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Brazil: School in a rainforest

Brazil tries to educate children who often live hours by river from the nearest town.

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They recruited De Souza from another community further down the river. “I’m the one who chose him,” said Cleude Braga Paola, who grew up in the community where De Souza used to teach. “We knew about his work habits. We knew he liked to work.”

And though De Souza is a kind-hearted man in his 30s, he is hardly preparing the children for life in the 21st century. 

When he guides second and third graders through a poetic five-sentence story called “The Timid Lizard," they read aloud in a phonetic syllable-by-syllable staccato. “The-liz-ard-re-sem-bles-a-green-and-yel-low-leaf,” they say, many stumbling over every other sound.

De Souza does not lead a discussion of the story, or ask the children to summarize it. There’s no Q&A. There’s no effort to explain what it means that the lizard “drinks in the sun,” or why he stays so still. The students who struggle don’t get extra help, because there is simply no time: De Souza is busy giving a math lesson to the older students, and it’s not as if he’s going to volunteer to stay after school for free when he is only making $350 a month, barely above the nation’s minimum wage. 

The school is also without basic supplies, a constant complaint of distant public schools. In some places, you hear it’s the municipal officials taking supplies or money for their own use; in others, you hear it’s the teachers.

That’s just a minor part of the air of the Wild West that seeps into governance out here. The mayor of the closest town, Novo Aripuana, was murdered in 2002, for example, and the current mayor was one of the suspects. In the next municipality downriver, Manicore, the mayor was shot in January 2009, presumably also by political rivals; he returned to his post in November as a paraplegic. Try making lack of pencils a major issue in that kind of environment. 

Because local municipalities run most primary schools, they are not directly under the state’s control. Amorim, the secretary of education, can push and prod mayors, he said, and he has even recently instituted a cash prize for high-performing municipal schools, but he cannot tell them to pay the $700-plus a month that the state does.

Give De Souza a college education and some textbooks, and he might be the kind of teacher you want your child to have. He juggles the students of differing abilities with some ease, explaining to one mystified girl why nine minus nine equals zero by striking through nine hash marks on the board while putting another to work on two-digit subtraction, and watching over first-year students who struggle to copy a writing assignment off the board.

He tolerates the girls’ giggles and the few who consistently want his attention, shouting “fessó! fessó!” a shortened version of “professor.” There’s another distraction: a chick that someone has brought in that pitter-patters around on top of his desk, like a classroom hamster without a cage.

But the lack of time, shortage of desks and heterogeneous classroom mean results are less than stellar. The fifth-year students, some in their young teens, come in halfway through the day — when the youngest students are leaving — and spend their entire time in class that day copying and completing a spelling assignment about words containing “j” and “g.”

And keeping students in school past the fifth year is the current challenge for Amazonas. In places like Primavera, any parents wanting their children to complete the second half of “basic education” — sixth through ninth grade — traditionally had to ship them to stay with relatives in the nearest town or move there themselves.

Moving to the city, even when it is possible, raises all kinds of other issues: children often stay with distant relatives, who don’t keep a close watch on them just as they are approaching adolescence, for one. And the whole process leads to a shrinking rural population, something the government hopes to avoid.