It’s a skill at risk of going extinct in this age of extreme expression: listening.
Maybe we could all take a cue from the fourth and fifth grade students of Elisabeth Hickey’s English Language Arts Challenge program at . On Monday and Tuesday this week, the students experienced some oral history, as told by their guests: residents of .
Students divided into small groups in different rooms, gathered around one older person with a good story to tell. In one room, Suzette Winter talked about Shirley Temple, the Depression and the innocent age of 15-cent admission silent films in which a mere four-year-old could become a national fixation.
One student asked about Temple’s curls. Winter, who grew up in England and didn’t meet the star until adulthood, described how the child star’s very protective mother put her in 52 rollers each night to make those signature ringlets.
In another room, there was more talk of curls as a footnote to the dark subject matter of war. Mimi Weare recounted how her seaside town in France was occupied by the Germans when she was 11. She vividly described such sensory details as hearing the soldiers’ nailed boots clomping down the streets of what no longer felt like her country.
Weare passed around old photos of herself, mentioning how her hair was naturally pin-straight but she longed for curls. Her mother gave her a permanent, a process that was hot, stinky and left her hair a frizzy mess. “It didn’t hurt, but it was uncomfortable and the results were terrible,” she said. The students laughed.
Muriel Fox was a founding member of N.O.W. Hugo Van der Heide gave a presentation for all in the auditorium about the airplane he built from scratch upon his retirement, supplemented by a history of flight lesson from Fred Sisto.
The children are learning to listen (a list on the chalkboard advises sitting still, nodding, waiting, etc.) in order to develop skills to ultimately tell their own stories. Since September, they've been in the process of researching and writing fictional memoirs in which they are placing themselves in a historical period of their choosing. “They are so involved in this,” said Hickey, who added that some kids had written up to 38 pages already.
“By the end of the project they will have learned research skills, points in history, the genre of memoirs and autobiographies, presentation skills, organizational skills and listening skills,” Hickey said. “They will also have been introduced to the idea that personal storytelling is one of the best ways to learn about history and other people.”
On January 11 at 7:30 p.m., this will all come to fruition when the children visit their memoir-mentors again at Kendal-on-Hudson to present their own tales in the main building of the retirement complex.
Parents present for this week's event at the school described how their entire families had become so invested in the projects and how enthusiastic the children have been to explore the past.
Karen Kuhn, mother of Eva, said “it’s a wonderful way to get two generations together.” Eva’s exploration of the Civil War has gotten “the whole family into it.” They visited the town in Pennsylvania where they are from and happen to have a Civil War ancestor; Grandpa was even inspired to start blogging about his past.
Molly Povman, mother of Jennifer, said her daughter wants to be author/illustrator, a dream which really came to be through the Challenge program. Jennifer is recreating the age of the Black Plague through the eyes of a female heroine who is strong and independent. “We now have grandparents and parents learning about the Plague,” Povman said. “I’m thinking, ‘wow,’ what an amazing thing for her to be doing.”
Hickey, who was busy managing the smooth progression of all these people from room to room, later expressed gratitude to the parents and the Kendal residents who made this possible. “I could not have done this without Grace Sisto from Kendal, who organized everything from over there,” she said. “I also could not have done it without the help of the parents who were so willing to give their time and energies and the flexibility and help of the teachers and Dr. Hand and Mr. Scarantino (principal and asst. principal). This has been (and will be on the 11th) a true community of learners event.”
Still, kids will be kids, and there of course was at least one Justin Bieber reference tossed about. Turns out he has a lot in common with Shirley Temple.