Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Thing I Carried

(with apologies to Tim O'Brien)

This morning, the first object I saw when I woke up was a large crystal ball on my bedside table.  In that strange place between sleep and wakefulness, between staying in my bed and rising to meet the insistent demands of cats that wanted to be fed and dogs that needed to be walked, I focused my eyes on the little bubbles that float eternally inside it like miniature planets in a tiny solar system.  What I saw was more than an object.  Memories are captured in that sphere.

Of course, the first and greatest of the memories is of where I got it.  Rita's public school, David Campista, was one of the best parts of the "homestay" to me.  The head principal started taking care of us even before we arrived, helping Rita get us to and from the airport in Campinas, three hours away from Pocos.  Rita also told us that Leone had assisted her in planning our trip itinerary.

Our day at David Campista included all sorts of student presentations where we got to see all the wonderful talents the students there had.  We saw elementary school kids dancing to pop music, high school students presenting information about their hometown and their nation, and even a rap group that is in competition for a recording contract.  There were guitarists and singers, dancers of every conceivable style.  Even the walls of the school itself presented, banner projects made by one of the English classes describing the scenic and historic places in Pocos in English hung everywhere.

Both before and after the evening presentation, we found ourselves in a roundtable discussion about education with the teachers from the night shift.  They were curious about so many things, our class size, our salary, what our supervisory system and system of evaluation were like.  They wanted to know as much about us as American educators as we had come to Brazil wanting to know about them.  We talked and talked until long after the hours for the regular school session had ended.

At the very end of it, they brought out two beautifully-wrapped packages.  We opened them, and as the picture will show you, a beautiful crystal globe awaited each of us.  Pocos is known for its cristalarias, its makers of fine crystal and murano glass.  We'd seen someone making tiny crystal animals at a crafts pavilion at a waterfall we'd visited; we'd been to one of the large showrooms downtown for one of the companies.  I personally had been wanting to buy a beautiful paperweight, had been wanting one for a long, long time.  I never expected to own anything as lovely as this one, though.  The size of a small melon, it sat in my cupped palms once I got it out of its protective wrappings, for all the worlds like a sphere full of rushing river water that had somehow become solid.  I knew that every time I saw it, I would think of my trip to Brazil and all the kindness I had received, of all I had learned and experienced.

Getting anything that large and fragile home becomes a challenge.  It rode in a special tote bag carry-on during the two plane rides I would take to get back to the United States, snugged in its bubble wrap and nestled next to my other great fragile treasure, my Nikon.  It was one of the first things I unpacked when I finally got everything in the house.  It will probably go to school with me when the new year begins.  Meanwhile, it sits softly gleaming where it is one of the last things I see when I go to bed and one of the first when I start my day.

All the Blogs

Others have done much more with their blogs than I.  Here is a great page that includes a description of the program and links to most of the TGC blogs.  Rather than trying to copy such excellence myself, I am simply going to connect to it.  Go check out what happened with everybody else in all their journeys to all six countries.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Just Dance

This is my very poor attempt to cut together some things to show the student dance presentations from one of the schools we went to in Pocos.  Please forgive my editing and enjoy their skills.

Photo Links

All my photos are housed on Picasa. It occurs to me that I shared the links with my Facebook friends, but I haven't posted them here. Here are all my photo sets from Brazil.

 Brasilia -- This album has miscellaneous scenic pictures from Brasilia

Public and Private in Brasilia - This link will take you to photos I shot in Elefante Branco and Marista

Pocos de Caldas - Non-school photos from the "homestay" portion of the trip

Sao Paulo - Photos taken on a the field trip we went on the first Saturday in Pocos.

Schools in Pocos de Caldas - Photos taken in the various public schools we visited.

Presentation to Pocos English Teachers - Shots taken during a professional development session for English teachers

Coffee and Wine, Minas Gerais  - A journey into the hills outside Pocos

Brazil by iPhone - random shots from everywhere, many modified with Instagram or Pixlromatic

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Greek Eye

Almost everywhere I looked in Brazil, I saw this little blue charm.  I first noticed it in the Hippie Market in Brasilia on my first day. There was a delicate bracelet in a shop with items made from Brazilian stones.  I liked the look of it, and when I had a chance, I asked someone about it.

They told me it was called the "Greek eye."  It was a variation on a charm I have seen elsewhere (including the picture here), something to prevent the evil eye from getting you.  Here's a pretty good description of the belief as it is found elsewhere.  It seems to work much the same wherever it is found.

I am intrigued by the concept of good luck charms, medallions, and amulets from everywhere.  I have a collection of o-mamori that I used to buy from Japanese temples and shrines whenever I visited one, a collection of maneki neko from various makers and materials, a St. Brigid's cross from Ireland, a horseshoe from Kentucky Derby land, and other items tucked into various corners.  I suppose it was a natural thing, then, that the brilliantly blue glass Greek eye should catch my attention.
I already had a pendant at home made by one of my best friend's friend's husband.  (If you can follow all of that....) It is more like a real iris and pupil than these stylized traditional ones.  I really liked it, so that was another reason I wanted to get something with this on it.  

When we were in Pocos de Caldas, we went into a crystal shop, and they had murano glass Greek eyes as charms and made into bracelets.  I bought both, got some to bring home as gifts.  The light catching the cobalt glass was lovely.  

Much to my surprise and delight, the second time I went to the Havaianas store, they had two pair that had a pattern based on the evil eye.  I got the dark pair and had them put extra little eye charms on the straps.  I ought to be about as "protected" as any one person can be.

It fascinates me that this motif turns up in so many cultures around the world.  I wonder how it spread as far as it did, why it is found in so many different cultures and on so many continents.  I might have to do some digging to satisfy this curiosity.  In the meantime, all the things I got make good additions to my collection of charms and good souvenirs, too.  Aaaand...if they should happen to keep me free of bad luck, too, well... tudo bem, right?

Continuing Fascination

Even though I am home now, I am far from putting this trip on a shelf like an interesting artifact, something shiny to look at but with no real meaning or power.  Instead, I find that even though the actual travel has already occurred, the changes from it will continue to ripple through me for a long time to come.

