Monday, April 26, 2010

Live in Quebec for Three Months and Learn French

As I said in my introductory post, moving to Quebec when I was sixteen was one of the first major travel experiences I'd ever had. I'd taken French courses my whole life in school - that is simply part of the Canadian school experience - and had a desire to be able to say more than just the phrases taught in the workbooks. Our school had been participating in the French Exchange program for years and years, and in the last few of those years, I'd become friends with some of the prior exchange students. I also wanted to be the one in our high school yearbook who had a whole page dedicated just to her and her life experiences (yes, at sixteen I'll admit I was on the vain side). Overall, I felt that the exchange program was a good fit for me.

Quebec City, Quebec Canada
Chateau Frontenac, a gorgeous and very historical hotel!

I signed up, beat out some of the other hopefuls, and had my exchange partner, Caroline, move in with my family and I in September of my Grade 11 year. She stayed until the end of November, and it wasn't my turn to leave until February. I remember being excited for Christmas holidays simply because they meant time was moving closer and closer to my departure date.

Outside my school in Ste-Agathe-Des-Monts with some friends

Finally, it was time. I piled onto the airplane with several other students from around Alberta and headed to the Montreal airport. I was picked up by family and began my 'new life' in Quebec - at least, for the next three months.

It was indeed an amazing experience. Caroline's group of friends was eclectic and independent, marching to the beat of their own, much different drum, and we had silly and entertaining parties that included such activities as costume dress-up and couch dancing. With them, my confidence in meeting new people and learning foreign languages increased. My family lugged me all over the province, attempting to show me how wonderful Quebec is (and it is!).

Outside the Olympic Stadium in Montreal

I experienced the beauty of Vieux Quebec (Old Quebec City), skiing at Mont Tremblanc, the Parliament Buildings, the Biodome, the Funiculaire, an NHL hockey game - the Canadiens of course - and the busy streets of Montreal, as well as a traditional Cabane a Sucre, where I was able to see how real Canadian maple syrup is made, and created my own maple taffy on a stick by pouring the syrup onto crushed ice and letting it cool.

Making maple syrup candy at the Cabane-a-Sucre

My school provided me with many opportunities, as well. They realized quickly that I was not the strongest French speaker - despite another boy from Alberta, who was fluent, helping me to cheat my way along! - and enrolled me in such classes as art, sculpture, computers, and radio DJ experience. It was a lovely three months, where my most difficult courses were economics (in French) and Grade 12 math (in French - and yes, I know I told you I was in Grade 11 at the time - there had been a mix-up when they enrolled me, so I just had to suck it up and take Grade 12 math one year early, in French.) I met many wonderful friends and even competed in the school's talent competition! I love to sing, and so I did a karaoke version of a song by Quebec's favorite star, Celine Dion. I didn't win because I used a karaoke tape and not a live band, but I had a great time anyway.

Making lifelong friends in Quebec on my French exchange trip

After three months, I returned home full of confidence in myself and my ability to travel the world on my own, and was able to talk a mile a minute in Quebecois-accented French. 15 years later, I still am in contact with several of the friends I made long ago on my journey.

We loved to pose on that dumb rock! Ha ha!

For any young reader who is considered doing an exchange program but is hesitant, I suggest to you to take the risk and scoop up any experiences that come your way - the exchange that I participated on was indeed worth it!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Go White Water Rafting in Canada's Rocky Mountains

Man vs. Nature.

I teach this concept to my students all the time - it is a timeless conflict in literature, and in real life. Will man overcome, or will nature take its course?

I decided to test this in the summer of 2009, and was lucky enough to test it twice in one week. My husband's family has rented a cabin in Radium, British Columbia for the last two summers; a new 'tradition' that we're trying to establish. It is a small town set in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, full of beautiful hiking trails, gorgeous views, and of course, the famous Radium Hot Springs. But we were to discover there was more adventure to be had in Radium than jumping into the ice pool at the Hot Springs...

The Rocky Mountain view from our launching post

Last summer, as Joey and I, along with his sister Nancy and his brother Chris were strolling through the streets of Radium, we encountered a white water rafting agency and ventured inside. The prices were reasonable, and they had beginner levels that we could attempt to master. We signed up right away. The next day, we were boarding a big, yellow cheese wagon - or school bus to those of you who have never had the pleasure of riding one to school in your youth - and were bumping along half-developed logging roads towards our drop-off point in the Kicking Horse river.

Ready to white water raft in the Kootenay River, British Columbia

Once down at the drop-off point, we geared up in hospital-scrub-green waterproof pants, which were slightly less than flattering, and bright orange life vests. We patiently and somewhat nervously listened to the safety speech all about falling off the boat and drowning or getting legs broken on hidden, underwater rocks, then loaded into the large, inflatable rubber boats. We four were in that perfect age range of being older than the small children on our boat (yes, that's how tame the river ride was to be - we were sitting with 9-year-olds) and being younger than the timorous parents who wanted to just sit in the back, near the guide. So Joey, Nancy, Chris, and I got front row seats on the boat - first to go down each trough, first to get a face full of icy water when hitting the crests of each rapid wave. After the first couple of slaps in the face with glacial water, my body got used to the temperature and I really began to look forward to the rapids.

