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.

BG Heirloom - AE

Carrie Wasieloski holds an Army medic's hat worn by her grandfather during his service in the Korean War. She is part of a Modern World History class at Middletown High School working on a genealogy project.

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.’”

The school uses a grant provided by Ancestry.com to gain access to resources including newspapers.com and fold3.com where they can find primary documents.

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.

BG Heirloom - AE

Yiting Lin, left, shares her research that traces her family back nine generations in China. At right is classmate Nathaly Quinones in a Modern World History class at Middletown High School.

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.”

Follow Allen Etzler on Twitter: @AllenWEtzler.

(2) comments


Everyone cn't do this. For teenage adoptees who are trying to carve an identity from a borrowed family history, this kind of project can be really really depressing. You want to fit in, so you do your adoptive family's history, which only magnifies your personal void. They won't complain, they're kids. I'm a senior citizen who is the official family historian of her adoptive family, and it happened decades ago, much like this. When this assignment comes along - or any variation on the dreaded "family tree" - I am contacted and dutifully send them their history. Their history. Mine remains obscure. I have no artifacts except for my self and a growing list of physical flaws I inherited. Please be mindful. Our adopted daughter can't do this either, and would (and did) pass on the non history that is mine rather than stand out further among her peers. Opting out should not be resolved against you with an eyeroll.


What a great project!

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, insights and experiences, not personal attacks. Ad hominen criticisms are not allowed. Focus on ideas instead.
Don't threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
No trolls. Off-topic comments and comments that bait others are not allowed.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
Say it once. No repeat or repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.