Every year I hear this statement in some form or another, “Paulo Freire. I studied him in grad school.” For those who don’t know, Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator who worked with adult literacy and who wrote extensively about education. In his most famous treatise, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he writes about a liberating education in which students are active participants in their learning process, co-constructing knowledge that is relevant and useful to them. We named our school after him because we are inspired by his vision of schools and the roles of teachers and students in those schools. He is one of many people and organizations who inspired and informed us when we started to dream about PFFS.
For those not acquainted with his work, he is just an opportunity to mispronounce a challenging name (how many of you have heard his name mangled on our NPR ad?). But for Brazilians, he is a hero and so when a visiting Brazilian teacher walked past our sign she immediately detoured downstairs to investigate. On Wednesday, February 19, ten visiting educators from Brazil toured PFFS, visiting several classes and meeting with both Santo and myself to talk about the philosophy behind the school. It turns out that every year cohort of approximately 25 teachers from Brazil spend about a month studying the U.S. education system every year at the UofA. Because they were in their last week of their stay only 10 students were able to visit, but afterwards they asked about the possibility of having the tour be an annual experience for the entire group.
To say they were impressed with what they saw would be an understatement. It could be a cultural thing – Brazilians could be particularly gracious, prone to extreme expressions of gratitude and hyperbolic statements of awe – but their admiration was almost embarrassing. After hearing their lavish praise, I also wondered, and worried, about the current state of Brazil’s schools. Or maybe we really do have a pretty amazing and special school, where teachers are respected as skilled professionals and supported in their efforts to conjure the magical alchemy of effective, and at times, inspiring teaching and where students are happy, engaged active learners. Probably it’s a mix of all of the above, but it did make me proud of PFFS as I answered their questions and deflected their praise.
Here is what they saw:
Students had bell work around the term “classification” followed by a debrief on what they wrote. The students looked at rocks they had brought from home and working in groups classified the rocks and wrote detailed paragraphs explaining their systems and criteria, then reported out on their work. The class ended with students watching a video on different rock classifications while filling out a graphic organizer.
Bell work required students to shift a triangle on the coordinate plan. This was followed by a class discussion of horizontal (x) and vertical (y) shifts and discussing the 6th grade tessellation projects. The rest of the class was spent drawing and shifting shapes and attempting basic tessellations.
This was a Writer’s Workshop class, with the students separated into the two grades. One teacher taught a mini lesson with guided practice and the other teacher had a structured sharing of student writing.
Students created a memory box to study for a quiz about DNA and GMOs. Then they took the quiz on Schoology. The rest of the class was spent in groups working on writing opening statements, creating infographics and prepping for question relating to their debate on GMOs.
This is what they asked: Do you have any classroom management challenges – because we didn’t see any?
- Do you have standardized tests and if so how do you deal with it?
- What are charter schools?
- How did you come to have this space?
- When and how do teachers collaborate?
What they were most amazed by was that we operate in a school where we know our students so well. They envied our small class size, our advisory program and just the intimacy that a small school naturally provides. I shared with them our custom of devoting an hour of our staff meeting every week to discussing the social, emotional, health and academic needs of our kids. They said that typically in their schools they might devote an hour a semester to discuss students – 700 of them. I told them that this is more like what happens in traditional public schools in the United States too, and that we have developed a process to discuss and coach students that I have not seen in other settings.
[As an aside, public U.S. schools are working to attend to some of the needs of the most challenged students. Typically what this would look like is counseling, RTI (response to intervention), student support systems, child study teams, etc. From what I know of these efforts, while well meant, the numbers and needs represented by their student populations, keep all but the most needy interventions from happening.]
Perhaps the most poignant part of their trip for me is what they took photos of. They were astounded by the simple book bin at the front of the school – the “return library books here.” They loved the student art, particularly the LGBTQA and Civil Rights Leader murals. And they were touched by one of our student’s “Book Hospital Project” – inspired enough to share that this is something that they could do right away at their schools.
As they left they asked not only about arranging visit for future teachers, but they also inquired into the possibility of having students from our schools correspond in some fashion. We have exchanged emails and will see what arises from that. Since sharing our vision of education with the larger community is an essential part of our vision, we look forward to future visits. I will keep you updated.