‘A sense of identity’: Boscawen Elementary receives grant to teach students family histories

  • (From top center, clockwise) Classroom teacher Dianne Prescott helps Taylor Welcome search for relatives on ancestry.com at a table with fourth-graders Aiden Driggers, Sophia Giaquinta and Bret Norris. LEAH WILLINGHAM photos / Monitor staff

  • Nora Lyford, 9, and children’s book author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock research Lyford’s great-grandfather on ancestry.com. LEAH WILLINGHAM photos / Monitor staff

  • Sophia Giaquinta (bottom left), Hadley Raine (bottom right), paraprofessional Sue Houle and Aiden Driggers (top left) research on findagrave.com for relatives on Wednesday at Boscawen Elementary School.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • Carter Lankhorst (left), 9, talks about the photo of his grandfather, who served in the North Korean war, that he found on ancestry.com while doing research with the Storykeepers program as classmate Cassidy Cate, 9, listens.

  • Nine-year-old Cassidy Cate (left) talks about a beloved T-shirt her great-grandmother showed her that used to be her great-grandfathers. As part of the Storykeepers program, students were assigned to find artifacts that represented their family history.

  • Boscawen fourth-grader Ben Geoffroy and children’s book author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock research on findagrave.com for information on Geoffroy’s grandfather.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/27/2019 6:30:04 PM

Carter Lankhorst discovered a photo of his grandfather, who served in the Korean war. Nora Lyford learned that her great-grandfather worked cutting ice when he was 16. Cassidy Cate found out that her great-grandfather’s favorite color was blue.

“It’s pretty cool to find out more information about what they were doing during their kid life,” said 9-year-old Cate, using one of Boscawen Elementary’s computers to search for relatives on ancestry.com.

The fourth-graders spent a recent class researching their ancestors using laptop computers, scrolling through copies of old newspapers and photos of gravestones.

It’s part of an initiative at Boscawen Elementary this year to teach students how to research and write stories about their family histories, supported by a $25,000 grant from the Children’s Literacy Foundation.

The grant has allowed the school to invite local artists to host writing workshops and offers incentives like ice cream socials to encourage students to read at home with their families. Students have spent the last few weeks creating family trees, interviewing family members and looking through old photographs and artifacts in workshops led by Vermont children’s book author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock.

“Part of it’s sad, but it’s also really exciting,” said Lankhorst, whose grandfather died when he was five. “My parents are going to be blown out of their minds when they see what I found.”

Kinsey-Warnock, who has written several books on her own family history and teaches at schools throughout New England with her “Storykeepers” program, said seeing the excitement kids have for research is one of the most rewarding parts of the progam.

“Just getting them so they think research is fun, that’s what it’s all about,” Kinsey-Warnock said. “When you have students squealing over old census records, that’s very powerful stuff.”

Lyford was one of those students – calling Kinsey-Warnock to her desk with a beaming smile to ask her to look at the profile she found online about her great-grandfather.

Lyford said she learned that her great-grandfather served in World War II through her online research and had a sibling named Florence she didn’t know about. She also found out that their parents – her great, great grandparents – names were Colby and Irene.

“To see them on there was really fascinating. I was overjoyed, like ‘What?’ ” she said. “I didn’t know I could find all of those names by just putting in one name.”

She said she can’t wait to go to Manchester to talk to her great-grandmother, who still lives in the house her great-grandfather built.

“She’s going to be really happy,” she said.

The Storykeepers project will culminate in a project on one relative in the form of a poster, scrapbook, Powerpoint presentation or recorded interview. Projects have to show at least three tools of research – one of which can be online research, using sites like ancestry.com.

Then, at the end of the program, families will be invited for students to share their projects with the community.

“Parents have told me that their kids developed relationships with people in their family they never had before,” Kinsey-Warnock said. “I’ve had so many parents come to me, crying, saying it changed their family.”

Kinsey-Warnock said she was inspired to find the program after she saw an Emory University study 15 years ago that said children who knew their family stories have higher self-esteem, suffer less from depression, and are better able to handle crises.

“They see what their ancestors went through, and they think, they went through hard times, and they got through that,” Kinsey-Warnock said. “It gives them a better sense of who they are, where they’ve come from, and I think it gives them a better sense of identity and a source of strength.”

She said family research can inspire students who haven’t traditionally been drawn to learning about history.

“This is how you get students interested in history: you make it personal, you make it relevant,” Kinsey-Warnock said. “If you can attach one of their ancestors to a time period or historical event, they’re going to be more interested in that historical event and want to know more about it.”

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