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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Celebrating Life Experiences

A school service project offers a unique way for students to learn about 20th century American history—through the storytellers who lived it.

When I first took those few very unsure steps, I came face to face with a woman who had gorgeous, smiling blue eyes, eyes that also carried a sad and heavy look for memories that were painful to remember.
The words of Rebecca, a 7th grader at Pine Point School, reflect the intensity, compassion, and understanding that emerged during an interdisciplinary project conducted by students in Stonington, Connecticut. For six weeks, 25 students interviewed senior citizens from the Mystic River Homes Congregate, an assisted independent living facility in nearby Noank. The students' assignment: write a biography of a resident, portraying life in the 20th century.

Integrating Subject Areas

We defined the project as an opportunity to give something to the community in exchange for reaching our educational goals. By celebrating the life experiences of senior partners, students formulated a better understanding of major events in history. We began the project by integrating specific English and American history course objectives in the classroom.
As part of the English program, students explored some of the issues and perspectives that influence American culture as well as the fear and brutality that sometimes threaten to deprive us of our civil rights. The entire class read Night, by Elie Wiesel (1982), a graphic portrayal of life in a German concentration camp; and Waiting for the Rain, by Sheila Gordon (1987), depicting the subjugation of black South Africans under apartheid. Students also studied Wood and Quinney's (1989) interview techniques and technology options for research and presentation, including CD-ROM applications and the Internet.
During other lessons, Kira Sherwood, a 7th grade history teacher, introduced some of the major issues and events of 20th century history: American Imperialism, the Great Depression, World War II, social trends, the Cold War, and apartheid so that students better understood the impact of key decisions. Sherwood asked students to put themselves in the roles of citizens who experienced the events. In addition, students participated in town meetings and role plays, debated human rights issues, and wrote a document declaring independence from Pine Point School.

Getting Started

Holly Golart, the social services manager at the Mystic River Homes Congregate, organized a meeting for residents to discuss program goals, responsibilities, and organizational structures. One resident said, "I don't think that my life is exciting enough for your students"; another stated, "I'm not sure that I can remember all the details of my life." As residents began to reminisce about some of their accomplishments, however, fears faded and excitement filled the room.
The following week, Golart met with our students to discuss needs and interests and to field questions. Our students were animated during this discussion and honest about their fears. The primary concern they raised: "What do I do if there is a medical problem?" We assured them that meeting areas would be supervised. Another frequent concern was, "How do I ask questions if they can't hear very well?" Golart instructed the students to lift their heads and maintain volume through the end of each sentence.
Surprisingly, many of our students were also concerned that residents would express racial prejudice, citing readings about past generations who were not tolerant of differences. "These people are some of the most open and nonjudgmental people that you will ever meet," responded Golart.
We assigned each student to one partner. During the first four visits, students recorded information about their partners' life histories in a log. To help organize interview questions, we focused on one of four life stages at each meeting: childhood, adolescence, adulthood (career or volunteer work), and retirement. We generated topics through brainstorming sessions before each visit and recorded students' ideas. Each student chose five subtopics and developed interview questions for each subtopic.
For example, one of the childhood subtopics included daily responsibilities, which led to the question, "What chores did you do around the house, and did you receive an allowance?" Another student chose family relationships during adolescence and asked, "What things did you tell your grandparents that you didn't tell your parents?"
Golart alerted us in advance that many of the female residents—three-fourths of our volunteer pool—did not pursue a professional career, but were involved in volunteer work. For this reason, our students refrained from asking, "What did you do for a living?" Instead, they asked, "What type of work were you involved in when you finished school?"
Reflections and questions about retirement often elicited the greatest response. Some (both students and senior citizens) found the reflections positive and warming, while others shared regrets. For example, Rebecca writes:At one point while I was interviewing Margaret, she said, "My life must seem very boring and unexciting compared to what you're living today." I felt bad when I heard this because we are all living the same life but on different surfaces and in different times.
Conveying a very different tone, Mary Gray writes:My partner, Marion, feels that she has had a marvelous life. She not only has two healthy children but she also has eight healthy grandchildren and nine healthy great-grandchildren. I can tell that every moment she spent with her husband was precious and wonderful.

