From memoirs to diphthongs: August/September updates from the classroom

When winter break ended in early August, I joined the rest of the Letras department in adapting to an entirely new schedule. And like, I mean entirely new.

For whatever reason, the English faculty at UCS don’t teach the same classes from semester to semester. Instead, they’re assigned classes seemingly at random, and fairly late, too–I don’t think they found out what they were teaching until partway through break. Obviously, this makes it super hard on the teachers, who have to constantly invent new curricula and sometimes teach themselves entirely new disciplines (like functional grammar, which Prof. Samira taught for the first time last semester, despite having no background in it) on extremely short notice.


UCS in its springtime glory

But if students and teachers find themselves with more work around this time of year, I ironically ended up with less. Due to scheduling quirks (namely, a dearth of late-afternoon classes and a concentration of evening classes largely on the same days), I’m actually helping with a lot fewer classes than last semester. Whereas before I was attending classes Tuesday through Thursday, this semester, I only help teach on Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday.

(I actually felt bad about this; per Fulbright guidelines, we’re supposed to be working 20-25 hours a week. Not counting prep time, 2.5 classes a week adds up to just about a third of that. But it’s not like I could even take on more classes; the few courses during times I was free were simply covered by other ETAs. So I had to get creative and plan some other things instead.)

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to for the past two months:

Business English I — Mondays 7:40-10:30,  Prof. Maria Valésia

My first business class at UCS, this course has the unenviable position of being required, prerequisite-less, and for some reason, not geared toward true beginners. As a result, students’ English skills range from conversant to nonexistent, and our pace in class is glacial.

As I understand it, this class dynamic is the result of another quirk of UCS politics. Apparently the head of the business department fought against a placement test, which means everyone gets lumped into the same class. Meanwhile, the book we use is for intermediate-beginners, and we spend no time in class on the basics that so many students need to understand and meaningfully engage with the book’s content

As a result, I started offering free small-group tutoring an hour before class, which three of my students reliably attend. I’m using one of Maria Valésia’s old workbooks as a guide, and we literally started with conjugating “to be” and going from there. It’s slow going–given that we meet an hour a week and I have literally never taught basic English like this before–but it’s better than nothing. I can tell the students are feeling more confident, at least, and I try to supplement our mini-lessons by connecting them to English-learning content available online.

In class, I’ve led some exercises on asking questions (providing a long list of questions, having students ask/answer them in pairs, and afterwards discussing what are the most/least relevant/appropriate questions to ask in a business setting), comparing simple present and present continuous tenses, and phrasal verbs (trying to identify patterns in meaning based on their preposition, followed by a memory game in pairs to match the phrasal verbs we covered and their definitions).

English VIII — Wednesdays 7:40-10:30, Prof. Elsa Mónica

Working with nearly the entire Oral and Written Skills class from last semester (plus some new faces), this is the final semester of English that Letras students have to take. I wanted to provide a long-term project that combined reading, writing, and speaking, so I developed a semester-long memoir project. For these two months we’ve been reading and discussing excerpts from various memoirs, and in October we’re going to write and peer-edit our own.

As a result, this has turned into my favorite class this semester. In contrast to all the things it feels like I’m winging here, I’m confident in my abilities to lead a discussion about literature. And while it took a week or two to get going, some of my students’ insights genuinely surprised me. Plus I enjoy getting to share these memoir-esque pieces that I love, which I defined broadly enough to include stuff like the blog Hyperbole and a Half and the graphic novel Persepolis alongside traditional memoirs like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and Elie Wiesel’s Night.

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Excerpt from the first page of the excellent Persepolis

(And just to brag: I had one student transfer into this class after she learned about this project I had planned)

Phonetics and Phonology — Fridays 7:40-10:30, Dr. Sabrina

If you have spent any time listening to me speak, you’d know that I’m a terrible choice to teach impressionable young learners how to pronounce things in English. And as it turns out, this course is actually pretty difficult! The first class I sat in on dealt with where in the mouth different vowel sounds are made, and the second was about the international phonetic alphabet. These are all things I don’t know, and being a native speaker doesn’t especially give me a leg up; the phonetic alphabet is based on received pronunciation, which is British.

As a result, I think it’s appropriate that I’m only attending this class every other week–because I’m just as new to this as the students are, Sabrina has caught me giving them erroneous information. Sabrina reassures me I’ll be more useful once we start to cover stress and intonation, but we’ll have to see. Most of my contributions to class so far have been leading mini-discussions about the pronunciation mistakes I hear Brazilian Portuguese speakers make in English.

So as I mentioned, I have some extra free time this semester. On Mondays I’ve been attending one of Prof. Samira’s doctoral-level classes called “Inferences in Reading.” I don’t follow all of the in-class discussion, but some of the readings are in English, and I’m enjoying the chance to see what a post-grad Brazilian classroom looks like.

In return, the professor has started referring some of her other students to me for editing, as they’re trying to publish articles in English-language journals. So now I’m spending some more time editing as well.

Additionally, we ETAs are continuing our “English and Chill” discussion club series from last semester. I’ve already presented my two topics for this semester (differences in cultural values and voting, both of which will soon be blog posts), but I still attend every week to facilitate small-group discussions during the presentations that the other ETAs give.

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A preliminary poster I made for this semester’s English & Chill

And then finally, I’ve joined a discussion group for masters students in environmental law, focusing on the idea of the commons. It’s a class I admittedly get frustrated with–one of our goals is to define the commons, so I feel like we’re constantly having arguments over what the commons should mean because we can never get on the same page about what it is–but I’m also being immersed in an interesting discussion at the intersection of economics and sociology that I’m generally fascinated by.

