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From refugees and royalty: Cottage Grove students reach into their families' past

Michelle Jorissen's second-grade class is pictured outside their Cottage Grove Elementary School classroom where they put up family trees and photos. Students include Afia Baidoo, Tyler Bibus, Kennedy Courteau, Zachary Crook, Noah Diana, Elliana Fair, Ben Fischer, Kaitlyn Hall, Christian Hang, Sydney Holm, Emily Holzen, Dylan Kerr, Gabrielle Klann, Connor Korpi, Andrew Lehman, Lily Loetz, Elizabeth Long, Emma Myrvold, Dylan Pommalath, Ella Rostad, Riley Schoeneck, Tyler Schwartz, Alliya Tannahill, Tabath...

Kings, presidents, actresses and chiefs are people they never expected to discover they are related to.

The wall outside Michelle Jorissen's classroom at Cottage Grove Elementary School is covered with old photographs and family trees after her class finished their take-home project in which they asked their parents and grandparents about their ancestors.

They had no idea what they would discover.

At the end of their social studies unit on ancestry, the second-graders found links to their past including kings, professional golfers and an American president.

Their ancestors came to America to find freedom, the students said. Some worked in coal mines or bought farms under the Homestead Act. It took three or four generations, but "we all became a melting pot," they said in unison.

Dylan Kerr is way too young to have seen her in movies, but he's related to the actress, Debra Kerr. He's also related to Cristie Kerr, a professional golfer. "It's pretty cool," he said, which is what most other 7-year-olds said about hearing stories about their families.

Emily Holzen said her great-great-grandfather was in World War II. He and his wife cooked Polish food, she said, such as sausage and rye bread.

Noah Diana is related to a king of England and two knights. One was named Nicholas, he said.

Elizabeth Long listed her ancestors as coming from Germany, France, Wales and Ireland. One of her relatives donated 80 acres where the St. Paul Cathedral now stands. He was also called "The Onion King of Dakota County."

Christian Hang is Hmong and his relatives migrated from China to Laos. During the Vietnam War, his relatives helped downed American pilots.

Afia Baidoo's family came from Ghana, Africa, in 2001. Among her relatives are chiefs and queens who are royalty.

A relative of Tyler Schwartz came over on the Mayflower but died the first year.

Jorissen asked the students if they would have crossed the Atlantic Ocean living in the bottom of a boat.

"They had to poop in a bucket," said Baidoo. Her classmates agreed that would be yucky and that they would never have boarded a boat.

Elliana Fair is related to Dwight Eisenhower and Gabrielle Klann's father was born in refugee camp in Thailand.

"We had a marvelous time working on this family project with our parents and grandparents," Jorissen said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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