Monday, October 1, 2012

Post-Trip Reflection

When I arrived to Brazil, my essential question was how does the structure of the Brazilian education system impact the teaching profession? In general, I found that the status of the teaching profession in Brazil struggles to rise due to low pay and challenging working conditions. These obstacles are held in place by structures of time and space that limit professional growth. This seems to be especially true for English teachers.

I knew that I would be spending time in a language school in my host city, but I did not understand what was really meant by language school until our group visited a Centro Cultural Linguistico (CCL) in Brasilia. Public language schools provide free supplementary language classes to students. In Brazil, students attend their regular comprehensive schools in the morning (7-12), afternoon (12-5), or evening (5-10). Those who extend their language learning to a CCL will study English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese in one of the three sessions in which they are not in school. They attend one three-hour class or two ninety-minute classes per week. This would be a revolutionary idea in the United States. Our society tends to resist learning languages more than anywhere in the world. I found it so refreshing to be among students and teachers who share my passion and sense of urgency for learning how to communicate with people who speak a different language.

I spent eight days at a CCL in Teresina. There were advantages and disadvantages to my placement. I was able to meet a large number of students because they only came to class once a week. Every day I interacted with two or three new groups of students. Unfortunately, it was difficult to form strong bonds with the students when I only saw them for an hour. But I got to know the teachers, especially the English teachers, very well. I was disappointed that I was unable to spend time in comprehensive high schools in Teresina. I had hoped to be able to compare my experiences between English classes in language schools and in the high schools. If I were to start the experience over again, I would insist on following the teachers to the different schools in which they teach to develop a deeper understanding of the differences between schools.

I was shocked to learn that most of the English teachers that I met teach in three, four, or sometimes five different schools. This occurs for a couple of reasons. First, the salaries are so low that teachers need to combine jobs to make a living. Second, English is only offered once a week in comprehensive schools, which does not add up to enough sections of classes to create a full time position. And it certainly isn’t enough time for students to learn a language. One impact of constantly moving around from school to school, from early in the morning to late at night, is that no time is left to collaborate with colleagues. English teachers in most of Brazil are simply never grounded in a single building long enough to build professional relationships and share ideas and resources with each other.

The challenges that English teachers in Brazil face in their jobs were most clearly revealed on one of our last days in Teresina. Our host teacher arranged a meeting with English teachers from all over the city. We met in a school auditorium with about fifty teachers who do not teach in language schools. We talked for two hours about the many challenges that English teachers in Teresina face every day. They mentioned widespread student apathy in English classes in the public schools. They said that students often prefer to study Spanish because they feel that it is much more likely that they will use it in their lives. (Students in the language schools choose to be there and are thus much more self-motivated).  They also complained about the low quality of the government textbooks. They are forced to teach with a grammar-focused approach. They know that this is not effective, but do not have the resources or the needed professional development to change the curriculum. (The language schools choose their own textbooks and teach with a communicative approach).

The teachers we spoke with that morning were thirsty for opportunities to improve their practice. New teachers receive no mentors and there is not a system of evaluation in place that encourages professional growth.  I shared with them that many teachers in the United States share similar frustrations with our education system. Mandated curriculum that doesn’t meet the needs of students, minimal time to collaborate with colleagues, ineffective evaluation systems that overemphasize standardized test scores, and student apathy can be found across our country. In addition, in both Brazil and the United States, if you ask high school students what they want to be when they are older teaching is far from the top of the list. But, there are some significant differences between the problems that teachers in our two countries face. Teachers in the United States do not typically teach in three or more schools. And while teacher salaries in the United States should be higher, proportionally, we are much better off than Brazilian teachers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Centro Cultural de Linguas

The break room in CCL.
During my eight days in Teresina, I spent the majority of my time at the Centro Cultural de Linguas (CCL). CCL is part of a system of supplementary public language schools in Brazil. Students attend their regular schools in the morning, afternoon, or evening and attend CCL one day a week for three hours or two days for an hour and a half. In this particular language school they teach English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

Joselia, our host teacher, outside a CCL classroom.
Our first day in Teresina was a busy one. We arrived to the school in the afternoon and co-taught in seven or eight classes before the night was over. We developed a routine which involved a hastily drawn map of the United States with each of our home states, Washington and South Carolina, outlined in marker. We then went on to describe the weather, our schools, and other interesting facts. With the lower level classes we were more limited to basic conversation, but with the advanced groups, we got into some pretty deep discussions about cross-cultural stereotypes, college admissions, and the student debt crisis.

Hanging out with CCL teachers after class.
There are some notable differences between Brasilia and Teresina. Piaui is the poorest state in Brasil. And there is really no industry in Teresina outside of health care and education. While Teresina is a very modern city, complete with shopping malls, riverside parks, and nice hotels, there is a much higher level of poverty than in the capital. Students at CCL choose to be there (in addition to their regular schools), but it is not easy. They have to buy a book for the year (about $60 USD) and often pay an extra bus fare to and from language school. That keeps many kids from attending and makes it a struggle for most of the rest.

