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Teacher brings back exchange program for first time since 2005

by: JAIME VALDEZ - German exchange students stand in front of Aloha High School after making a trip Tuesday to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. Walking down the hall on his first day at Aloha High School, Valentin Thamm got a sure sign he and his fellow students would be embraced by the local population.

“This girl was walking past us and just got that we were Germans,” he recalls with a grin. “She was excited and says, ‘Oh, it’s you!’”

The girl, it turns out, was one of the school’s German level three and four students with whom Thamm and his 14 fellow exchange students from Braunschweig, Germany, would be working and studying during their two-week visit to the Beaverton area. The students arrived and met their local host families on Oct. 8 and were welcomed by the Aloha High staff and students the next day.

The visit marks the first time since 2005 the school has participated in the German American Partnership Exchange Program, a nonprofit cultural exchange jointly sponsored by the U.S. and German federal governments. The current host students at Aloha will visit Braunshweig in June 2013 to complete the exchange.

Katja Freeborn, an AHS German teacher for 15 years, sponsored the 2005 program and brought it back to life at Aloha once she realized she had the time and resources to devote to it. Her first participation in an exchange program came when she was a Beaverton High School teacher in 1994.

“It’s fabulous,” she said on Tuesday afternoon as the students returned from a field trip to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. “It’s nice for Americans to meet people from another country and show them about themselves.”

Aloha High first participated in the program in 1979, a landmark immortalized by a maple tree planted near the school’s main entrance.

In addition to taking in Oregon scenery, socializing with fellow students and participating in pizza parties, the German students are also engaged in classroom learning and community projects. Last week, the visitors helped the local German students with a web-based, German language scavenger hunt at the Oregon Zoo. The project was possible through a $600 grant Freeborn obtained from the partnership exchange program, the German Teachers Association of Oregon and the organization's German counterpart.

The exchange students also got to interact with college students and instructors in a visit to Pacific University on Monday. For Jennifer Haase, one of the two visiting teachers from Germany, it was a thrill to revisit the school where she worked as a teaching assistant six years ago.

“It’s my first time back here since,” she said. “It’s a crazy coincidence. Of all the American high schools, it was Katja who got in touch with me, so I signed up. We’ve had so many great experiences every day. The welcome at the school has been great. The teachers ask us a lot of questions.”

While the exchange students, many of whom had visited the U.S. before, seemed largely impressed with their exposure to the American way of life, some were admittedly perplexed by the overall looseness in the classroom compared to their school in Braunschweig.

“You sit in class and just go out and come back again,” observed Lena Tiemann, a junior exchange student. “Everyone has their cellphones out and are eating food. You don’t do that stuff in German classrooms.”

Classes back home are also smaller, she observed, with 12 to 30 students per class.

“If I was the teacher, I would like students to pay more attention,” she said.

Freeborn acknowledges the differences in school cultures, but realizes students from different backgrounds take different approaches to learning.

“I think it’s sad we don’t use our educational opportunities to the greatest extent we can,” she said.

After finishing up their second week at Aloha in the classroom, students will take in Portland-area activities, including a trip to Seaside Beach and a Trail Blazers game. The Aloha students will send off their new German friends with a pizza party, and the host family of Damir and Lidija Juresic will host a farewell “Potluck Grillfest” on Sunday.

Yannik Jeremias, a sophomore from Braunschweig and one of only three boys in the exchange, said he looks forward to a planned paintball session as well as a visit on Friday to a haunted house for Halloween.

“It’s been great,” he said of his experience so far. “The families make us lots of food and ask us what we want to do.”

Haase agreed the visit has been stimulating all the way around.

“You know every day is going to bring something new,” she said.

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