Forging Cultural Connections and a Global Mindset

For 50 years, PMFS has participated in an intercultural exchange program with students from Colegio Williams de Cuernavaca in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Students from both schools travel with chaperones to experience life in another culture for two weeks, forging connections through similarities and differences. An elementary school exchange program is highly unusual, especially involving such a long stay in another country, and year after year PMFS Fifth Graders and their counterparts from the Williams School have met the challenge successfully.

At the beginning of the school year, Fifth Graders and their families are matched with Mexican Buddies based on family interests, hobbies, and activities. In November, when they learn who they will be partnered with, students start writing to each other as a way to get to know each other better. Williams School students arrive in Philadelphia in January, ready for two weeks of immersion in the lives of our families, our school, and our community. While here, they take trips with and without their PMFS buddies to introduce them to Philadelphia’s history, arts, culture, and also recreation.

Some of the excursions the Mexican students have taken include:

  • Camden Aquarium, Philadelphia Zoo
  • the Liberty Bell, the U.S. Mint, “Olympia & U.S.S. Becuna”
  • The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum
  • Seaport Museum
  • Reading Terminal Market
  • Philadelphia School of Circus Arts
  • Trolley Tour of Philadelphia

Equally important is time spent with host families. Throughout the two weeks, Mexican Buddies enjoy togetherness and learning with their host families on trips to New York City, the Poconos for snow tubing, museums, and more. Host families use great care to schedule a balanced slate of activities, with time to relax immersed in the love and support of a family.

In February, PMFS Fifth Graders travel with their teachers to Cuernavaca, Mexico where they are hosted by their Buddies’ families. Students go well prepared for the enriching ad transformative experience, with the Fifth Grade and PMFS curriculum rich in activities about Mexican history, geography, arts, and Spanish language instruction in all grades. Fifth Graders are similarly well equipped for the social and emotional aspects of the exchange, having learned how to understand others’ and communicate their own needs. They go prepared to build friendships that began with the first letters exchanged; prepared to meet new people and appreciate their differences; and prepared to navigate their time away from parents, supported by their teachers, their classmates, and their new Mexican friends and families. They come back ready for a Sixth Grade year at PMFS of processing and putting into action the transformation in their world view.

Like their Mexican Buddies, PMFS students take field trips that explore Mexican history and culture, which include:

  • Downtown Cuernavaca
    Not only do students see Diego Rivera murals and have a chance to sketch them, they also have fun in a park complete with paddle boats, surries, and a soccer field.
  • The Floating Gardens at Xochimilco
    Students travel through the canals of The Floating Gardens, serenaded at times by mariachis and marimba players. After boating, they browse the outdoor crafts market with handmade regional crafts with their teachers.
  • Casa de los Amigos and Urban Gardens in Mexico City
    A center for “peace and international understanding,” the Casa was established as a nonprofit organization by the Quaker community in Mexico, and its work continues to be rooted in Quaker values. Through its programs, community space, and social and cultural activities, the Casa promotes peace with justice, fosters understanding between groups and individuals, and supports the human dignity of every person. Students tour the facilities and learn more about the difference between refugees and migrants.
    During the same field trip, the class visits the sembradores urbanos, an urban garden, to learn about how one small space can have a large impact. this visit ties in with the class studies of sustainability.
  • Las Estacas
    Located only 50 minutes for the home base of Cuernavaca, Las Estacas is a lush natural water park. The Yautepec River flows through this park and boasts crystal clear waters that are rich in minerals. Students spend the day with their Williams School friends; they go swimming in the river, go on a zip line, and have a meal together.
  • Teotihuacan
    An ancient city established in 200 BCE, Teotihuacan is comprised of many great pyramids. Before it was burned and abandoned in 750 CE, Teotihuacan had influenced all of Meso-America through its temples, mural paintings, sculptures, pottery and apartment dwellings laid out in carefully-planned grids. We tour the site with an English-speaking guide, visit the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, walk on the Street of the Dead to the Sun and the Moon Pyramids, and visit the crafts market where our students shop with their teachers.
  • Ecological Park and Children’s Museum in Cuernavaca
    Located in the heart of Cuernavaca, the Ecological Park Chapultepec has over 11 hectares of land and houses an environmental museum, a spider monkey habitat, and an aviary. Students spend part of the morning exploring the park. We then visit the Children’s Museum, which is inspired by various educational and philosophical theories of art in art education.
  • The Cathedral of Cuernavaca and Crafts Market
    The class tours the Cathedral of Cuernavaca, a reflection of 16th Century European Renaissance style, and take time to write or sketch in the garden. After lunch in the Zócalo, the town square, they go to the crafts market, where students practice their bargaining skills to purchase gifts for their families and souvenirs for themselves.
  • Zócalo, National Museum of Anthropology and Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
    The heart of Mexico City is the Zócalo, the second largest city square in the world, where the class visits the Presidential Palace and tours the Templo Mayor. They then travel on to the National Museum of Anthropology, where they tour the Aztec collection, seeing sculptures and artwork that they learned about in school. 5th Graders finally head to the Museo de Arte Popular, an institution dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Mexican handcrafts and folk art.

