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Intergenerational Writing Classes

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerMarch 3, 2017

When you put seniors and youth together, amazing things happen! That’s why intergenerational writing classes, which have existed since the 1970’s, continue to be an effective platform to help writers of all ages find their voice.

Read more about the benefits of intergenerational writing classes.

History of Intergenerational Writing Classes

In 1978, the Dane County Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in Madison, Wisconsin was introduced to Jefferson Middle School. The program recruited older volunteers as guest speakers, presenters and remedial tutors in the school’s folk art fair. The RSVP’s intergenerational writing project became one of the program’s most successful — with over 100 senior volunteers sharing their life histories and thoughts on aging with students in grades seven and eight.

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According to “Intergenerational Programs in Wisconsin Schools,”the program was a success on all fronts, and the “students’ high degree of interest and enthusiasm,” encouraged the continuation of the RSVP program.

Wisconsin was certainly not the first, or last place to experiment with intergenerational writing classes. These types of programs continue to exist across North America, Europe and beyond at elementary, middle and high schools, as well as college and university levels.

How It Works

From autobiographies to fiction to letter writing, there are many different ways to teach, organize and participate in intergenerational writing classes.

Last year, Dr. Michael Ackerman, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University,  hosted an intergenerational writing class with 14 students and 16 seniors. The endeavor was so successful that the class was invited to exhibit their work at Themuseum in an exhibit called “The Aging Dialogues: Sharing Wisdom, Preserving Our Legacies.”

Seniors and youth were paired for their autobiography assignments, but students agreed that “this class was as much about relationships as it was about learning…” Kathryn Poirier of Brant News reports.

According to Brant News, one student-senior pair shared a mutual passion for travel, and coached each other to complete their projects. In the end both the student and the senior each wrote a self-published, hardcover book about their travels abroad.

“Emails exchanged between the two demonstrated a healthy tension as they pushed each other to produce their best work,” the News stated.

Why Age Isn’t a Factor in Learning

During intergenerational writing classes, students learn from and motivate each other, breaking down age barriers and forming friendships. “With two separate and distinct age groups reflected in this class, age was never a factor,” Brant News reports. “Instead, there was a healthy interest to gain insight and understanding from each other, with genuine respect for the others’ lived experiences…The many connections and conversations served to change perceptions and expand understanding, to conclude that age is just a number.”

The relationships and sense of understanding that develops in these classes helps to bring a new perspective to the writer’s work, spark creativity and strengthen learning opportunities. Arguably, the understanding that crosses generations are some of the most beneficial outcomes of intergenerational classes of any kind, but there are other benefits as well.

Dr. Matthew S. Kaplan, an associate professor at Penn State University, published his research in the study School-Based Intergenerational Programswhich showed that the benefits for youth include:

  • Increased class engagement and attendance
  • Improved reading skills
  • Improved sense of confidence, self-esteem and self-worth
  • Learning about history as a living, ongoing process
  • Learning how to articulate personal experience and social observation in verbal and written forms
  • Learning how to develop, execute and document results from structured interviews
  • Reduced dropout rates

Kaplan also found that mentoring had a particularly positive and powerful motivational impact on minority students when they were paired with senior mentors from a similar ethnic background. “One such example is the Black Achievers Program in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). Though based at a YMCA, this program was found to strengthen ‘the partnership triangle of community/home/school.’ In 1995/96, of the 365 youth who were matched with the 72 mentors, 96% completed the program and returned to school,” he writes.

The positive impact to students is in and of itself enough motivation to educators to offer intergenerational classes — something that Wilfrid Laurier is planning more of after the success of Ackerman’s course. But what’s in it for the seniors who participate?

“You Find Yourself Connected”

According to Kaplan, one of the most successful and well-known school-based intergenerational programs is Experience Corps, which began in the South Bronx, New York.

“This program, which has been replicated across the country, connects neighborhood retirees with children in elementary schools,” he says. “Laurie Chilcote, a disabled individual who attributes his experience with Lent Experience Corps (Portland, Oregon) as turning his life around [says] ‘It’s the opposite of a thread you pull and the sweater comes unraveled. You pull on this thread, and you find yourself connected.'”

Kaplan believes that some of the most significant benefits for older adults who participate in intergenerational programs revolve around the concept of productive aging, which supports the belief that active roles for seniors are important because they create meaning and purpose in their everyday life. Productive aging also provides a number of psychological benefits like the social connections that Chilcote describes.

According to Kaplan’s research, other benefits for seniors who participate in intergenerational programs include:

  • Active community involvement
  • Better health, including increased memory function and enhanced physical mobility
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills
  • Fewer symptoms of depression
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improved social and less solitary behavior
  • The satisfaction of feeling productive

Ways Intergenerational Writing Classes Combat Ageism

Seniors who participate in intergenerational classes help to combat stigmas associated with aging, by “promoting positive attitudes towards older persons and the aging process,” Kaplan explains, noting that after working alongside seniors, some youth changed their opinions of older adults, describing seniors as:

  • Active
  • Engaging
  • Friendly
  • Less boring
  • Motivated
  • Knowledgeable
  • Skilled
  • Strong

In fact, after participating in intergenerational programs, some young people had a “heightened sensitivity to the difficulties experienced by senior adults,” Kaplan says.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, an educator or a would-be writer, the fact is that intergenerational classes have significant benefits for everyone involved.

So, take a look around your community and sign up for an intergenerational writing class (or other type) and reap the benefits!

Have you or a loved one participated in an intergenerational writing class? We’d love to hear more about your experience in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
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Kimberley Fowler
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