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LODI — It was a day of celebration and remembrance at Lodi High School for school leaders from Thailand who on Thursday mourned the loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

“It’s a sad moment for the entire country,” said Supannachaht Plangngoen, or “Mr. Chaht” as he’s known by his friends in Lodi. The world’s longest-reigning living monarch hours earlier had died at 88 after 70 years as head of state.

“He’s the best king in the world, from our perspective, and has been doing lots of good things for the country,” Supannachaht said.

“He’s a leader of everything, everything, in Thailand.”

Supannachaht was one of 10 Thai educators who traveled to the school this week to extend a Memorandum of Understanding between Sa-nguan Ying School in Suphanburi, Thailand and Lodi High School. It’s a partnership that began with an exchange program in 2008 and was enhanced in 2011 to include distance-learning classes for both schools, a dual arrangement unlike any other in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The Thai educators spent the day visiting several classrooms before celebrating the partnership in a ceremony that featured national anthems from both countries — a fitting display of unity in the opinion of Principal Vince Breunig.

“We really find the similarities between our two cultures,” Breunig said of the partnership. Breunig signed the MOU in Thailand two years ago.

“We really see teenagers are teenagers, whether they’re here or in Thailand.

“In the news, in politics, we spend so much time focusing on how we’re different and not so much on how we’re the same. This shows how similar people are in most things.”

The distance-learning partnership between the schools is “very, very unique” for Thailand, as well, Supannachaht said, giving the Thailand school of 2,500 students a chance to “study abroad without leaving your country.”

“It’s been fantastic,” he said, “especially for the students. We open the world for them.

“We open families to families, town to town, school to school, country to countries, learning of living in peace, living together in harmony.

“So we learn about how people care for each other.”

Student perspectives

Thursday’s visit from Thai educators — who today will visit the elementary and middle schools in Lodi — preceded the November exchange of 18 Lodi students and three staff members, the fifth such visit by Lodi.

Seventy Lodi students have so far visited Thailand in the three-week program, the schools alternating exchanges each year. Students from Sa-nguan Ying School will come to Lodi in November 2017.

Some Lodi students, like senior Lily Chase, either have or will soon have experience in both the distance-learning and the exchange program.

“The greatest part of the (distance-learning) class is learning from a Thai person who knows everything there is to know about Southeast Asia,” said Chase, who took Supannachaht’s Southeast Asian Studies class last fall and will travel to Thailand next month. “So you get a far more genuine experience being taught that way.”

What Chase was most looking forward to, among the many Buddhist temples, was the “Thai food and the elephants,” professing her love for how the country appreciates its history. “They’re a lot more tied to their history than we are — probably because they have a lot more (history) than we do.”

For Sam Keller, a senior who visited Thailand as a sophomore, his experience is still fresh in his mind, even two years later. “What stood out to me is the Thai culture — how different people live over there versus here,” Keller said, noting “incredible” experiences like riding elephants in the Elephant Kingdom. “People in Thailand are much kinder to each other than Americans are, I think, and the work ethic of the Thai culture is (exceptional).”

Keller upon graduation plans to study engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he said he can draw upon what he saw in Thai farming practices for learning about sustainable engineering. “It’s given me a better view of the world as a whole. Before this experience I just had the view of little Lodi,” Keller said.

“After this experience I was able to see how people live in different parts of world — how they lived and survived.”

Learning cultures

One of the first differences between cultures that Thai students see, Supannachaht said, is that Americans don’t wear uniforms in school.

American schools also seem to stress punctuality a bit more than Thai schools do, he added, noting in Thailand “we’re more flexible,” requiring an adjustment for students taking the American classes, which are taught by Lodi educator Mark Kohl. Adjusting to other cultures is familiar to them, however, as the Thai students also exchange with schools in Singapore and Australia.

“They learn how to be punctual. They learn how an American teacher teaches, and the different content.”

Cultural differences noted by Lodi students include the number of languages that Thai students learn, Bruenig said.

“That’s one of the biggest differences,” he said. “Most of them have been learning English a long time and are starting to pick up a third or fourth language.”

Chase agreed with Keller that among the biggest differences in culture is found in kindness. Thai people are “a lot more polite than Americans, from what I’ve noticed,” she said.

“The generosity of the Thai people,” Keller said of his visit there, “and how they treated us almost like celebrities — it was an incredible experience.”

For Supannachaht, who has visited America many times, the big differences are how “huge” America is and its cold weather.

“Our winter is like your summer,” he said, noting there’s “no fall season” in Thailand.

As similarities go, schools struggling to find funding for education is a problem “everywhere” in the world, including in Thailand, Supannachaht said. But funding has gradually improved in Thailand in recent years, he added.

Bruenig emphasized the similarities are what matter most to both schools. “Our kids get a chance to say, ‘Hey, they’re just like me. They might speak a different language, but, boy, they have similar interests.’

“It allows you to understand a little more about what’s going on in someone else’s life. I just think that’s huge for us both.”