Complete Blog from Mexico Capstone - updated 3/29/09

(Capstone is the study-abroad program where TIS 5th grade students go to a country of their adopted language and culture. They do a home stay or boarding school stay for approx. one school week, then tour historical & cultural sites. These blog entries were written by parent chaperones.)

After the trip, from Caroline's mom
Although it has been a week since our return, I’m still reflecting on our wonderful experience in Merida. I must admit that when I learned that our class would travel to Mexico instead of Spain, I was more than a little disappointed. Our family loves Mexico and we have had some fantastic vacations at the country’s coastal resorts. However, the reality in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta is that the local economies are dependent on tourism and almost everyone we came in contact with spoke English. It was a challenge to get people to speak Spanish to our daughter and quite frankly, her motivation to use her Spanish was poor. It was hard to imagine how another trip to Mexico would provide much educational value.

I shouldn’t have worried. The city of Merida was a far cry from tourist resorts and it was clear from the first day that with our English only language skills, my husband and I were handicapped in ways I had never considered. In contrast, I watched with amazement as Caroline bargained with a vendor at Chitzen Itza. She inquired in Spanish about a certain trinket’s price. As she paused to consider the money conversion, the vendor commented on her excellent Spanish and offered her a lower price before she could even present a counter offer!

Upon meeting her host family, Caroline immediately launched into conversation to become better acquainted. Only one member of their family speaks English with any real fluency, so it was clear she would have no choice but to use her Spanish. Through their 18 year old son’s interpretation, they told us how amazed they were by her skill and fluency in Spanish. Her home stay and school experience were invaluable. I can’t imagine any more effective way for our kids to learn about another country and culture, than to live with a family and experience their daily life and routines. Our whole family has been deeply touched and we will be forever changed by our new Mexican friends.

Thursday, March 19, from Sophia's mom

I am sitting on the airplane heading for home as I reflect on this trip and what a memorable experience it has been. I imagine  I am one of a small number of monolingual Americans who has a child who has mastered a second language by the end of her primary education.

For me and I think for Sophia, the highlight of the trip was the friendship she made with Maria ( her host family “sister”) and the genuine warmth and generosity of the host family. They were unreserved in welcoming me, my mother-in-law and Sophia into their home.

After much anticipation, last Tuesday we were able to pay a visit to “Escuela Modelo” and observe the kids in this setting, engaging in classroom activities along with their fellow schoolmates. It was interesting to see their acceptance by a group of kids who had only just recently met them. I also appreciated seeing them all in uniforms.....what can I say, I'm a fan of them.

Seeing my eldest daughter taking a big step towards independence and adapting to foreign surroundings with easewas definitely the highlight of the trip!

Before leaving for Mexico, I was a tad concerned that the experience there may be diluted as I expected English to be more prevalent than on past Capstone trips. I am happy to report that I couldn't have been more wrong. The families in Merida spoke little, if any, English so Sophia had to speak Spanish - which she did with ease.

It was wonderful to have her around to translate for me although I have to throw in a “muchas gracias” to Kim, Timothea, and Linda without whose assistance it would have been hard for the mono-lings to get by.

The days of touring during the second week were fun but the heat (95 degrees and muggy) made it challenging at times - although the 60 degree temperature on the bus wasn't my cup of tea either. I think the kids all really enjoyed the last day as we got to travel to Celestún to see thousands of flamingos in their own habitat. We divided up into groups of 7-8 and took small boats driven by a guide out to an island where the flamingos resided. It was the first time I'd seen flamingos was a beautiful sight. Did you know that the color of their feathers comes from the tiny pink worms they eat? (bit of trivia).

Many photos later we headed off to a fresh water spring where the kids swam and Linda attempted a photo session with the kids, an underwater log, and the TIS banner (of course). After a lunch at a local establishment the kids took another dip, this time in the ocean ( which was probably a good 15 degrees warmer than Oregon's coast) and Maestra Constanza even joined them.

