Sometimes all it takes to bridge a generation gap is someone to talk and someone to listen.
Turn that into a fifth-grade project and you've got a cafeteria full of folks—ranging from little kids to great-grandparents—listening to one another, telling each other's stories and bonding in a way that wouldn't ordinarily seem very likely.
The fifth-grade students at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase recently completed their spring memoir project with the help of professional storyteller Candace Wolf.
Wolf visited four classrooms several times over the course of two months. She instructed the students in interviewing skills, then grouped them with elders (about four students to each elder) so that the students could interview the elders about their long lives.
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In the end, the students put together a thoughtful and respectful presentation about the elders, telling their stories in words and illustrations.
"It was tremendous, [the kids were] full of all kinds of questions [and] the story they told [about me] was accurate, with no errors," said Jenean McKay, who was interviewed by Silver Spring resident Lyndsay Fetrow's fifth-grade students.
McKay moved from Oregon to Washington, DC, in 1963 as a Kennedy recruit. Not too long ago, she was interviewed by a high school student whose report about her was full of errors, but the Rock Creek Forest kids listened carefully to her story, and retold it perfectly. "This is a wonderful school," she said.
"I love the way they told my story," added Jean Seagears, who was born and raised in Silver Spring.
"It was awesome. ... I can't put enough adjectives [in what I say]. ... These kids were over the top," Seagears added.
Wolf, who designed the program and who recruits elders through senior and community centers, has been working with students at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School for eight years.
From Wolf, the students learn about the importance of oral history, and about how to conduct an interview and write up a report about it. The students also create poems and drawings to illustrate their written work, and then present the elders' stories as a public speaking part of the project, which functions as the memoir component of the fifth-grade curriculum.
But the project, which is funded by the Maryland State Arts Council, is more than just a box to be checked off on a curriculum. It's a way to engage different generations—a way to get the young to listen to the old, and vice versa, Wolf said.
And, judging by the way the students in Fetrow's class clustered around their elders after last week's presentation, enjoying snacks together and clearly not wanting their time together to end, it's a project that will have lasting effects on the kids, the elders and their communities.