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Using personal and family histories in the classroom

Have I told you about Uncle Frank? The only parts of my own history that I mentioned when I began teaching were that I’d taught abroad as a VSO (Wakefield students seemed mesmerised by my ability to shout at them in Arabic but ignored me in English) and that I’d been to the same school as John Lennon. I was picking out the unusual, newsworthy bits while ignoring what I saw as the ordinary and humdrum. Years later I now realise that to make effective and motivating use of family or personal history you don’t need an ancestor slain at Waterloo or who invented a critical piece of machinery during the Industrial Revolution. Instead, the ‘ordinary’ can have extraordinary impact and a wide range of uses.

What’s now obvious (and confirmed by many teachers who have used their own histories) is that when we tell students of any age about ourselves they listen with far more concentration – creating a deeper, more intense silence in the room. This concentration then develops into deeper interest and a stronger focus in the lesson. Why does this happen? I can only suggest that students are so used to seeing teachers as teachers that when we open up, and the human being inside the teacher steps out, children respond to the ‘risks’ we take in doing so – maybe there’s a sudden, unspoken realization on their part that their teacher is actually a human being just like them (probably quite a scary thought!)

Knowing this now, I wish I’d found out more about my own family history earlier but below is a series of suggestions for approaches to using your own life history or your family history. Chronologically I haven’t gone very far back with my own family (to the late 1700s through web-based census returns etc), but that’s more than enough to provide plenty of information – and even the gaps can be useful for prompting enquiries. What follows is a series of brief descriptions of approaches to using family and personal histories. I’m not suggesting you use all of the approaches below but a judicious selection may add variety, stimulus and improve the dynamics in your classrooms. Most are useable at KS2 and KS3 but Number 8 relates particularly to GCSE Medicine through Time.

If you have other suggestions for using personal and family history that you’d like to pass onto other teachers I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Different Approaches

1. Using family generations to link back to past events [ click  here ]

2. Telling family stories to introduce ideas about migration [ click  here ]

3. Personal memories as stimulus for creating or summarising a sense of period [ click  here ]

4. Making the Industrial Revolution human through family history [ click  here ]

5. Using family memories to explore changes in everyday life (with attachment) [ click  here ]

6. Using family history to create an overview of the 20th century (with attachment) [ click  here ]

7. Getting personal with wars – family starters for investigating the start of World War Two (with attachment) [ click  here ]

8. Injecting personal experiences into GCSE Medicine through time (with attachment) [ click  here ]


Hopefully these approaches demonstrate some of the many ways of motivating and enthusing children by using your own histories as part of teaching. Most importantly they demonstrate the power of focussing on real individuals, people with whom children can form an emotional bond, even at second hand. One final area which can also be developed through personal and family history is understanding of the use of sources as evidence when it’s integrated within other enquiries rather than treated as a separate anaemic area. What understandings can be developed?

a) What kinds of sources can tell me about my family’s past?

Can students suggest what kinds of sources there might be? How they might change across time? What kinds of information each might provide?

b) What kinds of things can I find out – and what can’t I? And are records always accurate anyway?

Again an opportunity for a bit of hypothesising and then using the real things, census material etc, to see if their ideas are correct. But even the census can be inaccurate – it took me ages to find my great-grandfather on a census as recent as 1871 because he and his wife had been recorded wrongly under his mother’s re-married surname. Even census enumerators make mistakes.

And finally, the use of family and personal stories underlines the fact that history is a subject that’s predominantly about real, individual people – and about the events and stories that connect us to those people in the past.

Perhaps above all they enable us to pay homage to those who’ve gone before. To quote the last lines of Alan Plater’s Oliver’s Travels:

‘It’s all about paying homage,’ said Oliver. ‘Hearing what the ghosts are saying.’

‘What are they saying?’ said Diane.

‘They’re saying … please listen.’

They listened.


You can download the entire article and/or attachments as PDFs:

The entire article click here ].

Attachment – Changes in everyday life – My mother’s memories of the 1930s [ click here ]

Attachment – An overview of the 20th century conflicts – Dad's 20th Century Lifetime [ click here ]

Attachment – Getting personal with wars – My mother’s memories of wartime [ click here ]

Attachment – Injecting personal experiences into 'Medicine through Time' – What do we owe our lives to? [ click here ]

A Handful of Links

1. Ancestry

Much advertised – subscriptions buy access to census returns, military records, birth, marriage and death indexes (you need to purchase the full versions for the useful details and to establish it’s the right person) and a range of other material. Note that some local authorities have taken out licences to this and other sites and you can get monthly subscriptions which, if timed for the school holidays, enable you to get a lot done quickly. There are several other commercial genealogy sites that are worth browsing before you choose one to subscribe to.

2. Lancashire Parish Registers

An example of the work of local enthusiasts which makes a wide range of material available.

3. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – free site which can be useful if you have a name and other details but limited information apart from basics.

4. Maps

Source of historical maps including old Ordnance Survey maps

Also Google maps and its linked images (camera shots of streets taken in recent years) – can be really useful for finding images of streets where our parents, grandparents etc lived – may now be car-lined but the essence of late-Victorian or Edwardian streets is little changed.

This Page


Different Approaches



Internet Links


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)