25 April 2011

Finding the Family Skeletons

Upon a recent conversation with a family member, she made mention of our mutual ancestor's job as a ships captain, then commented that she was glad he wasn't a captain of a slave ship, because that would have been the end of her research.

That got me to thinking about the skeletons in the family tree.

For example:  my maternal great-great grandfather, William James Cox, left his family at the turn of the twentieth century and moved in with a woman about half the age of his wife, Anna Sperry Cox.  From this union, two children were born.  William and Anna never divorced, nor did he ever marry the second woman. Because this was such a well kept secret, it took me nearly ten years to finally crack this, all the find out William's parents names.

Yes, every family tree has a black sheep or a rogue ancestor.  Every tree has a crazy cousin.  However, if we let a skeleton hinder us from doing research, we never find out that a child born out of wedlock would become the favorite aunt of another cousin, or that a crazy gambler that gambled away his children also fought in the War of 1812 and walked away with a decoration, or that the woman who never adopted a son but raised him nevertheless would be looked at fondly by future generations as "Grandma."

Even skeletons in the family tree need to be looked at and examined.Stopping years of research just because the values of an ancestor didn't mesh with what is believed to be right now would seem, at least to me, to be a silly waste of years of research, and leaves future generations of family history hunters in the dark as well.

28 March 2011

Brick walls are an inevitable part of any research

I have come to realize that any family tree research will have a brick wall, or two, or even fifty when it comes to research.  Sometimes, that brick wall is in the form of a person actually preventing you from getting information on a family.  Other times it is in the form of the lack of information at your fingertips.

Overcoming some brick walls can sometimes take months if not years of research.  Sometimes the brick wall crumbles with a simple search through a database or some records, other times a brick wall will remain stubbornly in place for years to come, particularly if the ancestor with the brick wall has a very common name like Thomas Smith or John Fielding.

Here are some helpful hints for overcoming some brick walls:

Network, network, network!!

Any great genealogist will tell you that the best way to break down a brick wall is networking.  Sharing what you have and asking for help often helps break down brick walls.
Be willing to share what you have with others.  A great help to me, though one I have not used in a bit, are genealogical message boards, such as Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage offer great ways to get in touch with others who may be researching the same lines as you, or who may be able to offer advice on who to contact in regards to information.

Mailing lists are another great way to connect and network with people who may be able to help you with a genealogical brick walls.  For instance, if you are researching a family line in California but live in New York and can't get to a courthouse to search for a record, you can join a mailing list where volunteers might be able to do it for you for free.  (Likewise, it's always nice to offer to do look ups in your own area to help someone across the country or even in another part of the state).  Also, mailing lists, like forums, offer advice and websites that you may have overlooked when searching for info.  Some of my best breakthroughs came from posts I made on mailing lists.  See http://www.cyndislist.com/ for more information on mailing lists and to help determine what one is best for you. 

Sharing information you find regularly with relatives often helps as well, for they can often catch a mistake or something new might spark a memory of some random cousin or distant relative that they may have forgotten years ago.  Sometimes, sharing what you have online on sites such as Rootsweb.com (which has the option to clean anyone living off of your family tree) in the form of even the bare bones research, helps others compare and connect to you and break through those brick walls you have.

Education still pays

Every family is different.  Every genealogy is different.  Because the world is made up of different religions and cultures and languages, sometimes researching can be difficult.

It pays to educate yourself about the different areas and times that your ancestors lived in.  For example, part of my husband's family emigrated from Poland when it was divided into partitions by Austria, Russia and Prussia.  His family happened to live in Galicia, which was ruled by Austria at the time of their immigration to America.  Therefore, half of the documents that the family has in regards to their immigration list Austria as their country of origin.  This lead part of the family to believe that they were Austrian instead of Polish.  Had the research into the country and its history not been done, some brick walls may never have come down. Another instance is the fact that  my father's family lived on the north side of Pittsburgh before it was the grand city it is today.  Back then, it was called Temperanceville and then Allegheny City before it was incorporated into Pittsburgh in the early 20th century.  Not knowing this, in my early research days I looked for records from Pittsburgh when I did research, and was at a loss when I could not come up with any information.  It wasn't until I sat down and read the history of Pittsburgh that it dawned on me to find out where my family had lived, and I was able to break down a brick wall to find several generations of family members and numerous distant cousins willing to help me research, as well as different ideas on where to look for sources.

