Last December, Vinalhaven’s third, fourth and fifth grades wrapped up a long-term project that helped bridge the generation gap between the kids and Vinalhaven’s older citizens. Each of the 45 students in these three grades interviewed and wrote about a senior citizen in the community. The project culminated in a tea party held in the senior citizens’ honor.
The Living History project grew out of a unit fourth grade teacher Gloria Smith did with her students based on the book “When Everyone Wore Hats,” by William Stieg. The book, about the author’s childhood in New York City, inspired Smith, third grade teacher Heather White and fifth grade teacher Jill Oakes to develop the Living History project.
They began by reading Stieg’s book to all their students and discussing it. The teachers then created an eclectic list of islanders over the age of 65, both native and “from away,” and assigned a name to each student. Partners were assigned specifically so that students would have the opportunity to meet somebody new, rather than to rely on people they already knew, such as grandparents.
Students learned about interviewing in school and were given a list of guideline questions to which they were free to add their own. It was each student’s responsibility to make contact with his or her partner, explain the project, conduct an interview and to bring their notes to school. According to Oakes, calling adults they didn’t know was quite daunting for many of the students. “They were scared,” she admitted. However, Smith acknowledged that it worked out well. “The kids were so great about going past their comfort zone and being proud of their new friends,” she said.
After interviews were finished, the students were divided into three multi-age groups. In their groups, the kids spent a full week turning their notes into stories. Students were required to hand write the final copies of their stories, rather than type them. The teachers felt this would make the assignment more personal and it would give the students further insight into the childhoods about which they were writing, when students had to use their best handwriting for their schoolwork. As an added touch, students asked their partners for photos of when they were young, which were used on the story covers.
The teachers wanted their students to learn reading, writing and interviewing skills, but perhaps more important, according to Oakes, “we wanted our students to be able to connect with people in the community they wouldn’t ordinarily know, to connect the old with the new, and we wanted the kids to see what life was like for these people all over, not just on Vinalhaven.” Case in point: two of the interviewees grew up in England and Denmark.
“It was really a comparison of childhoods,” said Oakes. “There was not one kid who did not come back to school [after his or her interview] and say `Wow! Did you know this happened to so-and-so?’ A lot of the kids could really identify with their partners.” As for the senior citizens, Oakes said they wanted this project to be something that would make them feel proud and happy.
Just before Christmas vacation interviewees and parents were treated to a tea party in the school cafeteria. The fifth graders entertained with Christmas carols and a few students read their stories aloud. Each adult partner was presented with a copy of the story written about him or her, and the originals were placed together in a binder. The binder will stay in the Vinalhaven School Library for the remainder of the school year, after which it will be given to the Vinalhaven Historical Society.
Kassandra Hopkins, a fifth grader, was one of the students chosen to present her story publicly. “It was fun to read in front of the group,” she said. “I was a little bit nervous, but I thought it was very, very exciting.” Hopkins interviewed local artist Jackson Gregory, who grew up in Provincetown, MA. She learned that Gregory liked to develop photos in the darkroom with his father when he was a boy. “I thought it was very, very fun to meet a new person,” she said.
Gregory found the project “delightful.”
“It was very enjoyable,” he said. “I was very taken with [Kassandra]. She was very confident and looked me right in the eye. She was all business.” Gregory also enjoyed the tea party. “It was a very warm environment,” he recalled. “I’m an outsider, so it’s nice to be invited to some of the things that go on. I don’t have much contact with younger people. It was good for [the students] and good for us to make contact. And it was fun to remember being a child,” he concluded.
Smith feels the project was a success. “I think it was a great experience for the kids to get to be able to know some of the people they didn’t already know,” she said. After having done this project once, the teachers realized there were many more people on the island they would have liked to have interviewed. They therefore plan to repeat the Living History project in two or three years with a whole new group of senior citizens, when they have a new group of students.