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Brazzil - Education - January 2004

Job Openings: Brazil's Favelas Need Teachers

By teaching English in favelas and other poverty stricken communities,
in the state of Alagoas, Brazil, teacher Ângelo Farias da Silva and
his volunteers do help those in poorer communities to raise their
self-esteem. This work gives them the chance to realise their potential,
and escape a life of poverty by providing light at the end of the tunnel.

Gal Monteiro


"The needy areas do not want charity, they want opportunity." This sound-bite typifies the ideals of the teacher Antônio Ângelo Farias da Silva and reveals the philosophy behind the project Teaching English in Needy Communities. Started at the end of 1999, the project is sponsored by the Casa de Cultura Britânica (The House of British Culture), a department within the Federal University in the State of Alagoas, and works with three communities in the city of Maceió, the capital of Alagoas: Grota de Arroz (The Rice Grotto), and two communities in the Reginaldo Valley. The project is also helping the fishing community in the Pontal (an area just outside of Maceió).

It is clear that Ângelo's own life experiences partly inspired him to work on this project. As a boy he quickly learned the unpleasant reality of elitism: born to a poor family, his mother was a seamstress and sold her clothes door-to-door for a pittance, and he was brought up in the sugar-cane factory run by his grandfather. With such a childhood, he knows all too well that citizenship is very far from being a natural right and for him, it feels more like a prize won in spite of great hardship. Many others who aspire to the same quality of life are not so lucky.

At the beginning of the 1990's, he went to Europe as a boy with little more than 100 Swiss Francs in his pocket (the minimum Brazilian salary at the time) and his return flight was divided into eighteen instalments for payment so that he could afford it. Having moved from Switzerland to England, he worked as a dish washer in a pizzeria in London, a busboy, and waiter in banqueting. Gradually scrimping and saving he was able to take courses in English and tourism. Three years later he returned to Brazil and became an English teacher at the Casa de Cultura Britânica (a department within the Federal University of Alagoas).

Ângelo decided soon to give opportunities to others even less fortunate than himself. By teaching English in favelas and other poverty stricken communities Ângelo does far more than simply convey knowledge of the English language; as he himself says, by offering equality of learning, you help those in poorer communities raise their self-esteem, give them the chance to realise their potential, and escape a life of poverty and monotony by providing light at the end of the tunnel.

With this conviction in mind, Ângelo set about selecting students. By lecturing them, holding one-on-one interviews, and assessing their level of literacy through tests in Portuguese he managed to whittle down the numbers until he had four classes of twenty. This process of selection was a delicate one; almost to a man, the entire community wants the chance to learn English, but preference is given to those whose parents cannot afford to educate them. It was crucial to avoid resentment, an especially awkward task given that the two communities in the Reginaldo Valley have been rivals historically.

Sparse teaching materials and far from comfortable classrooms have not stopped Ângelo from achieving considerable success. Over the years, with occasional help from volunteers, he has taught around 70 students in four groups of children, teenagers and adults, combining his English teaching with education about the history of Northeastern Brazil to raise self-awareness and pride in the students' own rich Afro-Brazilian roots. That four of his pupils have already gained places at University and many others have jobs in which they regularly speak English speaks volumes for his hard work. He offers his students something unique and extraordinary: the ability to change the course of destinies which seemed to be set permanently in stone.

One Volunteer's Testimony

Ray Howitt is a primary teacher from Sydney, Australia. In January, 2003 he returned to Maceió for a holiday and to do some voluntary teaching anywhere he could find it. A chance contact led to him teaching English to a group of enthusiastic students in the Reginaldo community four days a week for a period of two months. Ray was also interested in teaching the students recorder and added a 60-minute music lesson each teaching day.

What follows is Ray's testimony of his teaching experience:

In September, 2002 I went to Maceió by invitation to teach English in two local public schools. This was an interesting experience as I began to see the cultural differences and social problems that hinder public education in Alagoas. After seven weeks, I travelled to Canada to look for teaching work and received a good job offer but had to decline it after it was going to take 2 months to process my application.

