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A cross-curricular theme unit with activities, reproducibles, and tips for learning about families

Grades 4–8


Teaching About Families

By Adam Berkin

What's the best way to approach the theme of families for upper-grade and middle school students? Instructor talked with fifth-grade teacher Sandy Kaser of Tucson, Arizona, about a family studies unit she developed to encourage her students to explore different ethnic groups and types of families. Sandy has a diverse group of students in her classroom, including Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and Caucasians, but she's had mixed reactions from them on past multicultural units. Sandy started talking with her colleagues about a family studies unit that would draw students in. The following activities were the result of her search. Sandy said this unit, which was also spotlighted in If This Is Social Studies, Why Isn't It Boring (Stenhouse, 1994), was one of the most successful in her 17 years of teaching.

Start with Reading
Sandy loves using literature in the classroom, so for her family studies unit she assembles a variety of resources into "text sets" focusing on family sub-themes such as fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, family stories, and family issues (including foster families and families with people with disabilities). Sandy stores the materials for each theme — including quick-to-read picture books, Articles, and poetry, as well as longer fiction and nonfiction, in a separate plastic bin. To introduce the sets, Sandy schedules 45 minutes for small groups to browse through each set and choose one to read more thoroughly. During the next two weeks, each group pores through its bin, reading, discussing, and recording responses in logs before selecting several subjects to research in depth. In the end, Sandy has each group present two of the issues they discussed. Each year, Sandy is amazed at how the text sets inspire students to share their own family stories.

Raise the Comfort Level
Kids can feel uneasy when discussing personal issues such as family backgrounds and cultural identities. To help them feel more comfortable, Sandy has the following suggestions.

  • Be willing to share about your own experiences. Sandy makes a point about telling students about her own family history, including the fact that she is adopted.
  • Use literature to introduce sensitive issues. Sandy found that discussions on racism developed when she read Angel Child, Dragon Child by Michele Maria Surat, which is about a Vietnamese girl who starts attending an American school, and that issues of homelessness came up naturally when she read Eve Bunting's Fly Away Home, which describes a father and son who live in an airport.

Get to Know Each Other
Sandy has students interview each other to gather information and to practice interview skills for future activities. Before they start asking questions, Sandy asks her students to check out interviews on television and in magazines. Students then brainstorm what they want to know about each other. They publish their completed interviews in a classroom newspaper.

Where's My Name From?
Each year, Sandy asks her students to find out how they got their names. (You can use the What's in a Name? reproducible for this activity.) "Fabian was surprised to find out he was named after a famous singer," she says. Not only do students like solving their name mystery, but the activity encourages them and their parents to talk about other memories.

I Remember When...
Sandy has her students collect family memory stories by asking their parents to relate a memory such as "I remember when you were born," or "I remember when you broke your foot." Students record these stories in writing for their classmates; later, Sandy collects the stories for a book. To help students tell their stories orally, Sandy invites a storyteller to class to share drama, music, and movement techniques. Her class also creates a "story rope": students tie objects reflecting memories onto a rope and then tell the stories behind the objects.

Time Line of My Family
Sandy has her students explore their own lives and the lives of their families through time lines. The students first do a time line of their life from birth to their current grade. They record such events as learning to read, learning to ride a bike, losing a first tooth, and starting school. But this is merely a warm-up for a 100-year time line of their family's history. Since most students can't immediately recite a century of family history, this project prompts family research and lots of reminiscences and discussions about cultural heritage. Events students record on their time lines include immigration dates, moves across town and across the country, work history, marriages and divorces, and births and deaths. In addition to recording these events on their time lines, students post objects such as photos, postcards, and souvenirs. Sandy invites students to include as many events as they want, but they have to write up the stories behind at least ten of them. Since Sandy has begun doing this project with her students, her class has heard stories of family heroes, war stories, memories of living on reservations, and more. Sandy points out to her students that many of the stories they share make reference to other events of the time period, such as "around when we saw the Beatles" or "the year Kennedy died." This often prompts students to learn about historical events.

Let's Eat!
After reading Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooly (Carolrhoda, 1991) and Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris (Lothrop, 1989), Sandy and her students collect recipes from as many different cookbooks as they can find and also ask family members for suggestions. Then Sandy has each student select one bread recipe and one rice recipe to prepare at home and bring in to share with the class. On the feast day, the kids select music and light candles to create a festive mood. Afterwards, the class collects all the recipes in a cookbook that kids take home to their families.

This Is My Place
At a reading conference, Sandy discovered what is now one of her favorite family studies tools: a book called My Place by N. Wheatley and D. Rawlins (Kane/Miller, 1992). The book is a collection of stories about a town in Australia, illustrated with maps. The story begins with the main character saying, "Hi, my name is and this is my place." On the opposite page is a informal map that the main character has labeled with important places, including a tree at the center of the map. Each story is narrated by a family member from a different generation and includes a map to match. The book starts in the present and goes back in time by ten-year increments to Aboriginal times and ultimately to a time when there were no people, just the tree.

Sandy divides her class into small groups and asks each group to read two stories from My Place each day, then share with the whole class what they notice about how the place and characters change over time. When they finish the book, Sandy asks students to look over their list of observations and divide it into categories such as jobs, historical events, family relations, and Australian words. Students divide into groups corresponding to these categories, re-read the book looking for information related to their category, and decide on a way to share their information with the whole school. For example, one year the group that investigated the tree made a big tree out of a colored paper and put dates on the leaves. Underneath each leaf they drew a picture and wrote a narrative of what was happening to the tree in that time period.

Soon after Sandy introduced My Place, one student independently chose to write her own version of the book. The student told her own family story and drew her "my place" map of her neighborhood, labeling important places such as "This is where I get off the bus to buy a soda every day." The other kids liked her book so much, they all decided to write their own!

Biography Browser
Sandy finds that biographies tie family studies and a literary genre together. Each year, she brings in a collection of biographies and says to students, "Here is a box of people's lives — read about anyone's life you are interested in." Since the students have just written about their own lives, they are excited to find out about other people's. They browse through the biographies and select at least one to read completely. Then, since Sandy wants students to talk in small groups about the biographies, she helps them organize themselves into discussion groups focusing on such categories as Artists and Authors, People of Great Courage, Famous People in History, and Western Heroes. While they read and talk, Sandy asks students to think: How did this person's family influence him or her? What can I learn from this person's life that I can use in my own? For example, one of her struggling students who read a biography of Abraham Lincoln concluded, "I learned that Lincoln made a lot of mistakes along the way, the same as me."

Show and Sing
To finish the unit with a flourish, Sandy invites parents for an art show and choral performance. Students display all the projects they've worked on, including time lines, "my place" maps, and "I remember when" stories, and perform songs about family. Last year, even the superintendent turned out for the show!


"This is an age when a father can develop a special relationship with his son, and a mother can nurture her relationship with her daughter."
— Stanley Greenspan, MD, Playground Politics (Addison-Wesley, 1993)

"During early adolescence, it is normal for children to dissociate themselves from their families. Finding their own identity means rejecting the family from which they once derived their identity."
— Gail A. Caissy, Early Adolescence (Plenum Press, 1994)

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