A Recipe for Reform: Quality teaching, Garbage Trucks, and Chocolate Chips

Claudia has snatched a plate of chocolate chip cookies I have just made out of my hand and is posing for a picture in the kitchen of her family home.  She laughs and says, “I worked so hard on these.  Let me know if you’d like me to teach you.” 

Claudia makes excellent chocolate chip cookies that are “Rapido and Gostoso!”

These cookies (along with the effort and adjustments it took to make them) have come to symbolize the warm, creative hilarity I encountered as I spent a week with Claudia Borges, our TGC host teacher, and Emanulle Chagas, her friend and colleague at Centro de Midias .  For more about the work they do, read iBrazil.  The purpose of this blog, however, is to honor the beautiful and expansive human spirit contained inside these two seemingly diminutive women. While Claudia’s house may smell like recently baked chocolate chip cookies, Emanuelle’s car smells like a pet store.  That’s because her trunk is filled with buckets of dry dog food, cat food, pet dishes, and even one of those ridiculous lamp shade dog collars. 

Emanuelle Chago is an animal rights enthusiast that feeds strays out of the back of her car.

Believe it or not, this is not even the quirkiest discovery we made in our week long encounter with this teacher whose friends all affectionately call her “Manu.” Manu is the second half of this two person duo that plans and teaches English lessons to thousands of Brazilian middle school students via satellite.  While Claudia and Emanuelle are visibly easy to distinguish, there are remarkable parallels between what inspired these two women to start teaching and what allows them to inspire their students to learn.

Claudia is one of the few Brazilians who was able to get into college without the benefit of a private school education.  When I ask her how she succeeded when so many other public school students fall behind, she talks about all of the additional studying and tutoring she had during weekends.  And when I meet her mother, another advantage becomes clear.  Claudia comes by teaching honestly.  Her mother was a teacher, too, and as I sit at her family’s dining room table, I have a deep philosophical conversation about educational policy with her mother…in translation, of course.  Just like Claudia herself, the family compound in which I sit is larger than it initially appears.  It is common for Brazilians to live with their families until they marry and, even then, they may continue to live with their family or that of their spouse.  In the case of Claudia’s family, her mother, father, sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and one niece all live in the same house.  Her mother’s nicknamed “the engineer” because once she retired she took on the task of expanding and subdividing Claudia’s childhood home into a space that has room for everyone (including a neighbor’s dog that was rescued from a lonely life of isolation next door and now lives up on their covered rooftop patio.) One essential and symbolic house addition was a family library where everyone’s books are crammed together into a tiny room that will, no doubt, be expanded by “the engineer” sometime in the near future.

Manu also lives with her parents but has three dogs and three cats to Claudia’s inconsequential one.  When I asked how her family feels about this charitable impulse, she waves her hand and says, “My family supports me in this.” Her family roots are a typical Brazilian tangle of indigenous and European mixing and mingling.  Her European ancestors came to the Amazon during the Rubber Boom of the late 19th early 20th century and stayed even after the rubber bubble burst.  As we toured the Teatro Amazonas, a lingering reminder of the Rubber Barron’s success and excess, she launches into a fascinating explanation of the rubber boom, bio-piracy, and the subsequent poverty that followed.  Her extended family still lives in Paraintins, a city 12 hours away by boat; she visits them once a year during the famous Festival de Parintins.  Our car ride with her symbolizes the wonderful transcultural reality that seems to characterize this Brazilian generation.  Caprichoso, the blue bull from the folk festival, hangs on her rearview mirror, traditional indigenous music plays on her CD player, and as she yells at the Garbage truck in front of her, while explaining to us, “This is Manaus, baby.  Sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Learning about Manaus and Brazilian culture while stuck behind a garbage truck in Manu’s car.

It is easy to understand how these two women could inspire young people even from hundreds of miles away.  I was curious to know what had inspired them to join a profession of overeducated, underpaid idealists.

For Claudia, the answer was easy.  She saw her mother’s love of her students, the joy she took from planning lessons, and the satisfaction she received from her work.  Claudia finds the same joy in teaching and says her favorite thing about young people is their creativity and that they are always surprising us with things we don’t expect.

