by Amy Hertz and Natania Kremer
For the fourth year in a row, BFS 4th graders and members of the local organization Heights and Hills will exchange letters over the course of several months. This service learning experience embodies our school’s C.A.R.E. approach to building accountable, reciprocal relationships in the community.
COMMUNITY: expanding our school world beyond the classroom to connect with others and see ourselves as members of a larger social fabric who can work to make a difference
We start by learning more about our partner organization. Established in 1971, Heights and Hills serves close to 4,000 adults over the age of 60 and their families living in Brooklyn. Many of their clients suffer from multiple chronic conditions. For those who have friends or family involved in their care, they provide information, direction and support to enable the family to care for his/her loved one. However, many of their clients live alone, homebound and isolated without friends or family to help them.
This year, the Heights & Hills Executive Director Judy Willig and Director of Volunteer Programs Betsy Guttmacher met with our 4th graders on Friday, February 3rd to share a presentation about the challenges and vulnerabilities facing seniors in our communities. They also heard from BFS science teacher Blake Sills who was inspired to become a Friendly Visitor with Heights & Hills after attending an Upper School student-organized session at our annual Community Issues Conference two years ago.
ACCOUNTABILITY: understanding and taking responsibility for how our actions impact others and our environment
Our school partnership with Heights and Hills began in 2011 with the leadership of BFS teacher Bea Bartolotta, and we developed the pen pal program with them in 2014 to deepen relationships between our communities. The focus has evolved to align more closely with the needs and experiences of our pen pals and with our fourth grade curriculum. Last year, students and their pen pals wrote to each other specifically about immigration experiences. Our pen pals were eager to share their stories about this topic, and students were given meaningful context through their exploration of immigration during their social studies New Amsterdam Unit.
Fourth graders worked in small groups to write to their assigned Heights and Hills pen pals. In each letter, students were responsible for:
- sharing information with their pen pals on a variety of topics
- developing follow-up questions to find more out about their pen pals
RECIPROCITY: building ongoing, authentic relationships grounded in mutual respect and admiration where we do with rather than for
Last year, the students worked in small groups and began their correspondence with somewhat general questions such as Where did your family come from? and What are your family traditions? Students also shared about their own families and experiences (i.e. what they were learning about immigration in school, their families’ immigration stories, what they like to do in Brooklyn, etc.). Based on their pen pals’ responses, students then developed more specific questions such as When did your family come to Brooklyn? What do you like about living in Brooklyn? Students and pen pals participated in this letter exchange throughout the course of several months.
Fourth graders reflected on this experience by creating artwork for their pen pals based on something they learned about them. Their artwork was accompanied by a written thank you message, which also expressed what they liked most about the exchange. Each group assembled their reflections into a book for each pen pal. Many groups were fortunate enough to meet their Heights and Hills pen pals when they visited BFS at the end of May. This year, BFS students will meet some of their pen pals at the Park Slope Center for Successful Aging, which is now managed by Heights & Hills.
EQUITY: being led by those most impacted by the issues we seek to address to apply a collective vision for fairness and justice and ensure that everyone in the community has what they need
This project has been meaningful for our students and community partners in several ways. One, it is a unique experience for the fourth graders to connect directly with members of our broader community in the context of service learning. In addition our students learn about issues faced by elders in our community. Students are exposed first-hand to misconceptions about aging, as well as the challenges their pen pals face related to illness and disability, which may impact their capacity to write frequently. By exchanging stories, this experience instills a greater level of empathy in our students and they realize just how much they have in common with older generations.
Last week, our 4th graders wrote their first letters. One group dictated their letter to their pen pal, Agatha, who is blind. Agatha’s friendly visitor then played it for her. Check out the recording here:
To view photos of students working on writing letters and meeting their pen pals in 2016, click here. For more details about how this 4th grade service learning project began in 2014-2015, click here.