December 4, 2013

How to Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language (Summary Post)

Photo Credit: K. Prochovnic, 2012
Recently, I've written several posts about the benefits of signing with hearing children of all ages (infants/toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged kids) and how to weave sign language into your own learning environment. This information is drawn from a popular workshop I teach entitled, "Our Hands are Full: How to Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language."

The workshop title is meant to suggest that teachers, librarians, parents and caregivers are BUSY (Our HANDS are FULL), but our hands can also be TOOLS for communication (meaning they are FULL of potential and opportunity).

Each post in the series offers practical tips and information about the benefits of sign language and how to incorporate ASL into your home, classroom and/or library programming. You can find links for each post below:

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language Series:

Post #1: Introduction and Research Links

Post #2: How Sign Language Can Help with Concentration

Post #3: Sign Language Keeps Hands Busy with Something Permissible and Positive

Post #4: Sign Language Develops Fine Motor Skills (Pencil Practice!)

Post #5: Sign Language Engages Multiple Senses

Post #6: Sign Language is a Natural and Effective Classroom Management Tool 

Post #7: Sign Language Can Be a Tool To Help Kids Use Their Manners

Post #8: How the Sign, "Stop" Can Help Kids Safely and Respectfully Communicate Frustration

Post #9: How to Play "The Quiet Game"

Post #10: Sign Language Can Bridge the Communication Gap in Bi-Lingual Learning Environments

I will continue to add to this series over time, so keep checking back (or sign up to follow my blog via the links in the upper right column of this page). If you have specific questions you'd like me to address, or if you're interested in scheduling your own workshop (in person, or via SKYPE), let me know in the comment section below, or get in touch through the contact links at SmallTalk Learning. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter. Happy Signing!

December 3, 2013

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #3

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One of my favorite benefits of signing with children is that it keeps their hands busy with something permissible and positive.

Several years ago my son played basketball with a VERY active classmate. This was the kid who was constantly moving and fidgeting and who required frequent redirection to stay on (or to get back on) task.

During a particularly memorable basketball game, this kid was on the court during the same shift as my son with an index finger up each of his nostrils shouting (in a nasally voice), "Pass me the ball! I'm open. I'm open." I will never forget that image (or the comments from my son on the way home from the game, indicating that he did not want to touch the ball after this kid had it in his hands).

I remember thinking at the time that this kid NEEDED sign language in his life. Seriously. If there was ever a child that could benefit from having something positive and permissible to do with his hands, this was the child!

Young children are busy by nature. It's developmentally appropriate for them to MOVE their little bodies. And yet, so many classroom lessons require sitting still (in some cases, for much too long).  

Signing is a great way to give active children (particularly your kinesthetic learners) a way to move while they are learning and while they are officially "on task."

In my last post, I offered some ideas for how to incorporate signing into your read aloud story times. To build on this idea, consider teaching a "sign of the day" (or a "sign of the week") at the beginning of each day (or week). Ask your kids to keep their ears open for the key word and to sign the word each time they hear it. For example, if they key word is wait, each time you say something like, "I'll wait until voices are off," students will have an opportunity to sign wait.

Ask your particularly fidgety kids to sign the alphabet (or finger spell their name) if they they need to move when it's not an ideal "moving time."

Here is a resource to help you implement these ideas: In the beginning of each of my books in the Story Time Series there is a page of multicultural alphabet handshapes (beautifully illustrated by Stephanie Bauer). My publisher, ABDO Publishing Group, makes this page (and the full glossaries for all 16 books in the series) available for free download via their website (click here for the direct download of the alphabet handshapes, or click here and scroll to the bottom of the page, past the Star Wars info, for links to the glossaries and several other free sign language goodies on ABDO's site).

I hope you'll try these ideas and then use the contact form to the left (or leave a comment below) to let me know how it goes. I love hearing YOUR sign language success stories!

November 7, 2013

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #2

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As promised in my opening post in this series, this week's post is about how sign language can help with concentration. To see this in action, give your students at least one specific word to listen for when you read a story aloud. For example, focus on the word color if you are reading the book, "See the Colors," or summer if you are reading the book "Four Seasons! Five Senses!" Ask students to sign the word each time they hear it in the text. I usually say something like, "My job will be to read the story out loud. Your job is to listen to the story, and sign the word _____ each time you hear it." I find that kids are really excited to help in this way, and by helping, they concentrate their attention on me and the story I'm reading.

