National Writing Project

Moffett Award Winner Unites Third-Graders, Senior Citizens

By: Andy Bradshaw
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 6, No. 5
Date: November-December 2001

Summary: A Seattle-area program developed by Moffett award winner Diane Babcock brought third-graders and senior citizens together to construct a rich narrative of the past.

 

On November 16, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in association with the National Writing Project (NWP), will present the 2001 James Moffett Memorial Award at its annual Conference on English Education luncheon in Baltimore. Grants of up to $1,000 will be given to one or more kindergarten through high school classroom educators to support teacher research projects inspired by the work of Jim Moffett (see "Applications for 2002 James Moffett Memorial Award Due April 1," for more information).

"While I never thought of the NWP as having a theoretician," wrote NWP founder Jim Gray in April 2000 (The Voice, Vol. 5, No. 2), "Jim Moffett's name is the only name that fits."

Although Moffett may be best known for developing a continuum of writing assignments that helps students move from the private and spontaneous to the abstract and theoretical, his interests were wide ranging and constantly evolving. "Those who apply (for the award) will have a range of choices in fashioning a proposal that derives from his ideas," Gray wrote in the same issue.

In our next three issues, The Voice will take a look back at last year's Moffett Award honorees, featuring each of the award-winning project proposals. How did their projects turn out, and what did students learn from them? Can they be replicated elsewhere?

In this issue, we take a look at "Treasures from the Past," a Seattle area program uniting third-graders with senior citizens at a local assisted living community.

 

"Our partner is named June. She was born in Seattle in 1927. She is 73 years old. Her favorite teacher is Mrs. Chalion, who was a very small lady. . . . We learned that people during her childhood didn't have much back then. We have many more toys. It was different when she was a kid. . . .You had to use your hands to wash the clothes and their dryer was a roller the clothes went through. . . . We learned her life was difficult compared to our life."

These are the words of Savannah and Tiffany, students at Olivia Park Elementary School in Everett, Washington, and participants in Diane Babcock's "Treasures from the Past" program last year. The project, one of three funded under the James Moffett Memorial Award program in 2000, brought together Babcock's third-graders and a dozen local senior citizens from Everett's Seabrook Assisted Living Community.

"Seniors are such gems of information," Babcock says. "We as educators are not tapping into the possibilities."

To better do so, Babcock arranged for pairs of her students to make six to seven visits to the assisted living center from last January through June, interviewing senior partners on their memories of the past century. Students brainstormed a variety of questions prior to each visit, and then sat down for 30- to 45-minute interviews with their partners. Interviews touched on a range of topics, from World War II to daily life in 1930s rural America. Most students were apprehensive about visiting the senior center initially, Babcock says. They soon overcame that fear, however, and "learned that the older generation are wonderful, caring people"—one of the most important lessons of the program, Babcock says.

The Northwest Council for Computer Education donated "AlphaSmart" computers that students used to write notes and reflect on their interviews. Ultimately, students wrote a final narrative about their senior partners, adding photos and other imagery before putting the stories into digital form and presenting them to the Seabrook community as a whole. Babcock is currently producing a CD-ROM that documents the project, and all student writing, plus photos, can be viewed online at her classroom website (http://169.204.171.5/msd/elempages/op/Staff/babcock/launcher.htm).

The project, which included writing components before, during, and after the interviews, clearly helped improve student writing, Babcock says. "James Moffett had the right idea—if you give students an interesting project and a motivation to read or write, then they will learn," she told The Voice.

Additionally, her students gained a better understanding of history, something Babcock concedes she didn't expect. "I knew we'd meet our writing and communication requirements. I didn't expect the history component to be so strong."

As two of the third grade boys wrote:

We are interviewing with a man named Jud. He was the navigator of a ploane [sic] in World War II . . . One time his airplane was flying on a bombing raid. A missile tried to hit their airplane but it didn't hit the plane, it exploded in front of the plane and a piece of flack (a piece of the missile) almost hit Jud in the chest. . . . He was lucky he wasn't killed.

Katelyn and Michelle wrote:

[We] have been interviewing a lady named Delaine. She is 77 years old and was born in Pocatello [Idaho]. She went to a country school where grades five through eight were taught in one room called the big room. Grades one through four were held in another room called the little room. Shoes were $3.00 and dresses were $3.98. Her teacher lived with her family.

Given the above, some would argue that history may sink into the young mind more deeply when learned firsthand, via stories told by those who lived through it, rather than secondhand, via textbooks and other materials. Babcock agrees.

She feels strongly that projects such as these need to be curriculum-driven and must correlate with what one is already doing in the classroom. "Treasures from the Past" meets all four Washington state benchmarks for writing and three of four benchmarks for communications, she says. As well, Babcock says, it's important for teachers to ask students probing questions after each interview to enhance their writing, and she recommends allowing plenty of time for the student/senior bond to develop.

With many of the same Seabrook residents eager to participate again, Babcock says she plans to implement the program this year with her fifth-graders. She may ask students to focus their interviews on memories of Pearl Harbor, so they can do a comparison of that attack with September's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Babcock will conduct a workshop on "Treasures from the Past" at this year's NWP Annual Meeting in Baltimore. She also plans to post a project lesson plan on her website (http://169.204.171.5/msd/elempages/op/Staff/babcock/launcher.htm) for teachers interested in doing similar activities.

About the Authors Andy Bradshaw is a communications associate with the National Writing Project.

Diane Babcock is a third grade teacher at Olivia Park Elementary School, Everett, Washington, and a TC with the Puget Sound Writing Project.

 

Additional Voice Articles

"Applications for 2002 James Moffett Memorial Award Due April 1," The Voice, November-December 2001.

"Illinois, Washington Teachers Share Moffett Award," by Art Peterson, The Voice, January-February 2001.

"Brief Reviews of Major Works of James Moffett," by John Warnock, The Voice, January-February 2001.

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