Why I do International School Exchanges

The November Paris sky was gray, as always. The young American girl moved quickly down the rue des Martyrs, passing the corner stores in the middle of the block, masses of colorful fruit, apples, oranges, pears, clémentines, the pungent, loud fish shop, the slaps of the fish against the ice. She turned and briefly glanced for traffic, then crossed buoyantly to the other side of rue St. Lazare, pleased to see Alexi at his crêpe stand, just like every other day.

Alexi looked sweaty despite the chill in the air. He smiled and asked her if she wanted her usual. The crêpe was hot, sugary, delicious. Her heart matched it, sweet and warm. She was eating a fresh crêpe on a Parisian street, served to her by a young, friendly man from Cypress that she could call a friend. Two months into her year abroad in Paris, and she felt like she belonged.

“Et alors, c’est bon, Kelly?” he asked. “C’est délicieux,” she responded, glowing.

That everyday visit to the crêpe stand was a turning point for the young American girl. Her efforts to live in 1990s Paris, to find herself 10,000 miles away from home, had led to a feeling of engagement with her surroundings.

That young girl was me. I was lucky enough to feel part of something foreign, to be part of beautiful, pulsing Paris despite being a foreigner. 20 years later, I’ve found a way to share my passion — in my classroom, exposing my students to French and Spanish every day; I want them to have the chance to feel what I felt. And yet I know how elusive that feeling of connection can be. It took me six years of studying French in the US and two months of day-to-day life in Paris before I got to that moment. How can I give my students an inkling, a whiff of that crêpe, in my language classroom?

I can only hope that my students will one day do like I did and live abroad; most won’t. And yet, I’m a relentless matchmaker, trying to marry the unknown and the self. Isn’t that one way to define learning?

Toward this goal, I’ve made international school exchanges a focus. I partner with schools in France and Spain, hosting students for two weeks at our school and traveling to those schools for two weeks. All the language students are involved in some way, be it hosting a student, traveling abroad and staying with a host family, showing the sights of our area to the visitors, or interacting with them at school in structured and spontaneous ways.

The study of the language and culture moves from the abstract to the concrete as the students and I make friends with real, live French and Spanish speakers. These adventures work across all levels with all kinds of students.

James would never study at home and often avoided work in class, but he rushed up to me on the streets of Badajoz, Spain and showed me the conjugations he’d written out in his notebook with the help of Edu, his Spanish host student and friend. I reminded him that we’d gone over those in class, but I rejoiced that he was finally looking at them.

As we strolled through Vitré, France, after visiting the castle there, Katy and Annabelle were forcing themselves to speak only French with each other. They asked me a thousand times ‘Comment dit-on X?’ Music to my ears!

Going beyond making crêpes in class (I do love doing that), these exchanges are so consuming, so intense, that my students have a chance at feeling part of the francophone world. Next year, I plan on having the students from Rennes, home of crêpes, make them with us in class, teaching my students as we cook and eat.

On the days we don’t eat crêpes (most of them), we work on speaking, listening, reading and writing in the target language in the classroom, in the cultural context of projects. Those four skills are my bread and butter. But why are we practicing these skills? We want to communicate with real people, to foster a sense of global community as speakers of Spanish and French. The students see themselves as directly involved with these languages, the languages become personal to them, and they taste the sweetness of Alexi’s crêpe — part friendship, part acceptance, part sensory contact, part pride.

Interscholastic exchanges are worth all the work and energy involved, as they enable us to re-experience that feeling, to taste that delicious crêpe, with our students.