If you've ever read a cumulative story to a child or group of students you know that it's not uncommon that kids will chant along with you as you read the story. However, with a classroom full of students, you can't always hear who is/is not participating. By incorporating sign language, you give yourself a visual indicator of who is listening (and/or who is comprehending in the language you are using). This can be especially helpful in bilingual or multilingual classrooms, but it is definitely helpful in monolingual classrooms as well.

ABDO Publishing Group
For example, if you ask kids to focus on a word that is part of a repeating phrase, (such as silly in the book, "Silly Sue"), you'll notice that some kids will sign the focus word(s) before you actually read them on each new page or stanza). This helps you "see" who has identified a pattern in the story and/or is developing proficiency with the key literacy skill of prediction.

This one tool helps me "assess" an unfamiliar group of students in a very short time. I can quickly identify my good listeners and my "high flyers," (and I can also get a sense of who appears engaged, but may not yet have the skills of pattern identification/ prediction and/or comprehension in the dominant classroom language).

I've also noticed that this tool helps students with self regulation. When *most* students are signing, it's not uncommon that the non-signing students will look at other students and then self-adjust. Whether lack of participation is due to concentration/attention/ behavior-related issues or comprehension/literacy skill issues, the visual cue of other nearby learners signing key words helps the non-participating students get on track.

These benefits should be enough reason to start signing with the kids you work with, but alas, there are many more benefits I'll share in future posts. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your success stories signing with the children you parent or work with!

November 1, 2013

Enrich Your Learning Environment With Sign Language: Post #1

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This post marks the beginning of a new series of posts where I will share information about the benefits of signing with hearing children of all ages (infants/toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged kids) and offer suggestions for how to weave sign language into your own learning environment. This information is drawn from a popular workshop I teach entitled, "Our Hands are Full: How to Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language."

The workshop title is meant to suggest that teachers, librarians, parents and caregivers are BUSY (Our HANDS are FULL), but our hands can also be TOOLS for communication (meaning they are FULL of potential and opportunity).

So let's start with some introductory information:

1) ASL = American Sign Language

2) ASL is the sign language used by people in North America.

3) Sign language benefits children of all ages:

*Babies can sign before they talk and sign language helps babies develop/strengthen language and early literacy skills.

*Sign language helps preschoolers/early readers learn how to read and spell and it can help all children follow directions and express themselves.

Want some evidence? Here are links to additional information/studies about the language and literacy/early literacy benefits of sign language:

Signing with Babies and Children (a white paper that offers a comprehensive summary of the academic research on the impact of signing on cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional development commissioned by the makers of Signing Time).

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Changing Brains (a science program for non-scientists from the University of Oregon's Brain Lab that offers information and recommendations based on scientific evidence for parents, educators, and policymakers on topics including language and motor skill development).

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Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy (the classic text for those seeking to advance the literacy of children through the use of sign language, by Dr. Marilyn Daniels).

Sign Language and the Brain (a summary of research from the University of Washington).

What Sign Language Can Teach Your Child (an article from

*Sign language can even help your aging brain stay sharp! Want more details?  Click here for a summary of a research study presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 63rd Annual Meeting).

*Interesting Factoid: BSL (British Sign Language) is different than ASL (even though people from England and people from the U.S. both speak English). For a more detailed discussion, click here.

*Another Interesting Factoid: ASL has a French influence. Why? Because French scholars came to the U.S. to help us start our first educational organizations for the Deaf. For a more detailed discussion, click here.

Okay, enough of all that bookish information! Do you want practical tips and information about the benefits of sign language and how to incorporate ASL into your home, classroom, and/or library programming? Stay tuned! I will share new ideas with each new post. Next up: How sign language helps with concentration.

If you're interested in scheduling your own workshop (in person, or via SKYPE), let me know in the comment section below, or get in touch through the contact links at SmallTalk Learning, or you can find me on Facebook. I'd also love to know if you have any questions you'd like me to address.