There's the simple act of looking at and sorting through the vast amount of information we gained while we were there about everything education in Brazil.  We were privileged to see it from so many different angles that putting together something that feels cohesive and inclusive is a mammoth task.  We saw education through the eyes of high government officials, local superintendents, classroom teachers at both public and private schools, pre-service teachers in training at one of the best schools in Brazil, students everywhere, and instructors at specialized  places like language schools.  That is a huge box of stories to consider as one sifts through for the best description of the system as a whole.

There is also a desire to fill in all the huge gaps in my knowledge about Brazil.  A book I had bought before I left, The Brazil Reader, is helping to do that in an interesting way, made up as it is of source documents, first hand accounts and unusual perspectives on the history and culture of Brazil.  I wish I had taken the time from somewhere to read it before I went.  I think I would have understood several things better.  Of course, as I've been reading, I have frequently thought, "Okay, I get that bit because I saw (that place or that thing)."  Without being there first, it might not have had as much significance to me.

It's not just non-fiction, though.  I finished Dona Flor and have Gabriela waiting to go as I continue to enjoy Jorge Amado tremendously.  A book suggested by our Brasilia guide, Roberto, called simply Brazil, has a sample chapter on my Kindle to see if it suits my current obsession or not.

I'm also seeking as much music as I can get my hands on.  Pandora, my old standby, has been of some help with this, but I know I'm probably not getting the latest hits.  Instead, I'm trying to get a feel for standards and famous musicians (more than my friend D. already shared).  Certain names turn up over and over again everywhere, so I think that's a good place to start, especially when I start to read the biographies.

And then there's Portuguese itself.  More than before, even, I want to learn it.  I just have to figure out how and with what tools.  When I first got home, even though I had only been out for 14 days, it was still strange to hear English surrounding me.  Usually, I have to be gone a lot longer than that to have that reaction.  There was something about the Portuguese that was familiar, maybe the Spanish similarities.  I don't know.

Trivially, I have even found Guarana on  On payday (tomorrow, really), I will order some of it to go along with the Ito En green tea I get from them as a "taste treat" from my days in Japan.  It amuses me to no end that I can get the beautiful green and red cans delivered right to my house.  I know people will think I'm nuts for that, but...well...if it makes me happy and it doesn't hurt anybody...right?

It's all sticking with me, then, more even than I had anticipated.  It's a good thing, I think.  I already find myself saying in my head, "Next time, I want to...."  I have to stop and wonder if I will truly get back.  Somehow I think that I will.  I can't imagine it any other way.


In many of the schools we visited in Pocos, we were treated to presentations by the students.  The students had apparently been preparing for our arrival for quite some time, and one day at Integral, a private school, we had a third year class of students do PowerPoints, sing, and present.  One of the younger classes had dancers, girls who are taking classes and choreographing their own routines.  We watched some of middle school students learning dances for their Festa Junina.   Because of the rules of the school, I don't have any pictures from there.  They asked us not to shoot pictures, and we were respectful of that.

Later in the week, we went to David Compista, Rita's public school, and her classes gave us a day of presentations including songs, dances including the traditional forms and freestyle, information about Pocos and Brazil through PowerPoint, and in the night session, rap.  It was wonderful to see all the talents the students had to share with us.  Ali and I each filmed and took pictures as much as possible, and I'm still working on getting all the video off my Bloggie and processed.

I want to be able to show my students how much they have in common with the students I met in Brazil.  I think they will particularly love the rap and freestyle dancing although they will undoubtedly find all of it interesting.  To me, it just goes to reinforce the idea that there are beautiful similarities that exist as a baseline for communication between those students and my own.  Too often, I think my kids think of everybody else, and not necessarily just those in another nation or speakers of another language, as people they have no possible connection with.  When they see people playing the guitar with passion or rapping or dancing or whatever it is that they themselves enjoy doing, I hope they are going to have that precious "A-ha!" moment where they begin to see commonality and points of connection instead of barriers.

As soon as I conquer a few cross-account problems, I will get the videos up here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Language Center Conversations

For our last visit in Pocos, we went to a language center night session.  There were perhaps 11 students and three teachers in a small room.  I did my Mississippi presentation, and then we started a question-and-answer session with the students.

The questions they asked us and that we asked of them led to some very thought-provoking discussions.  One of the students had lived in the US until very recently.  Two of the teachers had been educated at least partially in the US.  When we talked about the differences between US and Brazilian schools, they were outspoken in their opinions and desires.  Two of them expressed a desire to go back.  Several of the other students expressed a desire to go to the US as well.

They expressed how much they missed certain things the US system has that are not in the Brazilian system such as extracurricular activities, and almost every student commented on the differences in education at public and private schools in Brazil.  They were frustrated and vocal.  We sat and listened, asked questions, pondered.

I came away from the discussion with an expanded understanding of student life in Brazil.  They emphasized what we'd been hearing again and again since we arrived, wrapped it almost like a vignette of the whole trip in that one room.  I will continue to turn these students' and teachers' comments over in my mind as I think about everything I have seen here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reduce, Recycle, Reuse

Everywhere I have been here in Brazil, I've been struck with how careful they are with their resources.  Even in the smallest schools, there are recycling bins.  It's everywhere.  From the earliest age, children are taught to separate trash so it becomes a natural part of life.  Reuse is something one just *does*.

And shouldn't it be?  Why is it so hard in so many places to get access to even basic recycling services back home?  Should money be an issue when we think about the consequences?  It's so refreshing here to see a different approach and to see everyone at every age involved.

Even in the classroom, teachers promote reuse in several ways.  They recycle materials like old magazines and household goods for student craft projects.  The results are lovely.  That, of course, shouldn't come as a surprise.  Give a kid something colorful, stand back, and watch them produce fantastic results, right?  I also saw them recycle old 2L soda bottles to make tiny trash bins in primary school rooms that could sit right in the middle of the clustered desks for the inevitable curls that develop when colored pencils need to be sharpened, the odd tissue, etc.  They also adapted these old bottles to make a tissue holder for a roll of toilet tissue making a never-ending kleenex dispenser that I am going to try when I get home for my own classroom.

