2013-01-11 / People

Neighbors

Teacher heads to Uruguay


Susan Dana Susan Dana By Jack Flagler

Staff Writer

The last time Susan Dana taught in a foreign country, the world was a different place.

The Cape Elizabeth Middle School Spanish teacher traveled to Brazil and Mexico more than 20 years ago. However, when she leaves for Pan de Azucar, Uruguay, this summer as part of the nationwide Uruguay Teacher Exchange Program, the traveling experience will little resemble the trips she took at the beginning of her career.

“The Internet has taken out some of the mystique of travel. Before, you knew nothing, now there’s a Youtube video of that school,” Dana said. “I’m trying not to look too much, because its part of, to me, the adventure of traveling: What am I going to find out?”

The exchange program, which is fully funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sends a Uruguayan teacher to the U.S. for two weeks in February, then an American teacher to Uruguay for two weeks in July.

Ana Rodriguez, a fourth-grade teacher in Pan de Azucar, a small town on the east coast of Uruguay, will visit Cape Elizabeth in February. While other teachers participating in the program will visit Atlanta, Ga., St. Louis, Mo., Chicago, Ill. and other major cities, Rodriguez will have a more rural experience.

Regardless of the destination, Dana said for most of the teachers, the experience will be completely new.

“A lot of the educators coming to the U.S. never have left Uruguay. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever been on a plane,” Dana said.

Dana hopes to have Rodriguez visit Pond Cove Elementary School, Cape Elizabeth High School and a class at Portland High School to get a sense of the differences between ages and demographics in Maine.

Dana also has a trip to Augusta planned so Rodriguez can meet Cape Elizabeth’s legislators and Don Reutershan, the world languages specialist for the state of Maine. Rodriguez will also drop in to local board of education and Lions Club meetings. Rodriguez will stay with Dana during her time in Maine.

Rodriguez just finished her school year in December, and now has started her “summer” break, which will last until March. Dana will visit Pan de Azucar during her own summer break in July. Although she has read up on the town and learned a little about the school through the Internet, Dana said she still has no idea what Rodriguez has planned for her, so there is still some excitement and mystery surrounding the trip.

“One thing Ana and I want to do is come up with a collaborative project with our students on the Internet,” Dana said. “You could do digital storytelling, maintain a blog or the students could Skype. That’s the nice thing about the technology is (the Cape Elizabeth students) can connect with the students in Uruguay.”

Cultural exchange programs were once limited to letters back and forth that took days or weeks to get from place to place. Now, students can connect instantly through Skype and interact through the “Flat Stanley Project.”

Dana explained the Flat Stanley Project involves students posting photographs to a blog that features a cardboard cut out, originally Flat Stanley, a character from a famous children’s book. The photos can help students understand, for example, how a birthday party is different in Uruguay from one in Maine. Ideas like this, Dana said, can help keep students connected after the visits.

“(The program organizers) don’t want us to go down for two weeks, come back and that’s it. They want to maintain a connection between Uruguay and Maine,” Dana said.

Before her trip to Uruguay, Dana will fly to Guatemala in June with a group of 18 Cape Elizabeth High School students as a chaperone for the Safe Passage program. It will be her third trip in the last six years with the service program. Dana said the travel will make for a busy summer, but will be worth it to introduce Cape students to new cultural learning.

“We have to bring the outside world to them. It’s just the nature of where we are right now. It’s very homogeneous and they’re not exposed to much,” Dana said. “Even if this is just a digital exchange right now, who knows where it will lead. I’m really excited for the community and the students.”

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