Bellows Falls students keep history alive


BELLOWS FALLS >> Third and fourth graders of Central Elementary School dug deep into their families' pasts and displayed their findings Wednesday evening at school.

Parents, grandparents, faculty and more gathered in the school's gymnasium where rows of poster boards stood on desks, displaying information about one chosen family member after another.

This hard work is also known as the Storykeepers genealogy projects. Vermont author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock helped the students, who used at least three sources, including census records, town records and artifacts, and undated photographs students dated through hairstyles and clothing.

"The interesting fact I found out was he had a old World War I book that he brought to the Korean war, and what made me surprised was I actually have it at my Nana's house right now," said Isabella Stoodley, 9, who made a genealogy project about her great grandfather, Bela Lund Jr.

Isabella said she was named after Bela's wife, who spelled her name Isabel. She went through her Nana's large "treasure chest" where she found a plethora of photos of Bela, so many she could not fit them all on her white poster board. She found his birth certificate online.

"I was really happy I picked him (Bela). If he was here right now, he would be so proud of me. I would feel like I just made his day the best day ever," said Isabella.

The Storykeepers program is sponsored by the Children's Literacy Foundation, which, through a CLiF Year of the Book grant awarded to the school, provided Central Elementary with $25,000 in literacy support and books for the 2015-2016 school year. According to CLiF's Executive Director, Duncan McDougall, Wednesday night's affair was one of 15 to 20 events held at the Central Elementary School during this school year as part of CLiF's Year of the Book sponsorship.

Kinsey-Warnock has written over 20 children's books including "The Bear that Heard Crying," "Nora's Ark," and "As Long As There Are Mountains," and developed the Storykeepers curriculum for elementary school students to learn about the value of sources in research and connecting them to their family history.

"One of things that is so rewarding is to see how excited the students get about learning these things about their family, or finding this person they knew nothing about," said Kinsey-Warnock. "They get so involved and they're so proud of these people they found and they want to tell people their story."

In March, Kinsey-Warnock spent six days at Central Elementary School using her curriculum to help students uncover their family history. Students read and discussed picture books based on family stories, and explored online and print materials on genealogy. They learned how to navigate different websites such as Ancestry Classroom, Find a Grave, Chronicling America and They also were taught different formats to share these stories such as book, scrapbook, comic, artwork, song and play. Each student chose a family member to research and spent about three weeks building their projects for Wednesday night's presentation.

Kinsey-Warnock mentioned that once in awhile, there is a student or two who says they do not have anyone in their family to research.

"That was a highlight here; a few of those students we were not sure if we were going to be able to find somebody, but we did and we got them really excited about someone in their family," said Kinsey-Warnock. "When you can connect them with someone, they get really excited and that's a big deal."

CES has hosted several different authors at their school this year in addition to Kinsey-Warnock. They have also had book giveaways, where students were able to pick three books of their choice to keep, which CES Librarian Kate Kane says helps the students build up their personal libraries.

"We have a poverty rate in the school, and as much as we try, and we do try, there is a sense of reading as something to do for school and not for pleasure and for opening our eyes to the greater world. So that was sort of the impetus that we put into our grant," said Kate.

McDougall who was involved in the selection process for the grant, said Central Elementary School had a "beautifully" written grant and ideas of how to make best use of the resources and books that CLiF could provide for them.

"When we came to meet them for the first time, we knew we had picked the right school because they're motivated, creative and sure enough all year long they've had some fantastic activities," McDougall said.

CLiF is a non-profit organization founded in 1998. Its mission is to nurture a love of reading and writing among low-income, at-risk, and rural children in New Hampshire and Vermont. According to McDougall, for 18 years CLiF has supported and inspired over 180,000 young readers and writers through five literacy program grants and has given away more than $4 million in new, high-quality children's books. CLiF does not receive any federal or state funds for its programs. It relies solely on the generosity of individuals, local companies, social organizations, and foundations.

Another Student, Dillan Parrott, made his genealogy project about his great grandfather, Albert Gonyea. One of the interesting facts Dillan uncovered was that when Gonyea was 11 years old he looked like him, which he said was "weird."

"At first I couldn't really find out much about him (Gonyea), until Natalie helped us and our teachers," said Parrott.

CEM's Principal Keith Nemlich toured the student exhibit from start to finish and felt it was the "perfect culmination" of the student's hard work.

"We want them picking up a book before they're picking up a digital device," said Nemlich. "Unfortunately the digital devices have become sort of the babysitters and entertainment devices for too many kids and as a result they're ability to access texts has been diminishing."

Nemlich noted CLiF's Year of the Book sponsorship has allowed the students access to quality books and inspiring authors, which is helpful for their individual growth.

"A lot of families don't talk about their paths, even though you have generations that are living very close to one another. It seems like a lot of the old family stories haven't been shared and doing this type of project as a family would be really powerful thing to do. So I'm hoping some of the parents picked up on that and said, 'Hey, why don't we continue doing this at home,'" said Nemlich.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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