Until next time!  Happy Signing!

October 16, 2013

Discombobulated Frenzy of Wonderful Snippets From Our Summer Exchange Experience

And now for a discombobulated frenzy of wonderful snippets from our summer exchange experience to wind down this series of posts:

Seize the moment. We had a four-week window of time with our most recent exchange student. Those weeks were action packed and memorable. (It essentially took us the remainder of the summer to recover from all the fun, but it was worth it!).

Lazy is not my thing, but I'm learning to go with the flow. As we neared the end of our recent exchange experience, and I once again asked our student what he wanted to do before he returned home, he said, "Have a lazy day." This was joined by cheers from my two kids. Chill mom. So I did.

The power of suggestion. I put a stack of board games on our kitchen counter and we worked (or played) our way through them throughout the summer. We played more board games and had more family game nights this past few months than any summer I can remember.

Soak up the simple things. The laughter. The wrestling. The music. The accent. The snickering of kids sharing taboo words in their respective languages. The visit to Voodoo Donuts and the pink box that was flattened and brought back to Spain as a souvenir.

Capture the moment. I planned to send our exchange student home with a photo book of memories, so I snapped pictures all summer long. Now I, too, have a vast collection of memorable photos. My favorites are the ones I took just to "capture the moment" or the space/place.

Food. There were so many foodie spots we wanted to take our exchange students to, and I realized how much of my being centers on food. When we hosted our student from Korea, we took her to the Asian grocery and then she cooked us a traditional family dish. Yum!

Ask. Talk. Listen. Many great conversations started with a probing question or cultural comparison. The classic, "Do you do this here/there?" kinds of questions. We covered politics, school, bedtimes, dating, shopping, guns/weapons, manners ("Is it rude to ask a woman her age here? "At home it's rude to keep your hands under the table during a meal"), routines and traditions ("We eat a big lunch and a small dinner, and our dinner is eaten much later at night"), and common foods (we learned about Spanish omelets, and we introduced meatloaf and cornbread).

Find out. We looked so many things up when our exchange student was visiting. If he asked a question and we didn't know the answer, we looked it up. We look things up during our ordinary life, too, but not quite as often. Now that my kids are older, I usually encourage them to look things up on their own. If they aren't motivated enough to find out, the learning opportunity tends to escape. Yes, it's good to encourage kids to do their own research, but it's also okay for parents to look things up to keep the interest level up and/or get the conversation going.

Realize that kids squabble. Get over it. Good luck. It drives me nuts when my kids bicker and argue.
However, I noticed that I didn't get as annoyed when my kids were involved in rivalries or spats with their exchange brother. I actually found it amusing. I didn't feel compelled to mediate or pontificate. I let them have at it, and if they tried to drag me into it, I gave the problem right back to them. Somehow it felt more about "them" and less about "me" and I could let them own the argument and the consequences. When wrestling got out of hand and resulted in minor injuries, I found myself saying, "Wow, it looks like someone got hurt." There were no lectures about settling down or reminders about the consequences of being physical. When arguing involved words and raised voices, I found myself chuckling about how much stronger my exchange student's accent was when he was mad, and I was intrigued with his sense of indignation. I had a sense of pride when my own kids stood up for one another (they really do care about each other), and I felt a sense of validation when they competed for our exchange student's attention (because that's what kids do). Somehow, I think this recent exchange experience made me more accepting of sibling rivalry. I'm trying to hang onto that vibe and stay out of the way, so my own two kids can learn to problem solve with each other.

It's nice to have friends in our home. It seems we entertain more frequently when we have an exchange student in town. Our local friends and family want to meet the student, and our home becomes a hub of activity. There was a stretch of about 14 days this past summer where there was at least one "extra" person sitting at our dinner table. Good times.

