As a teacher at a middle school, Brooke Parker sees firsthand the rising generation’s predilection and affinity for technology.
One of her responsibilities at her school is to supervise carts of iPads that other teachers can check out to use in their classrooms. “I’ve noticed that often when I get back the carts — despite the teachers’ best efforts to keep students from doing it — there’s on the camera roll tons of selfies of these kids that I have to delete,” Sister Parker said.
Young people today are skilled at documenting themselves and their lives using technology, Sister Parker observed. But therein lies the key to engaging youth in family history. “We want to combine the topics that they’re passionate about with the technology and the tools that they love.”
As part of their session during the RootsTech family history conference on Feb. 5, Sister Parker and co-presenter Becca Summers shared tools, resources and ideas on how to engage and connect the next generation with family history and their heritage.
Many of the projects they suggest start with “self,” noted Sister Parker — with individuals recording personal histories and exploring their identites within their own families. Others, however, encourage youth to “branch out from self and look outward to others and to reach back into their heritage.”
The presenters organized their project ideas based on the tools youth can use to “make” their history.
Tool #1: paper and pen
The first activity the presenters suggested was having young people write letters to their past selves. Sister Parker encouraged listeners to think about the following questions, “If you could write a letter to yourself at any point, what age would you go back to? What piece of advice would you want to give that version of yourself?”
Sister Parker played a video that showed individuals of all ages reading letters they had written to their past selves. A 7-year-old, for example, wrote, “Dear 6-year-old, Training wheels are for babies. Just let go already!” An 88-year-old wrote, “Dear 85-year-old, Indulge your sweet tooth. You’ll need dentures soon anyway.”
Youth can also send letters to their future selves. Sister Parker said there are websites that — after an individual inputs an email address and specifies a future date — will send the letter at the specified date, from a month to 10 years down the road.
“It’s fun to get a letter in the future and also it’s just good in the present to reflect on your hopes and your dreams and your aspirations and what you hope to be or do in that point in your life,” Sister Parker said.
Other activities involving paper and pen might include making art, writing in a journal or creating a vision board that reflects a young person’s goals and dreams. Youth can also create a family health tree or write an autobiography.
Sister Summers shared the example of when she was living with her 87-year-old grandmother in Los Angeles and found an autobiography her grandmother had written as a 13-year-old for a school assignment.
“When I found this my grandma had dementia and couldn’t remember yesterday, let alone when she was 13 so these stories were brand new to us,” Sister Summers said.
Sisters Summers recorded her grandmother reading text from the autobiography and combined it with photos of her grandmother’s childhood to create a video. “Had she written this when she was 25 or 75, those same stories wouldn’t have had that same significance. She passed away after we recorded that so to have the combination with her voice has been sweet.”
Tool #2: cell phone
Sister Parker said, “Hopefully, we can take the impulse to always be on your phone and channel that energy into something productive and meaningful.” One way is to make a photo essay, Sister Parker said. Parents or teachers might encourage youth to participate in an Instagram challenge or to post things centered around a family history theme on social media.
One popular contest Sister Parker and Sister Summers sponsored on their family history website involved recreating an ancestor photo. They asked youth to find an old family photo, then to get out their phones and recreate it.
Sister Summers said another popular activity they suggest involves a free app that provides simple questions for youth to ask one another. The youth can record their responses and then the app helps them edit the content.
Tool #3: computer
Another new project the presenters shared is called Street View Stories, which is a collection of photos and stories about meaningful places in people’s lives.
The idea originated from an experience Sister Parker had looking up a specific location on Google Maps Street View while speaking to her mother on the phone. While her mother described a pond that was poignant to both her and her grandmother, Sister Parker was able to see it on Google Maps.
Sister Parker said she was so taken with the experience she began to encourage others to go on a similar journey.
“I started to ask friends at first and then put out a general call for people to choose a meaningful place in their life — maybe a place where something happy happened, something sad or complex or significant or interesting or just something simple but beautiful — to find that place on Google Maps Street View and to take a screen shot and submit it with a short caption or a short story.”
Creating an audio documentary is another option. “Sometimes people feel uncomfortable when there’s a video camera, but they might feel more at ease if you just throw in a voice recorder,” Sister Parker said. “You can interview friends and family members or you can record some activity or event and use that audio to reflect back on a family dinner or some interesting gathering.”
Tool #4: video camera
Video can be recorded on either an actual camcorder or on a cell phone or iPad, Sister Summers said.
She encouraged parents to remember to turn the camera over to their kids when recording home movies. “Let them film [you]. Let them film each other and see how they see their environment and see their family.”
It can also be fun to film a reenactment of a family story. “Often times the oral family stories tend to be the big, epic, dramatic ones.”
Whatever youth decide to “make,” remember that the process of discovery is more important than the final product, said Sister Summers.
“We hope through these creative processes that youth will take a step back and be able to see their families from an outside-looking-in approach, to identify their families’ healthy habits, healthy traits or maybe unhealthy habits or unhealthy traits, but to consciously recognize those patterns within their families. Mostly, just to use whatever skill level they have and whatever passion or interest they have to ‘make’ family history.”