The Spanish classes Zoraida Batista teaches in Decatur don't follow a traditional routine on Fridays.

Batista grew up in Puerto Rico and said people in that U.S. territory sing and dance a lot. So that is what students in her middle school classes do on Friday.

“The key is we sing in Spanish, but it’s songs they know in English,” Batista said.

Batista is one of two Decatur City teachers from Puerto Rico embedding their life experiences into classroom discussion, and the approach is creating more student engagement.

“The energy in their classrooms is on another level, and I have never observed when students were not engaged,” Cedar Ridge Middle Principal Anita Clarke said.

Magda White, 39, graduated from Antilles High in Lajas, Puerto Rico, and teaches social studies.

Batista, 53, grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and graduated from Julio Vizcarrondo Coronado High. She teaches Spanish at Cedar Ridge and Decatur Middle.

White and Batista are from different corners of Puerto Rico and did not know each other until they arrived at Decatur City as teachers almost a year apart. Puerto Ricans' citizenship status allows them to move freely between the island and the mainland, but they do not vote in U.S. elections because the island is not a state. 

Batista, who is in her first year with Decatur City, said she was born to be a teacher. But to get students more interested in learning Spanish, she structured her classroom like most classrooms in Puerto Rico. Batista said students sit in groups and she strategically places students who have made the most progress as leaders within each group.

Then there's the Friday singing, an approach she says students were unsure about at first because their Spanish was limited.

Nearly halfway through the school year, however, most students in her beginning Spanish class are able to have a conversation in Spanish.

“I love this class, especially on Friday,” said seventh-grader Destini Burgess. She said most students talk after class because they want to learn more Spanish so they can sing on Friday.

About 30 yards away on the second-level at Cedar Ridge, White uses her world travels to engage students. She has taught in Texas, Arkansas and Japan and was living in Panama in 1989 when the U.S. invaded and deposed Manuel Noriega.

Unlike Batista, White said she had no idea she wanted to teach until she was substituting at Stephen F. Austin High School in Texas and a student quizzed her about the Industrial Revolution.

“I got a teaching high,” she said.

White, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas El Paso in communications and public relations, went back to college and earned a history teaching degree.

That meeting with the student, however, turned into an ongoing conversation and shaped her teaching style. White said she’s never allowed her classroom to become teacher-centered, and she uses “real-life examples” to engage students.

She said she’s been fortunate to travel to several places because her parents were in the military and her husband is a civilian employee with the U.S. Army.

“I collect stuff from where I have been, and I bring some of it to the classroom,” White said.

Clarke said White's and Batista’s teaching approaches make their real-life experiences relevant to students' interests.

“I have parents requesting to get their child in their classrooms,” she said.

Amare Belcher, a seventh-grade honor roll student, said White’s classes are always different and she talks about “things we understand or can ask her about.”

Several studies have found that engaged students are more attentive and focused and use higher level thinking skills.

White, who grew up in what she called the rural part of Puerto Rico with goats and horses, and in an area with a pineapple and fishing economy, moved to north Alabama two years ago when her husband’s job with a research firm transferred him to Redstone Arsenal.

She said Clarke was the first Decatur City administrator she met during a teaching fair at Leon Sheffield two years ago. White said one of the first things she had to explain was that she didn’t have an Alabama teaching certificate.

She didn’t get an immediate offer, but she kept returning to Decatur City's website until her license to teach in Alabama arrived.

A year later, Batista was in the same situation when her husband’s contractor job with the Army was moved to Alabama. She’s from a family of educators and remembers “putting my dolls in order to teach them with the blackboard I had in my grandmother’s house.”

Batista’s mother was a teacher before she became a lawyer and judge in Puerto Rico. Batista was living in New Mexico when Clarke contacted her about a Spanish teaching opening at Cedar Ridge.

“She wanted to interview me the next day, so I got on the computer and booked a flight,” Batista said. “This was my first trip to Decatur.”

Batista was a high school principal when she worked in Puerto Rico from 2000 to 2008. Asked about which she prefers, Batista didn’t hesitate.

“Teaching because I loved the interaction with students,” she said. “When you’re the principal, you interact with a lot of problems.”

- deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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