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Bringing 'Culture to Life'

Visiting International Faculty program provides cultural exchange opportunities for students, teachers.

Nine-year-old Cassandra Duer at first had difficulty with her fourth-grade teacher’s New Zealand accent.

Two years ago and again this year, she has Kirsten Reakes as her classroom teacher at Cedar Lane Elementary School. "It was hard, but then I got used to it and I learned a lot of new words," Cassandra said.

Now as a fourth-grader, Cassandra and her classmates Erica Spencer and Christina Roper, both 9, get a second chance at learning about the culture, lifestyle and some facts about New Zealand, Reakes’ home country.

Reakes is one of 28 Visiting International Faculty (VIF) teachers working in Loudoun schools this year. They plan to share their cultures with students through the cultural-exchange program, which brings educators from all over the world to the United States and the United Kingdom for one to three years and returns them to their home countries to put their teaching and cultural experiences to work.

"The whole idea is to bring international experiences to students and their schools, so students grow up to be successful in a global marketplace and an increasingly multicultural nation in the U.S.," said Ned Glascock, communications manager for the VIF program, which is based in Chapel Hill, N.C. and began there in 1987. "We aim to aid the cause of international understanding one person at a time."

The program aims to break down stereotypes and provide students with cultural information that does not have to be gleaned from books. The VIF teachers "are a living embodiment of that country and that culture," Glascock said. "These teachers are phenomenal. They bring culture to life in the classroom."

REAKES, NAMED the Virginia Cultural Educator of the Year last year, brings up New Zealand with most of the subjects she teaches and has a map of the country and some facts on the front wall of her classroom. She compares the currencies of New Zealand and the United States and repeatedly asks her students for the country’s time of day.

"Any subject you teach kids, you can put New Zealand into it," Reakes said. "I just love the way they are so receptive. They want to be here and learn. … They remind me of my kids in New Zealand, just the way they act, their behaviors and their interest in learning. The kids here are very positive. They have high hopes for themselves."

Reakes organized a school-wide New Zealand Day and in January 2002 started an after-school program to teach students how to prepare authentic New Zealand foods, to play cricket and touch rugby, and to act as ambassadors of the country with other students. She does the same things for her own students, this year a class of 27 fourth graders, during class time or recess and plans to hold the after-school program again in January 2004.

"She’s not boring. She does all these things to teach us about New Zealand," Spencer said.

"We can learn about it from her point of view," Roper added. "I think New Zealand has a lot of beautiful places there. It has beautiful mountains and lots of land."

"It’s not like one of our big cities like New York. It’s really calm," Spencer said.

Reakes and her younger brother were raised on a dairy farm in Taranaki in the Waikato province. Her parents still farm but now are working on a dry stock farm, while her brother is a chemical engineer in Australia.

Reakes attended Waikato University, then taught for five years in New Zealand and Australia before joining the VIF program. She wanted to be a tennis coach in America and found that through VIF, half of her dream could come true. "I’m a big fan of Disney World and of theme parks. I’ve always wanted to come to America," she said.

So on weekends and holidays, Reakes and her three roommates, also VIF teachers, travel the coastline and across the United States to places like New York, Disney World, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Niagara Falls.

"By teaching and living abroad, they learn about themselves personally and professionally," Glascock said. "They can take what they learn about the culture and the U.S. educational system back home, so the cultural exchange goes full circle."

MONICA DOMINGUEZ, a VIF teacher at Stone Bridge High School since last year, joined the program to share the Hispanic culture and to learn more about the American culture. A teacher for 20 years, Dominguez is teaching intermediate Spanish at the same time she is trying to improve her English, she said. She does not want to simply learn it from books, she added.

"I think it’s important for students to learn Spanish here, because Spanish is being used more and more in different situations," said Dominguez, who is from Buenos Aires, Argentina. "I think it’s a good experience for them to have a native speaker of the language. It helps because I can tell them about the vocabulary that is being used most currently and that there are different dialects and accents. I think it’s good to be exposed to different ones."

To teach her students, Dominguez brings photos and songs from Argentina and incorporates as much cultural material as she can into the lessons. "They are interested in what’s going on in my country, and I’m glad to be able to share that with them," she said.

VIF teacher Paul Looyen, who is in his third year at Park View High School and a teacher for the past 10 years, uses photos and materials from Australia, his home country, to demonstrate physics concepts. He tells the students in his physics and honors biology classes about Australia's culture, geography and the language, slang and different uses of words, hoping to give them a greater appreciation of the country. He takes students to a movie about the Gallipoli battle site on April 25, Australia's national day to honor the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, a day that is similar to Memorial Day.

"There's a lot of mystique about Australia. I try to fill them in a little bit," said Looyen, who lives near Philomont with his wife Erica and their two children. He and Erica wanted to live overseas and found that opportunity through the VIF program. "It well exceeded our expectations," he said about coming to the United States, where they had previously visited. "We developed friends from day one. ... We never felt homesick."

MORE THAN 1,750 teachers are involved in the VIF program this year, including 60 teachers who are working in the United Kingdom. In Virginia, there are 176 VIF teachers, including the 28 teachers in Loudoun. The Loudoun teachers are from Argentina, 1; Australia, 8; Canada, 3; Chile, 1; Colombia, 3; Lebanon, 1; the Netherlands, 1; New Zealand, 3; Panama, 1; Peru, 1; the Philippines, 2; and the United Kingdom, 3.

The VIF teachers visit on a cultural exchange visa, good for one year and renewable for two additional years.