As a social studies teacher, I have always believed in the power of travel as an ultimate form of professional (and personal) development. Our world is growing increasingly flat thanks to social media and a 24 hour news cycle, but there is nothing that will broaden a person's perspective more than experience. It is one thing to read about a culture or look at pictures, but it is something else entirely to be able to tell people about the sights, smells and sounds of a foreign land from firsthand experience. As a teacher, perhaps the most valuable part of travel is to try to relate the feelings you experienced to your students and colleagues as you interacted with the people and culture. Often, pre-conceived notions and stereotypes are shattered while curiosity is piqued. Students also see that in order to grow you have to be willing to try something new.
It is not easy for anyone to step outside their comfort zone, particularly for teachers who have a bell schedule embedded in their DNA. We teachers are used to routine and structure, even though within our classrooms we adapt like chameleons to tailor our lessons for our students and whatever fire alarm, modified schedule or other dramatic event that happens on any given day. Personally, I lose track of time in the summer without a bell ringing every so often to remind me when it is time to eat, move or use the restroom. A history of isolation also means that many of us are also used to being in charge of the independent kingdoms we call classrooms.
So, what happens when you take 35 teachers, each from a different state, to Brazil to study the schools and culture? Magic.
I was honored to be one of the Pearson Foundation/NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellows for 2013.
We were a mixed group in terms of travel experience. Some had traveled quite a bit, while others had never left the country and this was the first time they ever possessed a passport. One had never seen an ocean before. The group had prepared with Portuguese lessons, insights into global issues, learning about the culture of Brazil and attending webinars, but none of it came close to the learning we did on the ground in the 10 days we were immersed in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. From the time we landed, it was clear that lives would be changed and perspectives forever altered among the 35 teachers.
When it came to culture, the one thing that was clear was that there was no singular Brazilian culture. There are so many ethnic groups that make up the culture of Brazil that just about any of us would fit in as natives. Whether African, Portuguese, indigenous, Japanese (largest concentration outside of Japan) or Italian descent, all were Brazilian. The way the Brazilians embrace their past, particularly slavery, and incorporated it into the culture and even children's games was very different than the way we discuss it here. Brazil imported far more slaves (approximately 38% of twelve million) than the US (5% of twelve million) and was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. It made many of us uncomfortable that the discussion was so open and we were surprised that it was so non-controversial, but it also caused us to think deeper about our own reactions.
No matter what your ethnic background, the one cultural thing that the entire country had in common was soccer. Never before have I seen a country so passionate about one team. The Confederation Cup was happening during our time in Brazil and when there was a game on everything stopped. People crowded around televisions and computers in restaurants, bars, shops and some people even stopped on the street to look through shop windows at the televisions inside. When Brazil scored you could hear the cheering from the people in the streets along with the car horns and assorted noise makers that alerted everyone to the good news. People even tore up newspapers and sprinkled them out of their windows as confetti.
Another thing that Brazilians are passionate about is the arts, and they were everywhere from the graffiti in the streets to the artists of the Hippie Market and the strolling bands that filled the air with music. With festivals such as Carnaval, everyone learns to dance at a young age. We saw samba being taught in an elementary school PE class and both boys and girls were learning that along with a dance/martial art called capoeira. While in Brazil, we saw dance by a professional troupe, a community group and in schools. We were even brave enough to go out and try a little ourselves. All were inspiring and it really reinforced the idea that the arts are needed in schools to help students build confidence, find their passion, work together and express themselves. When you are a band, you are a team.
The part of the trip that will leave the most lasting impression on many of us is not the views from Sugarloaf or Christ the Redeemer high over Rio, but the students we met in the schools we visited. We saw some dynamic schools in action, none of them considered "normal" by Brazilian standards, but what we teachers recognized right away is that kids are kids. We saw two high schools, a middle school and an elementary school and the kids were what made the schools sparkle far beyond any curriculum, technology or physical structure.
Each of these topics deserves its own post and there is more to write about, including the protests that were happening while we were there, but I wanted to get this initial reflection out there before I started interacting with the world here at home again. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we take back with us is the memory of what experiential education did for us. Although we can't all take our students on trips abroad, we can do more to get our students to experience life beyond their own borders. Show students how we are all connected by taking them to museums, seeing a show that features foreign music or dance, getting some global pen pals or participating in a service learning project. It doesn't matter what subject you teach, you can always connect it on a global level to art, music, environment, communication, economy, or geography . Most important, do not let your students be passive learners. You get so much more out of learning when you have skin in the game.