December 21, 2006

The Charlotte Observer, N.C., Joe DePriest Column: Math, Science and Side of Reggae

By Joe DePriest, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Dec. 21--The mobile classroom looked dull from the outside.

But the Caribbean Sea hit me as I walked through the front door.

Eighth-grade teacher Ingrid Rockhead, 27, added a touch of Jamaica to her work space at York Chester Middle School.

Flags, sugar cane, green bananas, Blue Mountain coffee, avocado pears, breadfruit, hot sauces -- all from her native land.

Math and science are the main focuses here, but Rockhead's students also get insights into Jamaican culture.

That's part of Rockhead's job as a Visiting International Faculty. She's one of 14 VIF teachers in Gaston schools. They come from such places as Costa Rica and Chile, South Africa and Spain, Mexico and England.

Founded in 1987 by Elon University President J. Fred Young and his family, VIF is the largest international exchange program for U.S. schools and teachers in the world. Teachers from 50 countries spend up to three years in the U.S. sharing their cultures.

They're cultural guides giving students the kind of international exposure they'll need to get along better in a changing world.

York-Chester Principal Cindy White said Rockhead has flair in the classroom and good rapport with the students.

This is Rockhead's second year at York Chester. Her husband, Garey Coke, 32, teaches social studies and language arts at the school. He's not in the VIF program, but a regular school employee.

Rockhead, who teaches physics and math at Mount Alvernia High School in Montego Bay, continues to learn about the local culture.

In school, she was surprised at the classroom diversity. In Gastonia, she's got students from Vietnam, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad.

"In Jamaica, you rarely find a student from the U.S. or any other country," she said.

The local students are more outspoken and ask more questions, Rockhead said. And they're also more computer literate.

Rockhead feels at home in Gastonia.

"Like kids everywhere, you have to treat them with respect," she said. "And show them you really care."

Enchanted island

I asked Rockhead to close her eyes and think of Jamaica and tell me what she saw.Lush vegetation. Beautiful sunsets. The Caribbean's turquoise water. An enchanting place to grow up.

Her father runs the eight-room Port View Guest House in Montego Bay and her mother is a retired school teacher.

For Rockhead, school was interesting, but hard work. She knew teachers really cared about her.

One was a physics teacher from India who showed Rockhead a larger world beyond her home island.

At the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Rockhead majored in electronics, but discovered teaching was her real calling.

While teaching in Montego Bay, the VIF program seemed a good way to grow professionally and so she applied. The selection process took almost nine months.

Meanwhile, she had her eyes on a preferred location in the U.S.

At her dad's guest house, she'd met a couple who'd showed her pictures of North Carolina.

"It looked like some place I wanted to go," Rockhead said.

Broader world view

Students begin filing into the York Chester math class shortly after 10 a.m. A few are whispering.

"OK, ladies and gentlemen, the rules have not changed," Rockhead reminds them in a soft Jamaican accent.

She's mapped out a class structure kids seem to accept and appreciate.

Math takes up most of the period. But a few minutes or so are opened for questions about Jamaica. The kids want to know about everything from reggae music to sugar-making.

The students I talked to felt having a teacher from another country helps them have a broader world view.

"She's wonderful," said Billy Woolard, 13. "Smart and funny. I've learned about sugar cane and breadfruit and stuff like that."

Denandis Meeks, 14, called Rockhead "the best teacher I've ever had."

"She taught me about her country and the food they eat," he said. "I think I'm going there one day."



Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; [email protected]


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