Wish I Had My Camera?

I’m sitting here, over two weeks after returning from Brazil, still processing what I experienced.  My camera is miles away in California, and as I drink my Brazilian coffee (sans piles of sugar) I’m forced to recall this amazing trip from mental snapshots.

Other than the events listed in the previous blog, these are the ones that will stick with me for a lifetime, camera or no:

1. A weekend party/BBQ at a riverfront cottage.  This was probably the most relaxing day of the whole trip, and much appreciated after discussing, comparing, questioning education for about a week with much more to come.  Our cooperating teacher in Ibitinga, Maura, brought us to her friend’s cottage for an afternoon BBQ.  I don’t know what you know about Brazilian food, but it’s heavy on the meat.  And we experienced some of the best there.  But even more memorable was attending a party where only about 4 people could speak conversational English and still having a blast.  I’m not exaggerating when I say tears were shed (from laughter and otherwise), concrete slabs were rolled (long story), and I’m pretty sure I danced to someone called Mr.??? (What was his name again?  It was fairly awful)

2. Presenting at a professional development meeting for English teachers in Taquaritinga.  On a more academic note, Troy and I had the privilege of presenting the basics of the American school system to English teachers from around the area.  As I looked across the room of teachers that Tuesday morning, I was reminded immediately of my own professional development meetings.  Teachers looked relaxed to not be in the classroom while simultaneously somewhat apprehensive of what may take up their precious time.  I know the feeling.  I hope that what we presented was of value to them.  However, the moments that will stick with me most are, as usual, the time for personal interaction with these teachers.  We learned of their struggles, and many of them were shared with American schools.  The topic that seemed to come up again and again was education equity.  According to so many teachers with whom I spoke on this trip, Brazilian students feel such extreme pressure to do well on their high school exit tests, and these will determine where (if anywhere) they will go to university.  Students from the private schools typically fare much better and are given more options than public school students.  In addition, public universities seem to be preferable to most students than private.  Not only are they often viewed as academically stronger, but they are also free.  As a result, many of the public high school graduates will be faced with choosing from a private (expensive) university and perhaps no university at all.  One can easily see how the cycle of poverty is so hard for families to break.  If, as most people agree, education is the key to financial freedom, then the high school exit exams are incredibly high-stakes.  No wonder so many Brazilian students, when asked, shared that they view the United States as a place where anyone can get an education if they truly want to.  It seems Americans get more chances to succeed (or fail) than what we witnessed in Brazil, and the educators we met at this professional development meeting agreed with us.

3. A visit to a bedding factory in Ibitinga. At first I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what I was getting into in Ibitinga.  Some of my cohorts were assigned schools in the Amazon, Rio, the ocean, etc.  And I found myself in the bedding capital of Brazil.  Interesting.  However, I’m a small-town girl at heart, and this town and its people quickly won me over.  I might not have seen all the “cultural sights” that many of my cohorts did, but the continual interactions with people in this town, including Maura’s amazing colleagues and friends were my favorite parts of this trip.  I honestly feel like I saw the “real” Brazil–the food, schools, soccer games, festivals, etc.  Our trip to the bedding factory in Ibitinga was part of this.  Although touring factories isn’t usually an activity I seek out when traveling, this experience was slightly different.  While walking through the plant, we started to recognize many of Maura’s school’s students.  They immediately shot us smiles and greetings, never stopping their assembly-line-style work.  I quickly became less interested in how comforters were made and more focused on how exhausted these kids were when they finally got out of their shift and made it to night school at Victor Maida School.  We had already attending some evening classes there and witnessed kids with tired eyes and exhausted bodies, many giving into sleep on their desk.  After seeing them hard at work out of necessity, I could quickly realize how grueling life was for these young bodies.  Troy and I awkwardly discussed how our first impression was difficult, as it was seen through our first-world, middle-class, American lens.  However, we were faced with the reality that these jobs also provide a future for many of the kids who might not do well on their exit exams.  It’s tedious, monotonous work that was far from the mall, restaurant, and Starbucks jobs of my students, that’s for sure.

Well, I’m always telling my students that writing about less in more detail is better than lists, and this blog I guess is my exercise in this principle.  When I have my camera again, I’ll post the pictures and some videos, but in the meantime, I walk with these memories while I go back to daily life, raising two boys, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, etc.  So, having my camera would make these recollections easier, but in a way, I’m glad I don’t.

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Teaching an English class in Brasillia

This is a pic from my more photographically-talented co-teacher, Perry. 

