WMU News

Students find inspiration from experiences of another generation

Nov. 15, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- This fall, a group of Western Michigan University students and Kalamazoo area senior citizens are coming together to establish a learning environment that will allow them to overcome generations of differences, break down negative stereotypes and exchange insights.

Dr. Gabrielle Halko, assistant professor of English at WMU, says the project, a collaboration involving the Fountains at Bronson Place and Friendship Village, is an example of process education, which allows flexibility in education and teaches students through experiences outside the normal classroom setting. This fall, she transformed her children's literature class into one that will not be forgotten by its students.

"There are certain items that must be covered in a children's literature course," Halko explains, "but instead of choosing the material randomly, I decided to develop the course material around a 1930s theme, so we are studying classical literature and picture books from that era."

Halko knew that her students could learn about the lives of young people growing up during the depression and World War II by reading about their experiences through the presented literature, but she wanted to find a way to bring this experience to life for her students and get them more involved in the learning process.

Out of that planning came the 1930s oral history project. Each of the 24 groups from Halko's children's literature class has been matched with one senior citizen volunteer from the Kalamazoo community. A few groups have been paired with husband and wife couples.

Most of the senior volunteers were found through activity coordinators at The Fountains at Bronson Place and Friendship Village, two area senior communities. Others involved are interested family members and friends of the students. They and the student groups are meeting this semester to exchange stories from their young adulthood. While the volunteers paint a picture of what life was like for them as a child or teenager during the 1930s, students will analyze, reflect and compare these experiences with their own.

The interviews are being conducted on a group-by-group basis, and many groups already have met with their volunteers. According to Halko, the project is turning out to be a success. Just as she had hoped, the students are learning invaluable lessons that could never have been learned within the constraints of most classroom settings.

"Students have expressed that in addition to other, more mainstream lessons, they have learned how to deal with people of different ages, how to learn from the experiences of others, and how to appreciate all they have," Halko says.

In a recent class, students sat riveted as one participant spoke of his experiences in Japan following World War II. Now, when the possibility of a war hits so close to home for many of America's young people, some students say the veteran's heartfelt words made an impact that no textbook could have made.

Halko and other university educators say that assignments like this oral history project and others that employ the principles of process education are trickling into university classrooms, as educators discover that students may learn more when they become actively involved in the learning process. Process education shifts the responsibility of learning to the student, thus challenging more traditional, lecture-style teaching methods. Emphasis is taken away from the memorization of facts and is placed on a student's ability to process complex information and apply learned concepts. Many times, it involves projects that grant students the opportunity to become a more integral part of the community.

Halko says she chose this particular project because she had a feeling the students and their volunteers would find they had more in common than they expected. She hopes that despite the generational gap, the participants will find there is not a huge difference between being a young adult then and now.

"Many challenges, aspirations and hardships remain timeless throughout the generations, especially in adolescence and young adulthood," Halko says. "I want our volunteers to be reminded that others are interested in their experiences."

The final outcome of the oral history assignments is left up to the students. Halko hopes that in gathering and presenting this information, the students will do it with creativity and an appreciation for the senior citizen volunteers and their experiences.

"We have some fascinating individuals participating in this project. I would like to somehow incorporate our volunteers into the final presentations. I'm hoping that we will be able to schedule something with Friendship Village and The Fountains, so we can show these individuals what we've done with their shared memories and wisdom," Halko says.

Media contact: Tonya Hernandez, 269 387-8400, tonya.hernandez@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400