I hope I can accurately document my experiences in Brazil and share my knowledge with other educators. The Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Project offers an extremely unique opportunity for a special educator. The need for both leaders and educators in special education to develop a global perspective of their field and an international understanding for policies and procedures abroad is imperative. Opportunities to learn from educators, government officials and inhabitants of countries promoting large education initiatives, especially those targeting students with disabilities and individuals who require alternative teaching methods, offer invaluable information about the country’s perception of special education, the disabled population, and what role culture plays in educating individuals with disabilities. Mutual understanding and learning amongst educators in this field is critical to the development of programs that will meet the unique needs of diverse populations.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Brazil's loss to the Netherlands
Another night in the Amazon came and went and we boarded a plane to Belem, with a layover long enough in Manaus to see Brazil lose to the Netherlands. Heartbreak and saddness could be felt, but fireworks in honor of Brazil could still be heard in a distance. The entire day was filled with travelling and we were all relieved to arrive in Belem at around 6:30. Belem is another large city in the Amazon. It is located in the state of Para and sets along the Amazon River. It is known as the gateway to the Amazon. The first European colony in the Amazon was founded in Belem because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in time to check in and walk to a large mall area filled with various restaurants. It set along the Amazon River and was part of a refurbished warehouse. We chose an organic, vegetarian restaurant that was, surprisingly, very good and returned to our hotel exhausted.
After dinner at ISA
A long, smoldering night in the Amazon with only the breeze from Rio Negro for comfort ended with a misty morning. The heat escalated with the rising of the sun. Another layer of mosquito spray and an even coating of sunscreen completed my wardrobe choice for the day. After a breakfast of native fruits, breads, and fruit juices we were brought to the market where the natives shopped for food and supplies. Small booths with vendors selling crafts, breads, fruits, fish, tapioca, and clothing filled the inside and outside areas of the market. People hustled about buying the goods they needed. We were then taken to a local indigenous community. When approaching the community, from the road small concrete houses could be seen. It was obvious that they were not fully constructed and around 10 lined the outside of the community. A walk through them revealed a large thatched roofed structure with many smaller ones surrounding it. We were led inside and welcomed. It was dark inside and the floors were made of packed dirt. Small children sat with their mothers on benches and people looked at us with curiosity. We were told that the community met in this center each day to eat with one another. They had not always lived on this land, the government had pushed them from their native land gave them this piece of land to live on. They were deeply saddened by the loss of their land and told us stories of burying ancient tools and instruments they longed to return to their tribe. We asked about the concrete houses built on the land and were told that the federal government began building, without consulting the families living in the tribe. These families were very large. It is customary for the indigenous to live with their extended family and these homes only accommodated a very few family members. They were saddened by the efforts and wished they were consulted. They admitted that they would never use these structures. They also told us that they were slowly being pushed from the land they were on, but would not leave.
They showed us their native headdresses and instruments, played music, and performed native dances. We clapped and cheered loudly as members of the tribe danced in the center of the building. We were then invited to eat and drink with them. It was a wonderful experience and a sense of sameness arose as we laughed and clapped together to the music.
I left the tribe overcome with simultaneous feelings both happiness and sadness. I was touched by the sincerity of the people, by the genuine concern for their entire community, and at the same time saddened by the circumstances they were reduced to live. Was this an effect of capitalism? The experience left me with so much to debate.
We were then taken by bus down the Rio Negro and loaded into boats. We took the small boats up the Rio Negro toward the Columbian border. We waived as small boats with fisherman passed. After a while I spotted a couple of make-shift tents, made from blue tarps, buried in the trees along the river. I asked our guide what they were. He laughed and explained that they were Columbians who were waiting until night to bring supplies of cocaine to dealers who would distribute the drugs. We docked and were told that we could swim if we wished. A few brave souls, including myself, couldn’t resist. When would I ever have the opportunity to swim in the Amazon? The water was dark, almost red, due to the decomposition of various leaves and foliage. We swam around the boat and laughed as one person’s foot brushed another’s leg while reassuring each other that it was not a Parana. Some made jokes about the urethra fish and others swam against the swift current. Small fish could be seen jumping out of the water in all directions. After around 30 minutes we climbed out on the bank and back into the boat.
We returned to ISA in time for a shower and awaited dinner cooked by the famous Dona Brazi. Dinner was served on the third floor, open, meeting area. It consisted of many typical dishes including a flat bread made of tapioca and a spicy sauce with ants. Some of us retired to hammocks and rested as the cool breeze blew in from the Rio Negro and others retired to their rooms.
