They spend their days in Teachers College’s classrooms, Northern Manhattan schools and other corners of New York City. But the hearts of Sarah Morais, Daniela Natasha Mendes Arai and Paola Salmona Ricci – TC’s 2017-18 Lemann Foundation Fellows – are with their native Brazil and the public education system they intend to elevate when they return home.
“We really have a chance to close the gap,” says Arai, a master’s degree student in TC’s program in Adult Learning & Leadership, speaking of the gulf that separates Brazil’s public students from their peers in private schools.
The Lemann Foundation, established by the Brazilian-Swiss investor Jorge Paulo Lemann in 2002, seeks to “support the brightest young talent dedicated to solving some of the biggest social problems in Brazil,” says Camila Pereira, the Foundation’s Director of Education Policies. That list includes the nation’s public education system, which ranks in the bottom tier of those evaluated by Programme for International Student Assessment. The Foundation has reached more than 40 million people with EdTech solutions it supports, trained 26,000 teachers and educational managers, and supported scores of institutions that are also committed to improve public education in Brazil.
A major part of the Foundation’s strategy is its partnership with Teachers College, launched in 2013 and steadily broadening in scope.
Last spring at TC’s Academic Festival, for example, the College hosted the first international public discussion of Brazil’s new national learning standards for primary- and middle-school students. Among the speakers were Lemann Foundation Visiting TC Scholar Vera Cabral; alumna Leticia Guimaraes Lyle, recipient of the College’s Early Career Award; and Alice Andrés Ribeiro, Executive Secretary of Movimento pela Base Nacional Comum, the group that led the advocacy effort in support of the standards’ development.
Still, the Lemann Fellows remain the heart of the TC-Lemann Foundation collaboration.
“The Fellows come back prepared for the challenges they are about to face,. Their influence is being felt in our classrooms.”
— Camila Pereira
Lemann scholarships cover nearly full tuition and partial living expenses of Fellows attending TC and eight other participating institutions – Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Yale, UCLA and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To date, 13 Lemann Fellows have studied at TC, and Pereira says they are already making a difference in Brazilian learning initiatives, entrepreneurial endeavors, and international and national non-government organizations (NGOs). For example, inaugural Fellow Tonia Casarin (M.A. ’14) recently won Brazil’s Global Impact Challenge for her project to build a platform to assess and prepare teachers in social and emotional learning (SEL). Casarin is now writing a book on the SEL development of adult learners. And entrepreneur Thiago Rached (M.A. ’16) is developing an artificial intelligence model designed to improve the literacy and writing skills of at-risk Brazilian students.
“The Fellows come back prepared for the challenges they are about to face,” says Pereira. “Their influence is being felt in our classrooms.”
The 2017-18 Lemann Scholars arrived at TC from the front lines of public learning reform in Brazil, though not all started out on that path.
After graduating from McGill University and working in consulting, Paola Salmona Ricci stepped into the management team of a São Paulo prekindergarten to help out her mother, who ran the program. She stayed for 10 years, earning certifications in childhood education and social development. She became interested in technology as an ally for creative learning and co-founded a non-profit, Instituto Catalisador, at the “intersection of culture and science,” ultimately “diving deeper into constructionist thought and creative education.” That work, which caught the attention of U.S. and Brazilian scholars as well as pioneers in the Maker education movement, led Ricci to TC, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in Instructional Technology & Media. She’ll return in June to continue her work with the non-profit in public schools as well as in a position as a Design Thinking teacher at a São Paulo private school.
“I’ll be working with kids who have all the opportunity in the world,” she explains. “My idea is to help them become more conscious of their city and surroundings and to become better engaged as citizens.”
Sarah Morais, who is pursuing a concentration in Educational Leadership within TC’s International Educational Development Program, wrote in her application for the Lemann Fellowship that she came “from a loving and hardworking family” that prioritized education.
That background enabled her to study at Universidade de São Paulo, one of the most prestigious universities in Brazil. Morais was still in school when the opportunity arose to volunteer with Cidadão Pró-Mundo, an education-oriented NGO.
After she gave a presentation at a 2010 academic conference in Holland, Morais’ calling took clearer form. Nearly two-thirds of Brazil’s adults fail to meet fundamental learning benchmarks, Morais told her listeners, and only five percent of the population has completed college. Afterward, as she shared her distress over these statistics, a friend cut her short.
“If you don’t change this,” he asked, “who will?”
The question made Morais realize that “I’d been given an incredible opportunity.”
After completing a business degree, Morais was named general manager of Cidadão Pró-Mundo. Through subsequent work with a public services design institute, she developed a keen appreciation for how technology can support innovation in teaching and, more broadly, for the role played by leadership in fostering significant change in schools and communities.
“In a world of constant change, principals can make the difference to a new school culture that opens space to the development of all,” she says.
Morais’ time at TC has strengthened her belief that the “incredible opportunity” awaiting her in Brazil is the chance to improve the professional development of principals.
Daniela Natasha Mendes Arai, a former classroom teacher, education journalist and manager with Brazil’s largest education-focused NGO, believes passionately in teaching “the whole child” and in personalizing learning, which she sees as the sum of the unique social, emotional and cognitive skills each student brings to the classroom.
The challenge, Arai says, is to create a system that prepares students for the labor market as well as global citizenship.
Arai believes an increased emphasis on teacher and administrative professional development, along with improvements in the use of data and evaluation, are imperatives that cannot be discounted if Brazil is serious about creating that system.
She further contends that Brazil can no longer afford to ignore the importance of social and emotional skills in the development of public policy surrounding education.
The time has come for Brazil to reform the system from the ground up, Arai says – and she wants to prepare future Brazilian educators for that challenge.
“I wanted to do something more to help the transformation of teachers and administrators, in particular to approach the teaching of math and languages in new ways,” Arai says. “Not only to teach new things, but to change the way teachers approach core disciplines such as math and languages.”
No one is claiming that the Lemann Fellows alone can transform public education in Brazil. But there is great hope that the Fellows can seed change at different levels and function as leaders of a new generation of thinkers who are committed to raising the bar for all.
“Brazil has had a ceiling for innovation and using emotional skills and neuroscience in education,” Arai says. “But we have advantages. And we have good brains for education.”
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