October 02, 2013

Interviewing Affective Educators: Sandra Rodrigues

After Vicky Loras interviewed me last week, I thought I should also start interviewing enthusiastic educators I admire.  It didn't take me more than a few seconds to know who I was going to invite for my very first interview: Sandra Rodrigues.

Sandra Rodrigues
I met Sandra Rodrigues many years ago in one of the open training courses we offer for teachers of young leaners at Juan Uribe Ensino Afetivo. I can still clearly remember  how Sandra was very involved and took notes of everything we discussed. After this first meeting, we always kept in touch and Sandra became a regular at our courses and events, even bringing her lovely daughter, who was still a child at the time.

Sandra's determination, enthusiasm, and curiosity led her to explore the world of young learners learning like very few people I know. She read educational books, studied methodologies, shared her experiences with other educators, and travelled to educational centres.  But what I really find fascinating is how she has been able to align all her studies, experience, and values in her teaching. 

The result is admirable affective language learning! 

Here we have our first interview: 

Juan: Sandra, we have been together many times at school and I can truly say that I admire your energy and your passion for education. I would like to thank you very much for accepting to give me this interview and for sharing your work with the ELT community.

Sandra: It is a pleasure to share my ideas and my passion for education with you Juan. I’m very grateful for everything I learned and still learn with you. And you know, I love talking about my work so thank you for inviting me.

Juan: It is m great pleasure, Sandra. I will start by asking you how you entered in the world of education. Did you have a special teacher that influenced you? 

Sandra: In fact I started when I was just 14 years old. I worked as a class assistant for four years and once I finished high school I started learning English in a private course at USP - University of São Paulo. (Unfortunately dear readers around the world, here in Brazil students don’t learn English in state schools yet. We do have English classes in our curriculum but if you want to be fluent in a second language, you better pay for a private course).

Sandra, Buddy, and I many years ago.

Anyway, soon after I followed some teacher training courses and started teaching adults. Business English, actually. Most of my students didn’t like to learn English. They used to say they had to learn it because of their career and ever since they were kids, English class had been a synonym of boredom and repetition.How come? Since they were kids? How could we teach a second language to a child? Was it really boring? Could it be different? Could I do it?

It was time for a change. Thereupon I initiated my studies on Child Language Acquisition and attended several courses about Teaching Young Children. By happy chance, in my search for new approaches and techniques I found your school, Juan Uribe Ensino Afetivo, in São Paulo, Brazil. There I discovered that learning a second language as a child can be fun, effective and the most important for me…children can learn in a very affective way.

A special teacher who influenced me? I have now 14 years experience as an English teacher. All through these years I have had many teachers, tutors and coordinators who somehow influenced my current way of teaching. However some of them are special just because after listening to my questions or aspirations, they had the perfect “food for thought comment” or even better, they asked me more questions. I guess I can say that the teachers, tutors and coordinators who influenced my way of teaching were the ones who were able to listen and to understand me: Juan Uribe, Débora Schisler, Clara Garcia, Sosô Uribe, Kátia Valle, Nina Lauder and Fátima Freire Dowbor.

Juan: I am happy to be in your list, Sandra! I consider you to be a very affective person and language educator. How do you have affect present in your life and in your teaching? How do you know it makes a difference in students’ learning?

Sandra: Well I have an eleven year old daughter who thinks she’s already a teenager, so dealing with affect is something I have in my life every single day. Along with that I’m a very passionate person. People usually say they can see in my eyes whether I’m happy or not. Consequently enabling students to experience good emotions is part of my job. As a special Dutch former teacher told me once, children can learn anything when they feel good about themselves. If they are happy, they will learn. So how do I make my students happy? Letting them do just what they want in class? No!

I usually say I’m inspired by my students and I get this inspiration by listening to them. By respecting their opinion, accepting their suggestions and providing a stress free environment. Of course we are not Pollyannas and sometimes we get up on the wrong side of bed. In my classes we make room for this kind of emotion as well. Students are encouraged to say when they are not having a good day, and that also goes for the teacher. We are human beings not super heroes.

 Juan: I couldn't agree more with you, Sandra. Presence and authenticity are key to true affective learning. Changing subjects, we have both taken countless courses and travelled to different places around the world to learn about how young learners learn best. What have been some of your most surprising findings?

Dutch children learning in the museum. 
Sandra: When visiting the Netherlands I found out that Dutch kids are one of the best of the world when it comes to Math. I had the chance to talk to a former primary teacher there and she told me that Math is traditionally valued by parents and teachers. At school teachers stress the construction of knowledge and the understanding, but not the tricks. Moreover, there’s a heavy weight on the fundamentals where theory and practice are linked to daily life.

All over the world is common to find parents who are proud to say: “hey, did you know my five year old son can count to hundred?” – then the other parent would say – “my son can count to hundred in two languages!”. In The Netherlands, young kids can count to ten but they know what they are counting. One to ten is not a chant of words.