Exhausted, I awoke at 4:30 leaving enough time to brush my teeth and throw on some clothes, to check out of the hotel at 5:00. We were instructed to pack a small bag for a two night stay in Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira. Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira is an extremely remote Amazon community in northern Brazil, near the Columbian border. Its inhabitants include either the indigenous of the Amazon or Brazilian military. We met Jasmine, who would accompany us to Sao Gabriel to learn more about the students she was working with, at the airport in Manaus. We boarded a small plane that would fly north through the Amazon and deliver us to a destination that many Brazilians could never imagine visiting. We arrived at around 9:30 on a small landing strip guarded by the Brazilian military and were brought to ISA, Institute Socioambiental (socio-environmental). ISA is a civil society organization working with the indigenous. ISA had small dorms they allowed visiting researchers and scholars to stay in while visiting Sao Gabriel. This is where we would spend the next 2 days. The rooms were simple, no air conditioning, but absolutely invigorating. They were wonderful! A huge balcony overlooked the Rio Negro and breezes blew in through large double doors. The top floor was the meeting area. It was an open space overlooking the water. The roof was thatched bamboo. Small tables and chairs were available and hammocks hung from large posts. A classroom/meeting room and a small kitchen were in the back. We were offered fresh fruit juices and bread.
After a short rest we met with FOIRN, Federation of Indian Organization of Rio Negro. The speaker, a member of the Baniwa tribe, showed us clips from movies they had made and presented slides detailing their work. He explained that the schools, the government had created for their communities, were not meeting the demands of their community. He said, “We feel that our knowledge should be valued as well that coming from the outside. It is important to maintain our culture as well as gain knowledge coming from outside.” The goal of the indigenous is to blend their culture with a new way of life. He also explained that many youths would leave in search of education and did not return.
Another issue FOIRN is tackling is balancing the environment with development. He explained that because of the changing environment their way of life has changed. Farming and fishing, vocations depended on, have dramatically transformed due to climate change. We were told that elders in their tribe remember working from dawn until dusk with no clothing protecting their bodies and now this is impossible. They must cover their skin, wear hats and work shorter hours because of the sun. They have also seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of fish. They have learned to farm and manage fish in new ways. If they did not, the fish they depended on to sustain their way of life would be extinct in the water of the Rio Negro within 10 years.
Based on their needs, the indigenous of the Amazon have modified the education in their schools. Fish management programs have been developed in their schools. Students do research and formulate solutions for their community. I was very impressed with the innovative teaching methods instilled in indigenous schools. Students learn through projects and research that benefit their culture and community. In essence their learning evolves through service projects. They are currently developing bees with no stingers to produce honey and pollinate produce. They are creating hatcheries and introducing environmentally friendly alternatives for their communities. Elders are invited into the schools to teach traditional skills such as basket weaving and discuss history and culture. Students perform research and write the oral histories handed down from their grandparents.
This new model of schooling is far better than the model introduced by the Brazilian government. Students are engaged and are making an immediate difference in their communities. What a brilliant idea!!!!!!!!!
After the meeting we began a long hike up a sacred hill in Sao Gabriel. One that promised if you reached the top you would find your way back. I feel there is truth in the story!!!! What a beautiful, breathtaking adventure!
Today we visited a group of Tikunas, an urban indigenous community, who moved to the city of Manaus in search of a better life. Originally the Tikuna tribe thrived along the Amazon River, but many have died due to disease. With the death of the Tikuna people, their language and culture is slowing dyeing as well. Entering their community a pungent smell filled the air, make-shift houses with hammocks as beds lined the streets and barefoot children scampering about could be seen in all directions. We were led to a small concrete building and told that this was both the community’s school and a center in which the community gathered for various events. Indigenous women filled the entrance scattering hand-made jewelry, purses, and crafts along the tables. Plastic chairs were distributed in the remaining space. We all took a seat waited patiently for the teacher to begin his presentation. Smaller, child-sized, replicas of the plastic chairs were distributed in the front for the children. Many of us brought different items for the children. I gave each child a pencil while Laura, a University professor who taught in Hawaii and was originally from Argentina gave each child Hawaiian stickers.
