|As much fun as the April 3-11 visit to Montclair was, junior Ciara Farmer admitted, "I guess the grass is always greener on the other side."
|CGI teacher Erika Davis and Barnet chaperone agree that the English and American students "form great bonds" through the exchange. This fall, the MHS students visited Barnet, a borough of London.
|The freedom and informality of the American classroom left a marked impression on all of the English visitors, as did the ethnic diversity in the school, township and region.
”I love it so much. I want to move here,” the British teenager exulted. “It’s so much fun. It’s so much friendlier than home. And the shopping …!”
Eyes sparkling, British teenager Ciara Farmer looked around what was, for Montclair High students, a perfectly ordinary sight: one of the Civics and Government Institute’s classrooms on the third floor of the main building. But to the native of London, it might as well have been an American monument.
“I’m having such a great time. I never want to leave,” Ciara sighed.
Such enthusiasm is why the Friends of Barnet cross-cultural exchange program has stayed alive for more than six decades. But it’s not why the program got underway in the first place – or why Montclair and Barnet, England now call themselves sister cities.
In 1941, English families living through the Blitz of World War II asked friends and relatives in Montclair shelter their children until the bombing stopped. Montclair opened its homes to these children, and the cities of Barnet, a borough in London, and Montclair created a bond of friendship that persists to this day.
To the five teenagers who came to visit Montclair between April 3 and 11, Montclair and its surroundings were full of wonders. Despite the common language, almost everything was new and different for them: sometimes quirky, sometimes astonishing, sometimes amusing, but always interesting.
“This whole ethos – the singing of the national anthem, flags in all the school classrooms, the patriotism and that sense of unity here – it’s so strange to find that in such a multi-cultural place,” marveled British senior Mark Trafford.
Jeannine Lemon, also a senior, described her experience at an American high school as “eye-opening.”
For starters, there was the Health Education guest speaker who spoke about how the choices teenagers make can have long-term consequences. Topics like the health risks of getting a tattoo or piercing, drug and alcohol use, and sexually transmitted diseases were addressed by the speaker and, to the English students’ surprise, calmly received by the Montclair students.
“We don’t usually have talks about things like this in school,” Jeannine said with a laugh.
In the area of academics, too, differences abounded. More than one of the English visitors commented on how much more overtly disciplined their schools at home were -- how much stricter the teachers, how much more controlled the classroom environment.
“What struck me the most is how much more freedom there is here,” Ciara said. “Everyone debates with everyone else. The most interesting thing [in school] so far was a lecture we had in English class. When you feel free to voice your opinion, it makes you think outside the box.”
“Things are much more laid back here,” Jeannine agreed, looking around the CGI classroom where students gathered in small groups joked, stood to walk around, called out to friends in other groups, and interrupted one another. “Our style of learning is definitely more structured.”
“It’s so liberating,” Ciara put in; but Jeannine countered, “I think I like the structured way better.”
Still, she added, “It is effective. The students here learn as much as we do.”
In general, seven days into their stay, the visitors agreed that a good time was being had by all. Each student described his or her host family as “very nice, very helpful” and the people encountered along the way “really friendly.” Montclair, they said, was beautiful.
“It seems like you’ve got everything here,” said senior Jennifer Thorby.
Creating Harmony in a World Riven by Dissension
On the morning of Wednesday, April 9, CGI teacher and Friends of Barnet co-advisor was circulating among several classrooms. The students, both American and English, were gathered in small groups discussing a social studies lesson. As the visiting students had observed, the atmosphere was relaxed and informal.
But as always during their stay, the teenagers were supervised, and the activities, though light-hearted and spontaneous on the surface, had actually been planned for weeks ahead of time with an eye toward helping the students learn as much as possible about the U.S. in a brief time.
“In a week, it’s very, very concentrated,” said Barnet chaperone Wendy Webster.
Beginning with a welcome brunch on April 4 in the MHS library, the students’ 9-day itinerary included trips to New York City and Washington, D.C., activities in and around Montclair, classroom instruction, dinners with their host families, and even a NY Nets vs. Miami Raptors basketball game at the Meadowlands.
“The pace has been breakneck. One is left with a kaleidoscope of impressions,” said Kevin McSharry, the other adult chaperone on the trip. Like the students, he and Webster found some aspects of American life startling.
“The cultural diversity here amazes me. Everywhere you look you see people of every nationality, Thai and Italian and Mexican and on and on … And the food – good God, the portions are enormous!” exclaimed McSharry.
“You do get caught out. It’s more than you can eat, really,” agreed Webster.
But, they added, the service in most American restaurants was impressively fast. And the people, in general were friendly and welcoming – “Americans are such nice people, really,” McSharry said.
Both chaperones agreed with Davis that with just two days left to go, the visit was a great success.
“This is such a wonderful opportunity for these students,” said McSharry. “It widens their horizons, increases their understanding of other people. Experiences like this can only create harmony in a world riven by dissention.”
In Montclair, 2008 is an especially good year to host friends from other nations. Following his trip China in the spring of 2007, Superintendent Alvarez and the Montclair School District are increasing global awareness among staff and students at all grade levels through a series of cultural exchanges, including the introduction of Chinese language and culture instruction beginning next fall.
For more information on international activities and programs in the district, see “Cultural Exchanges Abound” in the news archive section of this site.
For more information about the 65-year-old Friends of Barnet cultural exchange program, visit the news archive at www.montclairtimes.com. A permanent Friends of Barnet display can be viewed in the lobby of the Municipal Building, 205 Claremont Avenue.