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Communication & Storytelling

  "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Muriel Rukeyser

Talking, listening, asking and answering questions, sharing stories -- communicating. That's how people and, in turn, human relationships develop over time. Communication scholar Lee Thayer puts it this way:

In communication we create and maintain one another as human. We are born twice, of necessity: first as organism and then, through a process that is, on the one hand, like the emergence and the blooming of a flower and, on the other, like the design and manufacture of a spaceship, we become human. We all arrive in the world as organism, but each must be born again, this time as communicators, as human.

The quality of your life isn't just a matter of having enough food, warm clothing, a good education, and all the modern conveniences. The quality of your life is directly linked to the quality of your communication. Communication can help you get the things you want out of life, but even more fundamentally, it affects your growth, your health, and your development as a person. "Once a human being has arrived on this earth," asserted therapist Virginia Satir, "communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships we make with others and what happens to us in the world."

If grandparents are role models for children, one of THE most important things they can model and engage in with them is good communication. Dr. Daniel Rosenblum, who has done work on communicating with cancer patients, describes good communication as "more technically difficult than delicate surgery. It takes more skill and patience, it is infinitely varied. No one ever finishes learning it. The need for it is endless. It cannot be scheduled or meticulously controlled."

Human communication is nothing new. But our understanding of it and the ways we choose to engage in it can change. Communication is more than a tool or a set of techniques. It is more than getting messages from one place to another or accumulating volumes of fragmented bits of information. Communication is a process through which we construct and navigate our lives. Communication, particularly intergenerational communication, is about understanding ourselves, others, our world, and creating our life story.

Communication is the process of creating meaning. "Messages" may be generated from the outside -- by a teacher or the television, for example -- but meanings are generated from within. The same word may mean two very different things to two different people. Meanings are not in words, they are in people. And meaning is a complicated thing. We are born into and live in a world without "meaning." The world becomes meaningful to us only as we assign significance to our experiences. Children don't really learn anything from experiences. They learn from reflecting on those experiences and communicating about them. That's why for children, communicating with an adult -- a teacher, parent, grandparent -- is so important to shaping the quality of the meaning they develop.

Young or old, we can share our desires, thoughts, plans, and -- above all -- feelings with each other. I believe one of the primary goals of intergenerational communication must be to pass on a positive communication legacy to our children and grandchildren -- not only through the kinds of meanings we help them create, but also through teaching them a way of communicating that they themselves can use for the rest of their lives, with their parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, mates, and one day their own children. Intergenerational communication is a particularly powerful kind of communication. Suzette Haden Elgin and Rebecca Haden, who have written on family communication, observe:

The way kids understand and use [conversation] is different from the adult way. That's partly because they're inexperienced. But it's also because their basic communication goals are not adult goals. With toddlers and young children, much of their communication has the goal of simply learning how to communicate. With older children, learning is still a major goal, but instead of trying to learn grammar and vocabulary, they've shifted to learning how to use language strategies.... The first thing to remember about communicating with children, then, is: Your language is their model.

As you help children develop their meanings as well as the way they communicate, there are two keys to being effective in intergenerational communication. The first is taking the time -- to talk and to listen. The pace at which we live life today is often frenetic, for parents and for children (researchers have even developed terms like "hurried child syndrome"). Grandparents, perhaps more so than parents, can take the time to "slow things down" for children. Communicating effectively with children takes patience, and above all it takes respect for the child, no matter how young, and no matter how disrespectful an older child may sometimes seem.

The second key to effective intergenerational communication is the use of story -- sharing stories through books, as well as your own life stories. A grandparent can't "tell" a child very much. But a child will listen to a story. There's an old folktale told in Eastern Europe about Naked Truth walking down the street and people averting their eyes. It's only when Naked Truth dons story's fine attire -- plot to inspire, poignant prose, metaphor, emotion that evokes tears and laughter -- that Naked Truth is invited into people's homes as a welcome guest.

Through sharing your and other stories, you can open the world for grandchildren. To Navajos, a person's worth is determined by the stories and songs they know, because it is by this knowledge that an individual is linked to the history of the entire group. The very word "story" comes from "storehouse." A story is a store or a storehouse. Things are actually stored in a story, and what tends to be stored there is meaning. Through story, children get a sense of what the world means. Explains communication professor Walter R. Fisher:

Stories are more engaging than other forms of discourse in that they come closer to capturing the experience of the world, simultaneously appealing to the various senses, to reason and emotion, to intellect and imagination, and to fact and value.

