Category Archives: community

Fisk: a breakdown

As requested, I’m going to spend some time talking about what it’s like teaching at Fisk. As some of you may know, Fisk is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, language schools in Brazil. There are franchises everywhere (hence even in Itacoatiara), with over 900 in Brazil and another 150 or so in other South American countries and even in Japan. There is instruction in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and these days they are doing a booming business prepping people for the tourism explosion that will be FIFA World Cup 2014. All things considered, I was a little concerned about the quality of instruction and the expectations of teachers and students with this particular school. I did my research before arriving, and what I found was that the quality of life for a teacher is entirely dependent on the care given by the franchise owner. Here in Amazonas, Mr. Henrique manages all the schools with careful attention to detail, a passion for the language and its varying cultures, and consideration for the staff.

That being said, the ‘franchise’ aspect of the school definitely shows its true colours – pun intended. The branding is everywhere, from uniforms to student supplies to text books, and the company also sponsors Corinthians, one of the Brazilian soccer teams. Even when off-duty, teachers are expected to wear Fisk t-shirts to any school related function (something I have neatly avoided thus far; last time I just carried it around with me). It is highly recognizable here in Brazil; you might even call it the McDonald’s of language schools. And, like the fast-food chain, it is highly effective because the president came up with a system that satisfies customers, then streamlined it into efficiency.

There are two book series Fisk students may enrol into. The first is designed for kids, mainly in their pre-teens, called the Teens series. The books are called (in order) Teenstation, Teens 2, Teens 3, Teens 4, and Teens 5. I only have Teens 4 on my roster, so I can’t speak for all the books, but I have found the material to be very simplistic and somewhat lacking in explanations for grammar points. However being that I have experience, it does provide a reasonable base for my lesson, which is largely oral and makes use of the whiteboard for explanations. My biggest challenge with this level is that the kids are only 11-14, so I have a hard time holding their attention. Even if I were speaking Portuguese I would have this problem, but the fact that they have to try so much harder to participate makes paying attention even less desirable. Additionally, at this age the kids are there because their parents pay for them to take lessons, and not because it is something they have chosen. Therefore, teaching out of the book would be not only boring but nearly impossible, as they can barely complete one exercise without constant prodding after each question. I try to make each lesson as engaging as possible, so we play games, challenge each other, and move around whenever the lesson allows.

Most students finish the Teens levels around 13 or 14 years old, right when they start developing an attention span. They then move onto the “adult” series, the titles of which are themed around the life cycle of a bird. The books are (from lowest to highest): Breaking Free, Spreading Wings, Aiming at the Sky, Flying High Expanding Horizons, Wings of Freedom, and Focus on Fisk. If the student completed the Teens series they may begin the adult series at a higher level, but if they are new students they have their level assessed and may begin with Breaking Free. A student may also skip a level if they improve their English outside of Fisk; for instance, a student who does an exchange to another country might skip to a more advanced level. The normal route is to take each book in order for one semester (August-December or February-June), then take a test at the end of the semester. Students must score 7/10 or higher to pass, and if they fail they repeat the level. Students in Focus have a much more challenging and comprehensive test, so they get a number of practice opportunities throughout the semester; they also have to do a final project that includes written work and an oral presentation.

I teach almost every book of the adult series, with the exception of Breaking Free (although I have flipped through it helping Eli). I am only a fifth of the way into the books so far, so I can only talk about the material we have covered. However, I can say that I like teaching from these books. The standard layout of a chapter, or “lesson,” is as follows: theme introduction and vocabulary activity; receptive skill activity; grammar point; grammar practice; productive skill activity; receptive skill activity; more vocabulary; more grammar; vocabulary review; homework and review. The chapter themes integrate the grammar points quite well, and are usually relevant and sensible. The only problem I have discovered is when a theme is not relevant to the audience, and then I spend two whole lessons trying to teach them something they will never use and don’t understand even in Portuguese. The grammar points have been level-appropriate and easy to teach, although I sometimes find that the amount of attention given to a point is not reflective of the difficulty level or common usage. For instance, sometimes there is only a passing reference in the book for something that takes me 15-20 minutes to explain on the board, and then there is no practice to follow. In one book there was a page and a half dedicated to the usage of “have + got,” a structure that Canadian English doesn’t even use. Of course I taught it, but I stressed to my students that it was not important, just something to notice when talking to different native speakers. Overall though, I have had few problems just opening the book in class and deriving a lesson on the spot (don’t tell anyone I do this haha).

