Memes and murder mystery: April updates from the classroom

April marked the first full month I was in the classroom! Here’s what’s been happening:


Oral and Written Expression Skills in English

My co-ETA Alex and I have been co-leading a public speaking series. Each week, we introduce a new type of public speaking and give an example of what that type of speech might look like. Then the following week, students give their own speeches in English. So far, we’ve covered informational, persuasive, and demonstrative speaking.


Oral and Written Skills for Teachers

As far as I understand it, UCS’s curriculum is changing so that this class will replace Oral and Written Expression Skills in English. My students in this class are more beginners, which I think makes sense—speaking and writing are good skills to practice throughout the entire curriculum. It’s also a helpful class for me, as the lessons are specifically geared around using these skills in the classroom.

When we were talking about teacher voice, for example, I led an activity where I randomly gave my students roles (e.g. doctor and patient), and told them to improvise a dialogue using only one word at a time. I thought this would be super useful—throwing out a word at a time and trying to convey context through tone and pantomime is how I communicate half the time I’m abroad—but I think my students were still a little shy.

I also joined a group of my students for a presentation on an academic text (in Portuguese) about correcting English-learners’ errors. In solidarity with my students, I tried to present entirely in Portuguese. My big takeaway from that lesson was that the Portuguese word for “researcher” is pesquisador, whereas pescador means “fisherman.” Efforts to downplay the mistake with a “fishing for knowledge” joke were met with mixed results.


English V

This month we’ve been talking about the past tense (simple past v. past continuous, e.g.) and storytelling, so I created two activities to practice.

The first was a brief murder mystery exercise: I said we were all on a cruise ship together when there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that the captain had died. I gave each student a slip of paper with a location written on it, and everyone needed to come up to the front of the class, testify to what they were doing in that location when the captain died, and explain why they were innocent.

What unfolded was this whole improvised story about how there was an affair between the captain and the cleaning lady, but the captain’s wife actually killed him so she could be with the cleaning lady instead. I was really impressed with their creativity, and my students were so excited that they kept embellishing the story even after we’d technically finished the activity. But I had to call a stop to the fun when my students started to finagle the story so that the blood on the cleaning supplies found in the captain’s room was actually menstrual fluid instead.

The second exercise was one of those write-a-sentence-and-pass-the-paper-to-the-next-person deals. Before class, I prepared a Powerpoint with instructions for each of the sentences. For example, the first sentence needed to start with “once upon a time” and include a noun I had randomly assigned to each student; the second sentence needed to include a randomly assigned verb in the past continuous tense; the third sentence needed to include the word suddenly; and so on. At the end, we read the finished stories—which, in a small victory for me, everyone stuck around to hear.

Because this is a class for English teachers, I end each exercise by leading a brief discussion about how useful the exercise would be in their classrooms. To my surprise, the support for both of these exercises was nearly unanimous.


Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis

In this class, I got to give my magnum opus: a presentation that used the language of functional grammar (a branch of linguistics that categorizes language based on function and, notably, context) to explore what makes memes funny. I chose three different memes and had my students discuss what makes them different and how their humor works.

(Thesis, for any functional grammar buffs: memes work because the mode remains the same even as the field changes, which is what makes them funny. Despite their similarities, these memes are functionally distinct because each one has different tenor.)

The presentation also included some jokes that my professor had collected. I thought their wording was funny, so I reworded the jokes and included them alongside the originals in my presentation. I asked my students which they thought was funnier—and they all preferred the originals.

My versions were the left one in the left picture, and the right one in the right. I was surprised, though—I thought the originals either foreshadowed the joke or buried the punchline. My professor had a theory about this: as non-native English speakers, they preferred jokes where the context of the set-up was much more explicit.

On a completely different level, a few weeks later, I led a different discussion about how context influences word choice in different situations. I provided examples of how I’d ask a friend out to lunch versus a coworker, for instance. I thought it’d be a superficial presentation, but it actually led to a great discussion about how cultural context influences communication styles and norms.


