After lots of letters, kids and island elders meet at last

Third-graders have been exploring what life is like for elders, and how to connect with and help island seniors.

Last week, third-grade students at Chautauqua Elementary School (CES) were treated to a long-anticipated day: meeting in person with island elders who have been their pen pals in a special project.

All year, the third-graders have been exploring what life is like for elders — and how to connect with and help seniors on Vashon.

The project, chosen by the 72 third graders themselves, also included a three-week speakers’ series in January.

The speakers included both islanders and experts who shared some of the joys of aging but also discussed the issues of ageism, caregiving needs, isolation and other difficulties experienced by seniors.

But the heart of the project has been a direct cross-generational connection through pen pal relationships, between the students and local seniors.

This connection has been especially meaningful, said third-grade teacher Margie Butcher, because the majority of third-grade students at CES do not have grandparents who live on the island.

The gathering between the pen pals and the students last week had a special purpose: for each group to learn something from the other.

Activities chosen by the students and their pen pals included many different crafts and games. But there were other lessons as well. One or two elders, upon request, got tips from the kids on how to use their computers, while another student, under supervision, taught his elder pen pal the old-timey skill of whittling a stick.

The project was originally conceived as a one-off installment of Butcher’s longstanding social activism and citizenship curriculum, Action Network, which was created by the teacher 23 years ago.

Throughout her teaching career, Butcher said, her students in first through ninth grades have responded enthusiastically to the curriculum.

“Doing something real, that you care about, is meaningful for all of us, young and old,” she said.

At CES, Butcher’s colleagues Erin Calhoun and Layla Tanner have joined Butcher in incorporating Action Network into their social studies curriculum, connecting all the school’s third-grade students with a common purpose.

But after the success of this year’s project, Butcher said the focus on connecting island kids and elders will become an annual part of the third-grade curriculum at CES.

The final part of the project, a portrait photography class led by professional photographer Dawn Stief and funded by Vashon Artists in Schools, will result in 72 portraits of the pen pals, to be displayed at Pop Pop Bottle Shop in July.

The photographs will also be part of a slide show this summer, prior to movie screenings at Vashon Theatre.