Writers Learning with Their Elders

Gaby Bedetti | Eastern Kentucky University

Lindsey Danielle Horn | Eastern Kentucky University

With the support of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, I spent an academic year learning to write poetry with many older adults, aged sixty-five and over, at the Carnegie Center Author Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. Once examined in my poems, my murky and amorphous emotions felt validated and reframed. My poems try to change the conversation about women’s aging. For example, I challenge the stereotype of the accommodating woman who defers to the forces around her. I attempt to channel the fear and isolation many older women feel, myself included, into a purposeful and passionate life. Observing and trying to express older women’s reality are the first steps to changing that reality for the individual and the community. When readers connect with my poems, they validate my experiences, improve my self-image, and inspire me as an artist to bring the joy and playfulness of writing poems to others. 

While I had initially planned for students to assist me in leading group poetry workshops for older adults, pandemic conditions led me to reinvent the project as a Collecting Memories Circle.  During the 2020 pandemic, students at my university collected memories remotely at a senior living community. The intergenerational collaboration gave voice to the elders by eliciting, recording, transcribing, editing, and submitting the stories for publication. After five months of virtual meetings of students and elders, the pairs selected one of the five narratives, and I mentored students through the submission and manuscript preparation process.  

Utilizing oral history among elder populations promoted community literacy and provided benefits to elders and students through intergenerational relationships. From the interviewer/editor’s point of view, what emerged from the pandemic is a technique for developing editing skills. From the interviewee/narrator’s perspective, what emerged is a recognition of the sweetness and joy of sharing memories. Not only did the collaboration help students synthesize and put into practice what they learned about writing, but it also helped validate their elders’ wisdom. The editors had a symbiotic relationship with the narrators that humanized and transformed students and elders alike.

Students are poor at editing their own writing because they read into it what they wanted to mean when they wrote it. In addition to avoiding that pitfall, gathering oral histories benefited the students’ editing skills in other ways. After reviewing best practices and cultivating a relationship with the narrator, the students developed their skills at asking for specific examples and explanations of words that the interviewee used. They learned to find out not only what the person did, but also what she thought and felt about what she did. They became experts at asking follow-up questions. In the later stages, students learned to verify facts and edit for readability while preserving the flavor of the narrator’s speech. They consulted with the narrator throughout the editing process. Finally, they collected photographs relevant for the interpretation of the oral history by future users.

Imagine this veteran teacher’s delight in learning that one of her student’s editing skills was recognized by her classmates. At the 2021 Kentucky Book Fair, the editor of Kentucky Monthly shared with me that the high school of one of my students, Lindsey Danielle Horn, had ordered 500 copies of the issue to distribute at the school’s reunion. Imagine the pride of Danielle’s elder, Diane Sears, as her senior living community celebrated her publication. Finally, imagine Danielle’s pleasure in the validation of her editorial skills and connection she made with an elder. An English teaching major with a creative writing path, Danielle has experience working with students at our university’s Noel Studio for Academic Creativity. Her article “Boo’s Superpower: An Exploration of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Boo Radley on the Autism Spectrum” won a 2020 Library Research Award for Undergraduates. With this project, however, Danielle brought her editorial skills beyond campus in an intergenerational collaboration resulting in Diane’s personal narrative being published in a magazine with a circulation of 35,000. Danielle narrates her experience working with Diane below. I could not have wished for a more willing and able collaborator. Her light and encouraging touch with Diane, her sense of humor, her sensitivity to Diane’s changing needs and circumstances, as well as her editing skills made her the perfect collaborator.

The Teacher’s Goals

My goals as an educator include developing my students’ writing skills, academic socialization, and practices of listening, turn-taking, and respect for difference. With regard to writing skills, English teachers are aware that one of the last skills their students develop is editing, partly because writers are too close to their material to see it from the reader’s perspective. By following oral history interviewing guidelines—for example, listen quietly and carefully and actively, don’t interrupt a good story—as they listened to the senior’s narrative, the student collectors cultivated an objectivity they would not otherwise have had writing their own narrative. Furthermore, while they cultivated empathy through intergenerational relationships and developed writing and leadership skills, their elders experienced the pleasure of giving voice to their memories. Sharing my voice as a poet has increased my empathy for adults older than myself and intensified my desire to combat ageism. Like my teaching, I want to create emotional connections, raise awareness, and foster creativity beyond as well as on campus. Toward that end, the Kentucky Foundation for Women supported my artistic enrichment  to complete a poetry collection to develop my voice as a feminist poet, defuse discrimination against women based on age, and empower older women. As well, a research grant from my university funded our collaboration with the seniors. When elders share their deeper memories, they develop a positive self-image and shift the community’s discourse to eliminate discrimination against women based on age and instead value their wisdom and experience.

