America is an aging nation. A recent Education Week article entitled, “In Districts Where Seniors Outnumber Children, Schools Adjust,” points out that “[s]eniors now outnumber students in more than 900 counties across the U.S., and that “seniors outnumber schoolchildren by more than 2-to-1 in 33 counties,” according to recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. This can have a significant effect on education funding, as senior citizens are statistically more likely to favor lower taxes and cuts in education spending. The same article points out, however, that some of these counties have found ways to minimize this effect by involving the local senior population in the school experience. In a book published several years ago entitled, Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform American — And the World, Peter G. Peterson explored not only these implications in the U.S. but also aging trends worldwide.
Today, let’s look at the United States. The Allegheny Valley school district in Pennsylvania fosters “good will” between young students and the aging population by avoiding pushes for tax increases, as well as by hosting a yearly senior brunch and inviting the seniors to academic presentations and Veteran’s Day activities. Sumter County, Florida, which has one of the largest senior-to-student ratios in the country, teaches lifelong learning courses on one of its campuses, which also organized a volunteer corps where participating seniors donate 6,000 to 7,000 hours a year. These programs have been successful in involving seniors in education and encouraging them to take an interest in children’s lives. The direct benefits for students who interact with seniors, however, could be proportionately greater. Most important, these communities value the wisdom seniors can impart to young people providing a role for seniors in their golden years and showing young people how to build valuable relationships with mentors who can help them.
Maurice Elias, writing for Edutopia in a blog entitled “Teaching Students to Honor the Elderly,” emphasizes the importance of teaching children how to understand and interact with the older generation. He points out that recent trends have disconnected many young families from their grandparents. The extended family, which used to be a very close-knit organization, has spread out and become a smaller part of the average child’s early experiences. Without these interactions in a home setting, it can be beneficial to introduce children to the seniors in their community while at school. To accomplish this, he says, “The three essential components are to get students to think about the elderly, create interaction with the elderly, and then foster reflection about the experience.” For each of these he has a few examples:
Thinking About the Elderly
- Show pictures of older adults engaging in different activities (as an example, the blog is headed by a photo of two elderly gentlemen skydiving).
- Introduce the students to vocabulary words like “senior citizen” and “elderly,” then have them create lists of words that they associate with older adults.
- In your discussion of the elderly, challenge stereotypes, but be sure to mention a few positive stereotypes in their proper context.
- Assign books about elderly people.
- Teach about the aging process from a scientific or health perspective.
- Look up biographies about famous people who were active during their later years.
Creating an Interaction
- Ask students to interview senior members of their families.
- Invite seniors to the classroom to talk about their careers or important history that they’ve experienced. Be sure to prepare the class by developing relevant questions with them beforehand.
- Assign a presentation or project, in which the students prepare a video, play, or other presentation about the elderly to show to the community.
- After any encounter, invite the students to reflect on what they have learned.
- Teach vocabulary that will help students describe accurately what they’ve learned and what they’ve experienced.
The program Elias suggests is one of many possible ways to involve seniors in the classroom to their and the students’ mutual benefit. As they share in these experiences, teachers will have a unique opportunity to form bridges across the generation gap that will influence their students (and participating seniors) for the rest of their lives. Students today need experience, wisdom, and positive role models. Every community, regardless of religious, political, or social affiliation, can benefit from this collaboration.