It's nice to have friends in other parts of the world. Some of our dearest friends live in Perth, Australia. We met them on a cobblestone path in Santorini, Greece about 20 years ago. Our families have traveled to each others' countries, and we have high hopes of meeting up again somewhere in the world. And, because of our exchange experiences, we now have friends in South Korea and Spain. I feel good that my kids are even more excited about traveling (and that at least one of them is thinking about the possibilities for her own exchange experiences in the future). Technology makes it easy for my kids to be in regular contact with both of their exchange siblings. I anticipate their relationships with these special people will continue to grow and develop into the future. Trips will be planned. Life events will be shared. A new generation of kids will be put onto airplanes someday to meet family in another country. The world will feel smaller and more interconnected because of a summer exchange that started back in 2013.

So how does this discussion (that I've carried on for weeks!) tie into my work and the themes of this blog? For starters, I've broadened my definition of literacy. My family's exchange experiences have enriched my cultural literacy and inspired my whole family to improve our Spanish language literacy. I've reflected on the experience and drawn connections that will inform my teaching, writing, and parenting. I've been inspired to write new stories and develop new classes so I can share my experiences and learnings with others. For me, that's what lifelong learning is all about: Immersing myself into new experiences, applying what I've learned to what I already do and know, and then circling back with others to share my insights and gain new perspectives. I welcome your perspectives any time!

October 10, 2013

Resources for Arranging International Student Exchanges

If I didn't scare you away with my last post, you might be wondering who you should contact if you want to host an exchange student. Here are some of the organizations I've worked with and/or been in contact with in the Portland (Oregon) area:

American Education Center (AEC). This is the organization we worked with for our summer 2011 exchange (when we hosted a college-aged young woman from Korea). It's my understanding that this organization focuses on exchange programs for students from different parts of Asia. Some of their programs are for high school aged students, but several of their programs are for college aged students and even for med students. For the program we hosted, the exchange student was in Portland for one month. The first week they were here they stayed in dorms on the campus of Portland Statue University. At the end of the first week, host families picked up their student(s) and brought them home. For the remaining three weeks, the exchange students went to school from approximately 8 AM to 5 PM every week day, and they were with their host families on evenings and weekends (although some weekends there were group activities/field trips that the students participated in). Our main job was to feed our student three meals a day (with lunch being a sack lunch), show her the walking route to our nearest Trimet bus stop, give her a place to sleep/shower, and involve her in family activities when she was with us on evenings and weekends. At the end of the program there was a banquet for exchange students and their host families.

Northwest International Student Exchange (NISE). This was the organization we worked with for our summer 2013 exchange (when we hosted a 14-year old boy from Spain). The particular exchange program we hosted was called a 30-day 24-7 exchange. What that means is that the exchange was for 30 days, and we would have the student with us 24-7 for all 30 days. In other programs (like the program mentioned above, and some other programs offered by NISE), the exchange student is involved in other activities (such as English classes and field trips) throughout the day (and on some evenings and weekends). We really enjoyed having our exchange student with us 24-7.

Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). This organization has opportunities for hosting high school students, and has study abroad, teaching abroad and work/travel opportunities. I've not hosted one of their students (yet!), but I have interacted with some of their staff and was impressed with their program offerings. The programs I'm aware of that they offer are during the school year (and typically for a full school year). There are other programs that are shorter (or there are cases where you might "split" a student's visit with another host family, i.e. you host them for 1/2 of the school year and another family hosts them for the other half of the school year).

Rotary. This organization has a well-established record of supporting and encouraging study abroad programs. It's my understanding that when exchange students come to the US for a school year, they are typically "rotated" between three different host families during their stay. This means that no one family must host for a full school year and it means that the student gets to learn about our culture via their experiences in there different families. I've not worked with Rotary's exchange program before, but one of my colleagues has, and she can't say enough good things about it. Get in touch with your local Rotary Club if you want more information about their programs.

I would love to hear about other organizations you've worked with (either as a host family or as for a study/teach abroad experience).

Next week I'll bring this series of posts to a close with a discombobulated frenzy of wonderful snippets from our family's summer 2013 exchange experience.

October 2, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student: The Dark Side

I have a dirty little secret: As I've enthusiastically shared my family's positive experiences hosting exchange students, I've received a few reports about others' less than ideal experiences. For example: One person said that her teenaged female exchange student arrived with a suitcase full of birth control devices and a one-tracked mind: Visiting Portland's downtown nightclubs. Apparently "under-aged clubbing" is the norm in the town she's from. Similarly, another person said that her female exchange student (around 14-years of age) was very flirtatious and had inappropriate physical boundaries with her college-aged son (she sat too close to him and tried to sit on his lap). Someone else said that their high school-aged exchange student lit up a cigarette in their house without asking, and another person said their college-aged exchange student told her own (grade school-aged) child to "shut up." Each one of these people said they would never host an exchange student again.

