Poetry brings senior citizens and CCHS students together

by Tim Hult

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Partners in Rhyme: seated, left to right, Woody Widrick, Tom Dunkers and Patti Russo; standing left to right, Mary Daigle, Dee Stillings, Françoise Bourdon, Stephanie Hackbarth, Lillian DeBenedictis, Gertrud Behn and Marcia Wallhagen. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

This spring something very special happens every Monday morning in Room 329 at Concord-Carlisle High School. Each week, 15 senior citizens from Carlisle and Concord and fifteen CCHS freshmen come together to explore important life issues by creatively discussing and writing poetry. Bridging generations, the class breaks down barriers, fosters deep communications and instills or deepens a profound appreciation of poetry as a thoughtful form of human communication. It is very special and a unique educational experience for all who participate.

This class, which has been offered for the past seven years, is the result of collaboration between Patti Russo of Carlisle and English teacher Shelley Hull of CCHS. Dr. Rebecca Loprete, former CCHS English Department chair was instrumental in initiating the program and continues to be a great supporter.  Russo is a Certified Poetry Therapist and has developed a practice, “Between the Lines,” which utilizes poetry as therapy for a variety of emotional and challenging life situations.

Russo and Hull, who is an experienced and skilled teacher, have fashioned a creative solution to the challenging problem of bringing poetry alive for high school freshmen as they adjust to life at CCHS. The program is now referred to as “Partners in Rhyme.”   Russo is currently working on expanding the program to other schools.

The first year English curriculum includes modules for fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry. This intergenerational program focuses on the poetry module and is directed toward a group of freshmen participating in the Network program. Network consists of 15 selected freshmen and their particular challenges of transitioning into the CCHS program.  These students stay together for the core curriculum of their freshman year and have a tutor, Pat Savage (a former Carlisle resident), who is with them for all of their core classes.

For the English Poetry module each of the students is paired with a senior citizen and that’s where the magic begins to happen. They sit together, share assignments and have ample opportunity for discussion and sharing. There is something about the interaction of a person from an older (non parent/non teacher) generation and a student  that generates real communication, lively interaction and very little judgement.  This is probably best illustrated by reviewing a recent class.

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Poetry pair Bella Saraceno and Gertrud Behn. (Photo by Patti Russo)

On Monday, April 3, the class convened for a session utilizing poetry to explore the issue of resiliency. Shelley Hull is taking a break this spring, and Dr. Dave Nuremberg is teaching the class with Russo and Savage. The class began with Carlisle’s Helen Young reading a beautiful poem centered on the issue of resilience in the face of adversity. This served to focus the entire class on the issue at hand.

The group then broke up into senior/student pairs for discussion. All had been instructed to bring in some examples of something that they collect.  This facilitated a lively discussion of a variety of interesting items such as small bird statues, video game cassettes, quilted patches, travel stickers, etc. The creative juices began to flow regarding what formed each person’s life experience and what is important to them.  There certainly was no lack of lively interaction.

The group then came back together and explored the concept of a six word memoir. This is a short six word poem that goes to the core of an individual’s experience. This is illustrated well by a short memoir written by Ernest Hemingway: “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Used.” That certainly opens the mind to fill in the blanks. The class was then instructed to go back to their pairs and come up with six word memoirs stimulated by the previous discussion of collections. The results that were shared were impressive. Some Examples: “Roam away and explore the world” and “There is no age test for fun.”

The class then viewed three short videos, one of Serena Williams reciting excerpts from Maya Angelou’s “Still I rise”, Angelou reciting the same poem and Sarah Kay performing “If I Should Have a Daughter”. These were highly impactful in discussing aspects of resiliency. As an aside, the technology available at the new high school for accessing and viewing information in a variety of forms is truly impressive. The citizens of Concord and Carlisle should feel extremely proud of this impressive facility.

In the hour of the class, the fifteen seniors and fifteen students had experienced the opportunity to work closely together discussing some profound issues of life through the lens of poetry. Russo’s goals for the program include bringing generations together to learn from each other, to bring poetry alive for the sometimes reticent students and to offer a source of vitality and life for the seniors. From this vantage point it appears that she is well on the path to success. The teachers all commented that this is one of the most interesting and impactful educational initiatives that they have ever experienced.

The Carlisle seniors involved in the program this year are Stephanie Hackbarth, Gertrude Behn, Woody Woodrick, Helen Young, Marcia Wallhagen, Lillian DeBenedictis, Tom Dunkers, Ellen Huber, Françoise Bourdon, Mary Daigle and Dee Stillings.

Shelly Hull’s six word memoir:

“Unquantifiable magic: no grade but A.”   ∆