Students can gain wisdom from a senior

With more meaningful partnerships, senior citizens guide K12 students in developing academic and soft skills
By: | May 17, 2017

Across the country, youngsters in all grades are connecting with senior citizens on projects that transcend community outreach to provide students with true curricular value.

While doing research for National History Day, students in Tea McCaulla’s Florida high school stumbled upon Women’s Airforce Service Pilots and Letters from Home, a book by World War II veteran Bernice “Bee” Haydu, now 96.

Students contacted Haydu in 2015, who agreed to an in-person, videotaped interview three hours away in Palm Beach, where she lives part of the year.

She talked about her time in the service, and students learned her uniform is in the Smithsonian. “It was so powerful, and I thought, ‘There has be something that we can do with this video,'” McCaulla says.

She contacted the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, which added the interview to its collection.

McCaulla incorporates oral history and preserving veterans’ history into English classes at her current school, Pickaway-Ross Career & Technology Center, a regional CTE hub serving juniors and seniors from 10 high schools in south central Ohio.

Her students learn how to do historical research with primary sources and how to use technology to record videos—in some cases, they use Skype to conduct interviews that can’t be done in-person. They also work on public speaking, listening and writing.

“There’s just so many different skills involved that it makes it a very powerful learning tool, and these students become primary source contributors to the Library of Congress” McCaulla says.

Students grow academically and emotionally when they interact regularly with senior citizens, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to improve the lives of youth and older people through intergenerational collaboration.

“They learn history in a way that they can’t learn just from a book—they are learning from a personal experience” says Butts.

Additionally, young people who work with seniors often score better on reading tests, perform better overall in school and are more likely to be ahead academically or have caught up if they had been behind, Butts says. “It’s the extra attention and the extra time that other person takes with the student to believe in them.”

Digital biographies

This past January, 150 fifth-graders from Fullerton School District in Southern California created digital biographies of local senior citizens as part of the school’s iPersonalize curriculum. It’s an approach to teaching state standards that gives students “voice” in the community, says Robert Pletka, superintendent of Fullerton School District.

“We try to develop curriculum where students are positive agents of change, first for themselves, but also for the community” Pletka says. “We operate under the idea that kids can make a difference right now if we get them the knowledge and the tools.”

The biography project, called Story Angels, required students to work in teams of four to interview senior citizens at two local retirement communities. Students used their district-provided iPads to record the interviews, and wrote an essay about their senior’s life.

The seniors either visited the students at school, or the students visited the seniors at their homes. The district provided some additional lighting and microphones to improve the quality of the recordings.

Videos were posted to a YouTube channel created especially for Story Angels. Students made substantial gains in speaking, listening and narrative writing, says Pletka.

Costs to conduct the program were minimal: The district provided a bus when students needed to get to the centers for interviews and students created a folder including the DVD and biographical essay as gifts for the senior citizens.

At Pickaway-Ross Career & Technology Center, McCaulla’s students are now helping a WWII Navy veteran—Donald Rodde of Livonia, Michigan—write his autobiography from a handwritten 699-page manuscript he had never been able to get published.

The school paid for the students to travel to Michigan with McCaulla to discuss the manuscript in person and spend the day with him. The students were a little hesitant at first because they had to learn to read the cursive the manuscript was written in.

Still, her students learned more lessons through the project than she had expected, such as new vocabulary words and how to navigate Google Docs, which they used to type the manuscript and to interact on editing, McCaulla says.

“The amazing thing about this is these are events that helped shape our history, and the students have the opportunity to hear directly from our veterans what happened” she says.

Golden helpers

Students from pre-K to grade 12 at Bradford Area School District in rural Pennsylvania have been connecting with senior citizens for more than 15 years.

Once per week, preschool students ride a bus to a local nursing home. Teacher Marty Cummins says building personal relationships and conversation skills are key focuses of the program. “A lot of 4- and 5-year-old kids enter preschool and have not been exposed to a lot of vocabulary” says Cummins.

Laurie McGee, a second-grade teacher at George G. Blaisdell Elementary School, combines arts and literacy in her students’ activities with senior citizens. Guided by a local musician, students and seniors learn instruments and sing songs together. Second-graders also read aloud to seniors to develop literacy.

“Any student who has had behavioral issues always seems to impress me with how they (positively) interact with the seniors, so I think this experience is wonderful for building social skills and conversational skills” says McGee.

Erin Waugaman, the principal at Blaisdell Elementary, says senior citizens are good role models who can share their life and career experiences with students and stress how important academics are.

“We are in a high-poverty school district, and it takes just one adult to connect with a child to make a difference in their life” says Waugaman.

Bradford Area High School students get hands-on career skills working at local nursing homes. Students enrolled in the certified nursing assistant program do clinical hours at local nursing homes, and some even get jobs in those roles after graduation, says Superintendent Katharine Pude.

“If we really want our students to be college and career ready, then we need to make them good stewards” says Pude. “We want them to grow into adults who can give back to their communities and understand the value of that.”

As an added benefit, seniors who volunteer in the school as “Golden Helpers” can earn breaks in property taxes. Golden Helpers read to students, provide academic tutoring and sometimes do odd jobs.

“We are in the business of building relationships” says McGee. “For those kids to know that someone believes in them and is proud of them can really help them take off academically.”

Elaina Loveland is a Boston-area writer.