As I said at the start of this kit, people tell stories as they reach back into their common history and individual experience for knowledge about truth and direction for the future. Adults who develop coherent life themes often recall that when they were very young, their parents and grandparents told them stories and read from books. When told by a loving adult whom one trusts, fairy tales, biblical stories, heroic historical epics, and poignant family stories are often the first hint at a meaningful order a child gleans from the experience of the past.

It is through story that young and old can connect very meaningfully, and through story that the old can help the young connect with the world. Stories help us understand our relationships with others, encourage compassion, create a sense of wonder, and give us the feeling that, "Hey, we're all in this together." Stories can make both young and old reflect on why we're here, shock us into a new truth, give us a new perspective. Hearing stories about things as they were long ago also gives children the ability to dream and try to imagine what it could be like in the future.

With all the talk about a "generation gap," sometimes we wonder how we can possibly understand someone a great deal older or younger than ourselves. But often, once you get started, you wonder what you were worried about. So get started.

Some stories about intergenerational communication and stories: Song and Dance Man by Karen Ackerman; The Chicken Salad Club by Marsha Diane Arnold; The Wednesday Surprise by Eve Bunting; My Grandmother's Journey by John Cech; The Lucky Stone by Lucille Clifton; Granddaddy's Street Songs by Monalisa Degross; The Old, Old Man and the Very Little Boy by Kristine L. Franklin; Nana's Birthday Party by Amy Hest; Watch the Stars Come Out by Riki Levinson; Jewels by Belinda Rochelle and Cornelius Van Wright; Homeplace by Anne Shelby; There's Nothing to Do! by James Stevenson; Storm in the Night by Mary Stolz; Grandpa Was a Cowboy by Silky Sullivan; When I Was Little Like You by Jill Paton Walsh; Keepers by Jeri Hanel Watts; Imagine That! by Janet Wilson; Miz Berlin Walks by Jane Yolen.

Activities: "Grandma" By Any Other Name; Icebreakers; Classroom Cookbook; Stories About Grandparents; Grandparent Interview; "Hot -- and Not" List; Grandchild Interview; Grandparent/Grandfriend Board; Grandparent/Grandchild Book Club; Reading Stories; Sharing Family Stories.


"Grandma" By Any Other Name

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Social Studies.

What You Need: Library/Internet; large sheet of paper; marker.

Doing It:

What we call people carries a meaning -- sometimes cultural, sometimes personal. I called my grandmother "Baba," which is Ukrainian and reflects my cultural heritage. A girl in one of my workshops calls her grandmother "Betty-ma," a name made up by her grandmother. Many grandparents today come up with very creative names for themselves. Often they tend to be an evasion of the word "grandma" or "grandpa" -- because some think these titles make them sound "old." I personally think these titles should bring with them a sense of pride and status; but we have some work to do overcoming our societal emphasis on youth before that happens. In any case, tracing back the origins of what people call their grandparents is interesting and fun. It also prepares children before a Grandparents Day for all the ways other children refer to their grandparents.

Start with an informal survey. Ask people in your school and in your neighborhood (adults and children) what they call/called their grandmother and grandfather.

Then research different languages and cultures at the library and/or on the Internet to learn as many names as possible for grandmothers and grandfathers. A good online resource for word translations is www.itools.com/lang/#trans. Here are some examples of the words "grandma" and "grandpa" in other languages:

Polish -- Babcia and Dziadek
German -- Grossmutter and Grobvater
Korean -- Halmonee and Halabujee
Greek -- Ya-ya and Pa-pu
Japanese -- Oba-chan and Oji-chan
Chinese -- Popo and Gong-gong
Italian -- Nonna and Nonno
Spanish -- Abuela and Abuelo
French -- Grand-mère and Grand-père
Latin -- Avia and Avus

After you've collected all the names, make a big chart and list each name with the family that uses it. Also identify the source of the name (i.e. cultural or made up by the family). If you were a grandparent, what name would you choose? Why?



Suggested Activity Timing: During an event.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Math.

What You Need: Paper; pen/pencil; copies of "Figure It Out" sheet.

