Forging Cultural Connections and a Global Mindset
For 47 years, PMFS has participated in an intercultural exchange program with students from Colegio Williams de Cuernavaca in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Students from both schools travel independently to another country and experience life in another culture for two weeks, forging connections through similarities and differences. An elementary school exchange program is unusual, especially one that involves such a long stay in another country, but 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 complete questionnaires and are matched with Mexican Buddies based on family interests, hobbies, and activities. In November, when they learn with whom they will be partnered, 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, and culture, and also to its recreation.
Some of the places they visit include:
- Tour of the Liberty Bell and Trolley Tour of Philadelphia
- Camden Aquarium followed by games in the Gym with Jim
- Franklin Institute
- Seaport Museum, “Olympia & U.S.S. Becuna”, and Dave & Busters
- Circus School following Art with Gillian
- Art Museum and the United States Mint at Philadelphia
- Tour of Philadelphia with a Quaker lens and Reading Terminal Market
- Philadelphia Zoo
Equally important is time spent at home and on trips 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 work tirelessly to schedule a robust, balanced slate of activities and 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 experience, having spent time learning about Mexican history, geography, arts, and language. Fifth Graders are similarly well equipped for the social and emotional parts of the journey, having spent the first part of their year in thoughtful discussion and practice. They go prepared to build friendships that began with the first letters exchanged in November; prepared to meet new people and live with them for two weeks; and prepared to navigate their time away from parents, supported by their teachers, their classmates, and their new Mexican friends and families.
Like their Mexican Buddies, PMFS students take field trips that explore Mexican history and culture which include:
- Downtown Cuernavaca
Williams School and Plymouth Meeting Friends School students enjoyed a welcome buffet breakfast at Williams School. Teachers, students and representatives from the Williams School and PMFS gave welcoming speeches. After the breakfast, Williams and PMFS students departed together from the school for a trip to downtown Cuernavaca. They also go to a new park in Cuernavaca, complete with paddle boats, surries, and a soccer field.
- The Floating Gardens at Xochimilco
Students spend an hour and a half on a boat traveling through the canals of The Floating Gardens. During this time, they are serenaded by mariachis and marimba players. After boating, they have time to browse through the outdoor crafts market with handmade regional crafts with their teachers.
- Casa de los Amigos and Urban Gardens
Casa de los Amigos is a Center for Peace and International Understanding in Mexico City. The Casa was established as a nonprofit organization in 1956 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. When our class visits the Casa, students are given a tour of the facilities and have a lesson about what is a refugee and migrant. We then have a meeting for worship with a query focused on what been discussed at the Casa. After lunch, the class will visit the sembradores urbanos, the urban garden, at Huerto Romita for a tour.
- Las Estacas
Las Estacas is a Natural Water Park is located in the municipality of Tlaltizapán, in the state of Morelos. Las Estacas is about 50 minutes from Cuernavaca. The Yautepec River flows through this park and boasts crystal clear waters that are rich in minerals. Students go swimming in the river, go on a zip line and have a meal together with our Williams School friends.
An ancient city established in 200 BCE, Teotihuacan is comprised of many great pyramids. Around 750 CE the city was burned and abandoned; by then, 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 Downtown 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 Cathedral of Cuernavaca, a reflection of 16th Century European Renaissance style, was founded in 1529 CE by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés. The class tours the cathedral and sketches in the garden which houses a chapel with a gilded, hand-carved altar, an example of colonial religious arts; they also write their thank you notes and farewell speeches here. After lunch in in the Zócalo, we go to the crafts market, located beside the Palacio de Cortés, where students purchase gifts for their families and for themselves and practice their bargaining skills.
- Zócalo, National Museum of Anthropology and Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
Constructed by Spaniards in 1521 CE, Mexico City is located in the Valley of Mexico surrounded by mountains and contains colonial churches and mansions, excavated temples, museums and galleries, and monuments mixed in with modern office buildings. The heart of the 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 can last a lifetime in the form of continued correspondence and visits with their Mexican friends. The Exchange can arouse 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 often 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.