Classroom of the Week | 'Senior friends' build bonds at Richmond Consolidated School
"My room is right next door to Mrs. Smith's room," writes school reading specialist, Jill Pompi, who nominated Smith and her students as a "Classroom of the Week."
Said Pompi: "Once a month, I am fortunate to hear the seniors walk down the hall, talking and laughing as they arrive, filled with anticipation. Once they arrive in the classroom, students and seniors are fully engaged in a variety of activities. Animated discussions are fun to observe and hear. When the seniors leave, there is a spring in their step and the students are left with smiles from ear to ear."
Monday marked their monthly visit for Jauary. This time, the intergenerational activity was playing the timeless board game of Scrabble. Some children were novices, but a few, it turned out, were old hands at the game.
Senior friend Marilyn Kirby got a kick out of learning from her third-grade friend, Ethan Senzel, that he learned Scrabble from his father, a member of the New York Scrabble Club.
Senzel and Kirby said they've enjoyed their monthly meet-ups.
"It's a great way to interact with other people and it gives people a break from their day," Senzel said.
In between meet-ups, students and their community partners write to each other and Kirby said she's enjoyed trading postcards with Senzel; he recently sent her one from a family trip to Florida and she sent him one from a trip to Europe.
"I think it's an awesome program," Kirby said. "I mean, how many 8-year-olds are learning to get comfortable having conversations with someone older than them? In this program, the kids look for you, they know you, and they want to share what's happening in their lives."
Beth Smith has been teaching in third grade and welcoming community partners for the program for the past 15 years.
The program, also referred to as the Third Grade Friends Program, began in the 1994-1995 school year, with coordination between then-third-grade teacher Donna McMartin and Richmond JOY Program and Council on Aging member, Gladys Traver. Jill Pompi said she credits Smith and her students for "fully embracing and continuing this program," after Smith took it on from McMartin. Jan Hartford now coordinates the Council on Aging volunteers, matching each individual senior with a student based on basic interests.
Hartford said that once a volunteer gets into the classroom, "they really enjoy it, and tend to come back year after year."
John Whitney, who is partnered with third-grade student Noah Stover, has participated for four years and said, "it's nice to see the kids you had grow up each year."
Smith said she tries to tie activities in with curriculum, noting that the pen pals concept helps the third graders practice their writing skills. Each year, during the first meeting with the senior friends, Smith has the students and their partner create Venn diagrams to illustrate where each of them have different and similar interests. They also draw sketches of one another.
Smith said that after that first meeting, her students "get so excited" and ask about when the next visit will take place. "I think they love that one-on-one attention. This group of adults is so kind and caring, there's just a natural connection between them," she said.
Virginia Larkin said she's volunteered with the program for at least 10 years. This year, she's partnered with Isla Dimassimo, whom Larkin describes as "lively, and a humanitarian." Dimassimo tells Larkin about her projects to raise money and goods for community causes; she recently purchased and donated a canine oxygen mask to the Richmond Fire Department for when they respond to house fires with pets. Larkin, in turn, shared this story with the "Richmond Record," the town paper she takes photos for.
"The children are so much older in maturity than I was at their age," Larkin observed.
After their monthly hour-long meeting, the senior partners join their friends for lunch in the school cafeteria, where the partners often get recognized by former third-graders. Sometimes, the partners continue to keep in touch.
"I like that you get to spend time with other people that you don't usually get to spend time with," said third-grader Anna Oliva, who is partnered with Eleanor O'Neil.
Smith said she and her class benefit from their partners' knowledge and experiences they share. "I have these instant teachers," she said.
She also said it teaches young people about acknowledgement and respect for other people, in this case, from another generation. "This is really a friendship-building activity."
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.
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