Soon the teacher introduced himself and welcomed us. He told us his goal was both to educate the children and preserve the Tikuna culture. He explained that many of the children born in the city had never seen native Amazonian animals. He told us he took them to the zoo to see the animals that had once lived closely with the people of the tribe. The children sang a beautiful song in the native Tikona language. We were then told stories explaining native customs and heritage. We were told about marriage customs and an elder woman from the tribe presented us with a large black plastic bag. She removed a mask and dresses and began to place them on two young girls from the tribe. She explained that this was her granddaughter’s ceremonial wedding dress. The group then began to demonstrate the traditional dance done during the ceremony. It was clear that the tribe yearned to share their customs, stories and traditions with others. We each received a children’s book, created with UNESCO, used to recount a native story detailing their heritage and customs. They were proud and searched for understanding and acceptance. It was beautiful! Later I learned that when an indigenous community entered the city they were no longer considered indigenous and received no help from the government. While this makes absolutely no sense to me, I feel this made their attempts to give their children a better life in the city even more brave and I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been better for this group to stay on their native land. Had they been pushed from their native land? After the presentation, we were given time to purchase the jewelry and crafts, and explore the community. A women cleaned fish in a small shop and fruit hung in wooden stands. Yellow and green streamers hung in the streets in support of the Brazilian football.
We were again loaded onto a bus, ate lunch and taken to the center of Manaus to view the opera house. As we approached this magnificent building and the beauty that surrounded it I realized that the atmosphere that surrounded this section of Manaus completely juxtaposed the community I had seen only an hour earlier. The sidewalks were made of beautiful black and white stone that mimicked the waves of the ocean. Beautiful European colonial buildings and statues surrounded the Amazon Theatre. It was brilliant! As we entered the opera house, beautiful paintings decorated the walls and ceiling. Magnificent chandeliers decorated each room and gorgeous wood floors shimmered against the gold accents in the walls. It was very similar to the churches, opera houses, and buildings I saw when traveling in Europe. We learned that European settled in Manaus during a large rubber boom in the late 1800s. They used the rubber trees in the Amazon to make large fortunes. This settlement became the capital of the state of Amazonas. Indians were captured and used as slave labor to build the opera house. Many of the materials were shipped down the Amazon from Europe to build the opera house. Around 100 families lived in the community and sent for some of the best entertainers in the world to perform. Ultimately, it became the last stage that many performers would present upon. Many died from diseases such as Yellow Fever and Malaria and never made the journey back home.
I stood on the balcony and tried to imagine this superlative structure buried in the heart of the Amazon. Wow!
We made a quick stop at the fish market and ended the day with a visit to the Ministry of Education in Manaus. We were told that they are currently focusing on Project Pirayawara, a teacher training project for indigenous schools. They are offering inservice training and developing textbooks for different indigenous tribes. They currently have 20 centers that offer training to indigenous teachers. The challenges they are facing include the size and geographic area the tribes live in. Many of the tribes are difficult to reach and building schools in these areas is even more difficult. Language is also a barrier as well as hiring practices. Tribes choose their teachers and each teacher chosen is one from the tribe. Teachers are honored within the tribe and all members must agree on the selection. I asked about special education and was told that they did not have adequate training. Most students with disabilities stayed home and received no schooling.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Note to self, never mix Malaria medication with any other type of medicine! After eating breakfast this morning I suddenly remembered I forgot to take my Malaria medication the night before so I decided to take it with along with some other prescribed medications before heading to Manaus’s local FUNAI chapter. It didn’t take long before my stomach notified me that it was a big mistake! I took a seat on the bus and hoped it would pass, but was not so lucky! I ended up back in my hotel room feeling miserable. (Ask me about the Indian on the toilet in the elevator!) All I kept thinking was I am in the Amazon and stuck in a hotel room! Luckily, I began feeling better a few hours later after the mixture of medications reappeared and was able to catch Brazil win next game in the World Cup. I have never seen anything like it in my life. Every business, job, and college ends while Brazilians silently fixate on the television. Every goal is responded to with fireworks in all directions, loud cheering and emotional outbursts. When the game is over people seamlessly return to their lives, jobs, and classes. Luckily for me every other meeting and activity planned for the afternoon was cancelled due to the soccer game.
I have definitely become a fan! Go Brazil! Go KaKa!!
I have definitely become a fan! Go Brazil! Go KaKa!!
