Bringing Elders and Youth Together to Learn Language, Life Skills

I am a huge fan of intergenerational programming. Both children and elders can feel silenced by a world that tends to privilege people of other ages, and there’s something powerful about meeting and learning from the people who’ve come before or the people who will usher in the future. As a teenager in upstate New York, I volunteered most weekends at the assisted living facility where my grandmother resided. It was an opportunity for me to spend more time with my grandma and give back to my community — something that was already starting to feel important in my budding social justice activist soul. I’d help staff run activities in the facility’s large common area or assist with more menial tasks, like gathering residents’ laundry or sweeping the corridors. I had limited interaction with the older adults who lived there, but as I reflect back on that experience now, I can still recall some of their stories and some of the incredible lives those residents had lived.

When Rey Castuciano of Table Wisdom reached out to me with information about his organization, I was so excited to discover that a program like this exists. Whether it’s Native elders teaching youth the culture and language of their people, or Chinese elders playing music and games with youth at a nursing home, there are myriad examples of intergenerational programming that is supporting and encouraging communities of color, American Indian/Alaska Native communities, and LGBT communities — and Table Wisdom is no exception. This unique program brings together older Americans and younger English Language Learners for conversational English and mentoring sessions. Most sessions take place over digital video connections, like Skype, so people can be connected all over the country.

Helen and Fred

Below are interviews from three Table Wisdom participants, sharing how much the program has impacted them and how much they value the connections they’ve made with their conversational partner. For more information, or to register to become a conversational partner, visit www.tablewisdom.org.

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Helen:

It’s been four months since I joined [Table Wisdom], and I always have a will to share my story with someone. And now I can finally say something based on what I did, what I learned and what I thought. To put it simple, my mentor and I have a nearly one hour conversation on Skype each week. To me, compared to use the word mentor, I prefer to call him my friend Fred. And the once a week session is more like a chatting with a friend rather than a class.

So what makes this special to me? It’s the content in our conversation. Each week, either Fred or I will choose several news published on New York Times. These chosen news are based on our interest and the trending in the world. To name a few, the migrants issue in Germany, the “Brexit,” the FBI and Apple argument and segregation issues. Each week before the Skype session, both of us will read the articles we chose and have a general idea about what we are going to talk. During the Skype time, each of us will share our opinion on the articles we chose and sometimes with a little bit of argument and debate.

It’s always wonderful to have someone talking about the issues you are interested in. Our conversation is far more beyond the daily conversation. Economics, politics, technologies, culture and more are included in our discussion. On one hand, these topics opened my eyes and broadened my mind. On the other hand, I practiced to express my opinions on complex topics. Though I may know the words when I’m reading, speaking out them implies I can use them. Through these Skype sessions, I improved my speaking and enriched my knowledge.

For me, I do believe I get some benefits from this program. Not only the things I listed above, but also I enjoyed the friendship with Fred. When I’m far away from my home country, his friendliness and encouragement make my life here more beautiful. Thank you Rey for running the Table Wisdom program and thank you Fred for being my mentor and friend!

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Alan Nissenbaum:

I am retired, lucky to be healthy and often have flexible time. I enjoy assisting local seniors in a volunteer outreach program. Through that organization I learned about Table Wisdom early in 2016,  pairing senior volunteer mentors with foreign-born individuals seeking to improve their conversational English. TW has provided valuable interactive opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined. I’m hopeful that my TW participation enriches the lives of my conversation partners, as much as my own!

My first partner, Zach, is a Chinese Math / Ph. D. student.
My second partner was Bonnie., a professional education consultant in China.

These young people tolerated my conversations about things we had, and didn’t have, in common: our lives, families, native countries, special interests and current events. I loved sharing photographs of my obsessions, such as our travels, dogs, deer, sudoku puzzles, live theatre, concerts, movies, baseball, cars, technology, and ALL THINGS CHOCOLATE!

Although our lives are so different and perhaps distant, it is encouraging that there is so much that we share trying to be our best selves and making this a better world.

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Zachary:

I am Zachary, a visiting PhD student in St. Louis from China. This is my first time being in an English-speaking country. In the very beginning of my life in the US, I found it was so different that between communication with native people and practicing in English class when I was in my country. Even in some situations, I could hear every single word but I still didn’t understand the sentences. It was quite a big problem to me at that time, and it was impractical to ask strangers to help me with language in daily conversations. After one month I arrived in St. Louis, I knew Rey and joined in his Table Wisdom program as a student.

I feel so blessed to have met my excellent English language mentor Alan, whom I learned a lot from and shared friendship with. I can still remember some details when I first met Alan. Rey helped us to meet for the first time in Peacock Loop Diner on Delmar Loop in St. Louis. Alan is a huge man, very kind, polite and helpful. We usually had video classes once a week on Skype and each class was approximately 50 minutes. We could chat about every field that we were both interested in, which made it flexible and absorbing in the language teaching and learning.

Alan always encouraged me to speak out and taught me some idiomatic English which I didn’t learn from textbook. That’s awesome! When I got stuck because I forgot or didn’t know the words to express my idea, Alan would try his best to help me with my vocabulary, and tell me the best way to express in the perspective of a native speaker. There was once that we were chatting about baseball, he wore a red hat of St. Louis Cardinals Baseball team, showed me some collections such as T-shirts and baseballs and told me the stories behind them. He prepared for every class well and we have so much to chat about that both of us felt time passed fast.

Moreover, I experienced more than language classes in this program. Alan also taught me how to keep my bank account safe, recommended me interesting books of management and American history, and invited me to Mi Ranchito, a famous Mexican restaurant. In all conversations with Alan, there was no stress and I could ask everything I didn’t understand or was curious about.
I also thank Rey because he provided me with a terrific opportunity to practice language with a native speaker. Now my language journey in Table Wisdom has finished and I am still looking forward to the next.

 

 

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.