After a year of remote learning, canceled activities, and restricted social interactions, students at the Independent Learning Center (ILC) were looking for ways to start getting back to normal. They realized that many people in the Methow, regardless of age, have been dealing with the same feelings of social isolation. That became the focus of a project called a design lab, which entails thinking about ways to solve problems in the community.
The students realized that the pandemic has been especially hard on older people, many of whom have had to limit their contacts. The students missed seeing their families and grandparents. They began wondering how to connect with elders in the community, said Kim Odell, the adviser for ninth- and 10th-grade students at the ILC.
The students jotted down their thoughts about the effects of isolation and ways to counteract them. The health protocols of the pandemic meant people were getting out less, which can decrease brain activity. They weren’t getting fresh air. That could lead to bad habits to pass the time, like smoking and overeating.
At first, the students thought about doing an art project. But the design lab process steered them to empathy, and inspired them to connect with elders in the community, Odell said. They approached Methow At Home, where Executive Director Tracy Sprauer put them in touch with people who were eager to talk with young people and to share their stories.
The students met with community members Gudrun Brunot and Rob Gretzner, Denny O’Callaghan, Frauke Rynd and Carolyn Bickford. As they all got to know one another and compared notes about how life has changed, the students decided to produce podcasts of their interviews.
On a storyboard, they mapped out questions, including asking about favorite memories and the craziest thing their interviewees had done as kids.
The students also created portraits and other works of art that captured an aspect of their new friendship. Georgie Brisbois did a vibrant painting of the honeysuckle trellis at the Brunot/Gretzner home that celebrates the shapes and colors of the leaves and blossoms.
Advantages of boredom?
The students and their new friends met last week at the ILC. They took turns describing their talks had been meaningful. The students also presented the elders with the portraits and paintings.
When O’Callaghan said, “A helping hand can mean a great deal,” it really meant a lot to her, ninth-grader Bela Moore said. Moore said she especially enjoyed learning about so many different backgrounds and upbringings.
The students and community members often found themselves comparing notes on changing technology and how that has affected their lives. O’Callaghan described using an icebox instead of a refrigerator and having to hand-crank the phone when he was young.
Compared to life 70 or 80 years ago, everything seems less connected today, 10th-grader Ila Newman said. People seem more distracted and less in touch, even when they’re together, she said.
Even when your phone is turned off, you’re still aware of it, one student said. Then again, without their phones, they’d have been even more isolated during the pandemic, they said.
The students’ questions were thought-provoking and brought up lots of memories, Rynd said. In fact, she’d find herself thinking of more things to tell the students after she got home. Bickford said next time she’d like to interview the students to learn more about their lives. Sprauer was impressed by the students’ questions and the insights that provided into their lives.
The students acknowledged that there may have been an advantage to growing up in an era where you could be “bored,” instead of having instant entertainment at your fingertips. Having to work with whatever you had would probably make you more imaginative, one said.
It was satisfying to talk to young people, O’Callaghan said. Even though he has nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, because they live in other areas, he doesn’t see them often.
The students made four half-hour podcasts of their interviews, which will be shared with Methow At Home and possibly with the community at large.
Relating on this level affects everyone, Odell said. Although students will have a new design lab project in the next trimester, they’re likely to continue the visits with their new friends.