For Manu, a slightly less typical reason for becoming a teacher: the Backstreet Boys.  Like so many other Brazilians, she taught herself English by riding the wave of pop culture the US exports abroad.  Song lyrics, teen magazines, and a crush on Justin Timberlake inspired Manu to become an English teacher…along with the fact that her mother is a teacher, too.

Both women see that there are some improvements being made in education by the Brazilian government, but think it is happening to slowly.  The economic boom is outpacing educational reforms. “Invest in Education!” Claudia commissions the Brazilian government.  Her ideas include improving educational foundations in primary school and incentivizing people to go into teaching.  Manu agrees. She suggests, “It doesn’t have to be more money.  It could be Masters courses or other trainings.”

It is clear that both of these women believe deeply in the power of education, but is also easy to see that this is not a profession without sacrifice.  We lost count how many additional jobs (called in Portuguese “Bicos”) both women had to work in order to earn a livable wage.  Additionally, Manu is getting a law degree.  When I ask her why, she confesses that she loves teaching, but she doesn’t get paid enough and so is exploring other options. 

The Parintins festival is one thing these two teachers CAN’T agree on. Claudia cheers for the red bull, Garantido, while Emanuelle is fervent supporter of the blue bull, Caprichoso.

As we were whisked around Manaus by these two women, as they chatted and teased one another, as they argued over which bull was going to when the upcoming Parintins Festival, all of the educational policy debates seemed an over-complication of a simple truth: people learn best about the world from people who live best in the world.  These women are not simply great teachers, they are humanitarians.  “It’s not worth studying if you can’t contribute to the lives of other people,” espouses Claudia.  “Teaching can help change our reality,” Emanuelle says with conviction.  “We try to make our students ‘glocal’ citizens, but it is difficult.”  She then suggests with a grin, “Maybe if the US sent us more Barbara’s and Emily’s for every public school.  That would be nice.”

Ultimately, Emanuelle and Claudia are united in the belief that “Teaching can help change our reality.”

 Brazilian education will be elevated if you can persuade people like Claudia, Manu, and, frankly, myself to stay in the classroom.  With the right teachers, meaningful learning happens even when you are stuck behind a garbage truck, when you are arguing about your favorite team, and when you are adjusting a recipe to make American chocolate chip cookies in the Amazon.  It’s as simple as that.

iBrazil, take you Miguel…into the future.

Part II: Rising Action in Brazil

Last week we met Miguel, a student from a rural village in the Amazon.  The question inspiring his drama was: Can Miguel become a doctor in Brazil?  There were a number of obstacles that made this unlikely.  But there is also good news on the horizon for Miguel and young people just like him.

Youth in Brazil frequently must choose between supporting their family and going to school.

I know we’ve all had those surreal moments when it feels like we’re already in the future.  Most of mine are inspired by Apple products.  Well Apple and the iPhone have made the leap to Brazil, but the future is already here.  I visited a TV studio in the Amazon that is going to change education for the entire world.

Let’s review.  The challenges Miguel faced included a flooded village, teacher shortages, poor teacher quality in rural areas, high stakes college entrance exams, competition from private school students, and too few majors available in medicine.  But there is hope yet for Miguel. And while the following story may sound as outlandish as a telenovela, I assure you, it is a real life saga.

Imagine if you will a TV studio: the Centro de Midias de Educacao do Amazonas

Media Center in Amazonas

At the anchor desk sits a young, perky, creative teacher, Emanuelle, known to her friends as “Manu.” 60 miles away there is a rural school room and in that school sits our protagonist, Miguel.  Manu’s lesson is being broadcast to his classroom, and to hundreds of other classrooms just like it, throughout the Brazilian state of Amazonas.  Her lesson involves power point slides, which she can write on as she teaches, interactive individual and group activities (which include “differentiated instruction” for those of you that know what that is and care about that kind of stuff), an online chat room where she can communicate with the community teacher that facilitates the lessons, and live video chat with the students in the classroom as they ask their question or present their projects.

Behind the scenes, an extensive team of tech support uploads the power points and movie clips, edits footage, and manages all of the technological magic that baffles most of the rest of us.

