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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 6

Partners in Reading, Partners in Life

A reading program enhances the lives of senior citizens and students.

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In Another Country, best-selling author Mary Pipher (1999) writes of the “social sickness” of age segregation, of the sometimes noxious cultures of schools and senior citizens' homes alike, and of the need to bring young and old into vital connection. She writes,If ten 14-year-olds are grouped together, they will fight with one another. They will form a “Lord of the Flies” culture with its competitiveness, social anxiety, and meanness. But if 10 people ages 2 to 80 are grouped together, they will fall into a natural age hierarchy that nurtures and teaches all of them. Because each person has a niche, competition will subside. Each person will have something unique to contribute. Values will deepen, and experience will grow richer. (p. 18)
Pat Schnack has regularly witnessed such benefits since creating a program eight years ago called Partners in Reading, which provides an opportunity for her 8th grade language arts students to read books with senior-citizen volunteers (Schnack, 2001). Initially, Pat simply wanted to see her students engage in conversations about books that went beyond the usual school script of finding “right” answers and completing assignments. Before founding the program, she had struggled to make her students' classroom discussions of literature as searching, impassioned, and personal as the conversations in her own local book club. Such strategies as organizing her students into small groups had done little to alleviate the problem.
When partnered with caring and inquisitive seniors, however, many of her students opened up, pondering at unprecedented length the emotional and ethical import of characters and their stories. Over the years, she has found that the program also helps participants overcome ageist stereotypes and taps into the rich potential of literary study to foster empathy, compassion, and commitment to just action.

How the Program Works

A local chapter of the Retired and Seniors Volunteer Program recruits senior citizens who are avid lifelong readers, love to talk about books, and wish to be of service, particularly to young people. The program pairs senior citizens with Pat's students to read books over two five-week cycles. The partners correspond through weekly response journals and meet face-to-face at the end of each cycle—over cookies and lemonade at the senior center in the fall, and over lunch at a local pizza parlor in the spring. Students individually select the books in the fall. In the spring, they choose from a themed collection about the Holocaust, including such books as Anne Frank Remembered (Gies, 1987), Night (Wiesel, 1982), and Parallel Journeys (Ayer, 1995).
Senior partners meet with Pat for an orientation to hear about the books the students have chosen and volunteer to partner on particular books. Each senior then receives a student's initial journal entry, to which he or she responds; parent volunteers shuttle the journals between the senior center and the school. Pat regularly tucks notes into the journals expressing appreciation, giving updates on class activities, and providing suggestions for drafting entries. Both Pat and the local Retired and Seniors Volunteer Program director answer seniors' questions. Seniors will often get in touch if they are worried about a student's well-being, have concerns about the appropriateness of a chosen text, or simply wish to share insights into a student's interests and strengths.
Because the purpose of the exchange is to promote conversation, Pat encourages seniors to ask generative questions and to refrain from correcting students' grammar. Pat's larger curriculum provides many opportunities to assess and document students' textual understanding, so she does not formally assess the collaborative journals. The program takes reading out of the context of grades and other extrinsic rewards and places it in the context of caring, engaged relationships.

Overcoming Stereotypes

When we asked senior citizens participating in the program about their perceptions of today's adolescents, many thought that young people get “a bad rap” in the media. They saw the students' generation as blessed with opportunities but cursed with significant challenges and dangers. They thought that the age group has too little adult guidance and too little time to unwind and reflect.
At the beginning of the year, we asked the students, “What images or words pop into your mind when you think of ‘senior citizens’?” They answered, “Kind of mean.” “Grouchy.” “Nursing homes and walkers.” “Quiet, restful, and calm.” “Just old people—you know, like on the Simpsons or something.”
How different they felt at year's end! Students' relationships with “some cool old people” had transformed their perceptions of a whole generation. “I learned that senior citizens are just normal people,” several told us. “My attitude about seniors has changed,” one student explained. “Now I think they're a lot like us, only older.”
Many students remarked on their partners' surprising levels of activity and hunger for new experiences; others moved beyond their initial fears of a partner's chronic illness or disability. As one pair read Tuesdays with Morrie (Albom, 1997) in the fall, a senior partner confessed that she was troubled by the narrator's distress when Morrie needed supplemental oxygen. “I guess I hadn't mentioned it before,” she wrote, “but I have to have oxygen to get along.” The woman spoke of an earlier partner who once confessed that if they had first met in person, she would have been afraid of the apparatus:But she'd written to me, we were friends from that, you know—and then she was anxious to meet me and able to just forget the oxygen.
As one student told us at year's end, these partnerships afforded opportunities “to get to know the other person without making visual judgments about them.”
Over the weeks and months, students came to understand that their partners were interested in them as whole people with lives both in and out of school. A boy whose name was consistently mispronounced exclaimed in delight when his partner wanted to know if he had been named after a little-known star in the constellation Orion (he had). After one woman noted that she often wondered what her partner was up to as she passed the junior high school on the way to her daily swim, her student partner enclosed her class schedule, complete with a map of the school and plans to wave from a certain window.
Queries drew stories about friends, families, pets, and assorted adventures—and, as the relationships deepened over time, occasional confessions of stress, loss, or grief. One girl who had been the target of bullying over much of the year spoke of the partnership as a kind of life buoy:[My partner] was awesome. It feels like there's some kind of unconditional love there, and you don't have to be blood and family, there's still this closeness. I think every kid out there should be able to experience it—seniors are just, like, more open.