It doesn't stop there.  In the Hippy Market of Brasilia, we saw gorgeous stuff such as purses made from pop tabs and bright thread which were very eye-catching and fashionable, patio sets made from old eighteen-wheeler tires that, if I could just figure out how to get home, I would HAVE, and laser-cut vinyl albums recycled into interesting wall art.  This is the short list, too....

It's refreshing to see "ecofriendliness" as something cultural, not as an afterthought.  Too often where I am, although I know it is different in different parts of our large nation, I think it goes by the wayside.  There is a lot to learn here from the strategies and simple applications I have seen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mountain Music and Monkeys

(or...yesterday continued)

After we left the vineyard, we bumped along for quite awhile and finally emerged in a tiny town that consisted of many houses, a church, the school, and not a whole lot else.  Everything was clean and tidy, and the school was a lovely shade of lime green.  It was clearly a place that, although it might not have a whole lot, cared for what it did possess.

From the minute we entered the doors of the school in Campestrinho, we were surrounded with people who wanted to speak to us, see us, experience us.  It was amazing.  We went to almost every classroom, looked in, said hi just as we have been doing, but here we saw lower elementary school children.  They were so full of curiosity about us.  They crowded into the doors of the classrooms we weren't watching to see if we were coming to them next.  In every class, there was one brave soul who would try to say something in English.  They were precious.

Quite unexpectedly, we were also treated to an entire performance of a guitar orchestra.  They sang traditional Brazilian folk music and played.  It was wonderful.  They were very talented.  Everywhere we've been, music has greeted us.  It is such a lovely thing to have as a welcome, and it is also great to see students so deeply tied to the arts.

We stayed for awhile, and then we went back to Andradas to visit a large rural/urban school there.  It reminded me so much of my high school for some reason.  Maybe it was the way the kids behaved.  Maybe it was some of the problems they were having.  For whatever reason, it felt homelike to me.

When we finally got back to town, we took a tour to the Fountain of the Lovers.  It  is a famous landmark here in Poços de Caldas, but we were hoping to see the monkeys that live there as much as the lush scenery.    When we arrived, all but one of the monkeys were gone.  The lone little creature sat in his tree and sang to us.  We talked to him, and he deigned to swing down and pose for some pictures (quite literally, pose).  We bought a couple of bananas, and he became much more active.  We learned we could feed him by hand.  He would delicately walk forward and pluck the bits of banana from our outstretched palms, carefully watching us the whole time for signs of trechery.  He was amazing.

Eventually, after two bananas, he decided to share the wealth, and he called for one of his friends or family.  Another came, we bought some more bananas, and we kept on feeding them.  It was a truly fantastic afternoon, like something out of a tourist guide book.  After the monkeys decided they were through with us, we hiked up to see the fountain, and it was lovely.  I will get some pictures processed soon.

We came back down the hill and to our hotel.  It had been a very long and mixed day.  From dirt roads and wine to guitars and metal-roofed schools to monkeys and marble fountains, yesterday had a bit of everything in it.  It was all good.

Books and Wine

Yesterday, we got up early and went downtown to the Poços de Caldas regional Superintendent's office.  A car and driver were waiting on us to take us far up into the mountains outside the city to see two schools that are also part of this district.

As we were waiting for everyone to be ready, Rita showed us around the office.  We met all the personnel and saw all the parts of the office.  One room was a large room full of the textbooks for the schools in the region.  The lady in charge saw us looking them over with interest, and she asked us if we would like to have a copy of one.  I immediately said yes.  I have been wanting to get my hands on a text here since I arrived. I am something of a book junkie, and even though my Portuguese reading skills are spotty since I'm running everything I see through a Spanish filter, I can follow a larger percentage of it than you might think.  I also loved having the chance to compare and contrast what a "senior" textbook looks like here and at home for the L1.  It was too good a chance to miss.

She took one out for me and gave Ali a copy of a primary school book, and we thanked her.  While we were waiting, one of the gentlemen from the front also gave us a little book about Poços de Caldas, its history and geography.  Two books in one day from one place, how grand!  

When all was ready, we, along with the supervisor for the schools here and our driver, all folded ourselves into the tiny compact car and headed out.  The paved road wound up the hills and got rougher.  It led to dirt roads, and I almost started laughing.  It looked, for all the world, like Mississippi red dirt roads.  Well, maybe theirs were in better shape.  That illusion would fade, however, if you looked to either side at the jaw-dropping scenery.  We were high up in coffee plantation and banana plantation country.  In fact, they were everywhere around us.  The area was rural, farm country.  We passed pastures of cows, houses that clearly contained working equipment for agriculture.  Again, I had a flash of Mississippi somehow superimposed over this place so far away.  How is it that there can be that feeling in a place so different?  Maybe it is true what my friend Takashi told me when I commented on a similarity about something in Japan: "It is all the Earth.  Of course it is the same."

Along the way, we made a side stop outside the city of Andradas at a vineyard called Casa Geraldo.  We took the tour and did a tasting.  It was a lovely place, and the wines were excellent.  We all bought some, and we each were given a bottle of the beautiful liqueur they make.  I cannot wait to have it at home. It will be a good memory of that trip.

After the wine, we loaded back up in the car for the rest of our journey to the school (which will be discussed in a later blog), and I reflected on how kind everyone is to us here.  In the space of a few short hours, we'd been given books, wine.  It was humbling, heart-warming.  While the wine will be drunk and the book may become tattered around the edges, I know my feeling of gratitude for the kindness I have received here will never fade.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

500 from Jorge Amado and Me

Yesterday we got up very early, ventured out into the cold darkness of the Brazilian morning, and loaded up on a tour bus to ride the 4 hours into Sao Paulo.  We were going to visit two museums with a field trip group of students from Rita's public school.  Both buses loaded up, I put in my headphones and started Bob Dylan and promptly fell asleep.

We stopped at a gas station for breakfast.  That may not sound very nice to some people, but gas stations here are fairly fancy, almost always with a restaurant attached.  I had woken up sufficiently at this point to have an empada, a food I think I love, with palmito (heart of palm), a food I know I love, in it.  We clambered back on the bus and more sleeping on my part ensued.

