To know seventh grade at Graland is to know the significance of the phrases “Memory Box,” “Sunrise,” “Jiminy Wicket,” and “Intergenerational unit.” Different concepts, yes, but with the commonality of integrating within our year-long service learning program both in and out of the classrooms.
For the past six years, Graland seventh graders have worked alongside Sunrise Senior Living and Jiminy Wicket to cultivate relationships between students and seniors. Many residents of Sunrise suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of memory loss. Monthly visits to Sunrise enable students to engage with the elderly living there: playing Bingo, making crafts, sharing personal narratives, and playing croquet. Each visit to Sunrise is special in its own way; one of the most rewarding aspects is seeing our students cultivate the skill of learning to adapt to various scenarios. If someone does not want to make a craft, how should they navigate that? If a senior would rather watch croquet than play, how should students facilitate helping them sit comfortably and watch?
Jiminy Wicket, founded by James Creasey, is a Denver-based program that originated through James’s own efforts to connect with his late father, whose dementia made it increasingly difficult to engage effectively with family and friends. Through croquet, he discovered a low stakes, fun way to connect and wanted to share this experience with other families impacted by dementia.
At the start of seventh grade, students and advisors travel to Washington Park for a morning of croquet instruction. After learning the fundamentals of play, kids compete against one another and practice gracious sportsmanship. Transferring those newly acquired skills to Sunrise, students invite willing seniors to partner in a game. There is arguably no greater thrill than watching Graland seventh graders guide seniors through the game, cheer in earnest, and bring smiles to seniors’ faces.
In January, English class centers around small group studies of four novels: Pop, What Flowers Remember, Hour of the Bees, and The Cay. Each novel features a relationship between a teenager and a senior. With the exception of The Cay, each senior suffers from some form of dementia, leading to, in some cases, death. To explore such realistic stories with beautiful intergenerational relationships at their core elevates the caliber of our literature study in an authentic, powerful way. Students’ emotional reactions to unexpected endings nurtures an empathy we so often hope for in today’s generation of kids.
Inspired by memory boxes hanging outside each senior’s room at Sunrise, students are asked at the start of the year to choose an honoree—typically a grandparent—about whom to construct their own memory box guided by art teacher Cathy Naughton. Memory boxes serve as visual compilations of photographs, mementos, and other aspects of the honorees’ lives. These are supplemented by biographies written after students conduct a thorough interview of each honoree or a family member closest to them. At our culminating event mid-February, memory boxes and biographies are on display for families to see and celebrate.
In science class with Mr. Collins, students explore how mammal brains are organized and put together; learn the primary jobs of different regions of the human brain; make labelled diagrams of neurons and synapses; and review the history of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, they learn how medical science is working to better understand the disease and develop drugs to slow and/or reverse its effects. Kids brainstorm questions related to Alzheimer’s and conduct research to obtain answers. Finally, they create PSAs to share their research with a broader community, with the aim of increasing awareness about the disease.
The beauty of this comprehensive, authentic project is difficult to capture on paper. At an age where students can so easily be lost inside themselves, they instead learn to step back, to consider those lives lived before their own, and to appreciate the countless stories that surround them.
Grade 7 English teacher Kelly Gaudet brings east coast style to her role in the Middle School. She is originally from Hanover, N.H., and graduated from Middlebury College with an English major (creative writing focus) and Italian minor. Her master’s degree in teaching is from Manhattanville College in New York. Kelly enjoys reading, skiing, running, and spending time with her children Charlotte ‘18 and Henry, a student at Graland.