Doing It:

Problem solving together is a great way to get young and old feeling comfortable and spark communication. Doing an icebreaker activity is especially important during a Grandparents Day event if you have a group of children and older adults who don't know each other (e.g. if you've invited in older adults from a local seniors group).

Grandparents/grandfriends and grandchildren can work together to solve some puzzles. The first is a word puzzle. Not only does it encourage interaction, but it gives older people a chance to explain unfamiliar words to children and perhaps bring in a little of their own life experience. You can put the words on the board and have the whole group work together, or have child/adult teams each write their answers on a sheet of paper.

Each item in the groups of words below has something in common with the other two items. What is it? For example, teacup, envelope, and shoe all have openings. Note that there may be more than one "right" answer.

teacup, envelope, shoe
window, door, mouth
tears, perspiration, laughter
radio, magazine, drum
rye, wheat, rice
firefly, North Star, kerosene lamp
razor, computer, dentist's drill
goblet, ship, tulip
tango, marriage, checkers

Sometimes when we look at things, we don't look as closely as we should. The second puzzle involves carefully examining the geometric figures on the "Figure It Out" sheet. How many squares can you find in Figure 1? How many rectangles can you find? How many triangles can you find in Figure 2? How many triangles can you find in Figure 3? Be careful: bigger shapes may be made up of smaller shapes and will increase your total! (Answers, in order: 14, 22, 13, 18)

There are other icebreaker ideas under "Just Plain Fun" in the "Hey,Wow!" for All Ages section of this kit, and in the "Age Wave" activity in the Ages & Stages section.


Classroom Cookbook

Suggested Activity Timing: Before or after a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Social Studies; Art.

What You Need: "Real" cookbooks; computer or typewriter; paper; markers and/or pencil crayons; three-hole punch; binder.

Doing It:

Food plays a major role in most families. People love the first illustration in Something to Remember Me By -- a big, sunny, bright, warm kitchen -- because it evokes food memories. Food is a way to communicate. It's a way to celebrate cultural heritage, build family traditions, bring a family together during a holiday, and forge a bond through the simple act of sharing it. Creating a Classroom Cookbook encourages children to share their own family food history, compare different traditions and cultures, and develop basic research skills. The end result of a cookbook is also a source of pride and accomplishment.

Start by sharing some storybooks that deal with food and its various roles in relationships across generations: The Chicken Salad Club by Marsha Diane Arnold; At Grandpa's Sugar Bush by Margaret Carney; Dancin' in the Kitchen by Frank P. Christian and Wendy Gelsanliter; Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola; Watch Out for the Chicken Feet in Your Soup! by Tomie dePaola; Just Right Stew by Karen English; The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes by Linda Glaser; Gus and Grandpa and the Christmas Cookies by Claudia Mills; Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco; Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan; The Party by Barbara Reid.

Talk about children's favorite food -- something special that their parents or grandparents make. Do you know whether any recipes have been preserved in your family from past generations? What was their origin? How were they passed down -- by word of mouth, by observation, in writing? Are they still made today? When? By whom? Have you ever helped make them? How does your family prepare for and celebrate special holidays like Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Chanukah? Does grandma's apple pie taste as good when your mom makes it? Children may not know all the answers to these questions, but they will get them thinking about food traditions in their family.

Next, look at some "real cookbooks." What do they contain? How are they written? What do you need to include in a recipe? What are the illustrations like? Look through the categories used in cookbooks to decide on the type of food you might want to focus on for your Classroom Cookbook. For example, it might be a good idea to focus on just desserts or soups to make it easier to compare across different cultures.

Everyone in the class then collects their favorite family recipe. When children get the recipe from their parent or grandparent, they can also do a mini-interview, asking the following kinds of questions:

  • What's the recipe? Are there any special hints for preparing it?

  • Where did the recipe come from?

  • Can you remember a time when the dish didn't turn out the way you expected?

  • What recipe are you famous for?

  • What would you prepare for a small group? A large group?

  • What cookbook do you use the most?

  • What do you remember your mother or grandmother making?

  • What's the most delicious meal you've ever had?

  • Are you allergic to any foods?

  • What foods do you dislike?

  • Do you know any food proverbs or sayings?

The last question can be a fun addition to the cookbook. You can also post proverbs and sayings about food and cooking on a classroom bulletin board -- "Don't cry over spilt milk", "A watched pot never boils", "Too many cooks spoil the broth", etc.