It also pays to educate yourself on the different sources out there that are readily available for you to use.  From censuses to public records, to databases and family history books, there is a plethora of  sources readily available for use.  The trouble is, they can be a formidable challenge to use if you do not know where to look. Take the time to learn how to use materials and what kinds of materials are out there to use.  A great way to find info if you are internet savvy is to use lists like http://www.cyndislist.com/ (it's one of my favorites, if you can't tell) to find info on resources.  Google.com is another awesome way to look up resources, if you know how to word it right.  If not, books like

Make it a point to learn not only about your family bu where they live.  Make it a point to learn about different research materials out there.  Never stop trying to learn!

Patience is a virtue, even in genealogy

Sometimes it can take years to break down a brick wall.  I hunted for the parents of my great-grandmother for ten years before I finally found them on a census form where she was listed under a misspelled name.   Sometimes the sources aren't easily accessible for you to research, sometimes your ancestor moved and you don't know where or why.   Learn to be patient.  Keep in mind that the best genealogists often spend a lifetime researching their family trees. 

Reanalyze your data

This is where sourcing comes in handy (from my last blog entry).  Often you will hit brick walls that can easily be overcome just by looking over the data you have collected again.  Sometimes a fact that you overlooked the first time you saw the info will jump out at you, or a piece of research that you filed away because it didn't pertain to your research at the time will be vital now.  Go through the sources again with a fresh mind.  A letter a cousin sent years ago to led me to find a crucial piece of info recently on a branch I have been working on.  Going through data helps you to have stronger research, as well as helps to paint a bigger picture of just who your ancestors are.

With these steps, most of those brick walls will come apart.  Below are some books I have found useful in my genealogy quest.


23 March 2011

Old family photographs can be a treasure trove of wealth

A box of old photographs lay dusty on an attic shelf, or in a forgotten closet.  Photos may even be forgotten in an unused album on a shelf in a family room.  Wherever they are, old photographs can be a treasure trove a wealth when it comes to genealogy

I love looking through old photos, whether or not they have my family members in them.  My grandfather was a avid photographer and loved taking pictures of the world around him.  He was the photographer for many Waldspurger family events.  I never knew what happened to his many photo albums after he passed away, but the photos I have seen that he captured, such as this photo of his family in 1934 that was taken at his older brother Edward's wedding, show that how much he loved taking pictures.   Who knows what treasures lie forgotten in his many albums.

Waldspurger Family in 1934

Another thing I used to love to do is buy old photos from flea markets or antique shops when they were cheap enough (usually only a dollar or two) and try to match them up with families looking for photos.  I have only been successful once, but it was a time I was very happy indeed.  I haven't bought photos in some time, and the ones I have are boxed up somewhere.... I should dig them out and try anew. 

Old photographs tell stories.  From the way people are dressed to the style of the house, even a favorite place a person used to visit, there are stories to be told.  For instance, I knew my father had an elder sister who dies when she was only 21, but I wasn't able to connect a face to the name until I was shown several pictures of her while in college.  At that time, she had been the same age as I was when she passed away.  I was able to connect a family story to my own personal experiences because of a few simple photographs

Are there old photos you could be looking through?

10 March 2011

Sourcing Genealogical Information

My last blog was on different free websites to help aid you in your genealogical adventures.  Today, I will talk about sourcing that information.

Sourcing info is easy, and there really is no right or wrong way to do it. Often times you will need to have at least some of the following written down, whether it be on the family sheet your are working with, in notes that you have in a file, or if you use a software program, add it to the source list and then attach it to whatever data you need sourced:
  • Author
  • Title
  • Publisher's name and location
  • Publication date
  • Location of the source and identifying information (for example, the library where you found a book and its call number, or the website where you found it)
  • Specific information for the piece of data you found (page number, line number, web address, database name and line number, whatever will identify that specific fact)
The good news is if you do a majority of your research from online databases, they will usually have most of this information available at the end of the database or somewhere on their page.  If you can't find all of the data, don't worry too much.  Write down what you can from the source to help identify it.  That way, if you have to come back to that source later, you know where to look to find the info you need (not to mention it will help you solve the inevitable arguments of "Where did you find that date of birth for my Aunt so-and-so?  It's wrong!" should you choose to share your info online.)  Don't worry about having correct citations and perfect formats, unless you are the kind of person who lives for that kind of perfection.