Joey all decked out in his white water rafting gear

Our journey was customized for families with children and beginners, so for the most part, our ride consisted of floating peacefully along, gazing at the serene landscape of British Columbia forest. But every so often, our guide would lead us into the heart of some rapids, and rattle off succinct instructions on how to paddle, where to paddle, and when to quit paddling. It was exciting and quite safe. There was even a point where Joey and Chris were encouraged to leap out of the boat, go for a polar bear swim, and then get hauled in before we hit the next round of rapids. I hauled Chris in easily, but Nancy nearly allowed my husband to be bashed by rocks before she finally got him inside the boat! It was such an amazing time.

An in-action shot of the white water rafting trip!

The next day, my parents decided to come to Radium to spend some time with the in-laws. It was their anniversary, and so Joey and I came up with the brilliant idea of giving them a white water rafting package for their anniversary gift. Now, please realize that my parents are in their fifties, and my father can't even swim. Somehow, we still thought that this was a genius idea. They accepted, to my surprise, and so the next day I found myself back on the yellow school bus, bumping along the same beaten path to the river. We'd chosen the exact same route as the time before, knowing it was pretty tame for the most part.

My parents on their anniversary - pretty brave!

It was, once again, a great experience. Our guide this time was a lot more laid-back than the first one, and encouraged all rafts to engage in a giant water fight, bail-out buckets full of icy water included. Every person in the rafting group was soaked to the bone by the time we'd finished our river journey - but everyone excitedly chatted about the water fight on the drive back to the headquarters. My dad even said he'd enjoyed it, despite him not speaking a single word the whole rafting ride and his knuckles white from gripping his paddle so hard. He was a great sport! My parents are talking about coming out to Radium again this summer - perhaps we'll try the next level up? We'll have to see!

See the Whitehouse in Washington D.C.

In June of 2009, Washington D.C. was host to a major teaching technology conference organized by ISTE. My school is involved in something called the "1-to-1 Laptop Project" in which each of my Junior High students have access to a personal laptop to enhance their learning. In the hopes of picking new ideas, tips, and lesson ideas, the Junior High teaching crew headed to Washington to attend the conference, and of course, see some of the sights!

The Lincoln Memorial from the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool

The conference was huge, with seminars, sessions, and over 5000 displays in the Grand Ballrooms! For us teachers, it was a positive and informative experience regarding technology use in the classroom. More importantly, our school won some free equipment in a few draws, and isn't the free stuff what conferences are all about?

Between sessions, my group was very focused in scheduling some sight-seeing and touring of the fascinating city of Washington, D.C. Because most tourist hot spots are very centralized in the city of Washington, we were able to view most of the things on our checklist by wandering about the downtown area by foot. In our very first evening in D.C., we saw the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial with the slightly scummy waters of the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Whitehouse, and strolled along part of the length of the open, grassy area affectionately know as the Mall.

Excited to be standing in front of the Washington Monument

The second day of our visit, the group ducked out slightly early from the final session of the day. We did not 'skip out' to be lazy or as a rebellious act: being a group of teachers, we were determined to visit at least one of the famous museums belonging to the Smithsonian Institute. There are seventeen museums in Washington D.C. belonging to the Smithsonian, and they are invaluable sources of information, lesson plan ideas, and resources for teachers. Plus, they're pretty cool.

At the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC

We went to the Museum of Natural History and checked out the displays of animals, precious gems (where I feasted my eyes on the gorgeous Hope Diamond), and the special exhibit about forensics and criminal science, where I picked up a free unit on forensics for my junior high students, whom I knew would be extremely interested in such a topic. After the museum closed at 5 p.m., the group walked to Capitol Hill and saw the capitol building. A few of us went further to the 'trendy' area of town and found a quaint pub that offered over 1000 types of beer, which was a total blast and I discovered a new passion for blueberry beer.

Checking out the Whitehouse

The next day, my technology session did what technology often does: it glitched out. The session was cancelled midway through, and then it was too late to join another. I made the best of the afternoon and hit the "International Spy Museum", not affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute, and meandered through the very excellent displays on my own. As you might have guessed, I am very much a museum type person, and hope to one day design my own museum exhibit, or work for the education programming sector of some large museum. The "International Spy Museum" was well-organized and very thorough. I had a great afternoon, and then returned to the convention center to meet up with my group. As a group, we navigated the metro system of Washington D.C. and found our own way to the Cemetery at Arlington. We joined a trolley tour and saw the graves of J.F.K. and Jackie O., as well as many other memorable stones and memorials.

J.F.K.'s grave site

On our final day in D.C., the sun was shining and beckoning for us to be outside. We made it through our sessions, and then decided not to attend the wrap-up social, instead opting to participate in one final round of exploring the city. We visited the Jefferson Memorial with its plethora of columns and the giant statue of Thomas Jefferson, then walked the length of the Roosevelt Memorial with its shimmering waterfalls and peaceful engravings upon the walls, stopped by Union Station, and even went out to the Iwo Jima War Memorial. We joined up with an evening "Washington by Moonlight" tour and saw some of the more famous sights glowing through a veil of rain: the Lincoln Memorial, Iwo Jima, and much more.

Dreaming of D.C.

Washington D.C. was indeed a beautiful city, bursting at the seams with history, memorials, and monuments, all lined with columns and garnished with fountains, pools, and flowers. I would highly suggest a visit to the nation's capitol... and bring your walking shoes!