The main reason teaching these levels is so easy is that each has a Teacher’s Edition. These books have the same pagination and layout as the students’ books, with the addition of instructional bubbles and answers written in different colours. More complex instructions or variations on activities are written in the supplemental instruction manual in the front or back. It is so easy that anybody with half as much English as a native speaker and some personality could teach the class…and they do. It is common for advanced students who have shown an interest in further development to be hired by the schools to teach the beginner levels. And remember that many students reach the advanced level by mid-to-late teens; thus, several of the teachers I have spoken with began teaching at Fisk around 17 years old, before they had even finished all the books! I found this pretty incredible at first, given the five years of post-secondary and one year of experience I had coming into this job as an “intern.” However given that we are in the Amazon and that there are few fluent English speakers and even fewer native speakers to be had, it does make sense that the system is a bit incestuous. But, like most inbreeding, there are problems that arise from bad habits being passed from teacher to student. The greatest bane of my teaching so far has been students in intermediate or even advanced levels who don’t understand verbal instructions in English. These students were done a disservice by past teachers who probably spoke 70% Portuguese in their classes, and they therefore never learned to actually hear the words they were learning. Granted that instructions are the hardest thing for any language teacher, but when a student doesn’t understand simple questions at an intermediate-advanced level, there is a major disconnect. I also don’t like feeling like the bad guy when I reprimand them for asking each other to translate each time I open my mouth. It isn’t their fault that they don’t understand, but it is their fault for refusing to try, and these are the habits that I have been battling since the first class.

All in all, Fisk is very similar to the private language school where I taught in Toronto, and presumably much like any other established language institute; nevertheless, it has a quality that I look for in every school that makes the experience of students and teachers substantially more enjoyable: it has a sense of community. From top to bottom, the people who work there care about each other and the quality of work they produce. They enjoy coming to work, they socialize in and out of the school, and they build lifelong relationships with those people they see daily or weekly. I have been very fortunate that I have found community spirit in each of the three schools where I’ve taught, and I am always thrilled to discover it in a new place. Yet I am not really that surprised to find it here; after all, Brazilians are warm, welcoming, friendly people. They build community wherever they go, which is a quality I recognized early on when I first taught them in Toronto more than a year ago. This is a big part of the reason I chose to come to Brazil, and I am glad that my gamble has been paying out.


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My Brazilian Family(s)

Here in Brazil, I am being fully inducted into the culture through familial naturalization. I have a host family in Manaus which has all but adopted me and treats me as a daughter; but I also have a number of friends and co-workers with whom I’ve formed close, personal bonds in a very short span of time. True to Brazilian form, blood runs thick around here, although it doesn’t discriminate with genetics. Love, concern, trust, bickering, protectiveness: these are all present in my relationships.

For starters, my family in Itacoatiara has nothing to do with bloodlines. It doesn’t even run in chronological order, and the familial roles change on an hourly basis. In my classroom, I am the head of the family; I have to herd my students in the right direction, discipline them if they get out of line, and reward them with praise when they do well. Most of my students are teenagers, so I can see it in their eyes when they aren’t impressed with me confiscating their cell phones or reprimanding them for whispering (loudly) to each other in Portuguese when I’m trying to explain a grammar point. But I know they love me, even if I am tough on them sometimes – they know it’s for their own good!

Outside the classroom, sometimes I’m the child. As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of things I can’t do for myself. More realistically, I could do these things if I had to, but there are a few reasons why I don’t. First of all, as a lone, foreign female, I’m a target here for danger. This is something I know intellectually, but find hard to consider when I don’t see any immediate threats walking down the street at 10pm with friends. The other reason I don’t have to do things for myself is that Fisk organizes and pays for almost everything. This includes meals, residence, transportation, and even social events. Fisk is like Big Brother; it always has something in mind for me, regardless of whether I know about it or want to do it.

