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Lessons from under the coconut tree

Nathan Eckstrom (left) taught an English class in Haiti.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

L’ASILE, Haiti — His small white rental car rumbled through mostly barren mountains, passing by guardrails made of cactuses and plowing through a shallow river before arriving, two hours in, at a small house with mud walls and a tin roof, tucked among towering coconut trees.

All of it was new to Nathan Eckstrom, who teaches English in the Boston schools, and that was exactly the point. Dedicated teachers often go to great lengths in the name of their students, and Eckstrom had traveled all the way to this remote Haitian village in hopes of helping his.

It was the hometown of one of his students, where many of Valancia Mathurin’s family members still live and support her in her dream of a high school diploma and eventually a college degree — a dream she has boldly journeyed many miles and a world away to pursue.


“She’s learning English very quickly,” Eckstrom said, after ducking his 6-foot-5 frame inside to visit with Mathurin’s grandparents. Her 90-year-old grandmother, weak but determined to sit up in bed to greet him, beamed. The grandfather, astonished that anyone would travel so far to meet him, clutched a Red Sox hat.

“Next year,” Eckstrom assured them, “she should graduate.”

He wasn’t there to deliver a progress report. He was there to soak up the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the relationships — indeed, any scrap of information about Haiti — that would allow him to better understand the background and journey and obstacles facing Mathurin and dozens of other students like her in Boston. The goal is to reach across cultural divides to help a big part of the student population — emigres from faraway lands — that is plagued with low standardized test scores and high dropout rates.

To this end, hundreds of teachers such as Eckstrom have quietly forfeited chunks of their summer vacations over the years. The steps that grow out of these journeys can be as simple as reworking classroom lessons to include vibrant examples drawn upon the cultures and customs in their students’ homelands, such as crafting math problems about shimmying up a tree in Haiti to collect coconuts or hitching a ride on the brightly colored trucks filled with avocados and mangos.


They sound like small things, but building cultural connections can be an elusive goal in a school system where more than 9,000 students come from about 100 countries and speak more than 80 languages, making Boston Public Schools among the most diverse in the nation.

“There is a lot riding on their success here for their families back home,” said Eckstrom, who teaches English at Boston Adult Technical Academy, a city-run high school for students ages 19 to 22. “They are under a lot of pressure as the one representative here who is supposed to be succeeding.”

Over the last 10 years, Boston teachers have journeyed to Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, among other places, covering the costs themselves or obtaining grants. One of the most popular resources is the Fund for Teachers, a national nonprofit based in Houston, which gave Eckstrom $5,000 for his trip.

“There are magical things that happen when teachers go there,” said Dottie Engler, special projects director at BPE, a Boston education nonprofit that administers the Fund for Teachers grants locally. “You see bridges being built and barriers coming down.”


Eckstrom immersed himself in Haiti for four weeks this summer and blogged about his experiences . He saw the street markets that have popped up amid the concrete rubble in Port-au-Prince and partially completed houses and other buildings — signs of the country’s painstakingly slow recovery from a devastating earthquake in 2010.

He crossed the Massacre River at the border with the Dominican Republic, enabling him to collect vivid details about the devastating tensions between the two countries that crested with a bloody purge of Haitians in 1937 and have resurfaced since — a critical scene from a book he intends to teach his students this school year. Being there, he hoped, would help him bring that history alive. And he boarded a wooden boat — similar to one he rode as a kid growing up on Cape Cod while fishing with his father — to reach a small island called Ile a Vache, where he spent a week teaching English to teenagers and hospitality workers.

A boy made his way to school exams in Les Cayes, Haiti.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Throughout his journey, Eckstrom wanted to imbibe all he could of Haitian life. That included dining on spicy chicken legs, grilled goat, and other dishes his students ate growing up, even though this 36-year-old Jamaica Plain resident is a vegetarian. He drank coconut milk directly out of the shell and took in passionate dinner conversations about the upcoming presidential election.

Guiding his tour was Marc Prou, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who grew up in Haiti. Eckstrom was the only one who signed up for a course Prou teaches each summer in Haiti. Prou carried on with the course — even accompanying Eckstrom on the visits to the families of Mathurin and another of Eckstrom’s students — because he believes once people get Haiti in their blood, they will keep coming back.


For Eckstrom, it was his second such journey. A few years ago, he visited the Dominican Republic to learn more about the backgrounds of his students from that country.