When I woke up again, we were on the fringes of Sao Paulo.  I had been waiting to see this city because I have a good friend from it, and I had been wondering for a long, long time what it looked like.  This whole trip, I've felt like I am putting together pieces of people dear to me as I see things they have told me about and the country they are from.  It is a feeling that is important and precious.

Sao Paulo sprawls and towers at the same time.  We wove our way through the streets to the old part of the city and got off the bus at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.  All the museums have free admission on the weekends, so it was a busy place. We had to wait awhile for our guide since we were a large school group.  As we waited, we observed a massive Gospel concert that was wedged between the Pinacoteca and the Museu da Língua Portuguesa.  It was incredibly loud, and there were massive numbers of people attending.

When we finally entered, there were fantastic works of art everywhere.  I did my best to photograph some of them.  We couldn't understand all the explanations of our guide, but there were some helpful explanations on cards along the way, so we enjoyed what we saw.  I was particularly pleased to see a rendition of my favorite fictional character hiding along the way, and I snapped him with my iPhone.

After leaving the Pinacoteca, we moved to the Museu da Língua Portuguesa.  I didn't know what to expect, and I was worried that since my command of the the Portuguese language is virtually nil, I would have a hard time understanding anything.  It turned out to be the best part of my day, though.  My first indication that it was going to be good was when I turned over my ticket and saw the Jorge Amado exhibition advertised on the back.

We looked at the first floor with its history of the development of Portuguese in Brazil, watched a huge and wonderful ribbon video of the different words and cultural influences, and then we went upstairs to see the Jorge Amado Centennial exhibition.  It was fantastic.

One of my Brazilian friends recommended that I read things by him before I came, and I started Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands during the school year.  I still haven't finished it yet because of no time to read while I'm teaching, but it is wonderful.  Amado, despite the linguistic, temporal, and cultural differences, somehow reminds me of Chaucer.  He has a sharp wit but is never cruel.  He has a great eye for detail and gives a thorough feel for character and place.  He does what Chaucer does as far as giving you the picture and letting you decide for yourself what the person is like.  He also isn't afraid'll say it that way.   It's great stuff if you haven't read him.

There were art pieces using the characters, items from the book and from Bahia in general, and an entire wall of cacao and dende oil  (I don't have all the right accent marks over these things....I am sorry...).  Since they talk about the dende oil so much in Dona Flor, it was so amazing to see it.  They had personal items from Amado including clothing and personal papers, and a wonderful wall full of book covers about him, but my favorite thing was an art installation with the names of all 500 of his characters printed on the traditional ribbons people get from a church in Bahia.  I took my picture in front of them, something I rarely do, and it's now my new Facebook picture.

We walked to another part of the Pinacoteca Museum, the Station Pinacoteca (not even remotely trying for the Portuguese), which had been used as a jail for political prisoners during the dictatorship.  Being in the cells where people where held after being "informed" on was very powerful.  Again, there was a language barrier, but human torment and pain translates with very little difficulty tragically.  Pictures will be up as soon as I can have a little time to edit and upload.

Our day ended with another drive and time spent at the largest retail space in the Southern Hemisphere.  Since I am not much of a "shopper," I went to the two bookstores, we all ate, and that was about all.  The high school kids, of course, were in a kind of heaven.  I guess some things are truly universal.  Well, to each his own.


(writtten Friday and posted today)

Yesterday was a wild mix of walking aimlessly around Brazilia killing time before the flight and then intensive moment once we got on the plane to Poҫos de Caldas. It went from a full stop to full-on go.

When the four of us who traveled together on the plane to Campinas arrived, we met our respective ILEP alumni teachers at the gate. Rita, ours, is fantastic. She had a cab waiting courtesy of one of her school principals, and in we hopped for the three hour trip to Poҫos. Ali, the other teacher here with me, and I were definitely weary, but we talked on the way to our new home for the week, asking questions and answering them companionably.

When we got to Poҫos, Rita took us to her house to show us around briefly and to collect her son and husband so we could go eat. She has a beautiful house and family. We all went out for pizza in a restaurant where our waiter turned out to have aspirations toward stand-up comedy. He told a joke about “wanting sausage” in English that showed he might have promise, and certainly that he had better command of the subtleties of English than he thought.

Exhausted, as soon as I got checked in to the hotel, I unpacked and fell down. Early this morning, we left for Rita’s school. We talked and presented to four of her classes today. They also had prepared presentations for us, dance numbers based on American pop videos, musical performances with guitar and saxophone, a presentation about what to do here in town, and even a new chocolate desert to discover. The students were universally wonderful.

During the last portion of the last class, I had a serious problem I had to try to resolve back home.  When I checked my email courtesy of the friendly free wi-fi, one of those emails you never want to see but most especially when you are a million miles away popped up like some kind of virulent mushroom in my inbox.  Somebody back in the States swiped/cloned my debit card number and my bank froze my account to stop the (you pick a word YOU like...all mine are profane) from cleaning me out completely.  I did what I could with it, ran up an international phone bill that could sink the economy of a small nation, and we headed out to see some of the sights. The city is lovely and old. Many of the buildings are wonderfully worthy of being photographed. I did some of that as we walked, but I want to go out again on another day when I don’t feel so horrid from dealing with bad things.

Late today, we went to each tilapia and provolone. It was wonderful food. I took pictures that you see here because the smiling fish outside the restaurant and the great food just made me happy.  I needed that badly after the day I had. Just now, I am about to close this post and get ready for bed. Tomorrow, we’re going to Sao Paulo, and it will be a long, long day with a very early start.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

M - I - Crooked Letter - Crooked Letter- I....

After lunch today, we came back to the Elefante Brancho campus to the CIEL language school.  Here German, Spanish, French, and English are taught as foreign languages.  We were there to give short presentations about some aspect of American culture to the English classes that were meeting in the evening.