So I returned to beautiful Maceió to explore the culture more closely and to find a group of older needy students who would soon enter the workforce that I could teach English to. I went to the school I had formerly taught at and asked permission to ask students to join my class and perhaps utilize and unused classroom. The principal alternatively suggested that I teach English to her younger 7-year-old students. I left the school disappointed because I had purchased resources geared more for older students.

Whilst visiting the local university a few days later a chance conversation led to a phone number being given which led to me meeting Ângelo da Silva. Ângelo enthusiastically explained his favela project where he had tried to assist disadvantaged students to attain higher levels of English and increase their opportunities for advanced education.

I agreed to take over an established group of his in the Reginaldo community. There were about 18 students to commence with and this grew to 21. I taught the group recorder (1 hour a day) and English 90 minutes a day) for 8 weeks. I had never taught English as a 2nd language before, but used basic English teaching methods with an emphasis on conversational English and reading English text.

I was totally surprised at the enthusiasm displayed by these students. A favela can be a difficult place for students to live in when they want to achieve in life because of the surrounding influences, the reputation of favelas which haunt these students constantly and the reluctance for outsides to enter these communities to offer assistance.

Brazilians have a strong reputation for always being late for meetings but rarely were these students late for class. On the contrary, almost the entire group was ready to start long before I arrived. The sight of these young people sitting quietly waiting for me each day was amazing and inspirational.

The ages of the students ranged from 12 to 34. Most were teenagers just keen to learn English and aim for university. Many wanted to be doctors or teachers. Apart from some excessive chatter at times I never had a moment of misbehaviour and found them to be modest, increasingly confident, happy, possessing great personalities and always appreciative.

I would occasionally award them prizes from a hat and bring along sucos com leite (local frozen fruit juices blended with milk). We had lots of fun and lots of intensive learning. I was very encouraged to hear their improved English and see some amazing results with reading comprehension. I am confident that many of these students will continue to progress and go onto advanced education and find themselves with good jobs in the future.

I knew that Brazilian children were exposed to a great deal of music and dance and thought that whatever group I ended-up with in Brazil I would teach the recorder. Brazilians all have a good sense of rhythm and I planned to use that natural ability in the recorder lessons. The previous year at my school in Sydney I had successfully used a new method to teach recorder _ an instrument which is small, portable, inexpensive and easy to learn.

The method involved using original pop songs and the instrumental version of the same song, adjusted to the correct pitch for easy fingering on a recorder, all burnt to a CD. Every student was given this CD to use at home for practise. The first lessons involved a similar CD with easy songs to master the fingering. Students were also issued with that CD. So there was lots of teaching, lots of practise at home, and the songs selected, though classic ones from previous decades, were loved by the students.

The songs on the CD's were: "I Can See Clearly Now" sung by Jimmy Clift; the theme from Titanic ("My Heart Will Go On"), sung by Celine Dion; "Annie's Song" sung by John Denver, "El Condor Pasa" sung by Simon and Garfunkel, `What a Wonderful World" sung by Louis Armstrong, the theme from the film Dances With Wolves and "Love Is in the Air" sung by John Paul Young.

There were other songs which they loved singing in English classes (such as "California Dreaming" by the Mamas and Pappas, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder and "San Francisco" by Scott McKenzie) but the songs above were the ones they chose to play with the recorder. They progressed rapidly and performed all of these songs perfectly at my farewell party. Teaching them a musical instrument increased their confidence and gave them a sense of comradeship when they performed together.

Favelas are traditionally thought of as being unsafe places for outsiders. Whilst I entered and left Reginaldo each day with the favela chief, his son or some other approved and respected person, I never felt threatened or in danger. Word quickly spreads that the new person there is volunteering their services to help the community and they are `untouchable'.