There is a unique power in allowing 10- and 11- year olds to take such a journey. Their growth and development during their time there is immense. There are several learning threads students weave together in this experience, as they practice:

  • Adaptability and resilience. Away from home for two weeks—and packing light to leave room for extras on the return trip—you don’t have every little thing you’re used to having readily at hand. Our students learn that their host families may do things differently than back at their home in the United States (e.g., saying their daily prayers while en route to school, keeping shoes on in the house, or a greater frequency of showers); they may not have your “usual” for lunch. And you figure out that you can do things differently. As one of our students said about her efforts to be a good guest, “I’m trying to be more simple.”
  • Showing appreciation and kindness. Our students reflect in morning meeting how they are showing appreciation for all their host families are doing for them. They consider why and how host families and buddies support them, and how they did the same as hosts in Philadelphia.
  • Communication and collaboration. Living with a host family for two weeks, not to mention travelling with your classmates and teachers during the day, gives students abundant practice expressing themselves and their needs, as well as working towards solutions when different ideas come up.
  • Managing feelings. With the support of teachers and a loving exchange family, students try new activities and emotions. Our students realize, for example, that they can miss their parents and have fun at the same time.
  • Forging connections with buddies and their Mexican family. Students carry the safety they feel at PMFS to new environments, using this security to stretch themselves and connect to new communities. Being welcomed as part of a family for two weeks, students are immersed in the different details of day-to-day life in Mexico, but even more in the commonalities of love and care within a family. They learn about connecting with others through our similarities and our differences.

In addition, there are two overarching products:

  • Surprises, discoveries, and fun. Sometimes the reward for the courage of trying something new is that you find that you like it: eating new foods, being a younger instead of an older sibling, using Spanish, and bargaining for the best price, and so much more! When asked what they will miss about Mexico, students named the bright colors, the warm weather, the food, the birds, and the fun things we did each day.
  • Curriculum comes to life. On daily field trips around Cuernavaca and Mexico City, lessons learned back at PMFS come alive: meeting people dedicated to sustainability and the environment, visiting a center that supports migrants and refugees and social justice, experiencing storytelling through murals, and visiting key locations in Mexican history with commentary on past oppression of indigenous people and current issues of discrimination. Students make connections to previous learnings as they swim in cool clear healing waters that they once saw on a map or climb ancient pyramids they read about in a book, and they become curious to learn even more.

During the Mexican Exchange program, children make connections that last a lifetime in the form of continued correspondence and visits with their Mexican friends. The Exchange arouses a deeper interest in the Spanish language and culture that many times results in corresponding college and career choices. Even without these external outcomes, students return with a new self-confidence and readiness to try different experiences as well as a deeper appreciation of Mexico and its people.

Students may return from the Exchange noting that soccer is a universal language or that Bubbaloo is a very tasty bubble gum, but the impact is far greater. They and their families have changed their self-perspectives and their foundation for understanding the world and all its cultures. Our students are tomorrow’s leaders. They take an important step in the PMFS Mexican Exchange program towards a future full of grace, curiosity, and compassion. At PMFS, we are not just learning these lessons about the world; we are living them.