Since 2014, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the University of Michigan’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) have partnered to bring together U-M graduate student facilitators and public school teachers in Puerto Rico to co-create globally focused curricula for K-12 students on the island through an annual curriculum development workshop.
Held at the UPR campus in Río Piedras, a district of San Juan, the workshop unfolds over the course of four days, with both virtual and in-person components, and includes presentations and intensive working group sessions with public school teachers and graduate students.
“As U-M grad students, we served as subject-matter experts, but we know that the teachers are experts in their classrooms,” says Elena Rosario, Rackham student and 2023 workshop participant.
“To make a really good curriculum, you have to listen, you have to engage, and I think we were given that opportunity through the workshop. It was totally invaluable.”
Rosario, whose dissertation work focuses on creating a public history of Puerto Rican labor migration to Connecticut, was joined by U-M graduate students from across the university for the workshop, including Kelsi Caywood.
Caywood is a second year graduate student in the sociology department, who studied and lived in China and Korea and whose work focuses on region-wide family policies.
“Our group’s curricular focus was gender. It was so interesting to hear from the teachers about how their secondary school students conceptualize gender, how their lived experiences come into the classroom, and what sort of projects would be valuable for them to effect change in their communities,” Caywood says.
“It really improves my teaching and my research to be tapped into the public school teachers’ perspectives.”
“Prior to the workshop, I’ve mostly either talked to gender scholars who are professors, grad students, or undergrads about this topic. It really improves my teaching and my research to be tapped into the public school teachers’ perspectives.”
José Alberto Marquez Gorilla, a seventh grade history teacher in Puerto Rico and a participant in the 2023 workshop, feels that lesson plans created as a community foster a productive exchange of ideas.
“We teachers typically do our lesson planning alone, not with colleagues. I believe that being part of the workshop has helped me be able to plan lessons as a community,” he says.
Funded by a Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the UPR/U-M Curriculum Development Workshop was started by Rackham alum and UPR faculty member Juan Hernández García (Ph.D. ’07) and former LACS staff member Lenny Ureña Valerio as a way to create shared learning and professional development in service of K-12 students on their home island, Puerto Rico.
An important goal of Title VI funding is to support sustainable links between institutions serving underrepresented populations and higher education.
Since there are no Title VI National Resource Centers on the island of Puerto Rico and no Hispanic-Serving Institutions in Michigan, Garcia and Valerio saw an opportunity to create mutually beneficial professional development opportunities on the island through the UPR/U-M Curriculum Development Workshop. As defined by the federal government, a “Hispanic-Serving Institution” is an accredited college or university that serves a student body that comprises a 25 percent or more Latinx full-time student population and receives funding to expand educational opportunities for that population.
While Hernández Garcia passed away in 2021 and Ureña Valerio’s career has taken her beyond U-M, the program that the two began and nurtured continues to live on.
When Christopher Jensen, outreach coordinator at LACS, began at U-M in March 2023, he was eager to continue the workshop’s legacy and think of new ways to strengthen the collaborative components of the offering.
“One of the most important outcomes of this effort is the process of collaboration itself.”
“The outcome of a lesson plan is really important, but it also serves as a great convening tool to have teachers and our graduate student area experts work together. One of the most important outcomes of this effort is the process of collaboration itself,” Jensen says.
According to Jensen, programs like the workshop also help to address a real need that Puerto Rican educators are expressing at present.
“Due to la junta, an unelected board in charge of public expenditures and debts, and due to the neo-colonial relationship with the United States, Puerto Rican educators aren’t able to make meaningful decisions about how they use their budgets–including spending on professional development opportunities,” he says.
Marquez Gorilla agrees with the need for professional development opportunities for all.
“Education in general is a human right. However, not all countries in the region have the same resources to meet their educational needs. That’s why working with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies provides opportunities in which both regions benefit,” Marquez Gorilla says.
Owning Your Expertise
One vital aspect of the UPR/U-M Curriculum Development Workshop is acclimating graduate students to the role of expert.
“Some graduate students experience imposter syndrome, and it can take a while to get to the point where you think, ‘Hey, I’m at Michigan, I got accepted and I’m supposed to be here,’” Rosario says.
“Everyone selected for the workshop was a content expert, whether that was from doing research for five years at the graduate level or five years between undergraduate and graduate studies. Everyone was an expert.”
Caywood concurs, adding that “experts still need to train.”
“Graduate students need to know how to make our research translatable to lots of different audiences, we need to know how to talk about our research in clear straightforward ways. I really appreciated the workshop’s ability to train me in those ways.”
Both Caywood and Rosario agree that the mission of the workshop is vital for the students who will receive their curricula.
“It really bothers me that I didn’t read more than a paragraph about Puerto Rico until college, until someone was making me pay for the classes,” Rosario says.
“One reason why internationalized education is so important is because once we start looking at a global scale, we’re able to really start seeing patterns and themes. It’s then that paths to create more equitable systems can emerge.”
How Rackham Helps
Kelsi Caywood encourages graduate students in all stages of their programs–pre-candidate students, master’s students, and students with early-stage projects–to apply for Rackham research and conference travel grants.
“Some of these funds are earmarked for students in earlier stages, so students are not shortchanging funding later available to them as a candidate. Combined, funds like these supported over a month of summer fieldwork and travel for a conference presentation for me this year,” Caywood says.
Elena Rosario is grateful for the ways that Rackham has supported her financially, professionally, and academically throughout her time at U-M.
“Before arriving on campus, I was selected as a Rackham Merit Fellow. The RMF program introduced me to Michigan, financially supported me, and gave me some of my closest friends,” Rosario says.
“In addition to RMF, Rackham has provided me with research and conference travel funds to conduct and disseminate my work. Additionally, Rackham’s Program in Public Scholarship has been instrumental to my academic journey, creating spaces for collaboration and community engagement.”