Going to Cape Verde to Get to Know My Students
2016 Fishman Prize applications are open, and we’re on the hunt for teachers across the country that are “Everything but ordinary.” 2015 Fishman Prize winner and science teacher Erin Dukeshire embodies this with her commitment to do whatever it takes to tap into her students’ potential—even if that means traveling halfway across the globe.
If you open the first page of my students’ science notebooks, you won’t find any data tables or hypotheses. You’ll find a page filled with pictures representing who they are. On nearly each one—amidst the basketballs, books, music notes, and family portraits—students draw a flag from the country of their heritage.
A few years ago, the flag of a different country started appearing among the familiar red, white, and blue of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States: the red, white, blue, and yellow of Cape Verde. I had only recently located the archipelago on a map. My ignorance about the culture and language of Cape Verde were immediate obstacles to being an effective teacher to my new students.
In the classroom that year, I began to see new and sometimes baffling errors in my students’ work that I was unsure how to respond to. After days of practice, students raised their hands to share totally irrelevant information. They wrote notes next to multiple choice answers, rather than just circling one. And because many of my new students and their parents had not had consistent, formal education before moving to the U.S., they needed to develop an overwhelming list of school habits, from how to share science tools to how to organize a binder.
Realizing that many teachers were struggling to be effective with growing populations of Cape Verdean students in Boston, Boston Public Schools and Bridgewater State College partnered to offer a study tour of Cape Verde. In the spring of 2013, I flew across the Atlantic with eight colleagues. In the air, I considered the questions I planned to investigate: What did success in a Cape Verdean classroom look like? How could I help my students transition to successful learning experiences in the United States? But as soon as we hit the ground, my thinking changed.
As I gazed through our van windows at Cape Verde’s deep valleys lush with crops and trudged through ash at the Pico do Fogo volcano, I forgot about student skill gaps. I was too struck by a sudden realization: My students had vast real-life experience with the very concepts I was trying to teach them in science class. I thought, “Why is it that my students are failing geology assignments when they grew up in the shadow of a volcano?”
Of course, real-life experiences alone do not make you a skilled scientist. Katia did not become a geologist by walking on a volcano, nor did Eric become a biologist by watching plants sprout above the spot where he and his grandmother buried their horse. But they’d had those experiences. Now I needed to use them as tools in my students’ academic development—and teach my students to value their experiences, too.
Back in Boston, I created more opportunities for students to tell stories about their home countries as part of our science learning. I added “Once, in Cape Verde…” to a poster of sentence-starters for sharing prior knowledge. I also taught students to incorporate life experiences into their hypotheses.
Eric’s garden observations in Cape Verde turned into an explanation for his investigation of fertilization methods for plants. Katia, often shy in class, led her group in a brainstorm of geologic features by recalling vivid details of the island where she was born. Soon, students began considering Cape Verde in the context of new science concepts, without me even asking. Puzzled by a classmate’s claim that the Americas had once been connected to Africa, one of my most struggling students called out, “Then how did Cape Verde get there?”
I realized that by learning about my students and where they came from, I could use the knowledge and experiences they already had to support their understanding of science and engage them in my classroom.
Of course, much about my students’ lives and families in Cape Verde remain a mystery to me. I still struggle to teach those whose native language I do not share, and I will never fully understand the experience of many of my sixth graders who live with fathers and uncles in Boston, while their mothers remain half a world away. But I hope that by teaching them both the habits they need in American classrooms, and to value their home country knowledge as a strength, my students will achieve what their families want for them: success in the classroom.
Read more about Erin’s classroom in her Fishman Prize essay, “Becoming Scientists.”
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