To begin, I prepared for our activities by contacting Ashland Terrace Senior Living Community—a non-profit that has been providing housing to those in need since 1849, when it was called Home of the Friendless and served those left destitute by cholera outbreaks. A colleague, Neil Kasiak, was kind enough to lend us recorders from the Oral History Center since pandemic conditions did not permit face-to-face encounters. Equally invaluable, his article, “Navigating Uncertainty: Coronavirus 2020 Oral History Project” initiated us into the art of interviewing others

From my perspective as an English teacher, the intergenerational collaboration successfully met the following goals:

  • elicit, record, transcribe, edit, and submit narratives for publication
  • develop the storytelling skills of seniors 
  • combat ageism in culture
  • cultivate intergenerational relationships 
  • serve as ambassadors for English education in Kentucky

Significantly, partnering with an elder and experiencing writing as a social process provided students the motivation to prepare a polished oral history for publication. With weekly check-ins, each senior composed five oral histories over five months. This article follows one student, Danielle, from June to October 2020 through brief excerpts from her weekly reports (Assistants’ Log: Collecting Memories Circle). Because situations related to aging are often difficult, the students had to accommodate for hearing and seeing issues. Hence, the monthly prompts linked below appear in 16-point font. In all, we recorded, transcribed, and edited ten oral histories. 

Danielle’s Experience 

My Goals and Trepidations for the Project

I learned about The Collecting Memories Circle through one of my employers at The Noel Studio for Academic Creativity on Eastern Kentucky University’s campus. As a fellow professor at the university, my employer had worked closely with Dr. Gaby Bedetti and spoke highly of her and her teaching methods. I loved the idea of networking and developing a mentorship with someone in the English department at a university, so I inquired more about The Collecting Memories Circle, and I unexpectedly sent Dr. Bedetti my resume the same day. The project just hooked me. Especially as a future English and creative writing teacher, I couldn’t decline an opportunity to expand my knowledge on the writing process or how to assist different types of learners. More than that though, I also had a personal connection to the project. In 2015, I watched my grandmother publish her first book. She was 64 at the time, and I saw how much joy she got from accomplishing one of her lifelong dreams. She knew that her story would remain a part of history and continue to impact people, even after she was gone. I imagined how the project could accomplish that for someone else, and I knew that I would not forgive myself if I didn’t participate.

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Fig. 1. Danielle Horn, recorder and editor
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Fig. 2. Diane Sears, oral historian and storyteller

June 1, 2020: Meet, Greet, and Brainstorm First Prompt, Character Sketch 

I (see fig. 1) was nervous, but she (see fig. 2) was talkative and made me feel welcome. She decided that she wanted to write about Mr. and Mrs. Wallace. They were like parents to her and she wanted to honor their memories. I assured her that I loved that idea. I’m not sure that we will ever use Zoom, because she uses captions on her phone to understand what I’m saying. 

June 8, 2020: Develop Character Sketch

She is proud of what she’s written so far. I don’t think she realizes how funny she is. We ended the phone call after she gave me some good advice about sharing my feelings with people. She said that when she was growing up, her family didn’t talk about things. She is glad that she can be open with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even strangers like me now. She likes the world better that way, and I think I do, too.

June 15, 2020: Edit Character Sketch

This was was the first phone call where we really connected. She also impressed me, because as she read the papers aloud, she caught the exact mistakes I planned to talk to her about. Since she has a caption phone, we agreed that it would be easiest to discuss our main concerns over the call, then I could send her small corrections with the transcript. She begged me to organize it better, even though I assured her it was a good start and even better than some of the first drafts I have seen from students.

June 22, 2020: Proofread Character Sketch

She agreed that I could make the revisions on my own, which I didn’t want to do because I wanted the story to stay in her voice, but I suppose it’s the best option. Maybe she was having an off day. We all have those sometimes. Here is a recording of Diane reading the first paragraph of her personal narrative, “My “Mama” and “Daddy,” Mr. and “Mrs. Ira and Mary Wallace.”

June 29, 2020: Rehearse for Videotaping
The conversation led to us adding each other on Facebook, and her excitement about that made me happy. She wanted to show off pictures of her cat, Prissy, and she said she considers us friends now. 

July 6, 2020: Brainstorm Second Prompt, a Significant Place

She already started her story about Germany. I asked her questions so she would elaborate on certain details that needed to be clearer, and she was eager to tell me more. 

July 20, 2020: Editing a Significant Place

When we first got on the phone, she expressed how much she loved the story and how few changes she wanted to make. I encouraged her to read the story aloud, though, to catch anything either of us missed. I let her know I would fix the errors and send her another copy as well as do the illustrations this week. 

