Seniors and Staples students bridge age gap at inaugural writing workshop

Photo of Justin Papp

WESTPORT — Julie Heller remembers first going to hear readings by Jan Bassin’s writing students at the Westport Center for Senior Activities.

Heller, who is the English department chairwoman at Staples High School, had gotten to know Bassin first when the latter was a parent of a Staples student. Bassin had begun teaching a writing workshop to seniors in Westport in 2015 and, a year later, asked Heller to come witness her students’ work.

“It was heartwarming. It was incredible to hear them stand up in front of so many people and share their personal stories,” Heller said. “Jan had said it would be great if we could somehow forge a bond between Staples High School and the seniors and cross that generational divide.”

Last Friday, the shared vision of Heller and Bassin came to fruition.

A group of Staples juniors and seniors from the creative writing classes of Staples teachers Kim Herzog and David Stockwell took the bus to the Westport Center for Senior Activities to meet with Bassin’s creative-writing seniors to participate in an intergenerational writing workshop. The group of roughly 40 students and seniors met for the day to write creatively on a particular theme.

“We thought the easiest thing to do would be to have high school students mix in with small groups and have all write a piece with one common topic,” Heller said. “We started planning around Thanksgiving and food was on everyone’s mind, so that’s where we settled.”

The pairing of high school students and seniors was the first of its kind in recent memory, according to Heller, causing some apprehension on both sides going in. But the anxiety was fleeting.

“Quickly the seniors were charmed and the students were so in awe of listening to the stories of these people, to learn where they had come from and to think about their lives,” Heller said.

The admiration was mutual.

“The Staples kids were incredible,” Bassin said. “Their stories were great, they were so bright and engaged and respectful of our group and relaxed.”

Bassin has worked in publishing, taught English at community colleges, and offers college essay coaching to high school students.

“The intergenerational thing is very much a passion of hers,” said Janet Coughenour, a Westport resident who has participated for several years in writing workshops with Bassin.

Based on the success of the first workshop, Bassin and Heller are hoping to arrange a second meeting between Staples students and seniors for the second semester.

“The students wanted to go back; the teachers were excited; they want to make sure they do this again. I think we’ve got something going,” Heller said.

For Coughenour, sharing a room with her young peers was an experience that inspired her.

“It added to the experience in a way that proves that when you’re meeting on common ground, like writing, we’re ageless. I didn’t feel old or young, I felt inspired that they were so encouraged by words,” Coughenour said. “Words and stories close the inter-generational gap.”; @justinjpapp1