The Joy of Teaching Genealogy

I love it! I admit it. I love every stage of it, but I especially love meeting with the students and seeing them work on the various assignments. When I click with the students– that is an addiction I want to continue. Of course, it isn’t always like that, but it is enough times that I continue.

There are many steps to the process and if you have never taught, you might find this of interest. If you are regular instructor, I would be interested in how your process compares–or doesn’t–to mine.

There are many ways to “teach.” I conduct 1 hour presentations, 1/2 day workshops, write methodology articles, and teach at Applied Genealogy Institute. While each has a different output, the process for each is the same, even if the quantity of hours to put it together may vary.

The Idea!

I find my ideas usually emerge from the work I am doing. If I am having a problem, I figure that others will also. If I find something interesting, others might find it interesting as well. Finally, if I just learned something new, then others might want to learn it as well. Whatever I am working on, whatever rabbit hole I have gone down–each serves as fodder for a possible class, presentation or institute course. I never lack for ideas. It’s a bit narcissistic, but it works for me.

There are exceptions. The NGS 2022 conference was held in Sacramento this past May. I knew there would be a lot about the California Gold Rush of 1848. Seattle was the launch point in the US for “The Other Gold Rush”–the Klondike. I decided to submit a proposal for that topic. They accepted it. I knew almost nothing about it, but I knew there were lots of resources in the Seattle area. I started from scratch and taught myself enough about the topic to put together the presentation and syllabus! (When I got my evaluations back, it was my highest scoring presentation!)

The Research!

Usually the topics I pick I know something about, but I need to either broaden the concept to be more inclusive or I have to research more in depth to gain a deeper understanding. This takes the form of broad contextual research. Using the Klondike example, I could have just focused on Seattle and the Yukon during the late 1800s, but elected to also include other gold rushes (as early as NC 1796) and later ones (Nome 1910). I also covered the impact on the environment and the native tribes.

The Structure!

I think about the presentation as a combination of facts/records/methodology, narrative/story and case study. Different topics shift the percentages of each. For example, the Klondike presentation was 85% story, 15% facts and 0% case study. My Friedrich Eiler presentation is 20% records, 20% narrative, and 60% case study. Different topics shift the percentages but usually all three are included.

As an attendee, I can get so caught up in the Case Study that I forget that I am supposed to be learning something. I now start with “What would I like the attendees to learn from this presentation? These are sometimes called themes or goals. I go one step further–as I am presenting a learning point, I point out “This is a learning point!” (Maybe not quite that obvious, but almost.) I try to focus on the methodology of each; I am not subtle about this. the skills we teach in a case study need to be transferable to the research being conducted by the attendees.

The composition of any presentation is usually:

  • an introduction, including themes
  • put the topic into broad context
  • present the study/body of the work,
  • explain what the ramifications were
  • Discuss resources or refer them to the syllabus
  • repeat the themes

An institute course is a different breed. I have now taught two and am getting ready to teach a third. These are hard work!

For the institute, I have three components that must be coordinated closely:

  • Syllabus: I like the syllabus to be a reference manual for the future. So mine are 50+ page for a 4 week course. This may take over a month of hard work to write. I rarely have pieces I can cobble together.
  • Weekly sheets: I issue a Weekly Sheet the morning of the class, containing the final agenda, the topics for the breakouts, and the assignment for the week composed of a Scavenger Hunt (prescribed things they have to do) and their homework (applying what they learned to their own project.) I think it is important to be able to respond nimbly to student needs and the weekly sheets allow me to tweak the agenda up to the day of the class.
  • Presentations: the course is usually composed of facilitated conversation, student breakouts, student discussion, skill-building presentations, case study presentation, and then assignments and announcements for the coming week. I try to do two presentations in each 3-hour class–one is a skill-building class so they are prepared for their homework and the other a Case Study on the application of those skills learned.

I spend a lot of time writing the syllabus; usually the presentations are composed of parts of other presentations but the skill-building presentations are all new. The coordination between the three parts is intense.

For a 1-hour presentation, I build the PowerPoint first and then write the syllabus. The presentation may take 2 to 3 weeks to put together (roughly 70-80 hours), but once it is together the syllabus may only take 4 hours to write, because I have already written it in my head.

The Class/Audience!

Each is a little different but adult learners are the best. They are there because they want to be and so do I. I gain so much energy from them, I feel like an extrovert. 🙂

For presentations, I like to “work the crowd” before we start. It gives me an idea of what they want to get out of it or their perspective on the problem. They also get to know me better. Similarly, for zoom courses, I like to come in early to chat with the students or the organizers.

The Wrap Up!

The last class of the course I will be teaching in the spring will have the students present their final work product. That will be very exciting. I also send out evaluations and I like to receive feedback.

Sometimes I will run a “beta test” of a new 1-hour presentation and ask for constructive critiques as the “cost” of attendance. I have gotten comments that completely reworked the presentation! I remember when I first presented a beta test of my fire insurance maps presentation. The first question was, “What’s a fire insurance map?” I had not defined them! Lesson learned: don’t start in the middle. 🙂

Probably the part I dislike the most is writing the proposals for conferences, but I am getting more efficient with them. I can now do 3 or 4 in an afternoon.

Well, that gives you some idea of how I spend my time. I enjoy it and it is very rewarding. When it isn’t, I will stop.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since my last post: I am now quite frustrated that no one wants to publish my Orphan Train Riders article. I think it is too long and not scholarly enough, so I have decided to make it even longer and make it into a book. Much more research needs to be done. I am designating November, January and February as my months to write/research the book. I am also putting together another institute course for AppGen ( for Spring 2023. This coming month will be teaching a course on “Write As You Research!”


3 comments on “The Joy of Teaching Genealogy

  1. LisaGorrell says:

    I loved reading about your process for creating educational products. I love teaching, too!

  2. Shelby Bender says:

    I too am disappointed that no one picked up your Orphan Train Riders article for a journal publication. I’ve just registered for my 4th NGSQ study group and I think we would have enjoyed working our way through the article your story and research.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Thanks, Shelby, but it isn’t a proof argument so I didn’t submit it to the Q. Net result is the same. I hope to publish the book in summer of 2023. We’ll see. Thanks for reading. Jill

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