When you read something like this in some random blog by some unknown teacher on the Internet, it’s easy to doubt the validity of something that seems so…miraculous.  Maybe we would expect something like this in the so called “developed world,” but in Brazil? The questions begin.  “Yes, but is this just some demo they do for visiting dignitaries and naive teachers on TGC exchange programs?”  “How many young people are they actually reaching?” And the all important question for American Public schools: “Yes, but what does the data say?”

Some of those questions I can answer.  Some I can’t.  First, it is not a demo.  Any township in Amazonas can request a satellite link up like this and all the equipment that goes with it.  The furthest village that has one his accessible only by 30 day boat ride.  30,000 students in 1,000 schools in 62 townships receive their lessons by the team of teachers that work at the media center in Manuas.  While this may seem a stunning investment, in the scheme of things, it’s certainly cheaper than what you would have to pay on a yearly basis to motivate even a single teacher to work in such a remote location.  And as for the data, apparently all testing data is open and available on the SEDUC website.  You hear that all you PhD candidates in education out there? Learn some Portuguese, mine the data, and let me know what you find out!

 So back to our essential question: Can Miguel become a doctor in Brazil? We must be honest; the path remains tenuous, but Brazil is forging it’s own innovative solutions for itself.  It is not waiting to be rescued or to follow someone else’s path.  That, more than anything else, makes me hopeful for Miguel and young people just like him throughout the country.

If Miguel wears flip flops, Does he have Boostraps?

Students in rural public schools struggle for quality education

In the Spirit of the Latin American “Telenovela” join me for an epic Saga entitled: Can Miguel Become a Doctor in Brazil? For those of you unfamiliar with this type of soap opera, the following true story of a student I met here in Brazil will embody most of the features of the genre.  A likable protagonist must struggle against remarkable odds, unlikely events, and impossible challenges in order to obtain his/her heart’s desire.

Part I: Rising Waters in Brazil

Miguel wants to be a doctor.  Well, to be honest, he, like every other boy in Brazil, wants to be a soccer player.  BUT, his plan “B” is to be a doctor.  While this may not initially seem an unusual goal, Miguel lives in a small rural village 60 km outside Manaus, the capital city of Amazonia.  And, while 45 miles might not seem like a great distance from US standards, let me add the outlandish events.

1) Miguel’s village is flooded.  The school Miguel attends is located on the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River.  The last three years, record breaking flooding has displaced entire villages in the Amazon River Basin.   Miguel hasn’t been to school in a month.  But assuming global warming ends and there is no more flooding in the Amazon…

2) Teachers don’t want to teach in rural villages along the Amazon.  People get University degrees in order to improve their lives and those of their family; this includes teachers.  But even if this village can get a single teacher…

3) This teacher will be underqualified.  They will be able to teach one, maybe two subjects well.  Miguel will not be able to take Chemistry, Biology, let alone something like Human Physiology or any other electives that might be available to a student in the US.  But even if Miguel studies really hard, teaches himself biology and chemsitry with the village teacher helping as best as he can…

4) He has to pass the Vestibular University Exam.  Like so many other countries around the world, high stakes testing in the pedaogogy in play.  But unlike the US where students can take the SAT as many times as Mom or Dad are willing to pay, here, it’s a one shot deal.  You take it once.  If you get a high score, you go to a free University. If not, you have to pay to go to a private college, if you can afford it.  But let’s say Miguel takes the exam and does the best in his class…

5) Miguel has to compete with all the students in private schools around the country.  Here in Brazil, 90% of students attend public schools.  However, public schooling is almost universally acknowledged here as far inferior to private schools.  Having visited both I can attest to this disparity. Here is the great Irony and the Agony: That state pays for public schools while  private citizens pay to send their children to private schools.  However, most of the students that do well on the vestibular are private students.  These private students then get to attend public universities for free.  These public universities are universally acknowledged as higher quality than private universities where you have to pay, if you can afford to.  But let’s say Miguel does scores well enough to get into a free public university…

7) Students have to apply to specific majors at a University.  That means, Miguel would have to score high enough to compete with all the private students who want to be doctors, who took chemistry, and Biology, and Human Physiology.  What’s more, it used to be that he was only competing with students in his state in Amazonia.  But now, students from all over the country can apply to any state.  That means students in Amazonia are competing against the best private schools all over the country and if, say, a student in the south can’t get into to the medical major in Rio, they can now apply to the medical program in Amazonia as well.  Good for Rio, bad for Miguel.

