In September 2019, I launched a pilot program with three sections of my United States History II course. More than seventy juniors and seniors in high school wrote letters to potential pen pals around the United States. They cold-mailed senior centers, retirement homes, and veterans’ affairs offices with an introductory letter and a request: to pair them up with a senior citizen. This senior would exchange letters with the student for the entirety of the school year and share stories from history, stories from their lives.
Since then, letters have been regularly delivered to the school from 20 individuals across 16 different states. They have contained a range of information and stories. Students have read memories of an aunt starving in Idaho during the Great Depression, and recollections of bubbling water in the Chicago River from decomposing cattle carcasses. Each time a student gets a letter, their face lights up. A tear of paper. Students nearby lean in. They crane their heads to catch a glimpse of the letter, of the handwriting, of the stories within.
My upcoming Fund for Teachers fellowship will build on this program. This summer over a 29-day period, I will travel by train around America to meet with directors of retirement homes, veterans offices and local high schools to establish an intergenerational, history pen pal program that strengthens connections between seniors and teens across the country.
I chose seven stops: Chicago, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, El Paso, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Asheville. The locations were chosen as they cross the economic, political, and demographic makeup of the nation. This will also result in a wide variety of perspectives shared through the letters. At each stop, I will be doing two things.
- Firstly, I will meet with senior citizens and high school teachers to expand this intergenerational pen pal program.
- Secondly, I will visit historic attractions and prominent sites to better understand America. It is a nation whose history I teach, and yet I rarely travel beyond the East Coast.
Over 1,000 students and senior citizens across eight states will be connected through this trip, and I hope to expand further in coming years if it is as successful as I expect.
The faculty and administrators at my school have long been struggling with the most effective structure and mission of high school. There is a growing urgency for graduates with practical skills, that do not require a college degree. In particular, students need the skill sets to work with the elderly. The school’s local community is one of the oldest per capita in the nation. Recent research shows that individuals who are in regular contact with senior citizens are more likely to pursue careers in elder care. This project will further the goals of my school to prepare students for a life in the community they have grown up in.
Jeremy Shea is a history and photography teacher at Barnstable High School, in Hyannis, MA. He began teaching in 2010, when he moved to work at a school in Punta Gorda, Belize for two years through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Jeremy also manages the property of a 79 acre summer camp on Cape Cod, is an accomplished nature photographer, and is the host of The Mr Shea Show Episode 1 – YouTube, an educational variety show that can be found on YouTube and local access stations across New England.