Approximately 95 senior adults ages 60-92 and over 350 sixth grade students.
Tallmadge Middle School teachers, Brian Knepp and John Gergely, estimate that is how many adults and students have been impacted through the Lifebooks Project, a high quality service-learning experience in its 10th year of implementation.
Brian and John both acknowledge that the success and longevity of the project are a result in part to the strong support they have from not only the community, but from Tallmadge district leadership. “Anytime we have a problem or an issue come up, we go to them. And usually before the end of the day, they have an answer for us. The district even ensures the funds for publishing a book for every senior adult.”
When Courtney Davis, Tallmadge Director of Curriculum, was asked about district support and how this project connects to district goals, she stated,
“The Lifebook Project connects to our District goals by further developing communication and interpersonal skills in students. It also supports our community engagement efforts, as it encourages active involvement of students in their community. In addition, the project serves to preserve oral history, because our community members often hold valuable knowledge and experiences that can be lost if not documented. Building intergenerational connections is also extremely valuable. It fosters a sense of connection between generations and helps bridge generation gaps, while students can gain insights and wisdom from the life experiences of older community members.”
Both Courtney and Principal Jeff Manion emphasized that “…through this experience, our students are developing various skills reflected in our Portrait of a Graduate and our District Directional System.”
Brian was introduced to the project when he first started his teaching career after being hired to teach ELA at Tallmadge Middle School. On one of his first days in the building, the principal informed him that the previous ELA teacher had implemented the Lifebooks project with 6th grade students and asked if he would like to continue it. After hearing a brief synopsis of the project, Brian agreed to give it a try. And the rest is history.
Prior to school temporarily shutting down in 2020 due to the pandemic, students were bussed to the local senior care center to interview residents who had been chosen by the care center staff. Once on site, groups of 3-4 students would meet with their partnered resident and interview them about their life. This often presented challenges that students had to adjust to quickly. Residents would be napping or have a hair appointment or be with a physician and just couldn’t meet with the students. Additionally, once the students returned to the classroom to begin the work of organizing the narrative, they learned that they had to probe deeper with their questioning. Questions that required only one or two word answers would never provide what the young authors needed to write a life story. So that meant more trips to the care facility. When Brian (and now John, who joined the ELA staff and project in 2021) resurrected the project following the shutdown, it was decided that students would no longer leave the building to meet with the senior adults. Instead, the students and Tallmadge staff would seek community volunteers of the senior demographic to participate in the project. Currently, 13-15 adults come to the school six times throughout the year so that students can gather information, create narratives and then present the finished published books to them at the end of project celebration hosted by the school.
While the logistics of the project may have changed over the years, the purpose has never wavered. Students learn ELA standards (i.e., developing research questions, conducting interviews, notetaking and organizing notes to create narratives) through producing meaningful, lasting work for an authentic audience.
At the beginning of the year, the teachers organize students into groups of 3-4. It doesn’t take long for students’ strengths to become obvious. One student has strong interview skills, one can organize and structure the notes, one excels at developing and editing the narrative, and one is a master at the technology used (Shutterfly) for publishing the book. Brian and John both have witnessed the value of this teamwork. “Every student learns a narrative, and they pull each other up,” Brian shared.
Throughout the year, Brian and John conduct “mini lessons” covering specific skills students are expected to apply as they complete the project. Additionally, the teachers meet with groups several times to assess students’ learning as the book progresses. These meetings may result in reteaching or in additional whole class instruction as needs become apparent. Both John and Brian teach the same content in other classes not involved in the Lifebook project. They agree that students come to the content much more seriously and focused knowing that they will be publishing a book for an authentic audience. Brian reflected that when he sees previous students, they speak about the project and how they will always remember it. In fact, he went on to share how one of his previous sixth grade students continued to visit her senior partner in the nursing facility for several years.
It is easy to see how students and the senior adults involved each year would be impacted by this experience. But Mr. Knepp and Mr. Gergely have been privileged to see the project impact family members as well. The teachers recounted one such instance where the original senior participant, 91 years of age, passed away during the project. The grieving students thought they would not be able to finish the book, that is until the daughter of the senior reached out and asked if she could stand in for her parent. At that point, the book became much more than an assignment to both parties. John also shared of the time one of the adult’s health was failing, causing him to go into depression. After students completed and presented the book, the son reached out to let them know how their book had picked up his dad’s spirits, how he would smile and his eyes would light up each time he flipped through the pages.
Jeff Manion, principal of Tallmadge Middle School, was recently afforded a unique view to the result of students’ giving of their time, knowledge and abilities to their community members.
“My father was involved in the (Lifebooks) project in 2022 and I was able to see the impact of this project from several perspectives. I got to sit and read through the final product with my son, who can now call himself an official published author. I witnessed my father enjoy the connection he made with his grandson and tear up as he turned the pages of the finished book for the first time. Finally, I also got to share this experience with my family members and purchase books for all to cherish for years to come.”
To the many that have given so much to this great example of “beautiful work”, we say thank you.