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ASU alumna creates genealogy course for high schoolers

Portrait of ASU alum Keely Vollmar.

Keely Vollmar, alumna of the ASU Online master's degree in history.

September 07, 2022

Keely Vollmar was born and raised in Canton, Illinois, and has been teaching English at Canton High School since 2000. She became an English teacher because of her love for writing, but after 21 years of teaching she felt like she had missed out on something.

“I’ve always really loved history,” Vollmar said. “I really wanted to be able to teach history as well, and so I went out on the internet, started searching for programs and ASU was the one that I came across.”

She enrolled in the online master’s in history program within the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Along with taking seminar courses in science and technology and the early American republic, Vollmar enrolled in a course about genealogy, the study of families and family history.

“We had the freedom to research whoever we wanted to within our family history, and so I picked a branch of my family tree, a great-grandmother that I didn't know much about,” said Vollmar. “I felt like everybody within that class was on their own research journey and finding out amazing things about their family history.”

Vollmar found out that her great-grandmother had come from a family of 14 children and had lost a couple of siblings to the influenza pandemic in 1918. The parallel to her own experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic made this discovery all the more interesting.

“All of that really hit close to home,” said Vollmar. “Here’s my family who had been through this type of experience before, and they actually experienced the worst that could possibly happen. It really made me understand just how fortunate we all are to be here, how all of the pieces came together, and I am here because my great-grandmother survived that experience.”

It dawned on Vollmar that she had students who would enjoy the opportunity to do the same thing but probably didn’t know where to start. With that seed of an idea, she took the suggestion of the course to her principal, and they decided to put together a summer course after Vollmar graduated with her master’s degree in the spring of 2022.

Seven students ended up enrolling in the high school class: three freshmen, one sophomore and three juniors. The size of the class ended up being wonderful, because Vollmar was able to work one-on-one with all of them.

“My favorite part of teaching the class was observing the students as they helped each other, brainstorming solutions for overcoming brick walls and making historical arguments about what they thought certain records revealed about their classmates' ancestors,” said Vollmar.

Her students had a number of challenges in the class. They relied on a student subscription to, which doesn’t allow full access to all the documents the students might have come across. Many of the students, because of the age of their family members, couldn’t find records of even their grandparents. 

Yet through the use of old newspapers and the other documents they could find, the students started putting together a narrative, just like Vollmar had done in her class.

“It was really fun to watch them make discoveries, and they would get so excited about it,” said Vollmar. “And some of them just really got carried away with things that they'd found out, connections that they had made. So it was just really neat to see the things that they discovered. They’re becoming little, tiny historians. I watched it happen.”

Vollmar is teaching English again this year and is waiting for a history position to open up. In the meantime, she plans on continuing to teach the genealogy class during the summer.

“I'm just hoping to really use this degree to be able to teach, and then I would also like to do some writing to do primary source research,” said Vollmar. “We've also got a really nice local museum in my town of Canton. I'd like to get involved with that. But I think history is always going to be a part of my life.”

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