Now granted, I haven't personally experienced these particular situations myself, but I do have to say that in each of these cases, when I heard the host parent explain their "exchange student horror story" (and that was how these stories were characterized), my reaction was that each of these situations were opportunities to learn about others' personal/cultural norms and to teach about our own personal/cultural norms. I realize I didn't have to "live through these experiences," and maybe I'm really missing the boat here, but I don't see the absolute horror in these stories.

I've traveled enough places to know that there are other cultures that are a lot less hung up about sex and sexuality than our culture. A quick visit to the post card section of just about any port town in Greece will illustrate (quite graphically) my point. Different cultures also have different needs for personal space, and different levels of tolerance for touch. Smoking is another area of distinction. I've dined in European cafes where the waiter had a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth when he brought plates of food to our table. Not my idea of appetizing.

Language can also be tricky. Important things really do get lost in the translation. I have to wonder if the family who had to endure their child being told to "shut up" merely missed an opportunity to educate their exchange student that that's an especially strong term in our culture. One of our exchange students had the habit of saying "I want to kill you," or "I'm going to kill you" to my kids. Those are strong words, but we soon realized that it was likely a routine phrasing of something he spoke/heard at home because we read similar references in the emails from his mom (e.g. "I told him I'd kill him if he doesn't behave himself"), and we've heard his grandmother use the term when we've Skyped with her. If this exchange student was going to attend school in our school system, I would have made a point to let him know that he should avoid that particular phrase, but I never did get around to mentioning it. I am curious what the equivalent phrase is in Spanish, and if it's used regularly in casual conversation, or if it's more of a "family thing."

We have had situations come up during our exchange experiences that other folks might have been bothered by. For example, one morning our exchange student stormed out of the bedroom he shared with my son. He was piping mad, and stomped down the hallway, muttering to himself in both English and Spanish. Apparently my son had tired of waiting for his "brother" to wake up (and with all due respect, it was past 10:00 AM), so he started doing noisy, annoying things. Pablo woke to the sound of my son belting out, "God Bless America." He was not amused.

In fact, he was in a grumpy funk off and on for most of the day. It finally came to a head when the boys were in the basement and my son refused to help with a clean up project they were supposed to do together (my son was too tired). Eventually Pablo stormed up the stairs to "tell on" on my son and to argue his case about how infuriating it was that now he was tired: "He wasn't tired this morning. No, he wants to sing all morning long. Now he's too tired to get our work done. . . " And that's when I knew that this kid genuinely felt at home. He was comfortable enough to show his emotions. Comfortable enough to protest the injustices bestowed upon him by his younger "brother," and confident enough to call upon "mom" for help. So I sent him back downstairs and told him this was a problem they needed to solve together. And before long they were rolling on the floor wrestling, and the house was filled with boisterous laughter once again.

September 25, 2013

How Hosting an Exchange Student Continues to Feed the "Creative" In Me

Hosting an exchange student provided a noticeable boost in my level of creativity. Most obvious is the inspiration to write. Although I've already written several posts about the experience, I find that I still have more to say. On top of that, I'm bursting with new book ideas that relate to some aspect of the experience, and I have two new classes under development that have emerged as a result.
Image From 

I've also delved more deeply into pursuing my long-time desire to become fluent in Spanish. (If you share this desire, I cannot speak highly enough about a self-study program, called Synergy Spanish, that was recommended to me by a now-fluent friend. My whole family is currently learning/practicing Spanish via the self-paced lessons, and I'm amazed at how quickly we're all progressing). I think the process of studying a new, less familiar (to me) language has jostled my brain (in a good, creative kind of way!) and awakened parts of me that had become a bit dozy. As a teacher of language, the experience of learning another new language has been incredibly valuable. I've been reminded, first hand, of how difficult it can be to build vocabulary in a new language and of the importance of tools such as songs, games, and mnemonics to help cement student learning.