Once all the recipes have been collected, children can each type out a page with their recipe, perhaps some background or family history about it, and an illustration or even a photograph. Three-hole punch each page and put all the pages in a binder.

Extension: You can "publish" the cookbook by making photocopies of it. Have a "launch party" with foods from the book (made by children, parents, and grandparents). You can even sell autographed copies. This could be part of a Grandparents Day event.


Stories About Grandparents

Suggested Activity Timing: Before a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Art.

What You Need: Paper; pen/pencil; markers and/or pencil crayons.

Doing It:

Sharing stories about grandparents is a way to help children understand the nature of the relationship and differences across families and cultures. One idea that works well is to have each child write a story about their grandparent before a Grandparents Day event and then read the story on the day of the event. Or, have children draw a picture of their best memory or favorite activity with the grandparent, and then grandparents have to guess what it is.

Here are some topic ideas:

  • Do you have grandparents, or other older people you like and know? What do you like about them?

  • Where do they live? How often do you visit them?

  • What kinds of things do you do together? Do you do things to help them?

  • What do you like best about visiting them? Describe the best visit you ever had.

  • What's the most fun thing you've ever done together?

  • Complete the sentence, "Grandparents are special because..."

  • Complete the sentence, "The best thing about my grandparents is..."

  • Complete the sentence, "My grandparents make me happy when..."

  • Complete the sentence, "My grandparents love to..."

  • What's the most important thing you've learned from your grandmother or grandfather?

  • What are two ways you show your grandparents that you love them?

Teachers and parents should also share their own memories and stories about grandparents.


Grandparent Interview

Suggested Activity Timing: Can be started during a Grandparents Day event, and then completed in more detail afterward.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Social Studies/History; Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: Paper; pen/pencil; interview questions from the "Questions for Interviewing a Grandparent" sheets. Optional -- tape recorder or video camera.

Doing It:

As part of a Grandparents Day event at many schools, grandparents are asked to talk about what school was like when they were young or share other memories and stories from their life. Children are generally surprised at what their grandparents say; they often don't ask grandparents questions that elicit certain memories. Doing a grandparent interview as part of a Grandparents Day event can help children better understand their grandparents, learn family history, and develop research and interview skills. For a form with some simple starter questions for younger children, see the "Generations Scrapbook" activity in the Scrapbooking & Other Photo Fun section of this kit. This "Grandparent Interview" activity includes a more detailed set of interview questions, many of which are appropriate for older children. Some questions can be asked as part of a short interview during a Grandparents Day event. But the questions are best explored at home, over several interview sessions.

In addition to having benefits for children, an interview with a grandparent can mean a great deal to the grandparent. People want to talk about their hopes and dreams and personal challenges, but they are rarely asked. When a young person takes the time to listen to an older person reminisce, what the young person is really saying is that who the older person is, what they've done, and the things they care about are important.

Talking about our lives is also how we learn more about ourselves, others, and life. We live our lives forward, but we understand them backward. When you see a great movie or read a good book, you often want to see or read it again. Older people also want to "read over" or "see" parts of their lives again. In looking back, we can identify turning points or dynamic events. We can clarify and organize our thinking about life, make sense of events, and enrich the meaning of our life story. If we make meaning as young adults by fashioning dreams, as older adults we make it by shaping memories. We see how the story of our life has turned out -- then change what we can for the future and accept the rest. This process of "looking back" is formally called "life review."

Informal (simply reminiscing) or formal (an interview) life review offers a number of benefits to young and old:

  • It creates a sense of continuity, linking the past with the present.

  • It preserves family history and cultural heritage.

  • It's a way to pass on family stories and traditions.

  • It enables younger people to find out interesting things about their family members as well as the broader historical past.

  • It builds self-esteem in those doing the telling and those doing the listening.

  • It combats the isolation and sense of loss that may come with growing older.

  • It gives older people an opportunity to reflect on and assess life achievements as well as disappointments.

  • It helps older people resolve conflicts and fears, and gives younger people a model for facing their own life challenges.

  • It promotes intergenerational interaction and understanding.

As children prepare to interview a grandparent or other older adult, talk about interviews they've seen (e.g. on television) or experienced (e.g. by the doctor). What makes a "good" interview? Here are some interview tips:

  • An interview is just like talking with someone, but with prepared questions.