Today was an absolutely amazing day! We boarded a boat that took us down the Rio Negro. It was a large 2 level boat that was part of a routine tourist attraction. The boat traveled for nearly an hour and a half until we reached the point where the Rio Negro and the Solimoes (the black and white rivers) met. The point where the Rio Negro and the Solimoes meet is where the Amazon begins. It was a marvelous site. The lines separating the waters from both rivers was very distinct, one side appeared white while the other appeared black. This is actually due to the different types of sediment in each river. Dolphins could be seen swimming in the waters alongside the boat. The scenery was lush and green and small houses could sometimes be seen on the edge of the water. We continued our journey on the large boat until we reached a floating restaurant and shop along the shore. We stopped and were loaded onto small motorboats that held around 10 people each.
As we walked down the ramp alongside the Amazon, we were instructed to step inside the boats. Don, a member of our group, reached out for the back of a seat to stabilize himself as he stepped in and immediately fell into the hull of the boat. I was directly behind him and was relieved he had not fallen into the water. A former member of the military, he brushed himself off and took his seat. I sat on the bench seat next to him and began to ask if he was okay, when I heard Maggie, another member from our group exclaim that he was bleeding. I grabbed my backpack and reached for the mini first aid kit that my twelve year old daughter insisted I take (thank you Emma). Blood was slowly seeping from his forearm, just above his elbow. I opened a disinfectant wipe and held it against the wound. Maggie passed some tissue forward and I applied pressure to Don’s arm as the boat pulled away. After a few minutes I forced myself to look at the wound. It was immediately obvious that it was quite deep. I felt as though Don would need to see a doctor, but we were currently boating into a small estuary off the Amazon and it seemed that Maggie and I were Don’s best hope of medical care for many hours. I continued to apply pressure, used a disinfectant wet wipe to kill as much bacteria as possible and bandaged the wound with some gauze and Band-Aids.
The remainder of the boat trip was incredible. I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined I would be boating through the Amazon. We viewed enormous trees, beautiful wildlife, and exotic plants. I took a water bottle from my backpack, emptied its contents and collected a large sample of water. (My husband’s only wish was water from the Amazon.) Although it may not make it through customs, I felt pleased with the idea of bringing water from the Amazon home. We soon returned to the floating restaurant and shop, ate lunch and began a walk along a very long and narrow bridge. It ended in the midst of huge lilly pads and purple flowers. A caiman waded in the water with its body partly submerged and its eyes peering at people taking its picture. We were soon instructed to make our way back to the boat and began our journey back to Manaus. This excursion took most of the day. Sunburned and exhausted I was happy to be back at the hotel.
Don was taken to a local medical clinic and received 5 stitches!!!! Healthcare is free in Brazil so it was quite interesting to hear about Don’s experience at the clinic. He was gone for maybe an hour and admitted that it took longer to walk from the hotel to the clinic and back than to see a doctor. The doctor gave Don some antibiotic injections, numbed the site and stitched up the wound. She instructed Don to have the hotel nurse change his bandages each day and have the stitches removed in 6 days.
Great to be in the Amazon!
After checking out of our hotel in Brasilia, we boarded a plane for Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon. The city was far different than I had imagined. It sits alongside the Rio Negro (the black river) and is roughly the size of San Francisco. Many buildings and boats reside along the shore of this enormous river. A carnival-like atmosphere, similar to that of popular beach cities in the U.S., entices many people to walk along the streets. Vendor selling popcorn, fried cheese, and corn invite people to purchase their products. Although June is a winter month in Brazil, the heat in the Amazon is sweltering.
Before our arrival we were warned to wear plenty of mosquito repellent. Confirmation of this warning didn’t take long. As we boarded the bus from the airport it was like entering a mosquito habitat. I quickly recalled the many diseases that were transmitted through mosquitoes in the Amazon… Yellow Fever, Malaria, Dengue Flu… We would stay in Manaus for 4 days and were told by our tour guide, a funny little indigenous man who met us at the airport, that our hotel was the largest in Manaus. Other than the fact that it eerily resembled the hotel from the shining, it was very beautiful. I was very pleased when entering our hotel lobby. The hotel was equipped with 3 restaurants, a zoo (yes a zoo!), an outside shopping mall, a jewelry store (H Stern- a world renowned jewelry store), and a swimming pool. Unfortunately, the internet connection was sketchy at best.