Image From Wikipedia
I've also been intrigued by how the language centers of our brains seem to work. For example, both times our family has hosted an exchange student I've found myself signing if I needed to communicate and was struggling with verbal communication. Although neither of the exchange students we've hosted knew sign language, signs came out of me instead of (or before) the verbal words did. My brain seemed to be saying, "I see you're searching in the "foreign language section of our filing system. We have a lot of sign language vocabulary stored in this section. Could this be the word you're looking for??"

I've noticed a similar phenomenon when I've traveled to areas where English is not the dominant language. Everyone is literally speaking Greek around me, and my hands start moving! Similarly, my husband, who took French in high school, has found himself saying things in French as he tries to speak in Spanish. He hasn't studied or spoken French for years, but alas, those words are in his head, and they pop out now that he's studying and trying to speak in another language. There's probably a bunch of journal articles about this phenomenon, (and if there aren't, take note doctoral students and Ph.D.'s: there should be!). All I know is that I find it fascinating, and I suspect it is something that has some relevance to the work that I do. I intend to explore this more deeply sometime in the future.

Image from Wikipedia
Another recent creative burst that is seemingly unrelated to hosting an exchange student are my dabbles with musical instruments. I've picked up a ukulele and started teaching myself some chords. My husband's childhood guitar is sitting by the front door so I can get it restrung and start playing that, too. Both kids have started strumming on the ukulele, my son is enthusiastically practicing his trumpet, and my daughter is exploring some musical apps on her iPad. Coincidence? Maybe. However, I think when you open one door to creativity, many other doors open (or reopen). Sweet.

Which brings me back to writing. There are some direct ways the hosting experience benefitted my writing life beyond what I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The host experience helped me think like a writer. It helped me practice describing things intentionally and precisely so my intended message is accurately conveyed. It also helped me pay attention. To the words. To the non-verbal queues. To my choices, and my kids' choices. To differences and similarities. To my surroundings.

One of the reasons I love traveling is that I suddenly see with fresh eyes. It's also one of the reasons I
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love parenting: looking at the world through the eyes of my children is exciting. It's hopeful. It's magical. But too often I get caught up in the daily grind and stop noticing the world around me. Hosting an exchange student  helped me bring back into focus the unique nature of my world.

I remember the afternoon that we were running errands and our exchange student said, "Is that a GUN store?" Yes, there is a gun store not far from our neighborhood. The red GUN STORE sign outside the building makes it unmistakable. I drive by that store regularly, but don't ever see it. I'd nearly forgotten that last year my daughter said her school bus passed by the store daily, and that a worker often stood outside the store, dancing and waving a sign to bring attention to it. Nice. That's quite a scene to overlook. Thanks Pablo, for reminding me to recognize the story starters all around me. Open eyes. Notice. Listen. Breath. Taste. Touch. Feel. Repeat.

The experience of hosting an exchange student has given me many snippets/story ideas/scenes/ and characters to explore. Many of these morsels are humorous. Like the very first conversation I had with Pablo. He had just arrived to our airport, and we were at the baggage carousel waiting for his luggage. Our plan was to load him into the car and make the 3 1/2 hour drive to Sunriver. I wanted to make sure he had his personal needs met before we hit the road. I asked him if he needed to use the restroom. He replied, "No, I'm just tired." I asked if he was thirsty. He said, "No, I'm just tired." I told him we had food in the car if he was hungry. He said, "No, I'm just tired." Now here is the funny part: My first thought was that this poor kid only had this one phrase in his toolbox. This is going to be a long month, I thought to myself. We got into the car and Pablo immediately zonked out. His snores shook the car. I remember saying, "I guess he was tired." Over the next days and weeks we learned that Pablo had a very rich vocabulary in English. Being one who sometimes needs to get bonked on the head to "get it," I recall asking him about the night we picked him up at the airport. I told him my aim was to get his basic needs attended to before the long car ride. He said, "I know. I wasn't thirsty. I wasn't hungry. I didn't need to use the restroom. I was tired." Ya, I got that . . . eventually!
Image from Wikimedia Commons
There was also the funny mixup we had at our dinner table over the Spanish words pollo and polla. Chicken will forevermore be a bit amusing at our house, and I'm pretty sure I will write some element of that scene into a story someday.