After Big Brother Fisk comes Fisk administration, the people who do all the dirty work that I’m not allowed to. In Itacoatiara, this is Eli.

A horrible photo of us, but that's what I have

He has to order my meals (I just get asked, “chicken or beef?” and then it arrives 20 minutes later), coordinate my travel with Manaus admin, and buy my bus tickets. He’s always worried something will happen to me – mostly because it’s his job to make sure I’m safe. The other day, I was with a bunch of friends at the school, and he came up and demanded my passport information “agora!” (now!). Everyone started laughing that he was my father, because I dejectedly went to my room to get it, but I knew he just needed it immediately because he had to catch a ride with someone else to get to the bus station, and it was late. Sometimes he yells at my friends who drive me around on their motorcycles because he thinks they aren’t good drivers…but again, I know this is because he recently had a death in the family from a motorcycle accident.

On the flip side, and more commonly, Eli and I are more like siblings. We look out for each other, we know when the other is upset or stressed or missing home, and we cheer each other up. Eliveuto is also away from home (he was transferred to Itacoatiara from Manaus just a month before me to fill a vacant spot), and I think he’s having a harder time with it than I am. I deal with homesickness too, but those times when I know he’s sad I feel like the big sister because I’m older and have more experience with being away from home.

One of my students, Karla, is a particular friend. She is only sixteen, but she likes to hang around the “older kids.” Some of our other friends have started calling her “Karla Maharaj” because she’s always around me!

Karla, on the right

It cracks me up. Hear that, Aleeta? You aren’t the baby anymore! Anyway, it’s nice to have her around. She speaks English pretty well (she’s in one of my advanced classes), except when she’s tired, and then she doesn’t understand a thing I say! Actually, Karla “babysat” me once when Eliveuto had to go back to Manaus. A., the coordinator, didn’t want me staying in the school alone so he asked her to come stay with me. She had to bring her mother into the school so A. could introduce me and prove she wasn’t making it up. Poor Karla!

My other “sisters” in Itacoatiara, or more accurately my girlfriends, are Priscila and Nancy. They both work at Fisk so they speak English quite well. Pri spent five months in Canada in a small town near Red Deer, Alberta when she was in grade 10, so it’s nice to be able to talk to someone who understands my comparisons with home.

All my girls: Pri on the left, Nancy and baby Sofia, and Karla

She understands when I say I want a “grande” coffee I’m talking Starbucks size, not the whole Dixie cup instead of half. She’s nineteen but very mature for her age. Nancy is in my class with Karla. She’s twenty, but she’s married and has a baby girl named Sofia. Cutest baby ever! These three ladies are my female gang in Itacoatiara.

A "family-sized" pizza for our conversation dinner: Hudy, Pri, and Pedro

This post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of my “assistant,” Pedro. Pedro is officially in the class with Nancy and Karla, but he is taking full advantage of my being here and sits in on two or three other classes as well – which means I see him at least once a day. I love Pedro: the guy always comes in with a smile, whether it’s 8 am or 9 pm. He’s good-humoured and helpful in the lower level classes, and is very dedicated to learning the language, despite maintaining a busy full course load in Chemistry. He told me he may have a big job opportunity in the near future which would require him to do an English exam, so I’ll help him as much as I can with that. He was also the one responsible for suggesting an extra conversation class for our advanced class, which has turned into very fun dinners every Thursday night (we talk about all kinds of things…Brazilians are not very academic outside of class, if you know what I mean).

Ary at the entrance to the school

A. is the coordinator for Fisk Itacoatiara, and he is very much like a parent to all the kids who grow up attending English classes. He knows everybody by name, greets the kids with a kiss and a hug, teases girls about their boyfriends, and is generally very jovial and committed to his job. He is my Portuguese teacher, and I have no complaints about spending three hours a week in his company. He speaks excellent English, due to a lot of effort on his part: he works all day in English, then goes home and reads English books and watches English TV. He told me sometimes he forgets Portuguese because he barely ever uses it!

I think that sums up the main characters in Itacoatiara. I will have to do another post to talk about my students (the ones that I’m not friends with). On to Manaus.

