My class had run out of steam. Once, in early August, there had been four full tables of more than six people each. I needed a valet to help park the walkers that had to be lined up at the door. When we compared our answers we often had people trying to talk over each other. Today we sat sparsely spaced around two tables. I addressed the ten older adults. Doing my best not to show my exasperation, I asked, “No stories? Anyone? ”.
It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t my fault. Well, actually it was my fault. I knew a one hour class once a week wasn’t enough time to really work on an extensive memory help program but I was stubborn. Purplearn was founded on the principle that learning should be fun and I was serving up big doses of hard work instead. Still I was inwardly wallowing in self pride. A sin I know, but a few of my elder students were showing great memory and engagement progress. I let down my logic teacher and put the needs of the few ahead of the needs of the many and I knew it would cost me my class.
But I found something unexpected in those few that warm, September day. We sat together and I told them how I felt about my schoolchildren’s general lack of respect. And they all started to talk, everyone all at once talking about respect. I knew what I had to do as I reached for my bag. My small group of wise elders had something to say and I had the art supplies to make them heard.
Everybody did something. Some folks wanted to draw and some folks wanted to write and some folks helped each other do both. Although I also had a few magazines and some folks cut out pictures, we all liked what we had made at the end so we left it as is. I went home with a new poster in my portfolio that was bound for the back wall of my classroom that I had set aside for SEL.
The kids really loved the poster. We ended up having a great rap session about our grandparents that day. Some of the kids were able to talk with their own grandparents and some of the kids had left them behind in other countries. The only thing that was the same was the wistful smiles on the faces of every kid who spoke. They had all connected on an emotional level and by the week’s end almost everyone decided to write a letter thanking my wise elders. I wrote on the whiteboard in front of my room in big, bold print, DEAR WISE ELDERS.
The letters were all kinds of bad examples of grammar, spelling, and mixing languages but they were all written from the heart. I had the kids sign them just the way the elders had, using only initials and age. Then I took a high resolution photo of the poster that I printed out on my color laser and put the letters around it making a poster for my wise elders to keep. This first one we made still sits on an easel in a place of honor near the front hallway, by the art room.
We just finished our Christmas poster yesterday. I never want to get preachy with my elder students but I did manage to get more Happy Holidays onto the poster than Merry Christmases. Almost half of the wise elders are Jewish too but they all see the Christmas tree as the main symbol of the season. Growing up in my Jewish household we never felt our tree made us less Jewish but I still remember my grandfather’s disapproving stares so I am a little surprised by that. I didn’t even want to get into Kwanza though, much less any other holidays.
This time after it was all done and the final pictures and words were snug in their tape, I started a final discussion with my wise elders. I told them how the theme for this month in my school is giving back. We all decided that was a great theme for the holidays so we picked out a few spots where we could write that on the poster. The photos show the evolution of the finished and refinished poster.
I plan on expanding the response group at school to include my math classes. The students have been commenting on the posters and marveling at the ages of some of the authors. I will have them write a combination letter talking about how they feel and also explaining what a coordinate plane is. I will put some of the students’ best visual models of the coordinate plane around the letters and make a nice reply poster for my wise elders.
The thing that strikes me most about the dear wise elder project is the symbiosis. Both groups benefit from giving to the other. My wise elders feel respected and useful and my children feel respected and useful as well. Both sides feel good and want to continue. We definitely have started something here. A few of my fellow teachers have expressed interest in expanding the program so we’ll see where this goes.
Join the conversation at #dearwiseelders on Twitter or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Purplearn at 908-216-8071.