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!

August 14, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student is a Feast of Learning Opportunities

If I haven’t yet convinced you that hosting an exchange student is well worth your while, here’s another reason: It’s an amazing learning experience for everyone involved. Certainly it’s a learning experience for the student who is traveling, but I’m convinced my family learned as much, if not more, than our exchange student.

The exposure to a second language and another culture is an obvious plus. Our exchange student had a very good command of the English language, so we didn’t have to carry around our English/Spanish dictionary as we anticipated we might, but we did have the opportunity for many “How do you say this in Spanish?” or “Do you have this/do this in Spain?” conversations. These discussions were very enlightening because there are intricacies about a language, dialect and culture that are best learned by conversing with someone who is fluent.

While “Pablo” was in town, we made a point to play several language-based games as a family. We especially enjoyed several rounds of “boys vs. girls” Pictionary (which did occasionally require the crutch of GoogleTranslate). My son and our exchange student had amazing Pictionary synergy. The intensity and excitement when it was their team’s turn to draw and guess was particularly memorable. Pablo would shout out words in Spanish, and hurriedly look those words up on Google Translate, then he’d shout out words in English that were sometimes hard for everyone to understand because of his accent, but my son would understand him and sometimes would lead to him guessing the correct word. They would high five and fist bump and laugh. There were a lot of language skills exchanged and learned during those intense game nights!

There is also the overall motivation factor: There’s nothing like a group of kids sitting around your kitchen table trading forbidden words in each others’ native languages to pique everyone’s interest in fluency. The reality is that our entire family is much more interested in learning and practicing Spanish now that we have an “extended family” in Spain that we want to be able to communicate with. I have bookmarked the language learning software available through my local library and I continue to keep in touch with “Pablo’s” mom and grandma via email. They are helping me with my Spanish, and I’m giving them an opportunity to practice their English. My son has downloaded Spanish apps to his iPod, and I’ve loaded a series of Spanish lessons to my old phone so I can listen and learn while I walk and/or drive. I’ve checked out a heap of Spanish/English picture books from the library that the kids and I (and our new friend, “Google Translate”) are muddling through together. My daughter is setting steep goals for herself in her Spanish language classes in high school next year, and my husband is initiating daily conversations about plans for visiting Spain in the near future.     

Which brings me to another key learning opportunity: Geography. Although I’ve been to Europe several times (including one brief visit to Seville, Spain), my understanding of the geography of Spain increased immensely because of our exchange experience. After Pablo arrived, the whole family gathered around maps of Spain to understand where Madrid is (where Pablo is from) in relation to Seville (and in relation to the beach Pablo visits with his dad, and the beach his Grandma was visiting while he was in Oregon, and the island his Mom planned to visit later in the summer . . .). I had no idea the southern tip of Spain was so close to the northern tip of Africa. Because of Pablo, the geography had relevance, which motivated us to learn and helped cement the information (Note to self: Find ways to make learning relevant when teaching, too).

Near the end of Pablo’s homestay, our family spent an evening “walking down the streets” of his neighborhood using Google Earth. We saw his school, the tennis courts he plays on, the pool he swims in, the park that’s across the street from his flat, his grandparent’s flat, his Dad’s neighborhood, the home of the most famous goalie from Madrid . . . We even looked at our own house via Google Earth. We could tell how long ago the picture was taken based on the vehicle parked in our driveway, and we could infer that the picture was taken in the summer because of the color of our lawn!

After Pablo left, we researched the size of Spain compared to Oregon using this really nifty comparative tool. And we’ve all become experts in the time zone differences between Oregon and Spain (having all set the “world clock” app on our e-devices to Madrid time and periodically checking to see “what time it is for Pablo”).

Pretty cool, huh? And there’s more! Stay tuned. In my next post I’ll talk about how hosting an exchange student satisfied the teacher as well as the learner inside of me. 

August 7, 2013

How Hosting an Exchange Student Helped Me Grow as a Parent

I'm sure it's clear from my last post that I had a great time hosting our exchange student from Spain. What I might not yet have conveyed is how the experience caused me to think differently as a parent.

At the most basic level, I quickly developed an awareness of the many similarities between my children and our exchange student. For example, my kids (who are pretty darned cool), aren't very enthusiastic when we are on a car trip and I insist that they stop what they are doing (be it reading a book or playing a game on their ipod/ipad) so they can look at a beautiful mountain or cloud formation or sunset.  The routine goes something like this:
Photo Credit: Gabeguss

Me: "Hey kids. Hit the pause button. Look up. Look out the passenger side window. Hurry. Don't miss it. Isn't that amazing. Oh. My. Gosh. That is beautiful. Isn't that absolutely beautiful? Are you looking? Did you see that?"