I’ve given an overview of my host family, but this week I’ve had more time to spend with Camilla and her father Marcos. I sleep in Camilla’s room when I’m here, so we are like sisters in that regard anyway, but this past Saturday I really got to see her in action when we went to the mall. Oh my goodness, I had forgotten what it’s like to be fifteen! I have two younger sisters, but for Kel it’s been a while since she was that age, and when Aleeta was fifteen I was away at university. Camilla and her friends were so funny though, I could barely keep up with them.

Camilla (right) and her friend Melissa at her Quize Anos

When I got to the mall they were in a movie, so I did my own thing for a bit before meeting up with them. There were four of them, but the group somehow just kept growing…and it took forever to decide to go anywhere, but once we did it was a mad dash up escalators and through crowded corridors – and then we’d get to the opposite end of the mall and they’d change their mind. And even though I have come to understand quite a bit of Portuguese, there is no way my brain can keep up with their tongues. I know I was the exact same when I was that age, but thinking back that far is frightening (god, I am old now haha).

Marcos, my host father, took Camilla and her friend Ana Clara and I out for churrasco on Friday night. He scolded me for not calling him on Monday like I said I was going to (although I have a chip (SIM card), it’s been on the fritz and only sometimes allows me to make a call). He said he knows I’m twenty-four, but he considers me a daughter now and he will worry about me like he worries about Camilla. The next day he gave me a new chip with minutes and texts and told me to keep in touch. Lesson learned!

(Sidenote: the second we set foot in the Churrascaria, the waiters figured out I was Canadian and got really excited. They then proceeded to foist every kind of meat on me (yes it’s their job, but when they tell you “It’s good! Try this!” you have to accept), attempted to educate me on the different cuts of meat and where they come from on the cow with a diagram, and brought me special servings of sushi just for my enjoyment. It was cute, but man was I full afterwards!)

Now comes the part where I tell you about my crazy international gang. These guys are my brothers in the truest sense: they honestly forget I am a girl 99% of the time. Vinicius is a Fisk employee, and a Brazilian. He picks me up at the bus station when I get back from Itacoatiara on Fridays, and he has been put in charge of taking the other intern and I to the federal police to register. He also picked me up from the airport with Leilson, so he is literally the first person I met in Brazil. Vinicius’s best friend is Paul, an Irishman who moved here with his Brazilian wife about 16 months ago, and who works at Fisk. Paul is soooo Irish.  He curses all the time, he bitches and moans about being in Brazil because he’s

Cristina and her fiance Vinicius, Paul, and Albert at the Forro club

homesick, he has an awesome accent, etc. Most of the time when the three of us are in the car together, I just sit back and listen to them rag on each other and cry with laughter. Our fourth gang member is Albert, the American intern. Albert is a hard character to pin down; he wasn’t very well-liked at Fisk initially, because he has a very dry personality and a slow, southern accent to go with it. But, as he’s spent more time with the three of us, he’s starting to loosen up and gain a sense of humour – or at least, project it outwardly. On Friday he told us that, since we were going to check out a forró club, he had taken the initiative to book a dance class! Ohhh the boys ate that one up. So when we went out on Saturday night we all just waited, cameras ready, for him to do his thing. What a guy, he has two left feet and a broom down his back.

I’ve posted some photos already of my Fisk Parque 10 family, so I won’t go into detail about that today. Hopefully you enjoyed meeting the “characters” in my life, and real family, I hope you aren’t offended that I’ve been adopted here, as well! After all, family is culture in Brazil.


Filed under community, family, friends, Itacoatiara, Manaus

A Canadian “Farewell”

A picture I found of my hometown's fireworks. They really are the best.

So, the school year has come to a close, and with it, so has my time at the YMCA school. My students threw me a beautiful “surprise” party last Monday, complete with all kinds of marvellous homemade food, artistry on my chalkboard, and even an unnecessary but great gift. I handed out report cards and had individual meetings with students on Tuesday; Wednesday was our year-end picnic (more delicious potluck goodies), and the final student goodbye; Thursday was a PD day, and my last day with the teachers. I had quite a bit of work to do to wrap up my job, so pretty much everyone left well before I did. Karen was the last to go, and I was pretty much a sobbing mess by that point, having just begun reading the goodbye card from the Immigrant Services staff. All that was left was to put away the resources I’d been using all year, and clear out my desk into a big box to carry to my car.

