Culver City Observer -

Intergenerational Writers Workshop Keeps On Getting Better


March 12, 2015

Jill Thomsen

Sixth Graders from Turning Point School participate in the Intergenerational Writers Workshop.

By Sandra Coopersmith

Features Writer

Enlightening, inspiring, imaginative, intriguing and hopeful describe this year's first quarter, thanks to my participation in the Intergenerational Writers Workshop.

It's the collaboration between senior volunteers assembled by Jill Thomsen, Volunteer Specialist at the culver city Senior Center, and sixth-graders from Turning Point School.

The six one-hour Wednesday morning sessions began January 21 and ended March 4, with February 11 dark.

The four meetings at the center were interspersed with two at the school and involved 44 sixth-graders, five teachers (Kirsten Huppler, Diana Bender, Pat Colley, Stephanie Grissom, and Whitney Gallagher) and 10 senior volunteers (Ilene Cohen, Marilyn Russell, Ruby Trenton, Marty Schatz, Francesca Mastro, Linda Mothner, Dorothy Lawshe, Lillian June Davis, Janet Rohrbacher and me).

At our first session we split into five table groups, mine with Ms. Huppler, Ruby, and students Emma, Audrey, Sofia, Gemma, Micah, Jaden, Skyler, Brennan and Toshi, and shared six-word stories we'd created in advance about our lives. I had to chuckle when I heard the sixth word with which one student succinctly ended hers: "etc."

We then started reading "The Man Who Planted Trees," about one man's lengthy single-handed effort to reforest a desolate area in the Alps during the first half of the 20th century.

Homework: Finish reading the approximately 4,000 word story, choose one sentence that captured a core idea of the story, one phrase that moved, engaged or provoked us, one word that captured our attention or struck us as powerful, and explain our choices.

At our second session we shared our homework and the insights derived, followed by a "chalk talk" based on Gandhi's maxim, "Be the change you want to see."

Each table received a large sheet of paper on which to write what we felt that saying meant, followed by discussion of our impressions. Homework: Think about a change we'd like to see and felt we could bring about in our community and find a photograph illustrating it to email to Ms. Huppler, who would prepare a slide show for the next meeting.

The groundwork had been laid for personal commitment.

At Turning Point for the third session I was fascinated by the technology displayed, such a far cry from my school days. A large whiteboard served as a screen for the photos, which were projected from Ms. Huppler's computer. As I watched her touch the board to change images I wondered what extraordinary advances will have occurred by the time the children of these students are in school. And will the same problems exist, will they have been resolved, or will a whole new slew have been introduced?

We were instructed to think about how the photos made us feel, how the issues they depicted affected the community, and how we could promote a change specific to those issues, with 90 seconds to jot down our thoughts as each photo appeared.

Discussion included "active caring," i.e., rather than thinking "let someone else do it," we each need to be that someone. Homework: Choose one of the topics represented – and it could be any of those submitted, not necessarily our own – and write an editorial about it.

At the next meeting we passed our editorials around and wrote comments on each other's papers. The editorials covered six basic areas: trash on beaches and elsewhere, stereotyping toys by gender-specific marketing, water conservation, parks lacking sufficient facilities, a crosswalk signal with inadequate "walk" time, and traffic congestion. We voted, chose toys to support as a group and created a slogan: "Toys for Boys & Girls," with "& Girls" at an angle in a different font. Homework: Incorporate this concept and slogan into a cartoon strip, poem, flier or jingle.


Back at Turning Point for the fifth session, we presented our homework. Three students had collaborated on a video project, two did presentations intended as billboards, and four did fliers. Ruby and I had composed poems. The use of social media was discussed and preliminary plans formulated for a service project based on our concept and slogan for the students to do during the rest of the year, involving reaching out to Turning Point and the extended community. What an innovative learning experience!

During our final session we shared our homework, which was to write a one-page reflection about this experience. Mine can be summarized in one word: AWESOME! I was fascinated by the fluid, imaginative approach, a radical contrast to the educational methods used when I was a sixth-grader, the emphasis then being solely on academics within a rigid, structured environment in which infractions incurred physical punishment.

The students expressed how much fun this had been, that they hadn't known what to expect, and their pleasure with the generational interaction. We then discussed situations in which we'd made a difference, plus those in which others had made a difference for us.

Ruby, a first-timer with this project, told me she was impressed with the story that had been chosen to kick it off as "it showed grief being dealt with in a positive way." She felt the students' feedback had been well-handled, liked how they were actively participating, and was impressed by the plan to involve the whole school. "This wasn't insular," she said. "It's a process with a definite, specific goal."

Ms. Huppler found this "a very meaningful experience for many of the students this year. Our students always enjoy this workshop, but as they are walking away this year with plans for a service learning project, I feel like it will continue to impact their lives more deeply. I know that the students find the perspectives of a different generation both interesting and enlightening – conversations with the seniors push them to consider both their writing and their worldview more carefully.

For me, as their writing teacher, it is always a wonderful opportunity to reinforce the importance of writing well at all times because the skill can be applied again and again throughout their lives."

Having participated since the 2010 beginning of this ever-evolving work in progress, I look forward with wonder to its next incarnation.


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