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Approach 1 – Using family generations to link back to past events

How do you link today – and people today – to past events? How do you make that human connection across time?

One method, which isn’t very profound but is simple, is to create a human timeline representing the generations of your family, linking today with the past event. I did this at the SHP Conference as an introduction to the Civil War – how many generations are needed to take us back to the 1640s?

My grandfather, George Loft Dawson, some time before The Great WarSimply create a timeline of people, starting with yourself, then a student for each generation, your father or mother, a grandparent, a great-grandparent etc. My line needed only 11 people (we haven’t been very quick off the mark in recent generations in having children!). I know the names back to the late 1700s and orally added in some information to try to create a sense of real people:

• my Dad, born in the same week as Emily Davison’s Derby
• my grandfather with the odd middle name ‘Loft’ that nobody knew where it came from
• his mother, Fanny Cooper
• and her mother, Frances Loft, both of whom died aged 32
• Frances’s father, Thomas, a Liverpool shipwright but born in Lambeth and the first person in the family to be able to vote
• his dad, George, a plasterer born c.1750 but where?.

Further back is a mystery but I still had people in the line to represent those ancestors.

I jotted my notes down like this:
















Fr Lft

Th Lft







What I was trying to do was create some sense of duration; focus on people, not events, and make a link between now and then through those people. This hopefully then made it easier to focus on the impact of the Civil War on ordinary people. For some people at least it brought the 1640s closer – there were fewer generations that expected – almost, if not quite, touching distance.

Teacher Reactions

Here are some reactions from teachers who were there:

James Nichols I found it very effective as I did not realise how close it was in terms of generations. Definitely one that I shall be using in class.

Russell Hall This exercise immediately connected me (the audience) with my ancestors and made feel as if these moments were no longer just ‘History’ but connected to me and my experience as a human being. The value of such a timeline is that it opens a door on the past and gives us a sense of our place in history; that our lives, too, are historic in essence. It is an invaluable opening activity because immediately we care and want to know more.

Danielle Breachwood I really liked the use of the family timeline, I think it was a brilliant way of making the Civil War tangible, especially in family-terms as we often think of History only happening to the 'key individuals' like Cromwell or Fairfax and it by-passing everyone else. I think it would be a valuable tool, and something I am going to try myself as I have branches of my family named and dated going back to the Civil War era. I think it will create questioning in students too to think that History has happened to people they know, and ask ' Nan, were you around in the war?' etc.

Ian Luff This will have great power in combating the all-too-common tendency for kids to see any period in the past as  part of the amorphous fog of 'The Olden Days' and therefore impossibly distant from their own lives. It does create a human bridge or human time measure to the past and thereby makes the time gap seem far less vast. I'll certainly be using it in my classroom.

There have also been suggestions for amending my original idea:

Jamie Byrom It could be developed with relevant props to link people to characteristic features of their era or own life.  You might put a "veil" of some sort over the ones whose histories are hidden or at least a screen to show that we are moving into the realms of the unknown/unproven in the family history.

Matt Dawson In the classroom I’d stand the students in front of a timeline so the going back in time is clearer – they’re inside the timeline. Make sure the students in the timeline are facing forward so they can look along the line and see where they fit with the other generations. I’d also give them cards showing the names (probably just first names) of the people in the timeline to help the rest of the class identify with them – but it has to stay simple.

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Teacher Reactions


Using Family Histories

Using Family Histories

  1: Generations

  2: Migration

  3: Sense of Period

  4: Industrial Revolution

  5: Changes in Everyday Life

  6: Overview of 20th Century

  7: Outbreak of WW2

  8: GCSE Medicine


The entire article (PDF)

My mother’s 1930s (PDF)

Dad’s 20th Century Lifetime (PDF)

My mother’s Wartime (PDF)

What do we owe our lives to? (PDF)