

Also, their whole family tree could be completely wrong. I always recommend that beginner genealogists start with the most recently deceased ancestor for each of their lines, even (especially) if they can trace themselves back to Adam on FamilySearch. Youth should do this with their parents, if possible, until they get back to ancestors born in the 1800s.

Why the 1800s? It is the golden age for online genealogy research. Pre-1800s records available online range from sketchy to non-existent. Post-1800s records usually aren't publicly available yet. 

Okay, so (finally) here is the Sunday lesson curriculum I promised. The August youth Sunday School curriculum suggests several lessons about family history, so that might be a good time to do these lessons. I think these lessons would work best if they were taught for three consecutive weeks.

Week 1:

The purpose of this lesson is for the youth to get to know one of their ancestors and to start to think of their ancestors as "real people" to whom they can relate. This lesson is also meant to help the youth identify research questions for the ancestor that they choose.

You will need:

  • A class of (preferably) no more than 10 youth on their Sunday behaviour
  • An internet-connected computer for each youth
  • An adult helper for every 2-3 youth
  • Pens and highlighters for each youth
  • The handouts below

Have the youth log on to Family Search and choose an ancestor born between 1800 and 1900 who has an exact birth year. A few youth may not have an ancestor on Family Search that fits these criteria. They can work with a friend, but it would be better to try to get their parents or other family members involved and have them work on a more recent ancestor.

Invite youth to work on this ancestor snapshot sheet in order to get to know their ancestor. Tell them to highlight and leave blank any information that is missing (these are the research questions).

Many of the youth will have no problem completing this worksheet on their own; others will need step by step help. Some youth will need help calculating their ancestor's age and some may not know what an "occupation" is. Adult helpers are there to answer these sorts of questions, but it's even better if the youth help each other.

For the historical events I prepared a world history handout using information I found on I selected events that I thought the youth in my (Canadian) ward would recognize, so you may want to prepare your own for the youth in your area.

 Some youth will be able to finish this worksheet in one class period and others won't depending on the available information on their Family Search. Either way, I suggest collecting their work at the end of the class period or you may never see it again.

Week 2:

The purpose of this lesson is to teach youth how to find and record answers to research questions using online resources.

You will need:
  • A class of (preferably) no more than 10 youth on their Sunday behaviour
  • An internet-connected computer for each youth with access to premium family history websites (like
  • A family history expert for every 1-2 youth
  • Pens for each youth
  • The snapshot sheets from the week before
Have the family history experts review the highlighted portions of the snapshots sheets in advance, if possible, and identify the research questions which will be the easiest to answer using online resources. Try to make sure each youth has a few research questions that they will be able to answer during class time. It's important for everyone to have some sort of success in order to build their confidence. For youth who were able to find all of the information for the snapshot, focus on adding sources to the ancestor's Family Search page. It is unlikely that all of the available sources have been already added to Family Search.

When the youth arrive for class, give them back their worksheets from the previous week and invite them to work with the family history experts to fill in the highlighted blanks on their sheet. Some youth may want to complete their worksheets first, but most of their time should be spent on online research if possible.

Encourage the family history experts to let the youth lead as much as possible. Let them figure out the search terms on their own. Let them make their search too broad or specific and then explain to them how to improve it. The experts should not touch the computers.

When the youth find out new information about their ancestor, teach them how to add it to Family Search. You can add any kind of event or tidbit in the "Other Information" section on the ancestor's detail page. This will teach them how to edit their ancestors on Family Search. Then teach the youth how to add sources to their ancestor's page on Family Search and make sure they know that they should do this every time they find a new source for their ancestor.

By the end of the class period each youth should have found some sort of new information about their ancestor by searching for records on Family Search or another genealogy website. They should also know how to update their ancestor's details and add sources on Family Search.

If the youth have completed their ancestor snapshot sheets, let them bring them home and encourage them to talk about it with their families. For youth who have not completed their worksheets give them a choice between finishing them at home or at the next class period.

For the next lesson youth will have a choice between continuing work on their ancestor snapshot sheets or teaching what they have learned to someone else. Have them make that choice at the end of this lesson and ask them to bring someone (an adult) to teach for next week if they would like to teach. The youth will be most comfortable teaching someone they know.

Week 3:

The purpose of this lesson is to allow extra time for youth to complete the ancestor snapshot sheets or to allow youth to teach what they have learned.

You will need:
  • A class of (preferably) no more than 10 youth on their Sunday behaviour
  • An internet-connected computer for each youth with access to premium family history websites (like
  • A family history expert for every 2-3 youth who are finishing their ancestor snapshot sheets
  • An adult who wants to learn about family history for each youth who is ready to teach
  • Pens and highlighters
  • Extra copies of the ancestor snapshot and historical events handouts
For youth that want to continue working on their ancestor snapshot sheets, try to let them do as much as they can on their own. The family history experts should play a minimal role this week, only answering questions when asked.

For youth that want to teach, give them the blank handouts and ask them to teach the adult how to complete it. They can choose ancestors from the youth's family tree or from the adult's family tree, but the adult should be sitting at the computer.

Tell the youth who are teaching that they should not be touching the computers, only explaining what to do. Encourage them to ask questions that will help the adults think about the ancestor as a real person, like "Oh this ancestor had 10 children. How many children do you have? How do you think you would feel if you had 10 children?"

Encourage the adults who are learning from the youth to let the youth lead completely. Ask lots of questions, especially questions that they think the youth will know how to answer. The youth should come away from the experience feeling empowered and knowledgeable. The adults should make this their goal.

At the end of the class period encourage youth who were working on their ancestor snapshot sheets to finish them at home with their families or to finish them with an expert at the local family history centre. Encourage youth who were teaching to consider helping their adult finish the ancestor snapshot sheet another time at their home or at the family history centre.

Make sure to mention that the youth could also teach their families these skills at a family home evening as part of their Personal Progress or Duty to God programs.