Here goes nothing…

So I did in fact, literally just spend 90 minutes writing a post that got deleted.  I’ll try my best to recreate it.  If Steinbeck did it with Of Mice and Men, I suppose a little blog is possible. By the way, when WordPress says a “draft was saved”, it’s a dirty, stinkin’ lie.

Since I also am having no success with my camera, I’m not able to upload any of the amazing things I’ve seen.  So be it.  For now.  In addition, I’m required to say that the views of this blog are entirely mine and in no way represent the views of IREX and/or the State Department.  Side effects may include mild nausea and vertigo.

Rather than tell you about all the things I’ve done, I want to write about the three events that have made the largest impact on me thus far.  I could tell you about the fantastic meals, views, etc. But honestly, that’s not what occupies my thoughts or keeps me up at night.  But the following three events do:

The first was a visit my cohort made to the public high school, Elefante Brano, in Brasillia.  This is a school of very humble means where many of the students come from outside neighborhoods.  Many of their parents make sacrifices to see that they get transportation to this school.  I was reminded immediately of the similarities between this school and mine, GRCHS.  It didn’t take long before I could identify the “tough kids” congregating together, the “loner kid wearing a heavy metal shirt” sitting in the back corner of class, the “in love” students stealing a kiss (or… ahem…more) in the hallway shadows, the eager students flooding me with questions, etc.  But one stark difference I noticed between this school’s students and teachers is that they take NOTHING for granted.  When co-teaching an English class with a colleague, after seeing the images from our schools, one student remarked, “It’s so beautiful.”  Another, “You have so much. We are the exception here to have one computer in a class.”  Never again will I look at all of our students’ one-to-one netbooks the same.  How many times have I complained about the problems of technology.  That the Internet didn’t work.  That the computers take too long to turn on, etc.  I am so blessed to have these technological difficulties.

The day after we visited Elefante Branco, we visited the private, Catholic high school, Marista.  The differences were nothing short of astronomical.  I felt immediately “at home”.  The resources and students at this school reminded me so much of those I have at GRCHS.  In some cases, this school was ahead of us, utilizing common work spaces and technology in project-based, global learning.  It’s easy to be overwhelmed with this gorgeous school and write the kids off as over-privileged and elitist, but I’ll never forget a comment from a 16-year-old female student: “In most [private] schools, they only care about the test, the test, the test [for university acceptance]. Here, they care about ME.”  What a good reminder for me to receive.  As a teacher in a school with overwhelming resources, it is humbling to hear that in the midst of all this wealth and push toward the latest educational trend, it’s a school’s core philosophy that will truly impact students the most.

I am currently in the small city of Ibitinga, Sao Paulo.  My IREX co-teacher, Troy, and I had the honor of visiting two schools today.  Our gracious host, Maura, took us to see her public high school and then a public elementary school for poor/orphaned/disadvantaged kids.  In both cases, I was so struck by the level of sincerity and professionalism of the teachers. The passion for their work and their students was exceptional.  One moment that I’ll never forget was at the elementary school when a probably 7-year-old little girl took the microphone, pushed up her glasses, and delicately asked us in Portugese, “Do American parents spend much time with their kids?”  It took my and Troy’s breath away, and we stood momentarily dumb.  It wasn’t until later that I learned this little girl’s parents were both in jail.  After a good hotel-room-cry, I “squeezed” my boys as tightly as I could across the ocean.

So I guess the underlying theme of my trip so far is the power of genuine, empathetic connections.  I could have said that before I left, and yes, it would probably sound as cliche as it does now, but whatever.  The students and teachers of Brazil are re-teaching me this every day, and for this I’m humbled and thankful.

This post is called, I just spent 90 minutes writing a post that disappeared. Noooo!

Hello world!

Welcome to Ms. Meeuwenberg’s travel blog!  I’m headed to Brasilia and Ibitinga, Brazil in June through the Teachers for a Global Classroom Fellowship.  IREX and the State Department are sending 12 secondary teachers of all disciplines to Brazil to interact with cooperating teachers and in secondary classrooms throughout the country.  I’ll be spending most of my time in the city of Ibitinga.

In July, I will be traveling to my high school’s sister school in Omihachiman, Japan to teach English with one of my Grand Rapids Christian High School colleagues for two weeks.

This promises to be an eventful summer, and I hope to post pictures, videos, and updates here.  Many thanks to my awesome students this semester who helped me put together a PowerPoint presentation on American culture.  I can’t wait to share it abroad!