World Wide Learning: Lessons from differences extend beyond classrooms

By: Olivia Martin

My family lived in Budapest, Hungary, for six months during the second half of my freshman year of high school. I ended up going to a British International school. I took a city bus with my sister to school every morning and then walked up probably 100 sidewalk steps to get to the school, which was perched on a hill. Actually getting to school was a contrast from what I was used to, but I was not prepared for how different the educational system would be, too. The British rules were rigid and strict. We had to wear a uniform: a white polo with the school’s crest, dark blue pants or skirt and black or brown shoes. One time, I wore black shoes with white soles to school, and the principal made me color the white in with a Sharpie marker so that my shoes were fully black. The teaching style was also completely unfamiliar. Unlike American teachers who, for the most part, genuinely care about their students, the British and other foreign teachers I had were generally unsympathetic. The rule was that if you didn’t understand, it was your fault, and you were on your own. Also, I had to take three science classes as a freshman (chemistry, physics and biology), not just one. It was definitely a different experience for me to be in a foreign school. However, I am not the only one who has gone to other schools in other countries. There are a handful of students going to Cedar Falls High School who have had very different schooling experiences in Tanzania, Brazil, Spain, Denmark and China. 

Luiza deJesus lives in São Paulo, Brazil, a city with more than 11 million people. She can’t drive yet because you have to be 18 to drive in Brazil, so each morning she takes a city bus to get to school. Freya Arildsen is from a small village in Denmark. She said, “I live in the countryside, so my mom drives me, I bike or I take the school bus to get to school.” Helena Sacristan is from a village called Colmenar Viejo in Spain. “It’s 30 minutes from Madrid,” she said. In the morning, her dad drives her to school. In the middle of the day, she takes a city bus home to eat lunch at her house, a bus back to school and finally when school is over, she takes another bus. Jianan Chen lived in a city in China called Fuzhou, home to 2.124 million people. Luckily, his school was close to his house. He said, “I walked to school, it was like a 10 minute walk.”

Haamid Ashraf’s school in Tanzania has two floors and an open roof. He said, with a smile, “The prefects have access to the roof.” Prefects, who are students with extra authority powers, have higher status in his school, and so they get special privileges like access to hang out on the open roof. deJesus said that her school building is incredibly small compared to Cedar Falls High School and that all of the classrooms in her school look like the history classrooms here, with a chalkboard and a map on the wall. Arildsen also said, “Our school is not as big as here. There is just one floor with a lot of classrooms.” So, although Cedar Falls High School is a medium-sized school in most people’s eyes, for some of the foreign-exchange students, it seems massive. However, for Chen, who attended elementary school in Fuzhou, China, his school was quite large. “There were two buildings, both for the elementary, and they had a couple stories each,” he said. After growing up in the Chinese elementary school system, Chen and his family moved to the United States in 2009.

Although it is hard to imagine having uniforms at Cedar Falls High School, many schools in other parts of the world require them. Just like in the British school that I attended, deJesus, Sacristan, Chen and Ashraf have had to wear some sort of uniform to school. Sacristan, who goes to a private school in Spain, said that her uniform consists of “a white polo and red sweater and a dark blue skirt.” deJesus, who attends a private school in Brazil, has to wear a uniform with the blue and yellow school colors. deJesus likes having a uniform because it takes the guesswork out of picking an outfit each morning. Ashraf’s experience at his school in Tanzania is a little different, as he was a prefect before coming to Cedar Falls High, so he had a specific uniform. Prefects are chosen based on high marks and good behavior, and they enforce rules for all of the other students. Ashraf said, “There are two types of uniforms: regular and prefect. There are badges to show if you are a prefect or not. They are like name tags, but they say your position.” At the school Chen went to in China, the students wore uniforms not every day, but on some designated days. It has been a while since he lived in China, but he remembers wearing a red scarf around his neck. In contrast, Arildsen’s school in Denmark doesn’t have uniforms so coming to Cedar Falls was less of a change for her.

In the United States, the student-teacher relationship is actually quite informal compared to many other places. A lot of the students experienced a much more official relationship with their teachers. For Ashraf, “There are some teachers that I don’t even know their names. I just call them sir or madam.” deJesus and Sacristan had a similar situation. She said, “Teachers are not very friendly. It’s very formal.” Sacristan’s relationship with her teachers is formal, yet she said, “I can still talk to them.” Chen had a very strict relationship with his teachers. Arildsen, in contrast, had a very different relationship with her teachers, maybe even more informal than the relationship at Cedar Falls. She said, “Teachers are not strict at all. You can call them their first name and talk to them and be personal with them. It’s a relaxed relationship.” One reason that deJesus is enjoying her experience at Cedar Falls High School is because her teachers are supportive and approachable. “The teachers are easier to talk to here,” she said. “They’re really nice.” Chen agreed: “It’s easier to talk to teachers here.”

Another difference between U.S. schools and schools in other countries is the process from getting from one class to another. At Cedar Falls High School, there are passing times where hoards of students pile into the hallway, catch up with friends, bump into fellow students and try their best to walk fast enough to get to their next class on time. This idea was new for the foreign exchange students. For deJesus, Sacristan, Arildsen, Ashraf and Chen, the tradition is for students to stay in their classrooms and the teachers come to them. There are a few classes that make an exception to this. Ashraf said, “We move rooms for certain classes like the sciences and the computer classes, but other than that, we stay in the same room and the teacher comes to us.”

As for the actual classes, some countries have schools with fewer options than at Cedar Falls High School. For Ashraf, who does not have art classes offered at his school in Tanzania, he has found the CFHS art offerings to be refreshing. He said that his school used to have drawing and music classes, but about 10 years ago they removed them because they believed the students were spending too much time doing art and not enough time doing science. Schools in Tanzania heavily promote science classes because of the cultural tendency to regard those people who excel in science or business as more intelligent. Even though Ashraf likes science, he still wishes that they had art at his school. “I would like to do art and drawing, but they don’t have that, so I do science,” he said.  Ashraf added that he is really impressed by how many options there are at Cedar Falls. “It is easy here to specialize on what you want. There are so many classes to take.” Taking the art classes offered at Cedar Falls have sparked such an interest in Ashraf that he wants to pursue art in college. “I’m looking up colleges right now in Iowa so I can come back and get a degree in graphic design,” he said. Ashraf might even be back in Cedar Falls attending the University of Northern Iowa. At Sacristan’s school in Spain, there are music classes in some grades and some drawing opportunities, but not photography, painting and ceramics. “I wish we had those,” she said.

Many students at Cedar Falls High may take art classes for granted. They also might take access to technology for granted, but the foreign-exchange students definitely do not. Arildsen really likes having a Chromebook. She said that at her school in Denmark, they only have one big computer room in the library where they can use computers. At deJesus’s school in Brazil, they are taught by their teachers writing on a chalkboard. For Ashraf, it’s the same. “Everything is written on a chalkboard. You have to take handwritten notes,” he said.  At Ashraf’s school, they use pencils for drawings and diagrams, and blue or black pens for writing. They only use blue or black ink, he said, because “The teachers use red pens, and green pens are for the president of Tanzania!”

A major difference from U.S. students and those in other countries is the age at which they begin to learn a second language. Compared to other countries, the United States is very behind in terms of language. In Spain, Sacristan began studying English at five years old. Chen began in the fourth grade in China. For deJesus in Brazil, there is English class, too, but “people don’t take it too seriously.” In Denmark, where Arildsen went to school, they start learning English in fourth or fifth grade. At Ashraf’s school, they take learning English very seriously. He said, “Sometimes there is a punishment if you speak in a native language. My native language is Arabic. I’ve gotten used to speaking English since I was young because I’ve always gone to a private school, where they make you speak English.” In Tanzania, they speak English in formal situations like going to the bank, and at school.

One thing that shocked Arildsen was how sports are so important and such a large part of Cedar Falls High School. Arildsen, who plays soccer in Denmark, said that one of the biggest differences between Cedar Falls High and her high school is that “You do the sports in school, and we do sports out of school. We join clubs outside of school.” In Brazil, deJesus said, “We have P.E., but [we] don’t have sports in school.” In Tanzania, school teams compete inside the school instead of competing with other high schools in the area. “We have four houses, named according to gemstones: Rubies, Sapphires, Topazes and Emeralds. The houses compete in sports and other competitions. At the end of the year the house with the most points gets a trophy,” Ashraf said. For Chen, exercise was a part of every day, but not in the usual sense. He said, “In the morning, when you first start the class, you have to do exercises. It’s outside. Everyone does the same moves, and the younger grades just follow the bigger kids.” He said there is a second set of exercises later in the day, and “after a few classes then you have to do exercises for your eyes. There’s a TV, and you follow the person on the TV telling you how to protect your eyes and do eye exercises.”

Among all of these differences, the general consensus among all of the foreign students was a common realization of just how easy school is in the United States compared to their home countries. “It’s not the content. Just how they teach us,” deJesus said. “In Brazil you have to do long answers. It’s much harder.” deJesus’s school grades on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. She said that there is only “one big test in the quarter and then daily assignments.” Sacristan’s school in Spain also operates on a scale of 1 to 10. If you get from a 1 to a 4.9, that means you failed, and from 5 to 10 means that you passed. Sacristan said, “I don’t like when I have a 4.9 and the teacher tells me that I fail. Here, you have a 70 percent, and it’s like bad, but in Spain it’s really good.” deJesus and Sacristan agree that they have never met anyone who has all 10’s. It’s basically unheard of. Sacristan gasped, “No one has all 10s!” Sacristan, who is used to staying up until 3 a.m. studying in Spain, said, “In Spain you don’t have quizzes or short answer exams. You have a unit, but it’s a really long unit and study for all of your tests, which are all big ones. Tests are like long answers. You have to memorize everything. We have multiple choice, but they are much harder than here.” Arildsen’s system is completely different, and even confusing to the other foreign students. “Minus 3 is where you fail. There are also grades 4, 7, 10 and 12. If you get a 12, it’s an A,” she said. In Arildsen’s class, only one person had all 12’s. Chen said he thinks that school here is easier here mostly because the teachers are friendlier.

We can learn a lot from students who have lived in other places in the world. There are similarities in every school around the world, but also many differences, like wearing a uniform, the grading system, or even what color pen is allowed. Through learning and understanding the differences, we can begin to see the world through a broader lense. Haamid, Luiza, Helena, Freya and Jianan already have a unique perspective because they have experienced education in their home countries and then at a high school in the Midwest. Sometimes, what people can take away from these experiences is not what is on a test, but rather what they learn from being immersed in a different culture.

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