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Children of War: An Intergenerational Conversation about "The Kite Runner," War and Peace

Posted: January 2, 2014

By Kendra Taylor, Graduate student, AYFCE (Applied Youth, Family, and Community Education M.Ed.) program, Dept. of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education
12th graders Jen Veltri and Hannah Brewster in deep conversation with Marcia Beppler, retired Penn State 4-H Program Leader. Art Goldschmidt, Penn State Professor Emeritus of Middle East History, and his group are in the background.

12th graders Jen Veltri and Hannah Brewster in deep conversation with Marcia Beppler, retired Penn State 4-H Program Leader. Art Goldschmidt, Penn State Professor Emeritus of Middle East History, and his group are in the background.

“What are the activities that unite us around the world?” asks a senior volunteer sitting with a group of students at the State College Area High School. “Art”, “sports”, “caring for children”, “food”, “families”, chimed in students as the group brainstormed around the themes of war, conflict, and peace. On October 15th and 22nd 2013, groups of older adult volunteers and students came together to discuss Khaled Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner, and the pressing question of what brings different people together. Along with reading the book in preparation for these conversations, there was the opportunity to attend a theatrical version of the novel performed The American Place Theatre’s Literature to Life company and presented by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, where a single actor’s performance brought the book to life.
The group of senior volunteers, recruited mostly from the Foxdale Village retirement community and the Experience Club which is rooted in the Penn State Center for Healthy Aging, read the book and came ready to share their personal experiences with war, conflict, and peace. Students in two of Ms. Merritt’s 12th grade English classes had come up with questions that they wanted to discuss with the senior volunteers related to the themes in the book.

In mixed-age groups, the students and senior volunteers shared their ideas and opinions about the book, resulting in lively discussion, and even an occasional difference of opinion. For example, one student who said she didn’t like the book was pressed to explain her position. Without missing a beat, she responded by clearly articulating several changes in the content and structure of the novel that would have made it more of a palatable reading experience for her.  While the intergenerational conversations were anchored by The Kite Runner story, the topics covered extended to personal stories involving war and peace. Although the generations have very different experiences with war, it was uniting for the seniors and students to realize that they all shared the experience of growing up during war time.  As one senior put it, “Their war is 9/11, my war was Pearl Harbor.”

However, it was soon realized that they were distinct generational differences with regard to how they perceived war.  One senior noted, “For me war was an experience, for them it is an abstract notion.” The students had the opportunity to move beyond the abstract when they asked senior volunteers questions about WWII. Many students expressed the feeling that it is very hard to talk about war with their grandparents, and they have a lot of questions about WWII. One student told their group, “It’s really hard for me to bring up WWII with my grandfather, it’s too hard for him to talk about it.” Students shared with the seniors what it is like for them to be living through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Some students mentioned family members who were in the military, and others talked about feeling disconnected from these wars.

Towards the end of the sessions, senior volunteers and students noted how valuable such conversations are for getting to know one another. One student said, “Having these relationships with older people is really important; I wish that more people had that.” A senior volunteer echoed this sentiment, “It’s fun to be with kids of that age, I just don’t get to talk to them that much.” The seniors were clearly encouraged by what they learned about today’s youth. One stated, “I was impressed by the dazzling perceptions of the students.” Another exclaimed, “I would have no worries about the future if all young people were like these students.”

It turned out that The Kite Runner was not only a great story to discuss in and of itself, but it provided a perfect window for exploring the values we choose to live by. One senior focused on how we get along with others: “The kite flying seems to be the perfect metaphor for cooperation, working together, and being independent.” One student zeroed in on the importance of freedom: “This book makes me appreciate my experiences with freedom.”

Goodbyes were warm and the door for future intergenerational conversations was left open. Several participants noted that they looked forward to the next great novel and theatre performance that they can explore with one another.

Collaborating organizations, workshop planning team, and senior volunteer group:

  • State College Area High School (Christine Merritt, English Teacher & English Coordinator, 7-12, and Jeanne Knouse Director of LE/SS)
  • Center for Healthy Aging, College of Health and Human Development (Amy Lorek, Research and Outreach Associate)
  • Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State (Medora Ebersole, Education Programs Manager, and Amy Dupain Vashaw, Audience & Program Development Director),
  • Foxdale Village (Dave Beppler, Coordinator of the Foxdale intergenerational program group)
  • Centre County Office of Aging (Jane Taylor, Director)
  • Penn State Intergenerational Program (Matt Kaplan, Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging). [For more information about this intergenerational program, contact Matt at: msk15@psu.edu.] 
  • Senior volunteer group: Marjorie Nelson, Charlotte de Lissovoy, Art Goldschmidt, Barbara Thwaites, David Beppler, Marcia Beppler, Ruth Yeaton, Alita Letwin, Vusal Hasanov, and Manfred Keune.