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Sri Lanka exchanges teachers with Roseville

May 18, 2016
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Roseville Area Schools and Roseville Rotary recently teamed up to welcome four Sri Lankan teachers for a two-week long stay in town through the Rotary Educator Exchange Program.

REEP gave the teachers an opportunity to improve their spoken English, and gave their Roseville area hosts a chance to learn tips for teaching English to non-English speakers, since Roseville has a large number of immigrant students.

The Sri Lankan group included team-leader Gihan Dalpethado, a retired tennis coach and teacher; Champa Perara, a high school biology teacher, department chair and English teacher; Ajith Herath, the assistant principal of a 500-student school, an English teacher and swim instructor; and Thyani De Silva, a teacher of grades three and four, and science, English and Christianity.

Dalphethado and Perara are members of the Rotary Club in Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, which is the largest suburb of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

The four each stayed with three different local families and said they found their experiences — family stays, Edgerton Elementary School visits and sightseeing all over town — to be fun and interesting.

Sinhala and English Sri Lanka is a small but ancient island nation southeast of India, counted as the oldest democracy in Asia and once the tea capital of the world. Beginning in the early 19th century, it was a British colony with English as its national language, but after regaining independence in 1972, it returned to its mother tongue to Sinhala.

While the population is 98.76 percent literate, there’s been a renewed push to teach English to students so they can function effectively in this global world.

That’s where REEP comes in — Rotarian Ted Johnson deserves much of the credit for organizing the exchange. He traveled to Sri Lanka as a volunteer teacher through Rotary in 2014, where he met Dalpethado. The two worked together to set up this two-week exchange program.

Edgerton hosted the Sri Lankan visiting teachers this spring. In June, the exchange will be reversed.

Edgerton teachers Erica Anderson, Debbie Romero and Lexie Griffiths, along with Johnson, will spend two weeks in Colombo with hopes to understand what it is like for many of their students and their families who live with limited English, in an unfamiliar culture in the U.S.

Roseville teachers already work with many students from different cultural and language backgrounds — 17 percent of Roseville area students are English language learners. With REEP, Roseville teachers can benefit from the firsthand experience of living as a minority in a very different culture with different languages, religions, values, climate and food. When they return, they will share their insights with fellow teachers to enhance the community’s understanding of their students.

Building bridges

There were cultural exchanges as well — the Sri Lankan teachers narrated a slide show at a Rotary meeting about their families and highlights of their own country. They said most people live with their parents until marriage age of about 25. They talked about their multi-cultural, multi-religious country, their education system with public and private schools, places to visit and the Sri Lanka’s most popular sport, cricket.

After touring the town, they ended their visit with a going-away pasta party.

Perara said she noticed students here are more relaxed and have classes not only in academics, but in the arts, such as pottery. De Silva said students here seem to have more freedom and lots of energy, and she also enjoyed seeing parents read to their children at home. Like the others, Dalpethado said he was impressed with Minnesota hospitality. Herath noted the classroom technology here, and how students learn independently.

As for the Roseville’s teachers, Anderson and Griffiths said they are full of enthusiasm for their upcoming trip to Sri Lanka and said that stepping out of their comfort zones will help them grow personally, professionally and culturally.

“You see how similar people are and you build bridges … and you develop a deep empathy,” Griffiths said.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or at 651-748-7818.

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