Ninth-grader Alexis Warr entered a University of Costa Rica classroom more than a month ago to learn Spanish from a teacher who spoke no English and liked to give out quizzes — even on the first day of class.
“It was intimidating,” she said on a recent morning. “I thought it was going to be like our Spanish class here.”
Warr just graduated from Central Middle School in Kokomo. A group of students from there and a group from Kokomo High School just spent two weeks in San Jose, Costa Rica, immersing themselves in the Spanish language and culture to earn high school credit.
Meanwhile, a group of eighth-graders from Central Middle School spent two weeks in Sunderland, England, studying at Biddick Academy and learning about England’s history.
These new exchanges are part of the International Baccalaureate program in Kokomo School Corp. The rigorous curriculum, which officials say is growing in popularity here, requires schools to teach students to accept and understand cultures different from their own.
“That’s not a simple process to do in Kokomo,” said KHS principal Mike Sargent. “That’s a big reason for the exchanges.”
Students in Costa Rica spent three hours of every day learning Spanish at the university — no easy task considering the teacher spoke no English.
“She really helped us at first by playing lots of charades and hand games,” student Demitria Novinger said. “Later on, it became easier to figure out what she was saying.”
She didn’t go easy on her students, though. Kids complained she gave them a quiz on their first day. They were tasked with describing themselves in Spanish.
Students said they breathed a sigh of relief every afternoon when they studied at an International Baccalaureate school in San Jose. Students there were required to be trilingual, so they spoke only English through most of their classes.
Things were very different at the Costa Rican public school the Kokomo students attended one day.
When they walked in, every kid there stopped to stare at them.
No one spoke English, and kids were charging their cell phones and putting on makeup in class.
Sargent said some of the students told him they felt out of place — like they didn’t belong. They couldn’t understand why others were staring.
It was a good lesson for them, he said.
“We thought it would be good to give them a very different experience,” Sargent said. “The public school isn’t used to the diversity. [Our students] learn to fight through the feeling of being uncomfortable.”
Most of Costa Rica was warm and welcoming, though, student Cole Hanson said.
He learned from his host parents that family comes first in their culture. And they treated him like one of their own.
The Kokomo kids stayed with different families in different communities in and around San Jose.
Some lived in rural villages. Others lived in apartments in the city. A few stayed in communities that were very American.
One student stayed with a couple originally from Switzerland. One lived with a family from the state of Washington. Many stayed with traditional Costa Rican families who spoke no English at all.
Novinger spoke with her host family primarily through Google translator on their cellphones.
“If we said something they didn’t understand, they’d thrust the phone in our hands, and we’d type away,” she said.
Erin Moody said her host family spoke no English and taught her Spanish using catchy songs.
It was the kind of immersion learning that some of them wanted.
A couple of the students came back nearly fluent in Spanish, said Dave Barnes, director of communications for the school district.
Every one of them learned something and most will likely be a step ahead of their classmates in Spanish class next year.
“You were basically forced to learn it,” Moody said. “It was the only way you could survive.”
Students in England had a much different experience. There was no language barrier — though people there had their own form of slang.
The culture was different but only slightly.
Kids said families there were much less religious. Most of their host families didn’t go to church.
The food portions were much smaller — a large there is like a small here, the students said.
Kids at Biddick Academy have different classes. There was a skiing course, and students there learn cycling in gym. They also learned three or four different languages, including Polish, the students said.
When the Kokomo group wasn’t at school, they were touring England to learn about its history. Students had class one day in an old schoolhouse with lessons like the ones taught to children in that time period.
Some climbed mountains and toured the York Dungeons.
“They did a good job of learning the history of England,” teacher Julie Canady said. “There were challenges. That was the idea.”
Some students learned they couldn’t afford some of their souvenirs because they didn’t have a favorable exchange rate for the pound, Sargent said.
“They’re learning how to manage money,” he said.
These are all important lessons if they’re going to be doing business around the world one day, he said.
And it will help that they now have contacts in another country who they can easily stay in touch with.
Technology has made that simple. Students are using Skype and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to reach their new friends.
“It’s a great example of how different our world is today,” Sargent said. “That’s why we have the [International Baccalaureate] program.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at email@example.com