Learning, teaching, sharing, laughing—suffice it to say, being an ETA is going really well.


Excerpts from a Brazilian travel guide for New York City

31144188_1927808540587238_4381323832598724608_nOne of my favorite spots on campus is the little library in Bloco L. It’s basically a few couches, a collection of various foreign-language books, and a very friendly librarian who stays true to her philosophical and literary principles. I found a gem in there the other day: a DK travel guide for New York City, written in Portuguese for Brazilian tourists.

I really like travel guides. And because I’ve relied on them so heavily when I’ve traveled, I was curious to see what it was like to read an outsider’s perspective of a place so close to home.

In full disclosure: it wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. The tone was pretty neutral, and I think Brazil and the US share enough norms to make an extensive discussion of cultural differences unnecessary. I’ve never read a English-language guidebook for NYC, but the Portuguese guide struck me as pretty similar to what I think it would be like.

Regardless, I pulled (and translated as best I could) a few quotes that I thought were interesting.

First, here was a four-day itinerary the book suggested. I have spent 15+ years of my life living an hour outside the city, and I definitely haven’t seen all of these:

DAY 1: United Nations, Tudor City, Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York Public Library, Bryant Park, Times Square, Empire State Building
DAY 2: Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, The Pierre.
DAY 3: Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Bowling Green, Fraunces Tavern Block Historic District, Bayard’s Restaurant, Federal Hall, New York Stock Exchange, Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, City Hall, South Street Seaport Historic District, Brooklyn Bridge.
DAY 4: Central Park, Children’s Museum, American Museum of Natural History.

On safety:

“Tourists in New York are treated like any other person, without receiving special attention. So, if you follow the basic tips for personal safety, you can explore the city without major problems, as if you lived there.”

“Since the term of Rudolph Giuliani, New York has become a relatively safe place to walk. But the rules of good sense are still to be followed: stay alert and walk with a purpose. Avoid eye contact and confrontations with people who do not inspire confidence. If they ask for money, be careful and don’t initiate conversation.”

I’d disagree that tourists are treated like any other person—my impression is that if they stand around gawking, they might get treated worse—but I’ve never really thought about how little anyone (or anything) seems out of place in New York. It’s much less homogenous than a lot of other places in the world, at least.

“Stay alert and walk with a purpose” was one of the first pieces of advice we were given during the safety briefing during our Fulbright orientation, so I suppose it’s sound counsel no matter where you are. But I was a little disheartened to see less of a discussion about people asking for money on the street, especially in light of the imperative to avoid engaging at all.

On shopping:

“Whoever visits New York always makes some purchases. Considered the temple of consumerism, the city reveals a paradise for those who appreciating shop windows and filling bags.”

The book then goes on for twenty pages listing all the different places you can go to look for different things: men’s fashion, women’s fashion, accessories (buy umbrellas at Barney’s!), cosmetics, beauty salons, art, antiques, gourmet food, toys, electronics…

My host mom said that Brazilians love to buy things when they travel abroad, and I had two Brazilian friends here concur. To give you some means of comparison, the guidebook devotes as much time to shopping as it does to all of New York’s attractions—everything from theaters to bars to spas.

On food:

“In Manhattan, you can eat a snack in any place at any time. The impression is that New Yorkers eat all the time—on the corners, in bars, in coffee shops, in delis, before and after work, and until late in the night.”

“Order few dishes. The portions are enormous, and except in the chicest of places, an appetizer is equivalent to a light entree. You can divide dishes or ask for two appetizers without an entree.”

The book also lists the following as specialities of New York: Manhattan clam chowder, New York-style pizza, New York Strip Steak, and New York Cheesecake. Pretzels, Sabrett hot dogs, and falafel also get shout-outs in the street food section, and pastrami sandwiches, dill pickles, and bagels with cream cheese and lox are listed (among others) as typical deli foods.

