Reflections on Context

I teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian upper-middle/middle class teenagers aged 14 to 17. All of them are at that stage of their educational trajectories where they are being primed for academic life in university. A vast majority of them go to renowned private high schools whose core goal rests in getting their students into the best universities and colleges in the country. That means that these kids are being prepared for competition, especially those who are aiming at prestigious careers, such as Medicine or Law, to name a few.

Pedagogically speaking, these kids’regular schools are pretty conservative. Students are grouped in large numbers (30 to 40 students) and classses are delivered lecture-style, with the teacher being the expert in charge of passing on the knowledge necessary for these kids to make it to the next big thing in their lives – college and the prospect of a promising professional life, which will provide the means for ensuring a comfortable life, much like the one they already have with their parents. Another contextual aspect particular to our city (Brasília, the capital city of Brazil) is that a career in public service is also among many of these kids professional future prospects. Being able to pass a public examination for a prestigious career in Congress, for example, means high salaries and life-long professional stability. On top of that, many of these kids parents are civil servants themselves, naturally being role models for their kids.

It’s a culture of competition the one in which our teenage students are born and raised. High-stakes tests are the gateways to a prosperous future, and the gatekeepers are the schools and teachers who make getting as many of their youth as possible inside a good university their highest priority. Schools actually use college entrance exam rankings for the purpose of advertisement. They are highly competitive and lucrative enterprises. It makes perfect sense that these schools prepare their students to do well on tests. After all, we live in an assessment-driven culture. Students’ performances are measured and primed for passing tests, and passing tests equals successful professional future. It is common for these high schoolers to spend their Saturdays taking tests at school and spending their whole week, mornings and afternoons, in school, both attending their regular classes and engaging in academic activities, such as writing workshops, where they practice writing academic essays in a product-oriented approach.

These are only some aspects of the cultural fabric of which we, EFL teachers, are also a part. It is our goal to teach these kids English, the language that will open even more doors to a prosperous future. Any job or career worth pursuing nowadays requires individuals who have very high levels of proficiency in English. These kids’ regular schools fail at teaching the language itself, since their goal is to prepare them to pass a test about the language, something which they can do without being able to speak or write fluently in English. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to teach these kids the language itself, and not only about the language. Our classes are taught in English, and we adopt a no-Portuguese policy in the classroom. We adopt communicative methodologies, aiming at developing students’proficiency in English in all four skills, understanding (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) the language fluently and accurately. A majority of our students start their English studies with us as little kids, staying with us until teenagehood, when they will have reached upper-intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency. By the time they reach these high levels of English proficiency, most of them will have been studying with us for about 6 to 7 years.

The schooling experience of most of the teenagers that I have in my upper-intermediate and advanced level English classes is a very traditional, teacher-centered, high-stakes-test driven experience on a daily basis, as I have briefly described above. It’s a grinding routine in which they wake up very early, have classes the entire morning, have lunch (many times at school) and come over to our institute for their twice-a-week English lessons. Their classroom experience with us is different from their experience in their regular schools in some aspects. Our classes are smaller, with about 18 students in each group. The classrooms themselves are smaller and we adopt a U-shaped seating arrangement of desks. As I’ve mentioned before, we adopt communicative methodologies. Our teachers are trained to facilitate classes that are student-centered and dynamic, fostering plenty of genuine communication. We adopt course books that are the core of these classes, though teachers are encouraged to make the necessary adaptations to course books in order to address their students needs. Group work and pair work dynamics are widely adopted and are an important element in the communicative dynamics implemented in our classes.

Still, my teenage students are tired, and understandably so, given their high school routines. And even though their schooling experience with us bears many differences from their regular schooling, written tests, essays and grades are also important components of our courses. They need to do homework, write paragraphs and essays, and take tests on grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and listening comprehension. I have often felt that my classes might be coming across as more of the same for my teenagers, despite all my efforts to engage them in energizing discussions and collaborative dynamics with their peers. I mean, these kids have been our students for nearly a decade. It’s as if they have already been intensely exposed to our repertoire of communicative dynamics and activities, no matter how much we personalize and adapt and revamp what goes on in the classroom.

I’m thinking of ways to rethink their engagement. I’m thinking, and looking around, and getting acquainted with other pedagogic practices. Lately something has caught my attention – project based learning. I have been really curious about it and on a quest for learning more about what it is, and how to implement it. I want to write more about it soon, but for now, I will let these reflections on my context sit in my mind a while longer.


