For many years, I taught eighth grade English, among other classes, here at Wardlaw+Hartridge. Of the many books I read with students, none was as beloved yet reviled as John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. The story, you may recall, tells of two unlikely partners adrift in the heartland of America during the Great Depression. George and Lenny set out seeking safety and fortune, encountering little of either but plenty of danger and rotten luck. In fact, it seems the more they dream and plan, the more seems to go wrong for them.
Steinbeck borrowed a line from an old Scottish poem for the title of his book. Poet Robert Burns wrote To a Mouse in 1785 which includes the line “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley” (poetryfoundation.org) or “The best made plans of mice and men do often go awry.” The title alone tells us what is likely to follow: great failure despite a dream and a plan.
This school year has wrought many unexpected challenges and obstacles to our work. Plans have been upended; indeed, things have gone awry. Unlike George and Lenny from that Steinbeck story, however, we have had the power to innovate and the benefits of a supportive community which they did not. Thus, our plans may have been interrupted but our hopes and goals remain. We simply have reimagined how to achieve them and have set about doing so.
Nowhere is this innovative spirit more evident than in our Middle School Service Learning Program. With many of the organizations we have partnered with shifting away from in-person service, we have had to rethink all we do in this important area. In addition, we have students learning remotely and students here on campus; we want both to have equal opportunity to participate in service learning events. So, what to do?
We have reached out to our service partners to reimagine how we can include virtual options and other pandemic-approved options. For example, a food drive in January, when holiday generosity falls off, is in the works to replace our visits to the Hillside Community Food Bank. Families of distance learners will be invited to drop off donations on campus OR have them picked up by school volunteers. That change was an easy one to plan.
It took a bit more creative thinking to identify ways we could all (students at home and those at school) become involved in directly addressing a significant result of the pandemic: social isolation. We are learning that people of all ages are suffering from the deprivation that accompanies the loss of human interaction. To that end, we have organized three new initiatives that position our Middle School students as pioneers in helping to alleviate the loneliness felt by those in our larger community.
*Letters to Vets Program – Our Middle School students are invited to write letters and greeting cards to be delivered (or mailed) to veterans residing at the Menlo Park Veteran’s Home in Edison through winter and spring. Many of these veterans are elderly and alone. Due to COVID, they can have no outside visitors to maintain their connection to the outside world. Letters and cards become even more precious lifelines. We look for students to practice their writing skills and learn a bit about the Veteran’s Administration and the long-term housing and healthcare needs of elderly veterans.
*Video Pals Program – Prior to the pandemic, we visited with residents at the Highlands Care One Facility just up the road from the school. Visitors are no longer permitted and many of these residents have little contact beyond their immediate caregivers. Scheduling supervised Zoom calls between students and residents will be a way to engage with residents who have a great deal to share and who crave social interaction. We hope for students to learn from the life stories of these residents and establish relationships that can alleviate some of the isolation felt by residents.
*Lower School Reading Buddies Program – Partnering Middle School students with Lower School buddies for virtual story time once or twice weekly bridges the gap between our two divisions in a new way. With strict limits on how we can interact across the divisions, opening this virtual exchange is one way to practice our reading aloud and also our active listening skills. Middle School students will build their leadership skills as they organize the effort, select stories to read, and engage younger students with lively read alouds of favorite stories.
We look forward to the day when we can all be on campus together and resume the many activities that mark a typical school year. In the meantime, we will continue to think and act in innovative ways.
We can always use parent volunteers to help with service learning and other activities. In particular, we can use delivery helpers to drop off and pick up borrowed Library books and other items. As virtual service events increase, we will need help with video pals and storytime supervision. Please do reach out to Ms. Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in providing assistance.
Need a Burns and Steinbeck refresher?
To a Mouse by Robert Burns
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Burns, Robert. To a Mouse. 1785.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33 Accessed 12/7/20
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Penguin Books: New York. 1937