Listening to Senior Citizens at South Carleton High School

I’ve been thinking about the Oral Communication strand of the English curriculum and the challenges of evaluating listening skills and speaking skills. We’ve had many discussions in the department about the role of oral presentations and those who know me, know that I’m not a fan of the whole class presentation for all students. I’ve used podcasts in the past and this tool requires that they listen to their own voice in ways that oral presentations to their peers cannot accomplish.

I’m still working my way through the journey of finding meaningful options for all students and I recently had great success with interviewing Senior citizens.

My grade 9 students brainstormed a list of questions to ask a small group of Seniors who visit the school regularly to participate in some of the social activities.  The students worked in pairs and shared the role of speaking and listening.

I walked around the library and observed them practicing listening to the stories of  a generation without electricity, where attending school was a privilege, and where war became the back drop for their early lives.

When students were stuck and conversation stalled, I stepped in to model expanding questions, and ways to show the in person being interviewed that we were listening carefully.

There was a pervading atmosphere of respect and deep appreciation for the lived lives of these senior citizens.

After the students had interviewed the seniors and made notes about their responses, we walked to the foods room and sampled some of the student chili creations. This was an opportunity to learn about other programs in the school and a nice was to bring closure to our meeting with the Seniors.

Back in the classroom, we talked about what they learned from the exercise and some pointed out that they found it difficult to listen and take notes at the same time. Others found this a useful way to concentrate on what was being said, to think about the meaning of the speaker and to condense what was being said. Despite having no formal evaluation for the task, I ended the day seeing the value in the activity as greater than what information it could generate for assessment purposes.

On Remembrance Day, the Seniors were visiting again, and without much planning, I decided to invite them to share their wartime experiences with my grade 11 students. Mary, who is 92 years old, shared her story of getting engaged by mail, Vera, who grew up in Yorkshire, England, shared her stories of wearing a gas mask in the playground at school, the house exploding next to hers, yet the sense of unity they all felt in the war years which can come from a common struggle. Pat, whose Uncle was born in Germany, was seven years old when his parents sent him away to live on farms rather than be recruited into the Hitler youth movement. With pride, she shared the fact that the Canadian soldiers eventually rescued him as the war was ending and gave him bread and cheese as they brought him back to his family. In a final act of generosity upon his return, he gave the bread and cheese to his sister, who was having a birthday. It was a touching moment and the room was very quiet.

I observed and reflected on the experience; every one of my students listened with respect and admiration. I think the most important lesson that I learned is that students excel when they have opportunities to listen to authentic stories. I’m still not sure about whole class oral presentations, but I know that listening and speaking with the senior citizens was meaningful for everyone involved.