Everyone Comes From Somewhere

In late February, juniors and seniors taking Advanced Placement Human Geography with Social Studies Faculty Chris Weiss, DS ’70, were tasked with researching their ancestry and designing a corresponding family tree. On the surface, the project was meant for students to grasp a deeper
understanding of five key concepts—culture, agriculture, development, urbanization and migration—but the lessons learned went well beyond the components of the textbook, and entered into family discovery, story, and human connection.
Take one look at Sofia Hernandez, DSHA ’20, with her curly red hair, freckles and light skin tone, and one could assume she’s of Irish descent. But never judge a book by its cover — or rather, never judge a student before you know her story.
“She has such light skin, so I thought she was (of European descent),” said classmate Taylor Robinson, DSHA ’19. “But really she’s Hispanic. I learned not to judge based on appearance, but actually ask. It was interesting to hear her story.”
Hernandez, as indicated by her last name, is connected to Mexico, but also various European countries. Her father’s grandparents migrated from Mexico to Kansas in the 1950s, while her mother’s grandparents migrated from Spain to Argentina in the beginning of the 20th century. Her maternal grandparents continued to build their family in Argentina, at the time a wealthy country which welcomed many European immigrants. When Hernandez’s mother turned 17, she migrated to the United States, met Hernandez’s father a few years later, and the rest is history.
Although migration stories are interesting in and of themselves, Hernandez and her classmates were asked to dig deeper—to not only research how their families ended up in the United States, but also what jobs or professions their early relatives held.
While every student’s family history is different, it is evident that many of the students’ early relatives were involved in agriculture. While agriculture is one of the units of the AP Human Geography class, it’s one that students find difficult to understand, said Weiss. It was important for Weiss to help her students understand where they came from. Through exploring family histories, Weiss has created a way for her urban and suburban Milwaukee students to explore their early backgrounds.
“Many students didn’t feel connected to agriculture whatsoever,” Weiss said. “They didn’t understand what farmers go through, the farming lifestyle, and the whole agricultural culture… for the first time some of them understood their connectedness to farming and what that had meant to their grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Hernandez found that two of her great-grandparents were farmers, and Robinson discovered that her great-grandparents were sharecroppers on a farm.
Robinson’s great-grandparents lived in Trenton, Tennessee and picked cotton on a farm for very little pay. The whole family was involved, even Robinson’s grandmother, who picked cotton from the time she was 8 years old until the family moved to Milwaukee around 1950 for a new beginning.
“She was a little girl when she worked on that farm,” Robinson said. “Now there are child labor laws, but there wasn’t anything really that stopped it when she was growing up. I feel blessed I never had to experience that. I’m thankful that she worked as hard as she did and my family worked as hard as they did so I could be where I am now.”
Although Robinson and Hernandez are separated by generations from farming, Emma Sedgwick, DSHA ’19, is still connected to a farm today. Four of her paternal great grandparents were born in rural Wisconsin and spent at least part of their lives working on farms. Her grandparents now own a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, and although they rent the land to farmers across the way, Sedgwick and her family visit now and again.
“I always thought it was fun going out there,” she said. “This project strengthened my connection to the farm. There are no distractions out there. We don’t have cell service, so my family and I spend time bonding. I’ve learned to cherish the farm.”
Because many students don’t visit a farm like Sedgwick, understanding agriculture and farm life forced many of the young women to talk with and listen to their grandparents. Even the students’ parents became involved in learning more, Weiss shared.
“Parents became involved in finding out about the farms or their heritage,” she said. “They actually participated in 23andMe and went on ancestry.com to really find out about their history. It became, for some people, a focal point of conversation between parents and grandparents and the student.”
Robinson said she never really talks to her grandparents except at big family gatherings, and it was refreshing to have a sit-down conversation with them and learn where they came from. Her parents were surprised at what she discovered, too.
Sedgwick’s family is close, she said, and she is quick to tell various family stories—how her grandfather and his siblings decided to get tattoos of horses on their biceps before they went to enlist to fight in World War II; how cows were living in the basement of her grandparents’ farm house before the family moved in, and—her favorite story— how her grandfather’s uncle was involved in the Sicilian mob.
