What educators do during the summer: This one coordinates a cultural exchange program

By Jeffry Brotman, School to Career Transition Program Coordinator, Towson High School

Sunscreen and a good book are rarely in the equation when it comes to how I spend my summers.

Every year for the past four years, my multifaceted summer job has involved community outreach, teaching history and culture, planning day trips around the region and donning my proverbial “welcome to Baltimore” T-shirt  and Orioles hat for my role as a coordinator for a cultural exchange program for 15 students from Spain.

exchange programThis year’s group is from Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, which is located in the fiercely-independent region of Catalonia. I can say that I certainly did not need to travel to Barcelona to get a feel for its people and culture. As with past groups, which have come from places like Salamanca, Madrid and Valladolid, this group has provided insights into a culture that is unique.

Switching gears away from my regular classroom routine has provided me with insights not just into other cultures, but my students, my teaching and my community.

There are always a few of my Grade 9 or 11 students who, when they hear about my program, are excited to step outside of their summer routine, host a student and, from time to time, accompany the exchange students and me on our trips to places like Washington, D.C., and New York.

I rarely get to see these students outside of my classroom, but watching them interact with the Spanish students whom they host, their families and even me has provided excellent insights into who they are as family members and citizens. It is certainly refreshing.

Ironically, this brief, one-month experience often affords me with more insights into the character of my students than what I learn of them during their 50-minute classes for the nine months of the school year.

What’s more, every year, the experience shows me that, no matter what country they are from, teenagers are the same; their actions, thoughts and attitudes are universal!

Furthermore, after all the hard work of recruiting host families and planning for classroom instruction, I am always reminded that no amount of bookwork can compare with hands on-learning. It is authentic and commits content to memory more effectively.

This year, as in years past, I prepped my Catalonian friends (to them, they are not Spanish, rather Catalonian) with a class session that focused on the history of Washington, D.C., its design and the importance of the monuments that dot its landscape. The lesson recipe always consists of insightful questions for critical thinking, a healthy portion of discussion and a dash of lecture. Even so, with all that preparation, students’ reactions to their D.C. experiences always trumps anything I can do or say to explain the historical and national importance of our nation’s capital. They will certainly remember walking to the White House and their impression of the iconic residence. “Really?” they always say. “It is the ‘White House,’ where the President stays? But it is so small!”

One thing is for sure, my experience as a coordinator, albeit not in a “tested area,” always provides me (and my students, Spanish and American) with memories and insights that broaden my understanding of the world, my community and my vocation.

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