Painful as it was, the whole thing wouldn’t have been nearly as pathetic if I didn’t feel like a big fraud for talking about going to Brazil for so long. It totally doesn’t even feel like I’m going – more like I just left a secure job that I loved for absolutely no reason. On the way home I stopped at Shopper’s Drug Mart to pick up the prescription for anti-malaria pills that I probably won’t need, and treated myself to a new shade of nail polish (you know, to help fill the void with pointless consumerism and shallow vanity).

The next day was Canada Day, and I was determined to give myself at least some pretenses of relaxation and holiday enjoyment, so I spent the night at my friend Jamie’s house, and we headed off to the local Canada Day festivities in the park. Despite having slept on her couch the night before, I felt pretty good. Maybe it was getting 8 solid hours of sleep; maybe it was not having the morning sun wake me at 6 am; but maybe it was just having nothing in particular to do for once. I had the car, my bathing suit, and many unscheduled and sun-filled hours ahead of me.

We really did have a great day. Jamie is part of the county’s concert band, which was playing just after the parade finished and before the opening ceremonies began, so we got to watch the parade from the finish line in the gracious shade of the park. Her band – which opened with Coldplay, followed by Lady Gaga, some sleepy neoclassical piece, and then Smoke on the Water, finished patriotically with O Canada. A giant 8’x4′ cake was served directly after, decorated with whipped cream and hundreds of halved strawberries in the shape of the Canadian flag. Epic as it was, it managed to keep up with the long and eager line-up of patriots that formed at its arrival. There was more than enough to go around, so I’m not sure what possessed one oversized woman to share one of her two pieces with her dog – bite by bite.

After the band was done, Jamie and I bummed some money off her parents (we had come unprepared, for shame!) and readied ourselves for the international smorgasbord of vendors before us. First up was the Chinese Association’s booth, and in our quest for a spring roll (we had to buy a whole combo just to get one) I noticed several of my (ex-)students working there. They were happy to see me, and for the third time that week I was treated to a giant plate of home-cooked ethnic food for free! Jamie and I had a hard time eating everything, so we scouted out the parents of our missing third musketeer, Breanna, and donated the proceeds therein.

The beach at the park where the parade finished. Not one of my photos, as I didn't have my camera with me that day, but a nice image.

Jamie and I managed to stuff down a chocolate and peanut-coated ice cream cone before we left the park in favour of a beach near her house. (We would have just used her pool, but it was full of loud, drunken teenagers courtesy of her brother.) We sunned ourselves for the appropriate amount of time, then returned to her (now empty) house to eat a delicious surf-and-turf dinner with her foodie parents (I stuck to the “turf”). There was just enough time to shower and head out to pick up our friend Joe, visiting from out of town, and to drive down to the waterfront to finish the day with some fireworks. My hometown may not be very big, but it puts on an excellent display every year – they really are my favourite fireworks ever.

On Saturday, I actually slept in. That hasn’t happened in a while, as I’ve been too busy even on weekends to sleep later than 9 or so, and besides, the June morning sun just refuses to allow that to happen. I spent the day hiding from the heat and humidity in my basement room, and sorted through all my teaching materials into some semblance of order for whenever I will use them again (I’m not dragging everything to Brazil with me, and besides, it’s all Canada-specific). On Sunday, I went to the beach for a few hours, then headed to Toronto by train…

Continued in next post


Filed under Canada, community, goodbyes, insecurities, student stories

It Takes a Village

I haven’t written anything in a while because things have been a little crazy around here. After months of packing, moving, settling into a rental, then packing and moving again, my family has finally moved into the house my parents and grandma had built. Right now, there are five of us living here (parents and grandma, my youngest sister and me) plus two small dogs (Cooper is ours, Sadie is my grandma’s). Of course, we all know each other well, and most of us have lived with some or all of the others at some point, but it’s the first time we’ve all been under one roof; we’re all waiting for the dust to settle to see what it’s really like.

