Personal relationships with older generations have always impacted my life in in strong and positive ways. Over time I’ve come to realize how transformational and magical, those relationships were for my confidence and growth.
When I was Director of Instruction in Highland Park, Illinois, I worked with our middle school teachers to develop a writing project for children in one of our sixth-grade English classes. In order to help our students engage with senior citizens in our community, and to challenge them academically, we designed an opportunity for our students to get to know individuals from a local senior center and gather information for a larger writing project.
Perhaps the impact of senior citizens in my own life as a youngster was the impetus for initiating the project.
6th grade English teacher, Librarian, School Principal, Senior Center Director.
How We Began
After we ensured our students had permission from their parents and guardians, we invited individuals from our local senior center to meet our sixth-grade students for a ‘getting to know you’ opportunity. The center was already hosting regular opportunities and programs. They were also excited.
Our Simple Goals
- Give the 6th grade class the opportunity to build relationships with seniors, person to person, and through sharing personal stories.
- Help those same students appreciate and understand the benefits of learning about the older generation’s experiences.
- Build new community partnerships.
Our First Meeting
We had worked through our process before the first meeting. That first meeting, including the bus ride to the center and back, took most of a morning.
- Finding a senior partner
The center had tables set up before we arrived. Seniors were each seated with an empty chair next to them. When we arrived, the children simply chose an empty chair, and sat next to the individual who would become their grand-friend for our activity. Maybe because everyone was interested and excited about the opportunity, but we never had to change partners for the program. Each match from this first meeting, was perfectly made.
- Learning about each other
Each student-senior team spent twenty to thirty minutes learning about each other. Students had been prepped at school during brainstorming sessions on a list of topics they would like to hear about from their senior partner and wrote them down. Their grand-friends might have done the same, because each had enough to talk about.
- Narrowing the Subject
After each conversation, both the senior grand-friend and the student picked a topic that they each would write about. The grand-friend picked a topic they wanted the student to write about. The student picked a topic they wanted the grand-friend to write about. They each had a personal investment in wanting to learn and create a good representation of the other’s story.
Before that next meeting at our school, one of our children’s grandparents passed away. The grand- friends and children in the project contacted our school sharing their desire to attend the Grandmother’s funeral. The principal contacted the family and asked if the children in the grand-friend project and the senior citizens could attend the funeral. The family was touched and assured us their child’s friends and their senior grand-friends were welcome to attend.
Our children and our grand-friends had developed a special connection. They rallied around the child who had lost his grandparent. We never intended for death to be a topic of discussion for this class, but no one is immune to loss. Our school counselors met with our students and our grand-friend seniors and sixth graders sent cards and condolences to the student whose grandparent died. As a school and community, we were prepared and had the extra ability to give this student in grief a true nurturing environment. Our discussions and meetings with our grand-friends had set the groundwork.
Our Story Sharing Final Meeting
We invited our grand-friends to our middle school for a last session and story sharing. Everyone was excited.
We video-taped the gathering as each grand-friend and student introduced their respective partners and read back the stories they had written based on the conversations they’d had previously.
Many of our students remained in touch with their grand-friends for years after this initial introduction.
All of our students who participated, left with a deeper connection to their community and a good understanding the commonalities that exist between younger and older generations.
Throughout the grand-friends program, I couldn’t help but reminisce about some of those relationships I often talk about in my blogs: Ida Mae, Mrs Martin (chicken lady).
There is a natural kin-ship between seniors and pre-adolescent and adolescent children. I believe it stems from students not yet being fully independent while seniors are just beginning to feel a loss of that same independence. It’s as if they have a common enemy: lack of autonomy. These cross generational relationships are so beneficial for communities. Students often react to outside guidance more positively than directives from their parents. Of course, seniors develop a greater sense of self-worth from these friendships too. They are shown how much they are valued and that their stories make a difference in the lives of others.
Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Mentors Matter.