July 27, 2020: Proofread a Significant Place

She made notes before I called so she could tell me what I needed to revise. She’s getting the hang of our routine, and it makes me so happy. She continued to tell me about how her life changed after the pandemic. One of her biggest disappointments is not being able to go to the YMCA anymore. She told me that one of her friends there told everyone in their group that Diane hadn’t been there because she was in jail. It cracked me up! That’s what they call quarantine, but I can just imagine all the senior women wondering what Diane’s in jail for. I love her sense of humor and the role it plays in her storytelling.

August 3, 2020: Brainstorm Third Prompt, the Pandemic

Each time I talk to her, I feel like I learn a little bit more about her heart. For example, even though they can’t celebrate residents’ birthdays with big parties right now, she colors pictures for the other residents and slips them under their doors during birthday week. 

August 10, 2020: Develop the Pandemic Story

Diane was a little tired this morning. She was up late, messaging me about the story, and she didn’t sleep that well. She read her answers to my questions about the story, which helped me elaborate on a lot of the paragraphs we already had.

August 17, 2020: Edit the Pandemic Story

She was very chipper. She let me know she got her birthday presents and was very thankful. We read through the story in its entirety (I think) for the first time. 

August 26, 2020: Proofread the Pandemic Story

We discussed the letter that she needs to start for next week. She plans to write to her daughter, Jean, who lives in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. She said that Jean was her wild child, so she will be easy to write about.

September 2, 2020: Brainstorm Fourth Prompt, Letter to a Young Person 

I let her know that there was a lot she could elaborate on and she encouraged me to text her questions to get her thinking about what else to write before next time. 

September 7, 2020: Develop Letter to a Young Person

Diane plans to write about her granddaughter, Brittney. I know a little about Brittney since she’s in Diane’s story about Germany, but I’m still excited to learn more. Diane admitted that she worked on the letter last-minute, but I told her that was okay. We all get busy sometimes, She shared her start with me. It was good. I let her know there was a lot she could elaborate on and she encouraged me to text her questions to get her thinking about what else to write before next time. It was a good call.

The call made me realize that we have become really comfortable with each other. Knowing that the collaboration is going to end makes me feel sad! So Diane and I made plans to see each other after the pandemic. She wants me to meet her cat, Prissy, and some of the other residents that she’s close to. What sparked our personal conversation today was when she got a notification about the U.S. sending troops to Iran. She wants to learn as much as she can about other cultures. She told me about her brothers and sisters of color at church and a mother and son who graduated from college with theology degrees and wanted to lead a Hispanic group for the ESL congregation members. I was thrilled! My uncle is from Mexico, and he’d love to hear about the things she told me. She taught me a few Spanish words and German ones when we wrote her story about Germany. I’m learning from her!

September 14, 2020: Edit Letter to a Young Person

Today, Diane read the entire letter aloud. She had two or three revisions. We then went through pictures she sent me, and she explained who everyone was and where they had taken the photos. Other than that, we talked about the pandemic. I was glad to hear that Ashland Terrace held Bingo the other night. They also allowed residents time for visitors to see them outside, as long as they social-distanced and wore masks. 

September 23, 2020: Proofread Letter to a Young Person

I texted her after the phone call and prompted her with questions so she would be prepared when we discussed the new story.

October 5, 2020: Brainstorm Prompt, Aging

She added to the story and gave me a lot to encourage her to expand on. For example, she talked about how all the ladies at Ashland Terrace were sisters, so I prompted her to tell me about some of her favorite residents. I was excited to meet them on my next visit.

October 12, 2020: Develop Piece on Aging

Diane added a final paragraph and encouraged me to add a paragraph in the middle about different residents at Ashland and how many of her “sisters” in the community lift people’s spirits by staying positive. Diane “refuses to be a crabby old person”; she is like lots of the ladies at Ashland who “have glad hearts.”

October 19, 2020: Revise Piece on Aging

She had a fall this morning, so we chose to take the day off and take it easy.

October 26, 2020: Proofread Piece on Aging

My final phone call with Diane was bittersweet. She read the story aloud one last time and made one or two revisions. She also told me how she read it to her friend, Vena, who she mentioned in the story. Of course, Vena loved it. Brittany also received her letter and was in awe. Diane complimented me as an editor and told me that Brittany liked how we wrote and polished the works together. We talked about how happy we both were that we did the project and decided on her story about Mr. and Mrs. Wallace for the submission to the Kentucky journal. It seemed like Diane finally realized that she would have something to show for her hard work because she was so excited about the future publications. 

February 14, 2020: Submit an Oral History for Publication

Over the last several weeks, I studied Kentucky Monthly in preparation to submit Diane’s personal narrative, “My ‘Mama’ and ‘Daddy,’ Mr. and Mrs. Ira and Mary Wallace.” 

