This post was written by Nan Peterson, Blake School, Hopkins, Minnesota

Teachers can help students develop the skills to engage authentically across difference through a series of interviews with the end goal of composing and making a gift of a published account of their partner’s story. The service is the gift of story and the gift of friendship. The highlighted character quality is respect.

Students at The Blake Upper School in the advanced writing class have been involved in a service learning experience with senior citizens. Thirty-five students and three teachers have worked to practice listening and writing skills and to work with elderly partners at Copperfield Hill, a home for senior citizens.

The residents at Copperfield Hill requested contact/ friendship with young people and expressed a genuine need to have their life stories recorded for themselves and for the library at Copperfield Hill.

Before their first visit students discussed what does it mean to be elderly? What are the challenges and pleasures of being a senior citizen? What are lifelong healthy habits? How do we show respect for our new senior citizen partners? How do we build trust with elderly partners so they will be comfortable telling us their life story? How do we listen so we tell the story the elder wants recorded rather than the story we think is most important?

Students responded positively to this opportunity and took leadership in planning the logistics of the project. When would we go? Would we go together or as individuals? How would we travel? They decided to go on a bus for the first and last visits; they would go individually one or two more times to meet with their partners. Students decided the character quality they would demonstrate with this project would be respect for elders.

The activity, securely tied to curriculum, encouraged speaking and writing skills. Work in progress was discussed weekly with teachers.

Students journaled to record their thoughts and feelings of every visit. Class discussions on the journal entries brought out student reflection. The students were delighted to find the affection and connection that grew between themselves and their partners. They also were pleased to see their listening and writing skills improve.

The final product was a life story complete with photos given to the senior partner. The service gift was the gift of story and the gift of friendship. The students presented the final products at an afternoon tea party to which the elders invited friends and relatives. In small groups the stories were read out loud to much enjoyment.

“Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”

–Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture