Village Life News Archives Young and Old Use
Email to Tutor Youth

Carol Maurer
American News Service

HINESBURG, Vt. (ANS) -- When English teacher Joe Greenwald voted in favor of a new school curriculum that would require all graduates to complete a major research paper and give an oral presentation, in his heart he knew his remedial English class was in trouble.

"I knew that assignment was beyond the scope of my students," said Greenwald, who teaches at Champlain Valley Union High School, which instituted the requirement. "Some had difficulty putting two sentences together."

Unable to give his students the individual attention they desperately needed, Greenwald ultimately turned to people with longer experience, not in teaching, but in life. He and his colleagues decided to call on retirees, to coach students -- by email.

Young and old have always provided mutual support, but these days it's not easy to bring them together, say those who are trying to do just that. Many children live far from older relatives, and many elderly people live in communities segregated by age.

Yet communities around the country are finding ways to unite their young and old and are discovering that both ends of the generational spectrum have something valuable to give each other. For example:

-- In Cranford, N.J., Lorraine Marks, a public school music teacher, founded an orchestra that bridges the gap between the generations by bringing her music students together with seasoned elderly musicians. They have performed at Lincoln Center.

-- In Chicago, latchkey children and older residents in their neighborhoods are making after-school telephone calls to each other as part of the Grandma Please program.

-- In Oklahoma City, elders who love gardening share their expertise with inner-city youths as part of several elder-and-youth outreach programs at Oklahoma City Baptist Medical Center.

-- In San Francisco, young immigrants from the Philippines struggling with a new language and culture are paired with elderly one-time immigrants at St. Mary's Adult Health Daycare, where the young immigrants learn English and cultural survival skills.

-- In New York, students have learned 20th century history directly from those who experienced it firsthand, through the Intergenerational Life History Project. Through vivid personal stories, they have heard what it was like to live through World War II, the Depression and changes in the city's social fabric.

Here at Champlain Valley Union High School, the email connections began with a $3,000 grant from the telephone company NYNEX. The juniors and seniors in Greenwald's class, however, weren't exactly in a rush to hook up with the elders.

Teen-agers were skeptical about dealing with "the old codgers." To help bridge the generational divide, Greenwald took his students to Wake Robin Life Care Community in Shelburne, Vt., where the elderly volunteers reside.

"The students ignored me, paired up with the elders in corners of the room, and talked and talked. The only difficulty that day was getting my students back to school," he said.

For their part, the senior volunteers -- though well educated and successful in their former professional lives -- were unsure of their ability to teach English, which they narrowly defined as grammar and usage.

"Together we developed ideas that would direct students toward completion of their papers," Greenwald said. "I even taught them the secret mantra of successful writing teachers: 'What are you trying to say here?' Once the onus of punctuation was taken from their minds, I found the elders extremely creative in approaches to a myriad of problems."

Out of 15 students in that first class, 14 successfully completed their Graduation Challenge paper and project. One student dropped out of school.

"Out of that same group, I would say less than 50 percent would have been able to graduate without the one-on-one help from the elders," Greenwald said.

Now, three years later, each student in Greenwald's Applied English class is matched with a Wake Robin resident. Other teachers at the school have started their own student-elder partnerships.

Last fall, 80-year-old Doro Sims, a Wake Robin resident, began communicating by email with Kristina Orvis, a 16-year-old single mother and student in Greenwald's class. Sims ended up going to English class with Orvis every week, helping her organize and edit her writing.

"What we learned was just as important as what they learned from us. There were all kinds of spin-offs," said Sims, referring to how Wake Robin residents became less isolated and closer to the surrounding community.

Orvis is equally enthusiastic about her relationship with Sims: "She really helped me a lot with organization. The one-on-one help carried over to my other classes, and I got more done in less time."

Still, things don't always run smoothly. At times the elders have been discouraged by students' rudeness, unreturned phone calls and failure to follow through on assignments.

In addition, many elders and some students still find it hard to use the computer and log on to the Internet. "It's a forced effort on both sides," says Preb Stritter, a Wake Robin resident who helped coordinate the project.

To help overcome this obstacle, elderly volunteers have taken it upon themselves to meet with students face-to-face, and now the initial reliance on computers has given way to more personal interaction.

"It is a symbiotic process," says Greenwald. "Each partner gets something out of it. Here the elders become an active part of the community and feel good about making a positive difference, and the kids teach the elders, many of whom are computer-phobes, how to use a computer."

Efforts like the one at Greenwald's school are likely to grow, along with the numbers of retired people and the unmet needs of many young people, according to observers of the trend.

Amy Goyer of the American Association of Retired Persons sees the intergenerational movement as a community-building strategy that cuts across all areas of need.

"It used to be that when you said 'intergenerational' no one knew what you meant. Now these programs are addressing everything," Goyer said, although she cited the need for more community service projects in which youth and elders work side by side.

For Sims and Orvis, the experience has been a solid give and take. "It stretched my mind and put me in touch with the way things are. That's what I treasured," said Sims.

Looking to the future, Orvis said, "I want to stay in touch."

Posted May 20, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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