Lastly, hosting an exchange student provided a variety of rich emotional experiences that will strengthen my writing. Falling in love with a child is a cosmic experience. The beauty of falling in love with your exchange student/child is that their arrival does not necessarily coincide with intense sleep deprivation! I don't know about you, but I was in a rummy fog when my two kiddos took initial residency at my house. I fell in love with them for sure, but detailed recollections about how those feelings came over me are a bit sketchy! Hosting an exchange student also provided an opportunity for teenage attraction to unfold right before my very eyes. Not surprisingly, my daughter's friends visited frequently when Pablo was here, and with their visits came subtle flirtation and coy conversations. Great material for weaving a little romance into one of my works-in-progress. And then there was the time when we all had to say, "Goodbye." Yep, those feelings are still fresh in my mind.

Hosting An Exchange Student: Summary Post

If you missed the memo, my family hosted an exchange student this summer. It was an amazing experience. Here is a series of posts to prove it:

The Best Stay-Cation Ever: Hosting an Exchange Student

How Hosting an Exchange Student Helped Me Grow as a Parent

Hosting an Exchange Student is a Feast of Learning Opportunties

Hosting an Exchange Student Feeds the Teacher (and Mama) in Me

Hosting an Exchange Student Builds Empathy

How Hosting an Exchange Student Continues to Feed the "Creative" in Me

Hosting an Exchange Student: The Dark Side

Resources for Arranging International Student Exchanges

Discombobulated Frenzy of Wonderful Snippets from our Summer Exchange Experience 

I would love to hear about your experiences!

August 28, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student Builds Empathy

Can you tolerate another enthusiastic post about hosting an exchange student? (re: I’m not quite done using this space to extol the benefits of said exchange). In a previous post I talked about the similarities I observed in my kids and my exchange student and how the experience allowed me to reconsider some of my perspectives as a parent. Building on that topic, one of the things I noticed about myself is that I was inherently more accepting of my exchange student’s preferences and opinions than of my own kids’. Not cool. 

Let me explain: I wanted to take “Pablo” to an exceptional water park just outside of Portland. I planned the outing with another family member with similarly aged kids. We were particularly enthusiastic because there was an outdoor concert scheduled on the water park lawn in the evening after the pool and slides closed, so we could make a full day of it. We planned our meet up, and I let the kids know about the plan. My daughter (who would live in water if we let her) was thrilled. My son was not nearly as enthusiastic. He’s not a water hound, and he’s more of a homebody.

My initial reaction was that my son needed to stretch outside of his comfort zone a bit. I asked him to “take one for the team” so we could share this fun experience with Pablo. He agreed. Reluctantly. Then I explained the activity plan to Pablo. He agreed. Reluctantly. And guess what? I did not give him the same “take one for the team” lecture. And guess who noticed? My son. And then me.

My first reaction when Pablo was not keen on the plan was to kick into “nurturing mother mode” and ask more about his perspective. Did he not like the water? Was he not in the mood for swimming? Was he tired? Here’s the real clincher. His reason for not wanting to go was that he’s been to water parks before and he finds them crowded and noisy and not his idea of a good time. Guess what? That’s pretty much the same reason my son is not keen on the place I had in mind. But here’s the difference. With my son, my initial reaction was to “parent him” by asking him to stretch out of his comfort zone to accommodate the rest of our family’s interest in going to this “attraction.” My initial reaction with Pablo was to try to understand his needs, and then I offered to accommodate those needs. And I wasn’t irritated with the prospect. I felt empathy for his discomfort. And my son noticed . . . And called me out on it. Ooooph. That’s a punch in the gut. But one I’ve learned from, and that’s the best kind.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think it’s appropriate to expose our children to experiences that are outside of their comfort zones and ask them to go along with group activities that appeal to other friends/family members. But the reality is that I wasn’t asking my son to stretch outside of his comfort zone; I was asking him to keep up with my comfort zone.  I like to be out and about. I love being “on the go.” My son needs more down time. If you check out my first post on this topic, there’s no doubt we were seeing and doing a lot of activities together. We were On. The. Go.

