Maria Mendes Abreu, after years of studying children's literature and teaching primary school, is striking at the roots of illiteracy by training teachers to look at the tasks of reading and writing through children's eyes.
Born in Portugal in 1942, Maria received under-graduate and graduate training in languages and literary theory at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Sao Paulo. Since 1966, she has regularly taught Portuguese, literary theory, and Brazilian and children's literature at the PUC. Profoundly interested in primary education, she began to coordinate teacher training courses in the Sao Paulo public system during the mid-1970s, focusing especially on reading and language. She has published numerous articles on primary education, and written and translated several children's books.
According to Maria, many Brazilian children don't know how to read or enjoy books because most teachers don't know how to make the written word come alive for their students. To address the problem, Maria has designed a simple but innovative methodology for teacher reeducation called rever (meaning "to look or see again"). The methodology trains educators to teach reading using language, logic, and symbols their students can readily understand. The result is that both students and teachers gain a new enthusiasm for the task, and become more competent, creative, and critical readers in the process.
Why is it that filling such a basic need constitutes an innovation in Brazil? To understand, one must look at the country's educational system. Although school attendance has soared in the last three decades, nearly 26 percent of Brazilians are still illiterate. For every 1,000 children that begin primary school, only 107 finish, and each year 600,000 Brazilians reach the age of 15 without knowing how to read or write.Several factors explain this catastrophe. For one, the Brazilian government spends only 5 percent of the federal budget on education. Poor children attend primary schools that lack funds, materials, and qualified teachers, and administrators often shorten the school day to accommodate several shifts of students. Consequently, many students slip through the system without learning the basics, and drop-out and repetition rates are astronomically high.Another factor is the poor quality of the teacher training programs. Those studying to be teachers get very little practical teaching experience--the training is mostly theoretical. Only when they enter the classroom for the first time, says Maria, do these young educators realize that they've never learned how to teach. Rather than attempting to involve children in books, teachers have students repeat or memorize facts without explaining their meaning. Ironically, society then blames the student for his or her failure to attain literacy. Yet Maria believes, "the problem is not with the student, but with the teacher."
Maria is introducing rever into the Sao Paulo public school system through three-day re-education workshops for preschool and primary school teachers from the city. In conjunction with the state Secretary of Culture, Maria has trained a five-member team to help her give these workshops.The main goal of the reading workshops is to help teachers exploit even the simplest text to the fullest. They learn to read expressively, pull out key words, talk about sequence and chronology, and help students to speak, write, and draw about a book after reading it. They also learn how to correct children without inhibiting them, and how to determine whether the children have understood what they have read. Finally, the workshops show teachers how to create didactic materials using low-cost, readily available materials like newspapers and magazines.The philosophy behind these techniques is simple. "We help the teachers find the child in themselves," says Maria. Not surprisingly, bringing children to the workshops daily to test out the methodology helps demonstrate its effectiveness to participants. "The kids are what gives credibility to the project," she says.On the final day of the workshop, participants must prepare their own reading texts and present them to their students during the month that follows. Workshop leaders accompany the teachers in their classrooms to observe the techniques in action. The teachers then return for a final follow-up session at which they evaluate problems and experiences with Maria and the workshop leaders.Ultimately, Maria wants to see all 4,000 of Sao Paulo's first through fourth-grade teachers undergo the reeducation workshops. To make this happen, she plans to spend a year training a core of "multipliers" to give the workshops who will, in turn, train more multipliers. Reaching the entire public school system is an ambitious goal, but not unrealistic considering Maria's reputation among her colleagues and the strong support she's won from the city Department of Education. Once she has changed the Sao Paulo school system, Maria would like to take the program to cities across Brazil.