Our first day in Manaus included a visit to UFAM University (the Federal University of the State of Amazonas). We were introduced to Project de Sinal (Project English for Indians). Like the Afro-Brazilians, the indigenous people of Brazil have been discriminated against for many years. Their land has been encroached upon and their way of life altered. Many tribes, at the University, presented various aspects about their life and education system. One main theme was apparent throughout each of the presentations, all wanted a better life for their people and were determined to earn an education. The goal was to learn English, earn a degree, and return to their tribe with the knowledge they had gained in Manaus. The indigenous communities in Brazil had worked tirelessly to preserve their culture. They were trying desperately to collaborate with the government and express their wants and needs.
Students from the Tikuna, Tukano, Baniwa, Munduruau, Dessano, Bare, Marubu, and Satere tribes organized Powerpoint presentations and shared as much information as they could in English (they had only began English courses in March) and the remainder was translated by their English teacher, Jasmine, a 22 year old blond from Arizona. (Jasmine had received a Fulbright to teach English to indigenous students at the University for a year.) The first to present represented the Marubu tribe. He gave a very distressing and emotional presentation. He told us that many people in his tribe had died (including his brother) and are dying from Hepatitis D. He shared that his tribe had repeatedly demanded help from the government, but have been ignored. Hepatitis D is a mutated form of Hepatitis B, a form I had never heard of before. Hep B was a disease brought to the indigenous people by Europeans. It has mutated because of a lack of vaccines, and was now killing an entire tribe of people. Later, Marianna told us a story about how the some of the members of the tribe, who were dying of Hepatitis D demanded that they be brought to the capitol city of Brasilia to die in the government sector. The tribe collected 50,000 reais (the equivalent of around $30,000 to rent a plane and began their journey from Manaus to Brasilia. However, before the plane could land in Brasilia it was instructed by the government to land in Porto Velho, RO, a territory known for being very prejudice against the native population. They were not permitted to continue into Brasilia and the sick died in Porto Velho. They never received the media coverage or help they desired. Most of Brazil is unaware of both this incident and Hepatitis D. It is very sad!
I was both touched and outraged by each presentation. After each group had completed their presentation, we were given a gift. I received a beautiful necklace and earrings. We were then offered some of their traditional food and drink (acai berry juice) and given the opportunity to personally speak with the students. I spoke with Jasmine, their English teacher, she told me she was also teaching creative writing classes at a local middle school. I asked her if she would be interested in participating in our project and she was very excited.
Monday, June 28, 2010
After a long drive, a presentation and dinner I found myself in a quaint little hut. It contained no television or internet service and large leaf-cutter ants (An abundant little insect that cuts pieces of leaves to grow bacteria. The bacteria becomes the leaf-cutter ants' dinner.) decorated the walls. Cavalcante is a small town located in one of Brazil’s national parks. Fireworks and music added to the rustic yet enchanting ambiance as every resident of the town was celebrating the entire night. Apparently town citizens throughout northern Brazil celebrate St. John’s birthday with parties and celebrations for an entire week each year. I have to admit it was very neat. People danced in the streets, sang, ate and drank with one another for an entire week. We happened to arrive on St. John’s birthday. Already in disbelief of the warm welcoming we had received from the mayor the night before, the allegiance to St. John and camaraderie shared between the people confirmed their kindness.
Upon waking and entering the same dining area we were received and had dinner in the night before, the true beauty of this small town emerged. Beautiful greenery and mountains decorated the scenery. It was absolutely incredible! The dining area was open to allow the natural beauty of our surroundings embellish the circular tile inlay in the floor, the little native crafts that decorated hotel entrance, and the hammocks that hung from the rafters. Small sidewalks dotted with pink flowers led to the huts we had slept in the night before.
After breakfast, which I have found is always served with the most incredible juices I have ever tasted (you were right Danielle), we were hustled into 4 four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with drivers. We were beginning a long drive in search of Vao de Almas, a quilombola community. Quilombolas were created by runaway slaves with the goal of not being found. They developed communities in extremely secluded and hard to reach areas and lived their lives according to traditional African culture. They remained completely cut off from society until very recently. The road to this quilombola community was only completed in January. It took 11 years to rough in this dirt path the natives called a road. Still, very few people are permitted to enter these communities. A 5 hour drive on a dirt path, across small creeks and up large inclines (1 four-wheel drive vehicle didn’t make and the 4 four-wheel drive vehicles were condensed to 3) led us to a river once called the river of souls, but renamed the White River by the inhabitants of the quilombola community. Small boats awaited our arrival to carry us across. Small children played in the river and women filled clay pots with water.