What I Learned and How the Project Impacted Me

I had big ambitions going into The Collecting Memories Circle, and the reality of the project still managed to surpass them. While I learned skills that benefited me educationally (such as how to accommodate learners with hearing difficulties), the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic changed what I intended to accomplish during the project. In a way, the project became less about cycling through the stages of writing and more about giving the other person a connection to the outside world. Almost every phone call, Diane and I took minutes away from our work time to make small talk. I made a goal to ease the isolation that she felt in quarantine, and while I never asked if it worked, our conversations helped loneliness of my own that I didn’t even realize I had. I listened to Diane talk about her family until I knew all their names, and I heard the excitement in her voice when she saw them on FaceTime or they sent her gifts in the mail. Eventually, I sent her some gifts as well. Working so closely with a stranger was definitely the most intimidating part of the project, but Diane made it easy. She taught me about the importance of building relationships with collaborators, going at my own pace, and having a sense of humor. At the end of our last phone call, she even invited me to visit. After the COVID-19 mandates are gone, she wants to get me a pass for the dining hall to introduce me to everyone she has been telling me about over the last few months. I am thankful the project has left a lasting impact on me in the form of a new friend.

The Publishing Learning Outcomes

The log of weekly exchanges between the writer and editor document not only the growing friendship but also Danielle’s internship as an editor who continued to experience writing as a social process from the article’s submission in June 2021 to its publication in October 2021. As part of that process, Danielle:

On publication, Danielle, Diane, and I celebrated the article’s publication (see fig. 3). The success was also celebrated on several Facebook pages. The author received more than thirty likes, comments, and shares on the small retirement community’s Facebook, as did Danielle, who shared her elation on her own as well as the English Department’s Facebook page. The intergenerational collaboration not only allowed for development of writing skills but also served to challenge pervasive ageism in a country where in a couple of decades, the elderly will outnumber children.

A page of a newspaper

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Fig 3. Screenshot of the published article in Kentucky Monthly, Oct. 2021, pp. 70 – 71

Authentic learning opportunities motivate students. My students have replied to minor league baseball player blogs, written essays in response to 9/11, composed letters to their next English instructor, anthologized essays concerning their career choices (What Do You Want to Be), published a literary and arts journal, and wrote and performed comedy sketches (EKU Shiloh). To cultivate empathy in our divisive times, one prompt asks students to choose someone they know well who holds an opinion with which they differ and explain how the person’s experiences, circumstances, and future hopes and fears helped shape that opinion. Emerging from the pandemic, people are hungry to connect again. Partnering with seniors gives students an opportunity to empathize with their elders and share the elders’ stories—all while they develop their own writing skills.

More importantly, by taking students outside the classroom and discipline, they will have learned that learning is a collaborative, inquiry-based practice. All educators can embed course skills and content in real world experiences, thereby inviting students to become creative problem-solvers. Granted, designing learning experiences in real world contexts requires greater preparation and involves additional participants. However, the field of immediate experience will deepen and widen the learning by connecting the instructor’s SLOs with students’ lived observations. Increasingly I enjoy designing learning experiences that engage the whole student in a classroom without walls. College teachers are not simply preparing tomorrow’s workforce, they are educating tomorrow’s decision makers and problem solvers. The significance of the collaborative experience of collecting oral histories and editing them to share is based, after all, on concern for college students’ moral development—not on developing editing skills alone. Whether the class invites the public to a culminating end-of-semester performance or works with the community throughout the semester, I trust—and my co-author’s account confirms—that students will internalize not only the lessons learned but also the pleasure of learning.                                                                        

Note

This work was supported by a Kentucky Foundation for Women 2018 Artist Enrichment grant and an Eastern Kentucky University University-Funded 2019-2020 Scholarship grant 20-103. The subjects followed all protocols and granted the copyright permissions required on the William  H. Berge Oral History Center’s Release Agreement. 

An earlier version of this essay appears in Community Works Journal, 13 Jan 2022. magazine.communityworksinstitute.org/student-writers-learning-with-their-elders/.

Works Cited

Assistants’ Log: Collecting Memories Circle. Google Drive. docs.google.com/document/d/1CI4s_jiVTprNBu6n9dAXYCLyeEhdN4h7VWmXMWL6aY8/edit?usp=sharing.

Sears, Diane and Danielle Horn, “Lockport Humanitarians Ira and Mary Wallace,” Kentucky Monthly, Oct. 2021, pp. 70-71. issuu.com/kentuckymonthlymagazine/docs/october2021_?fbclid=IwAR2pcZjDdgv4-mkcK89BQmNmuZuuP6FU9JX-Izj1VEXk0Iz_wLLqPe30lOQ.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? Career Dreams. Google Drive. drive.google.com/file/d/1RLc3Z_NorHdjgQ85dKXo2bETO8wSY-XT/view.

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