We took our mandatory tour, listened to the welcome presentation, and it was all very good, but the whole time, my mind was on the students.  This whole trip, more and more, my heart has been turning back to EFL and how much I loved doing it, how great it was to be an EFL teacher.  I could not wait to be in the class and meet the students, to see what they were like, to watch them work with their target language.

We were ushered in pairs to our respective classes, and our group of students was fantastic.  They were interactive.  They were not afraid to ask questions.  They laughed at and with us, which was to be expected and was a great relief.  Nothing is worse than a class that doesn't laugh when I'm trying to be amusing.  They were tolerant of technology glitches.  It was great.

Just like teens everywhere, they were intensely curious about life in my country.  I have never met a teenager who wasn't curious.  This is what makes the problems we're having with education everywhere such a mystery to me.  Teens want to know EVERY FREAKING THING.  How can we get them to realize that school is the place to scratch that itch?  How can we change what we are doing in schools to channel that natural need they have to know into a the beneficial need to know everything?

I could have stayed there with them for hours.  I was having that much fun.  Nothing energizes me faster than a responsive class.  They had business to attend to, though, and we needed to get out of the way.  We left, all bright and cheerful, chatty about our visits, happy as a flock of little teaching larks with our brief encounter.  I don't know what they got out of it, but I hope they took something positive other than just hearing a native speaker talk.  I hope in some way, even if it was only learning the childhood song I used for the title of this post about spelling Mississippi, some learning came from it.  It would be unfair if all the good in the encounter was just on my side of the desk.


Yesterday, we spent most of the day at Elefante Brancho, one of the best public schools in the city of Brasilia.  We did classroom observations, talked with faculty and staff, interacted with the students, took a class tour, and even wound up in their auditorium in front of a packed house of teachers and students answering eager questions about everything from teacher salaries to how political our student organizations were.  The students of Elefante Brancho (which does indeed mean White Elephant) were just like my own students back home, bright and intelligent, interested in their friends and popular music, in love with their cell phones.  It felt so familiar despite the linguistic barrier.

The teachers were a little apologetic about their school.  It was built a long time ago, and things here and there might have shown that.  To me, though, coming from a school built in 1938, what I saw instead was how well they have taken what they have and made it attractive and student-centered.  While they have security cameras in the halls for safety, they also have beautiful murals on the walls spray painted by students.  Student art was everywhere:  collage, paintings, drawings glued to doors.  The students could feel real ownership.  It was something that was theirs, not simply a facility they were passing through.  They were also given time to decompress, breaks in which they were not herded from place to place, but rather given time to talk, use their cell phones, be more like adults.  To me, this was reflected in their behavior.

Today, we visited the Marista high school, one of the two best private schools here in Brasilia.  It was astounding.  I have seen colleges with worse campuses.  Everything was bright and clean, airy and well-kept.     It was very obvious that money had been spent on its maintenance.  Nothing was ornate or ostentatious, but the science labs were stocked with computers even we don't have. The teachers were happy, satisfied, had been competitive to get in, in fact.  The students were engaged, active, curious about us.  We talked with their student government leaders, visited with their lead teachers.  Again and again, they spoke to us of the importance of building relationships with their students to ensure they could be academically successful.

Both the public and the private school teachers talked to us about the disparity between the experience teaching and attending a public school versus a private one.  It came up again and again.  Looking back through my pictures, although I can definitely see the differences in the facilities, when I look at the students and think about our experiences with them, all I can see, to be honest, are faces of bright young Brazilians who want to find the best for themselves and their country.  That foundation of similarity is a strong thing to build upon no matter what school created it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Government and Yours

Today was a day of officials.  We started off with a debriefing on education here in Brazil.  Some of it sounded painfully familiar.  Some of it was totally new.  It prompted questions and gave a platform from which we sprang for the rest of the day's adventures.

After lunch, we traveled through the now-hectic Monday traffic to the US Embassy.  We talked to officials there about education.  Again and again we heard how much Brazil is trying to better their education system and how interested the United States is in helping them and in making stronger ties with Brazil in general.  I am glad to hear it, but I had to wonder how many average Americans (whatever that really means) think of Brazil when they think of nations important to the US.  I don't think that we think of Brazil badly, but I don't know if we think if it immediately when we start thinking of vital global partners in the way that the government officials here seem to want us to do.  That means that there needs to be work in the US, not just here, and maybe that's happening.  Maybe I personally am a part of that.  It just made me stop to ponder.  A greater awareness raising is needed, perhaps.

Another thing that came out of the meeting was how very many programs and opportunities for exchange there are on every level with Brazil that few of us knew anything about.  Only one or two of us knew about programs that had been around a long time that would allow Brazilian students to come to the States or for us to send our students to Brazil if they got through the application process.  There are even teachers coming here to do EFL.  This is the kind of knowledge that will allow us to open doors for others to come here and make the kind of connections between the two cultures possible.

The second visit we did was with Brazilian Senator Cristovam Buarque.  I liked him the minute he walked in.  He sat down coming straight from the floor of the Senate where he'd been speaking and asked us who we were.  That sort of non-political straight-forwardness was to mark the entire time we had with him.  He is the person who is helping to shape Brazil's education reform, and he answered every question we put to him.  The things he said seemed to be based in common sense and logic.  He talked of reform taking years, decades even, under careful guidance, instead of it being some kind of jumped-up radical run-around half-done situation that we all-too-often experience at home.  It was refreshing.  He stayed with us longer than he should have and kept some people who were far more important that we were waiting.  He also said he'd love to talk with us again later this week about education in the US.  I hope we will get the chance to have that meeting.  It would be great to hear more from him.

After the meeting with the Senator, we toured the National Congress.  It is another confection of exposed concrete.  We had a tour guide who showed us both the House and Senate chambers.  It was somehow a bit surreal to be standing in the heart of the government of another country.  I haven't even been in the Capitol (the parking lot just doesn't count) of my own.