  • You can write down the answers to the questions, or videotape or audiotape the interview. Taping the interview ensures that you don't miss anything and also allows you to review the interview at a later time.

  • During the interview, ask questions slowly, giving the person time to answer.

  • You can use some "closed" questions (which prompt a respondent to give only a "yes" or "no" answer), but most should be "open" questions like: "Tell me about..."; "Describe..."; "What was it like when...?"; "In what ways...?"; "Why...?"; and "How...?"

  • Start with easy, friendly questions and work your way up to more difficult or sensitive questions.

  • Listen carefully to what the person says; don't interrupt or correct. Maintain eye contact and show interest by leaning forward and nodding.

  • As you listen to answers, other questions will come to mind. Asking follow-up questions will help you get more information.

  • If someone is talking about an unhappy or painful experience, show that you understand how they feel ("That's very sad"). If the person doesn't want to talk about something, that's okay -- just go to the next question.

  • It's okay for there to be moments of silence or emotion. A person's life is important, and emotion is natural. Accept emotions as part of the process.

  • An interview shouldn't last more than an hour. People do best when they're not tired. You can always do another interview. Doing several interviews actually allows you to think about answers, and come up with other questions based on the answers and things that interest you.

  • Don't forget to thank the person you've interviewed. They've been generous with their time and perhaps shared personal information. Let them know you value what they've shared. Send them a thank you note and even a copy of the interview (for corrections and additions).

Sample "trigger" questions are found on the "Questions for Interviewing a Grandparent" sheets. Triggers can be many things -- questions, photographs, keepsakes, music. This kit focuses on trigger questions. The Holiday Activity Kit will have activities that use photographs and keepsakes as triggers.

The questions on the sheets are grouped into topic areas. Some questions are about the person's life. Others are more general questions about life and the aging process (this information can be used with activities in the Ages & Stages section of this kit). Keep in mind that one question will lead to another and you should allow the interview to flow naturally from topic to topic as they come up.

No single set of questions will elicit all the stories from all families. The most useful questions will be those you develop through your own knowledge about your family. The trigger questions provided may be helpful as a start. They're meant to be suggestive, not absolute. Pick and choose among them as you feel is appropriate. And change the wording to suit your personality and the person you're interviewing.

After you've completed an interview, it's interesting to compare family stories from different family members. Do various relatives tell the same story in different ways? There are often differing perspectives on the same events.

An activity which goes well with an interview is "Life Layers" in the Then & Now section of this kit.

For more information on interviewing, see some of the resources at the end of this kit, like To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford and From Generation... To Generation by Phyllis Massing and E. Rhoda Lewis.

In addition to an interview, grandparents can work on a "Remember Book" filled with personal thoughts and memories. There are even fill-in books available. Some particularly good ones: The Book of Myself: A Do-It-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions by Carl Marshall with David Marshall (a grandfather/grandson team); The Story of a Lifetime: A Keepsake of Personal Memoirs by Stephen Pavuk and Pamela Pavuk; and Who We Are: Questions to Celebrate the Family by Bret Nicholaus and Paul Lowrie.


"Hot -- and Not" List

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Language Arts.

What You Need: Copies of "Hot -- and Not" List; pen/pencil.

Doing It:

Intergenerational communication is a two-way street. Grandchildren can interview grandparents and listen to their stories to find out about the past, and grandparents can also find out about their grandchild's world in the present. Understanding the world in which children, particularly teenagers, live is key to maintaining a meaningful relationship with them.

This activity works especially well with older children and teenagers. A young person and an older adult each complete a "Hot -- and Not" List. The young person fills in their "hot" column with the current "coolest" things. Under "Not" the young person identifies the absolute worst, most embarrassing, "wouldn't be caught dead with!" things. The older person completes their own "Hot -- and Not" List by thinking back to when they were the young person's age.

After they complete their respective lists, the young person and the older person can explain, compare, and discuss the lists.


Grandchild Interview

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event, or any time.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Social Studies; Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: Optional -- paper; pen/pencil.

