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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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Did American Education Forget Gettysburg?

(This essay was originally published in The Lincoln Forum Bulletin in the fall 2013.)

While the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was commemorated with fanfare within historical circles and at Gettysburg itself, the education world has shown stunningly little interest. Abe Lincoln, our most admired president, would be disappointed and would shudder at the implications for our country.

In probably the greatest land battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863. During these three days some 70,000 Confederate soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, engaged 90,000 Union forces, led by Major General George Gordon Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for only three days. Lee had invaded the North with the hope, militarily, of scoring a decisive victory which, politically, might strengthen the Northern peace movement and force President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace.

The battle witnessed uncommon valor and good and poor tactical decisions on both sides, culminating in the ill-fated Confederate assault led by Major General George Pickett. Of the 14,000 Southern troops who attacked that July 3, only about one-half returned. While the Union won a resounding victory, the human toll on both sides was very costly: 23,000 Union casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) and 28,000 Confederate casualties, more than a third of the Confederate force.

Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would fight and win many other battles after Gettysburg; however, their former dominance in tactics and initiative was now matched by experienced Union forces, soon to be led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.

Many Americans who have heard of this battle may not know of its magnitude and significance. Many perhaps make facile assumptions about the inevitability of the North’s victory in the Civil War, similar to the common view of World War II—we all know the conclusion and casually assume the Allied victory was inevitable.

Not so. The Battle of Gettysburg could have gone either way, and with it the Civil War. If Lee had prevailed over Meade, there was no guarantee that the North’s superiority in manpower, finances, and industry along with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would win the war. If the Confederacy succeeded in stifling the North sufficiently so that public opinion shifted dramatically, we would have become two separate nations. Lincoln’s greatest nightmare would have come true: that self-government was a chimera.

To be sure, America remembered the battle. This past year Hollywood has given us Spielberg’s Lincoln; although, this was focused on Lincoln and the abolishment of slavery. Also, Copperhead, a movie about the peace movement in the North, opened in late June. The Postal Service has given us some marvelous stamps featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Vicksburg. At Gettysburg itself, thousands of re-enactors gathered the first week in July to relive and commemorate the battle.

Given the magnitude and significance of the battle, it is surprising that major media in the world of primary and secondary education have essentially ignored it. During this past year the weekly newspaper Education Week, self-described as “American Education’s [K-12] Newspaper of Record,” has had no articles on the Battle or even the Civil War, focusing on such things as the implementation of the Common Core standards, assessment of students, and teacher education and evaluation. Likewise, Independent School, the quarterly magazine for independent schools, has also ignored this pivotal battle and our Civil War, focusing on such themes as technology, experiential learning, safety and security in schools, and accomplishing school missions in an era of fiscal restraints. Even the PBS Catalog for June features neither the Battle nor the War. Its cover emphasizes “Constitution USA” and its rear cover features British dramas.

The implications of this neglect are serious. Societies and civilizations require glue to bind and sustain them, and one important source of this binding is significant historical events, such as the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the so-called “high water mark of the Confederacy.” It was, along with Vicksburg, the pivotal battle of the Civil War, the war which forged a new identity for our country. It eliminated the Southern way of life based on slavery. We were no longer a “house divided.” Before the war it was common to say “the United States are;” afterward, it became “the United States is.”

With the former prominence of Columbus Day now diminished, and Thanksgiving now overtaken by a commercialism which whisks us from Halloween almost directly to Christmas, the remembrance of such key events becomes even more important.

Secondly, the education world’s neglect of Gettysburg may signal a marked complacency about the health and longevity of our country. One of the great insights Lincoln gives us is his reminder of the contingent nature of our democratic system, a system which needs tending by its people for its survival. In May, 1861, Lincoln stated: “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity … of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.”

With the rise of China and The Rest, America is again faced with maintaining its interests in a changing and challenging world. Lincoln also gives us insight into our greatest challenge: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”


Fred Zilian is an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. For fifteen years he has been an Abraham Lincoln presenter/interpreter. Contact: zilianf@aol.com.


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