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Brazil tries to educate children who often live hours by river from the nearest town.
The city schools aren’t always that great, either. A stop into a second-grade classroom one morning in Novo Aripuana found a 12-year veteran teacher named Maria Iris Menezes giving a dictation to her students. It was clearly too hard for them — two girls named Juliana and Giovana wrote out a string of letters completely at random, although Giovana stuck in a random “Mazda” here or there, presumably having seen the word on the back of a pickup truck.
But children of Primavera recently gained another option: they can attend a gleaming state school for sixth graders (and eventually expanding through ninth) just a few minutes up the river — with boat transportation provided for free.
The J.W. Marriott Jr School is part of the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, a project run by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in coordination with the state government and funded by major corporations, one of which is apparent in the school's name.
Boats pick up students from river communities at the beginning of the week, and bring them back at the end; they pay nothing, stay in a hammock-slung dorm and eat three plentiful meals a day in a small dining area. Students attend class for one week of every two, but for about eight hours a day. And so many adults who never finished grade school wanted to attend as well that there is a separate class for the 18-and-over sixth-grade crowd on the alternate week.
Students work in groups and get homework on their week off that involves research in their home communities. They sleep in attractive wood barracks that from the outside look a bit like an ecolodge. Teachers live in the next cabin over, four of them, all seemingly energetic and happy to be where they are. “It makes a difference,” said one, Jose Alves Pinheiro, “to have all the infrastructure you dream about in a school and that in the municipal schools we never had.”
For the 2011 school year, similar models will be opened in three other reserves.
But the crown jewel of modern education in Amazonas is clearly the satellite-powered schools, known officially as Teacher-Present High School With Technological Mediation.
The title is to distinguish what they do from distance learning, notes the man who runs it, Jose Augusto de Melo Neto. In every one of the 700 or so video classrooms scattered across the state, there is a generalist teacher reinforcing lessons given by the specialists like Silva, the grammar teacher.
As Silva taught her grammar class, a chemistry teacher and a biology duo were in nearby studios, teaching thousands more first- and third-year students across the state. Each classroom has a webcam and computer, and the on-site teachers can click to “raise” a digital hand icon to let Silva know someone has a question or wants to volunteer an answer. A technician can then activate the local school’s webcam, and put the student on split screen with the teacher so everyone across the state can watch their interactions.
In theory, anyway. During GlobalPost's visit, contact between students and their TV-star teacher was difficult: Silva often couldn’t hear the students, the students sometimes couldn’t hear her, and the words she wrote on a stylus-operated interactive whiteboard bled all over the students’ screens.
Lectures last a maximum of 30 minutes, then the students move on to an activity they do on their own, followed by interaction with the teacher, and back to more lessons. There is no switching classes; it’s one subject per day, though by the end of the year, they have received the same subjects in the same proportion as traditional high schools.
“In Amazonas, we don’t have enough teachers specialized in subject areas,” said De Melo Neto. “We’re short on biology teachers, chemistry teachers and even Portuguese-language teachers.” And that’s in the cities — having such teachers available in distant communities is unimaginable. So 25 top teachers from Manaus lead the television lessons from a studio complex known as the Media Center.
The Portuguese teacher, Dinanci Silva, has an excitable energy about her, and she seems to try, more than most, to connect to students hundreds of miles away. A question comes in from classroom 34 in the municipality of Manacapuru, and as soon as the webcam is activated, she beams. “I’m so happy when the classroom is full!” she said. Later, a girl from Maniquiri waves at the webcam, she waves back. “Maniquiri is always participating!”