Now, I have always avowed to live in the moment so the moment I saw one of the male members of our group wade across I could not help myself and jumped in. Who needs a boat? 3 other members of our group followed. As I stepped onto a dusty path from the water, I noticed 2 boys exiting the river with a bar of soap. The reality of just how secluded this community was struck me deeply at that moment. We walked up the dirt path and entered the community. Small huts with grass roofs were scattered around. Colorful pieces of clothing were hung about drying in the sun and a battery powered radio could be heard in the distance. A male elder welcomed us with hugs and began shooting very loud, explosive bursts from a wooden tube. We were told that this was a communication device used to announce our arrival. (Did I say in an earlier post that my experience was surreal? Well, this was beyond surreal!) We were then escorted to a covered shelter in the center of the town. Men, women and children stood in their doorways or gathered around to look at us as we walked through their community. They were obviously very curious about who we were and why we had come to visit.
We sat on four benches that were arranged in a square pattern and were joined by the community’s teachers on the benches. Many children and people of the community gathered behind us on each of the outer 3 planes. The mayor, secretary of education, (who had both accompanied us on the trip), Mariana, and a few highly regarded members of the tribe stood at the front of the square. We were introduced in Portuguese, of course, and were welcomed. After each person spoke and welcomed us, we (teachers from both groups) were invited to ask questions and share with one another. A woman teacher from the community promptly raised her hand. Her translated words were very disturbing. She had said that people have come to their community in the past to look and take photos and then leave, but little was done to help. She explained that teaching in the community was very difficult and that many of her students had exceeded her knowledge level. She said the education was very poor and many people in the village were illiterate. She said it was difficult to get school supplies and materials and asked for our help.
It was obvious that the teachers and the community members understood the importance of education, but did not know how to move forward and now they were looking to us, the American teachers, to help them. We sat, stunned, as her words were translated. Honestly, I hoped someone in the group knew how to address her comments because I was completely overcome and had no words to express my thoughts. Tim, a superintendent from Wisconsin, graciously thanked the community for allowing us to visit and explained that we wanted to learn from them. He said that until we had a thorough understanding of their culture, way of life and education system it would be difficult to make adequate suggestions. Tim was absolutely right in his assessment. How could we advise them to teach in a community that was completely foreign to us? We were invited to eat their food with them and swim with them in their river. Another question about quotas was asked. The community was aware that quotas for the indigenous and black populations had been overturned during the past week. Dixie, a World History teacher from Missouri, poignantly answered that the US has historically and currently faces many of the same debates. She explained that a very famous African American named Dr. Martin Luther King shared his dream that one day his children would set next to and learn along-side white children in school. That they would one day share the privileges of equality. At this point I was completely overcome with emotion and tears began to stream from my eyes. I wanted desperately to stay and help these people, but didn’t know how. They were looking to us for answers we didn’t have. I casually brushed the tears from eyes in the hopes that no had seen my outward display of emotion and soon realized a group of children gathering behind me.
When our conversation with the teachers ended we were able to interact, the best we could, with the community members and were treated to native music and dance. I brought pencils with colored erasers and began handing them out to the children who had gathered behind me (I later found out that they were amused by my hair and were reaching out to touch it, but were shooed away by a few of the adults in the community). The children gathered around me holding out their hands. They acted as if the yellow pencils were made of gold. I tried to teach them colors in English by holding up a colored eraser, saying the name of the color aloud, and finding the matching color on one the children’s shirts. They laughed each time I held up an eraser and said, pink, pink! They quickly began looking at each other’s clothing to find the same color eraser I had selected from plastic bag holding various colors of pencil erasers, in the hopes that they would win the eraser! Soon all the pencils and erasers had been distributed and I reached for my camera. They displayed an immediate curiosity. I explained with motions how to use the camera. I took photos of the children and let them see their pictures. They were astonished! After repeating this a few times, I let the children take photos of me and one another. It was amazing to see their expressions as they looked at the images the camera had produced.
We were soon told that it was time to leave the community. I felt an immediate emptiness and a longing to stay. We came, took pictures, offered no solutions, and left just as others had done before. As we reached the river and awaited the boats to cross I jumped in and swam with a woman living in the community who could speak English rather well. Other members of our group followed. The river was clear and I could see my feet on the rocks, at the bottom, from where I stood. A strong current pulled me downstream, but I immediately felt happy and refreshed.
