POWNAL — If you know a third-grader, then you know getting a group of them to sit still and keep quiet for an extended period of time is quite a challenge for even the most experienced educators. Despite never being a teacher herself, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock was doing just that Friday morning in the library at Pownal Elementary School.
Kinsey-Warnock was at Pownal Elementary all week for classes to come visit her for presentations based on her “Storykeepers” curriculum. Kinsey-Warnock demonstrates how she’s uncovered and written about her own family history, and encourages students to do some digging of their own and shows them some of the tools to do so.
“There’s a way to make kids excited about history, and get them involved,” said Kinsey-Warnock, who developed Storykeepers 11 years ago.
On Friday, it was Brooke Bishop and Kaitlyn Hunt’s third-grade classes that joined her. Kinsey-Warnock works with grades K-8, and tailors the lessons specifically to the grade level she’s working with.
With the third graders, she gave the students sheets that they could use as prompts to connect with grandparents or other elders in their families, asking questions about their childhood like “What were the slang terms back then? What were the movies that had just come out? What were the latest inventions?”
She then connected the conversation to music by playing records on a “78” phonograph – known to collectors as such for its play speed of 78 revolutions per minute – from the 1880s, prefacing it with some perspective.
“None of the ways you listen to music will really be around 130 years from now,” she told the kids. “The fact that we’ll be listening to a record (on a machine) from over 130 years ago is pretty amazing.”
When she played the musical stylings of Beatrice Kay, a singer from the 1930s and 1940s, it drew some giggles from her young audience.
Following that, several students were able to come front and center with their own pieces of history that connected them to their family’s past. Some has prepared family trees, while others had old framed photographs or Polaroids of their relatives.
Genealogy is a big element of what Kinsey-Warnock does with her students. It’s her own family tree that was much of the inspiration for Storykeepers. One of her books, “The Bear that Heard Crying,” is the story of one of her ancestors that went missing in 1783 when she was just three years old. She was cared for by a bear for four days and nights before her family found her.
“That story was not handed down through my family,” she said incredulously. “If that story doesn’t get handed down, how many other stories don’t, right?”
Kinsey-Warnock spoke to the impact of discovering one’s family history and connecting to their ancestors, and why it is so important to her to help inspire young minds to do the same. She cited one 2010 study from Emory University that found knowing one’s family history was an indicator for higher self-esteem, identity development and overall well-being.
She told one anecdote of a young girl at one of the schools she presented at that had been very shy and quiet. However, she learned about her family’s passage to America from Italy in the 19th century during Kinsey-Warnock’s time with her class. Taking that knowledge to Thanksgiving dinner, she educated her entire family, and came back to school much more confident.
“She was the star of Thanksgiving, because her family didn’t know this,” she recounted. “She came back on Monday and she was a completely different little girl. She was just glowing... and that’s just so powerful to me. Knowledge is power.”
Kinsey-Warnock is an author of over 20 children’s books, all inspired by events in her own family’s history, or her own childhood growing up on a Northeast Kingdom dairy farm. She’s been presenting in schools and touring as an author all over the country for 35 years.
This week, Kinsey-Warnock was at Pownal Elementary as part of her partnership with the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF). She’s worked with CLiF since it was founded in 1998, and is now one of over 60 presenters on the nonprofit’s roster.
“I sing their praises all the time. I just think it’s one of the best programs that exists,” she said of CLiF. “We hit it right off, because we’re all about the same thing. Getting kids to read and write – and for me, finding family stories – so it’s been a really good partnership, they’re incredible.”