A little history on my family: we moved into the house on Camelot when I was just five, and lived there for almost nineteen years. In that time, my sisters and I graduated from elementary and then high school, we hosted eighteen Christmas brunches, and witnessed the entire lifespan of our first dog, Charlie. My grandma moved into her house, just a five minute walk away, after my grandpa died. She’s been there for about fifteen years, and has managed quite well for herself. However, a few years ago she began a fight with cancer. She beat it, but the treatment has left her weakened and with a permanent kidney disease that requires her to have dialysis three times a week. She’s getting older, and it became evident that things wouldn’t be able to continue on the same way indefinitely.

Once my parents conceived of the idea of living with my grandma, it was a no-brainer that that was what must be done. Rather than forcing an awkward, stifling living arrangement, they decided to build a house to suit everyone’s needs and maintain their independence. Thus, we now reside in a three-bedroom, three bath bungalow, with a finished basement that includes a separate kitchen, dining, and living room for my parents’ use. I would post pictures, but it’s still too cluttered with boxes and homeless furniture for that.

It must be said that, despite four able-bodied individuals and one stubborn one, plus months between moving dates, there is no way we could have made it through this major overhaul by ourselves. The first time we had to move, from my childhood home to a two-month rental house up the street, we had the help of three of my dad’s brothers, my mom’s best friend, some other friends of my dad, and a couple of neighbours. Everyone pitched in to tow boxes and furniture into the U-Haul and then into the basement storage. We managed to pull off that move in less than 24 hours, including celebratory pizza and beers, and my uncles made the three hour drive back home in daylight.

The second move was even more impressive, in a way, as it involved moving my grandma from her house one day, then moving us from the rental the next. Did I mention that the moving date was during the week, and my sister and I both had to work? Well, once again friends and family stepped up to the plate. I can’t tell you how impressed I was to finally make it to the house on the day of my grandma’s move, to find two old (and I mean that in both senses) friends of my grandma’s had been slaving away in 30+ degree heat, putting things together, cleaning, and making themselves generally useful. Never mind that one is still recovering from her own rigorous cancer battle – she and my grandma were quite the sight, all wiry and breakable, determinedly sifting through boxes.

On the second day, I woke up at 5:30 am to finish packing up my room before heading to work. It was another scorcher when I left work at about 4, and I reluctantly drove toward the new house and what I knew would be another long day of hauling and scrubbing. But my trepidation was put to shame when I arrived to see Foti, a long-time neighbour of the Camelot house, sweating through his shirt as he and my dad unloaded heavy boxes of my books into our new garage. An hour later we were joined again by my mom’s friend Ginny, who had spent the entire day at work but still dedicated her evening to vacuuming and packing up the last of our belongings from the rental and moving them in her own car to the new place. Finally, at 11:30 pm, my mom, dad, Foti, Ginny, and I locked up the rental once and for all and, swatting away the June bugs and mosquitos, made the final trip to the new place. I collapsed into my mattress a few minutes later, although I could hear my parents still moving around upstairs. I don’t know how they did it; especially considering that my mom drove my grandma to the hospital for dialysis at 6 am. On top of it all, it was my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, and I don’t think either of them took the time to give it a second thought.

When I began this post, I knew I wanted to talk about the idea of community: the concept of people working together towards a common goal. I think though, that it’s necessary to point out that although the goal – moving us – was shared, it only benefited a few of the people involved. Why did so many people take the time and energy and patience to help us move? I still can’t really fathom why, but I am so grateful that they did. It was pure, selfless, untempered goodwill on the parts of Ginny, Foti, Ken and Caroline, my uncles, and the many others who lent a hand. It’s such a simple concept, and one that we’ve been taught our whole lives, in kindergarten and Girl Guides, on soccer teams, and even in university orientation; but being on the receiving end, I feel wholly unworthy of such kindness. I wonder if I am as selfless, as willing to overlook what’s in it for me. But this is community: the understanding that, when someone needs to get something done, you step in and help them do it; and when you need help, they will be there in turn. I love my independence, but sometimes I need to be reminded that I’m not just one individual, and that, if I want community, I have a responsibility to give, as well as to take.

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