Thursday, September 17, 2009

Political hopelessness among my students

At one of the schools where I teach English my students are adolescents. I teach two English language instruction courses twice a week as well as 6 conversation classes per week. My students range from about 13 – 17 years of age.

Trying to come up with new and interesting conversation topics week after week is a challenge. How many times can I ask the students to talk about their favorite movies or which foods they like best? So, you know me, I tend to leverage daily political events in the news or to get students to think about social issues in general that may be controversial – that is to say, those about which every student probably has an opinion (and thus might be encouraged to make several sentences in English to express that opinion).

We have explored poverty (the students are decidedly middle- to upper-middle class), historical and present-day racism, the education system, how one obtains gainful employment (that is to say – do you have the necessary personal connections?), national politics, political corruption, hopes for the future and police brutality – among other topics.

The students are rarely without an energized opinion.

I’m afraid I must report that most kids, on most (political) topics, on most occasions express complete hopelessness that things are going to improve anytime soon. Especially in regards to the endemic nature of political corruption, no one thinks there is a way out.

This drives me crazy. I ask them: “What if you were elected Mayor of Niteroí? Would you then be corrupt or would you do the right thing? Can we not elect politicians that want to do the right thing? Maybe someone in this room should run for Mayor!”

There seems to be little fire in the eyes of the students to confront the suffocating reality of political corruption in Brazil (and the subsequent painful hardships and inequalities that result there from). They are focused on studying hard, learning English, scoring high on the college entrance exam, and then furthering their efforts to obtain a fine professional position that will keep them above the impoverished economic reality in which most Brazilians struggle.

Perhaps their parents have done well to keep them focused on their best option. But I have other ideas. I’m going to crack this nut. Somewhere among the students is the next Mayor. At least one among them is a social worker with a political fire in her belly.

I’m taking it upon myself to try and figure out how to engage the students in a way that pierces through their hopelessness. They are teaching me about the Brazilian mindset (and long-term real life experience) that simply ignores politicians. But I would like to ignite a real conversation that tries to create the possibility of an alternative view.

Call me naïve. Call me crazy. I know. But what better way to deal with the mundanity of teaching English to rich kids? I’ll keep you posted. Oh - and you Brazilians reading this - please offer your insights as to with whom I can hook up with and how I can get this job done.

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