Doing It:

Questions are important in intergenerational communication. Children are full of questions: May I have a cookie? Why is the sky blue? Is there a Santa Claus? Are we there yet? Having the patience to answer them is important -- and grandparents often have more patience than parents because their role is different and the time they spend with children is limited. In addition to answering questions, grandparents should also ask them. When you ask a grandchild about themselves -- their feelings, their ideas, and their opinions -- it helps you get to know them better. Asking grandchildren questions and encouraging reflective answers also teaches them an important skill. They learn to think clearly for themselves, make choices and solve problems, and become independent thinkers. As people get older, questions, and their answers, become more complex. They have consequences. They require more thinking, more work, and a process that may be demanding or painful. Asking children fun, engaging questions when they're young prepares them for life's big, difficult questions when they're older.

During a Grandparents Day event, teachers can provide a couple of questions for grandparents to "interview" their grandchildren -- and perhaps find out something they didn't know! Grandparents can also get into a pattern of asking their grandchildren questions about their lives, how they view the world, and their hopes and dreams.

Here are some sample questions to ask grandchildren (choose questions appropriate for the age of child):

  • What do you like most about school? Least? What would you like to change?

  • What's your favorite subject in school and why?

  • Who's your "best friend" and why?

  • What are your favorite and least favorite: food, dessert, fruit, vegetable, color, animal, day of the week, season, holiday, sport, team, sports star, cartoon, song, TV show, movie, movie star, book.

  • What do you like to do for fun?

  • How do you like to celebrate your birthday? Other holidays?

  • What's the absolute best gift you ever received?

  • What's the latest you ever stayed up at night? What were you doing?

  • When you're having a bad day, what's the best thing you can do to cheer yourself up?

  • What chores do you dislike the most around the house?

  • Would you like to be on TV? Why? What show would you like to be in?

  • If you owned a candy store, what would be your favorite candy to sell and why?

  • If something could fall from the sky other than rain or snow, what would you like it to be and why?

  • If you had to move to another country, which country would you pick and why?

  • If you could travel in a time machine and go back in history, where would you like to go? Is there any particular event you'd like to witness?

  • If you won $1,000 in a contest, what would you do with the money and why?

  • What two things would you like to learn how to do? Why?

  • How old are you? How many days have you been alive so far? How many hours? How many minutes? (grandparents can feel free to help with the calculations!)

  • How do you feel about how old you are? Would you like to be younger or older? Why?

  • What's the biggest change in your life during the past year? Was it a good change or a bad one?

  • What's the one thing you think you'll be really good at when you're an adult?

  • Where would you like to be living ten years from now?

  • What are two jobs you think would be really fun to do as an adult? Two jobs that would be the worst? What do you think would be the scariest or most dangerous job?

  • What are you looking forward to most when you're an adult? Least?

  • What do you think your life will be like when you get to be my age?

  • What problems in this world do you think need to be fixed? What would you do about them?

  • If you could find out one thing for sure about the future, what would it be and why?


Grandparent/Grandfriend Board

Suggested Activity Timing: After a Grandparents Day event.

Curriculum Connections: Social Studies; Language Arts.

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Encourage an ongoing connection between students and grandparents/grandfriends. After a Grandparents Day event, create a classroom "Grandparent/Grandfriend Bulletin Board." Invite grandparents to write to the class or send postcards, photos, or stories. Post items on the board to keep all the students up-to-date, and give them a glimpse into the lives and thoughts of older people.

If you're studying a particular topic in class, students can also bring in specific stories or comments from grandparents on that topic to post on the board.


Grandparent/Grandchild Book Club

Suggested Activity Timing: All the time.

Curriculum Connections: Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: Books!

Doing It:

Books are gifts of love. They are a way to reach out, a connection across time and generations. It is through stories that we can gain the experience of past generations. There is a saying from Mongolia, "There are no people a thousand years old, but there are words a thousand years old." Reading opens up worlds a child might not otherwise discover. It is a chance for a grandparent to influence a grandchild in a subtle, positive way. It's a way to help create a good image of the world and build hope. It's a way to share ideas and memories. It's a way to have fun and adventures together.

A grandparent/grandchild book club works whether you live near your grandchild or not. Once a month you can give or mail your grandchild a new book. If you're a long-distance grandparent and can't cuddle up to read books with your grandchild in person, make a phone date to talk about books. With younger children, you can read a story over the phone while they have a copy of the book in front of them and flip through the pictures. You can also audiotape yourself reading a book and send the tape to your grandchild. Don't worry if you aren't a world-class reader. You'll get better with practice. Feel free to add dramatic flair and be a ham. With the audiotape, your grandchild gets to know your voice, and can listen again and again. This kind of tape also comes in handy for parents, who may have to commute long distances. They can play it in the car to entertain children, and build family bonds at the same time.

