On the first day of the school year, one of Kristie Walraven’s students asked if the class would participate in GrandPals again. Interest in the intergenerational program is growing, especially since its creators received the 2017 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching.
“The students love this program,” Mrs. Walraven says. As her Orangeville Christian School (OCS) classroom has both Grade 5 and Grade 6 students, she runs the GrandPals program every other year.
The intergenerational program is a cross-curricular, experiential and service-based project where students are matched with a senior. During weekly visits to a seniors’ centre or nursing home students learn about their GrandPals’ lives and document their biographies over two months.
Mrs. Walraven learned about GrandPals when she was completing her teaching bridging placement in Marc Mailhot’s classroom at Montgomery Public School in Orangeville, Ontario. Mr. Mailhot, who is also connected to OCS as a parent and board chair, was creating GrandPals at that time. He invited her to use it in her own classroom, which she has now done three times.
At the beginning of the program students learn about big ideas and keywords such as ageism, dignity, stereotypes, respect and prejudice. At their weekly visits to the seniors’ centre students take about an hour asking their GrandPal biographical questions that focus on various life stages, from infancy to maturity. Within each stage questions are grouped into themes such as daily life, dreams, family members and world events. Students take turns each week with one asking the questions and the other recording notes. Through these visits they learn how to be a good listener and also about their GrandPal’s life.
When they come back to OCS after their visits, the students unpack their conversations with the class. “They realise these people have a story to share and they are so excited with what they come back with,” Mrs. Walraven says. “They forget that these people were kids so when they hear the stories of them being kids, or teenagers, or getting married, it just blows their mind.”
During their visits, the GrandPals sometimes bring photos to show the children or memorabilia – one man was an engineer and brought some of the drawings he had done, another brought photos and medallions from his time serving in the war.
Throughout the weeks OCS students work to create a Lifebook that documents and illustrates their GrandPal’s life. Students also create a portrait of their GrandPal from a photo. During their last visit, the students give a copy of the book to their GrandPal and play games and enjoy snacks together. When it is time to leave there are always tears, as the students and seniors have formed a special relationship.
Mr. Mailhot began developing GrandPals in 2009 when his school was focused on eight character traits including kindness, empathy and compassion. As students looked at biographies and talked about heroes that highlighted various traits he wanted to do something that could be applied in the community. A colleague suggested taking the class to the local seniors’ residence to apply some of the traits, and he did, for two months.
During that time, one boy in the class “morphed into something completely different,” Mr. Mailhot recalls. While in the classroom the student was using his strengths in ways that didn’t work, but in the context of the seniors’ residence he took leadership and approached a senior who was cognitively able but due to a stroke was nonverbal.
“I was blown away by the transformation I saw in that kid, and he just needed that opportunity which was completely different than putting him at a desk in a classroom,” he says.
At the core of the GrandPals program is storytelling. “That’s why I think we received the award – because they are truly extraordinary stories and they are connected to our Canadian heritage as well,” Mr. Mailhot says. The award also validated the pedagogical approach.
“Somehow, in this day and age, we have students who are disconnected from their heritage yet inundated with information. In my mind, there’s a problem,” he adds.
“GrandPals is a great experience because you learn about the past and they teach you valuable lessons to learn from and reflect on,” says Grade 7 student Alexia. She appreciated learning about her GrandPal’s life and early days in New Brunswick. “She always had a lot of cool stories to tell,” Alexia notes.
Mayah says the relationship with her GrandPal helped give her more respect for the elderly, knowing they’ve accomplished great things in their lives. “I appreciate the way my GrandPal was always happy to see us,” she says.
Mr. Mailhot also has stories of how the program has impacted his students’ lives – such as one who had traumatic brain injury. The child’s therapist couldn’t break through, but suddenly could because of a conversation he’d had with his GrandPal. The senior shared about losing his friends in the Second World War, which caused the boy to tell his story. The two shared such a bond that the student’s final art piece was a cross, with his story on one side and the GrandPal’s on the other. The GrandPal kept that cross in his hospital room and, after he passed, it was displayed on his casket at his funeral.
“I don’t want people to think it’s just a project – transformation can happen,” Mr. Mailhot says. “We’re not just educating minds; we have to be educating hearts too.”
This article is reprinted from the OACS News Service (a longer version available at OACS.org). Jennifer Neutel is a Community Journalist for the OACS News Service.
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