Fictional Persona Writing Activity applied to Ancestry Projects for Online History Courses

The majority of students that enroll in History survey courses do so not out of a love for the subject, but rather because they are required to take the class in order to graduate. Thus, most of them are non-history majors predisposed to the idea that history is boring and consists of nothing more than a collection of dates, names, wars, persons, and pieces of legislation, all of which are irrelevant to modern life. Moreover, students often consider the historical experiences of all Americans to have been homogenous; indeed, many of them have no idea that historical phenomena affected various groups of Americans in different ways. The Ancestry Project is designed to remedy these predispositions by allowing for student creativity within a discipline that is often viewed by them as uninspiring and static, and by demonstrating the divergent experiences of American life.

Assignment learning objectives for students include the following:

  • Utilization of critical thinking skills
  • Rationalize and analyze course materials
  • Prioritize and distinguish between historical phenomena based on a citizen’s socio-economic background
  • Foster creativity
  • Develop writing skills

Throughout the semester, students construct a fictional, historically accurate family tree that traces the family’s experiences over time. The family tree begins in 1850, the birth date of the student’s first fictional character, and ends in 2000 with the original character’s great-great grandchild. For each major time period discussed in lectures and textbook readings, students add a new generation to the family tree. Descendants of the original character may be of a different gender, socio-economic status, or have differing political affiliations than the original character as long as these changes are traced accurately over time.

Regardless of the time period under study, the following questions must be addressed for each character. Who are you? What is your name? What is your gender? What is your race or ethnicity? Describe your family life including parents, siblings, spouse, and children. What is your occupation? Describe your work environment. Where do you live? Describe your living conditions. What is your political affiliation and why? Has your life improved over time? What is the single, greatest change that has occurred in the United States during your lifetime? All of the answers to these questions will vary based on the character’s gender, race, ethnicity, and occupation. In addition to these general questions, each generation has its own specific questions relating to major historical events of their lifetime. For example, Progressive Era questions include the effects of various reforms instituted during that time, along with the impact of World War I on the character and his or her family, while questions in the Great Depression Era inquire about how the depression affected the family and whether or not any New Deal policies impacted their lives, and so on, and so forth.

Overall, student responses to the assignment have been generally positive. The quality of work, however, varies with each student. Some students enjoy the opportunity to be creative: they treat the assignment as a series of diary entries, letters to friends, interviews with descendants, or as literary short stories. Some find old photos online in order to give a face to their character. On the other hand, a number of students do not take advantage of the opportunity to be creative and instead answer the questions posed in either an essay format or as numbered responses to each part of the assignment. Some struggle in the beginning to discern how historical events affected particular groups, but by the end of the semester the majority of them have shown improvement. Such variations in the level of creativity and quality of work are to be expected, and fall well within the normal range of student performance. On the whole, Ancestry Projects meet all of the criteria of the learning objectives and offer a unique way for students to engage with course materials.


Dr. Bianca Rowlett, PhD History