So what happens?  Does Miguel become a doctor?  To find out, tune in tomorrow for Part II of the saga: Rising Action in Brazil.



Youth is in the Eye of the Beholder

The concept of “youth” differs around the world, but some things remain the same.  In most countries, youth have to carve out places of belonging.  Sometimes this process can be destructive, sometimes creative.

At this public high school, the staff responded to the “graffiti problem” by giving students permission to do murals on the walls.

In Brazil, you can see the varied colors of youth everywhere. You can see these varied colors in the diverse ethnicities and histories of those living in this country.  You can also see these colors as you pass through the city streets.  Graffiti is everwhere.

It used to be that Graffiti was seen as a blight in a city, a sign of urban decay.  But now, with documentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop and artists like Banksy, there is a growing understanding that grafitti often reflects the desires, critiques, and stories of otherwise voiceless and marginalized communities.  Most often, grafitti tells the story of a country’s youth.

Graffiti on a skateboarding storefront in downtown Manaus. Underpasses seem to be popular places both for skate boarding and street art.

Today while visiting the Federal University of Amazonas, I encountered graffiti in an unexpected space: on the side of a water tower in the middle of the Amazon rain forrest.

The University itself is a wonderful surprise, nestled in the midst of the forrest, it is a welcome escape from the Urban Jungle into the literal jungle.  It has been deliberately designed to be in harmony with the environment, rather than in conflict with it.  The open spaces, natural wood, and landscaping make you feel like you are at a tropical retreat rather than educational institution.

This street artist caused controversy when he was invited by a professor at the university to “tag” this water tower.

As we toured the grounds, I was delighted to encounter beautiful graffiti on the side of the water tower. When I remarked on this, the student giving us the tour (A communications major and head of the school newspaper) she explained, that indeed, this artist had been invited to come and do this artwork here, much to the dismay of some of the professors at the institution.  It is fitting that Graffiti remains provacative regardless of whether it is sanctioned or not.

She went on to explain that a professor at the school studies and documents graffiti around the world and that the process and project surrounding the graffiti can be found at this blog:

(Link to come)

I cannot intepret these fables, manifestos, or memoirs for you, but I can give them greater visibility in this space and allow them to speak for themselves.

Fear and the Funny Day…

Creativity is almost universally acknowledged as a desirable attribute.  But much like a good joke, we can’t explain why it’s funny, we just know that it is.  Creativity and hilarity share many more inherent overlaps.  Let’s take my first day in the Amazon as an example.

Follow #flatarchie on twitter @glocalsignature

I am sitting in a classroom that would be the envy of any teacher in the US.  It has a flat screen TV, a video camera, a headset, and some type of system connecting all of these high tech contraptions together.  The teacher here is using an online chat room to consult with a teacher 50 miles away in a TV studio who has also been interacting with the students by video via a sattelite hook up in front of the school.

But I am not in the US.  I’m not in some expensive private school or grant funded pilot project.  I am at a small, remote public high school in Amazonia in a classroom of 11 students who, until today, have been unable to attend school due to the flooding in their village from the nearby river.

This satellite dish enables the distance learning at the remote river school. Flooding in the community, caused by climate change, has shut down many of these schools.

For those that have not spent much time in the so called LDCs (less developed countries) outside the US, this juxtaposition of rustic and modern is the new normal.  And more importantly, this classroom represents the next great hope for education not only in Brazil, but in similar communities around the world.

To read more details about how this Distance Learning works and how it may change the landscape of “Education for all” read my next blog or any of the linked articles.

But beyond the homegrown brilliance this educational program represents, it is admittedly odd and cause for more than a little giggling in the classroom.  The 11 students that sit here after almost a month without school are periodically laughing and whispering behind their hands.  Granted, their amusement is largely due to the presence of two American women in their classroom, but they are also giggling at the cartoons they watch during the lesson, giggling at the teacher on the TV, giggling, giggling, giggling.

