Classrooms get access to historical data in just a few keystrokes

Portrait of 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln seated, c. 1860-65.
Portrait of 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln seated, c. 1860-65. MCT

History can come alive in classrooms around the country under a new project that enables students to access a trove of old data that can help them discover their own places in the broad sweep of the American story.

The for-profit online family history company,, has opened its collection of historical documents to schools for free, drawing on help from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to guide teachers in using them in their classrooms.

The idea behind the project, which was officially unveiled last month, is to help students look at historical documents, analyze them and put them in context, said Cheryl Mason Bolick, who helped lead the effort as a faculty supervisor of LEARN NC, the outreach arm of the UNC School of Education. turned to LEARN NC because it had the resources but not the expertise in how to use them in schools.

“Now, because the documents are online and free through Ancestry, the kids are really able to do the work that used to be reserved for those who had the means to travel to archives and libraries and museums,” Bolick said.

Teachers in elementary, middle and high schools apply through an website for access to its material, which under the program will be granted only to computers used in schools.

“Teachers were really excited about this,” said Brock Bierman, who directs the company’s work with schools. “If we train students to have a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities and the shoulders they’re standing on, it will make a significant difference as they get older.”

Bierman said Ancestry President and CEO Tim Sullivan had a strong commitment to putting the company’s materials in the hands of students.

“We believe that experiencing history firsthand through personal connections is the key to learning,” Sullivan wrote in a recent company newsletter.

The project began with a meeting in January with 10 North Carolina teachers and educators, as well as faculty and staff from the university, about ways to use the resources available in Ancestry’s databases. Its websites contain U.S. census records from 1790 to 1940, plus immigration and military records, and old newspapers.

The teachers then developed lessons using the materials, tested them in their classrooms and wrote about them in a book, “ Family History in the Classroom,” which is available online and as an Apple iBook. The resource guide was unveiled Nov. 20 in Boston for the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies.

One of the 10 teachers was Jeff Nesbitt, who used the historical records in his eighth-grade history class at Davis Drive Middle School in Cary, N.C., to help students look at the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the Depression, the civil rights movement and their own families’ immigration stories.

In his chapter, Nesbitt wrote about how the project took advantage of students’ natural curiosity about themselves. Along the way, they learned research skills and were able to draw connections between their families and historical events.

The project fits well with the Common Core State Standards, which call for students to be able to read and interpret historical sources and to draw conclusions based on evidence, Bolick and her collaborators wrote in the guide.

Kristen Ziller, a media specialist at Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh, collaborated with social studies teacher Laura Richardson last year in a class of 26 students. All of them researched their family backgrounds. They also looked at the family of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, through census records and looked at newspaper articles about his 1969 moon landing.

“This was the single best inquiry experience in my 10 years of being a media specialist,” Ziller said. “Our students love to talk abut themselves and focus on who they are. I’ve never seen students more motivated.”

Michael Williams, a teacher at Warren New Tech High School in Warrenton, N.C., had his students research an African-American family that had descended from Jacob Seward, who was born in Virginia in 1810 and lived as a slave. His descendants settled in Warrenton, a small community in Warren County, N.C.

The students divided into groups, some of whom used Ancestry data, including birth and census records, to find the occupations of members of the family. Others looked at newspapers from the era and military records for clues about historical events and personal experiences that had shaped the family.

Williams said he’d started the research himself and discovered a “myriad of stories” and “rich local history” that would add up to a good class project. Just two days before the students wrapped up the work with a presentation, he told them that the people they were studying were his own ancestors.

“I would recommend that all teachers allow themselves to become a subject in their classrooms,” he wrote. “My personal research was amplified when placed in the hands of 24 enthusiastic and invested learners.” also is working on partnerships with other groups, including one with The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a nonprofit organization devoted to the history of the region between Gettysburg, Pa., and Charlottesville, Va. That project asks students to help research each of the 750,000 people killed in the Civil War.

Another partnership is with the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Students can use the museum’s records to research relatives who may have served in the war. The museum invites them to contribute information they find about ancestors’ experiences in the war to help build up a database of World War I veterans. had a soft launch of the school program two months ago, and its records show that more than 445,000 students have had access to the materials so far.