Making History Come Alive

By the spring, as the partners turned to somber books about World War II, most had laid a solid foundation of trust and rapport that made difficult conversations possible. As young people struggled to fathom the horrors of the Holocaust, the seniors recalled their own memories of that time. One man had been stationed near the Buchenwald concentration camp, several others had served in the Pacific theater, and one woman vividly remembered seeing photos of starving survivors in Life magazine. Others described visiting concentration camps or meeting Holocaust survivors at Elderhostel lectures. “Those of us who are still living must attest to the fact that this is not propaganda,” one woman wrote. “It actually happened.”
As the class began a unit on discrimination, watching the film Ruby Bridges (Palcy, 1998) and learning about the struggle for racial equity in the United States, several seniors wrote of their sense of shock and shame in witnessing instances of racism in the 1940s and 1950s. A man who had played Big Ten football remembered protesting when his African American teammates were told to room in inferior lodgings at away games. He remembered white acquaintances who later shunned him for staying in touch with these old friends. A woman recalled the angry taunts of fellow whites when she and her children drank from a “colored” water fountain on a hot summer day. Another wrote,I can remember my father being upset as a northerner when a black man stepped off the sidewalk in the south to let him pass. That must have been in the 1930s. And today I caught a panel on CSPAN II on racial profiling. What little progress!
Often the seniors and students wrote of their empathy for characters on the page. Sometimes the students and their partners would simply mention passages that made them particularly sad or moved them to tears; but often, with the seniors' gentle encouragement, the partners would both try to imagine themselves in similar situations. Many of these conversations encompassed what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “education for compassion,” the too-often untapped capacity of literature to “cultivate the ability to imagine the experiences of others and to participate in their sufferings.” By fostering care and compassion, argues Nussbaum, literary experiences can “make a vital and irreplaceable contribution to citizenship” (2001, p. 426).

Sharing Wisdom

Even though many interested adults can engage young people in satisfying conversations about books, senior citizens are particularly compelling candidates for partnership programs. Those who have studied successful aging argue that psychologically robust seniors need avenues for altruistic participation, especially in the service of a new generation (Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986); and seniors participating in such programs as Partners in Reading will likely vote with greater care on school-related issues and serve as informed education advocates.
The strengths that seniors bring to such partnerships outweigh the benefits they receive. Researchers have noted that mature minds tend to move beyond the either/or thinking of youth—right versus wrong, thinking versus feeling, and so on (Labouvie-Vief, Chiodo, Goguen, Diehl, & Orwoll, 1995). As seniors in the program discussed with young people some of the weightier issues of life—the persistence of racial separatism, our human proclivity for good as well as ill, the mysteries of the human spirit—they revealed their capacity for raising complicated questions to which neither they nor their young partners held ready answers.
Schools tend to privilege right-answer, get-it-done thinking, but when it comes to reflecting on the momentous problems of human existence and the challenge of building a more compassionate society, elders' voices can enrich classroom conversation in powerful ways. “I love this experience that we've had,” one student told us.
I know some day, if my children don't get to do this in school, I'll definitely offer it to them at home.
“My only comment,” another student wrote on an end-of-year evaluation, “is to keep the program going—and get every school in the United States to do this!”

Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with Morrie. New York: Doubleday.

Ayer, E., with Waterford, H., & Heck, A. (1995). Parallel journeys. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Erikson, E., Erikson, J., & Kivnick, H. (1986). Vital involvement in old age. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gies, M. (1987). Anne Frank remembered. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Labouvie-Vief, G., Chiodo, L., Goguen, L., Diehl, M., & Orwoll, L. (1995). Representations of self across the life span. Psychology and Aging, 10(3), 404–415.

Nussbaum, M. (2001). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Palcy, E. (Director). (1998). Ruby Bridges [Film]. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Video.

Pipher, M. (1999). Another country: Navigating the emotional terrain of our elders. New York: Riverhead.

Schnack, P. (2001). Partners in reading: A community reading/writing project. English Journal, 90(5), 95–101.

Wiesel, E. (1982). Night. New York: Bantam. (Original work published 1960)

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