Asking students to check their hilarity at the door (here or in the Amazon) is a mistake.  Life is funny.  Funny is memorable.  If you want me to remember, surprise me, astound me, make me laugh.  Additionally, how we respond to the new and unexpected comes to define us as learners and (more over) as people. When students encounter a problem or idea that challenges them, do they fight or flee?  Do they move towards it with interest and determination, or away from it in fear and confusion?

Brazil’s attempt to make education accessible to as many young people as possible, despite vast distances, poor or no roads, and too few qualified teachers, represents this creative impulse.  When I asked a group of Brazilian teachers whether they knew how remarkable their program was and how many other countries were looking to Brazil for inspiration, they said, “Oh, yes! We know!”  They are very proud that they have a developed a program of such import and innovation…but their pride is couched in bemusement as well.  They also frequently giggle as they talk about their surprises and missteps along the way.

Built by the Rubber Barrons in the late 19th century, Teatro Amazonas is both a cultural center (where most performances are free) and a symbol of this city’s history of blending modern and traditional, foreign and native realitie

This trip is part of my own eternal pursuit of education.  It is consequently accompanied by seemingly frivilous and incongruous moments of hilarity.  The title of the lesson plan for the students today was”funny day” and our day, too, was completely surreal.

We started at the Teatro Amazonas the first place in Brazil that had electricity, went to a rural village which receives it’s lessons on a flatscreen by satellite, and then by 8pm we were back in the city getting our hair and makeup done before we presented to a live studio audience. Really. There was hairspray involved. I looked like I was going to prom…in the 80’s.

At the end of the day, on the car ride back to our hotel the driver kept asking, “Are u scared? You’re scared aren’t you?” We kept reassuring her that we weren’t scared despite several near head on collisions with buses and our eventual realization that she had been driving without her lights on.”
Maybe we SHOULD be scared.  Maybe the students should be.  Maybe Brazil should be…or, maybe giggling while we discover a new land is the better option.





There’s a saying in Brazil, “Brazil is the country of the future…and it always will be.” The Brazilian people have long been told by both their leaders and by leaders around the world that they are a country on the verge of power and greatness, but something always seemed to postpone this promising future.

Well, the future has finally arrived, and here are  10 reasons we American’s ought to take notice of Brazil:

  1. Brazil is as large as the continental United states
  2. Brazil is the “B” in the so called “BRIC” countries: rapidly developing countries that are shaping the economic landscape in the 21st century.
  3. Brazil is the the sixth largest economy in the world
  4. The US is Brazil’s second largest trading partner
  5. Many so called “American” companies, are now owned by Brazilian companies (like Burger King and Budweiser)
  6. Brazil produces more ethanol than anywhere else in the world.  Most of their cars can run both on ethanol and regular gas.
  7. Huge oil deposits have just be discovered of the coast of Brazil, promising to change the energy outlook in the America’s for decades to come.
  8. The Budget of the US Embassy in Brazil has been growing while budgets of other embassies around the world have been shrinking.
  9. Today there are 9,000 Brazilians studying in the US.  Within 10 years, Brazil’s goal is to have 50,000.
  10. The Rio+20 conference, a UN international event for sustainable development, begins next weekend.


And now for some intriguing facts and mythbusting…
  1. The official language of Brazil is Portuguese.  Not Spanish.  Not “Brazilian.”
  2. In 2014 Brazil will host the FIFA world cup and in 2016 they will host the Olympics.
  3. In the 1800’s, the Portuguese Royal Family fled Napoleon and governed from Brazil.
  4. After the American Civil War, many confederates fled the US and settled in Brazil.  There’s even a town here called “Americana”
  5. Their Capitol city, Brazilia, was moved from Rio in the mid 1950’s and rebuilt in it’s now more central location in only 5 years.  “50 years is 5,” so the saying goes.
  6. Brazil has the largest population of African descendants outside of Nigeria.
  7. Brazil has the largest population of Japaneses outside of Japan.
  8. Though the slave trade was the largest in the world (only abolished in the late 1800’s) there was no period of legally imposed segregation in Brazil.
  9. In the late 80’s, Brazil performed one of the greatest “freakonomics” feats when they replaced their inflated currency the Cruzeiros with the “Real” and stabilized their currency almost overnight.
  10. Behind the US, Brazil has the second most facebook users in the world.