We fought our way home through traffic that was inching along during the five-o'-clock rush and finally arrived back at the hotel.  Everybody decided that the food court at the nearby mega-mall was the way to go tonight, and so we walked over talking about the day.  I wound up getting a calzone with heart of palm and feeling absurdly proud of myself for being able to use even minimal Portuguese to get it (even though the girl behind the counter handed us a menu in English).  I also was able to decipher the flavors at a gelato place for desert and had some fantastic pistachio.  The crowning glory on my day, though, was found in the shop in the basement.  They had Sonho de Valsa, one of my favorite candies in the universe.  My friend A. got me hooked on them when we lived in Bloomington, and then we ate them in Japan because there was a Brazilian grocery there.  I put a handful of the hazelnut-chocolate bonbons in my basket with a big guarana and some bottled water and dragged my weary self back to my room.

Tomorrow will be another busy day, and I'm taking a little while alone to decompress and think of all I've seen and heard today.  This trip is filled every moment it seems with almost impossible amounts of information.  I think I'm going to be digesting it (Sonho de Valsa and calzone not included) for a long, long time to come.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Day in Review

Once we got our feet under us, we wandered around a bit.  My friend Teri and I went to the Hippie Market and the TV Tower.  The TV Tower is exactly what it says on the tin, a giant aerial that has an observation deck on it from which stunning views of the city are possible.   We took lots of pictures, including shots of the currently-under-construction World Cup soccer stadium which is within stone's throwing distance of where we are just now. With the warm sunny day, the tower was quite the place to be. We looked over this incredibly well-thought-out city we're in for a long time, and then we went down to see what could be had in the Hippie Market that sprawled at the base.

The Hippie Market wasn't at all what I was expecting.  It was a thousand times more organized.  Everything in the world was in it, though.  From gemstone items to rasta wear, somebody was making it or selling it.  There were really big furniture, some awesome recycled things like chairs made from old tractor tires and purses from coke can tabs, and even owls crafted from various cones and seed pods.  (No.  No owls are coming home with me; I couldn't figure out how to get them back safely!)

I wound up buying a ring.  I had left everything but my Claddagh at home, and I have been twisting my empty fingers looking for them.  I decided to get something that would be both souvenir and take care of that issue.  I found a gentleman who had lovely rings of many semiprecious stones, and I found a piece of amethyst large enough to knock somebody out with.  We talked to each other in a mixture of languages and settled a price and he even sized it for my index finger while I waited.  I haven't had that much fun since I was in Costa Rica.

After eating a largish lunch, we all piled on our little green tour bus and headed out on the town to see monuments, churches, an other sites of interest.  The first place we stopped was the Santuario Dom Bosco.  Only once or twice in my whole life have I been somewhere as beautiful.  The whole building was stained glass panels, basically.  It was like stepping into a living cube of blue light.  You always hear about something being "breathtaking," but this place actually was.  I could have sat for hours just watching the way the sun played with it.  It was exquisite from every conceivable angle.  The camera-happy among us just ran around like we were punch-drunk, clicking away trying to get all the glory we were seeing with our eyes preserved.

It didn't stop there.  Everything we saw, while not as knock-you-down magnificent as Santuario Dom Bosco, was elegant of line, satisfying to the vision.  It is modern but not in a way that gets in the way of its loveliness.  This fits in with the tone of the city as a whole.

The city (although not the Santuario) is mostly the work of one architect, apparently, something that completely befuddles me.  The architect of almost everything in Brasilia is Oscar Niemeyer who is, I think, 90 something and still going at it.  His design sense is incredibly pleasing to me.

We saw the famous Catedral Municipal of Brasilia today, too, designed to look like a Crown of Thorns, a Cup, and the Host.  The inside was even more amazing than the exterior, if that were possible.  It was another confection of impossible spans of stained glass and sculpture.  I could have sat in it forever.

Everywhere we went today, whether it was looking at the Superblocs of housing or just driving down the streets, we were surrounded by Niemeyer's dream for Brasilia.  It is lovely.  Even though I am exhausted, it has been a fantastic trip through this city.

Getting Here

I’m writing this in my room, although it will have to be posted later in the wi-fi friendly lobby. As I am writing, the sounds of the city of Brasilia are sifting across my eighth-floor balcony and through the open sliding glass doors of my hotel room. It’s Sunday, and our guide Roberto told us that because of the weekend and because of the four-day national holiday we’re coming in at the tale of the city is mostly empty and quiet today. It’s peaceful.

The hotel, the Naoum Plaza, is gorgeous. My room here for some reason reminds me tremendously of my little apaato back in Japan. Maybe it’s the balcony. Maybe it’s the wood floors. Maybe it’s the neatness of everything being in its proper place with no excess. For whatever reason, that spark of familiarity pleases me to no end.

The room itself is gorgeous. Keeping in mind that I am most often a budget traveler, it is extremely nice, comfortable, clean, airy, large, with generous amenities including a shower the likes of which I have not seen in a long time. I look forward to making its acquaintance this evening when we’re done for the day. I have a feeling I’ll be ready for sleep when night comes, too. The sleep I got on the plane was not particularly good sleep even though I did sleep for most of the trip. Today, we’re settling in, going on a site-seeing tour, getting “oriented.” Wading in. That seems to be a good way to think about it. I’m grateful for that. Trips that are all go-go-go sometimes wear me out. Trips that are all deconstructed waiting can be just as bad. This one, starting out as it is with a peaceful morning to get our feet back under us, seems to be just right.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Beauty of Free Wi-Fi

The ultimate modern Holy Grail:  Free Wi-Fi access.  I stumbled across this pocket of it in a food court near my gate in Atlanta.  I thought, since I have the time, I would take a moment to post at the official beginning of this journey.

The first plane trip has been taken; we're waiting on the "big plane" now.  Fortunately, it's a night flight meaning it's okay to sleep through it and it won't tamper with the internal clock.  I can't wait to wake up in Brazil tomorrow.  To me, that is always a miracle.  It's one of the reasons I prefer to sleep on planes, too.  It makes that magic happen faster.

Other members of the group are already here.  We're going through the process of reattaching names with faces, eating a final meal before "plane food," working on presentations, charging up the devices.  Travel stuff.

