Students bond with seniors by writing their stories

VanAndel Education Institute project connects generations

Della Clark gets a big hug from StoryPoint resident Darlene Dugan after giving her a picture she painted for her

This is the story of Roger Upham, aka “Mr. Roger”: He was born in Carson City, in 1939. As a boy, he earned a 25-cent allowance, played the trumpet and got his first job at a fruit market. His first movie was “Hop-Along Cassidy.” He played basketball in high school, went to college and worked for Consumers Power. He once met Detroit Tigers star Jim Northrup.

Mr. Roger listened appreciatively as fifth-graders Lily Cutler and Anna TenBrink told his story, complete with slideshow, to residents of StoryPoint retirement community in Rockford. Lily and Anna, along with classmates at Cannonsburg Elementary, had interviewed StoryPoint residents, written brief biographies and presented them this-is-your-life style.

Students and seniors alike enjoyed learning about each other.

“I connected with him a lot,” said Anna, who was delighted to find out she dances competitively with Upham’s grand-daughter. “It was really fun getting to know him better. Just meeting new people is awesome, knowing their life story.”

“It’s a lot of fun. I’m glad I was selected to do this,” Upham said of being interviewed by the girls and touring their school, where he found a desk like the ones he used as a boy.

Nolan Williams, left, listens to a student presentation along with StoryPoint resident Roger Teesdale

Intergenerational Learning

The activity was a pilot program of the Blue Apple Project at VanAndel Education Institute, which provides science, engineering and other learning opportunities for area students. The story-telling project is intended to cultivate intergenerational relationships as part of a broader mission of encouraging students to “help make the world a better place,” said Ben Talsma, learning solutions specialist at the Education Institute.

‘It’s a great chance for both of them to learn from each other,” said Talsma, a former classroom teacher. “That’s quite often an opportunity to have rich relational learning.”

After getting feedback on the pilot, VAEI aims to launch the project in other area schools and a dozen states this fall, Talsma said.

Cannonsburg teacher Danielle Vallad was one of three teachers chosen from among about 300 applicants for the project. She matched her 15 students with eight StoryPoint residents. Meeting their senior friends at the school in early May, students peppered them with nearly 50 questions and showed them around. Students then wrote biography booklets, which they gave their newfound friends when they returned to StoryPoint a few weeks later.

“They just developed a fondness for them. It was evident in their first meeting,” Vallad said of her students. “Just learning about another person’s life, somebody other than family, I think that’s a really good thing.”

Anna TenBrink said she connected with Roger Upham in learning about his life, and writing a biography along with classmate Lily Cutler

Pretty Pictures and Nice Accents

Along with her biography, Della Clark also brought a picture adorned with pretty flowers she made for her partner, Darlene Dugan. For that Della got a big hug from “Ms. Darlene.”

“Precious,” Dugan told Della. “That’s going up on my wall.”

Dawson Hoekert and Brodie Chase said they enjoyed getting to know Doreen Holmes and learning about her native England.

“She has a really nice English accent,” said Brodie, who did his best to mimic it. He noted she’d seen many interesting places including Windsor Castle, where she used to take her daughter to watch the changing of the guards.

“I had a wonderful time with them,” Holmes said of her young biographers. “I thought they were just so interesting, and so friendly.

“I was ready to take them home,” she added with a laugh.

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles's full bio.

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