In the end, we didn’t end up going to the water park. When I touched bases with the other parent, it became clear that only one of her kids was very enthusiastic about idea. We decided that it was too far of a drive and too expensive of an outing to bring several people when only two of the kids really wanted to go to. I will bring my daughter another time. Solo (or more likely, with one of her friends).What did we do instead? We picnicked on the back patio instead of on the waterpark lawn. We played Pandora instead of listening to a live band. And later in the evening we spontaneously went to my son’s favorite arcade (while my daughter and her cousin happily hung out at the local yogurt shop). Despite the crowds and noise, my son (and incidentally, our exchange student) LOVES arcades. I can’t stand them. It was my turn to “take one for the team.”

August 21, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student Feeds the Teacher (and Mama) in Me

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love teaching. I love facilitating learning experiences, and I love presenting ideas and information in ways that illuminate light bulbs and allow for aha-moments. I love answering questions and being “in the know” (and truth be told, this interest goes well beyond the formalized classroom environment). Present me with a teachable moment, and I am on the ready and at your service! 

This type of enthusiasm is not necessarily a good match for my tween and teen kiddos (who have all of the answers they need, thank you very much). Enter: Teenaged exchange student with infinite questions for host mom--and seeming interest in answers provided to questions that weren’t even asked! Welcome!

There were questions about culture and language and pronunciations. There were questions about people in photographs and the particulars of our family tree. There were questions about school and architecture and social customs, the places we visited and the places we planned to visit. There was even a polite curiosity (minus the standard-issue eye rolls I’m accustomed to) when I offered random factoids to “supplement” our various outings. (I think my kids even got some benefit from the bounty of information that was exchanged during these various Q and A’s . . . shhh, don’t tell ‘em!).

Closely related to my love for teaching is my love for mothering. Host families are instructed to treat their students as family members, not as guests (meaning they are looped into chores and errands and other ordinary happenings from which “houseguests” are more typically spared). For me, this also means that I mother these kids. I keep a close eye on them. I worry about them. I encourage them to try new things. I give them hugs. And I try to help if I think they might be hurting or uncomfortable.

I’m a firstborn, so I’ve been practicing my mothering skills on younger siblings since I was five. That said, not everyone that I attempt to mother wants to be mothered (read: younger adult siblings, and tween and teen kiddos). Given the ages and stages of my own two kids, they are (rightfully) focused on asserting their independence and establishing boundaries as they grow and spread their wings. Of course I want my kids to grow up and become independent, but that transitional phase where “becoming independent” means “please don’t hug me in public” can be rough on a mama’s heart.

In my experience, exchange students are willing recipients of their host mother’s love. Embarking on an international exchange provides the opportunity for uncertainty and even insecurity. The jet lag is unsettling. The diet is unfamiliar. The culture shock is jarring. And, although the exchange student might resist his or her own mom’s TLC back at home, the host mom can be a welcome bit of comfort and security, particularly during the earlier transitional period of the exchange.

Not only do I appreciate the emotional connections when teaching and mothering, I enjoy the tangible
outcomes. Yep, I like seeing the “results” of my influence. One of my proudest moments during our recent homestay was seeing our exchange student lost in a good book (a book that I’d put into his hands, no less). My kids are both avid readers and I couldn’t imagine them going on an intercontinental journey without a heaping supply of books (and/or e-books). Although our exchange student’s phone was loaded with games to help him pass the travel time, he did not bring any books with him from Spain. I made it my mission to get him reading while he was here.

Our family always participates in our library’s summer reading program. “Pablo” was not particularly keen on the idea of getting signed up for “summer reading,” but he obliged. He was even less keen on selecting books to bring home and read. I probed a bit and learned that the prospect of reading in English (in addition to talking and listening in English) was not appealing. So, we found several books in Spanish and viola! we had another reader on our hands! He read Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and he read a couple of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. I loved when it was time to go somewhere or do something and he said, “Just a minute. I’m almost at the end of a chapter.” Tangible reward. Visible proof of my influence on a young person’s growth and development. What a happy exchange!