Friday, 19 October 2018

USA Exchange - Day 1 - Travelling again

So here we are. 4 years into my 'Global awakening' and I am preparing for a number of first experiences again. If rewound the clock back to the start of my teaching career I would never have thought that I would be preparing to visit my new American family that I have made over the last 4 years. My dear friend Rhett and I started some simple collaborations about 4 years ago having met on the Google+ communities for educators. We did a number of virtual classrooms exchanges with students and I even sent 1 student to visit about 18 months ago. Then the idea of a full exchange came about. How hard could it be to build something from scratch? The simple answer is not very hard. Rhett and I were passionate about making it happen and we both knew that this would be an amazing experience for our students and our wider school communities.

Today was another long journey travelling from Billingshurst West Sussex, to Ste Genevieve in Missouri. A year ago we introduced our 14 students to their American exchange counterparts and having received them in June it is our turn to be welcomed into their homes and families. This day has been in the planning for 2 years. Our journey started very early in school. An oversizes coach picked us up at 4am for the start. The 50 something seater for the 16 of us with only hand luggage was total overkill but gave us a nice luxurious start to this adventure. Once at the airport, the simple process of checking-in followed by the arduous task of getting through security was a bit more of a challenge but our students took it all in their stride and we had enough time to get some breakfast before boarding our first flight of the day. The airline staff were utterly amazed that we weren't checking in any luggage and that the 14 students were all travelling for 10 days with only hand luggage. This was something that Rhett had made his students do on their trip out and actually made the adventure more interesting for us all. The simple thing that we both pointed out to our students and also anyone that was bemused about this was that in the USA they do have washing machines!

Sitting in the airport waiting for breakfast gave me another chance to sit back and reflect on my current surroundings. When you go to a restaurant within your own town the demographics of the restaurant is usually within a local couple of miles and you can often find someone else in the restaurant that you know. This morning, sitting in the airport eating breakfast and a smile falls upon my face, as the demographic has gone from a few miles to the whole globe! I am often thinking about my surroundings more and more especially when travelling and listening to the accents and languages around me. The Global collaborations that I have been a part of over the last few years have made me sit up and think about the world we beyond my own little corner of England. On the walk to the departure gate there was a piano with the words play me splattered all over it so how could I refuse! My students expected it of me too especially as I had done the same at Brighton station with them back in June!

The first flight was our longest part of the journey. 4000 miles or 9 hours on a plane is quite a journey and the airline provided us with plenty of food and entertainment to make it an easy flight. My usual routine of checking on our students between films whilst flying, was in full swing. It also gives me the opportunity to stretch as being fairly tall and being crammed into a smallish seat for a long period doesn't sit well with me. In my classroom, I am always up and about and walking around. What I love about flying is fellow passengers, You make conversations with complete strangers and chat about what you are doing and where you are going. on our first flight, I had a number of travellers ask us about our trip and our exchange and commented about how wonderful our students had been. I never get tired of hearing this kind of feedback and sharing of adventures but I am left thinking why does this only happen on international travel? Why do people not have these conversations every day when they commute to work on the trains? I am totally guilty of this too. Whenever I get on a train in the UK I will sit there and usually listen to some music or working on my laptop rather than being sociable with the rest other.

Landing in Chicago my biggest fear, on this whole journey, was getting us all through the homeland security checks and interviews with officials. In Kenya, we had to do something similar but this felt different and far more of a barrier to getting into the USA. Actually, it went surprisingly smoothly and was a really easy process. We shared the bus ride to the other terminal with other travellers who were having these same conversations about where they were going and where they had come from and it strikes me that we need to encourage these conversations with not only our children but those we share our daily commutes with, or any journeys that find us in the company of others. 

Our second flight of the day was on this tiny plane. We were interspersed on the plane with some of our students sitting with other travellers and I could hear the conversations occurring between them. This really short flight of a couple of hundred miles and only 45 minutes in the air gave us a chance to see how vast the country is. The grid-like patterns made up of fields and roads and looking at the towns and villages dotted across the scenery you could see how spread out this country really is. The only strange situation about this flight was the baggage that was picked up from us as we got to the plane was then returned on the ramp as we got off. Seeing a line of passengers queuing to collect their bags in a space really not designed for it was mildly amusing to be a part of.

Then the welcoming from the students and families that awaited us as we came out was amazing. Banners had been made and the atmosphere was electric. It was great to see the faces of our students light up as they met their families and friends and it was great to see those familiar faces again. Shelley had come to meet us as Rhett was stuck in school.

The last leg of our journey was the drive down the highways back to Ste Gen. The city of St Louis was a busy place as any city around the world is. We will be coming back here a couple of times during our stay so we will get more time to explore that later. The drive down the highways made me think of the classic films from the 80's, smokey and the bandit with the big rigs driving down the highways and it was exactly that picture depicted in the films apart from the black trans am being chased by state troopers chasing it that is!

Then arriving in Rhett and Shelley's home was a really surreal moment. I hadn't seen the outside of their home before and it is definitely a rural location but walking in and seeing the lounge and kitchen that I had seen so many times before via video chat I felt right at home but in a strange way. A quick tour of the home, a lovely dinner and then a walkabout was the perfect end to a very long day. I had forgotten to mention to our lovely hosts that Ted, the other teacher travelling with us, was a vegetarian made an amusing end to the day.  I tried to stay up and watch some NFL with our hosts but it was all too much for me by then. I started nodding off and had to call it a night. Tomorrow will be our first experience in an American school and amusingly this will be another occasion when I have seen a place, Rhett's classroom, so many times but will now actually be stepping foot in it!

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