Here are some helpful links as to why you should source data:

Sourcing — The Key to Your Family Detective Work
Why Bother? The Value of Documentation in Family History Research
Source Citations in Genealogy: Church or Cult?

01 March 2011

How to get started in researching your family tree

Genealogy has been a passion of mine ever since I was in high school.  My mother came home from my maternal grandmother's funeral with a list of descendants from her grandfather, a list one of my cousins had made.  I remember looking at it and the family tree that my great-aunt had created for the family years ago and wondered if I could find anything new on any of our family members.  12 years later, I can easily show my ancestry to the 17th century on some family branches and have helped connect countless people together, all for the fun of it. (For anyone interested - Here is a link to my family tree research)

Recently, a friend asked me how she could get started on researching her family tree.   In answer to her question, I felt the need to type this blog.

The best way to start researching your family tree is to start with your own family.  write down your date of birth and place.  Write in your spouse and their date of birth and place, as well as where and when you got married.  Fill in information for any children and other descendants.  Then start working backwards.  Write down siblings and where they were born and their children.  Fill out parental info as best as you can.  Keep working backwards as far as you can go, even if it is just names of each family member.

Next, start asking questions of relatives still alive.  I remember calling my paternal grandmother and asking her when her dad was born.  My mother's father was a great help in enlisting the help of his surviving siblings (many who have sadly passed away since then) in getting me information. I have found email surveys have worked best for asking relatives questions.  They can get to them at their leisure and also have all of the questions right in front of them.  Keep in mind that not everyone will be forthcoming with information, and more often then not you must respect that some relatives don't want to dwell on the past.

After you have exhausted your relatives, it is time to move to the internet.  Searching the net can be daunting, but there is a treasure trove of information out there.  The best way to start is to use free websites to expand your search. Here are two FREE sites I like to use:

This is by far my most favorite site to use for researching a new name I find for my family tree.  I also like to use it to find new info on relatives and ancestors when I seem to have hit a wall.  The best part of this site is the completely free World Connect Project that allows virtually anyone to post their family tree information on the site via a .gedcom file.  The worst part is more often then not, info can be misleading or incorrect and can be copied easily, leading to several people with misleading information.  However, it is a great way to connect with relatives and people researching your family name.  There is also a few links to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), many different Freepage websites, mailing lists for people with common genealogical interests, and a lot of resources to help the beginning researcher get started or help even the old pros with a brick wall.  You will have to register for a free account to use some of the information on this site, but it is worth it.  Keep in mind also that this site is run by Ancestry.Com, which also has a free two week trial to most of its content.

Run by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, this site has similar information to Rootsweb in that they allow some family tree submissions and have access to the SSD.  This site also allows access to free historical records and even will let you see images of some of those records with a free registered membership.  Recently, there was a overhaul of the site that makes it much easier to search documents and information for your family. 

Of course, if you have an unusual name (for example, in my maternal tree there is the surnames of Waldspurger and Heffentrager), sometimes googling the name works as well.    You can come across a treasure trove of gemswith an uncommon last name.

I hope this information helps with starting your family tree! Feel free to ask questions if you'd like,

And if anyone needs any cemetery lookups from the surrounding Des Moines area, let me know!  I will do them for free.

11 February 2011

What should we value?

    “Do you think today's educational system values intelligence over creativity simply because it's measurable? Should we value only what can be measured?”

    I was asked this question the very first week of a class that I was taking in response to a forum discussion I commented on, and I let it go unanswered until the last week of class. Perhaps it was because I felt I could not answer it, perhaps because I did not know the answer.  I have an answer now.

