Lenora Retirement Community and New Haven Elementary School are across the street from each other, but the elementary students and the retirees don’t interact much.
That’s changing thanks to a writing project where fourth-graders interview and talk with older residents of Columbia about their childhood, careers and hobbies.
“Kids don’t really get a chance to know or learn from this age group,” said Linda Bozoian, a fourth-grade teacher at New Haven. “This is opening their eyes and they’re learning so much.”
Heidi Schmidt, a student teacher from Stephens College, helps with Bozoian’s class and first discovered the project when she attended a writing and literacy conference at Columbia College. The project was originally an oral history project designed for older students, but Bozoian and Schmidt “tweaked and tailored” it for fourth-grade level students, Bozoian said.
Thirty older people participated in the writing project. Many of them came from Lenoir Retirement Community and Dialysis Center Inc., which are both located near the school.
“We got a lot of people by word of mouth,” Bozoian said, noting some teachers go to the same church as the participants.
The interview process began with students showing their interviewees around the school. The students showed the guests their lockers, classrooms and other items of familiarity and interest. After the students and older people got to know each other, they began the actual interview.
Yaseen Adam told Columbia resident Guy Marie Sackreiter, “This Friday, we’re having a sock-hop here.” She replied, “Oh, we used to have a lot of fun at those.”
Matt Chapin asked Sackreiter, “If you could go back in your life and change anything, what would it be?”
She answered, “I would’ve spent more time with my boys; catching bugs and worms and going fishing with them.”
Raj Satpathi was interested in where Walter Mountjoy fought in World War II.
“I spent some time in Holland and Germany,” he said. “Have you ever heard of the Battle of the Bulge? I fought in that.”
Mountjoy has lived in Columbia all of his life.
“By the end of the interviews, a lot of the kids and elderly people are talking like old friends and hugging and holding hands,” Schmidt said.
The sessions are videotaped so students can watch their interviews and take notes for their stories. Finally, the students pick a subject or a part of the older person’s life they want to write about. Students can choose to focus on one specific part of a person’s life or write several short stories on various events in a person’s life.
“It’s great because you get to listen to stories about things that older people have done with their lives,” fourth-grader Brandon Erbschloe said.
Many of the interviewees brought in pictures and other artifacts that reflect their lives in some way. Connie Guy, 84, who taught children in Columbia with multicultural backgrounds for 29 years, brought in pins her students gave her from different countries, such as India, Peru, Egypt and Germany. Some of her pins are from World War II, when she worked for the civil service at several Air Force bases.
Sherman Horton, a retired financial consultant from Columbia, was a popular subject with his interviewers.
“He told us he gets to eat with the president,” said Cherish Walton. Her partner Eli Sherman added, “Yeah, he was invited to Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial and he showed us his ticket.”
Jenny Wood, who graduated from the MU journalism school in 1947, brought in two feature articles she wrote at the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune and pictures of her sitting at her typewriter working on a story.
“I told the students that there were a lot of women at the journalism school because all the men were at war,” she said. “It was also the first time TV was introduced so it was an interesting time.”
Fourth-grader Sabrina Michalak said she couldn’t imagine a time without TV.
The project is giving students at New Haven a chance to connect with and learn from older generations. It’s also teaching the fourth-graders important social and descriptive writing skills, as well as giving them an opportunity to learn history in a different way.
“To read about history is one thing,” said Cindy Giovanini, principal at New Haven. “But hearing about the colorful lives that these people have lived is another. If school can somehow be more authentic and real, it will be more exciting for the students.”
Betty McCune, a resident of Columbia since 1963, told her interviewers how she used to play when she was growing up in Kentucky.
“During the Depression, we didn’t have money for toys,” she said. “But me and my siblings would hang sheets up on the porch and make up plays. Pretty soon, people from the neighborhood would pay a penny to come watch us.”
McCune said talking with the children was a good experience.
“I think the stories I told them made them realize that we’re not a whole lot different from them,” she said. “I’m excited to see what they’ve learned from it.”
Sackreiter, who has lived in Columbia since 1965, told her interviewers what she remembered about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941.
“Every Sunday after church, my brother and I got to go to a matinee,” she said. “I remember that Sunday we had just watched ‘Tarzan’ and when we came outside people were silent and just standing in the street. When we found out what happened, me and my brother held hands and ran all the way home to tell our parents. It was the beginning of the war.”
Bozoian said, “It’s the best writing we’ve ever seen because these kids are writing to an audience that they really respect. I think these people that the kids wrote about will be moved. It’s a celebration of their lives.”