Anchorage third graders share letters with elders
January 1, 2021
"What is serendipity?" my 8-year old third grader asked me recently. I was so pleased to have just the story to offer him to illustrate sudden, unexpected good fortune, thanks to a phone call from Ms. Angie Jensen, a counselor at Lake Hood Elementary School in Anchorage. Ms. Jensen contacted Anchorage Senior Activity center to inquire about the possibility of connecting a third grade class with elders so that the students could read letters they would write, reaching out to older Alaskans.
I informed Ms. Jensen I was setting up the virtual event as we spoke and 'would 10 a.m. on Friday, December 11 work?' We laughed at how easily we were able to coordinate what promised to be a warm and special connection.
The idea for this lesson, Ms Jensen explained, originated with the students' teacher, Ivory Hudon, who felt a connection in the community would help the students with learning new communication tools. Prior to the event, Ms. Hudon described her thoughts on the project: "I am a first-year teacher and I could honestly say that I would have never guessed in a million years that I would be teaching during a pandemic online. I have watched my students struggle with trying to make our new normal work. This is a chance for the students to share and feel heard by someone other than a parent or teacher, build confidence and develop new social skills."
The virtual meeting began with a welcome from Anchorage Senior Activity Center to the attending elders that included a group from Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska, along with senior center members and other friends. As the students joined the Zoom meeting one by one, they read letters asking the elders many engaging questions that fueled conversations. The students asked what elders liked to do for hobbies, what their favorite colors are, whether they have pets or if they like to play outside.
As the elders responded, asking the students questions in return, it was quickly evident that many of the students and elders had shared interests and in some cases identical hobbies. The smiles were bright on both sides of the cameras throughout the session.
"It was truly heartwarming and delightful to hear the young students read their letters," commented Anchorage senior Macon Robert. "What a wonderful idea to have some of us elders respond."
"I was actually teary-eyed, as it was just so adorable," said Susan Guillory, a senior social worker with the Alaska VA Healthcare System.
Following the event, Ms. Hudon shared that her students "had a great time and had so many wonderful things to say after our visit. They were a mix of scared, nervous, excited, shy, and happy when they read their letters. When I asked them their favorite part, they all said, in their own way, that they loved being able to relate with the elders so easily. One student was so excited and wished they could share their favorite chess set on camera if they could do it again. Another said they 'loved that the elders talked about baking. Especially the one lady who talked about baking apple pies at the fair.'"
Writing the letters in class helped the students push through some of their end of quarter struggles and fatigue, Hudon said, adding that there are plans for more events like this in the future.
Patrick Curtis is the Anchorage Senior Activity Center Wellness and Programs director.