“Moments of Pure Community”: Books@Work at The Intergenerational School
February 14, 2017 | Maredith Sheridan
Maurice Prendergast, West Church, Boston (Also Known As Red School House, Boston Or West Church At Cambridge and Lynde Streets), c. 1900-1901, [Public Domain] via Wikiart.org
The Intergenerational School in Cleveland, Ohio has a unique mission: to “connect, create and guide a multigenerational community of lifelong learners and spirited citizens.” The student body is drawn from neighborhoods across the city, and students learn in multi-age classrooms. The school recruits adults from the community to serve as mentors, making for a diverse and truly “intergenerational” experience.
Books@Work shares this endeavor toward community and lifelong learning, and it has been a joy to partner with Saint Luke’s Foundation to organize two years worth of programming with The Intergenerational School. The original impetus for the program was simple: to provide a space for the adults in the kids’ lives to get to know each other on a deeper level. When was the last time you had a profound discussion with the people who shape your child’s education on a day-to-day basis? These are people with whom strong partnerships and natural relationships are extraordinarily valuable.
Each week, the program brought together mostly female parents, mentors and occasionally the school’s principal to discuss four different novels. For people who share one major thing in common – an influential role in the life of a child or children at the school – the Books@Work sessions allowed them to find refreshing moments of connection that did not revolve solely around the students.
Adaora Schmiedl, a participant in our program with The Intergenerational School, explains how Books@Work helped the “mixed-race, mixed-age, mixed-interest, mixed-socioeconomic group” find common ground.
My colleague Jessica Isaac facilitated the discussion of Octavia Butler’s book Kindred. The science-fiction novel tells the story of a black woman living in the 1970s who inexplicably travels back in time to experience various moments in the life of her ancestor. She watches him grow up in snippets and thus sees the many ways his personality and actions are shaped by his environment.
Jessica found that much of the group’s discussion revolved around coming to terms with history and how an oppressive system like slavery can break those involved in it. The participants reflected on their own lives and families, sharing personal stories of childhood and encounters with segregation. In a group of people where the natural subject of conversation would be the children they support, the novel pushed them to relate on a level beyond parent-to-parent or mentor-to-parent.
“We could connect in a way that wasn’t so much business about the school,” one participant said. “Not necessarily about the children. We could just connect as women.”
“There were. . . moments of pure community,” another participant said. “When we talked about it later, we all left feeling uplifted. You rarely feel that way outside of a temple or a place of faith. We felt that way over a book.”
The program also encouraged the group to identify and appreciate difference in perspective. “We had people that had great input,” said one participant. “It was all different ages and we could see how other people think. You don’t all have to think alike.” Another participant compared the program to a therapy session that allowed her to “share a lot of personal thoughts and feelings.”
Elementary school kids spend an average of 943 hours a year at school, and yet parents rarely have a space where they can connect with the adults who supervise that time. “Sometimes when you’re rushing. . . from one place to the next, it’s hard to really get engaged in other people,” one program participant said. The Intergenerational School program provided an opportunity for its participants to really see each other.
By using a literary text as a springboard for conversation, we can bond in profound and unexpected ways. We may find that our fellow parents, our children’s mentors or even our colleagues at work share the same worries and hopes that we do – or spur us to reconsider how we see the world. That’s building community.
Read more about our programs at The Intergenerational School: