A Roadmap for Planning a Successful "DIY" Two-Way School-to-School Partnership Exchange Program: Part III

Timeline, Key Components, and Other Tips

by Heidi Steele
Timeline, Key Components, and Other Tips

Don't miss Part I and Part II of this article, which lay out step-by-step planning for a two-way school-to-school partnership exchange program from September to April. This article advises on the final stage of planning and preparation.

(The documents linked to in this article are for reference only. Individual readers, schools and districts should get their own legal advice.)

May-June

Health and Safety in China, Packing, and Itinerary Meetings with Students
This is a busy time as we are both winding down the school year and getting ready for the exchange. I find time during the latter part of spring to meet with the students and discuss the three topics listed above. Depending on your time frame, you may want to combine one or more of these topics into one longer meeting. I hold all three of these meetings in Chinese, but parents are always invited to attend if they like.

Health and Safety in China: At this meeting, I review a detailed handout containing guidelines for what to do in case you get sick, have something stolen, or get lost or injured, and so on. This document is written in English but contains key Chinese phrases that they will need should one of these situations occur. We are extremely well cared for while we are with our partners in Mudanjiang, so this topic is primarily intended to prepare them for the days at the end of the trip in Beijing.

Packing: I write general categories of things to pack in Chinese on the board – clothing, toiletries, gifts, fun things – and so on. Then the students divide into small groups, and with the help of picture dictionaries they create packing lists in Chinese on the board for each category. After everything is up on the board, each group presents their list, miming or drawing pictures as necessary to explain new vocabulary. The other students take notes as they listen. During this meeting, I also give suggestions regarding luggage size and weight, appropriate clothing, and so on. The students walk out of the meeting with both a rough packing list and the terms in Chinese for the vocabulary they didn’t already know.

Itinerary in Beijing: This meeting is focused on the time we will spend on our own in Beijing at the end of the exchange. (You could obviously use this method for a visit to any part of China, as long as it’s an area you are already quite familiar with.) Rather than imposing an itinerary for this four-five day period, I help the students to create it themselves. At the start of the meeting, I lay a large map of Beijing out on a table and show them the location of the airport and our hotel. Next, I project the Chinese version of the Beijing Capital Airport’s web site on a large screen and ask the students to use the web site to figure out how to get from our arrival terminal onto the transportation that will take us into town. Following that, we use the online Beijing subway map to figure out how to get to the stop closest to the hotel. Throughout this process, I give hints if they get stuck.

Once the trip to the hotel is sorted out, I give the students a printed list in Chinese of some of the things I think they might want to do and see in Beijing, and we talk activity over, adding other ideas that they may have. If there are any outings for which the dates are set (an outing with a friend of mine, or a performance for example) I let them know that those dates are fixed. Once they have a rough idea of the options, I hand them iPads and ask them to use Baidu to figure out where each of the locations is on the map and mark it with a labeled post-it. From there, they can start to plot out what kinds of activities can easily fit into one outing, and which ones need to be a separate trip. Slowly, an itinerary starts to come together. As it does, I enter it in Chinese on an online calendar so that everyone can view it onscreen. At the end of the meeting, we have a draft itinerary that we can adjust as we like later on.

Cultural Differences and Hosting Meeting with Parents and Students
The purpose of this meeting is to give parents some guidance on hosting their Chinese students. We discuss possible cultural differences related to food, pets, laundry, shoes in the house and so on, as well as differences in bathroom fixtures, bedding, locks and other appliances that may need to be pointed out. It is important to emphasize that we can only talk in the broadest of generalities. For example, I may mention that many Chinese don’t like to eat much cold food and rapidly tire of sandwiches for lunch, and later a family may discover that their Chinese students actually adores sandwiches and wants them every day. I also give tips for helping the Chinese students feel at home, such as showing them how to eat a new food, or giving them a written list of the names and ages of any siblings in the home. Parents usually have a lot of questions at this meeting, and I let the discussion flow freely until all of the key areas have been covered.

Sign Agreements with Parents and Students, Collect Passport Scans, Collect Medical Information, and Create Emergency Contact List
Right around this time, the parents and students sign three agreements (this can of course vary). In our program, the parents and students sign an international travel agreement to commit to certain rules of behavior, a liability waiver for me as an individual, and another liability waiver for the district.

We scan the opening two pages of each student’s passport, and I take these scans to China both electronically and in hard copy. In addition, I ask each family to share a list of any medications that their student is taking, and I talk to the parents needed so that I understand each student’s medical situation clearly. Finally, we create a detailed emergency contact list that includes information about how to reach all of the families. Every family receives a copy of this list so that they can communicate easily with one another should an emergency arise during the China portion of the trip, and I keep this list, along with the passport copies, with me at all times in China.

Apply for Chinese Visas
We apply for Chinese visas about two months before travel. As of this writing, visa applications must be typed, and they cannot be sent to a Chinese Consulate or Embassy via email, mail, or fax, but must be delivered in person. (In addition to the Embassy in Washington DC, there are Chinese Consulates in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.) We pay a service fee to our travel agency to handle the applications for us. For more information, talk to your travel agent and visit http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/visas/.

Exchange Itineraries for Feedback
The end of spring is also the time during which we share our draft itineraries with our partner school. We send our hosting itinerary for the time the Chinese students are with us to Mudanjiang, and they send their hosting itinerary for the American students to us. This exchange gives us time to make suggestions for things we would like to add or drop, and because our itinerary for Mudanjiang is written in Chinese, it is a wonderful tool for teaching language as well.

This completes the planning process. In the final weeks leading up to the actual trip, we fine-tune details and address any last-minute questions that parents and students may have. By the time arrival day rolls around, the families feel confident, prepared, and incredibly excited for the adventure that is about to unfold.

When the time comes to meet our partners at the airport as they arrive from the China for the U.S. side of our month-long student exchange, we cluster around the top of the escalators leading from the international arrivals area, craning to see faces made familiar by Skype sessions and photographs. Some of my students and their parents hold welcome signs, others have flowers – and all are brimming over with anticipation, excitement, and a bit of nerves. It seems like an interminable wait before we finally see our group stepping onto the escalators below, signaling the start of one of the most poignant moments of the entire exchange program. As each Chinese student meets his/her host family in person, they tentatively and awkwardly begin exchanging pleasantries and getting to know one another. In those few minutes, I have the great honor of witnessing cross-cultural friendships form before my very eyes – ones that in some cases will continue for decades to come.