Brazil is the new kid in town.  Isn’t it time you friended Brazil?

For whom the blog’s told…

We teach our students that a story’s meaning is determined in part by the lens through which the story is viewed.  We teach them to try on different “critical lenses” and watch how the “moral of the story” seems to shift and shimmer in the new light.

It is likewise true that the stories we tell, and how we tell them, are determined by the lenses we ourselves are wearing.  Once you accept both these lessons, life, and it’s interpretation, is never simple again.

So how do I tell this story of my journey to Brazil? What is my lens?  Who is my audience?  The trouble is, it’s as if I’m looking through the stained glass window of my audiences and obligations asking, “Which lesson is most important? To whom do I dedicate this story?”

For my family…

This is a story about a woman who belongs to the world.  A mother that at times is taken away as she follows her compassion to young people at the margins of society.

For my students…

This is a story that will percolate into their classroom all year at the most unexpected moments of learning and laughter, reminding them that education reaches beyond the four walls of their classroom.

For my school…

This is a “glocal” story of educational programming dedicated to the intellectual, professional, and ethical development of local and global citizens.

For my country…

This story is a fledgling attempt to blow-apart the antiquated confines and barriers of American public education, to better prepare beautiful minds to engage and compete in a wider world of wonder.

For the world…

What of this country?  What will this story mean to Brazil?  Its schools?  Its youth?  After this trip, what will be my greatest obligation to them?  What is my obligation to all the remarkable, tenacious young people I have met in Kenya, China, Mexico, and now Brazil?  How can this story break down borders and build bridges for them?

And for me…

What is the chapter heading in the novel of my life?  My “100 years of attitude?”

I have no definitive answer.  Just the literary and universal notion:

“Ask not for whom the blog is told.  It’s told for thee.”



Educational Epiphany

Sometimes to see something clearly, we have to stand on our heads.

Yesterday in class we read upside down…

“Read this poem from the bottom up”

by Ruth Porritt.

This simple cathedral of praise
How you made, from the bottom up,
Is for you to remember
Of Andromeda. What remains

Until you meet the ancient light
With your sight you can keep ascending
Its final transformation into space.
And uphold

The horizon’s urge to sculpt the sky
Puts into relief
Your family’s mountain land
Upon the rising air. In the distance

A windward falcon is open high and steady
Far above the tallest tree
Just beyond your height.
You see a young pine lifting its green spire

By raising your eyes
Out onto the roof deck.
You pass through sliding glass doors
And up to where the stairway ends.

To the top of the penultimate stanza
Past the second story,
But now you’re going the other way,
Line by line, to the bottom of the page.

A force that usually pulls you down,
Of moving against the gravity of habit,
While trying not to notice the effort
And feel what it’s like to climb stairs

My students always love this poem.  Perhaps because it’s forever thrilling to look at the world from a new angle.  Perhaps because adolescent brains are wired for divergent thinking.  Perhaps because it lifts them out of the classroom, if but briefly, into the cosmos.

Afterwards, we discuss two linguistically similar but thematically opposed words: Paradox and Paradigm.  Though they share five letters, they represent markedly different phenomenon.  PARADIGM encapsulates what society perceives as reality. PARADOX, instead, places contradictory “realities” side by side creating a dissonance that can shatter “fact” but reveal “truth.”  Congruity versus incongruity. The status quo vs. the avant-garde.  Dogma versus Enlightenment.

School reform is not about new buildings, new models, or new methods.  It is about the human impulse for ascension.  It is about remembering that cathedrals may take centuries to build, but we need not wait impatiently for the buidling to be done in order to aspire to the spires.  It is not the stone that ultimately inspires epiphany.  It is the light, the air, the space framed by the stone, or the trees, or the gaze. It is the finger pointing at the moon.

This is a space to examine the architecture of education, and more importantly, the interconnected expanses beyond.