By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
DUNNVILLE—This past school year offered a unique learning opportunity to the Grade 7/8 class of Mrs. Hannah VanderWier at Dunnville Christian School (DCS). The students developed their writing and communication skills as they connected with residents of Edgewater Gardens to listen to, record, and write their life stories, gaining new friends in the process.
VanderWier explains, “This project is for the students to write the life story of one of the elderly citizens in our town.” As an introduction, the class discussed how society views the elderly compared to how they should be treated and what the Bible calls them to do. According to VanderWier, “We learned that there are many stereotypes that need to be avoided and that the elderly are beautiful and wise people.”
Helping VanderWier facilitate the connecting process was Carolyn Taylor, Recreation Director at Edgewater Gardens. Taylor spoke to the class about her job and offered tips on how to speak with and show respect to the residents. The students learned the importance of eye contact, speaking clearly, and how to continue a conversation.
Beginning last fall, those skills were put to use as the students met the seniors for outside visits following COVID-19 safety guidelines. When the lockdown was imposed, the conversations took place online via Zoom, which enabled them to see each other’s faces without the masks. The students were eager to continue meeting with their new friends. VanderWier says, “Sometimes they showed them their animals and pets from home. It was a bit hectic with scheduling it all, but it was worth it.”
The writing portion involved first drafts as the students put the seniors’ answers to their questions into paragraphs. This was followed by editing until they were satisfied with the final copy. Pictures from the residents, as well as illustrations by the students, enhanced the stories. The students worked with the publishing company Blurb to design and complete the books.
The finished books were individually wrapped and labelled for the students to present to their “grand pals”. VanderWier says, “We had an awesome visit when the residents opened their books. They were so happy and it was quite emotional for some. They couldn’t believe that there was a story written about them.”
This project also had a lasting impression on the students, who learned the value of friendship no matter how old you are. Jacob VanderSpek says, “I really enjoyed meeting with the residents and hearing their cool stories.”
Kaylee DeHaan concurs: “You were able to meet someone and just by asking a few questions about their life you were able to become friends.”
Emily Beldmen appreciates what she learned from her grand pal and says, “I have experienced words of true wisdom from Margaret and they make me feel better when I am feeling discouraged.”
Elise DeBoer shares, “I really enjoyed meeting Sheila and talking with her about her life! She had many interesting stories and even had two lions! Older adults are super kind and will listen to you. They make great friends as well!”
Brennan Brown also felt a connection saying, “One of the coolest things I learned was that my grand pal was from Holland and so were my grandparents.”
Sabrina Heeg was inspired and says, “I learned that everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s story has a meaning to learn! Meeting the residents was always a sunflower of my day, especially meeting Norma. She is so happy and whenever I met with her, I would never leave sad…. She always spread joy! The coolest thing was definitely that she could ride a motorcycle! Talk about an icon! When I grow up, I hope to still do things I love like Norma did.”
Reflecting on the experiences of her class, VanderWier describes this assignment as “project-based learning” as it engages the students and gives their work more purpose. She says, “This has been such a great experience. The students have learned a lot about writing, communicating, and technology, but they also have learned how to respect all people and that their work is important and has meaning.”
That meaning goes beyond the biographies, which the students have written with such care and attention, and even the final grades they achieve. Equally meaningful are the new relationships that have been formed and the genuine appreciation that is shared between these young people and their grand pals.