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Senior Pals: Bridging the Generation Gap with Technology

An emotional meeting of senior citizens and their fourth-grade e-pals was the culminating event of a project initiated by teacher Jim Flack at North Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio. Included: Comments from the kids and senior citizens!

Some children never have the opportunity to experience a personal relationship with a senior adult. Some senior citizens are often isolated in nursing homes without much contact with the outside world -- much less with youngsters!

Teacher Jim Flack saw the needs of both groups -- and he saw a great opportunity too! Flack knew about popular adopt-a-grandparent programs, and he knew that many schools had set up e-mail pal programs with other schools. He saw an opportunity to create an e-pals project that would pair his fourth graders at North Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio, with local seniors -- via e-mail! Through the project, Flack's students and residents of Crestview Nursing Home developed a mutually beneficial and caring relationship.

Education World recently caught up with Jim Flack. We talked with him about the logistics and the benefits of this students-seniors technological teamwork. The text of that conversation follows.

Education World: How does your special e-pals project work?

Jim Flack: I started the project by generating individual e-mail accounts for each of my students. Then I contacted the nursing home to get their e-mail address and names of residents who'd like to participate. Students and residents were paired, and most kids got two or three seniors. The students sent initial "hello" messages, telling the seniors a little background information about themselves and asking some questions. A staff member at the nursing home printed out the messages and read them to the residents. The seniors' responses were dictated to a nursing home employee, then e-mailed to the students. Students were required to send at least one e-mail per week. (Sometimes I even took a spelling/English grade that remarkably improved proofreading!) I maintained weekly contact with the nursing home to make sure things were fine on both ends. After a few weeks, things were pretty much on autopilot. The program was basically self-sufficient.

EW: How did you decide to do this project? What made you think of pairing the two age groups?

JF: I've always had a special place in my heart for senior citizens. This community project tied nicely into the social studies curriculum too. I could justify reading and English content parameters while incorporating measurable technology skills.

EW: What were your goals for this project?

JF: The goal was to enhance the students' social skills while they gained an appreciation of the elderly and the multitude of things they can offer today's youth. A second goal was to improve computer literacy as well as grammar and proofreading skills.

EW: Was this the first time you have done a project like this? Would you do it again?

JF: Yes, this is the first time. Absolutely, I would do it again. The positives outweigh the extra work.

EW: What do you think the students gained from the project?

JF: All people concerned shared some really neat things about their respective lives. I believe the goals were met. Students gained pals and an appreciation for older folks. In addition to improving academic skills, students learned about society when the seniors were growing up.

EW: What did the seniors gain ?

JF: They gained a sense of value or self-esteem. The project gave them the opportunity to talk to students about their past in a meaningful way.

EW: Do you have any management tips for others that might want to try to set up a similar project?

JF: Have a discussion with the students about appropriate topics of conversation. Caution them not to talk about death or dying and why it may be considered inappropriate. To keep track of what your students are sending out, it is a good idea to have the students send a carbon copy of their e-mail to the teacher. This project takes quite a bit of time initially, so the teacher has to have an optimistic outlook. To avoid potential problems, communicate via e-mail or phone with a contact person at the nursing home on a weekly basis. Students sometimes need to be reminded that these are seniors and they need to watch their choice of words; seniors don't necessarily understand all the current kid verbiage. At the same time, students must realize these seniors are their friends and need to be addressed as such. Finally, be sure to encourage students to ask about the seniors' past. They are very willing to share, and students will be amazed at what they will learn from them!

EW: What, if anything, would you do differently if you did this project again?

JF: I would start at the beginning of the year and encourage the students to visit the seniors throughout the school year on their own time.

EW: The project ended with a meet-your-e-pals field trip and luncheon at the nursing home. Would you share with us how the students and seniors reacted to this?

JF: What a day it was! We had our luncheon and all went well. Everyone was nervous for five or ten minutes; then true emotion took over. There were hugs, kisses, tears of joy, and lively conversations. Eventually, I got to sit back and soak up the excitement. Wow, was this project ever worth it! The human drama I witnessed was well worth the hours I personally invested. Children were talking to their very protective e-pals, who, for the moment, were able to forget the frailties that are a part of their daily lives. It was a day my students and I will remember forever.



Education World also asked for reactions from students and from the nursing home residents and staff who were involved in the project. Some of those comments follow.

"I think writing letters back and forth was really fun. We would talk about many things, like where they went to school and about each other's families."

-- Katie McClurg, fourth grader

"My feelings about e-pals are that they are great! I learned that you can have friends over the Internet. I'm also glad I got to see them."

-- Chaz Gibson, fourth grader

"The response has been unbelievable. The things that they ask each other have been so cute."

-- Carol Ellinger, Crestview Manor Nursing Home's director of medical records

"You realize my father drove a horse and buggy, and now I live in the space age."

-- Opal Moore, Crestview resident

"My e-pal, Allison, was telling me about her school and grades. She was trying to raise her grades. I told her how important grades are."

-- Eleanor Bennington, Crestview resident


Article by Hazel Jobe
Education World®
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