As an aside: one thing I think this book does do well is address the sheer diversity of cultures that make up what we consider to be New York. Obviously it’s impossible to catalogue all the ever-shifting subcultures, but the “Flavors of New York” section does make it a point to name-check about a dozen different national cuisines, as well as include sections on soul food and different types of Asian restaurants.

On sports:

“New York is full of unmissable sports bars, with TVs, sports flags, and happy beer-drinking patrons. To get an idea of American sports life, enter a sports bar on the day of a big game, and soon you will be screaming and cheering with the locals.”

“In order to capture the essence of this American institution, baseball fans ought to see the famous New York Yankees in action at Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx.”

The book takes a few lines to describe the team’s pedigree and its most famous players, then continues:

“It is unforgettable to attend a game of ‘America’s favorite pastime’ in the sacred Yankee Stadium on a summer day, observing everything from the crack of the bat and the flight of the ball in the blue sky, to the seemingly effortless slides into base and the roar of the crowd. If you can, try to attend a game between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox.”

But wait… doesn’t New York have two baseball teams? The guide adds, almost as an afterthought:

“The New York Mets, the other important team, play in Shea Stadium in Queens.”

On etiquette:

“It is illegal to smoke in any area or public building in New York. Some restaurants now have special areas for smokers, but it is better to phone ahead.

Tips are an integral part of life in New York…”

The book then goes on to list suggested tipping amounts for various services. That’s literally it in this section. I told you it was boring.

On “The end of the night in New York”:

“New York is really the city that never sleeps. Whether waking up in the middle of the night wanting to eat a roll fresh out of the oven, having fun in the nightclubs, or watching the sun rise on the Manhattan horizon, you will always be able to fulfill your wish.”

A birthday like politics: ending in pizza

There seem to be two phrases I’m contractually obligated to mention on a blog about Brazil: “Brazil is not for beginners” (coming soon to a travel blog near you!) and “everything ends in pizza.”

Tudo acaba em pizza is a common refrain in Brazilian politics. It’s a complaint that nothing ever changes, that scandals and corruption aren’t punished so much as forgotten. This pattern is the result of a number of cultural and legal factors I’m still working to understand, but when over 100 of the country’s top politicians are being investigated for corruption (and in 2016, over 350 of Brazil’s almost 600 members of Congress were facing charges or investigation), it’s easy to see why people are frustrated.

I gather tudo acaba em pizza was originally used more positively—a way of recognizing that, at the end of the day, things get worked out. The phrase was first used in the 1960s, when a sports journalist described the celebration after a São Paulo soccer club resolved some intense organizational disputes. “We’ll have our disagreements,” the phrase seemed to say, “but we’ll also have our party.”


Maybe a birthday party?

You might be picking up on the central tension here. As far as stereotypes go, Brazil is a famously laid-back culture, warm and resourceful and celebratory. But what happens when that culture of friendliness means politicians are expected to grant favors? Or when that attitude of inventiveness is applied to circumventing the law? Or when the country’s generally easy-going air either excuses or commutes corruption and graft?

(Well, probably something like modern Brazil, but that’s a topic for yet another blog post.)

In any case, I got to experience this warmth and celebration firsthand this weekend. I turned 24* on Saturday, and Barbara and Elaine planned two separate surprise parties for me. The first was Friday night as I was flossing before bed, when they brought back a few friends to ring in my birthday with a toast at midnight.

* Both my host mom and one of my professors have joked that I should actually be saying I’m turning 23 and 12 months, given the stigma around the number 24. I’m still getting a read on that particular joke—it’s the sort of thing that could be offensive in the US, but when one of my students heard my professor say it, he practically twirled and said he was always 24.

The second party was Saturday afternoon, featuring gifts and champagne and a brigadeiro cake! Brigadeiro is a famous Brazilian dessert, referring to balls of sweetened condensed milk and cocoa powder rolled in chocolate sprinkles. Barbara knew I liked chocolate, and Elaine wanted to make sure I had something Brazilian—so this cake was the perfect mix.

