Learning to bounce between Boston and San Juan

Some things in this world are worth repeating, and a unique teacher exchange between Puerto Rico and Boston is trying to fit that category. The exchange, now in its second year, serves a laudable purpose: bridging the educational gap for migrant students who accompany their parents as they bounce back and forth between Boston and San Juan, looking for new jobs, visiting extensively with relatives, or returning to the tropical island during harsh New England winters.

Thirteen percent of this year's public school students in Boston speak Spanish, and school officials say migrants and new arrivals from Puerto Rico account for a significant amount of this percentage.

This fall, five public school teachers and five university student teachers from each city began their year abroad. Assuming the roles of teacher and student, they have been heading their own classrooms and studying graduate courses on US-Puerto Rican relations and migrant patterns.

Not many teachers in US cities realize the differences between their classrooms and Puerto Rico's classrooms. Lucia David, coordinator of the exchange and director of the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, says "most schools on the island are extremely teacher-oriented. Students copy everything down from the blackboard or the teacher. Class discussion -- encouraged in many US schools -- is unusual."

As a result, many teachers in both countries unwittingly classify their migrant students as "slow leaners" or "discipline problems."

To combat such confusion, the program must overcome some of last year's mistakes: poor administration; considerable delay in federal funding; dissatisfaction among participating teachers; and the absorption of the visiting Puerto Ricans into permanent Boston teaching jobs.

Ms. David says past administrative foul-ups resulted from "our inexperience in that first year."

Some of these "first year" kinks have been ironed out. "This year the Bostonians arrived in San Juan two weeks ahead of time and were met by their island-based coordinator for orientation," she says. (Last year the coordinator was vacationing when the crew arrived the day before classes were to start.)

"Also, teachers chose their classes and were assigned housing [the student teachers stay in university dorms] before they left. No teacher will have to live off savings this time, since federal funding for the program arrived on schedule," she adds.

The program now does more than give teachers practice in a foreign classroom. The addition is workshops -- workshops explaining the ins and outs of Boston's school system and workshops in which exchangees from both years, along with experts on pertinent US-Puerto Rican issues, share their experiences with bilingual teachers who are not part of the program.

Last year's teachers could not put their finger on specific insights gained from the exchange. Robert Faulstich, now teaching social studies in a bilingual program at Chelsea High near Boston, says, "My general taste of Puerto Rican culture helps me relate Puerto Rico to much of my class material. This makes my Hispanic students feel more comfortable, but I can't say that I've made specific alterations in my teaching because of the exchange."

Irma Lebro, an islander with 16 years' teaching experience, is in Boston teaching English as a second language to Arabs, Russians, Colombians, and Puerto Ricans -- all in the same classroom.

After two short months here she can be specific. "In Puerto Rico, we teach English only orally to first-, second-, and third-graders. Here, they use reading and writing, too. That works better. Also, I'm going to start kids right where they are in English. We have a habit of putting migrant children together by age, not necessarily by language proficiency."

Cultural differences do not escape Ms. Lebro. "I'll have to remember that, next time I have to scold a mainland child in class at home, he'll probably look me right in the eye. I'm used to the island children lowering their eyes. I'll need to remind myself that this child isn't being purposely rude."

This firsthand experience can reach Puerto Rico only if the teachers return. Four of the five full-time (not student) teachers from last year never made it back. They were hired to teach in Boston's bilingual schools.

"Getting the Puerto Rican teachers to return is probably the biggest challenge facing the program," says Nydia Mendes, a district supervisor of Boston's bilingual program.

Ms. David says that both years the teachers signed a contract with San Juan schools stating they would return or lose their tenure there.

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