It pays to be friendly to all there as they are responsive and always acknowledge your greetings. "Bom dia" to the women and "O-pá" to the younger males is fine and sticking the thumb up from a distance always gets an identical gesture of approval and greeting. Favelas are places where people have had to survive and the levels of hygiene and cleanliness may surprise you at first. But these people are litterers at worst but not filthy. Most are just normal people who get on with life. The authorities have accepted the existence of favelas and supply them with electricity and some other basic services.

So the disappointment of not being able to work in Canada was quickly lost in the joy of working with these great kids in Maceió. I made some wonderful friendship that I hope will last forever. I was able to travel around in my spare time and see many beautiful beaches, lagoons and other locations in Alagoas. In addition, I was able to teach each day knowing that what I was doing was greatly appreciated and would benefit these students enormously.

I also felt that I was the luckiest guy in the world to have experienced something so special, so different and so unexpected. Whilst the wealthy tourists at Ponta Verde (the classy beachfront suburb of Maceió) thought they were having a great time staying in their beautiful beachfront hotels then dining in expensive restaurants at night, I in fact, was the one who was having the best time of all because I had given hope and inspiration to so many beautiful students.

Each day I was on a high about these kids. They are valuable, teachable and gentle. I received no salary, but the student's smiles were my salary, their determined efforts to learn were my wages, and their hope and trust were my income. What a privilege to work with them!

Making friends with Brazilians is easy and they have this incredible spirit and energy which is found no-where else in the world. They are the worst and most dangerous drivers in the world, but when they get out of their cars and sit down and have a meal with you they are great company. For westerners Brazil is very inexpensive and teaching without an income was fine as accommodation, food and transport is cheap.

I want to come back to Maceió to renew acquaintances, check on the progress of my students and to experience the energy that this place gives off. I hope that other teachers from around the world can take some time out to go to Maceió and have a similar experience to mine.

Dominic Elliott's Testimony

It was pure, unadulterated good fortune that gave me the chance to work on this project. One night, in a bar in Maceió, I met a fellow Englishman, Peter Beresford, who had been teaching English to groups within the favelas. Wanting to do some voluntary work in Brazil, a country with some of the most complicated and pressing social issues in the developing world, I expressed my enthusiasm. He put me in touch with Ângelo, the English teacher in charge of the project, I liked him and greatly respected his ideas and energy. Soon after this first meeting I started teaching.

It was an incredible experience. Never having taught English before, I was understandably a little nervous at first. But those I taught were so eager to learn that it felt as if they were willing me to teach them! Such attentive pupils had been a rarity in my twenty-three years of schooling; even I had been known to misbehave on occasion! Yet these people wanted to take full advantage of this free education as none of them were able to afford the expense of English lessons. They were receptive, intelligent and also good fun.

I taught two groups, one group of adults and one group of teenagers in two different favelas in Maceió. The adult group was usually around ten in number though those who came sometimes varied as the constraints of their hard-working lives did not always allow them time. This group had already been learning English for four years and it was possible to talk freely with them about complex global issues and about how to manage their communities and possibly start up some kind of favela tourism like there is in Rio de Janeiro.

Almost all of these students had jobs and worked for at least ten hours a day for little more than the minimum wage (at the time of writing this was R$ 240 a month, about US$ 80). This did not stop the majority turning up for every lesson though these were at night after a long days work. Their dedication to learning English showed me the importance of helping this project and illustrated how worthwhile those within the communities considered it to be.

With more time at their disposal, the teenagers had two hour classes with me every day of the week from 9 in the morning to 11. The last half hour of these classes was usually recreational: we would learn English songs, play word association games, or sometimes even football outside together. Their progress was astounding. They had learnt English for one year before I started teaching them but had not had classes regularly.

In the five weeks that I taught them, I saw them grow in confidence and ability and feel sure that in the future they will be speaking excellent English. In my last two weeks I started doing dictation with them every lesson; initially very few students managed to get more than two-thirds of the dictation right; some did not even try.

But at the end of the week as I wrote up the post-mortem on the board there would be a steady chorus of voices telling me what to write next. This really touched me for these are intelligent children and teenagers, often living in squalid conditions with their families earning a pittance, but their zest for life and desire to learn makes them extremely friendly company.