    1. Dear Domingos, writing this has helped me have a clearer picture of the culture in which we are immersed. We need to know where we stand in order to move forward, I guess.
      Warm hugs,

  1. Clarissa, while your students are driven, confident and obviously accomplished I sense coping with the unpredictable may be a weakness? Medically I’ve had to deal with people who are accomplished but not adaptable. Since their early lives were pathways of one expectation to the next they are thrown for a loop by uncertainty or the unexpected and usually work their way out of messes by repeating someone else’s solution (or being at a high social level, simply insisting that reality is what they say it is and since all their pals are the personification of reality, the problem evaporates). This is not a happy situation and in spite of the conflicts I have with some of my care-givers, they deserve a better pay-off for all their efforts. (For instance, my cardiologists has switched from bright red pumps to the dusty grey/black sensible boots of the joyless competent practitioner–is she getting bored with saving my life? Is saving my life that boring?)

    To me it sounds like your students are being led into an unsustainable repetition of the past that could fall out from under them. But mostly it sounds like a sad comfort based a on a stressful and damaging mechanism of “success” that feeds a system without nourishing those who populate it. Your idea of project based learning sounds good. Projects can go badly and present opportunities to invent resolutions and be alive to learning about the tools a person might have within them.

    As a shot in the dark I just met this person the other day at a presentation she was doing:

    1. Dear Scott, I think you nailed it. There’s a repetition of patterns and a replication of expectations that are becoming, in my view, unsustainable. The kids themselves don’t know that. The educational institutions, I suspect, don’t know that. It’s like the water we’re swimming in – the culture, the status quo. You mention uncertainty and unpredictability. Those are key. Thank you for that insight. Adaptability and problem-solving skills tap into one’s creativity and maleability, but creativity is a well that may be blocked by certainty and clear-cut paths.
      Thank you for the insights. (and the links! Looks quite interesting and… chaotic! lol)


      p.s. Hope you are well. Julia and I send you our good energy!

  2. Dear Clarissa,

    This is so accurate it’s almost scary. I don’t have a way with (written) words – or spoken, for all that matters – but I have painted this same picture in my head a thousand times and I want to try and comment….

    What I often have is the feeling of walking a very, very long road to nowhere, and in the end, I wonder if, in fact, I’m not just pacing around in circles, accomplishing little. Am I already getting too old to engage kids, to come up with cool stuff? Am I already “passée”?

    I sometimes feel that all there is to say and do in EFL has been said and done, and recycled, and revisited, and adapted, and rethought, and renamed… Is there even a possibility of something new, like REALLY new? Something revolutionary? On the other hand, I wonder, Is this what our students need? or want? or will benefit from? I don’t know…

    Anyway, we keep trying, and hopefully, more often than not, succeeding.

    Keep your clarity, my friend, for it helps!

  3. I think there might be a tension with students “destined” for success between their assumed privileged status and their needs to be seen as more complete persons. Having everything, what else could they need hides the vulnerability of their life that needs to be led with such care. But what of you teachers too? So much promise under your care. Well supported and industrious students we all wish we were assigned to–it almost seems like there’s nothing to give them. I wonder if the sense that these kids are already “complete” in life’s physical needs robs their teachers of the human part of themselves that connects with, say, sadness in a student? How could there be sadness in this Best World? It’s like a complaints department in Heaven, presumably unneeded.

    It may be that the world (and the students themselves) sees single dimensional people in your students while you see layers and contradictions and needs. Are you disallowed from disturbing those layers?

    PS, doing fine. I’m now being treated at 5 different medical centres and may need to hire a manager to keep track of who gets me and when.

    Do you know – The Electronic Village Online

  4. Not sure if this is useful. About half way down she begins to talk about language:

    Interpretive Hermeneutic Phenomenology: Clarifying Understanding by Ann E. McManus Holroyd – accessed 11/6/14

    “Language is never a private affair, but instead is shared between humans. For that reason, language cannot be viewed as a subjective happening (Schwandt, 1999). There is an “I-lessness” to language, most evident in the fact that “Whoever speaks a language that no one else understands does not speak. To speak means to speak to someone” (Gadamer, 1977, p. 65). Language and speaking are understood as a to-and-fro play that transcends subjectivity.”

  5. I’ve just gone through the same process, Clarissa. A group of 16 kids aged 14-16 who would come to class, get excellent grades on the written tests and do very little in terms of oral production. They were usually exhausted for the reasons you’ve already mentioned. So, once again, I reviewed my teaching practice and the tools I use to connect with the students. For some reason, I got to think I was too old to teach them. However, in spite of the quality of the activities, very little came from them, It was ever worse when I asked my students to open their books. At the very beginning of the semester, when I developed activities to know more about each one of them as a means to personalize examples, most of the kids told me that they did nothing during the weekend. When they didn’t have a test, they either studied or slept. Most of them have traveled abroad many times and come from upper-middle class. Having their experiences in mind (traveling abroad, knowing other cultures, etc), I asked them what had been the happiest moment in their lives. The answer, “I can’t remember it”. It is true that this is one of teenagers’ characteristics: pretending everything is ordinary and nothing good happens to them. Food for thought.

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