Make sure you continue the book club even as your grandchild gets older. Children get read to when they're very young. But what slowly happens as they grow older and learn to read themselves is that they get read to less and less. Adults also stop giving them books. Eventually, the only books children read are the ones they're assigned in school. A grandparent can be the one who instills a lifelong love of books and reading in a grandchild simply by consistently encouraging them and supplying a variety of interesting, entertaining options. Give your grandchild books you remember enjoying at their age and inscribe them with your memories of when you read the book and why you enjoyed it. These books will then become keepsakes.

As part of your reading legacy to your grandchild, you may want to think about writing a book list now to give to them when they're an adult. Write out your selections, why the books are special or important to you, and any life lessons you feel they convey. Put the book list in a specially labeled, sealed envelope in a safe place. Even if you're not around, the list will be.

For ideas about books to start your book club, consult your local librarian or bookstore. Think about books you enjoyed when you were your grandchild's age, or that their parents enjoyed. Also, many of the intergenerational storybooks listed at the end of this kit are good options for including in a grandparent/grandchild book club. Some books are a way to say "I love you," like Something to Remember Me By by Susan V. Bosak, I Loved You Before You Were Born by Anne Bowen, and Grandfather's Lovesong by Reeve Lindbergh. Many books provide a glimpse of the past, like Journey to Ellis Island by Carol Bierman, My Grandmother's Journey by John Cech, The Lucky Stone by Lucille Clifton, When I Was Young by James Dunbar, Homeplace by Anne Shelby, and Imagine That! by Janet Wilson. Others offer hope and encouragement for the future, like For Every Child by Caroline Castle, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, Grandfather's Dream by Holly Keller, Children Just Like Me by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley, Prayer for the Twenty-First Century by John Marsden, Grandmother's Alphabet by Eve Shaw, and What a Wonderful World by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele.


Reading Stories

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event, and all the time.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: Books; copies of "Reading With Your Grandchild" sheet.

Doing It:

Many parents today don't have as much time as they would like to read to their children. Grandparents can fill this void. They can play a vital role in their grandchild's education. Children who are read stories are better learners and have stronger communication skills (i.e. listening, talking, writing, reading). Research also shows that by having contact with children's stories -- which are often full of wonder, imagination, and hope -- older people retain a more positive, happier outlook on life.

Cuddling up and reading stories aloud together gives children "something to remember you by." There was a man -- a big, burly fellow -- who came to one of my workshops. He told me he loved his family getting together over the holidays because his father would read everyone -- adults and children -- stories. The children loved listening to their grandfather, but the man also admitted he loved listening to the stories. He said he loved the sound of his father's voice. Everything else left his mind when his father was reading -- except for the loving sound of his father's voice.

I've seen the power of stories in the workshops I run with grandparents, parents, and children. Stories get to our head through our heart. They capture our imagination. They reach all ages and bridge the generation gap -- you can pretend, discover, quiver, and laugh together. And each generation gets something slightly different from a given story, so stories can spark meaningful intergenerational dialogue. Say educators and authors Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl:

Stories can be transformative for children and [grand]parents alike. And the experience of reading is enriched when people share a text. When we read together we can directly connect our own lives to those of others and test our visions of right and wrong through different eyes and experiences. Literature helps us learn what we can expect from life and what we can give to it.

As part of a Grandparents Day event, children can read a book of their choosing to their grandparents. This can be a tremendous source of pride. On a regular basis though, grandparents should read aloud to their grandchildren -- even as they get older. Reading a story together is one of the easiest, most powerful ways to build a close relationship. It also takes some pressure off grandparents to be entertaining or to say the "right thing." It's foolproof, cozy, and a natural way to start conversations.

For ideas about books to share with grandchildren, consult a local library, bookstore, and the list at the end of this kit.

Reading to children as a grandparent is a different experience than reading as a parent. One of the goals of a Grandparents Day event can be to encourage and support intergenerational bonds. Toward this end, circulate copies of the "Reading With Your Grandchild" sheet to give grandparents the "inside scoop" on the best way to read to and connect with their grandchild (see the Everything You Need to Plan Your Own Event section in this kit, particularly the ideas for what to include in the registration take-home kit for grandparents). I've found that grandparents really appreciate ideas and recommended resources.