In addition to my teaching experiences I also worked with Ângelo on developing his website and the other projects underway within the communities. It was an experience that I learned much from and I felt deeply involved with the project. I will continue to try and help from England and hope to return to Brazil within one year.

If you would like to contact me about my experience or have any questions at all about the project please do not hesitate to get in touch. My email address is: jdielliott@yahoo.co.uk

Elliott's Night in the Favela

All the arrangements were in place. I was to be the first foreigner ever to stay in the Reginaldo Valley. By this time I felt as if a large majority of those living in the favela knew me by sight as I had been visiting to teach every day for a month; so I felt excited and honoured rather than scared. Though favelas can be dangerous places if you enter them alone, I was always accompanied by a well-respected community member and the night I spent there was in the house of the community leader.

I was treated to a large and delicious supper on arrival that consisted of typical northeastern Brazilian dishes: cuscus, inhame, meat, macaxeira and cake washed down with some extremely good passion-fruit juice. Feeling thoroughly satisfied if not slightly immobile, I then talked with the five men with whom I had eaten supper.

They talked with me late into the night, telling me all about the history of the community, where people had come from, its origins and, as the night drew on, witty and also tragic anecdotes about people living in the Reginaldo Valley. These stories brought the favela to life but concentrating on fast, free-flowing Portuguese for hours also had worn me out and at one o'clock in the morning, lying down on a mattress on the floor, I fell to sleep the moment my head touched the pillow.

The sharp, shrill call of a cockerel woke me from a deep sleep around six o'clock the next morning, reminding me of the rural life that many in the favela lead, though it is a community wedged in the heart of the hustle and bustle of a city. That morning, before my lesson started at nine, we went on a long walk through the favela to work off the effects of another large meal!

It was fascinating to see the different areas and standard of living in the favela. It too, in a microcosm of society in general, has social classes and divisions of its own. At last, when I arrived at the classroom to begin teaching, I felt as if I understood the lives of those I was teaching far better than before. As a guest, I received great hospitality and as a volunteer, I gained an invaluable and genuine insight into the lives of those I was working with. This was an experience that I will remember forever and that I would recommend to anyone who wants to fully understand the way of life in a favela.

The Friendship Club

The Friendship Club is a night where English students gather from all over Maceió to eat, watch musical and other cultural performances, participate in talent shows, recite poetry and dance, in restaurants, hotels or discos. The catch is that they can only speak in English! During school term time, the Friendship Club meets monthly; the only prerequisite is that the students have studied English for at least one year.

A Friendship Club "survival kit" is provided to those who are shy (a list of ice-breaking questions in English, naturally!).The main aim of the night is for people to communicate and interact with each other as much as possible without inhibition or fear of making mistakes so that the more advanced and confident can help those who speak English less well. At first there were only about twenty students at the event. Now the numbers have increased to somewhere between an incredible 100-170 students, depending on the size of the location.

A key element in the Friendship Club's success is the breaking down of social barriers. People from all types of background come together, speak English, and enjoy themselves without any sense of prejudice or hierarchy; those in the cultural demonstrations are amateur performers, and fifteen year olds mix with fifty year olds. Those that can afford, pay for their entrance and this money is used to fund the event, and to pay for the transport and food of those who do not have enough money.

There is, of course, no indication of who has paid and who has not. This Friendship Club is something unique in Brazil. At no other English students' party in the country could you find a group of people from such diverse social strata. The altruistic and congenial atmosphere at these parties makes it possible to believe that the wide gulfs between different social classes in Brazil can be breached through education.

You can also volunteer to teach in Maceió. You will be able to get affordable accommodation and help with transportation and teaching resources. You will also be offered free tuition in learning the Brazilian-Portuguese language and will be able to freely participate in Capoeira sessions. Antônio Ângelo Farias da Silva, the creator of the Educação para Todos (Education for All) project, can be contacted at aafdasilva@ig.com.br. The webpage of the program is http://www.educacaoparatodos.org/

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