History Class Gets Personal

One student at Old Rochester Regional High School learned that her great uncle was a famous boxer in Providence. One learned that his ancestors owned the oldest restaurant in Erie, Pennsylvania, while another student discovered royalty in her lineage and even others learned that their ancestors were on the Mayflower.

            Some high school students have found ancestors from as early as the 1500s.

            For the past 10 years, English teacher Kathleen Brunelle has run a popular course that has been eye-opening for students, leading to award-winning essays and discoveries that have changed families. It’s also helped develop students’ research, writing and family appreciation.

            Brunelle said this elective is open to all students. She pitched it to school leaders 10 years ago as part of her master’s thesis, Relative Research: Using Genealogy to Teach English.

            During the course, students use research, writing, editing, design, presentation, and analytical skills to document their genealogies for future generations.

            “Students often use the skills they learn in this class to research other branches of their family tree after the course ends,” Brunelle recently told The Wanderer.

            Brunelle emphasized the learning does not stop after the course ends.

            “One family traveled to Ireland based on their daughter’s research in our class. Last year, one of our students took first place in the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Young Family Historians Essay Contest based on his essay about his experience researching his grandfather’s family,” she said.

            On January 17, students, families and faculty attended an event in the Old Rochester Regional High School Library to celebrate the work of students enrolled in the genealogy elective. The course, provided through the English Department, strives to teach English by way of designing a genealogy book based on a student’s grandparent by the end of the semester, according to a written release from the ORR School District.

            Throughout the semester, each student researched their ancestry on sites like AncestryClassroom and American Ancestors, were assisted by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and built a family tree. Students accessed local records with help from New Bedford City Hall, as well as free, online resources such as Familysearch.org, U.S. newspaper archives and military records through Fold3, according to the release.

            At the end of the semester, students prepared and shared food from their ancestors in class, while presenting their research to their peers through a digital-media presentation according to the release.

            “My biggest learning point from this class was when I found all the information about my ancestors in Greece and was able to make an amazing book from that,” said junior Jake Dellas. “The most interesting thing that I found was how far my family heritage went from back to Crete, and the beautiful areas around that island.”

            Senior Rylie Coughlin has knighthood and royalty in her bloodline.

            “I really enjoyed the class, and I learned that not everything is going to come easy and sometimes you have to have patience and persistence to find what you’re looking for. Sometimes you might not even find it at all, but you have to pick yourself back up and try again,” Coughlin said. “I would say the most surprising thing I learned in my research was that I had a royal in my family. I was lucky enough to be able to go back to 1500 and find out that I had a 14th great grandfather who was knighted by King Henry. I was even able to find a portrait of him, as well as his original will.”

            The course has been a source of pride for the entire school community.

            “The Genealogy Celebration provides an excellent platform to highlight the unique coursework and notable achievements of Mrs. Brunelle’s students,” said ORRHS Principal Mike Devoll. “Mrs. Brunelle’s genealogy course integrates various skills found in English Language Arts classes such as reading, writing, speaking, storytelling and creative expression. The course serves as a commendable example of project-based learning and emphasizes the importance of student voice. Our students are fortunate to engage in this enriching opportunity.”

            “Each year this project is one of the best we offer,” added ORR Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson. “The reason being this project directly connects what our students are doing here in the school building with their families, making it really special. I hope this project continues to be part of our students’ experiences for many years to come.”

By Jeffrey D. Wagner

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