January Term and Cultural Exchanges

In our rural community, students have very little exposure to other cultures or ethnic groups.  Most don't even experience cities or suburbs, let alone another country.  Then sometime after graduation, they head away to college or into the military where suddenly they are surrounded by people from very different backgrounds.  Many relish the prospect but few are really prepared.

Cultural Exchanges
The idea of cultural exchanges is an old one and every year we send a student or two to another country and accept some from other countries into our schools.  This is very valuable for broadening perspectives and of clear benefit to those who can participate.  Unfortunately, that amounts to about half of one percent of our students.  What if every high school student could participate in a cultural exchange at little to no cost to the family?  What if the entire cost for the participating school were only about $2000 per year?  This has been my long-time dream.

For our rural high school in Oregon, we would need a sister school within driving distance -- inner city Portland, San Francisco or Oakland would work or the Warm Springs Reservation.  Structurally, it would help to have a "January term" between semesters of about two weeks.  This is popular at many colleges and would benefit high schools similarly.

January Term Explained
During the regular terms, students take multiple classes and spend from 45-90 minutes per day in each class (depending on current school schedule -- ours are 68 minutes).  Bells ring and regardless of how valuable the activity is, it must be cut off in time to send kids to the next class.  There is really no opportunity to build what Csikszentmihalyi calls "Flow", in other words for students to become fully immersed in a learning activity.  A January term would be all about Flow:  each teacher would offer a single course for 6.5 hours/day for the two weeks.  That's a total of 65 hours of classtime, the required minimum to earn a half-credit.  Teachers could choose their passion areas:  guitar, ceramics, Salem Witch Trials, stream restoration, insect studies, African literature...whatever.  Students would sign up for the courses and immerse themselves in the single subject for two weeks.

How it Would Work
At least once during their four years of high school though, students would have the opportunity to do a cultural exchange during the January term.  We would load the buses with kids, teachers (those who chose to supervise the exchange program instead of teaching a course), an administrator and suitcases.  Each student would live with a host family (carefully selected by the sister school) for the two weeks and would attend school with host siblings.  At the end of the experience, each would be responsible for a reflection piece to earn his half-credit.

At another time during the year (chosen by the sister school), students from the sister school would stay with our families and attend our classes.  In this way, even the minority of students who do not participate would get a fuller experience when 100 or more students from another "culture" attend their classes.

The January Term has many pluses for teachers and students.  This is true whether or not we develop an exchange program.  But the cultural exchange could bring rich advantages to our students and those unfamiliar with our rural lifestyles.  It's a win-win for everyone.