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.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cavalcante & Vao de Almas (Friday, June 25)

Meeting with the teachers of Vao de Almas (a Quilombola)

Children in Vao de Almas (a Quilombola community)

Vao de Almas (a Quilombola community outside Cavalcante)

Crossing the River to get to Vao de Almas

Scenery during 5 hour trip from Cavalcante to Vao de Almas (the Quilombola community)

Inn in Cavalcante

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.)


Sherry said...

WOW!!! The confusion and misunderstanding you must have felt when the teacher spoke. The group is blessed to have a person with the ability to stand up and say we are here to learn from you to improve our teaching abilities. It's honest and not yet selfish. How difficult that must have been for him. Just reading your blog, I feel so privelaged to not only live in the United States, but also the opportunity to teach here. One can understand that the teacher wants to help her students and community and does not have the resources. As for me, I will not complain the next time a student doesn't have a pencil...

Teresa said...

Jamie, This sounds like a wonderful service project to add to your list for the professional development you are doing. I was moved to tears as well. My thoughts were already triggered toward what could students in America, especially Sumner County, do to help these teachers and students? I am happy you walked away with at least one way we could do something. It sounds like the teacher in you never rests. I enjoyed your story of teaching the colors in English using the pencils and erasers. Where there is a will, there is a way!