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With much reluctance, Alexandrine Theodore packed her bags and left the balmy tropical temperatures of Haiti last Valentine’s Day, arriving in New York City amid one of its worst winters. Her father, who lives in New York, persuaded her to come so she could finish school and go to college.

The 21-year-old felt uncomfortable bundled up in the long brown jacket and black boots he bought for her, but she enjoyed catching snow for the first time with her hands and tongue. Eventually, she moved farther north to join her aunt in Boston, where her family told her the educational opportunities were better than in New York.

One day in April, her name suddenly appeared on the roster for Eckstrom’s class at Boston Adult Technical Academy, nestled among the row houses in Bay Village. Nearly half of the 250 students are foreign-born. Eckstrom and the other teachers spotted her name when they logged onto their computers during a staff meeting, sparking a range of questions: Has anyone met her yet? What is she like?


Eckstrom finally met her later that day. The 21-year-old had lots of questions about books. Could she read them in class? Could she take them home?

“It surprised me the level of reading she wanted to do and the breadth of her interest,” Eckstrom said.

Theodore became particularly fond of the Carter High Mysteries — a series written for teenagers learning English — and graphic novels based on literary classics, such as “Romeo and Juliet.”

Valancia Mathurin once attended school in this classroom (above) in the town of L’Asile.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Theodore’s reading tastes reminded Eckstrom of another student in his classroom: Mathurin, whose friendly and helpful nature turned her into an informal ambassador to new students in class. A friendship grew between the two young women.

It has been a few years since Mathurin, 21, left Haiti, but she still becomes sad when talking about her homeland and her grandparents. She hopes to land a well-paying job in the technology field someday so she can support them.

In the meantime, she is working part time at a grocery store and sending some of that money to her grandparents.

“I want to say thank you to them,” Mathurin said one day in June, as her eyes welled with tears. “They gave me a lot of education.”

Teacher Nathan Eckstrom listened to his student Valancia Mathurin (right) speak during the first day of the new school year. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

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“Down the road after the concrete . . . next to the big mango tree,” Theodore’s mother explained to Eckstrom over the phone in Creole as she gave directions to her place in Marigot, a village on Haiti’s southern coast.

Eckstrom had called her before going to sleep at a white cinderblock beachfront motel several miles away. But nine days into his trip to Haiti, he was struggling to follow the conversation because his knowledge of Creole was limited to what he took away from a three-week course at UMass-Boston a month earlier. It is the kind of language barrier his students confront frequently in his classroom in Boston, where state law mandates that classes be taught primarily in English.

“She was thoroughly describing the directions, and I was thoroughly not understanding,” Eckstrom recounted later. “She was describing things I never had seen before and using words I never heard before.”

Google Maps was no help. Out of frustration, he handed the phone to Prou, the UMass professor.

As they headed to Marigot the next day, the directions became as clear as the crystal blue Caribbean waters they passed — and so did phrases such as “after the concrete.” The road, constructed of concrete, eventually turned into dirt and rocks, and soon came the mango tree.

They stepped inside a restaurant with no name. A thatched front wall and a tin roof shaded patrons from the sun. Theodore’s mother, Marie Laurette Remy, had opened the business a month earlier.

Fretting over his patchy Creole, Eckstrom had prepared a short speech to introduce himself and a list of questions, such as where did Theodore go to school, what kind of books did she read, and was there a library in town.

He also wrote down questions he expected the family to ask, along with his answers. He and Prou spent days while traveling in the car practicing the conversation.

But Eckstrom failed to anticipate the intensity of questioning from Theodore’s family as they dined on marinated fish and fried plantains.

“I had seven people staring at me, basically saying, ‘Let’s get to the point’ and asking, ‘How is this going to help Alexandrine?’ ” Eckstrom recalled. “The conversation was like 20 minutes, but it felt like three hours.”

Eckstrom explained he could teach her English more effectively if he could draw upon her “lived experience.” He said students take a greater interest in school when pieces of their culture and other aspects of their lives are intertwined in the lessons, such as having students write a biography of a family member.

The answer appeared to satisfy them. When Eckstrom returned for another visit the next day, Remy rushed outside and greeted him like an old friend, giving him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Theodore’s brothers then took him to the family home. Standing beneath a tin roof in the dining room as chickens pecked at the backyard beyond an open door, Eckstrom flipped through a photo album. Sure enough, he came across a picture of Theodore in a red and white cap and gown.

