Monday, July 30, 2007

Service-Learning Intergenerational Partnerships: Schools and Nursing Homes

Note: Winner of the National Service-Learning Partnership Trailblazer Award, Frances Shani Parker, a national consultant and former schoolwide service-learning principal, has been instrumental in implementing service-learning in school districts across the country. Her book Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes includes a chapter on intergenerational partnerships between schools and nursing homes.

What if I’m a student who needs mentoring, diverse experiences, and opportunities to share my skills with others? What if I’m a nursing home resident wishing I had some visitors, thinking I can still make positive contributions, looking forward to interacting with young people? If this sounds like a match between an itch and a scratch, you’ll understand why service-learning is so important.

Service-learning is a teaching and learning approach that connects learning with meeting community needs. It’s not the same as community service, although that’s another good service practice. Service-learning evolves from learning objectives in a school or community group setting. For example, after students learn how to write letters, service-learning would include writing letters to community people who would benefit from receiving their letters. Of course, service recipients might show their appreciation by writing students letters in response. The exchange is always win-win, even when the rewards are intangible. And they often are.

Nursing homes are ideal places for students to visit and share what they are learning in school. Residents provide welcome audiences for students eager to perform their skits, songs, and poetry. Students can display and explain class projects and interview residents in supportive environments. Afterwards, they can mingle with residents and let the magic of intergenerational communication work to everyone’s mutual benefit. A growing body of research shows that students improve academically, as well as affectively, as a result of service-learning.

Because teachers prepare students well before their nursing home visits, students know what to expect. If a resident falls asleep or cries, students understand why that’s okay. The word "dementia" can be added to their vocabulary with relevance and meaning. They are open to the experience of being with the elderly and the challenged. They take pride in the roles they play in enriching lives. After they return to school, students reflect on how the nursing home visit affected them, what they learned, and ways to share that information with others.

You know how good it feels when the perfect scratch soothes all your itching? Service-learning is something like that. You can read research our fourth graders did in partnership with nursing home residents on ageism stereotypes here:

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes
Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog

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