Sharing Ideas and Experiences

After each interview, students shared insights and concerns in follow-up sessions at school. Students researched an aspect of their partner's life and presented a brief summary to classmates. For instance, Denise interviewed a woman who lived in Poland as a young child during the German occupation. (The graphic description of life within a fascist state motivated the young interviewer to later research stages of World War II and the resistance movement.) She wrote:She remembers taking a walk with her father and seeing a cookie and candy shop. She stared up at the treats wishing she could have some because all she could eat was stale cake, potatoes, and bread. As she stared, a very tall German in uniform stood next to her. She looked up at him and smiled. The German looked down and slapped her across the face very hard. She fell on the street and the soldier laughed.
During the fifth and sixth weeks, students shared something from their own lives: family albums, stuffed animals, stamp collections, puzzles, music, and artwork. Eric taught his partner to play Uno, while Rachel described adventures with her favorite stuffed animal. Residents handled prized possessions carefully and listened to stories with the pride of grandparents at a family gathering. This change in focus provided time for students to outline their interview notes, write a rough draft of their biographies, and verify facts. On the last visit, students presented the final draft.

Magical Presentations

Many students read their biographies aloud, while others waited on pins and needles as their partners read quietly to themselves. One resident, paired by chance with a student whom she taught in kindergarten, burst into tears when Robert read:The funny thing is that I forgot about her sweet smile and unselfish deeds. Now that I've experienced her for a second time in my life, I will never forget her. I will pattern my life after this fine woman, and I want to thank her for sharing her life story with me.
Everyone hugged, exchanged numbers and addresses, and reminisced about our time together. When the presentations were over, we met in the dining hall for lunch and shared sundaes before saying good-bye.

Rising to the Challenges

Any project of this magnitude presents interesting challenges—most of them easy to address. Having a block of time—two 40-minute periods—provided the flexibility we needed. Parents helped us with transportation. A few parents came along, introduced themselves to residents, and observed interactions.
Occasionally, profound gaps in a resident's memory challenged the interview process. Jesse interviewed an accomplished artist whose watercolors decorated the halls and meeting rooms, but whose memory loss proved to be a stumbling block. Holly suggested that Jesse contact his partner's daughter to fill in some of the gaps. With this information, the biography became comprehensive and served as a wonderful tribute to a talented artist. In some cases, students filled in the gaps with historical research. For example, Michael's partner couldn't remember the specifics of his trip to Japan, but he remembered some beautiful gardens. To provide extra details in his report, Michael researched the art of gardening in Japan.
Students feared awkward silences when their interview questions ran out, so we practiced avoiding close-ended questions like, "Did you have a good friend in grammar school?" Instead, students asked, "Can you tell me something about a special friend in grammar school?" Unexpectedly, many of the residents elaborated with so many details that some students were unable to complete their questions. A few students learned how to break in during a pause to keep the interview moving.
At first, we worried about students who struggle with research and writing assignments. Could they handle the expectations? Would they produce a quality paper? To our delight, these students rose to the occasion, due largely to care and a commitment to their partners. In some cases, these assignments produced some of their best schoolwork.
Finally, we shared concerns about residents with hearing impairments. Golart informed us that some of the residents complain and become distracted from too much background noise. To address this problem, we assigned partners to several meeting areas to limit visual and auditory distractions. Three adults supervised these meeting rooms.

Mixed Reflections

This project proved to be a powerful vehicle for learning. Students collaborated effectively to write interview guides, edit their work, reflect on site experiences, and produce quality projects. Further, most of our students developed a critical understanding of issues and events defining 20th century American history as we successfully integrated the skills and concepts from two disciplines to achieve a practical and worthwhile goal.
Most important, students developed a sense of worth through fostering trusting relationships with caring adults and being recognized and appreciated for their own achievements. During reflection, Rebecca wrote:My life is just as special as hers, maybe different, but just as special. This was a great experience for me and all of my friends because we are just starting; we are beginners. I don't even know where I am yet or what is to become of me. . . . I'm only 13 and Margaret is 81, but I'm still able to talk to her about the beauty of life and all the confusion that surrounds it. I've had a wonderful experience.

Gordon, S. (1987). Waiting for the Rain. New York: Bantam Books.

Wiesel, E. (1982). Night. New York: Bantam Books.

Wood, L., and V. Quinney. (1989). How to Find Out by Asking: A Guide to Oral History in Rhode Island. South Kingstown, R.I.: author.

David B. Smith has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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