Thursday, December 17, 2009

Summer Vacation

Both of the kids are now on summer vacation, which must seem odd to those of you in the northern hemisphere, or those of you teaching at the Pan American School (I know there's at least three of you out there that read my blog). Ruan has passed the year and will enter 5th grade, and there is a parent/teacher conference for Lucas tomorrow at two.

I must confess I'm a bit nervous about this conference. Lucas is only four, and still in preschool, but I'm concerned they might suggest that he repeat a year. I know my kid is smart, I'm not worried about that, but there's a couple reasons I'm nervous.

Maybe school has changed a lot in the States since I was a kid, but it seems like they push kids a lot harder at an early age here in Brazil. Evani is always telling me how Lucas' cousin who is almost the same age as him has been able to write her name for almost two years now, and has homework, and writes, and maybe is even reading some already. I know another little girl, who I believe is eight, who has forty minutes of homework every day. Ruan used to have the same thing, although it used to stretch to an hour or longer depending on how much he wanted to fight us to not do what he was assigned.

I know very little about early child development but this seems like too much too soon to me. I had no homework until the fifth grade, and was not reading until first grade. Even here, alfabetização, which seems to imply learning to read by its very name, won't happen for Lucas for two years- if so, this is out of date- most kids here are already expected to read by that time.

I was discussing this with a Brazilian friend of mine and he said the reason for teaching someone to write their name at such an early age is very cynical- it allows them to vote. They may not learn to read, may not learn to write, may drop out of school at eight years old (there are no truancy laws here) but if they can write their name and pick out a number on a voting form then by gum they can fulfill their civic duty.

One of the things I really like about Lucas' school is that they have a different teaching method- they don't try to jam reading and writing down a kid's throat at three years old. For the past two years Lucas has been painting pictures and having books read to him and such, and then this year he learned his vowels and his numbers, did a big unit on colors and plants, and also learned how to write his name. So now he can vote. Well, he'll need to learn his last name first, and with a name like 'Pfohl' that could take a while. Oh yeah, and he does get homework, on Fridays- things like "color the animal on top of the table green," or "draw a line between the triangles." You know, starter homework.

So why am I concerned? Well, for one thing, my wife thinks he's woefully unprepared for the coming year and blames the teachers. She's not nearly as fond of the school as I am. The other thing is that Lucas still has a really hard time with a couple of those numbers, particularly '9' and '6.' And he gets confused with the vowels sometimes as well. And he keeps leaving the 'c' out of his name.

But the big thing is something I learned just yesterday: there is a new law here that sets the cutoff for a given school year at April 1st - no joke (har har, couldn't resist). That means that Lucas, whose birthday is March 30th, is within one day of being the youngest possible student in his class. And anyone who has had kids (and raised them, and paid attention) knows how much of a difference a year, or six months, makes at this age. I found this out because a student who left his school, and now wants to come back, is being asked to repeat a year. He's only a week younger than Lucas.

I can't believe I'm even worrying about this. He's only four years old! He's probably going to be fine. But I'm one of these idiots that hears a story on the news and then lets it unduly influence me- like the one I read about parents deliberately holding their kids back a year so they'll be more intellectually developed. Or the one about how the kids that exceed in sports are more likely to be born during some three or four month period during the year, because they end up being the oldest kids in the class. (does that mean it's the opposite 3 or 4 months here in the southern hemisphere?) My brother was born on one of those cusp periods, and she opted to let him be one of the oldest rather than one of the youngest in the class. She claims to this day that he resented that- and he ended up graduating a year early anyways.

And then I hear stories about kids who have to be in the 90th percentile to get into kindergarten at the best private schools in NYC. Well, that's clearly over the top, not to mention the many thousands of dollars a school like that must cost. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on my kid.

And there's one other factor. The public schools here are utter, total, crap. The public elementary school I attended in the sticks in Western Massachusetts had better facilities than the private school Lucas is attending. And even though it's not one of the more expensive schools here in Salvador, it's still a lot more than I would ideally be paying for a decent education for my kid. And I can't afford to repeat a year, especially if he's only four. And I really don't want him to switch schools- not at all, if I can afford it, but at least not until he's really reading so he doesn't get thrown into a class where they are all reading and writing already.

I would prefer that to be sooner rather than later.

I will post an update tomorrow on what happens at the meeting.


Fabio Bossard said...