One advantage to being an a language school for a week was that we got to meet a few hundred different students. Every day we spoke with new classes. We also got to know a few of the teachers very well as we visited their classes. A downside to our schedule was that we didn't get to form very strong relationships with the students. We only saw them once for about half an hour. We also didn't get to spend much time in regular schools. I would have liked to sit in classes in public high schools in Teresina to compare and contrast with the language school and with schools in Brasilia. I guess I'll have to go back for that!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

EdWeek Teacher Article

I wrote an article that went up on the Education Week Teacher website yesterday. It mentions the TGC program and some of my pre-trip thinking about global education. The full text is below. The link to the website is hereLet me know what you think.

Published Online: July 3, 2012

Global Education: Bringing the World to Your Classroom

I love to travel. In my eight years of teaching, I have seized several (free) opportunities to see the world. Travel has enriched my teaching, allowing me to bring international experiences directly back to my students.
This year I participated in the Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship, a program of the U.S. State Department.
I joined 64 teachers from around the country in completing an online course on best practices in global education. In February, we attended a global education symposium in Washington, D.C., accompanied by administrators from our schools.
And I just returned from an eye-opening trip to Brazil with 10 other TGC teachers. We spent two weeks observing and co-teaching in schools (both public and private). Other teachers in the program traveled to India, Ghana, Indonesia, Morocco, and Ukraine.
One takeaway from my fellowship experience is a clearer understanding of what teaching global competencies might look like in practice. The Asia Society and the Council of Chief State School Officers have produced a series of global competence matrices (PDF). I started using these matrices this year as a way to evaluate my own curriculum. Recently, I've been embedding competencies into my student assessment rubrics.
The four main elements of the global competence matrix are:
• Investigate the world.
• Recognize perspectives.
• Communicate ideas.
• Take action.
We should be teaching our students these skills, and of course, mastering the competencies ourselves. They probably sound familiar: Some call them 21st-century skills, and others refer to them as the new basics. Students need to go beyond their comfort zones and actively learn from (not just about) people who have different worldviews.
This is not a call to throw out the curricula that we are currently using. On the contrary, it's an opportunity to enhance our practice and create a more rigorous and meaningful learning environment for our students.
In teaching U.S. history this past school year, I have worked with colleagues to revise our Progressive Era and Great Depression units, incorporating more opportunities for students to develop global competencies.

Investigate the World and Recognize Perspectives

Progressive Era unit: After a look at Teddy Roosevelt and the creation of the national parks system, students learned about differing views on the management of public lands a hundred years ago (focusing on John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Richard Ballinger). Students analyzed and debated the decision to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. We tried to push students to recognize their own perspectives within the spectrum of preservationist, conservationist, and laissez-faire attitudes.
Great Depression unit: We redesigned our Great Depression unit to follow an arc that led to a study of the Great Recession of 2007-09. We began by looking at the causes of the 1929 stock market crash and the widespread bank failures that followed. Then we moved on to study the "alphabet soup" of New Deal programs and the impact of the depression on people's everyday lives. Next, we compared different economic perspectives on the causes of and responses to the Depression, including a theoretical comparison of capitalism and communism.

Communicate Ideas/Taking Action

Progressive Era unit: We finished the unit by turning to the present. Students studied the current debate over the Keystone Pipeline project. After role-playing a town hall meeting on the pipeline issue, students wrote letters to President Obama that showed an understanding of multiple perspectives and incorporated the history of American conservationism and environmentalism. We hope that the President will be impressed by the level of global competence in the 100 letters, especially the act of sending them.
Great Depression unit: Similarly, we ended the Great Depression unit in the present. We looked at the recent economic recession, focusing on the collapse of the housing bubble, and the growing income inequality gap. Students debated three perspectives on economic policy:
• The call for a "New New Deal" and increased taxation of the wealthiest Americans.
• A focus on deficit reduction and tax cuts.
• A call for a new, more just system altogether.
Background materials included rhetoric from the Obama campaign, the Republican Party's economic platform, and the Occupy Movement. We hope that students take action by personally engaging with these important issues, and that those who are eligible voters will feel informed enough to participate in this November’s presidential election.
But you don't have to be a social studies teacher to incorporate the global competencies—the matrices address numerous content areas.
And you don't have to take students across international borders. You can help your students practice the skills of recognizing different perspectives and communicating ideas effectively in your own classroom, engaging the diverse perspectives found in your own community and school.
There are also easy ways to connect with classrooms around the world. You can start by simple class-to-class communication and then advance to collaborating with classes in other countries on specific projects. (I've listed some of my favorite resources below.)
The time to take global education seriously is now. Whether you believe we need to prepare students to compete economically with students from other nations or that graduates need to have the skills to collaborate with others to solve complex problems, the global competencies are critical. Some resources follow:

Collaboration with Global Classrooms

• ePals—The recently revised ePals website matches you with classroom partners around the world who share your interests. You can join pre-existing projects as well.
• iEARN—Students and teachers in more than 130 countries are engaged in collaborative projects through iEARN.
• See this list from the World Affairs Council in Seattle for more resources.