As we were boarding the plane for our journey home Sophia remarked that she couldn't believe that Capstone was over. Neither could I. We had been preparing for this trip for many years; it was a wonderful experience and I will miss all of my comrades. We have a very cohesive class and I wouldn't have guessed that our bond could have grown stronger but I was wrong. We spent a lot of time together and have some great memories to share...we're even planning a slumber party soon (moms only....sorry Kim and Ron)!

Wednesday, March 18, from 5th grade student Sophia
I think this year's Capstone was successful. We chose a beautiful city with lots of famous architectural interests like pyramids and old buildings. We chose the best school in Merida (I heard) and we all had very nice host families.

This Capstone we did a lot of fun activities. We went on tours to famous places like Uxmal and Chichen Itza (old Mayan ruins) and on bus rides we saw old buildings and the guide told us stories about them. My favorite things on the trip were visiting the Mayan houses, swimming in a cenote (underground caves), and of course staying with my host family.

In the Mayan house, a really interesting Mayan man took us around to explore. He actually had three huts and each one had one room: a bathroom, a bedroom and a kitchen. He had a giant garden with the spiciest peppers in the entire world and he also had goats. They had thirteen people living on their land but we didn't see any of them.

Swimming in the cenote was scary and exciting. It was ten meters deep and there were rocks everywhere. There were also bats (scary)!

The best part of Capstone was staying with my host family. They were so nice to me. My host sister's name was Maria. She had a brother the same age as mine and his name was Ariel. They liked going to the mall, playing Wii, going to the beach, and playing with their dogs. I am going to miss them.

I hope that everyone gets a chance to have a Capstone experience and appreciate it. I also think that going to Mexico again is a good idea!!!

Tuesday, March 17
This week has been a lesson in social studies, history and anthropology along with the "usual" language, culture and parental pride. Sunday we visited the Mayan archeological sites of Uxmal and Kabah where we climbed on the 1000-1500 year old ruins (I can't believe they really let us do that). We learned about the Mayan culture and lifestyle from our guide who reassured us that the books are wrong: Mayans never disappeared - his first language is Mayan!  The 95 degree heat dampened enthusiasm a bit, but there is no question that this beats classroom learning.

Yesterday was a terrific tour of a working Hacienda, where we saw first hand how sissal leaves are harvested and turned into rope, fabric and the like. The children and some of the parents got to swim in a Cenote - a reservoir in underground cave complete with stalactites and underwater stalagmites.  Add "geology" to the list of learnings!

Today it was back 1000 years again to the famous Chichen Itza archeological site. No climbing here, but that was ok since it was at least 95 degrees once again. The guide bowed to the parents a bit and conducted some of the tour in English - to which our children paid no attention.

One of the currents running through this week has been get togethers and more good-byes with host families. Each pair of TIS/host family is getting together one more time for dinner or the like. It certainly seems like those relationships will persist in one way or another.

Saturday, March 14
It is difficult to describe all the emotions in the room yesterday afternoon when our 5th graders came back to us from their home stay. TIS parents hosted a bowling party for all the families to reunite. I was excited to see my son and knew that he would not want to talk much until later. But I was not prepared for the true affection that had developed in those six days - between the children from both schools, between the host parents and our children, between the host teachers and our children, and between the TIS and host parents who felt like family to one another despite having hardly spent much time together (and in many cases not speaking the same language!).

Parents from past years had all told me about their children's enduring friendships from Capstone, but I hadn't imagined the real warmth that clearly developed between our two communities. I have often felt awkward thinking that we had invited ourselves into their community and asked them to have and care for our children in their homes for six days - quite an imposition. But that was clearly not how they saw it. The host families repeatedly expressed their gratitude for our trust in them and for the experience that we have brought for their families.