    Yes, I do believe that intelligence is often valued over creativity.  Free play and recess are being removed from the curriculum.  Test scores are more important then an art class.  Those who learn differently are labeled as “hyperactive” or “learning disabled” and pushed into resource classes and given excuses as to why they can't learn like the smarter kids.  Students are being told they can't become musicians or dancers or writers or artists because they won't make any money.  There is far more emphasis placed on raising kids who are smart and conform to society then on raising kids who are creative and different. 

    However, I also feel the tide is turning.  Science is telling us that free play is crucial to learning and social development, that the brain is plastic and modifiable far beyond the years previously thought.  There is a push to teach more actively and have student-centered classrooms that acknowledge that creativity and intelligence are valued equally, and that children are smart in all ways.  Teachers are being empowered to teach creatively and engage students more through Iowa Core.  Hopefully soon, the push will be for more creative thinking as needed for a digital world and less fact memorization and teaching to the standardized testing.

    We should not value what can only be measured, for some of our very values; honesty, courage, loyalty and faith, are things very much revered by humankind yet they are not subjected to the harsh measures that we place upon intelligence.  Why then should we value intelligence over creativity?  Why should creativity and play take a back seat to fact knowledge and academic advancement?

09 February 2011

Are we teaching "learned helplessness"?

    In the article “Secret to Raising Smart Kids”, as posted in Scientific American Mind (November 28, 2007), writer Carol S. Dweck states that children who seem gifted in school at a young age and are constantly praised for that gifted intelligence “hold the implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart.  This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”  In doing so, they develop a “learned helplessness” when the challenges become greater in middle school and beyond because their skill level remains the same while the challenges become greater.  Because their intelligence fails them as the schoolwork becomes harder, they believe they have failed and have become rather unintelligent.  In fact, to these children challenges are to be avoided because challenges lead to having to put forth effort, which in turn leads to mistakes and failure and failures mean that they are dumb.

    However, children who are not constantly praised and see school as something they need to work at no matter what their intelligence may be seem to do well, as they see each challenge as a way to grow and do better.  Even when they make mistakes, they learn from their mistakes, not see them as a failure. They hone their skills and keep trying, even when the challenges become larger.

    The idea  is that kids that are not constantly being told they are naturally intelligent, those that must work harder to get the grade and focus on the effort rather then the end result seem to be happier.  They are able to be more creative because thy must use their creativity to do well.  They don't rely on innate  or “natural” intelligence because they have learned that people are not truly born with such talents, but rather those talents are developed over a lifetime.

    As a leading research psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, those kids are learning to become one with “flow” or the creative moment when a person is completely in tune with an activity for the sake of doing the activity.  Because they have developed their mindsets to see problems as challenges to better themselves, kids who are creative become focused and gain inner clarity.  They hon their seemingly natural talents and learn new ones as they are suited for whatever challenge lies ahead of them.  They develop a sense of joy for what they are doing, and are motivated not by outside forces but intrinsically.  Because they have learned to apply their imaginations to help them, they gain problem-solving skills and at whatever their skills become. 

    So one may ask himself or herself, what does this mean for teachers?

    We need to stop praising students for how smart they are, and instead praise them for how much effort they put towards working on gaining skills.  We need to be teaching problem solving skills to all children, whether or not we think they need them.  We also need to stop assuming that a child may or may not have a certain amount of intelligence.  Intelligence is not a fixed or tangible thing.  It is ever changing, ever flowing and should be ever growing as well. By constantly praising the intelligence of the child, we aid in the teaching of helplessness, which ends up hindering a student for the rest of their life by teaching them that effort in any shape or form is tantamount to failure.  We also hold that child up as an example of success, which makes it harder for that student to really succeed when the work become harder.

    We as teachers need to tap into the imaginations of our students and use that to help them to become more creative.  As Ken Robinson states chapter three in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is the driving force of creativity and when applied become creativity itself.  We should not look down on children or adults who have their “head in the clouds” as being a little loony, but rather admire and praise them and learn from them.  The Luna Lovegoods of the world may not be in full step with normal society, but they are indeed attuned to the idea of being creative.

    As teachers, we also must get in touch with our own imaginations.  We should not be afraid to daydream and think up the most extraordinary things.  We need to remember what it is like to dream big and connect our big dreams to our students and to those around us.  We need to not be afraid to make mistakes and put forth the effort to do that.  By doing this, we can set the example of our students and peers.

