Silver surfers, proggy matting and memory loss: senior citizens can add value in school!

The generation game works well in schools

Senior citizens teach proggy matting

When I saw a really positive piece in the Guardian about ‘inter-generational projects’, I caught my ‘disruptive nostalgist’ self rolling my eyes and sighing. A totally inappropriate response to a very nice project, involving senior citizens working with school children you may think. And you’d be correct, I slapped my own wrist for doing it. But it highlighted yet again for me my frustration that educational memory can sometimes seem so short-lived. Hence my becoming a ‘disruptive nostalgist’.

Disruptive nostalgia helps

When people ask me ‘what is a disruptive nostalgist?’, after they’ve seen the job title, I struggle to come up with a short snappy answer. I can tell them the story about how the title came into being, or try and explain the basis for why it’s what I do. But there’s no quick elevator pitch.

The nearest I can get to a brief summary is to say “It’s my job to constantly remind educational projects that what they are doing, or are about to do, may have been done before. Not so I can say ‘it didn’t work’, but rather to add ‘and here is what we learned last time someone tried this’”. Maybe this will reassure, or oftimes help them not make some of the same mistakes again. Or maybe to help them explore and see what is now different that can be used to their advantage. As you will imagine this requires that a disruptive nostalgist has a combination of a good memory and eternal optimism. Both of which I may struggle with these days, but I really believe that it’s well worth the effort.

The several intergenerational projects mentioned in the Guardian piece are really positive, and you should definitely take a look. My frustration was quite simply that I have encountered several similar projects before that were equally as successful and impressive. Yet somehow the lessons learned can seem to get forgotten and overlooked with time, as other ideas and schemes come along.

Silver surfers

Silver surferSome ten years ago secondary specialist schools had the opportunity to attract extra funding to enhance their work with their communities. What they did and how they did it was entirely up to them. The work was evaluated and if successful they could draw on further such funding in following years. Several schools quite independently developed projects that involved bringing senior citizens into the school. In a couple of cases, it was largely because the size and location of the schools meant they were well-placed to offer suitable premises for them to meet. But what was really interesting was how some of the schools capitalised on their presence to develop intergenerational projects. And some of these were recognised by awards, which is how I got to see some of them in action.

One of my favourites, up in the north-west, was the Silver Surfers Club. At the time there was significant concern that the elderly were perhaps being excluded from the internet revolution. Someone pointed out that schools had computer rooms suitable for the internet training that these senior citizens needed, and so the Silver Surfers Club was created. At first the teaching staff were used to deliver the training, but then someone hit upon the student power concept, and the project really took off. Getting students to support and help the silver surfers get to grips with the internet changed the whole nature of the operation. New intergenerational friendships were formed, understanding in both directions increased dramatically. And when the project officially finished no-one wanted to stop and so it carried on anyway.

Proggy matting

proggy matOver in the north-east another school in a robust part of town also had their own in-house senior citizens group. Rather than the latest internet-surfing skills, here the focus was on cooking, and on traditional skills in the area in danger of dying out – notably hooky and proggy-matting. Rag-rugs or proggy mats were a traditional feature of working class homes in the north-east. When you were too poor to afford carpets, you could still make a fine and colourful rug from a bit of canvas, and a collection of rags, or cast-off clothes. These were cut into pieces and inserted into the canvas, typically to form geometric patterns, though some could resemble abstract art forms.

In this school, the senior citizens met to create their own proggy-matting, and someone at the school had the bright idea of attaching some of the more troubled youngsters to the club to learn these skills, along with cooking skills. Again, magic happened. Meals were cooked and mats were made. The senior citizens became the older, stable influences that many of the youngsters lacked, virtually surrogate grandparents. Absenteeism and misbehaviour dropped, and it was clear that both groups looked forward to their weekly sessions.

Who’s helping who?

In both of these instances, and in others I encountered, the real key to success was in the setting up of the project. Each of the generations should think that it is they who are supporting the other. Both disturbed youngsters and independent senior citizens hate the thought of being patronised and ‘done to’. But let them know that it is they who are helping the other generation by working with them, and everyone’s a winner. And it was clear that both parties benefited from these projects. The youngsters thought they were helping run sessions for the elderly, and the senior citizens thought they were supporting the school by working with the youngsters. And both were right.

Of course, a sad aspect of these stories is that these intergenerational projects take time and funding.Aand if a government comes along and cuts the funding, the projects can wither on the vine. But others can spring up, so rather than rolling my eyes I should be optimistic that good ideas will keep resurfacing, as the Guardian article shows. But there is a part of me that recognises that these are relatively isolated projects, swimming against the tide of routine schooling. Yet their recurring success would suggest that if they could somehow be brought into mainstream thinking, mountains could be moved.

The government is still concerned about digital inclusion, especially for the elderly, and has digital champions out there seeking ways to help bring it about. And we still have loads of anxiety about disruptive pupils, and behaviour tsars. Meanwhile we are apparently ignoring some of the lessons learned, and successes under previous governments, and overlooking the real power and potential of inter-generational projects.