As we had brought gifts for them as tokens of our appreciation, the host families returned our children with gifts for us and for siblings as tokens of their affection. Their big surprise: they had made t-shirts with the logos of both schools and the photos and signatures of all 16 children (host & TIS)! I have never been one for uniforms or uniformity, but I must say that it was very special to see all our children as their individual selves yet hanging out together united in their garb.

The director of Escuela Modelo gave a wonderful speech, talking about how people in so many parts of the world are at war, fighting because they cannot understand or accept one another. She talked about the significance of what we have done this week - certainly an experience that we will each remember for a lifetime, but also significant in a bigger way, showing how people can come together across a border, across cultures, races & languages to share and become a community together.

So many hugs over & over at the end of the party, then again at the hotel since the host families would not hear of us taking taxis back. And we'll do it over again since most (perhaps all) of us will see the host families again before we leave Mexico on Thursday.

Tuesday, March 10: from Linda again
This morning we got a tour of the host school and got to see our kids in class with their host classmates. How incredible! Our kids are split into 3 classes, and they looked like they fit right in - sitting at desks, taking notes, participating, and wearing their uniforms (some even had their shirts tucked in). The director of the school has been terrific, and all of the teachers were so incredibly gracious. The teachers feel that this is a great experience for them and for their students, and they spoke of our children with true warmth.

We saw the classes outside a little later, and our children were joking around and intermingling with the host students as though they had known one another a long time. On many trips there is a student or two that spends the nights in the hotel with parents, perfectly permissable. Although we had a couple of late night calls the first night or two, this group is all staying with their families and none of them looked unduly tired!

School ends at 1pm here, so our children are doing various activities with their host siblings for the afternoon. Today at least two of our kids went to soccer practice - something they learned about through e-mails before the trip so they even brought cleats etc.

Now we're not supposed to see the kids again until Friday. I just arranged a thank you party at the local bowling alley for all the TIS & host families for Friday afternoon. (At least that's what I think I did - it was all in Spanish . . .)

Monday, March 9: Hello from Mérida, Mexico!

The eight TIS 5th graders, their accompanying parents and Constanza arrived in country last Thursday.  We were all excited to see that, as promised, Mérida is a relatively small, pretty city with cobblestone streets, rich history everywhere you look, and many pretty squares and outdoor cafes. This will be our home base for 2 weeks.

On Friday all the kids & parents toured a site of Mayan ruins and its accompanying museum near the city of Mérida. The children have been studying Mayan civilization and were incredibly engaged with the Spanish-only guide. Our kids were really understanding and conversing! Not that I doubted that they could, but it was great to see.

On Saturday we TIS families hosted a lunch at the hotel to meet the host families. What an incredible experience. As the host families arrived, it was clear that the host parents were very excited, the host children were very excited and a bit nervous and had been counting the days. I think it's safe to say that our children were all very excited and nervous also to varying degrees. Some were more excited than nervous, some more nervous than excited.

The host parents literally embraced us right away, the children exchanged hugs too. Our children were wearing t-shirts we had made with the names of both schools, and they were each carrying another shirt to give to their host-sibling. That was the first ice breaker, and very soon there were 16 children with their matching t-shirts paired off and literally chatting to one another in Spanish! The host families appear to have been hand-picked by the school. They are all so engaged with our children and caring, and have reassured us that they will care for our children as their own.

After lunch our kids got their luggage, said goodbye to us and went off for their first night with their host families. Many families made plans to get together with the TIS parent for part of Sunday. For some of the TIS children, being together on Sunday eased the separation from us; for others Sunday made it harder as they had already separated from us on Saturday and had to do it again on Sunday. Those of us who did spend time with the host family found them to be warm, caring, excited about the experience for their family, and ready to do practically anything for our children to have a great experience.

Today our kids went to school with their host siblings as they will all week. We'll get to peek at them tomorrow morning as we are invited for a tour of the school. I'll let you know how that goes!

Linda Bonder
Marketing & Communications Director
and parent of TIS 5th grade student