ELK RAPIDS — Winning a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan last weekend is important to Antrim County poet Terry Wooten, founder of the Elders Project — an educational oral history and poetry program that has brought more than 200 seniors and 500 students together in 14 Michigan schools for almost a decade.
“For thousands of years, youth got their histories and herstories from elders of our community,” Wooten told the 200-300 people at the History Society of Michigan’ banquet Saturday night at its fall state conference, hosted this year in downtown Kalamazoo.
“One of the tragedies of our society is that we separate our youth from our elders,” he added. “The Elders Project doesn’t change that, but if you can just witness the exchanges between students and elders you see that they sometimes area as important as the poetry that comes of out of it. Elders, I think, also cherish the idea that they’ve been invited back into the school.”
Wooten’s project worked to record oral histories of older generations while familiarizing the younger generations with their stories.
Middle and high school students conduct two taped interviews with the elders about their lives and memories and then transcribe their favorite parts verbatim and put it into a free-verse poem. Wooten then listens to the tapes and edits the students’ poems into poetic verse while retaining the storytellers’ unique voice.
“When you see the exchange, it gives the Elders Project relevance you realize the value of putting these two subcultures together,” Wooten said. “It means a lot to me to be recognized for that. In this age of crazy standardized testing, I want to say a big thank-you to all the teachers who took the time to open their classroom up to me and also to all the students and elders.”