03 November 2011

Teaching Through Chocolate Chip Cookies

One day recently Mark and I were chatting with a woman whose picture-framing services we had used a few times over the years. Before we took leave of her, she asked what our nationality was. French? Swiss? Since Brazilians generally accept you as you are and don't ask too many questions, we were surprised. The "Vote for Obama" sticker on our car hadn't already given us away? But Sonia had a reason for asking. In her spare time, she runs a non-profit, after-school program called COEDUC for underprivileged kids. On Thursdays she had been bringing in foreigners from among the alleged 96 nationalities living in Búzios to talk to the kids about their countries of origin and to prepare some kind of typical food for them to sample. Sonia had already found an Englishman, a German, a Bolivian, a Chilean and an East Indian. Now she had bagged Americans. She told us the whole business would take about two hours. But what actually happened was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As I see it a basic problem of the public education system in Brazil is simply that the kids are in school for only half a day! They either get the morning session (8 am to noon) or the afternoon session (2 pm to 6 pm). A mere four hours, some of which is spent eating a school snack. With the school day so truncated, parents and educators are challenged to find a way to keep the kids off the streets and in some kind of engaging educational program for the rest of their day. One of the answers to this challenge is found in these COEDUCs. They're financed mostly by donations, staffed in large part by volunteers and — like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire — rely an awful lot on the kindness of strangers.

When we were asked to "do" the U.S.A. we didn't know what to expect. We weren't sure that 25 preteen and teenage kids would even be all that interested. Wrong! The kids were not only interested, but they already knew a lot about the U.S.A., and they were bursting to share it! I told them I was born in Miami Beach and they knew that it was in the State of Florida. But that was a gimme, Brazilians know all about Florida and Miami and Disney World. But when I told them I was raised in New Jersey, how could they know that New Jersey was right next door to New York? What American schoolchild can name any state that borders Brazil's Pernambuco? These kids learned that Mark was born in the capital of Massachusetts, and they shouted out Boston? (Clearly, the steady stream of American exports like CSI, Friends, and Two and a Half Men does more than just entertain.)

After the talk it was time for the food. We had brought PBJs and BLTs, and real Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies that had come fresh out of our oven that morning. These tasty American childhood treats are not known here. Thanks to Wikipedia, I also had stories about the history of the sandwiches and of the cookies. They liked the stories, they liked the sandwiches, and they loved the cookies! They jumped up and down. Too much sugar perhaps? They clamored for the recipe or, if not the recipe, could we come back the following Wednesday on "Culinary Day," and show them how to make them, could we, pleeeeeeze?

We did return the following week and the kids continued to impress. I was particularly struck by how the older ones helped the younger ones, how they all made sure everyone had a turn at measuring and mixing, not to mention tasting the buttery, sugary, scrumptious raw batter. Look at these pictures! Student chefs at the New York Culinary School aren't that focused, serious or dedicated.

1 comment:

  1. You are not the first foreign that I come across that gets surprised with the fact that kids go to school for only half a day here. Some schools even have the evening session, where kids study from 6pm to 10pm.

    An acquaintance of mine from Peru came to live in Brazil for a while. He chose Rio. He noticed that the school beside his place was always busy with kids. He was so impressed initially. He thought: "kids here study hard. They spend day and night taking classes." He was shocked when he learned that the school was actually busy with the beginnings and endings of 3 sessions, that the kids making noise at 8am were not the same as those at 12pm and at 6pm.

    Somehow the State can´t afford to offer all day education for everyone. And somehow it became acceptable that the private schools offer the same sort of short sessions. Some try to compensate the shortness of the sessions by filling up the students with loads of homework, which I think is a very good idea in the absence of another solution.

    * * *

    Your time with the kids must have been fun!