Eckstrom had learned from Theodore’s family that she had graduated from a cooking school in Haiti, but the program was not equivalent to the rigor of an American high school. Later on, Theodore’s mother gave him the diploma to take back to Boston. He hoped Theodore could get credit for some of the courses she took.

Remy, as she sat outside her restaurant, said she was impressed with Eckstrom’s dedication.

“A lot of kids from the area go to the US, but I’ve never seen anyone from the US come to visit,” she said through a translator. “I congratulate him, and I’m hoping for good work.”

Hervens Nicolas (right) shared coconuts with Nathan Eckstrom in Marigot, Haiti, during his visit to student Alexandrine Theodore’s hometown.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

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Through the years, teachers have returned from international trips energized with new ideas on how to work with their students. A group of teachers from the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, after visiting Cape Verde a few years ago, created workbooks with examples of life in the West African archipelago that their students could bring back to their homelands in lieu of summer school.

It remains unclear what kind of effect the journeys of Boston school teachers have had on student achievement because no research has been conducted. But several national studies examining cultural and other differences between teachers and students suggest that achievement can rise when teachers and students connect with each other’s lives or backgrounds.

A team of researchers led by a Harvard University associate professor last year found that students tended to earn higher grades in class if they shared similarities or connections with their teacher. The study began with teachers and students filling out a 28-item “get-to-know-you” survey on a range of topics, such as hobbies, the languages they spoke, and the most important quality in a friend.

By contrast, a widely circulated study published in the American Educational Research Journal in 2011 revealed that achievement gaps among students of different ethnic backgrounds could be caused by the prejudiced attitudes of some teachers. The study , which examined schools in Holland, found that some teachers believed students of ethnic minorities were not capable of performing as well as the other students and consequently set lower expectations for them.

In Boston, many students, teachers, and activists in communities of color have been pushing for teachers to learn more about their students’ backgrounds. More than 60 percent of Boston teachers are white, while 87 percent of students are black, Latino, or Asian, according to school department data.

Their cause received a boost earlier this year. A report commissioned by the Boston Public Schools to examine low achievement among black and Latino males criticized the school system for failing to train teachers on how to enliven their lessons by using references from their students’ cultures and customs. Consequently, some students felt invisible to their teachers.

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The conversation flowed freely inside the two-room house with green-painted walls where Mathurin’s grandparents lived. Oxamene Pierre, Mathurin’s grandmother, reminisced about spending time with a daughter in Boston but had not been back for more than a decade.

Both grandparents talked about how Mathurin was a hard worker. And neither had any questions for Eckstrom when he asked whether they did.

“I’m happy she is in your hands,” said Kechakin Mathurin, the grandfather. “It’s a nice gesture for you to come on her behalf.”

But Eckstrom was eager to learn more about L’Asile, a place where running water and paved roads were luxuries. He pulled out his smartphone and, with a few taps and swipes, located a short biography that Mathurin wrote for a class assignment last December. It described her aunt and the life they had together in L’Asile.

“L’Asile is a bustling town in Haiti,” Eckstrom read aloud from the biography. “What can a person buy? Almost anything . . . big horses, noisy chickens, fried bread, cow milk, noisy pigs and conch. L’Asile has beautiful rivers. When you walk in the street, you can smell the flowers.”

Eckstrom stopped and asked whether L’Asile was still that way.

The grandfather shook his head. He told him a rainstorm a few years back “poisoned” the coconuts. Kidney disease killed the pigs. A drought destroyed the crops and is killing off the livestock.

“We don’t have enough rain for water,” the grandfather said. “We don’t have enough water to drink.”

Eckstrom then saw firsthand the devastation of the drought. Valancia Mathurin’s cousin took him down a small grassy hill, past grazing goats, to show him where they used to swim as kids in a deep water basin and where villagers could also catch big fish.

But now just a shallow brook trickled through the basin. Several women in kerchiefs crouched in the water washing clothes, while other garments dried on rocks in sweltering 90-degree heat.

Throughout his visit, Eckstrom took pictures — of the grandparents and of landmarks around L’Asile, including a street sign that said “Rue L’Azile.” While still in the village, he sent some to Valancia Mathurin.

Later on, he received a text message from her and noticed she had changed her profile picture to the street sign “Rue L’Azile.” He wondered whether a connection had been made.

Earlier this summer, teacher Nathan Eckstrom visited Valancia Mathurin’s grandparents, Kechakin Mathurin and Oxamene Pierre, in L’Asile, Haiti. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.