Professional Development and Curriculum

• Global Education Conference is a free international online conference for educators. The third annual event will take place November 12-16, 2012.
• Primary Source offers global education curriculum resources and professional development for K-12 teachers, including fantastic resource guides for a variety of countries and topics.
• Facing the Future touts this motto: "Critical thinking. Global perspective. Informed action." You can download materials on their website for hands-on lessons about global issues across the curriculum.

International Travel

• Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC)—Applications for the 2012-13 TGC fellowship are past due, but I encourage any teachers who are interested in the topic of global education to apply next year. The fellowship is a program of U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is administered by IREX.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Welcome to Teresina
Walking into one of Teresina Airport's two gates.
Perry and I arrived in Teresina on the 14th. When we were in Brasilia, when we told people we were going to spend a week in Teresina, the reaction was always the same: "Oh! It's so hot there!" They usually shook their heads in disbelief that we were going there. That's all of the information I could get out of people. And none of them had actually been to Teresina.

Getting to Teresina was hard work. The airport in Brasilia was hectic and we had to stay alert. During the hour that we were in the airport, our gate changed four times. We ran up the stairs and down the stairs, trying to figure out where our plane was. At boarding time, a long line formed. At the departure time, we boarded the plane. We
took off about an hour after the scheduled departure time. It was a two-hour flight to Teresina.

Well, the predictions were accurate. The moment we stepped off the plane, we felt the heat. During our week in Piaui state, the high was usually in the upper 90s, but it felt much hotter due to the close proximity to the equator. But there is much more to Teresina than the weather...

Back in the USA

I've been back home for almost a week. After finishing up at school on Tuesday, I have spent the past three days spending time with my family and sleeping off the exhaustion that I brought back with me from Brazil. It was an intense two weeks!

I will be posting some reflections on my trip over the next few days. I encourage you to also take a look at my colleagues' blogs. Each of us had a different experience in Brazil. Their links are on the right of the page under Brazil Blogs.

Chris, who was in Rio, posted some videos of our first few days in Brasilia. Check them out:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Teresina, Piaui

Perry and I spent the past couple of days co-teaching MANY English classes at the language school in Teresina. Much more on that later. (I have limited internet access this weekend.) We are on the coast today. Tomorrow we will be visiting the ParnaĆ­ba River Delta by boat.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Schools in Brazil

Public school hallway.

Private school hallway.
The school system is structured a bit differently in Brazil. What we call elementary and middle schools in the U.S. are combined as "ensino fundimental" in Brazil. High school is "ensino medio" and is equivilent to our grades 10-12. State governments oversee elementary schools (k-9) and municipalities manage the high schools. Students are required to attend school for 200 days a year, usually beginning in February with a 3-4 week winter break in July. This year, most kids in Brasilia will only have one week of vacation and will attend school on Saturdays for the rest of the year due to a recent 52-day teachers' strike.
About 10% of k-12 schools in Brazil are private. Most Brazilians consider private schools to be far superior to public schools. Public universities, however, are much better than private colleges. To get into a public university you have to score very well on a high stakes entrance exam, the vestibular or the ENEM. Most students in Brasilia who are accepted are from the upper classes and graduated from private high schools. When you hear that public universities in Brazil are free, you might assume that students from lower socio-economic classes have good access to higher education. But that is not the case here. In fact, many well-off parents of students at the University of Brasilia buy their kid a car since there are no other major expenses. The parking lots at U. of Brasilia are filled with BMWs and Audis, and they don't belong to the professors.

Most public schools provide uniforms, books, and supplies to their students. The poorest families can also qualify for the Bolsa Familia, which is about $20 USD a month. This program began in 2003 under President Lula (although it was developed by others before him). They receive this stipend only if their child attends school every day. The government also provides meals and transportation cards.

Due to overcrowding, many schools have three schedules every day: morning, afternoon, and evening. Students attend one session (7-12, 12-5, or 5-10). It is very common for students to go to school in the morning and then take language classes (most commonly English or Spanish) at a language school a couple days a week. Teachers often teach multiple sessions and work at multiple schools.

Despite major challenges, there have been some significant improvements over the past 20 years. In 1993 only 42% of students in Brazil completed primary school and only 28% finished high school. In 2009, those numbers were 71% and 55%. A problem that continues to persist is the huge shortage of teachers. 26% of teachers have just a high school diploma, and in some more remote areas of the country, not even that. The federal government wants to invest a lot of money in teacher education in the next few years and they are designing some interesting programs. I will write more about teacher preparation in a separate post.

In Brasilia, we visited a public high school, an elite private high school, a public language school, and a teacher preparation program. I will write about each of these experiences in upcoming posts. For the next week I will be observing and co-teaching in public schools in Teresina, Piaui. Teresina is in the northeast, the poorest region of the country. I expect to see a sharp contrast to the schools in the capital.