The Wisdom Of Age On The Curriculum

Posted: April 19, 1990

A roomful of eighth graders clutched at notebooks and hurriedly recorded the true story of a Jewish couple whose family had lived through a Nazi concentration camp.

"It takes a lot of bookkeeping to kill that many people," Ulrich Frank, 67, said as he described the daily routine at Theresienstadt, an extermination camp in Czechoslovakia, where his grandfather and aunt were held.

Frank told of people's arms being tattooed, "because it was easier than keeping track of a name."

"Their ashes later went into the river," he added.

His wife, Ruth, also 67, who was seated beside him, cried.

It was a special moment. But special moments are not unusual when students

from Newtown Friends School and George School, on Route 413 between Langhorne and Newtown, get together with residents of the Pennswood Village retirement community.

Each week, 20 to 30 residents from Pennswood Village, which is home to many former educators and professionals, visit the adjacent school campuses as volunteer enrichment teachers, tutors and librarians. Pennswood and the schools call it their "intergenerational program."

The 10-year-old program, which started as an opportunity for the residents of Pennswood to simply watch the youngsters play sports or perform, has evolved into a much more ambitious effort in which the older folks act as mentors to the young.

Harold Tannenbaum, 75, a resident of Pennswood Village and chairman of the intergenerational program at Newtown Friends, which has pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade, sums it up as something that benefits everybody.

"People of all ages give and take from each other. Here . . . young people give and old people give and both take from what has been given," Tannenbaum said.

About 80 of the 374 residents of Pennswood are participating in the program. Tannenbaum, a former college science professor, teaches science to pupils in kindergarten through third grade. Another resident, a retired banker, helps students understand checking accounts and loans. A third resident teaches about the stock market, not as a specialist but as an investor.

Bringing along a doctor's bag, a retired pediatrician gives curious students a look at its contents. A retired librarian helps in the library. A retired judge helps youngsters understand the law. Another resident, whose hobby is faceting gemstones, has spent time showing students how gems are cut and polished.

Retired German teacher Dorothea Schmelzer, 81, spends some days as a volunteer tutor to sixth grader Nicole Schaefer, 12, who enrolled at Newtown Friends last fall after moving from West Germany in May. Schmelzer even translates sections of her text into German whenever it is necessary.

"Homework," Nicole said at school one day, "is difficult to do in another language."

Juliette Burstermann, 85, a retired professor of math from Eastern Connecticut State University, says she looked around a lot before she chose to live at Pennswood 10 years ago because, as an educator, the intergenerational program appealed to her and this was the only residence that had such a program.

"Older people and younger people have a lot to contribute to each other," Burstermann said.

Josh Schmidt, headmaster at Newtown Friends, put it this way. "(Pennswood) residents add so much to the children's education. Children here are learning to be more sensitive."

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Children ran giggling up to Tannenbaum one morning this term as he entered their first-grade room to teach his weekly science class. Settling in, he began to use a prop - magnets - to give a 45-minute lesson on gravity.

Looking around the room, he asked 6-year-old Jessica Collins to walk to the front of the class to help with the lesson.

He picked her up and asked the class what exactly was holding her up. The room resounded, "Muscles!"

The retired professor smiled as Jessica's feet once again touched the floor. He then asked the class what had made Jessica come back down. They shouted, "Gravity!"

Tannenbaum ended his lesson by turning to Maryann Kaczmar, the first-grade teacher, saying, "I think they got the point."

Sometimes, as in that case, the lessons are elementary. Sometimes, they are more sophisticated - and sobering - such as the lesson in the human capacity for brutality that eighth graders received in talking to Ulrich and Ruth Frank.

Justin Fraser, 14, who had read about the Holocaust, said that hearing the Franks was "kind of depressing."

"I can't imagine coming that close to death," he said.

English teacher Betsy Taylor, whose students studied the Holocaust, said she liked the effect that the "special persons" from Pennswood had on the students. The living history that speakers have brought to her class serves to ''sensitize their nerve endings," she said.

Taylor said the class had been visited by another speaker on the Holocaust a week before the Franks' visit. The speaker had recalled sneaking out of her house at 5 a.m., evading soldiers, to take a piano lesson.

"After that talk, I asked my class, 'Do you have anything you like this much that you would be willing to risk your life for?' " Taylor said, adding that few students raised their hands.

"What would they do if they couldn't get their corn flakes and their milk was a little bit sour?" Taylor said of her students with a sigh. "I think a lot of us would just lie down."

After the couple's lecture in Taylor's class, several students gathered around Ulrich and Ruth Frank, shaking their hands. Some even offered a hug.

"Remember Anne Frank did have the last laugh," Taylor said as she gave Ruth Frank a hug goodbye.

"Here, the Germans tried to exterminate her, and her story has not only made her famous, but her story will live on forever."

Ruth Frank smiled. Then she gently squeezed her husband's hand and they began to walk down the hallway.

In another classroom, Pennswood resident Bill Davis was tutoring students one-on-one in whatever subjects they needed help. A retired businessman whose only experience with teaching was as a "veteran father and grandfather" said he looked forward to visiting the school twice a week.

Chris Kurash, 12, said what he liked best was Davis' patience. "If I don't understand something, then he'll explain it to me again and again."

School librarian Lisa Ogletree calls her four volunteers "staff."

"They are really more experienced than me," Ogletree said, pointing to two of the volunteers, Henry Swain, 81, and Mildred Stromberg, 71, who were cataloguing books.

Swain had been a volunteer for nine years, and Stromberg had served at the school for more than six years, Ogletree said.

At George School, where students are in grades nine through 12 and many are boarders, there's a course on health and the human spirit that covers the process of aging. Pennswood residents become the "resource people" for the course, according to Pennswood's executive director Alan Farneth.

"Students get to see for themselves that you don't get thrown in the trash heap when you turn 65," Farneth said.

In some ways, Pennswood residents play the role of surrogate grandparents. Residents and students share ice cream sundae-socials at Pennswood and get together on game nights at Pennswood, playing chess, checkers, board games and charades.

The intergenerational program, though regarded as successful, has not been without problems, said Tannenbaum, the chairman of the program at Newtown Friends.

Occasionally, there have been personality conflicts between teachers and Pennswood residents, and students visiting Pennswood have sometimes made too much noise.

But most difficulties can be smoothed over, Tannenbaum said.

"Sure, we made some mistakes when we first started," Tannenbaum said. Pennswood residents were often too eager to help. Now, though, residents offer help only "when there is a real job that the teachers want done and the students want done," he said.

Besides providing support for the faculty of Newtown Friends and George School, the intergenerational program serves to let the community know that life goes on after retirement, said Tannenbaum.

"I like people to know that we are not already dead," Tannenbaum said with a smile.

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