Sharing Family Stories

Suggested Activity Timing: During a Grandparents Day event, and any time.

Curriculum Connections: Language Arts; Social Studies/History; Family Fun "Homework."

What You Need: No materials.

Doing It:

Many children today spend more hours watching television than they do in any other activity, including the time spent in school. What kinds of stories are they taking in? What view of the world are they creating in their mind? Admittedly, there are excellent educational and entertaining programs; but the fact remains that watching television is a passive and uncreative activity. Television has also replaced family communication. People sit transfixed to the screen or, worse yet, they sit in separate rooms watching TV because everyone didn't want to watch the same show. I've even had grandparents tell me that when grandchildren come to visit, they spend all their time in one room watching TV while the adults talk in the other room. What kind of legacy are we creating for children?

Teachers should encourage children to collect and then share family stories in the classroom. Integrate the stories into the topics you're teaching. This affirms the value of family stories and enriches your curriculum by bringing it alive for children on a personal level. Working on family stories teaches children primary skills -- interviewing, recording, organizing, letter writing, mapping, storytelling, and dramatizing family history. For more information on using family stories in the classroom, read Keepsakes: Using Family Stories in Elementary Classrooms by Linda Winston.

As part of a Grandparents Day event, you can invite grandparents ahead of time to come to the event prepared with a short family story they want to tell. Grandchildren are often very proud of their grandparent when they do this, and the whole class is exposed to different family histories and perspectives.

Grandparents should make telling family stories a part of their regular interaction with grandchildren. Telling stories from your life -- about you, your parents and grandparents, and your children -- helps your grandchild get to know you and their family history. It gives your grandchild a sense of who they are and where they've come from. Sharing family stories helps generations get to know each other better -- on a deeper, more personal level. You end up communicating about topics of shared importance and interest. And, instead of simply detailing facts, family stories can convey important messages. These messages, often subtle in nature, become incorporated into a sort of "family wisdom" that can set a behavior and thought pattern for future generations. So, how you tell stories is just as important as the stories you tell. Your attitude about goals, roadblocks, and your eventual success or failure communicates something about yourself and the legacy you are creating for your grandchildren.

When you're telling your family stories, don't make them too formal or try to do it all in one sitting. Weave your stories into everyday activities. Make them informal and natural. Tell appropriate stories at appropriate times. For example, you might tell a six-year-old about your first bike, while a teenager will be more interested in your first love. Other tips for telling family stories (as well as stories from your imagination):

  • Let your stories be prompted naturally from a conversation, your grandchild's interest in a photograph or other object, an experience your grandchild has had, a book you've read together, or by a special holiday or other occurrence.

  • Children are particularly interested in stories about your childhood and youth, as well as stories about their parents when they were young.

  • Children like to hear about mistakes or bad decisions you made. But don't end with "the moral." Kids will get it.

  • A 15-minute story is long enough for children under five; five- to eight-year-olds can concentrate for a half hour or so.

  • When you tell a story, make sure your grandchild is sitting comfortably, and encourage their participation. For example, they can repeat key phrases in the story. Also encourage questions. Let your grandchild's interest lead your storytelling.

  • Practice telling stories. One good technique is to tell the story by viewing it as a movie in your head and describing what you see, filling in as many details as possible.

  • You need a strong start to capture a child's attention and imagination. Follow Cecil B. De Mille's advice to prospective filmmakers: start with an earthquake and gradually build up to a climax.

  • Introduce each character in your story individually and vividly. If you're telling a story that involves a relative the child doesn't know or is dead, try to make the person more real using old photos.

  • Build up suspense until you get to the climax, and then tie up loose ends.

  • Put your whole body into telling a story. Use facial expressions, gestures, and pauses. Vary your voice tones from whispers to strong accents.

  • You can also bring family stories alive using old photos, keepsakes, articles of clothing, etc.

If you don't feel your storytelling skills are what you'd like them to be, some helpful books include: Telling Your Own Stories by Donald Davis; The Parent's Guide to Storytelling by Margaret Read MacDonald; Creating a Family Storytelling Tradition by Robin Moore. You can make a permanent record of your family and life stories by writing them down in a special book or journal.

From Grandparents Day Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2001, www.somethingtoremembermeby.org

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