To my surprise, I was also given a number of gifts, including a snazzy new scarf, a copy of the Chronicles of Narnia in Portuguese, and some new t-shirts from a famous Brazilian brand. Barbara, knowing my family’s obsession with Diary of a Wimpy Kid, also got me a box set of the first five books of Diário de um Banana.

The evening then ended in pizza at Rodapizza Giordani. If you’ve ever been to a Brazilian steakhouse in the US, you know that servers circle the tables with skewers of meat, and you have a little card you can flip to indicate whether you want to be served or not. Here that serving style is called rodízio, and some restaurants do it for pizza.

Rodapizza Giordani is a dangerous place, mostly because it is very easy to fourteen slices of pizza there. We had a little wooden marker we could flip to “salty pizzas,” “sweet pizzas,” or “no thank you,” which in retrospect we probably should’ve utilized much earlier. The flavors were so much fun to try—like spinach/egg/bacon, or baked apples/ham. The sweet pizzas (like cinnamon/banana/cheese, or chocolate/coconut, or dulce de leite, sometimes with ice cream) were really good, too.

It admittedly got to the point where we might’ve thought our lives would end in pizza, but given some time to digest, I’d definitely go back there again.

So thank you to all my friends and especially my little family here who made my birthday so special. And shout-out to Barbara for capturing the day for posterity, including little gems like this:

champagne gif

Opening my first bottle of champagne, wearing my new scarf

Evidently, ending in pizza is not always a good thing—and I don’t mean to make light of a dire situation affecting tens of millions of Brazillians. But insofar as we can come together and laugh at the end of the day, I’m glad my birthday could end in pizza.


UCS and the nonexistent line between the personal and the professional

The Universidade de Caxias do Sul (or UCS, pronounced ooks, like a caveman would) is my home away from home away from home. It’s actually huge, home to 38,000 students sprawled across eight campuses throughout the region. It has an aquarium and a zoo, a museum and an orchestra, and snazzy promos that wouldn’t look out of place among those university advertisements you see during college basketball games.

It’s also the center of my life here. I’m living in Caxias because one of the English professors at UCS, our coordinator Maria Valésia, applied to have us come teach. Our host moms all work at UCS, and most of the people we’ve been meeting have been UCS students, faculty, and staff. It’s great to have so much support, but it also means that the line between the personal and the professional here is a little thinner than I’m used to. (So far, in my experience, that’s been ultimately a good thing.)


We started teaching classes a couple weeks ago—and by “teaching” I mean “being present for and leading some activities during.” (We’re always in the classroom with the course’s professor.) The school year runs from March to December, and we’ll be in these classes until the semester break in July. The four courses I’m teaching are:

  • TUESDAY, 4:40-7:30p: Oral and Written Expression Skills in English
  • WEDNESDAY, 7:40-10:30p: Oral and Written Skills for Teachers
  • THURSDAY 7:40-10:30p: English V
  • FRIDAY 7:40-10:30p: Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis

As you can see, all my classes are in the evening or night. There are people around during the day, but night is when the campus comes alive. Because a lot of students work during the day and/or commute from surrounding cities, campus doesn’t really get busy until 6:30 or 7:00. But working and then commuting and then studying makes for a long day, so that 10:30 end time tend to be pretty soft. It’s not uncommon to get out around ten (when students just start to pick up and leave anyway) to allow time for everyone to get home.


UCS’s fancy theater (where last month I saw a concert given by, for some reason, an orchestra from the University of Northern Iowa)

In addition to teaching, I’m also a student here! We’re allowed to take up to three courses for free, so I initially signed up for Intercultural Communication, a business class that was taught in English. It was different from what I expected—the few classes I attended consisted of re-reading sections of our homework texts in order to present on them to the rest of the class. Not all of my classmates had a good grasp of English, and I think the professor himself was only asked to take on the course because he studies business and knows the language. It’s a tough situation to teach in, but I ended up dropping the class in order to begin assisting a fourth English course instead.

