Reflecting on Charleston’s Ancestors unKnown pilot

When we launched pilot projects in Charleston, S.C. and Paramaribo, Suriname at the start of 2013, we were hoping for positive results. But like all new programs, we really didn’t know what to expect. Now, several months later, the test runs have revealed some interesting results. So now let’s take stock of the lessons learned – the good, the not quite as good, and the surprising.

Q&A with Ms. Johnson

Avis Johnson, who teaches English at R.B. Stall High School, has incorporated Ancestors unKnown into her 9th grade Essentials of English class for the last few months. She shared with us some insight on what’s working and what we can learn from our pilot in Charleston.

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AU: As the pilot project comes to a close, what’s your impression of Ancestors unKnown?

AJ: It has been an awesome experience to share the history, ancestry, and culture of African people with respect to their connection to people all over the planet. Having exposed three Essentials of English classes to the curriculum, I found that my students were sincerely excited and eager to “know more.”

AU: What were some of the program’s highlights?

AJ: Noteworthy highlights of the program were the presentations given by invited guests and field trips to help make real world connections to the curriculum. Students were able to place a face with the printed page as well as experience what had just been taught.

AU: You mentioned some of the students faced barriers with their family history research. Tell us about some of the more common challenges.

AJ: Students were asked to interview a family member to begin their ancestry research. After many days of pleading with eighty-five percent of the students to complete this assignment, I finally had a “heart-to-heart” with them and found out that there were two major factors that contributed to a lack of student buy-in for researching their ancestry. One factor was ninety-five percent of my students were from single parent households headed up by either a mother or a grandmother. And second, students, unfortunately, felt ill equipped to research their paternal side due to an existing parent or family member unwilling to share any information about a father. When I then shared that research could still be done using the maternal side of their family, it was then that students began to share conflicts that existed within their families that denied them the opportunity to conduct an interview. This was unfortunately vindicated by many parent phone calls from me. To my dismay, it was very disheartening to learn that so many families were divided.

Another factor was found with an entire class block. Ninety-five percent of the class make-up was Hispanic. To my surprise, when they were asked to complete the assignment, I first experienced reluctance, which later turned to defiance. When asked to explain their behavior, they finally shared in confidence that parents were skeptical due to paranoia that they were being investigated for citizenship concerns. After reassuring many of them, a few were willing to complete their interviews.

AU: Would you recommend we do anything differently next year with Ancestors unKnown at R.B. Stall?

AJ: I would approach things a little differently next year. Parents would be invited to an informal “interest” session to inform them and encourage them to actively support and participate in the program. There would have to be sponsored field trips planned at least bi-weekly to broaden the scope of the program, especially since so much of what they would be taught is right in their “backyard.” More community mentoring would be sought to fill the void that many students feel as they research their ancestry from a maternal side.

In a nutshell, money for invited guests and field trips is necessary to offer the program at its best.

AU: Will you stay involved with Ancestors unKnown after this year?

AJ: Most definitely, as the above named concerns prove, in my opinion, that the need for this program is so much greater.

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