Rethinking the traditional back-to-school family tree project

Do your children need to do a family tree project for their class?

Mine usually do.

It almost seems like standard practice for preschool or early elementary school teachers to ask students to make and share their family trees with their new class.

Often the completed projects are hung on classroom walls, offering students an ever-present reminder of their families – something especially helpful for young students separating from their family and caregivers for the first time.

But, as I’ve learned, a family tree project isn’t a simple project for all families. And, in some cases, it can make parents or guardians feel the need to prepare the teacher and their child on how best to discuss and present the information.

A family isn’t just a regular tree – it has many roots and branches

A tree, with my roots, branches, and leaves, nourished from the ground up.

A tree, with many roots, branches and leaves, nourished from the ground up.

It goes without saying that a family doesn’t take just one form and everyone may not come from the same “roots.”

A family may include a single mom or dad, two moms or dads, adopted children and/or siblings, a step parent and siblings, half-brothers and sisters, and legal guardians – to name a few.

To me, that’s the beauty of it.

You can’t fit modern families into one set shape. Each of us needs to be able to celebrate our family no matter how many roots or branches it has.

Last year, my younger son was asked to make a family tree in his junior kindergarten class. While our immediate family includes a mom, a dad and two sons, our larger, extended family is more complicated.  It includes several sets of grandparents, step grandparents, step aunts and uncles, and the list goes on.

For days, my older son debated that it was not correct for my younger son to just list the “biological” portion of our family. He argued that it would be easier to do, but it just wouldn’t do justice to our family reality. And, I will always love and respect him for that.

Still, our case was a relatively easy one to resolve – we just needed a lot more “apples” for my younger son to glue on our family tree. But, we could have used a few more branches, too.

I know a family tree project makes it necessary for others to have more serious conversations with their children and their child’s teachers. And, the need to put the spotlight on the differences of their family versus others in the classroom.

That to me is why it’s time to rethink the traditional family tree project in the classroom.

A tree of life – with many roots that help us grow

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all kids were asked to do a “tree of life” instead of just the traditional family tree?

Students could then recognize the people who help them grow – as individuals, family members and students.

To me, the beauty of it would be that no tree would look the same. All of them would be different. And, in that, comes the true beauty and reward of this traditional back-to-school exercise.

Students would get to know the important people in their classmates’ lives. Teachers would have a better understanding for those individuals who touch their students’ lives. Families of all shapes and sizes would be recognized and appreciated. And, hopefully, no one be anxious about having their child participate in the project.

Roots would be celebrated – no matter if they’ve been there for generations and generations or if they’re just starting to take root in a child’s life.

But, this traditional back-to-school project doesn’t just have to be limited to trees.

Mapping out where we come from – and the differences that unite us

I would love to see a new focus take shape for visually depicting where students and their families come from – even if it differs within one family. That’s why I like the idea of creating a map that shows a child’s culture, knowing that in most cases it won’t be just one.

A map to celebrate where we're from - and where we've been.

A map to celebrate where we're from - and where we've been.

My children would most likely want to highlight Chicago, New York City, and West Palm Beach, Fl. – areas of the US where we live, where my husband and I were born, and where their grandparents now live.

They’d also note European countries like Germany, Romania and Russia where earlier generations of our family once lived.

Their maps alone would show the diversity that lives within our family.

Together, maps from all of the students in a classroom would celebrate their collective diversity.

The exercise would show that we’re all the same. While each student comes from different places, they’re all citizens of the world taking shape, being educated, and growing strong - right there in the classroom.

To me, that’s what any introductory back-to-school exercise should be all about – highlighting our roots, celebrating our differences, and showing the beauty that comes from diversity.

It's time to break free of one format and one shape and to move to reflect the look of today's modern families.

What do you think? Is it time to rethink the traditional family tree project? Do you have any other ideas for ways to replace the project? How have you approached the project in the past? Please share your thoughts, experiences and ideas in the comments below.

Please like Raising World Citizens on Facebook.

Want to have new Raising World Citizens blog posts delivered straight to your email inbox? Then, please enter your email address in the below box and click on "create subscription." My list is completely spam free and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment