Intergenerational Learning in Friends Schools

Quakers believe in truth-seeking as a process of continuing revelation, seeing life as a journey of learning from one’s experiences and from one another in a shared search for God’s truth. The principle of that of God within everyone serves as the basis for self-respect and respect for others, and allows for what Quaker educator Paul Lacey, in Growing into Goodness: Essays on Quaker Education, has called "an openness to a wide range of sources for enlightenment." We all possess unique gifts and talents, and we can learn much from each other. It is no wonder, then, that many Friends schools have programs that make use of intergenerational learning, in which students and older people learn and share knowledge and skills with one another.

In his work Meeting for Learning, Parker Palmer discusses the centrality of Quakerism in education. Education is the search for truth: "Teaching and learning are a way of life." Through intergenerational programs, students learn about life from elders. These programs are more than community service efforts; they are mutually beneficial to both students and the elderly participants.

Abington Friends School has a technology partnership called "Cyberfoulkes" with Foulkeways, a residential community for older adults in Gwynedd, Pa. In Cyberfoulkes, students in fourth and fifth grade teach elders general word processing and computer skills and how to use e-mail and the Internet. Lynne Mass, the school’s educational technology coordinator and coordinator of the Cyberfoulkes program, says the students love the interaction with the elders. "Cyberfoulkes gets the students out of the computer lab and into a human setting. It shows them how they can use their computer skills in the real world," she says. "The students are good at computers and they take it for granted: the Web and computer are like pencil and paper for them. When the elders see what a difference those skills can make—people can write to their relatives and research their illnesses—it amazes them. These students are opening a world for them."

Foulkeways resident Gustav Beck wrote about the experience: "We enjoy each other’s companionship, feel useful and up to date. Then, of course, there is the triumph of having overcome the fears inherent at our age when attempting something completely different and new, and realizing that one is never too old to undertake a new venture." The benefits are reciprocal: after Foulkeways residents have learned to use e-mail, they serve as resources for the AFS community. Students can send an e-mail to the elders’ group list asking for information on a topic. Any resident with experience or knowledge in that area responds. Residents have shared information on missionary work in Africa during the 1940s, historic Philadelphia, and the World Wars. "This relationship has extended our school community," Lynne Mass said.

This year the group moved into a new computer room at Foulkeways with six computers, flat screens, and printers. Recognizing the elders’ interest through their long computer partnership with the students, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (Pa., 12th District) allocated state funding for the new facility. Eight years into the program, the seasoned "techie" residents have become in-house resources for their own community, having learned about digital cameras, little pocket jump drives, and how to compare prices on the Internet.

Intergenerational collaboration builds and strengthens communities, sometimes literally. Newtown (Pa.) Friends School’s relationship with adjacent Pennswood Village, begun in 1980, has included site planning to better share campus resources. Pennswood residents and students visit each other at the village and at school. In "Friday Friends" groups, the residents lead activities for students such as sharing toy collections, baking cookies, making kits for American Friends Service Committee outreach to African children, and taking a tour of edible plants in the woods. Pennswood’s traveling croquet team recently taught Wimbledon Croquet techniques to seventh and eighth grade gym classes.

Pennswood residents also visit Newtown Friends School and help in classrooms in many ways: sharing life experiences, reading stories to kindergarteners, providing extra help with classwork, helping in the library, and learning computer skills in the school’s media center. "Our ‘Pennswood Pal’ is a deeply spiritual woman who shares her faith and practice with us each week. She openly discusses her physical challenges with the children and invites them to ask questions," said third grade teacher Melissa Carroll. "Her openness has opened minds."

Residents have served as resources for studies of the 1920s, illnesses of the elderly, the United Nations, and Bucks County in the early 1900s. Since its inception more than 100 residents have served as "classmates" and more than 1,000 children have benefited from interactions with the residents. It is a partnership that is important to both communities. "It is a joy to be part of that school; it restores your soul," one resident said.

In some intergenerational programs, elders and children learn side by side. All seventh graders at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Pa., participate in a required course known as QUADS (Quakerism, Art, Design, and Service). A central component of the QUADS curriculum is the service-learning relationship between the Penn Charter students and the elders at Stapeley Hall, a Quaker-founded home in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Assistant head of school/religion teacher Stephanie Judson and middle school art teacher Ruth McGee teach the course in which Penn Charter students and Stapeley residents get to know each other through a program called "Art Partners." In this program, they collaboratively study artists and create art. The program includes communication, teamwork, problem-solving, two- and three-dimensional art, and reflective writing. "The habits of learning emphasized are reflection, respect and understanding of differences, adaptability, flexibility, and using all of the senses for learning," Stephanie said. "The most important aspect, though, is the beauty of the relationships that develop as the students and elders work together." One student reflected, "My partner was a little shy, just like me, but at the end we were really clicking. It was meaningful because not only was I making someone’s day, but they were making mine."

Penn Charter has also worked for six years with Ohana House, a home for elderly residents whose families cannot care for them. Ohana House is part of the Eden Project, a movement to bring young people, pets, plants, and other stimuli into the lives of the residents. Penn Charter students have held lively debates with the residents, played games, and shared music. Jim Ballengee, Penn Charter’s director of service learning, commented, "As the Eden movement grows, it is a real attempt to give lifestyle choices to elderly people. Student involvement in this effort is crucial."

"ElderandChild," a service-learning partnership at Wilmington Friends School in Delaware, empowers elementary-age students and their elder partners to become curious, motivated, and responsible world citizens as well as powerful communicators across the generations. Hope Hawkins coordinates the program and recruits elders from churches, community centers, and professional organizations. The ElderandChild program changes the nature and relevance of learning for all involved: when the first grade studies the city, instead of turning to a page in a textbook, elder and child partners are on the bus and off to the heart of the city to paint a community mural together. When the child and elder buddies measure a cup of tomato sauce for a soup, they want to get it exact so the people at Immanuel Dining Hall, a local dining hall for the homeless, will have a great meal. When the children do a research project, their elder partners do one too, and they become side-by-side research partners. Students see elders as expert spellers. Elders see students as computer geniuses. They pool their knowledge in a process that Hope calls "mutual mentoring." This ongoing reciprocal sharing between each elder and child pair fosters mutual respect and appreciative exchange.

"In between ElderandChild gatherings, each elder and child pair correspond in a shared, hardbacked journal where they compare life experience, hopes, dreams, and convictions," Hope explained. "Postcards, photographs, charts, graphs, and drawings begin to magically appear until the journals bloom into fat, vibrant, living history books in kid and grownup handwriting." The Elderand Child program is also in place at Debnam House, an urban after-school setting.

Hope has formed an Elder Council composed of elders from her two program sites. Currently the group, which meets monthly, is assessing its members’ individual gifts or interests and designing hands-on activities around them for the children. An architect might create a project for the child involving Lego blocks. In turn, the first grade partner might teach the elder a math game based on a concept that the student has learned and loved. The elders hope to develop a book to celebrate custom-created activities by elders and children. Hope is currently designing a version of the ElderandChild program to join elders in monthly meetings with youth at neighborhood Friends schools.

Parker Palmer used the phrase "meeting for learning" to suggest that the spirit of worship can extend to the educational experience. In many Friends schools, generations are coming together to share in a search for truth, and all benefit as a result.

Sarah Sweeney-Denham

Sarah Sweeney-Denham, a member of Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is associate director for programs and publications for Friends Council on Education. This article is adapted from one published in the Fall 2001 issue of Chronicles of Quaker Education.