Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song
This is an excerpt from Jack Shelton’s book Consequential Learning.
Elders Wisdom, Children’s Song was created by troubadour and community organiser Larry Long. The programme is an intergenerational learning process, and is run in rural and urban schools across the US. Community elders go into local schools and tell their life stories to children who then prepare recitations and songs about what they have heard. These are later performed at community-wide celebrations.
The project is arts based, with non-professional older people, whose lives are the subject of study spending time in classrooms. Students have fun, while carrying out the important public task of recording oral history. The project is cross-disciplinary. Both teachers and students become learners and decision makers, local elders become teachers and the community becomes the school house. The process crosses lines of class, complexion, age and culture.
Listening is a crucial responsibility of students working on this project and it is one they eagerly accept. Children and young people listen intently to elders because their stories are engaging and because the youngsters are responsible for fashioning the spoken narratives into stories and songs. This is critical listening for the purpose of making decisions and taking action, a skill to be mastered by all preparing to be citizens in a democracy. It is no small challenge to listen carefully, to record thoughts accurately, and to pitch in with others to select and arrange the words that are going to tell the story of another person’s life.
Young people are often disconnected from their communities and sometimes feel as if society wants them to “disappear”. The Elders Wisdom, Children’s Song project is a powerful means by which to reverse this disconnect: As one school principal noted: “it lets kids know what kind of power they can have to make a difference.” During the performance they see the positive emotional response of elders and hear the applause of community members. Awareness of being able to make a difference is an essential underpinning of active citizenship.
Of course the stories of elders themselves are instructive. Those involved in the process take their responsibilities very seriously; they choose their words carefully and seldom moralise. As indicated by their roles, elders take part not to tell young people how to live but to tell them about how they have lived. Consequently, students hear life stories emphasising such themes as hard work and hard times, courage and aspiration, appreciation of and responsibility to others, injustice and efforts to make things right, family and fun. They then sort through what they have heard, extracting what they find most interesting; in other words, they are positioned to reflect on the narratives of persons whose lives are considered exemplary. And their reflections help them to think about their own lives and become more self-conscious about the communities in which they live.
Elders know that they are being honoured and their involvement is often a high point in their lives – they make clear their gratitude to the young people to who them entrust their life stories. Many of those who take part establish lasting relationships with each other and those involved in the programme point to its ability to connect young people and older people in ways that transcend the programme itself. The process brings the local community into the school. Teachers frequently report that the community celebration event attracts the largest audience ever seen in their schools, with families coming to see children and grandchildren perform and friends of the elders coming to see them honoured.
The stories give perspective to students’ learning about their communities and their countries and the students in turn give their communities a powerful record of people and place.
"Place seems to have less and less value in our global, mobile economy, and yet people long to feel rooted and part of a community. For however long or short a time a person may spend in any one community, our society will improve to the extent that everyone, young people and adults alike experience and act on that belonging."
The project documents community history, positioning schools as community institutions that generate important local information, recognising that “we all make history everyday”. Occasionally the process uncovers extraordinary stories with national implications communities may have forgotten. In Beatrice, Alabama Elementary School students listened to Ezra Cunningham tell of his groundbreaking civil rights work. Although familiar to many adults, Cunningham’s life and wisdom were basically unknown to the young people in the community and prior to the project there was little written or recorded information about his life. In another project Clarence Hupka survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 and told his story to Nebraskan children. The song, written collaboratively by Larry Long and the class was so powerful that children were invited to sing it at the annual meeting of the Indianapolis survivors.
Children learned first hand about the history of Eden Prairie, the new history of the Somalis, how an Anishinabe Ojibwe Nation elder grew up in Minnesota and the story of a Russian Jewish Elder who faced many hardships in the former USSR. Each story brought history alive in a way that made us laugh and cry and learn together.
—Nanette Missaaghi and Larry Leebens, Eden Prairie School, Minnesota
Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song with Larry Long, 2007
By Richard A. Erickson, Ph.D.
School Social Worker , Cedar Manor Intermediate Center
Several years ago a brilliant artist and gifted musician Larry Long was introduced to Cedar Manor Intermediate School located in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Larry brought us an extraordinary gift that that has been refined and improved upon each and every year.
Larry and the students who come to work with him (in our school it has been sixth graders) record and develop upon the stories of community elders. These stories are then translated into student choreography and music. Many hours are spent in the preparation. The [final result] becomes an evening showcase for hundreds from our community who come out to see their children perform. The participating audience soon discovers that they have learned and been uplifted personally by the experience as they hear their children talk, sing, and dance in honor of the four elders.
The presentation features the beaming chosen elder celebrities who, through their own personal stories teach all of us about the beauty and the purpose life found in the midst of difficulty, hard work, and perseverance.
Each and every one of us searches for meaning and purpose in our lives. All too often we are so busy with our own daily fast paced existence that we fail to see the beautiful journey we are actually traveling.
It is by hearing and understanding our elders that we come to understand our own personal stories. Elder stories help us understand and put into perspective our own failures, our own shortcomings, our detours, and our frustrations. It is in the elder stories that we see more clearly our own developing stories of accomplishment, survival, and hope.
The Larry Long Elders’ Wisdom program has re-created a culturally lost art. Our elders can teach us important lessons about life, and our own purpose in life. Somehow our society has forgotten to take the time to learn from its elders.