A thick book with an orange cover tells a story very close to Annushka Aliev’s life, but until recently, she had no idea the book or its story even existed.
Aliev thumbed through “Not Heaven Itself” — an autobiography written by Manfred Nathan, her great-great-grandfather — looking at photos of her ancestors from South Africa.
“Until this project, I had no idea this even existed,” Aliev said Tuesday.
As part of the Modern World History class at Middletown High School, Sean Haardt’s students are working on a monthslong project tracing their genealogy as far back as they can. It’s a project Haardt has refined and improved over the last 10 years in his classes.
Students are required to give a 12- to 15-minute presentation that includes maps of where their family came from and primary source documents such as military papers or death certificates. Students create a family tree to go along with their presentation, and they find the first relative who immigrated to the United States.
They are also required to bring a family heirloom dating back to a great-grandparent or earlier, or bring in photos of the heirloom if they can’t bring it to class.
Students work with Mary Mannix, of the Maryland Room at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick, in order to find starting points, or get through challenges when the family lineage comes to a stop.
Mannix serves as an “outside contractor,” teaching students the basics of genealogical research. She comes into the classroom before the project starts to offer tips and hints and answer questions, so students know she can serve as a resource.
“This project forces you to do good research,” Haardt said. “I always tell my students, ‘This isn’t a project you’re going to be able to Google.’”
As the semester comes to a close, students have presented their projects in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Madison Bantz told her classmates about her family’s involvement in the Civil War. Bantz, who traced the lineage of her adoptive family, showed documents of a relative who fought for the Confederates and was at the Surrender at Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Commanding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
She also determined the identity of her great-grandfather, whom her grandmother never met.
“Now, out of seven grandchildren, I’m the favorite,” Bantz joked. “It felt like a real breakthrough being able to tell my grandmother who her father was.”
Military service was often a theme in the projects of Haardt’s students. Erin McCubbin knew her great-grandfathers served in the military. She learned a great-grandfather was an admiral in World War II, and was eventually buried at Arlington. Another received a Bronze Star for leading a squad through enemy fire without any soldiers being injured.
“It was interesting to know that my family has actually done things,” McCubbin said. “Things that are really important. One of my great-grandfathers died three years ago. I wish could’ve talked to him about what he did. I kind of regret not taking the time to ask him about his service.”
Carrie Wasieloski found out a family member of hers served in the Continental Army at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. The family received a farm, which the family still owns, for that member’s service to his country, Wasieloski said.
Quinn Ketteringham knew his family has deep roots in Frederick County. He determined his great-great-grandmother was a sharpshooter in the circus in the area, and she married a clown, and they traveled together in the circus.
Ketteringham’s father was adopted, Ketteringham said, so the project offered his dad some answers he had longed for as well.
“It gave me a new respect for him,” Ketteringham said. “Because he sacrificed so much for us. The only blood relatives he knows are me and my sister. And finding all of this has inspired him to do more research into his family also.”
Not all students have to trace very far to find the first family member to come to the U.S. Some students themselves are the first generation to be born in the U.S. Yiting Lin’s parents were the first to come to the United States from China. Her family kept a “Lin Family Book” in the family and passed it down through the generations. The book is written in Mandarin, and has a page tracking the family tree. Her great-grandparents drew a map of the village in China where her family lived.
When her parents sold their house in China, Lin’s mother went back to the house for any heirlooms to bring back. She found sketches of Lin’s great-great-grandparents and brought them back to the States. Lin included them in her project.
The district’s social studies curriculum encourages teaching students about multiculturalism and current issues. With immigration being a popular topic of conversation, this project is a good way to introduce students to the discussion, Haardt said.
“Seeing how much everyone sacrificed to get here for a better life made me really appreciative,” said Nathaly Quinones.
Quinones came to the U.S. at the behest of her uncle, who fled Peru as a political refugee. Her uncle was a judge and became a target of a group of terrorists, Quinones said. After fleeing, he worked to allow the rest of the family to come to the U.S. and gain citizenship.
“My dad left everything behind to come here to be with us,” Quinones said. The project “gives you a different perspective of your family’s history.”
As students present their projects to the class, Haardt also asks questions about where their families come from, asking for maps or to explain where that place is to help tie geography into the lesson.
The project has also helped Haardt pique the interest of students in the subject. McCubbin, for instance, said she has always been interested in history, but having family members who fought in a war made learning about the wars more personal.
“When I tell people I teach history, 99 percent of the time I hear either ‘It was my favorite class’ or ‘I wish I paid more attention when I was in that class,’” Haardt said. “There are kids who just aren’t into it. For those kids, sometimes this project helps, because it can make that personal connection ... if you find that you had a family member in the war.”