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Primary Education News
News Teaching in favelas: a new approach to schooling street children
Yvonne Bezerra de Mello has developed a pedagogy based on neuroscience to help children raised in the slums of Rio de Janeiro bridge the achievement gap. Jo Griffin profiles her work
Why do children raised in tough slums perform worse than others when they get the same schooling?
Too often a lack of self-confidence or self-discipline get the blame but, according to Yvonne Bezerra de Mello at the Uere Project in Rio de Janeiro, the real reasons are more complex. Trauma and violence in early life create specific learning difficulties that block children's capacity to learn.
At her school in one of the city's most impoverished favelas, De Mello has developed an innovative pedagogy that integrates neuroscience with didactics to fill in the learning gaps that prevent such children making progress. The results are so successful it has been adopted as a method in 150 state schools in Rio and has started to attract attention overseas: in 2012, a group of 15 teachers from Cologne visited the project because they were having difficulty adapting old methods to today's multi-racial classrooms.
De Mello, who has a PhD in philology and linguistics and based her methods on 30 years of research in the slums of Rio and abroad, is a well-known social activist in Brazil, in part due to her public protests after the massacre of eight street children by police outside the Candelaria church in July 1993. De Mello set up a makeshift school for the survivors, which grew into the Uere project.
Outside the school in Mare, a sprawling complex of 16 favelas that are home to 130,000 people, small children run through the warren of alleyways shouting and laughing. Inside, the half-day session begins for a group of teenagers in a brightly painted classroom where they are free to get up and wander out, or move chairs. Lessons are divided into blocks of no more than 20 minutes and the more-able children take turns to instruct the class through role play. Subjects are covered for short periods in varied ways, often linked to real life, with no note taking or rote learning.
De Mello's method stresses "repairing the brain's synapses" so that students' minds become active and engaged – in some cases, for the first time in their lives. In a community where gun crime, drug-related violence and domestic abuse are endemic, her methods improve brain functions such as memory, focus, verbal skills, concentration and logic that may have been blocked by constant exposure to violence and trauma. She believes all teachers should be trained in the basics of neuroscience.
"Look," she says, showing me an exercise book with incomprehensible scribbles. "These were made by a 12-year-old boy who could not even name the colours when he came here." Her team started by spending hours talking to him. De Mello says a key problem for many children growing up in favelas is the lack of verbal communication, whether because of their parents' poor education or circumstances that mean the child is alone all day.
De Mello believes children from very deprived backgrounds inevitably fail in mainstream education because they lack the "pre-learning" that equips them to absorb information, to concentrate or understand information that may seem obvious to others.
"Intelligence can be repaired," she says, "and we have found the way to do it."
Her teaching method aims to fill in that gap so that even the poorest children have a chance to succeed in mainstream education. In Brazil, children attend school for half a day – De Mello's students go on to a session at a mainstream school in the afternoon.
Criticism of the education system was a feature of protests earlier this year by mainly middle-class Brazilians, but the children from poorest families face particular challenges: many live far away from any schools, with inadequate transport links, or must stay at home to look after younger children. Others are sucked into crime or drugs by the gangs that rule their communities.
In another classroom at the school in Mare, 15 or so younger children are having a maths lesson – interchanging number games and switching between five languages – all the children at Uere learn basic vocabulary and numbers in several languages to keep their minds alert. It is impressive to watch these small children in flip-flops and shorts who rarely leave the slum switch between Mandarin, French or German confidently. Everton, a 17-year-old boy who wants to be a vet, tells me he prefers the Uere school because children from the slums are snubbed in mainstream schools.
The emphasis at De Mello's school is on equipping the students with the tools they need to learn, and this includes self-esteem and emotional intelligence. The young teachers are warm and tactile with the kids, who shower and eat two meals on the site. In one lesson, De Mello asks teenagers to tell her what happened at home the day before and a girl begins to cry when she recalls a fight between her parents. De Mello explains gently that she is not responsible for her parents' lives and it is clear that no one has ever helped the girl to see her life in this way before.
"If children do not have this pre-learning, they cannot hope to complete their education, let alone hold down jobs. But if we help them to repair these 'learning blocks', they can have good prospects and lead worthwhile lives," says De Mello, who is fired by anger about the lack of opportunity and inadequate infrastructure in poor communities, as well as the failure of the Brazilian state system to tackle social problems such as abuse or neglect.
"These children are just written off. Isn't it obvious that that's bad not just the children, but for Brazilian society as a whole?"