The Rather Project is an early morning workshop program for 3rd through 5th-grade students at Lake Dallas Elementary School in the city of Lake Dallas, Texas. Local instructors, including Lake Dallas Elementary teachers, students from Lake Dallas High School, and community members, teach interactive lessons on the following topics: language arts and culture, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math), sports & movement, and fine arts.
The mission of The Rather Project is to create opportunities for Lake Dallas Elementary students to spark their interests, ignite their passions, and tackle leadership roles through collaborative workshops offered by secondary students, teachers, and community members.
By allowing students to participate in meaningful activities, the program intends to foster personal relationships with instructors who offer a glimpse of the world that exists beyond the classroom. Most importantly, the Rather Project is an opportunity to engage in intergenerational and community-based learning – two compelling directions leading current-day education reform initiatives.
While this program has the potential to greatly benefit the students of Lake Dallas Elementary, it is also capable of positively impacting the entire community of Lake Dallas. With the interaction of three different age populations--elementary students, high school students, and teachers/community members--different age populations will be able to learn from one another. The following paper provides an overview of the existing research for intergenerational and community-based programs and best practices based upon this knowledge.
According to the National Council on Aging, intergenerational programs are "activities or programs that increase cooperation, interaction or exchange between any two generations. They involve the sharing of skills, knowledge, or experience between old and young” (Penn State 2017). Erik Erikson’s research analyzing the psychosocial stages of human development demonstrates that learning is a continuous process that occurs at every stage in life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Loewen 1995). However, learning poses a number of developmental dilemmas, whether it is an adult’s inability to view a problem from a new perspective or a child’s lack of expertise. Thus, intergenerational proponents argue that more interaction between younger and older generations will benefit both age groups: the young can gain expertise and extra-familial mentorship, while older community members might seek a fresh perspective and familiarity with modern-day cultural norms (Newman 2008; Pew Trusts 2016). Essentially, establishing relationships between different age groups can fulfill important social needs without the community expending any additional resources. Statistics demonstrate that adults not only recognize the importance of intergenerational interaction but desire these interactions. In the 2017 report by Generations United and The Eisner Foundation “77% of adults would like more intergenerational interaction, 92% of adults said that they believe that older adults benefit from having relationships with children and 93% think kids gain greatly from interacting, and getting to know, adults” (Abrahms 2017). Because Lake Dallas Elementary School is a part of a growing, vibrant community that has diverse age populations, the program should be contextualized in the community so that intergenerational learning can occur organically. Since students constantly seek input from outside sources, the program can expand the student’s network of trusted adults who counsel them and give them access to new life experiences and skills (Newman 2008; Pew Trusts 2016; Kaplan 2001). Shumer (1994) states that “the addition of more adult figures in the educational system through community teachers and college tutors helps students feel connected to other people and assists in providing more consistent feedback on learning.” Thus, students will not only gain expertise in a given field but connect with mentors who become models to emulate. In the words of Ernest Boyer, commissioner of U.S. education and president of the Carnegie Foundation, “the health of any culture depends on the vital interactions among at least three generations” (Boyer).
According to the Glossary of Education Reform, community-based learning is defined as “a wide variety of instructional methods and programs that educators use to connect what is being taught in schools to their surrounding communities, including local institutions, history, literature, cultural heritage, and natural environments” (Glossary of Education 2014). The Rather Project depends on the community of Lake Dallas to participate in and contribute to the program so that it reaches its full potential. Overall, the program will give students the opportunity to interact with the local community when they learn about different occupations and how they function within the context of the city (Melaville 2006). By setting a precedent for greater interaction, the Rather Project will create an environment where community members and high school students stay involved in the lives of younger students.
Several studies indicate that community-based programs lead to improved intellectual and social abilities. Because of the student’s intellectual growth, there is a greater academic success: increased high school attendance rates, improved standardized test scores, and greater engagement and participation. Beyond these metrics, assessments show that confidence levels, career readiness, and acceptance of diversity increase because of exposure to new experiences (Melaville 2006; Shumer 1994; Kaplan 2001). The mentorship structure of the program allows students to benefit intellectually from learning a craft in the appropriate context with constant, constructive feedback from instructors.
Additionally, community-based learning programs also lead to the personal and social growth of students. While students learn a socially-valued skill, they learn to adapt and modify their behaviors to achieve the desired end product (Loewen 1995). The student’s newfound ability to connect what they are learning in class to the outside world will motivate them in the classroom: “While teachers tell students that school prepares them for life, the few similarities they do see between the two worlds are rarely put into practice in the school world” (Loewen 1995). Thus, the Rather Project workshops will show students how to apply their knowledge to real-world tasks, linking learning and skill acquisition, resulting in the following learning outcomes: leadership, increased collaboration, and exploration of interests. As teachers are seen operating in a role outside of the classroom, the program will legitimize the teacher’s authority in the classroom.