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09/28/2015 11:26 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2015

Boston Teachers Visit Students' Countries Of Origin To Bridge Cultural Divide

With students from more than 100 different countries, Boston is one of the nation's most diverse districts.
Dayana Dupliro, 5, dances to the sounds of a female Rara band during the "Carnival of Flowers" celebrations in Port-au-Prince
Credit: Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press
Dayana Dupliro, 5, dances to the sounds of a female Rara band during the "Carnival of Flowers" celebrations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, July 27, 2014.

If teachers had a deeper understanding of their international students’ backgrounds, might they be more effective at educating them? 

That is the hypothesis of Nathan Eckstrom, an English teacher at a high school in Boston, one of the nation’s most diverse districts. This summer, Eckstrom spent four weeks in Haiti, the home country of some of his students, and blogged about the experience. While there, Eckstrom taught English to teens and hospitality workers and immersed himself in Haiti's culture and history.

Eckstrom’s attempt to learn more about his students’ backgrounds -- documented by a feature-length story written by James Vaznis and an engaging photo essay by Keith Bedford -- is featured as part of the debut story in a new yearlong series titled “Learning Curve” from the Boston Globe.

Eckstrom and many other teachers in the district spend part of their summers visiting the countries their students originally called home in an effort to become more culturally competent educators. Eckstrom and others apply for grants from groups such as the non-profit Fund for Teachers or pay out of pocket to fund the endeavor. The trips often spur new ideas for how to reach their students.

There is no research providing evidence that these teachers’ journeys will directly impact students’ learning outcomes, but Vaznis argues that several studies pertaining more broadly to how cultural differences between teachers and students impact learning show that they could be promising.

“Learning Curve” is the product of a partnership between the Globe and the Solutions Journalism Network and is being funded by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The series is dedicated to examining “promising practices addressing a wide range of social, emotional and cultural issues” that impact public schools in Boston and throughout the state of Massachusetts and nation, according to its description. 

In addition, according to a Q&A on the Globe site, the hope is that the series “will engage readers and school constituents in very different ways on education issues, prompting more constructive and less divisive public discourse.”

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