A Collaborative Intergenerational Project

USN Middle School Trades Spaces in Collaborative Project with McKendree Village

"I didn't know technology was a team sport," quipped one of my colleagues in the halls of University School of Nashville yesterday. He was commenting on my elated "We WON!" declaration.

This year's Dell Student Technology Leadership Teams' competition had just drawn to a conclusion with the announcement of the winning teams. We had three winners!

  • The High School team award went to East Literature Magnet High School with its entry project, "Teenville," a Web-based guide to Nashville specifically for teens. East Literature received a trophy and an 18-unit mobile laptop cart for their good work.
  • The Middle School award went to University School of Nashville for our "Trading Spaces" project. Winning brings our school a trophy and six new Dell PCs.
  • We also won for "Best Videoconferencing Project" tying for first place with Father Ryan High School. This was a "bonus" award for submission of a project I created on CD-Rom, entitled "A Classroom Teacher's Introduction to Videoconferencing." That award garnered our videoconferencing program $500 in CompUSA merchandise, specifically toward development of future videoconferencing.

In short, a good day. Here's a revised version of the journal I kept during the project:

USN students in the MS Service Club spent the after-school hours on several recent Tuesdays tutoring elderly residents of McKendree Village in Hermitage in the fine and not-so-fine points of computer usage. The project, which continues through the remainder of the school year, is part of the Middle School Dell Student Technology Leadership Teams competition for the school year 2002-2003. The first team consisted of eight students and two faculty advisors. Li-Lin English (Middle School Technology Coordinator and Teacher) and Scott Merrick (Lower School Technology Coordinator and Teacher) served as faculty mentors. 4th Grade Teacher Betsy Lamitina advised the Oral History group writers as the project took shape and their edited documents transitioned into Web pages.

On the first bus ride out, the eighth-grade team discussed what to expect but agreed that the goal of the day's excursion was to begin to establish relationships with their elder partners. That goal was immediately revised when the McKendree facilitator informed the team that the 10 residents signed up for the following month's session would be different individuals not the ones the students would meet today. It seemed that more residents wanted to take advantage of the computer help than could be accommodated in an ongoing, repeating basis. Still, we all expected that considerable time would be taken up this first session for introductions and "getting to know you" work.

What really transpired pleasantly surprised us all. Walking into the small but comfortable ten-computer Dell lab we found eager participants. Each team member was told to "go to your nearest partner and get to work!" And so it went. In a matter of moments one elder-youngster pair was involved in setting up a new Hotmail account, one was working in Solitaire strategies, one was thoroughly immersed in genealogy research techniques, one worked on search strategies with Google and AskJeeves, one elder partner worked to master the procedure for ordering movie tickets on "Fandango!"

An elder "student" receives tutoring from a USN 8th grader

The hour went quickly. When it came time to leave, smiles and handshakes accompanied compliments and "thank-you's" from both sets of participants. Back on the bus, it was agreed that the only thing that didn't go spectacularly well was that our students were starving! They were used to snacking as soon as they got out of school: Next time, we mentors told ourselves, we would bring snacks more substantial than Dumdums!!!

The second visit saw 22 children riding out to Hermitage (the mentors were clever enough to arm themselves with cookies and soda pop this time). On this trip, there were fifth-graders as well as eighth-graders. The developing plan called for the younger students, outfitted with clipboards and pencils, to retire to a separate conference room with a small group of nonagenarians and to spend the better part of an hour interviewing them about their lives. The Oral History component was underway.

An elder interviewee answers questions for two USN 5th graders

Older students, ten of them again (some returning and some new faces) would partner with new elders. I would spend my time in the computer lab installing and configuring an "eyeball" type digital camera, a USB connected cam designed primarily for desktop videoconferencing and E-mail snapshots. It was hoped that we would be able to conduct some editing and interviewing sessions using videoconferencing technology, but alas, that was not to be. Network/firewall issues at McKendree precluded clean configuration of the necessary software and hardware, despite my own best efforts and those of the helpful network administrator.

The second tutoring session went every bit as well as the first, perhaps even better. There was some frustration over access to E-mail accounts, which McKendree, via established policy, sets up on MSN Hotmail for residents who want email. One tutor later noted that one of the main lessons she learned from the ongoing teaching project was that when it comes to teaching, "patience is key." With patience, every resident who expressed an interest in learning about his or her E-mail was thus enabled. One resident sent her first E-mail in reply to a long-unanswered E-mail from a long-distant friend: "Learning computer. It is hard, right, but exciting!"

The interview sessions produced copious notes and an unanticipated bonus: Several residents/interviewees expressed the wish that they could show their young interviewers items of interest in their rooms. Because there was only one USN adult with the interviewing team, only three of the rooms were visited, but they all yielded fabulous pictures to augment the interviews. There was a thimble collection and one of carved elephants. One resident shared a long-treasured set of his childhood schoolbooks. There were numerous photographs and memorabilia, like the cherished needlepoint from one resident's late wife. These "home visits" enhanced relationships substantially, deepening the bond of understanding between the two generations so far removed from one another by time. One of the fifth-grade interviewers noted later, "I thought it was cool that everybody, no matter how old they are, collects something, whether it's carved elephants (wow!) or Yu-Gi-Oh cards."

The third visit provided an important opportunity for the previously interviewed residents to "proof" their interviews. Errors in memory (surprisingly, mostly attributed to our youngsters!) were corrected and more information was added to the narratives of childhoods lived in times long past. In the computer lab, tutors and their students got along famously once again, and another resident was able to send her very first E-mail! Search engine strategies seem to be very high on the learning agenda for elders, almost as important to them as E-mail. As in the other two sessions, more than one resident had slid off into the Solitaire realm by the end of the session. How alike are the generations! Everyone likes a little "free time" at the end of a learning session.

We plan to revisit one more time this school year in May. This time we'll take McKendree Village a new Dell Desktop PC, one of our "prizes," so that they will have not 10 but 11 computers in their cozy little lab, one of them new and powerful enough to run desktop videoconferencing hardware and software. With luck, by next year we'll be "seeing" our friends in Hermitage more frequently. And on future trips, we can take one more tutor and make one more new friend.

As a mentor for this project, I have over and over again been struck by the intelligence, patience and compassion our Middle Schoolers have shared with their elder partners. These are qualities not always associated with teenagers, but I'll guarantee you that if you ride out on the yellow school bus with us some late afternoon, you will ride back a believer.

Thanks to Jan Zanetis, Director of the Vanderbilt University Virtual School, Dell Corporation, and all the other participants in the competition, from whom we learned so much. This year we were unable to put together a High School team (for a number of reasons), but we all can be greatly encouraged for our prospects in the 2004 Dell Student Technology Leadership Teams competition: Our winning eighth-graders will be in High School next year!

Whatever next year's competition brings, we can certainly say one thing about our experiences this year, both about our very personal experiences and about the competition's results: We WON.

Some very important links:

USN at McKendree Village
"Trading Spaces"

Students, Faculty Win Technology Awards
USN's announcement of the project team's awards

University School of Nashville
USN's home page

McKendree Village
McKendree Village's home page

Virtual School @ Vanderbilt University

East Literature Magnet High School's winning web site about opportunities for teenagers in Nashville

"Area Students to Benefit from High-Tech Partnership"
Newspaper story from the Vanderbilt Register

Dell Computer Corporation

Email: Scott Merrick