Lighting Up Curiosity and Ancestral Past with a Term Paper

In 1895, when only 13 years old, my grandfather — so the story goes — had a fight with his Prussian father, ran away from home, and in the north German port of Kiel stowed away on a ship headed into the Atlantic.  After some 22 years, my grandfather, having helped complete the Panama Canal, finally journeyed to America in 1917 with his wife and four children including my father.  This was the very year that the United States entered the “war to end all wars,” a war in which Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German soldiers were turned by the yellow press into ape caricatures donned with pickelhaube helmets.  It is not surprising then that my grandfather, Gustav  Zilian, German through and through, did not wish then or ever to speak German or talk about his German roots or the old country, even with his children.

My curiosity, increasing as years wore on, about this man who died two years after my birth compelled me eventually in 1991 to pursue the mystery of my paternal ancestry in that port city of Kiel armed with only his name — an incomplete name at that I discovered — his year of birth 1882, and his place of birth — Kiel.  From these beginnings sprang one of the greatest adventures of my life.  After many phone calls and letters, two visits to Kiel, much walking and knocking on doors, much questioning of local Germans who with eyes askance glanced cautiously at me, clad in my distinctly un-German clothes, I was able to isolate the house from which he ran.  I relished every moment as I sat  listening to two elderly people right out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, relate stories about my grandfather’s family and pore over old, yellow-gray, dog-eared pictures and pieces of paper as they looked for pictures and phone numbers of my distant relatives.

For my sophomore history students I did not have the intent of even coming close to replicating the experience I had.  But could I give them even an inkling of the thrill and adventure I experienced while also achieving other educational goals such as enhancing their curiosity?  I thought I could by fashioning a term paper in which each student had to research and write about a relative not in their immediate family.  After employing this requirement for three years, I am delighted at the benefits which flow from this exercise.

The Results

I continue to be amazed at the discoveries which the students make in preparing these papers and how the papers can serve to catalyze meaningful discussions on topics too often left in a box or under a rug in the attic.  Ryan, for example, finally had the talk with his father about Vietnam, a subject his father never before wished to discuss.  Greg wrote about his distant relative thirteen generations ago, Roger Williams, who had a defining role in the establishment of the state of Rhode Island in the mid-1600’s.  Greg had a revelation in writing the paper: “Through my research I noticed that my whole life I have unintentionally been following Roger Williams’ footsteps.” They both had lived in Seekonk and Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Roger Williams and Greg’s parents had both bought land in Rehoboth, MA.  Greg joined the boy scout troop of the very church in which Roger Williams had preached 300 years ago.

Abe wrote about Great Uncle Joseph Vilardo and the realization of “the American Dream.”  “Uncle Joe” came from Italy as a young man and eventually his family in the late 1920’s operated the “Princeton Market, an Italian butcher shop in the Polish section of Jersey City.  Until Abe wrote the paper, he stated: “I have never known much about my family history, much less my Uncle Joe.”  At the end of his paper Abe included a formal picture of Uncle Joe’s parents, Clementina and Benedetto Vilardo — simply a gem.

Cara wrote on her grandfather, a former police chief of a nearby town.  She interviewed the current police chief and discovered that her grandfather had helped solved a murder case.  Writing the paper “opened a window in her mind.”  She never knew how dedicated and hard-working her grandfather was or the positive influence he had had on people.  Cara has taken one of her grandfather’s guiding principles as her own: “Fate casts a long shadow, but keep your own light shining.”

Francesca wrote about the forced flight from Nicaragua of her grandparents from the Sandinistas in 1979.  This was a tale of success in Nicaragua, of speedy departure, of struggle here in America, and finally of success once again here in America. Because of the paper she no longer simply knew the facts; she was now “able to feel the emotion, the anger that my grandparents had and still do towards the Sandinistas, and the love they had for each other.”

Matt related in his paper at the outset that when he received the assignment, he was scared because his family did not know much about its ancestors.  But he went into the attic and uncovered the obituary of his great-grandfather, an inventor of the electric car, a 32nd degree mason, an excellent cook, and a very strong man.  Before the assignment Matt had not known a thing about this man, not even his name.  He indicated: “But as I learned more and more about this man, I now see him in parts of my relatives and family members.”

The Nature of the Requirement

I have several objectives in assigning this requirement.  First, to have the student be able to write a well-organized, well-developed paper using good prose and clear, grammatically correct English.  Second, to learn about a relative and in some small way replicate the adventure which I had in researching my grandfather.  Third, to afford my students the opportunity to become closer to their families.  Fourth, to do what historians do: work with primary source documents and evaluate them in terms of bias.

In its current form the requirement is for the student to write a 600-800 word paper analyzing at least three primary source documents about his/her family or an important event in the life of the family. Sources may include: birth certificates; old family pictures; letters from parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles; a family tree document, and interviews of grandparents, aunts, or uncles.  At least two of the three sources must be written documents.

I provide my students specific questions to be answered in their papers, including:

  1. Describe the focus of the paper and what sources you used: What person(s) or event(s) does the paper focus on?  What is your relationship with the person?  Time-frame of the person’s life?  Why did you select this particular person or event?
  2. Discuss the nature of the sources you used: Are the documents believable?  Do the authors have any biases of which you should be aware?   What impact might these biases have on the information in the document?
  3. Analyze the content of the sources: What new information do the sources provide to you? How does this information affect your understanding of your family?

A Very Unique Paper

And finally there was Mary’s paper, focusing on the tragic car accident and death of her Uncle Philip, the uncle that served as protector of Mary’s mother when she and Philip were young.  He was only 26 when the car accident occurred.  “With a severed spinal chord, he lay a quadriplegic in the hospital, unable to breathe on his own or move from the neck down.”  Mary’s paper spoke of the heartache and frustration of her mother’s family, who for months watched not only Philip’s body wither away, but more sadly his former indomitable spirit.  The family agonized over what to do during the ten months he continued to exist, not really live.  “My family hurt, but nothing lasts forever, not people, not pain, and finally they were reminded of life’s perpetual cycle.  I [Mary] was born three months later … and the spring was pushing out the harsh winter.”  How very gratifying it was for me to realize that I had set the conditions for Mary to probe more deeply than she had before into the life and death of her uncle and articulate the impact on her family and for her to see her fortuitous role in the rebirth of hope in her family.

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