I’m definitely learning more in the classes I teach, though. They’re almost exclusively for students who want to become English teachers themselves, which means I’m getting some tips on pedagogy. For example, in Oral and Written Skills for Teachers last week, I learned about the importance of cutting Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and establishing a teacher voice. And then Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis is basically a straight-up linguistics course, which I’ve always wanted to take.


Bloco L, the language building

Additionally, there’s just the fun of seeing English from a non-native speaker’s point of view. There are so many rules I’ve never had to learn, and I think it’s super interesting to learn what sort of knowledge I just take for granted. For example, there are verbs in English that don’t take a present progressive, like need, hate, believe, mean, and know. Native English speakers don’t say “I am needing a drink” or “they are knowing how to get there;” we just use the simple present instead. It’s a lesson that everyone in my English V class could tell me, but one I’d never encountered in my life.

These lessons, in turn, help me learn Portuguese. I’d never say “estou precisando de uma bebida,” just because I don’t think of the word need in the present progressive. But here it’s apparently totally fine to say.

Speaking of Portuguese, we’ve also begun our Portuguese class. During our first class last week (consisting of me and two other ETAs), I was pleasantly surprised when our professor spent the entire time conversing with us because we were too advanced for the material she’d prepared. That’s not to say we’re advanced—I still don’t really know all the conjugations I need to use on a daily basis—but I’ve picked up a lot living with Elaine, and my background in Spanish and Italian helps with comprehension. I’m excited for the class to help me fill in the gaps.

But as I mentioned earlier, for us ETAs, the line between the personal and the professional isn’t well defined. I communicate with my professors mainly over WhatsApp, where they send me hearts and kisses and random pictures. If I’m hanging out with Maria Valésia, we might spend some time discussing our class; and if we’re class, we might talk about plans to see each other on the weekend. If I have some time to spare between meetings, I might go visit my host mom in the ombudsman’s office (which is apparently how you translate that), or pop into the international exchange center to say hi to the staff there.

The blurring of the personal and professional is something we discuss at our Orientation—generally speaking, the two are far less discrete in Brazil than they are in the States. I was worried I would find that invasive or stifling, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Maybe it’s because I’ve found myself among a lot of like-minded people—you know, English professors—but I find myself feeling welcomed and valued when my colleagues take an earnest interest in my life outside the classroom.

Admittedly, I can see how this expectation of closeness might get exhausting if I had to interact with an office full of people each day, or if I needed to regularly negotiate relationships with people I disliked. But I can also see how this closeness could make it easier to empathize with people, accept others, and be easier on ourselves—especially in the workplace. If we can see each other primarily as people, maybe we can better recognize and respect our own needs, too.

I dunno. I’m just happy that I’ve had the chance to build some relationships and make this school a home away from home away from home.

Easter celebrations and Peep propaganda

So I started teaching classes last week! It was right before Easter, which made coming up with lesson plans easy: I’m here to be a cultural ambassador, and that means sharing holiday traditions and spreading the Gospel of Peeps.

For the most part, though, Easter celebrations here seem pretty similar to those in the US. In general, Brazil is a pretty Catholic country, and the high rates of Italian immigration to my region have only increased the influence of Catholicism. (Although for some reason, I don’t think people abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent.) I have picked up on a few differences between Easter in the US and Brazil, though, and I wanted to talk about those those with my students.

Here are the three main differences I shared with them:


…right before teaching them how to dye eggs

1. Easter isn’t as big in the US because we emphasize other holidays

The first thing I told my students was that Easter isn’t as big in the United States as it is here. Even though it’s definitely the most important religious holiday for a majority of Americans, it doesn’t seem to be as culturally enshrined as like the Fourth of July or Christmas. By contrast, I get the impression that Easter is more of an event here—a special occasion that needs to be celebrated in certain ways.

