History project benefits South Portland students, seniors

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Nineteen eighth-graders from Mahoney Middle School have embarked on an interview-based writing project to document memories across generations.

Facilitated by teacher Susan Thornfeldt and South Portland Community Center leader John Rich, the oral history project encourages the students to interview 14 people ages 70 and older about significant memories.

The project is in its second year and is the culmination of Thornfeldt’s language arts class, which focuses on narrative writing.

“Narrative writing is writing to entertain, so whether that entertainment would be a funny story or a sad story, it’s your story to tell,” Thornfeldt explained in a phone interview.

Students have been paired with the same seniors twice this year and plan to meet for a third and final interview session March 19. The questions, created by the students for each interview, have evolved as the stories unravel with each meeting.

None of the four students interviewed in Thornfeldt’s class had conducted an interview before this project.

“We’ve written stories before, obviously, but it’s never been about someone else’s past, which is cool because we get to interview them, get to know them, write about them, and share it with them,” student Thomas Caouette said during class. “That’s a pretty cool experience.”

Writing for a larger audience and bearing the responsibility of retelling someone else’s story has challenged the students to produce better writing. That, Thornfeldt explained, was one of her goals when she conceived of the project several years ago.

“I expect their writing to be high quality. Their audience is more than just me now. … this is now a person they’ve formed a relationship with,” Thornfeldt said. “The stakes are higher when you have an audience, and especially if it’s someone you like and you want to do them justice.”

“You wouldn’t want to write a bad story,” student Wyatt Haley agreed. “You wouldn’t want to let the person down because they’re probably expecting a well-written story.”

The project will culminate with a reception with the seniors at the end of April, at which the narrative memories will be hung at Mahoney with photos of each senior.

Ana McDonald said she plans to write about her senior partner’s mother.

“She talks about her mother – how much she loved her and all her memories about her. She would wear a special dress just for her husband every day after she got back from work. She would admire her mother so much.”

Jalen Jackson reflected on the similarities and differences between him and his senior partner.

“He was always outside and never sitting. He was always on the move, always playing sports,” Jackson said. “I’m the same way, so I kind of connected that way. But there’s also different things that he did, like he hadn’t left the state until he was 21, and I have been out of the state multiple times.”

Pairing eighth-graders with seniors has challenged the students to practice their social skills with strangers, Rich said in a phone interview. It’s pushed their writing and interviewing practices, and encouraged seniors to reflect on their lives.

“Seniors are often marginalized in our youth-obsessed culture. We are elders, but not in the sense of many elders all of the world – they’re still respected in their wisdom and are sought after,” said Rich, who is 71.

Many of the seniors participating in the oral history project attend Rich’s Senior Discussion Group, which meets twice a month at the South Portland Community Center. The discussion group covers anything related to aging, with topics ranging from Medicare and family loss to grandparenting and staying vital. 

“The whole group serves as a resource to realize that ‘I’m not the only going through this as an older person,'” Rich said.

Though the conversations at the senior discussion group cover a variety of topics, the interviews with students have mainly focused on retelling specific memories.

“I think that the small part that we play in this process is that kids are learning to respect our elder wisdom and the experiences we’ve had,” Rich said.

“It’s really humbling and wonderful to share as much wisdom and experience as we can with the kids.”

Mahoney Middle School student Thomas Caouette, left, interviews his senior partner for a collaborative oral history project between the school and the South Portland Community Center.

Mahoney Middle School students Thomas Caouette, Wyatt Haley, Anna McDonald and Jalen Jackson are interviewing senior citizens at the South Portland Community Center as part of a school project.

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