Tallmadge: Death is a character in any life story.
But it’s not exactly something Ariana Del Re had expected her sixth-grade students to experience during a class project.
That would become the case when she asked them to interview residents at Mulberry Gardens, an assisted-living facility in Munroe Falls.
“In education, we talk a lot about authentic learning experiences. This is about as authentic as you can get,” Del Re said of the project in general and not specifically the death of Sue Lessig — a great-grandmother, a wife and one of 10 residents at Mulberry Gardens who had stories to tell the sixth-graders.
Del Re designed the class project to advance literary skills by drawing on palpable life experiences. Groups of two or three students would interview and listen to residents, who would visit the middle school five times over the course of the yearlong project. Then the students would review their notes and return the favor, giving each senior citizen their story back in a biography called a “Life Book.”
That was the plan.
But as her students presented those books Tuesday to the residents, Del Re reflected on how little she knew then and how much her students know now.
“There’s a bigger lesson that they’re learning,” she said, as residents laughed and cried upon receiving their books.
Del Re embarked on the project in the fall, not knowing how her students would respond. She designed the curriculum as a response to the higher standards mandated by national curriculum implemented in Ohio in the fall. The new Common Core standards rely heavily on reading and writing, main elements her project reflected.
She didn’t know at the time who would pay to print the Life Books, which were eventually sponsored at $15 apiece by the Tallmadge PTA. Del Re hopes that Tallmadge schools will allow her to continue the program next year, estimating the total cost at about $500.
While cost and student transportation concerned Del Re, it was the delicate material that worried her most. She didn’t know if her students would honor the responsibility of caring for someone’s life through writing.
“I didn’t know if they were going to have that experience, and they did,” she said, admiring her 27 students who ate pizza and conversed with residents Tuesday at Mulberry Gardens.
The students didn’t write essays or book reports. They wrote about life. They developed questions that tapped into 80-year-old memories. And through the process, they built relationships with their subjects.
“A lot of [residents] don’t get this connection,” said Maryann Ervin, Mulberry Gardens administrator. “They just have this emotional connection. It’s just so nice to see.”
Absent from the crowd Tuesday was Sue Lessig, who passed away from pneumonia in January, leaving behind her husband of nearly 65 years who also resides at Mulberry Gardens. Bob Lessig, 87, also participated in the school project.
Their daughter, Elizabeth Butler, encouraged him to finish telling his story after his wife’s passing. Butler was encouraged by two of Del Re’s students to do the same for her mother.
Ashley Hughes and Sammy Hayward are among the last people to visit Sue Lessig.
“She was very lively and spunky,” Hughes, 12, said of her only visit with Lessig, who died about a month later.
“We decided to finish the book no matter what happened,” Hayward, 11, said.
The Lessigs’ stories, like the other biographies, are riddled with imagery, style and photos that brought tears to Butler’s eyes as she unwrapped the book.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said.
The emotions overwhelmed her and she rested her head on the open pages of the book.
“It’s so good. It’s just so good. It’s better than I ever imagined,” Butler said. “My children will love this. And my grandchildren will think it’s the coolest thing.”
Her oldest grandchild is the same age as the two girls who authored her mother’s life story. In a corner at the meet-and-greet Tuesday, the young authors reflected on the one time they met Sue Lessig and all of the stories she shared.
“Everyone really has a story,” Hughes said.
“We learned things about [Sue Lessig] that even her daughter didn’t know about,” Hayward said. “Everyone has a story behind them. It can be pretty surprising.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.