Soon, the boarding will begin and we'll be ready for what comes next whatever that may be.  I can't wait to discover it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Almost Time

It's only two days until trip time, and, of course, I have so much left to do that it seems the trip simply cannot come.  The big things, the passport and the visa, the necessary shots, new bits of luggage, are all taken care of. I even had to get a new netbook (which I'm typing on right now) because my old one died.  I think I have all the pieces; I just need to assemble them, make that bundle get in under the weight limit, and get to the airport.  If I can do that, then the adventure can begin.

And I am so very much ready for it to begin.  This process has been going on a full year now.  It's hard for me to realize that and how much I've learned and added to my teaching practice already because of it.  I can't begin to imagine what new information I will be able to get in Brazil.  How exciting to be going, and to be travelling for the reason that we are!  This is the ultimate in PD, I think.

Back to the non-packing.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Nifty Widgets

I have added several things to the blog today in anticipation of my own adventure:  a clock with the time for Brasilia, a little spinning weather widget I am particularly proud of, and more blogs from my fellow travelers to the blog roll at the side.  Everything is tailored to Brasilia right now because I know I'm at least starting and finishing my trip there.  Once I know where I'm headed in the middle, I can get more customize a little more accurately.

Don't miss the chance to follow the trips and the preparation of my fellow travelers.  Make sure you check out the newly-expanded blog roll down the side.

Group One Leaves

Our first group is headed out to Ghana.  I can't even imagine how excited they must be.  All the preparation, research, planning, and packing, and now they're on their way to meet their host teachers and see the country for themselves.  I hope they have a fantastic experience.

It's always a kind of magic to me that we can get on a plane here in this world that we know, pass a few hours sitting in something that is still familiar, basically, and then get off it to explore that which is totally new.  Even the quintessential discomfort of modern air travel can't take that away.  We may be sort of disoriented, mildly dehydrated, and mostly lame (in my case) when we get there, but the point is that wonders await.  How grand.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

With a Little Help from My Friend

I have been looking for all sorts of things Brazil to get ready for the upcoming trip, but as always when I'm not studying the place I'm going with a reliable professor, it's hard to sort out the good from the stereotypical.  I did have an "inside source" to go to, however, a former exchange student and a friend.  I decided to ask him for some help.  He responded with a gloriously annotated list of books, music, and movies that I am starting to explore.

One of the first things I got was the album Acabou Chorare by Novos Baianos.  I love the sound of it.  It's happy music.  I can only understand pieces of it that drift through my Spanish, but I'm getting better, I think.  I don't care that I can't understand it.  I enjoy it anyway.  Oddly, there are parts of it that sound a lot like Widespread Panic to me.  I would love to know if anybody else thinks so, too....

I also went ahead and got the book on this page, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, yesterday.  I only read about two pages last night before sleep came and slammed me in the head with its mighty hammer, but I'm going to get into it today.  The premise looks interesting.  Thank God for Amazon and used books.  It's allowing me to do all this exploration on a budget.

I have another CD on the way, too.  It will be here after I get back from my Ireland/England trip next week.  It's supposed to be another fantastic slice of the musical culture.  That will be something to look forward to, a little present waiting on me.  It's from the 60s.  I love looking at what is going on and comparing the styles across time and nations.

Finally, I got a little Lonely Planet phrasebook.  I'm trying to learn basics from it, trying to use their phonetic pronunciation to help figure out how to say the necessary and polite phrases.  It's so hard without hearing it, though.  My Spanish keeps getting in the way as well.  I was trying to learn the numbers last night, and I kept slipping into Spanish when they were close. Grr!  I wish I lived near a university so I could take a class.  So frustrating!

The larger process of exploration is wonderful fun, though.  I have always loved language and culture, so this chance to delve deeply into a place as I prepare to go there in person is really just right up my alley.  All I want it just more, more, more.....

Monday, February 20, 2012

TGC Brazil

Here's the group I'll be travelling to Brazil with plus the ILEP teacher who presented to us Saturday.  Don't we all look shiny?  I'm betting the photos from the road won't look quite as tidy....  I thought I'd post this one now to chronicle the beginning.  These are great folks, and I'm looking forward to heading out with them.  Thanks to Perry for the photo.  I was too lazy to get the Nikon out.  (And no, I don't know what was wrong with my hair, but it had that problem all weekend and in every photo...)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Eyes Full of Stars

So I've been thinking about the upcoming trip pretty much all night.  I've been looking for things on Pinterest about Brazil, and I found quite a few lovely photographs, but I'm wondering how much "fluff" and how much "substance" they can be said to represent.  They are breathtakingly lovely, trees full of blue butterflies, sweeping beaches, the obligatory waterfalls I can clearly remember my friend Paulo saying are all anybody outside Brazil knows about Brazil, and the giant statue of the Christ of the Andes.  There are others of brightly-colored houses like little candy boxes all in rows up the sides of a mountain or dotting the sides of rivers.  There are more sedate and grand shots, too, of older buildings, refined like someone's grandparents in their tasteful suits watching the children play in the yard.

Yet I wonder.  How much of any of this is "typical"?  Is this what I'm going to see, or is this just the tourista stuff that accumulates in the corners and edges of daily life?  I will be happy either way, mind you.  I'm just curious.

Here are some things I did learn to be true about Brazil from the CIA World Factbook, that great source of student papers from time immemorial:

The symbolism of the flag:

  • "the green represents the forests of the country and the yellow rhombus its mineral wealth; the blue circle and stars, which replaced the coat of arms of the original flag, depict the sky over Rio de Janeiro on the morning of 15 November 1889 - the day the Republic of Brazil was declared; the number of stars has changed with the creation of new states and has risen from an original 21 to the current 27 (one for each state and the Federal District)"
Independence Day:  September 7 (1822)

School Life Expectancy:  14 years

Size:  Just a little smaller than the US

Ethnic Mix Stats: white 53.7%, mulatto (mixed white and black) 38.5%, black 6.2%, other (includes Japanese, Arab, Amerindian) 0.9%, unspecified 0.7% (2000 census)

There was more, but that's enough for here and now.  Hmm....

About Time

I've been doing some tweaking here on the blog, and one of the things I did was to add a little countdown timer to my blog so I can keep track of just how long it is until we leave for Brazil.  You can see it over to the right.  If you'd like one, too, for whatever it is you happen to be anticipating, you can make one here and paste it into your blog following their instructions.  Easy-peasy.

