In my seventh grade classes, we’re doing a unit about generations; since this will be the last time I will teach it, I’ve tried to plan some memorable events for my students. This is a unit I have done many times, and as with all my work, I rarely do the same thing twice the same way, so there’s always a lot of planning to do ahead of time, and that’s always an enjoyable and creative task. Once the unit launches, I play a lot of music and we look at the lyrics; the kids really like that. There is a wealth of possibility – some of my favorites include Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years,” Tom Rush’s “Circle Game,” and I’ve tried to keep the collection relatively new with “Back When We Were Kids” by Eleventyseven, “Youth of the Nation” by P.O.D. and “September” by Daughtry.
Children are never too old to enjoy being read to, and I read to my seventh graders a lot during this unit. I read poetry with students, and we talk about it. One of my favorites is “Mother To Son” by Langston Hughes, rich in metaphor with its crystal stairs and landin’s and places where there ain’t no light. Another is “Grandma Sits Down,” in which it takes grandma most of the poem to navigate her old bones into the rocking chair, which almost tips over when she falls into it. At the end of the poem, she writes to a friend that it is finally spring and she is “anxious to plant some seeds.” It brings forth conversation about how old we are inside our heads versus our actual chronological age.
I read children’s picture books aloud, too – the best ones will engage children up to a hundred years old. I ask students to do a written response to those works. Some of them are a challenge for me to read aloud without weeping, although sometimes (but not always) I feel strong enough to let myself cry as I read. Funny how that works, isn’t it? One that always puts a lump in my throat is Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran. It’s the story of a neighborhood filled with children who create an imaginary town out of rocks and boxes, and the author takes us right into the adventures. At the end of the book, the children are all grown up, but they ALL remember their childhood village, and even as I write this summary I, too, remember my old neighborhood, just down the street from the Maplewood School. We had our own special whooping call to gather us for an adventure, and we’d play and play and play – baseball or kickball in the street, or hide and seek in the woods behind my house. I remember my classmates from then, some of whom I’ve reconnected with thanks to Facebook. It is a wonderful, special memory that I will always treasure, no matter how old I live to be, and when my students write about their special places, some kids write for pages and pages.
At the outset of my unit planning this year, I sent an email to the whole school staff asking if anyone knew of a person who could come in and talk about genealogy with the kids; the current popularity of the hobby seemed like a great component and I thought that if I could get some of the kids excited about finding out about their own ancestors, it would be excellent. No one responded to my email, though, and that turned out to be a good thing because that was when I realized that I already knew the best possible expert: my own cousin Gerry! Because she lives about three hours away, I didn’t expect that she would be able to do it; my house is too small for overnight guests so that wasn’t an option. To my delight, though, she agreed to come!
It was the week’s highlight for my seventh graders, and also for me. The kids really enjoyed seeing some photographs from when we were kids, and hearing about some of our family adventures and about our ancestors. I always enjoy those moments when my students can see me as a “regular person,” and not just the “teacher,” and that happened nicely on this day. I loved it.
I arranged the desks in a modified U shape so that she could sit and show them pages in a binder that she had created. I can’t say all the kids were perfect, but most of them were, and they were eager to share their own family stories. During the first class, it occurred to me that the most relevant final project for this unit would not be the “interview an old person” writing assignment I had planned, but rather would be to help families start researching their own ancestors. When I proposed it to that first group, the kids actually cheered and said they would LOVE to do that! So I’ll write a letter to parents, and we’ll see how it goes.
This coming week, there’s a second highlight for the generations unit. Our cafeteria staff is going to cook a special “heritage luncheon” with a menu designed around the countries of origin of our students. We’re inviting grandparents and senior citizens (through our local community center senior program) to come and have lunch with us. I’ve arranged to borrow real tablecloths and napkins, the kids have made invitations, and I hope there will be great conversation across the generations.
Thanks for reading.