finding your roots

Sources of History ~ Lesson Plan

Lesson Activities   April 2, 2012


1) Ask students to describe what steps they would take and what resources they would use to find out about someone’s family history and create a family tree spanning several generations. (Possible responses: Conduct research on the web, talk to family members, look at census data, birth certificates and other documents.)

2) Explain that the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the history of the United States through the personal family stories of well-known Americans. During the series, Dr. Gates and his research team use a variety of resources to gain insight into the family histories. This lesson uses segments from a Finding Your Roots episode featuring media legend Barbara Walters and education reformer Geoffrey Canada to highlight how primary source material can be used as a key to unlock information from the past.

3) Ask students to define what a primary source is. (A primary source is an object or document created or present during a particular time period or event that offers an inside view or perspective.)

4) Ask students to describe some types of primary sources that could be used to gain information about a particular time period. (Possible answers: Obituaries, photographs, diaries, letters, pottery, quilts, clothing, etc.)

5) Ask students to discuss the difference between a primary and a secondary source. (A primary source is an original artifact or document from a particular event or time period, while a secondary source interprets a primary source. Examples of secondary sources are an article discussing previous findings, a history textbook, etc.)

6) Explain that professional genealogists conducted research on Barbara Walters’ family tree and were not able to find out about the whole story about Walters’ family’s place of origin and original names.  Gates and his team decided to see if they could uncover details that the previous genealogical team could not, through the use of primary source materials.

7) Explain that you are now going to show a video segment highlighting different ways that Gates and his team gathered information about Walters’ family. Distribute one “Sources of History” Student Organizer to each student and, as students view the segment, ask them to write down what sources/objects the research team used to gather information about Walters’ past, as well as what they learned from each source.

8 ) Play the clip “Searching for Barbara Walters’ Family’s Name: Part 1.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.) At the end of the segment, ask students to share the information they included in their student organizers. [Possible information to discuss: The two main sources featured in this segment were Barbara Walters’ grandfather’s tombstone and birth certificate. Gates and researcher Jim Yarin visited the NJ cemetery where Barbara Walters’ grandparents, Lillie and Abraham Walters, are buried. Barbara Walters’ grandfather Abraham Walters’ tombstone revealed the Hebrew name of his father “Svi Getzl.” The birth certificate of Barbara’s grandfather (located at the State Archives in Wodjz, Poland) revealed that Svi and Getzl were first names and Waremwasser was Barbara’s great grandfather’s last name.] See the “Sources of History” Answer Key for more details.

9) Ask students if there were any sources that the researchers used that they might not have thought of using. (Students might mention the tombstone.)


1) Introduce the next segment by letting students know that now that the researchers had discovered the original last name of Barbara Walters’ paternal ancestors, they could now probe deeper into Barbara’s family history. As students watch the next segment, ask them to add information to their “Sources of History” Student Organizer, highlighting information about sources featured in the segment.

2) Play the clip “Searching for Barbara Walters’ Family’s Name: Part 2.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.) After showing the video, ask students to discuss the primary sources used in the segment and the information provided by each.  (Possible information to discuss: The main sources used in this segment were Barbara Walters’ father’s birth certificate and a ship’s passenger list. The birth certificate shows that Barbara Walters’ father’s last name at birth was “Warmwater.” The passenger list shows that Barbara Walters’ ancestors’ original destination in the US was San Francisco, not NY. The segment also uses photographs of immigrants in San Francisco to help tell the story of Jews in San Francisco.) Refer to the “Sources of History” Answer Key for more details.

3) Ask students to discuss whether there were any secondary sources that Gates consulted in this segment and, if so, what information they provided. (In the segment Gates talks with two prominent scholars of Jewish history, Jonathan Sarna and Anthony Polonsky, who share insights on how Jews were given names in Eastern Europe and provide a hypothesis about how the name “Waremwasser” might have been derived.)

4) Lead a discussion about the primary sources Gates and his team used. At the end of the segment, Gates mentions that the Warmwaters changed their name in 1910 to Walters. How do you think he and his research team might have discovered this fact? What are some possible primary source materials that could have provided this information? (Possible responses: Passenger lists, Ellis Island records, census data, etc.)

5) Explain that education reformer Geoffrey Canada, whose father left his family when Geoffrey was a little boy, didn’t know much about his father’s family history and the origins of their family name. Let students know that, in the next segment, Gates and his research colleagues explore a variety of primary source materials to uncover details about Canada’s family’s history.  Ask students to write down the names of primary sources used and the information gathered in their “Sources of History” Student Organizer, as they view the segment.

6) Play the clip “Before Canada: In Search of a Name.” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.) After playing the segment, ask students to discuss the primary sources featured in the segment and the information gathered from each.  The documents highlighted in this segment are a Social Security Application, Death Certificate, City Directories, Census Data and a Will. Refer to the “Sources of History” Answer Key for more details about the featured sources and the information gathered.

7) Ask students to discuss some of the strategies the researchers used when they couldn’t find a particular last name in the historical records. (They tried dropping the last name and just looking for listings of people who had the same first names and ages and relatives as the people they were searching for. They also used the Soundex system to search for the names phonetically rather than just by spelling. They also looked in a slave owner’s will, to find Geoffrey Canada’s ancestor, when they could no longer find a record of him in the Census data.)

8 ) Lead a discussion about the primary sources featured in the preceding segment, as well as in the other two segments shown in this lesson.


1) Divide students into groups of 2-3 people each. Ask each group to conduct research about one of the types of primary source materials featured in this lesson (a birth certificate, death certificate, social security application, tombstone, census record, ship passenger list or a will) and to find out the following:

- the type of information contained in the document/object

- how this document/object has changed over time (if applicable)

- the types of research questions it can help answer

- where/how someone can locate this type of primary source

(If possible, encourage students to obtain a copy or photograph of their source/object from their family or online.)

See the resources listed in the “websites” section of the Lesson Overview for potential resources for students to use.

2) Ask students to share their findings with the class. If possible, ask students to try to locate a copy or a photograph of one of their selected primary source materials from their own family or from the web and to show this source to the class.

3) Lead a discussion about how primary and secondary sources can be used in historical research. Ask students to discuss the advantages and limitations of different types of primary and secondary resources. Ask students to list other primary source materials not covered in this lesson, which could provide valuable information about life in the past (photographs, video and audio recordings, slave schedules, etc.)



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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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