06 February 2011

Mentors are needed if education is to succeed

    Carol Dweck, psychology professor and a top researcher on intelligence, insists that the brain is a malleable instrument that can be strengthened with use and that intelligence is not a fixed number but rather a trait that can grow with the right motivation.  Her research states that “students' self-theories about intelligence have a profound influence on their motivation to learn. Students who hold a "fixed" theory are mainly concerned with how smart they are―they prefer tasks they can already do well and avoid ones on which they may make mistakes and not look smart. In contrast, she said, people who believe in an 'expandable' or 'growth' theory of intelligence want to challenge themselves to increase their abilities, even if they fail at first.” (Lisa Trei, “Study yields instructive results on how mindset affects learning” Stanford Report, February 7, 2007)

    Those who are concerned more with their own image of how smart they look to themselves and others are afraid of failures and will do anything to avoid any failure.  They avoid changing, even if it means languishing in life and not developing any new skills which they may surely need to survive in this ever changing world.  Those who believe that they can control how smart they are and are taught to expand their intelligence through challenges and learning are then able to grow and adapt when the world around them changes.  After all, “research (has shown) how changing a key belief―a student's self-theory about intelligence and motivation―with a relatively simple intervention can make a big difference.” (Trei) Students need to be taught that intelligence is not a fixed trait that only some are naturally gifted.

    What does this mean to educators?  It means that we as teachers must learn to teach and empower students to grow  and change and teach them the skills needed to do that.  We must touch the lives of each and every one of our students to make sure they get the help they need and learn to find their own elements of creativity.  We have to show them that they must have some failure if they are able to succeed.  We need to give them the ability to adapt in the rapidly ever-changing world. Yet we can't do it alone.  The education system needs help in educating our students.

    That is where mentors need to be able to step up to the plate.  Teachers need to learn to utilize people in the community that can and should be able to help students.  Professionals and amateurs alike should be able to reach out to students in the classroom and outside the classroom alike. Mentors can become like teachers, often in settings that are not school-like to reach kids that may not be able to be reached in the school setting.

    Ken Robinson, in chapter eight of his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, points out that most mentors serves most, if not all, of  four roles;  recognizer, encourager, facilitator, and stretcher. Mentors recognize that there is a need and also recognize how to go about filling that need.  They also encourage students that nothing is impossible and expect students to live up to that encouragement.  They facilitate the student through their work and teach students techniques that help the to succeed while being an example of those techniques and their successes or failures.  Mentors also expand possibilities for students by stretching students past their limits and showing them that they can in fact do things.

    Some might argue that teachers should be already doing this in their classrooms.  That is true, teachers need to also be trying to mentor students.  However, teachers have limited resources, especially the resource of time.  Often they have thirty students in a class, and middle and high school teachers can see upwards of two hundred or more students in a day.  The current school system makes it hard for teachers to reach out and individually mentor each of those students on even a weekly basis.    Even the best teachers have students that fall through the cracks, and mentors should be there to gather those kids up, show them that they have the potential to grow and shape the world they live in, and help the education system in creating the future.

30 January 2011

The plight of recess in schools

“Exploration and play ... are the basis for creative problem solving and lifelong learning. Creative thinking is fostered in classrooms where children are given opportunities to explore new materials and ideas, play with these materials or ideas, and construct new knowledge and skills....”  - Deborah W. Tegano, James D. Moran III, and Janet K. Sawyers, Creativity in Early Childhood Classroom, reprinted in Bainbridge's article “Creative Ways to Foster Creativity”.

    Creativity and playing seem to go hand in hand.  Being able to play should be second nature to children, especially imaginative play.  How many adults can remember being able to build anything out of a large cardboard box?  Or remember when a backyard full of sticks made one giddy because there was just so much to do with them?  Or getting a big box of blocks or Legos to create whatever one wanted? Can many adults remember when the playground at school or the park was a spaceship to take one to the moon?  Imaginations abounded when one was allowed to play and laugh and explore freely.  Yet, many schools are cutting recess and free play out of their school days and giving children more structured instructional time to increase test scores and increase the amount of time that children are learning.  

