Tremont Elementary School, Upper Arlington, Ohio
(with support from Hastings Middle School and Upper Arlington High School)
This is the story of a very successful and profoundly touching first grade service-learning project. The experience became even more magical when middle school and high school students and their teachers joined in.
Though the idea started with the first grade teacher, Pam Bergen, her young students quickly became excited and “owned” the project. They knew they had an important mission—making a difference in the lives of Alzheimer’s patients at Danbury Senior Living in Columbus, Ohio. One of those patients was Pam’s mother, Kathleen.
As an experienced service-learning practitioner, Pam knew it was important for her students to become “experts and changemakers.” They would need to understand more about Alzheimer’s disease, strengthen their communication skills, and identify ways they could have a positive impact on patients and their families.
Pam started the “project journey” with high quality children’s literature connections, both fiction and nonfiction. The students explored the aging process, relationships with grandparents, and specific challenges like Alzheimer’s. Because their books were directly related to their “mission,” academic and emotional engagement were exceptional.
Pam and her class developed ongoing partnerships with staff members at both Danbury and the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. These professionals helped these young students understand how Alzheimer’s affects the brain and causes related losses in memory and motivation. They also pointed Pam toward useful resources and brainstormed with the class about potential projects. Throughout the year, the first graders practiced their evolving English Language Arts skills and wrote to their Danbury partners and helped them celebrate seasons and holidays in a variety of ways that engaged them as “artists” who provided value to others.
“ They found a way to bring joy to these people’s lives and really make a positive change. For anyone who is facing Alzheimer’s or dementia, they know it’s a tough journey. A little bit of joy, a little bit of comfort, and a little bit of calm can go so long, So I’m really happy that they were able to learn a long about this and give back to the community and hopefully make a better future for anyone who is fighting Alzheimer’s. ”
— Jason Abady, Alzheimer’s Association
After doing some relevant research, the students were especially intrigued by the possibility of designing “fidget blankets” for the Danbury residents. These blankets, equipped with several objects for patients to manipulate, would bring comfort and relaxation to the recipients.
The first graders collaborated in designing the blankets, using their creativity and math skills to develop detailed drawings that older students could use in the production process. Then Hastings Middle School Family & Consumer Science classes eagerly adopted the task of crafting the blankets from the first graders’ designs.
The day that everyone went to Danbury to present the blankets was a special day indeed. The first graders sang songs, told holiday jokes, and happily presented their gifts to the residents. During each of these activities, students demonstrated the confidence, empathy, and insight they had developed through the partnership. The Upper Arlington High School Broadcast Journalism students who accompanied them as videographers were amazed by the kindness and commitment they witnessed. Be sure to view the results of their authentic work, “Comfort and Spirit: Making Memories Together.”
When she reflects on the project, Pam focuses on the word “ripple.” She believes that her students’ efforts will inspire other young people to make a difference regarding Alzheimer’s disease and many other important issues and needs.
“I’m so proud of my kiddos,” she says, “and they’re so proud of themselves. They’ve learned so many important academic standards through this experience, while developing relationships that meant a lot to them, as well as to the Danbury residents. This was win-win for everyone!”
“ I loved learning about Alzheimer’s and memory loss because I thought it was helpful to the people at Danbury. I think we should be extra kind to people with memory loss because not remembering is hard and frustrating. I loved making the sun catchers for the residents at Danbury. I think I will remember this for a very long time. ”
— Lee, 1st grader, Tremont Elementary