We again loaded into the four-wheel drive vehicles and began our journey back to Cavalcante. It only took around 3 hours to return. When we arrived at the inn we had stayed the night before, we quickly showered, ate a meal that had been prepared for us and boarded the bus for another 4 hour drive back to Brasilia. A 16 hour round-trip drive solely for the purpose of seeing this quilombola community was worth every moment! It completely changed me in ways I can’t put into words. I am grateful for this experience and hope I will find a way to use the gift of knowledge they gave me.
(I was told that the people in this quilombola wanted us to help raise money to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle that could carry its teachers outside the community to receive professional development. If anyone is interested in helping I would like to begin a project that would aid in this effort.)
The morning began with a visit to the Social Environmental Institute (Instituto SocioAmbiental ISA), an NGO created in 1992 to defend the rights of Brazil’s indigenous population. I have blogged quite extensively about the black and white relationships in Brazil, but have not yet discussed the third main group in Brazil. The indigenous population in Brazil has been discriminated and taken advantage of throughout Brazil’s history. The indigenous people of Brazil were, like Afro-Brazilians, give equal protection rights Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. 99% of the indigenous population live in the Amazon. There are around 255 indigenous groups in Brazil who speak 180 different (native) languages. This NGO works with these indigenous groups, they advocate for their social and environmental rights. The spokesperson for ISA explained that the land the indigenous live on is protected and reserved for this population, however the government actually owns this native land. The indigenous people cannot sell the land. This is mainly because of environmental legislation that protects the ecosystems that have developed in the Amazon. I still find it quite amazing that this land that the native Brazilians have lived on for thousands of years is owned by the government.
Some of the schools indigenous students attend schools so remote that it takes 2-3 days, by boat, to travel to them. These schools have autonomous management and student learning occurs through projects. It incorporates specific learning needs and curriculum. Teachers teach in a very interdisciplinary manner. ISA explained that many challenges exist with providing education to this group of people. They explained that a major gap exists between legislation and practice. That seems to be quite common in Brazil! This is something I have heard from many people. Another issue is language. It is very difficult to find teachers who are certified to teach in the language spoken by specific tribes. Most of these schools do not offer special education which means students diagnosed with disabilities who want specialized schooling must travel very far to these schools. I was told that students with disabilities were seen as equals in the tribe and there was no segregation.
After leaving ISA we visited a public school in Brasilia. Our visit to Centro de Ensino Medio Setor Leste, a high school, was interesting to say the least. Initially I was absolutely amazed. The school was beautiful. It had 2 large swimming pools, an exercise room, gymnastics, a garden, and judo (yes judo!). It was a public school that I later learned was most likely the best in Brazil. We were welcomed with open arms. The administration was warm and eager to show us the school. They explained that many students were absent because the bus drivers went on strike. I cannot imagine that scenario! There were more students present, but the school normally houses 900 students. We were told that students at this school received the highest scores and that many students performed very well on the Vestibular (college entrance exam) were accepted to public universities. I felt a bit of hope. This school appeared wonderful! … appeared being the operative word. After being served food and drink, we were given the opportunity to speak with the teachers. I spoke with one who spoke English very well. She lived in US while her father received his doctorate degree. She explained that most of the students that attended this school would not go to college. She said that maybe 30 out of 900 would attend a public university. The others would work or received welfare. It seems that Brazil likes to mask many of the problems they encounter!
I did visit a special education classroom. It was very small. I found it a little odd that upon entering the room a hodgepodge of manipulatives for the visually impaired were set out on a table in the middle of the room. The special education instructor explained each item (a test in Braille, a periodic table in Braille, plastic triangles, etc.). I wondered if this was where they served students diagnosed with visual impairments. I stayed, after the group continued with the tour,to get the scoop. After all, I am finding it takes a little digging to get the complete picture. I found out that this was the only special education classroom in the entire school (a huge room for judo and gymnastic equipment, but one tiny room for special education?). They serve all students diagnosed with disabilities in this classroom. Like the public school in Sao Paulo, they relied on the pull-out method to reinforce instruction in the regular education classroom. It seemed strange that there was such a focus on the visually impaired. I wondered how many visually impaired students they served. I have a feeling there was not an excessive population of blind students in Brasilia. Unfortunately, because of lack of time and language barriers, I was hurried on to the next stop on the tour.
