The Listen to a Life Story Contest changes lives and communities. Just check out the video above to see the magic and power in listening to a life!
Every year, we get enthusiastic feedback from young people, teachers, youth leaders, parents and grandparents. One of the oldest people interviewed for the contest in recent years was Great-Grandmother Florence Ruth Wilson at 104 years. Says her great-grandson Cameron Gonsalves, 11, "She may not be able to drive, but she sure rocks a wheelchair!"
Many young entrants comment how surprised they are by what they learn. Says 13-year-old Kyle Macdowell from Arlington, TX, "I see my grandma a lot, but not until this contest did I really realize who she is. I never knew about her background or what struggles she has had."
Teachers feel the contest is an important addition to their classroom experience and the intergenerational connections in their school community. Says Lori Halbison, a teacher in Higley, AZ, "I can't tell you how many thank you's I received from parents just because they learned more about the grandparent interviewed and it was valuable for the whole family."
Laura Yerou at Lisha Kill Middle School in Albany, NY entered her students in the contest. "What a positive and memorable experience this has been for myself and so many of my students. And what great prizes! Most importantly, the contest taught many valuable lessons. Student after student gained tremendous insights about how to live a good life, and what it means to grow up and older. Additionally, an increased respect for our elders was developed by so many of my young writers."
Mary Ann Richter is a Gifted Education Teacher with Hamilton City Schools in Ohio. She writes, "Students in grades 4, 5, and 6 set out to learn from the past by interviewing a senior in their community and writing a story that developed from this interview. The results were fantastic, informative stories. But besides that, students developed a sincere camaraderie, a partnership, that will last for many years to come, and maybe forever. Students have developed a better appreciation for the person they interviewed. It was a great learning experience for senior and student."
Nancy LeClair at Benjamin A. Friedman Middle School in Massachusetts involved her sixth grade students in the contest: "First I want to say how much my students enjoyed this project. It was a springboard towards additional endeavors. We read the Dream book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Second, I took my class to a local nursing home to interview the residents. Both the students and the residents gained from this experience. This project led us into another and we ended up raising money to buy a Nintendo Wii system for the nursing home during the holiday season. Indeed, your project really inspired us to get to know and to help another life."
Theresa Johnson, a sixth-grade teacher at Maple Point Middle School in Pennsylvania, has entered her students for several years: "We read and discussed the amazing book Dream, and my students made Dream Stars, which hang above their desk to remind them of their hopes and dreams for their future. We learned about interviewing techniques. Finally, my students spent precious time with their grandparents and grandfriends before sitting down to write their essay. Some of the comments from my students were so touching. One girl told me that her grandmother cried when she asked her if she could interview her for this project. Another student explained that he didn't know his grandfather had such a fascinating life: 'I knew him my entire life, but I never really knew his life story!' One boy told me that because of this assignment, he is going to continue to write down the life stories of his family in order to preserve them for his children to enjoy. What more could a teacher hope for!"
21st Century Skills
You hear a lot about 21st century learning. What exactly does that mean? Here are some of the reasons why the Listen to a Life Contest speaks to the 21st Century, introduced by quotes from young people themselves who have entered the contest:
"Last week, we visited the coolest place on earth: the Betz Nursing Home!"
When is the last time you heard a nursing home described as "cool?" The 21st century demands that we physically and figuratively go to new places and see them in new ways to creatively solve problems. And that nursing home itself seems to have been doing some creative things to move beyond the narrow stereotypes – welcoming in students is proof of that. A school making more connections in the community improves both itself and the community. Moreover, by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 years and older. For the first time in history, older people outnumber those 5 years and under. As the world gets older, and we come into contact with more people more often, we need to learn how to get along with and understand people of different ages, genders, and cultures than our own.
"I see my grandma a lot, but not until this project have I really listened to her stories and realized who she is."
As we come into contact with more people in the real world and online, we have to know how to really listen to them to understand who they are and what's important to them. Listening is a skill we often think just "happens." But in a world where young people spend more and more time with technologies, listening is a threatened skill. Truly listening is also an important part of empathy, which is a key to addressing issues of bullying and building a more civil society. The best gift you can give someone is to listen to them – echoed by the many appreciative and touched grandparents and grandfriends who have participated in the Listen to a Life Contest.
"At first, I didn't think I would enter because my grandma is so far away. But I decided to interview my grandma over several weeks, in pieces with questions I planned ahead of time, across the 2,000 miles and generations that separate us. I have lots of answers to lots of questions and know more about her now than ever."
Creating meaningful connections with others is something both adults and youth crave in today's hectic, high-tech world. We make a lot of excuses for not putting in the time required. Taking the initiative and coming up with a plan to achieve a goal is also about a different kind of active learning that contrasts with past passive models.
"After much prodding from my dad, I finally interviewed my grampa. I was surprised how interesting he is! We worked as a team. He helped fix my grammar and correct facts, and I showed him how to use the computer to enter the essay."
Many children, especially those who immerse themselves in computers and video games, are socially shy. But social skills are imperative to living and succeeding. Further, as problems become more complex and we all become more intertwined, being able to work collaboratively is essential for success. We need more opportunities for teams that bring together young and old in collaborative learning experiences. Research shows many young people get too much peer socialization and not enough opportunity to interact meaningfully with adults.
"After the interview, it was hard to fit my grandma's whole life into 300 words."
The world of the 21st century is filled with information – lots and lots of information. The challenge is learning how to sift through it all, distill it and find the essence. Creating an accurate story within a strict word limit also calls on problem solving skills to search out and choose the right words and put them in the right place for maximum effect. Moreover, the 21st century often places equal weight on oral and written communication, and being effective in moving between the two. Asking questions and listening to someone talk is the first step; transcribing that information is a separate, equally important second step.
"I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote my essay to make it perfect."
Yes, some studies show that today's young people are writing more by engaging with various technologies. However, much of the writing is impulsive and short. The skill required to plan and craft a thoughtful message is one that becomes more important as young people move from education to work. Also, a good, engaging story requires creativity, even when you're writing based on fact. It's important to learn how to capture attention, grab a reader's imagination and help them see the meaningful relevance to their own life.
"My grandpa has been through some tough times. I learned not to make the same mistakes he made."
A better future – as individuals and as a society – is dependent on learning the lessons of the past. Young people also need more opportunities to learn beyond books, computers and the classroom – to learn about real life from real people, and make connections to their own future. Research shows that young people who can visualize their future and their actions in it are more likely to be successful.
We have to give the last word to one insightful teen: "I think younger generations will really profit if they listen to the words of old ladies and wrinkly old grandpas. Although our society and our technology will continue to change, the generations of people before us will always have something to give to the future. Even if it's just advice given to a 17-year-old who's excited and anxious about college, that advice may change the world. It's up to us, the young people, to take the wisdom of old people and run with it."
There it is – a meaningful contest for all generations that draws on the 20th century to help us create a better 21st century. Enter the Listen to a Life Contest.