Another great experience I had in the Netherlands was visiting the National Museum of Education in Rotterdam.  Besides photos and educational films, you can also find several objects related to education: furniture, textbooks, wall-charts, schoolbags, atlases, ink jars and school uniforms.

More museum learning!
Downstairs there is a world of discovery. The discovery of science by the child itself. With low cost material and high educational value,  children can explore a couple of daily wonders. So they can build a miniature dike and learn about water flows or peel potatoes mechanically and turn them into Dutch fries. They can also risk to work on an old fashioned feet powered singer, experience friction by hitting the nails, or even write with an ancient feather-pen. 

The learning is not structured but is far more effective by the intense interaction between the kids of different ages, all eager to show how it should be done in their way.

Work of children in a Reggio Emilia classroom. 

Another surprising finding took place in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Inspired by Loris Malaguzzi, preschool educators there believe that the school environment, mainly the classroom, can be conceived as a third educator (they have two educators per class). 

Therefore I visited some schools to find out how they organize these environments and if would be possible to apply this approach in my classroom in Brazil. Basically everything they do is FOR and WITH the students. The daily routine poster, the drawings and all the artwork you find around the school is made by the children.

Wooden Reggio Emilia furniture. 

One of the schools I visited had only non manufactured toys. There were kids painting a big box to use it as a stove, parents donating some old pans and spoons and boys building their cars or trucks with pieces of wood and plastic bottles. It was a great experience.

Juan:  This year you showed me lovely pictures of your projects with your students.  What makes a project involving and productive in your opinion? Could you give us some examples?

Sandra: The more you know your students, the more you will learn from and with them. This is a great thing about working with projects, we can learn so many things together. The first thing I do with a new group is to take some time to watch them play during school break. Listen to their talks with friends and when possible ask about their favorite books, toys, games and music.

Different mudras one can make!
You have to be all ears and take notes whenever is possible. I remember a class when students were spelling each other’s names. Once one of them needed help to remember the letter B and I helped using sign language. They started laughing and tried to imitate the letters I was doing with my hands. Soon a student said “this is nice because we can speak with our hands”. 

Then I said “well, you can even tell a story with your hands”. At that instant I explained that in Indian dance they use to tell a story through “mudras” and that each mudra has a meaning. Then I started showing them each mudra with my hands: Pataka, Tripataka, Ardhapataka, Kartarimukha, and so on. 

Students learning about the Indian culture. 

My little kids went crazy and started to ask more questions about Indian dances and about the Indian Culture. I had some of the answers because I have been studying Bharatanatyam, classical Indian dance, for the last eight years, so teaching them about India was not that difficult. 

We listened to a version of “twinkle twinkle little star” with Indian accent, I told them the story of Taj Mahal, they used Indian water coloring  technique to personalize their t-shirts, and I even invited an Indian friend to talk to the students at school. They asked my friend all type of questions, including if in India they were used to sleeping on a bed of nails.

So if you want to have an involving and productive project, besides a very good planning you also need to listen carefully to your students.

Juan: I find impressive how you were able to share our love for the Indian culture, even dancing Indian music to your students in one of the school celebrations!   What are you working on right now with them?

Sandra: Showing the whole different world of India to my students was mixing pleasure with work. More pleasure than work I should say. This is a brand new year for me. New school, new colleagues, new students, and new projects. I am working now in a Franciscan school, so for the first time I had to plan some activities related to Saint Francis of Assisi.

After reading “The Song of Francis” by Tomie DePaola, my students wanted to know more about the author (who also illustrates the book) so we sent him an email. While we were waiting his reply, students made some drawings from the book. Their work was so beautiful that we made a book for the school. Recently we got an email from Tomie dePaola answering all  our questions. That was something brand new for my students, receiving an email from an author and in English!

Besides this book project, I also travelled to Assisi with 49 students in my backpack during school break in July. Don’t you believe me? Yes, I did it! 

Juan: Please leave a final message with advice to our readers around the world.

Sandra:  Once again I would like to thank you Juan for this opportunity. You and your sister Sosô helped me to open many doors in my career and I will be forever thankful for everything.

Readers around the world…find your passion, grab it and never let it go. 
When we love what we do, anything is possible.
Respect, believe and surprise yourself.
Find people around the world with similar aspirations and share your ideas. 
Break routine every now and then, take a pause.
Never forget you are an example for your students. 
If you want them to read more books, leave your own books on the table. 
Be the change. 
Inspire them to do their best.
Respect, believe and surprise yourself.
Respect, believe and surprise your students.

Baci a tutti!
Sandra Rodrigues

I'm happy to have had our very first interview with Sandra Rodrigues. 
It's very clear in her words and actions that Sandra is an effective and affective educator! 

How did you like our first interview? 
Which was your favourite part? 

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