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Biography project soldiers on despite COVID-19

Stonington — For Pine Point School student Owen Bennett, one of the most interesting parts of his interview with 86-year-old StoneRidge retirement community resident Ed Nichols involved his "knack for mischief (that) started when he was very young."

Among Ed's antics, according to the biography that Bennett wrote and recited to Nichols during a laugh-filled Zoom conference Tuesday, was the homemade pipe bomb he made out of a chemistry kit given to him in elementary school and his penchant for drag racing as a teenager, which stopped only after one of the cars he rode in flipped upside down and he escaped through a window or door.

"The police (back then) would let kids get away with a lot more things than they do today," Bennett concluded in his bio of Nichols.

StoneRidge senior citizens and Pine Point students have been working on the biography project annually for the past 24 years, but this was the first time it had to be completed remotely. The students spent six weeks in January and February interviewing seniors, and were supposed to return to StoneRidge this month to present their stories, but the pandemic intervened and the retirement community went into lockdown to keep the older residents safe from infection.

Instead, students read the stories over Zoom to the delight of seniors, several of whom had never used the technology before. At the same time, StoneRidge delivered the printed stories of their residents' lives, complete with students' original artwork on the covers, so the seniors would have a physical reminder of the project.

"You have a wonderful son; this is very, very impressive," StoneRidge resident Jane Schnur told the parents of Yash Naik after he had read her bio via Zoom. "I will share this with my family when the virus is gone and I can see them again."

This year, 12 seventh-graders at Pine Point completed the project, and 10 StoneRidge residents were the subjects of the bios. The students and residents are randomly matched, and sections of the interview, recorded in notes taken by hand, are color-coded so the seventh-graders can divide their work into chronologies spanning from childhood to young adult to working adult to retirement years.

StoneRidge, in a news release, said the purpose of the project is to "promote cross-generational understanding, communication and respect." It also gives students a chance to apply English skills while developing "a better understanding of American history in the context of world events," the release said.

Many of the students and seniors develop a relationship that extends beyond the project, said StoneRidge Executive Director Kathleen Dess, and in a normal year some of the seniors would have been attending a year-end play later in the month written and performed by students.

"This is my favorite project of the year, hands down," said Pine Point English teacher James O'Connor, who coordinates the bios with seventh grade math and science teacher Erin Call. "They all worked so very hard on these."

The project began nearly a quarter-century ago led by retired longtime Pine Point teacher David Smith, he added, and O'Connor has been in charge for the last two years.

O'Connor said the switch to Zoom classes after Pine Point had to be shuttered never slowed down his students, and if anything he was able to spend more one-on-one time with them thanks to the technology.

"The younger generation, they really know how to work with technology," he said. "They're better Zoom masters than I am."

The students use their observational skills to describe the StoneRidge residents in rich detail. In one bio project involving a couple, Dale and Jeff Carstens, student Hannah Satran notices "Dale's light gray hair sits upon her head like a cloud, and her cheerfully colored tops brightened up the room. Jeff, with his button-up shirt and brown pants, has dark gray hair combed over the top of his head, and he always has his leather-colored cane in hand."

After the individual presentations were over Tuesday, there was one final surprise as Pine Point students sent each of their senior bio partners a spring bouquet of flowers timed perfectly with the arrival, from StoneRidge, of hand-delivered bags of cupcakes that parents had secreted away until the last moment.

"This is just very exciting for us and lots of work," said Dale Carstens, with Jeff by her side. "We hope someday we can give a hug and say 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'"

l.howard@theday.com

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