    This cutting back of recess and time children have free-playing is coming at a time when scientists are discovering that being able to freely play enables students to problem solve, be creative, develop social skills, and learn to control themselves.  Scientists are also discovering that unstructured free play may even make children more intelligent, as it appears to help engage their brains better. (To see the source on this, click here)

    So why this push for less recess?  Many schools are answering with this: they want to better improve test scores and school performances and enable more time for structured learning.

    There seems to be a conundrum.  Schools want smarter students and yet they are leaning towards cutting a crucial element from their school day that enables children to develop into intelligent, creative and well-socialized adults.  Instead of giving children the chance to open up their own imaginations and socialize with one another in a unstructured setting, there is structured class time or structured play time where the teachers set the rules and the limits instead of letting children learn them for themselves.  We are hindering the creativity and ultimately the intelligence of our students by cutting back on recess and free play.

    We as a society need to let our kids be able to be kids.  We should allow them more time for mobile, active free play and engage their minds in their imaginations instead of telling them what to do and how to think every minute of the day at school.  Cutting recess and free play from their daily lives not only hinders their imagination, it hinders their ability to become the workforce that businesses are clamoring for.  We are standardizing our students.

    As teachers, we should push for more free play time.  We should encourage teachers to have a little more free play time in their classrooms and should encourage children to actively play more at home.  We also should not be afraid to play ourselves.  Yes, academics are important, but so also is playtime.  The two can go hand in hand if we allow it.  As the German classical composer Carl Orff once said, children “would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child's play." It is through play that children learn best.

27 January 2011

The intelligent creativity debate

This was written for a class I am currently taking, with some modifications....

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Commencement Speech at Harvard University, June 2008.

    The relationship between creativity and intelligence has been discussed and debated for many years now in the world of education.    However, will anyone ever be able to fully explain the relationship between these two?  My answer is no, for as human beings we will always strive to find a bigger and better definition.  We are unable to placate ourselves with just an ordinary definition, for an ordinary definition does little to suffice such a complex idea.  Our very human nature is that of intelligent creativity.  We always strive to be our best, to learn and understand what it is that drives us and motivates us. 

    However, we also live with the very fear that failure is inevitable if we try to be too creative.  We use this fear that failure is inevitable to stifle our creativity as we  take on the responsibilities of doing well in school, going to college, getting a job and leading “normal” lives.  Any artistic talents become a waste of time as we strive to do what mainstream society expects us to do.  We fear failure and we fear breaking away from the norm and we learn these fears at a young age in the standardized school systems and from well meaning adults who want us to make something of our lives.

    Yet, failure, as J.K. Rowling reminded the students at Harvard, is inevitable.  It will be there in some way, shape or form, and that is where creativity and intelligence again come into play to make us who we should be.  It is here that we learn to draw upon not only the mistakes of the past and our intellect in learning from them but also our hopes and creative ideas of what the future should look like to dig ourselves out of our failure.

    From a young age, children should be embraced into their creative desires, and taught to think not just with book answers and test memorization, but also with their intuition and imaginations.  School should be a place of wonder, not boredom for students.  Ideas should be encouraged even the most smart-alecky ones.  Creativity and intelligence are not mortal enemies of one another, but are merely facets of the very human nature that defines us. And without that human nature, man might not even be alive today.  They have helped to evolve human kind into the stone age, the industrial revolution, the digital world and every era and genre in between. 

But that very human nature, while blessing us with so much, is also a curse.  Because of it, people strive to define the very thing that creates them.  We cannot define creativity and intelligence because they are so complex, yet feel so simple to us as humans.  We also tend to define others in regards to our own ingrained definitions of what is creative and intelligent.  We try to measure people according to standards that we ourselves cannot fully understand and define.  We ostracize those that tend to think differently from us and praise those that think alike or can come to our understanding. 

    As teachers, we need to learn to be creative in our own thinking as well as encourage it from our students.  We need to embrace that intelligence and creativity come in many facets and that the very essence of human nature cannot be standardized.  The question, however, remains:  how can we do that in a world that demands set answers and often rejects new ideas as failures?