This year’s newly elected Middle School Community Action Team leaders have been working hard to summarize the community action projects that each of their respective grades have been working on.  With great care and thoughtfulness each grade level has been focusing their attention on working within our community to create compassion and actively engage on projects that mean a lot to them and to the organizations that they are working with.

The sixth graders are just beginning to skim the surface on learning about the needs of the hungry and homeless individuals that live in the Bay Area and how their life paths have brought them to be where they are now.  Last month they all dove into a lesson on looking below “the waterline” of an individual to learn about what we can’t see on the surface.  As our 6th grade Action Representatives Michal and Helen put it, “We love knowing that we are able to look under the waterline and find out that 90% of the person that we meet is unseen.”

7th Grade

The 7th graders have buddied up with the Kindergarten class at Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto and in their visit this week they presented iPad games that they created themselves to their Kindergarten buddies.  Their buddies, many who have no access to computers or the internet on a regular basis, were completely thrilled with their games and their teachers were all greatly appreciative for the experience.

Here is an excerpt from our 7th grade community action leaders on their experience thus far:

I remember meeting my Brentwood buddy for the first time.  Fond memories of crafts, games, and smiles come to mind when I hear ‘Brentwood’.  I have made such a connection with the school and with my buddy, his teachers, and his classmates that it has become an unforgettable experience.  I know that I am not the only one who has had these memories, for my classmates and I all share and cherish these moments together.

This year, the 7th grade class of 2019 has visited Brentwood and done several fun activities and projects with and for our buddies.  We are each paired with a Kindergartener or two that we visit regularly.  We take class trips to the school and interact with our buddies on many levels.  Some things that we have done are reading books to our buddies, helping educate them with their knowledge of plants, planting flowers and other plants with them, making a cute and edible turkey with them for Thanksgiving, making soup jars for them and their families, playing outside with them, making a handprint picture with them, and creating Scratch programming games for them to help them learn more about science.  On the 20th of December, we get to visit them again and hopefully make even more memories and give them even more smiles.

-Jacqueline H. Class of 2019

8th Grade:

The 8th graders have just wrapped up two memorable days with the residents of an independent living facility, Stevenson House, in Palo Alto.  Along with capturing video and audio recordings of the resident’s oral histories many of them are also working to create an immigration story line from these residents which will later be published on the Bay Area non-profit website “Made into America”, an organization working to compile and share stories of Bay Area residents and their diverse stories of immigration.  Upon our return from the holiday break the 8th graders will also create an art project for their elder interviewees and return to the Stevenson House to deliver these “gifts”.  Below are summaries and stories of what our 8th grade Community Action representatives have gained from this experience so far.

This winter, the eighth grade class is partnering with Stevenson House, “an affordable senior community”, to give students a chance to connect with the elderly. Since most middle schoolers don’t regularly meet new people of a different age and then discuss their life stories on camera, we began by learning more about the people we would be meeting. As a class, we learned about Stevenson House, and discussed some common stereotypes and misconceptions about seniors. This label-breaking involved working in groups to try to describe a person’s life and interests based solely on a photo of their face. Proving the point that our generalizations and labels that we put on people are rarely correct, the descriptions our class came up with were off by a very long shot, which we then reflected on as a class. Later, after some review of interviewing techniques and the misconceptions we could give to our hosts about teenage girls, we finally visited Stevenson House. There, we were broken into groups and scattered about their ground floor. My group’s senior host shared her experiences growing up in Palo Alto and then making important choices as a young adult with us. We in turn described our own interests and pasts to her, completing the exchange. I think this experience of meeting someone new, especially someone much older allowed our class to think beyond middle school, beyond girls our own age, and beyond our own needs and interests. I can’t wait to come back for our next visit.  

~Ellen Howard

Her name is Maxine, she says, with a voice and soft facial features that remind me of white snow before Christmas. She tells us she grew up in Nebraska, was the oldest sibling of four brothers, and loved going to school. I watch her as she speaks, frail and gorgeously delicate in her chartreuse sweater. Unexpectedly, I find myself connecting to her and her words as she stares to the right of our eyes and reminisces about writing soulful poetry as a young. After this, her smile fades as she talks about how she was denied admission to many jobs because she didn’t meet the 5 foot height requirement. I immediately think about how we are learning about injustices in history for our National History Day theme of rights and responsibilities, as well as Atticus Finch from English 8, the man who, to me is the Father of American Equality. The sadness in her voice is small and subdued, yet there, and I wonder what I or could have done to have put that smile back on her face. When I was later discussing my visit with my Dad, he said something I still remember, something like: the biggest problem with senior citizens is that most of them don’t have much to do, presumably because the majority of them are retired. I paused for a moment and realized the sincerity in his statement. At that moment I decided that in the future, I wanted to do something about this; I knew the harsh burdens of loneliness and that feeling of not knowing what to do with yourself when you didn’t have the pleasure, yes, the pleasure, of being busy. I want to give seniors the opportunity to participate in activities such as dancing, the arts, writing, sports, volunteering at organizations, etc. I want to give them the gift of youth, passionate action, and re-awaken them to the beauty of learning. Maybe, someday, I will tour around the country to different senior homes and bring activities and accessibility to their front porches. And maybe after a series of tomorrows pass, I’ll get out my classical Indian dance outfit and teach them how to dance. My visit to Stevenson House has helped me interact with a new generation of my community, learn about their stories and use them for future inspiration, and become aware of their lifestyles and valuable lessons from the past. But most of all, it has reminded me that although my own grandmother is several thousand miles away, I will always have her and the many wonderful senior citizens near me, such as Maxine, to serve as new grandparent figures.  

-Riya Berry

 

As I walked into the Stevenson House, I noticed that everyone waiting to meet us was smiling. They seemed genuinely happy to see a big group of 63 girls walk into their midst.  We were there to interview the residents of Stevenson House about their lives and learn a little more about their immigrant pasts.  I sat down in front of a friendly looking Russian woman, and right away I started to get a nervous. I thought to myself, “What it I blank on what to say?” or, “What will I do it she can’t understand me?”  However, with the help of my grandmother as a translator, and the fact that Ninel Breslau was, and is, a sweet and understanding woman, this experience was incredibly rewarding and inspiring.

It is incredible how much more you learn about someone when you truly engage in a face-to-face conversations. That is the biggest take-away that I took from our first visit: engage. Engagement in a conversation occurs when you really internalize what you hear and learn from someone and then apply it to other experiences in your life.  When you engage you not only listen intently, but you also tell your story at the same time. Engagement is a give and take.  

Ongoing, deep conversations are not easily facilitated by texting and social media posts. This experience was different. By truly engaging I learned that Ninel used to be in an orchestra, that many people in her family are painters, and that she survived WWII.  As I listened to her, I thought about how my father’s parents had told me about their immigration stories from Russia.  I thought about why they came to America and how their lives might have been different if they had not come years ago.  Ninel, a more recent immigrant, emigrated many years after my grandparents, so maybe she lived some version of the life they left behind there.  

The residents of Stevenson House took time out of their day to talk to us, and to let us interview them about their lives. I got to establish a connection with one more person in the world, and I learned a lot about both her and myself from it.

~Talia Kertsman