The good news is that I made a connection with the English teacher and gave out my second webcam (She is very excited to work with us!) and being from the same state as Miley Cyrus is pretty cool according to Brazilian teenagers!
After the school visit we departed Brasilia. After a four hour bus ride we arrived in Cavalcante in the state of Goias. Tired, we arrived around 10:00 PM. As we stepped off the bus we were greeted by the mayor, the secretary of education and many other local figures. I was absolutely amazed that these people came together to greet us. After a short presentation and introductions, we were served dinner and shown to our rooms/huts.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Brasilia (Day 1) – Wednesday, June 23, 2010
We arrived in Brasilia last night after a 2 hour flight from the Sao Paulo airport. Today was very exciting! At times I wondered whose reality I was actually living in! I will get back to that in a moment. I feel like I have to explain some of the more technical aspects of Brazil’s government.
Brasilia is Brazil’s state capitol. Just as Sao Paulo can be compared to New York City, Brasilia is Brazil’s Washington, D.C. Like D.C. it is a separate district. It is a new, approximately 50 years old, and planned city. If you look at the city from afar it is shaped like a bird or airplane. The city is divided into areas, each having apartments/homes, a school, a church, a shopping center, etc. It organized into mini communities within the city. We took a tour of the city this morning and I found it quite extraordinary! The buildings which seem very contemporary where designed by an architect named Oscar Neidermyer, a very famous architect who has designed many buildings around the world (he is currently in his 90s). The apartment buildings (which are very expensive) are open on the ground floor to permit walking and the government buildings are quite unique as well.
After a city tour that included some very beautiful Catholic churches (Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world), we visited the Chamber of Deputies (Camara dos Deputados) which is the equivalent to our house of representatives, as well as the Senate. Each state in Brazil has 3 representatives who serve in the Senate. There are currently 81 seats in the Senate with a possibility of 3 more when a new state is formed and 531 representatives who serve in the Chamber of Deputies. I learned that a majority of both the senate and the house were women (go women!).
It was very neat to be in the capitol at a time when so many changes are occurring! Brazil’s current president, President Lula is completing his second term in office and an upcoming election is on the horizon. President Lula has a very intriguing background. I hate to keep making comparisons to the U.S., but I feel it helps put things in perspective. With that being said, Lula is a bit like Obama in the sense that he came from very humble means, a minority population, and worked his way up through the ranks. Lula is actually indigenous and only has a seventh grade education. While Lula must leave office after his second term of 4 years, he may set out a term and run for office again. Another difference is that Brazil has a multi-party system instead of only 2 like in the U.S.
Okay back to my surreal experience… Upon entering the Senate, our presence was announced. Although in Portuguese, I still felt a bit capricious! Because our group is travelling on a Fulbright, we are representing the U.S. government and I suppose it gave us a little more prestige. I will take it when I can get it, knowing I will go home to my insignificant little life in Tennessee… housework and runny noses. Pretty neat, but it gets better! We were then invited onto the floor of the Senate where we were introduced. Camera flashes came at us in all directions and the “Brazilian CNN” captured our presence as well. We listened as the topic of petroleum funds was discussed. Many want to use the proceeds to fund education. Obama and the situation in the gulf were also discussed. At this point I was wondering if the experience was real. I mean I couldn’t have dreamt this one up.
We left just in time to see the arrival of the president of Angola. We then met with Congresswoman Raquel Teixeira, a very Nancy Pelosi – esc type of woman. She was extremely intelligent and had been in education most of her life. She has a doctorate and was a college professor before entering politics. She spoke about very aspects of education in Brazil and I felt a real sense of honesty. She seemed very genuine and realistic about education in Brazil. This was very refreshing. It seems that many officials and politicians mask many of the problems in Brazil’s education system or only offer bits and pieces of the system’s educational reality.
Education Goals of 2022
1. Every child from the ages of 4-17 will be attending school (currently 88% -90%).
2. Every child will read and write by 8 yrs. old. (Brazil is having difficulties developing an assessment system to measure this.)
3. Every child will learn what is appropriate at the appropriate age.
4. Every child will complete middle school by 16 yrs. old.
5. Every child will finish high school by 19 yrs. old.
We then had dinner with some US embassy officials who, to be quite honest, I didn’t even see. They were seated at the other end of the table. All in all, a pretty amazing day in Brasilia!