Parents and staff at Chantilly's Chesterbrook Academy got to learn firsthand that children everywhere are similar. From Jan. 19-Feb. 10, they hosted nine students and one teacher from the South Ocean boarding school in Qing Pao, China.
The five girls and four boys, ages 9-14, plus their male teacher stayed at Chesterbrook parents' homes near all three of the school's locations here, in Vienna (the Town and Country School) and in Sterling.
"It's the first time a Nobel Learning Communities school has participated in this program," said Laura Ravenstahl, principal of the Chantilly school. "Last summer, a group of Nobel students and parents visited China and saw the schools there, and that was the first step toward bringing the Chinese exchange students here."
The purpose was to enable them to learn more about America, its culture and its system of education. The children went on lots of field trips to sightsee in Washington, D.C., and the local area, and also saw the Luray Caverns and enjoyed a concert by teen rock star Aaron Carter at the Patriot Center.
They saw Washington Wizards and GMU basketball games, went ice skating, saw the movie, "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and toured a middle school in Reston. They also sampled the cuisine at McDonald's, Pizza Hut, International House of Pancakes and a Chinese restaurant.
"One host family went to Disneyworld and another took their exchange student skiing," said Ravenstahl. The children also did more serious things, such as attending elementary-school classes at Chesterbrook, and ESL teachers were on hand to help with English, when needed. But most came with a good, basic knowledge of the English language.
School events coordinator, Priscilla Webster, planned and organized the whole thing, with help from Ravenstahl and principals Elizabeth Martinez and Barbara Logan at the Sterling and Vienna sites, respectively. "Being away in a foreign country for three weeks, they behaved excellently," said Webster. "And we learned a lot, too. When we went to Luray Caverns, they said they had caverns in China, too."
Ravenstahl said the Chesterbrook staff was surprised by the number of similarities between the Chinese students and theirs. "They had similar interests, senses of humor and likes and dislikes," she said. "Except for the language, it was just like having nine new students."
Chesterbrook fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Chris Padgett appreciated how much the visiting students understood and how well they were able to communicate. Said Padgett: "I was amazed how the kids interacted nonverbally for long periods of time and communicated with each other."
While there, the Chinese teacher told about school in his country. At South Ocean boarding school, children start between ages 3-5 and only see their parents once a month. The school is for grades K-12, and students attend classes from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. and speak only when spoken to.
To make things easier for their American hosts — since many of the children's names were difficult for them to pronounce — all of the Chinese students adopted American names during their stay. For example, Penghong Tian, 10, went by "Larry."
He has two sisters and two brothers and says he lives in a big city. "I like English, math and Chinese, and the computer," he said. "I like playing computer games. My daddy teaches Chinese at a university to many, many children, and my mom does hair."
Larry said his favorite things in America were going to basketball games and eating McDonald's cheeseburgers, KFC's chicken nuggets and ice cream from Milwaukee Frozen Custard. He stayed for awhile with Jim and Nancy Allen of Chantilly and their son Charlie, a Chesterbrook first-grader.
He also stayed with Wendy and Steve Dunham of Centreville's Sully Station community and their sons Ben, 10, a Chesterbrook fifth-grader, and Andy, 13, an eighth-grader at Stone Middle School. Said Wendy Dunham: "We thought it would be a great opportunity for Ben and Andy to learn the culture of the country."
Besides Larry, for the last week they also hosted another boy, Hao Xun, 10, called "Harry." And the three 10-year-olds had a ball together.
"Harry speaks limited English, but a woman at work who spoke mandarin helped us figure us what he liked," said Dunham. "We'd show him pictures and, with basic English, 'yes' and 'no,' we were able to talk to each other."
She said the outgoing Larry loved shopping here. "He bought teddy bears, American action-figure toys and Pokémon," she said. "He speaks very good English — even slang, like 'OK' and 'What's happening?' — which is unusual. And he smiles all the time."
The Dunhams took Harry to Chinese and American restaurants, the zoo and to Ben's SYA basketball games. "He liked being with us and doing what we did," said Wendy Dunham. "He's an only child, and he was happy to be accepted by our family." Larry, too, went to Ben's basketball games and, said Dunham, he liked American food better than Harry did.
With their limited English, she worried at first about the boys communicating with each other. "It's amazing how kids can do anything together," she said. "Ben learned how to communicate with a type of sign language, and they could all sit in a room and not speak and just have fun playing computer and card games together."
Dunham said Harry tried to teach her his language and repeated words over and over until she got them right. "I just loved having the extra children around," she said. "I was afraid they'd cry for their parents, but they warmed up to us quickly."
They were sad when Harry and Larry had to go home, last Sunday. But they plan to keep in touch, and she gave them photo albums of their activities together. "It was a great experience," she said. "I'd do it again, in a minute."