TGC Symposium I

So much came out of the first Washington Symposium.  I finally got to meet some of the people I have been talking to on Facebook and in the online course.  I spent some time with the group I will be travelling with in June.  I got a tremendous amount of resources to bring global education into my classroom.  I found a program I want to apply for that might be the next step in my own personal global journey.  That's an awful lot to pack into three short days.

I've been at lost ends lately in my professional career, asking some serious questions about things, at one of those crossroads where things are difficult and the path ahead is hard to discern.  I feel now, though, that I can see a little farther down the road than I could when I got on the plane Thursday morning.  I have plans rather than vague notions.  I am looking forward to getting back to my classroom and getting some of these things in motion.  It's been a long time since I have felt that electricity, that excitement.  It's good to feel it driving me again.

No small part of the energy I got came from the exchange of ideas and passion for teaching with all the professionals I encountered at the Symposium.  I found that teachers from everywhere were facing many of the same issues as me.  It's a small thing, but it matters, that sense of connectedness.  It is so very easy for teachers to feel discouraged, separated, isolated, and alone with all the burdens and demands they face in modern education.  That sense of community is crucial to success, and in my experience, it is so frequently lacking.

Additionally, I got to meet two of the international teachers who are here on their ILEP internships/exchanges, one from Indonesia and one from Brazil.  Talking to one and listening to the other's presentation was uplifting, too.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that I am a part of something much larger than my own school, district, or even my often-criticized and beleaguered state.  I am a part of an international family of teachers, all of us with that same passion and dream for our students in our hearts, all of us fighting the same little battles every day.  It doesn't matter what our first language is; we speak the language of education in our souls.

I cannot wait until we get to meet our host teachers in Brazil and get to go to their schools.  I want to see what their day is like.  We heard such big differences in their system and ours.  I'd like to see how it works in practice.  I think there will be a lot to learn and discuss.

Overall, the first Symposium was a great next step to the program.  I can't wait for what comes next.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Joy of Google Maps

Love me some xkcd.

Yeah.  So.  Google Maps and I don't get along that well.  The blue dot and I frequently argue.  It likes to tease me, lead me astray, lead me down imaginary paths and leave me for dead in strange lands.  I have gotten lost rather famously trying to use it to get places in San Francisco, Rome, and other locales.  Recently, I got SO lost trying to use it in Tuscaloosa that a friend of mine had to come find me.  I just parked the car in a bank parking lot, told him Tuscaloosa wasn't that large and he knew it better than I did and to COME GET ME.  

It always starts out FINE.  I'm on the blue trail.  My dot is headed for the red dot.  I feel happy, getting that positive feedback technology gives us when we use it and it works.  Then something always goes awry.  The road dead-ends.  There is unexpected construction.  There are solar flares and Google's maps are all wonky (this was the explanation somebody offered me today).  

Privately, though, I think the little evil imps sit back and just wait for me to push that button, and then they high-five each other and say, "GAME ON."  They probably play rock-paper-scissors to decide whose turn it is to lead me on a merry dance this time.  Maybe it's like, I don't know, a company bonus?  

I did get back from the Smithsonian to the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel where we are having our TGC Global Symposium this evening, but I took a long, long, LONG walk through much of the Mall and other parts of DC to do it. Had it not been for a very nice gentleman in a guard booth who took pity on me and told me how to get around the block of the road that just ceased being there (really.  it wasn't me this time.  really.), I might be walking still.  Sigh.  Yeah.  Google Maps, you are not my friend.....

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Little Joys of Travel

All day I have been in overdrive.  A million little details had to be attended to before I left school today since I will be out for the next two days.  There were assignments to prep; copies to make; classes to coax, cajole, and caution regarding their assignments and my expectations; loose items to secure or deliver; and instructions and materials to leave in conspicuous places.  After all that was done, I needed to go get my driver's license renewed; my recent birthday had rendered my old one invalid, something that would have made flying tomorrow difficult to say the least.  I checked my online reservation, found a snag, called and worked through it, and finally I have a moment now to sit.

It's been hectic, but tomorrow when I'm in DC, all the whirlwind will be only a memory.  There is always this big disturbance to routine before a journey, but nobody ever remembers it once the trip actually begins.  This is going to be such a good experience, both because of the chance to be in Washington with all its cultural richness and because it represents the next stage in a program that has already been incredibly rich already.

I'll rest here a few moments and then get up and finish the last of the pre-trip tasks, put things in the suitcases after taking cats out, make sure my music is on my iPhone, be sure my Kindle is all charged up for the inevitable layover in Atlanta, the purgatory of air travel.  Suddenly, all of the preparation will be done, and there I'll be.  I am looking forward to it, indeed.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

And So It Begins...

Starting another blog feels strange.  I have been keeping my private-public thoughts in another place for a long time, I guess maybe about seven years now.  This blog for my TGC journey will have a different feel, be yet another place to record what's happening during this extraordinary experience.

As is to be expected with any experience of mine, though, this one is starting out with me a bit behind, though.  I'm working to try to get the last of our latest installment of Capstone Project ready to send in for evaluation.  The Facebook group is lively tonight, and I suddenly don't feel as frustrated as I see that many of the others are in the same boat I'm in.

That's been one of the best parts of this project so far, the connectedness (not a word, but indulge me).  It's sort of incredible that this exists in any form, I think, too, because we are strewn all across the country.  I am the only teacher in Mississippi.  Others are probably similarly isolated.  Technology, that tool we spent so much time talking about in our online course, is the thing that is allowing us to collaborate and commiserate.  Every time I think about what it makes possible in my own professional life and what it can allow our students to do, I am just a little more humbled and enthusiastic, just a little more ready to get my hands on it and go.  Having just come out of a technology conference in Jackson last week, I guess I'm sort of double-dosing right now on the geekery.....

Only one more week until Washington.  I guess, though, if I'm to be ready for that, I need to stop writing here and actually get the Capstone things done.  Sigh.  Yeah.