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Reagan Rock, 14, grew up celebrating her Italian heritage. Her grandmother cooked meatballs and classic Italian dishes. She always identified as Italian-American. But the high school freshman at the Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, near Cape Cod, has recently leaned in to her little-explored Irish heritage.

Reagan was one of 30 lucky high schoolers to enroll in a popular English elective focused on genealogy, offered at the school for the last five years. Over the course of the semester-long class, students research their own family histories, tracing one line back as far as they can through birth, death and marriage records, Census records, and church records, primarily. Tracing her father’s father’s line, Reagan discovered her family came to the United States in 1849 with a flood of other Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. She found the location of her last relative’s grave in central Ireland, where the family lived. And next month, she will visit that grave with her father and grandmother on an extracurricular pilgrimage, inspired by the class.

Reagan said she has done long-term projects before, but never something so important to her personally and never as the centerpiece of an entire class.

“It was the most interesting project that I’ve ever done and the fact that it was a semester let me do it fully and in the best way,” Reagan said.

She and her classmates created their own books, which they presented to their families and community members in January as a final, public hurrah. Each student’s book featured photos, narrative and copies of some of the vital records they had tracked down.

Kathleen Brunelle, a longtime English teacher at the high school, didn’t design the course with the latest education trends in mind, but she inadvertently lined right up with them. Project-based learning has become a popular method of deeply engaging students in assignments they can dig into over the course of several weeks or even months. While Brunelle made an overarching demand – that they create a book using the results of their genealogy research – students could choose which family line to research and spent most of the semester making their own decisions about what leads to follow.

Brunelle taught the students how to do genealogy research online, in libraries and at the local city hall. She guided them through discoveries that contradicted their own family lore and kept them on track to finish their books on time. But she spent most of the semester as a brainstorming resource for students as they plugged along on their own. This type of instruction tends to empower students, and the personal relevance of the assignment can be a real motivator.

“It has this deep meaning for kids and it really does go beyond the classroom,” Brunelle said.

Related: Project-based learning boosts student engagement, understanding

Sometimes kids had trouble finding records. Those whose families immigrated within the last generation or two had only a tiny footprint in the United States, and finding records in other countries can be very difficult without traveling there.

A second-generation Greek student ended up relying on family accounts because she couldn’t locate very many records. While she didn’t know what her great-grandparents did for a living, she knew what town they were from and was able to do research about the economy and customs of that town, which offered hints about what their lives may have been like. And she wrote a portion of her book about how different life is in the United States, chronicling the experiences of her immigrant parents.

Sometimes kids found unexpected ancestries – like one white student who found an ancestor labelled “mulatto” on an old Census. She didn’t know her family had mixed-race heritage.

Brunelle hopes to broach more difficult conversations about race and ancestry in future years. In a school that is more than 90 percent white, her genealogy course offers a rare opportunity to talk about diversity.

“Especially where our school is not culturally diverse, within our genealogies, we are,” Brunelle said.

Reagan is already using her newfound research skills in a history class. Now she has concrete strategies for finding obscure information and using one piece of evidence to find something else. And her book has become an immediate family treasure. She expects it to become an heirloom, valuable to all those who come after her.

“This can be written in a way where future generations can understand it,” Reagan said, contrasting that with her family’s Bible, passed down through the generations, tracking her relatives’ births and deaths in cursive handwriting. “Because it’s in a book and more storytelling form, it’s more entertaining to read.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about genealogy research was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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