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The Appalachian voice is being taught to KY schoolchildren through storytelling

You can hear the excitement building in the art classroom at Mt. Vernon Elementary School. It’s 9 am for the third graders on a weekday in January, and Robin Rumsey, their art teacher, has a surprise. For five days Octavia Sexton will lead them in a storytelling workshop.

She describes herself as a teaching artist who travels the state inspiring students in vocal storytelling in her mountain dialect.

The 69-year-old Sexton explains to the students, “I tell my stories in dialect. Your teacher teaches you in what’s called standard English. So, everybody can understand you even if they’re not from here. And it’s important you learn it. But my dialect is a part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed of it. Don’t you ever be ashamed of the way your grandma talks.”

Sexton grew up in Rockcastle County and remembers facing discrimination and being stereotyped. Part of her message is about uplifting the students no matter where they come from. “To be proud of who they are. Absolutely. Not to be ashamed. And I continue that in all my classes. We get to be talking about bullying, and I give them points. But it’s all subtle. It’s mixed into what I do.”

To bring Sexton to Mt. Vernon Elementary, the art teacher applied for a grant through a non-profit called the Arts for All Kentucky. The grant pays for Sexton’s expenses. Rumsey says it’s important that Sexton brings back the Appalachian roots to the students “that are kinda disappearing for these smaller children.

But Octavia is just a genuine jewel. It’s more than hearing Appalachian storytelling. She loves the students. She knows how to kind of read their personalities and their disposition. And she brings things out in them that are just special.”

When Sexton tells her stories that she heard from her grandparents, she moves and acts the story. She explains her approach to teaching the students. “Focus on presentation skills. We work on that a lot. I want to get them to develop speaking skills and confidence.”

Sexton and the students create their own story with characters and a plot. Nine-year old Grayson Vance says, “She’s really funny and she’s like a very good like storytelling about the story.” Eight-year-old Arabella Smith adds, “she’s a very good voice actor.”

I asked Sexton what it means to her when she connects with a student. “Oh, I mean that’s why I do this. I used to work a lot in Western Kentucky, and I have kids from over there in Muhlenberg that are now in their 30s and 40s, and they still keep in touch with me.” She remembers one student who reached out to her. “He said because of you I found my confidence and I’m a director in New York City.”

Back at Mt. Vernon Elementary, the children are creating their own story. Sexton says no matter your background, “we’re all connected through story. And story is important whatever it is or was.”

To hear Octavia Sexton tell some of her stories go to octaviasexton.com

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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