Nuestros Nuevos Amigos (Our New Friends)

Monday, September 18, 2017 0 Comments A + a -

The MURSD and Santa Teresa student exchange planning teams
in the San Sebastián City Council Chambers w/San Sebastián
Mayor Eneko Goia (center).
Last week I had the incredible pleasure of traveling with a small team of MURSD educators and students to San Sebastián, Spain for the purpose of investigating a two-way student exchange program for Nipmuc students and their counterparts at the Santa Teresa Ikastetxea,  a PK-12 school in the beautiful coastal city in the heart of Spain's Basque Region.  After a great deal of dialogue and planning with our Santa Teresa colleagues, we are poised to start this exchange during the 2018-19 school year.  To say the least, I am very excited about this new opportunity for our students!  We will have more specific information to share for students interested in the exchange in the coming months.

So after having some 72 hours to decompress, I've found myself reflecting quite a bit about San Sebastián and Santa Teresa.  Here are some of my big takeaways:

It's All About Culture.  The MURSD could not have a better partner for an exchange than Santa Teresa.  Like the residents of San Sebastián, I found the Santa Teresa staff and students to be exceptionally warm, friendly, and generous.  Being a PK-12 school of approximately 500 students, the Santa Teresa faculty know their students well.  The staff is very nurturing, as it is clear that they give their students what they need.  There is an informal atmosphere (e.g., all teachers are called by their first names) yet it is one of profound mutual respect. There is a culture of expecting kids to do the right thing, and sure enough, they live up to expectations. Although Santa Teresa is a religious school, the teaching of any specific dogma is not the emphasis.  Rather, it is clear that teaching to the whole child is what drives the school in its mission.

The Culture of San Sebastián is Pretty Amazing Too.  This beautiful city is on Spain's northeastern coast, situated on Bay of Biscay.  It is also only twelve miles from the French border, as it is in the heart of the Basque Country, which transverses both Spain and France.  In 2016 San Sebastián was named (along with Warsaw) as a European Capital of Culture by the E.U.. This designation is understandable, with the annual International Film Festival and Jazz Festival being highlighted events for the city, along with housing the San Telmo Museo, the largest museum highlighting Basque culture.  What the city is also known for is its stunning beauty.  The focal point of the city is the expansive La Concha Bay, which encompasses two gorgeous beaches, La Concha and Ondarreta. Along both beaches there is a cobblestone walkway with many restaurants, shops, and high end real estate in close proximity.  San Sebastián is also known for its impeccable cuisine, as many restaurants serve pintxos, or small tapas-like dishes suitable for sharing.  Being a coastal community, fresh seafood pintxos are a mainstay at most restaurants.  Like many moderate-sized European cities, San Sebastián is very manageable.  It is clean, safe, and virtually everything is within walking distance.
A section of San Sebastián from Playa La Concha

Multilingualism is the Rule, Not the Exception.  The Basque people are remarkably proud of their heritage, culture, and language.  While Spanish is spoken is mostly all homes, Basque is commonly spoken on the streets and in the public schools.  At Santa Teresa, most courses are spoken in Spanish; however some subjects are taught in Basque.  Also noteworthy is the fact that English is taught to all children, starting in preschool (as shown in the video below).  The talented English faculty teaches students in an immersive environment, where nothing but English is spoken in their classrooms.  As a result, students grasp a basic command of the language by the late elementary/early middle school years.  Coupled with the fact that many high school students also elect to take French, the norm is that most Santa Teresa students are proficient in three or four languages.  I am certain that this is an enormous factor in the many positive outcomes (% that attend university, number employed in meaningful internships, etc.) that Santa Teresa graduates enjoy.

It's All About Perspective.  I should note that the culture among the Santa Teresa staff is also excellent.  A snapshot of this can be found each day during the 30-minute school-wide break, which occurs daily in the 11:00 am hour. During this time teachers flood the teachers' room and share coffee, pastries, and conversation in a warm, collegial manner.  On at least two days, I was in the room for break, and I had the pleasure of speaking to several teachers in both English and the best Spanish that I could muster.  A young economics teacher, John, remarked to me that he felt that some of the teachers may be reluctant to speak some English, because they would prefer to speak it with an American accent rather than their learned British accent.  I was surprised about this; but upon reflection, I thought of my own insecurity with speaking Spanish and wanting to get it right and sound "smart" at all times, even when I was way in over my head in Spanish.  It appears that some of my reticence was shared by the Santa Teresa staff.

This small anecdote might be the perfect metaphor of why this exchange project is so important for both the MURSD and Santa Teresa communities.  The number one goal is to give our students a larger perspective beyond Mendon-Upton, Massachusetts, and our nation.  A culturally rich place like San Sebastián will certainly do this for our kids. Conversely, Santa Teresa students are excited to immerse themselves in American culture.  They are enamored with Nipmuc student life/traditions (e.g., sporting events, Homecoming, Prom, etc.) that we take for granted.  I am confident that our exchange will allow all of us to experience the richness of a new culture.  However, after learning and living our counterpart's cultures, it is my hope that all involved will realize this simple conclusion:

Lo que nos une es mucho más que lo que nos divide.

What unites us is far greater than what divides us.