“My sister and I have always been interested in our family history, especially when we joke about the mob,” she said with a laugh. “I love hearing my grandma talk about it because she tells it like a story. I love hearing the jokes inside my family history. I love hearing those little stories.”
Hernandez said she’s always been interested in her family ancestry as well, especially since her own mother is an immigrant. But after participating in the project, she is looking forward to learning more, especially on her family trip to Europe this summer.
“I think (this project) has affected me a lot,” she said. “Especially this class—every night I feel like I’m asking my parents questions about culture.”
“I feel like that’s lost a lot—people being with their families and talking about (their histories),” Sedgwick said. “I feel like it’s super important.”
DSHA and Weiss started offering the AP Human Geography class to students three years ago. The class studies how humans have changed the landscape of the earth, and how the landscape of certain areas affect how people live, think, and define their values and beliefs. Weiss saw the need for a course like this.
“I saw a lack of geographic knowledge and a lack of depth of that knowledge,” she said. “It’s one thing to rattle off countries and capitals, it’s another thing to really understand the impact on the landscape of a sprawling city and the impact of that on services.”
At the beginning of this course, Weiss says to her students: “You are here to have a greater understanding of the world which will build your toleration, your understanding and your problem solving. This is what you will need as you move into the world of work.”
In short, students need this class to prepare themselves to enter their globalized world. Once they understand the physical features of a certain area, they can understand why people from that area are the way they are—why they dress a certain way, the language they speak, the religion they practice. Weiss truly believes the class is a step toward creating a much more accepting world.
Weiss is not the only one who sees the importance of the class; her students feel the same way.
“I think a class like this should be mandatory,” said Hernandez. “I think everybody needs to know how humans make connections and how culture evolves and be more aware of that in exchanges, whether it is business exchanges or exchanges with each other.”
In the class, students don’t just learn what events happened when as they do in a typical history class. Rather, they come to understand why, and whether the evolution of culture, a change in topography, or the movement of humans caused an event or trend.
“I’ve learned so much about why things are they way they are,” Sedgwick said. “I’m on top of current events and I know the things that are happening. [This class teaches us] the background of history. You learn about all the things leading up to events and why people were feeling a certain way and that’s why certain things happened.”
Although this project focused primarily on the past, it taught the students something about their present lives, and more importantly, about their relationship to each other.
Sedgwick saw herself in relatives on both sides of her family. Her great-grandmother was a cook—a skill that has been passed down throughout the generations. Sedgwick loves to cook, but she would have never guessed she got her talent from her great-grandmother.
“This project forced people to learn about their families. This is really important because it helps you realize why you might do things a certain way and about your family traditions,” Sedgwick said.
No two stories or family trees are the same, and while certain details may be different, the truth is this: everyone comes from somewhere. And because of that, the students are more similar than different.
“What I think they learned was ‘Wow, we’re all in this together’,” Weiss said. “I think that was a really big ‘ah-ha’ moment for many of them. I’m not that different from you, it’s just what happened to you when your parents came from Mexico, my great-grandparents went through that 100 years ago.”
“Within everyone, no matter if it was big or small, we all migrated from somewhere,” Robinson said. “That’s how we all connect the most.”
Community and connectedness are at the head of DSHA’s mission. DSHA is a place for everyone. And this project further stressed that indeed everyone is a part of the Dasher community. Weiss summarized her students’ conclusions in this way:
“Now we really know who we are. We’re all connected very deeply. We’re connected to our families; we’re connected to each other. We’re all Dashers, and yet, we’re all Americans. No matter whether we migrated here 200 years ago, 50 years ago, or 4 years ago. We are all Americans who are all here at DSHA.”
    • For much of the spring semester, family trees lined the walls of the Social Studies wing on the first floor. Each student of AP Human Geography displayed the results of her investigation into her family history. Specific focus was placed on how each family's story reflected the culture, agriculture, development, urbanization, and migration of the global world.

    • Sofia Hernandez, DSHA '20

    • Taylor Robinson, DSHA '19

    • Emma Sedgwick, DSHA '19


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