Young Searsmont teacher inspires, educates Searsmont third graders, 126 years later

By Jordan Bailey | Jun 10, 2014
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Searsmont Historical Society curator Norman Withee shows Ames Elementary School third graders Josephine Knight's original diary.

Searsmont — Ames Elementary School third graders created an abridged and illustrated version of the recently published 1880s diary of Searsmont schoolteacher Josephine Knight and presented it to the Searsmont Historical Society Tuesday morning, June 10.

When the students arrived at the Searmont Library carrying their illustrations of scenes from the diary, Searsmont Historical Society's curator, Norman Withee, had a surprise for them too. He showed them the original diary in Josephine's handwriting.

"When he opened it up the students all said 'aaaah'," said Amy Robbins-Wilson, who transcribed the original diary and published it through Amazon in September 2013.

The diary had been in Robbins-Wilson's family all these years, but because it was hard to read, no one had tried to transcribe it. After her grandmother's death, the family wondered what to do with the diary.

"My stepmother thought I might be interested and passed it on to me," said Robbins-Wilson, who is Josephine's first cousin three times removed. "She was right."

Robbins-Wilson carefully typed each page of the original diary, which Josephine wrote in nearly every day for 44 months when she was a teenager. The book is 305 pages long and gives a vivid picture of life in Searsmont between 1885 and 1888.

Josephine wrote about her day-to-day life and interesting things that happened in the community. She wrote about friends who died at sea and the challenges of being a new teacher when she was only 16 or 17 (her parents didn't agree on her age); she wrote about the American Indians who would sell their wares, and about how frantic her family was when gypsies came through town, Robbins-Wilson said.

"Occasionally she would draw pictures in the diary to remember things if she didn't want people to know the whole story," she said.

When Ames Elementary School third-grade teacher Karen Craig-Foley got ahold of the book this past fall, "I read it four times," she said. She thought it would be the perfect focus for a service-learning project for her class, and went over and over it, highlighting sections for use in a curriculum she would then design around the book. "I was able to tie in all the subjects and hit learning standards for each," Craig-Foley said.

In addition to learning history, which satisfied social studies learning standards, students learned science and math through Josephine's frequent writing on cooking and the activities Craig-Foley designed around it. "We have a kitchen science class, so we were able to tie in both math related to measurements in recipes and science related to cooking," Craig-Foely said. Students also learned about music of the time and started keeping their own diaries, satisfying more art and language learning standards.

The product of the service-learning project was a hardcover children's abridged illustrated edition of the diary, which students published using the image publishing service Shutterfly. Their book features one of two surviving photos of Josephine on the cover, and inside are the students' illustrations of scenes and stories from the diary.

"Deciding what scenes to include in the abridged editions was done by the students' vote," said Craig-Foley, "We had such a good time doing this."

"I think [Josephine], who was a schoolteacher, would be thrilled to know that her work is teaching kids," Robbins-Wilson said. "And this was a dream for me because it is exactly what I hoped would happen; that the diary would be available to teachers, women's studies classes and people who are interested in Maine history."

Both "The Diary of Josephine Knight: The life of a teenage girl in Maine. 1885-1888" and "Josephine's Diary: Children's Abridged Edition," are available to view at the Searsmont Library. A blog that will include curriculum ideas, student pictures and research about Josephine's diary can be found at http://josephineknightdiary.wordpress.com.

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