Classroom Freebies

Let's Create Your Family Tree (Genogram)

One of the best, most relevant projects that made the most difference for my students was entirely accidental. During a conversation with a military counselor (Dr. New), I learned the way he helped his client’s work their way thru their problems was by completing and discussing a Genogram (Family Tree) of several generations. The purpose was for the client to identify family patterns and attitudes. He told me, “everything you know you learn in your family — your sense of right/wrong, personal ethics, values, lifestyle, styles of eating and exercise etc. People naturally repeat their parent’s lifestyle unless something or someone makes them change course”. That something could be the strong influence of
  • a mentor such as a high school football coach or a drill instructor in the military, or
  • The consequences of poor choices which caused enough pain to motivate someone to seek counsel.
The Genogram helps people understand where and how they fit into their family, the patterns of choices made and where those choices naturally end. As we talked I realized that the Genogram was a vehicle that I could use in my Health Class in terms of understanding the difference between goals and what interferes with accomplishing those goals. My students could look at their family tree thru the lens of:
  • diseases or health conditions,
  • level of education,
  • addictions (Example: my parents were young during World War 2 75% of that generation was addicted to tobacco)
  • Family relationships.
If Dr. New was correct, there could be examples of generational patterns such as: two generations of college graduates on both sides of the family, all the men in father’s family have heart issues in their 40’s, all the adults smoke and they really don’t want the kids to smoke.   I asked Dr. New if he would introduce the Genogram to my Health Class so the students would buy into the concept. In one class period he outlined 3 concepts:
  1. Everything you know you learn in your family — your sense of right/wrong, personal ethics, values, lifestyle, styles of eating etc.
  2. In a few years, you will leave home and set up your own home according to your set of rules. You have this time to evaluate the rules and traditions of your family.
  3. Before you leave your home and make your way in the world, evaluate how your family lives and decide what you like, what you don’t like, what you would like to change. In short, use this time to decide how you should live to accomplish your future goals.
My students were graded on completing a rubric. This was their personal journey. There were no presentations to the class. I was not interested in their personal business. The point was: What did you learn about your family? Did it make you think about what you want for your future and how your family influences those choices? What they learned went beyond my expectations. When I decided to try to do this project, I didn’t know if this was a good idea, if the kids would do it, in short I didn’t know how invested they would be. Three weeks later, my first group told me, “Mrs. McCoy, make every class do this? “ The emphasis was on the word MAKE. This was from teenagers who are resistant to the idea of an authority figure making them do anything. My reply was, “you were so negative at first. What happened?”

What happened was:
  1. To do the project they had to talk with their aunts, uncles, cousins, and Grandparents. Some of these people lived far away, they didn’t really know them, and they didn’t see them that much. They talked to their family members via the phone/skype/Facetime and they became closer.
  2. The kids learned all kinds of neat stuff about their distant family members. Information can bring people closer together and give kids a sense of real pride in their family.
  • One student asked me if I remembered Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I told him I was 13 years old when he gave that speech, it was a big deal, and everyone watched it on TV. He said his grandfather was there; we had a long conversation about that. I asked my student to ask his grandfather to consider producing a video of just the two of them discussing that day. (Why the grandfather went to the event, what he saw that day, how he felt on that day and later, what it meant to him.) His Grandfather was in the middle of a huge historical event.   When people write history, they go to 1st hand sources which are people who experienced the event. This would be a valuable family heirloom. In the future, when his future son, grandson, great grandson studied about Dr. Martin Luther King in school, they would know personal information in regard to the historical event of the “I Have a Dream” Speech because his grandfather was there.
My students insisted that I make every class do this project, and so I did. The stories of what was learned, some publicly shared with the class, many privately with me, overwhelmed me. A teacher’s greatest desire is to turn that intellectual lightbulb on within a teen. Where they have that uh ha moment that enables them to see wwwaaaayyyyy past lunch and what they want right now and make an excellent choice for the future. This was the best project I ever did; it opened my students’ eyes. Many had a greater appreciation for what their parents were trying to do with, and for them, others saw health patterns that could impact their future health. Information from the family tree was internalized and personal decisions were made to change an attitude or a habit for the benefit of their future. This project wasn’t just stuff for a grade and then to be forgotten — this was a legacy past, present and future. Each student realized they were a part of a big family and they were the future of this large family.

A couple of examples of the stories I heard:

  • One student informed me his parents were the first in their family to go to college. There was pressure for him to go to college; and not just any college. Mom and Dad had big dreams for their son — a prestigious University. The son resisted the program until he saw in his family tree, the difference between his family and the Uncles, Aunts and cousins. His parent’s expectations for his behavior, dress, conduct, and grades were different than the expectations the cousins lived under. He had resented that — “Why can’t I_________?” But he also noticed the differences in jobs and lifestyles. He discovered he appreciated the direction and the path Mom and Dad were pointing him toward. When I asked him, “Now do you understand the program”? He said “Yes”; I asked him if he was with the program or not, if one foot was still dragging. His reply was – “With the Program – All in.”

  • Another student brought me her project after class. She told me she really didn’t want to do it, but she knew she needed to. Her reason: she didn’t want to live the life her mother had lived. Dr. New’s wisdom — everything we know we learn in our family — we tend to repeat it without thinking had a profound effect on her. She didn’t want that life because her life had been negatively affected. She had lived with her mother and as a result of neglect was placed in foster care; she had been adopted by an aunt a year earlier. She was so grateful for her new family; there was stability and calm that had been missing before; she had a place within a permanent family. (You never know what goes on in a student’s life; from her voice and countenance I felt a vibe of emotional fragility. I asked if I could connect her with our school counselor; it might be helpful to be able to talk with someone who could listen and support her. Turned out, this led to helpful support thru her school years that was appreciated by her family.)
YouTube has a number of videos about creating a genogram. Below you will find one of the more basic ones. Some of the items presented go beyond what my students were assigned, but the presentation gives some good visual examples. You can create genograms with a lot of detail or more basic ones like my students were assigned. In the professional world genograms are used to track medical histories within families, mental health issues, addiction issues, and simply births, deaths, and marriages.

I use Miranda Lambert's YouTube video and lyrics to the song The House that Built Me to introduce the concept of examining the importance of family.  The song and video tells a moving story of a very successful person going back to her childhood country home to find herself. Why? "She got lost in this old world and forgot who I am".   (

I have the students analyze the video and the lyrics of the song and state their opinion while answering open ended questions.  Analyzing requires thinking which sets them up to think about information from their family tree.  I like using popular music to introduce health concepts.  It's a different way for the students to relate to a subject, in this case to their family tree project.

Website Examples:

Copy and paste the link below into your web browser to get a Slideshow Presentation of Genogram Directions:

If you like this post, you might like the Free Classroom Lesson on the TPT website.  Click on the Link below.