One of those ways is with family. For this reason, both my host mom and coordinator have compared Easter here to Thanksgiving in the US. I get the sense that Easter is a homecoming holiday here, and many of my students told me their plans for Easter were to spend the day with their families.

Another way to celebrate Easter seems to be by traveling. Pretty much all the students who didn’t tell me they were seeing family told me that they’d be going somewhere else for the weekend. The beach was an especially popular destination.

(Being as culturally open as I am, I decided to combine these two approaches and celebrate Easter by taking a Saturday trip with my host mom and two university friends. We went to Gramado, a small nearby city known for its German heritage, annual film festival, and most importantly, chocolate.)


2. In the US, Easter is associated with spring

In most of the US, Easter hits right around the time that trees start to bud and animals begin raising their young. This dovetails really nicely with Easter’s theme of resurrection and new life, but it also means that countries in the Southern Hemisphere (like Brazil) experience Easter at the very end of summer.

That doesn’t mean the imagery here is any different—I still see bunnies and eggs and flowers, like in the pictures above—but I think it does influence how people celebrate the holiday. For example, I get the impression that Easter represents an opportunity to get to the beach one last time, which makes me think that it’s a seen as a holiday like Labor Day.

3. Food-related traditions are different

In the US, you have your Easter ham. Here—like you do for any reason at all, it seems—you have churrasco. (Not that I’m complaining.) But when it comes to Easter candy, chocolate eggs reign supreme.

The chocolate eggs we have in the US aren’t like chocolate eggs here. First, they’re huge (it’s not uncommon to see them as big as 3/4 lb), and you can’t enter a grocery store without running into them. I say this literally—they’re displayed on this special scaffolding between aisles so that they hang down like foil-wrapped fruits. This is something you need to pay attention to if you’re walking around while 6’2″.


Photo taken from just above eye level

Sometimes, these are the eggs that the Easter Bunny then hides around the house for kids to find each morning, leaving a trail of flour footprints (which may or may not bear some resemblance to a parent’s hand). In other houses, the Easter bunny hides little chocolates around the house, or leaves all the chocolates and gifts in a big basket that’s been prepared the night before.

Tragically, these chocolate eggs seem to be the only exclusively Easter candy here. They don’t have Cadbury eggs or Peeps or the fun Easter-themed adaptations of other popular candy bars. In my class, I found myself chalking this candy’s existence up to the US’s rampant consumerism—which, to my shock, I found I actually sort of missed. But I pushed this thought to the back of my mind and then plunged right into several slides detailing how great Peeps are, featuring pictures from the Washington Post’s Peeps Diorama Contest.

Because foreign candy is the best candy, I brought some Peeps and Robin Egg Whoppers from the US to share with my students. I understand that Peeps are a controversial foodstuff back home—and I told my students as such—but I can report that everyone I’ve shared Peeps with have uniformly found them adorable. And as far as taste goes, the worst review they got was “I like the little eggs better.”

Speaking of eggs, dyeing them doesn’t really seem to be a thing here. One of my students said his family paints eggs, but only after their contents are drained through a hole in the bottom. My host mom told me that sometimes people here put sugared peanuts inside the empty shell during Holy Week, and then crack open the egg to enjoy the peanuts on Easter.

I didn’t get to try this, but I did spring for a giant chocolate egg from a chocolatier in Gramado. These eggs get a bad rap for being expensive, but let me tell you: every word of it is true. I think I got confused about what exactly was on sale, because I spent the same amount of money on this stupid egg as I did for all-you-can-eat sushi last week.


Anyway, that’s how I celebrated my Easter—with a mix of traditions from the US and Brazil, fostering a little bit of intercultural exchange among the way.

Oh, and also? Watching the ‘Cats win it all, again \V/