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Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

What Have You Done? Discovering Family History

What Have You Done?: Discovering Family History | Wisconsin Historical Society
Cover of book, Celebrating Everyday Life.

Celebrating Everyday Life in Wisconsin History

Publication from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Grade level: Elementary

Duration: More than one class period

As fourth-grade students learn about everyday life in Wisconsin's past, they can make this study more personally relevant and exciting by interviewing parents, grandparents, and possibly their great-grandparents. A simple preparatory discussion, an interview worksheet completed as independent work, and individual follow-up, allow students to place their family and community's history in the context of a broader state history.


Students will:

  • Learn and improve their interview skills.
  • Gain information through interview skills.
  • Present explicit reference details as they compare the past and present.

Resource Materials


  1. Determine when during the school year a lesson on family history might be most effective. If the school librarian initiates the lesson, formally or informally, contact fourth-grade teachers to secure this information.
  2. Discuss with students their perceptions of how life might have been different for earlier generations of their family members. Begin with the following:
    • Think about the activities that you do during the day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep at night. How do you think your grandparents' lives were different when they were growing up?
    • What's it like when all the lights go out?
    • Can you imagine living all the time without electricity or running water?
  3. Allow students to offer their own present-day stories as well as their perceptions about life in the past. List their ideas on the chalkboard or on a transparency. After this discussion, distribute the interview worksheets.
  4. Read through the interview directions as a group, and ask students if they have any questions. Let them know that if their own grandparents are unavailable, it is acceptable to conduct the interview with older family friends or neighbors. The class at Lindbergh contacted the local RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program), so students without grandparents could conduct an interview. Students can note the substitution on their interview sheets.
  5. Note: it is a good idea to distribute the sheet before a holiday when families are likely to gather. Thanksgiving has proven to be a good time.
  6. Because some students will need more time to gain access to family members, this lesson works well with a flexible due date.
  7. As students share their interview results with the classmates, be sure to have them include the details of life that most surprised them.


Some students learned about radio plays, and some chose to write and perform their own radio play, with sound effects and scripts. Also, family members of students came into school and demonstrated several of the skills that they had reported during the interview, like wool spinning, knitting, quilting, and ice cream making, the last of which went over very well!


This teacher-submitted, elementary-level lesson plan appeared in Badger History Bulletin. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs. Author: Shirley Raymakers, Lindbergh Elementary School, Madison