Hi Mark,
Your posts are always interesting. I just cant get enough of them. And this one in particular I learned something new. No homework until 5th grade?! Wow...Education is always a controversial issue in Brazil. We used to have a good education system, but that was before dictatorship. Also, back then a lot of people lived in the countryside and didn't get past 5th grade.
When I was in school, we weren't expected to read before 1st grade, but you are right, things have changed.
About Lucas, maybe he's a little slower than kids his age because he learns two languages at the same time. Even though kids learn much faster than adults, still bilingual kids tend to be slower and confused in the early ages.
Your friend mentioned that the only reason for kids to learn to write early is to vote. Well, I think it's kinda a conspiracy theory. It would only apply to kids from public schools and I am not sure if they push kids too hard there. Most kids from private schools will continue until high school, so it doesnt make sense teaching them to write so early..

markuza said...

Thanks Fabio. About the homework- it's true, I had no homework until fifth grade, but I think our fifth grade may be equivalent to your fourth grade, I really need to sit down and figure that out one of these days. I have heard that it used to be that the public schools were good and the private schools were a joke, but I didn't realize it was during the dictatorship that the change occurred. And what you say about writing names to vote makes sense- it wouldn't make sense for students in private schools. But on the other hand, if the vote is compulsory, and you must write your name in order to do so, then it would be necessary that everyone know how to write their name, wouldn't it? Or is there a means by which those who can't write don't need to sign their names?

Daniel @ Garanhuns said...

in regards to differences between curriculum here versus the states, they get into "harder subjects" (advanced math, science, etc) at an earlier age in brazil without a doubt

Fabio Bossard said...

Hey Mark,
I guess illiterate people always voted. They would put their fingerprints or something like that. Not sure about that though. Or just learned to write their names and nothing else. I would have to ask someone else. Lemme tell a story that happened in the last election. I was at the bus stop waiting for the bus that I would take to get to the school I vote and this old guy came up to me and ask me to let him know when this certain bus arrived, cause he didn't know how to read. I was heartbroken to see that old sir embarrassed to say that he couldn't read and also with the fact that there are still people who can't read. And he had just voted and was waiting the bus to go home.
I never heard private school being a joke in the past, at least not in Rio. I guess back them private schools were very, very few far and between. Now private education is seen as market. It's like a product you buy. And even it's better than public school, it's still not too good. I know that American schools are well-equipped, but I've heard that the education is not so good, comparing to Canadian and European standards. One thing that seems good at American schools are English classes. Much better than our Portuguese classes.
Well, about the grade equivalency. Now they changed the terms related to grades. We used to call it "série" now it's "ano". So 5º ano is the old 4ª série. It's a new rule. The alfabetização became 1º ano (1st grade). Based on this new terms, the American 5th grade may be equivalent to ours, maybe.

markuza said...

Despite going to one of the (reputedly) best public schools in the country (at that time, at least), I managed to avoid almost all serious math and science classes. And even though I graduated cum laude from college, I don't feel like I have a very well rounded education. I think the strengths of the American system of education, at least what I got out of it, was in getting a 'framework' for learning and understanding, to enjoy learning and value knowledge for its own sake, and how to research the subjects that interest me. I also learned how to finish a project in a very short period of time since I was such a procrastinator. Ironically, this has been much more valuable than I could have imagined at the time.

Fabio Bossard said...

True, that's what it seems to me. Also in the US you get more involved with the school through extra-curricular activities and other activities. And certainly you value reading a lot more than we do.

markuza said...

Well, I never was much for after school activities :) but you're right about the reading- I'm still amazed how relatively few Brazilians are avid readers, and how expensive books are here.

Fabio Bossard said...

Yes, I never understood why publishing companies never invested hard on marketing for their books here. I think there's still this mentality that books are for a few, well-educated people, not for the mass. There is one exception that is LPM Pocket. They sell good titles for cheap prices. We can find them being sold at newstands here in Rio.

The Golden Papaya said...

Hi Mark,
It's interesting to see your perspective on Brazilian education. I don't know about Brazilian schools, but I agree that they push reading and writing and academics too early even in the States. Kindergarten used to be part of preschool. I think learning should be play-based at that age. Unfortunately everyone cares way too much about standardized test scores, which is so short-sighted.

markuza said...

GP- thanks. I think everything is pushed a little too hard these days, then again- I wished I'd been pushed a little harder back when it counted!

Fabio- books for all! I think I've got a budding reader in Lucas, my stepson is a different story, but I keep trying. I bought a bunch of more 'sophisticated' comic books for him this year, in the hopes he'll become interested in a story that doesn't end after 3 pages. We'll see how it goes.

Fabio Bossard said...

I did that with my niece who is 11 now and I am doing this with my godson who is 3. My niece and I play this game that each one of us would read a chapter or a few paragraphs out loud, doing voices and stuff. She loves it.
I found this page page. Maybe it would interest you: