08/19/2008 05:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is Bridging Gaps: Past to Present, Harlem to Harvard

Renowned professor and author Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has a new project that could be a true gift for raising engagement in African American students. Earlier this year, Professor Gates hosted "African American Lives 2" on PBS, a program that traced the genealogy of 19 prominent African Americans back to the slavery era. Recent breakthroughs in DNA study now allow population geneticists to reach further back into the past than ever before, as census records for black Americans exist only after the Civil War.

The revelations in the broadcast, featuring famous Americans like Don Cheadle, Tina Turner, and Chris Rock, are startling. A viewer can't help but catch the fever of wanting to discover the buried secrets of his or her own lineage.

Gates wants to harness that fascination for public schools students. In an illuminating interview with Claus von Zastrow for Public School Insights, he explain his "ancestry-based" curriculum:

Why don't we use these same techniques to transform the way we teach history to inner-city black and brown kids, and science? We will incorporate a unit, probably a six-week unit, in tracing our own ancestry in the history class. And each week the kids will add another rung on their family tree. They'll... interview their parents and [find out] where they were born, when they were born, and collect family stories and share them with the class, and then the next week their grandparents, and then the next week their great-grandparents, and their great-great-grandparents... they will be gathering family stories about what people remember, as well as what they can turn up in the Census, the tax records, estate records...

This kind of interdisciplinary, self-directed research project builds skills that are clearly applicable to practical, real-life tasks. It can strike far deeper chords in students than the all-too-common skill-and-drill regimens adopted in so many classrooms today.

The nagging achievement gap screams that public schools' status quo is not working for minority students. Why not bring in genealogical study? Gates further explains the hook:

If you and I went into an inner-city school and said, "We're going to drag you into historical archives about the Civil War," or the Great Depression, or the Great Migration, kids would say, "Get out of town." But if we said, "We're going to trace your family through those periods and to those periods," my goodness, who wouldn't be interested in that?

Likewise, once we get to the Civil War -- remember, the slaves didn't have legal names so they don't appear in the Census until -- with two names -- until 1870. Once we get to 1870 or the Civil War or whenever, the paper trail ends, then we'll turn to DNA. And we'll swab their cheeks and -- this is where the science class comes in. And we'll teach them how DNA works, how ancestry tracing is possible through the analysis of their DNA.

And we'll also teach them about the history the slave trade while we wait for the results. About where the slaves came from, what their identities were, how the slave trade worked, and then they'll do -- when they get the result, they'll do a report on the tribe that they're from.

The situation in schools today is urgent. Gates goes on:

[I]t's a disaster for black America and-- us specifically-- and America generally, that half of the African-American high school kids are not graduating. That means that the percentage of functional illiteracy must be enormous when measured by the capacity to read the front page of a newspaper with understanding. How can people who are not educated participate fully as citizens in this great republic? The sense of civic duty cannot be fulfilled, the sense of civic duty that the Founders had for each of us when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. I mean, it presupposes a literate citizenry.

Professor Gates will be releasing a book early next year titled In Search of Our Roots: In Search of Our Roots: How l9 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, detailing this research journey. In the meantime, the always-dependable PBS website offers comprehensive information and classroom resources related to this wonderful project.

Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of the memoir, "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."