My kids: "Yah. That's nice Mom. Thanks." Reading/game playing resumes.

Me (to husband): "How can anything on those blasted little screens possibly be more compelling than the view out our window right now? How. Is. That. Possible?"

I'll resist the temptation to go on. You know the drill. This sort of thing drives me crazy. I get on my kids' case about it. Even when I reflect back on how uninspired I was when my own parents gave their enthusiastic speeches about the wonders of looking out the window, I still have little empathy for my own kids' perspective in these situations.

Somehow, our exchange students' visit helped me put this in perspective. Here he was, traveling across the world, visiting a completely different country, seeing things he'd never seen before, and may not see again, and he too was nose down into his screen as we drove past these wonderful sites. He looked up, just like my kids did, and he (happily) took their queue and resumed his game as soon as my kids resumed theirs. I found myself thinking, "He's a 14 year old boy. Of course this isn't his thing."

And suddenly empathy for my own kids kicked in. They're kids. Completely. Normal. Kids. Interested in their games. Their friends. Their priorities.

They are good kids. They are happy kids. They are smart kids. And, they are likely getting more out of those brief glances out the window than I give them credit for. I suspect they too will grow up and oogle over mountains someday. In the meantime, I will continue to rattle their cages when we drive past beautiful views, but I will try to resist the temptation to be frustrated or judge. That's an important reminder to my inner parent, (and my inner author, given that I write for kids).    

August 3, 2013

The Best Stay-Cation Ever: Hosting an Exchange Student

Summer is a time when I slow down on my teaching/appearance schedule and focus on renewing my creative spirit by traveling and exploring the local area with my family. This summer has been abundantly fulfilling for a variety of reasons, but one particularly special aspect was our decision to welcome an exchange student from Spain into our home for the month of July. This is the second time we have hosted an exchange student, and both experiences have been amazing. I can’t tell you how much we have learned and grown as a family and how much I have learned and grown as a parent, educator and human being. 

I have decided that hosting an exchange student is the ultimate stay-cation. Prior to “Pablo’s” visit, the kids and I brainstormed different places we’d like to share with him. We kept adding to the list right up until his arrival, and continued adding more ideas after we got to know him and learned more about his interests. Happily, he was open to just about anything we suggested, and we were in “full steam ahead” mode to pack as much fun into the month as we could!  

We picked up Pablo from the airport on a Tuesday evening about 9PM, and drove straight to our favorite local vacation spot: Sunriver. We spent four days in Sunriver getting to know each other and exploring Central Oregon. We did a slow float down the Deschutes, we went to a Bend Elk’s baseball game, (we ate hot dogs, red vines, and popcorn, and watched the 4th of July fireworks show), we rode bikes, played basketball, volley ball, and board games, picnicked by the river, and spent a day at South Twin Lake.

When we returned to Portland, we invited family and friends over for visits, we had a late-night feast at Voo-Doo Doughnuts, we went to library summer reading events (where the kids all got Henna tattoos), and took daytrips to Mirror Lake on Mt. Hood and Tolovana Beach on the Oregon coast. We pitched a tent, fired up the fire pit and roasted marshmallows in the back yard, and we had movie nights and sleepovers in the basement. We went to Oaks Park and a local arcade, and we played ping pong, and kick ball and tennis. 

We saw Multnomah Falls, went berry picking at local u-pick farms and visited the Washington Park Rose Gardens. We hiked in Hoyt Arboretum, climbed trees, and went on a neighborhood bike ride organized by our local park system. We watched Glee, and played Skip Bo and listened to music (and would have done karaoke had I been able to get our machine working!). 
We went to favorite restaurants and food carts, shared family meals around our kitchen table and took walks to special spots for sweet treats. We learned words in Spanish (I can’t tell you all of them), we explained words in English, and we laughed. Oh my goodness, did we laugh.

The only downside to this experience is that eventually we had to return this kiddo (who quickly became a member of our family) to the airport and exchange tight hugs and fond farewells. Our house is quieter now. We are all catching up on some much needed rest. We are reminiscing about our fabulous month and grieving the absence of our brother and son from Spain. We are practicing Spanish and motivated to learn more. We are exchanging emails with Pablo and his mother and grandmother, and the kids are both talking about wanting to do their own international exchanges some day. Our family is already talking about plans for visiting our “familia en EspaƱa,” and we are hopeful Pablo (and his family) will visit us again in Portland.

One of the reasons I write is because I want to express the experience of living, but I must live to have experiences worth sharing. I have been soaking up living this summer, in large part because of our exchange student’s visit. Stay tuned, friends. In future posts I’ll write about other aspects and observations related to this wonderful experience.