Working at UCS, doing Fulbright, going through life in general—I’m doing the best I can with what I have.


May/June updates from the classroom

Now that my first semester at UCS (over half of my grant period!) has wrapped up, I want to take a post to share the what I’ve been doing teaching over the past two months. Compared to my first two months at UCS, the second two admittedly felt sort of stagnant. Part of that was because I missed more than a few classes due to personal trips and the truckers’ strike, but it’s also because I began to run into some of the structural challenges of teaching at UCS—including student culture and curricula that was either undefined or ill-matched to students’ abilities.


Oral and Written Expression Skills in English

After my co-ETA Alex and I taught the class how to give ceremonial speeches (thus concluding our public-speaking series), the focus of the course transitioned to academic writing. Most students were in their penultimate semester and supposed to be working on their TCC, a thesis-like final essay. But I get the impression that most of my students don’t have much experience writing formal papers, so Alex and I spent much of our time in class explaining thesis statements and citations.

This was a difficult transition for me. I had trouble gauging how much students knew (or were supposed to know), and I didn’t fully understand what sort of form the TCC needed to take. In addition, we spent a couple classes covering skills that struck me as misplaced, like how to use corpus linguistics to learn phrases common in academic writing. It’s a great skill, especially for academics aspiring to write in another language, but I don’t think it makes much sense to focus on when my students are having trouble putting together a thesis statement.

Compounding this, I get the impression that it’s rare for students to complete extensive assignments out of class. I understand why—if I was working full-time and not expected to do my homework, I wouldn’t worry too much about finishing it either—but the result was that especially at the beginning of the process, students would use class time to research or write. Alex and I would check in with them, but then we were left sitting for an hour and a half, not really doing anything, just in case a student needed something.

However, one student did produce (early) a really interesting article about the translation of phrasal verbs in the subtitles of Bewitched, which I was able to work with her on throughout May. And as other students finished, I welcomed the chance to slip back into the role of writing center tutor and help give them guidance to become better writers.


Oral and Written Skills for Teachers

As I mentioned before, UCS is changing its curriculum so that this is one of the first classes new students take, replacing Oral and Written Expression Skills in English. I think this is a great idea—although it’s going to have to be complemented by a sustained commitment to English-language academic writing in other classes, in my opinion—and I took advantage of the opportunity to introduce some key skills early.

First, using worksheets and presentations, I aided Prof. Samira in helping students work on outlines, citations, paraphrases, and comma usage. The latter was especially fun—any day I get to bring up Grammar Girl and weigh in on the Oxford comma is a good day.

After we covered the basics, students were tasked with writing a five-paragraph argumentative essay. Over the course of several weeks, I walked students through the process—helping them brainstorm ideas, giving them guidance on outlining, and providing them with feedback on their rough drafts. I was especially impressed with the commitment of Prof. Samira and my students. Even when we couldn’t meet physically, we had class virtually, sharing documents through UCS’s online service and communicating over Whatsapp. And although I didn’t get to see the final essays, I have high hopes for my students’ future abilities if they’re starting to write this early.


English V

Most of our class time was devoted to the presentations my students had been giving me, which often inspired conversations afterward. I also gave a presentation about fake news in the United States (which I’d previously given as part of our conversation club, Netflix and Chill, but none of my students were there). Thesis, largely inspired by this article: fake news represents a crisis of epistemology that is difficult to talk about because there is no consensus on what the term “fake news” refers to.

Otherwise, it’s been difficult to come up with other activities for class. The textbook honestly seemed to be too easy for my students, and there didn’t seem to be a formal curriculum. At one point, I had students write a letter to their five-year-old selves (which I then shuffled and had students read out loud to guess the author) in order to practice different ways of talking about the future. I had intended to use the exercise as the springboard for a lesson about future tense, but nearly all my students used it flawlessly.

Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t doing much in class—or that I was cheating by learning more through the presentations than I was teaching—but I think the discussions we had were good practice nonetheless. And as a result, this was the class I got closest with. Everyone came back a week after classes officially ended to have a end-of-the-semester party with me:

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Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis

Also taught by Prof. Samira, this course had the benefit of a well-structured curriculum but the downside of being a topic I know very little about. Thankfully, once we transitioned from functional grammar to discourse analysis, I was much more in my element.

After giving an introductory presentation about rhetoric, I asked students to bring in a song to analyze. Over another virtual class, I tried to lead a discussion about Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” to demonstrate the multiple meanings that a text can have. On one level, it feels like a forgettable pop tune, and when you first hear the lyrics, the song seems like a feel-good anthem for body positivity. But at the same time, it also has lyrics that condemn skinniness and define beauty through men’s preferences, so I think you could argue it’s not quite as positive or feminist as it initially appears to be. My ultimate goal was to show that these meanings can coexist, demonstrating how texts can be sites of struggle over meaning.

I don’t think I was able to do the topic justice in such a short period of time—a suspicion that was confirmed when many students defaulted to explaining what the artists intended when they performed their songs, or trying to lay out what the songs’ lyrics might mean—but we did end up having some interesting conversations about a variety of philosophical topics.

Overall, I’ve been grateful to have these experiences—and I’m looking forward to implementing lessons learned once classes resume in August.

What I need to know about Brazil, according to my students (3/3)

This is the second post in a three-part series about the presentations some of my students are giving me. I told them the presentations can be about anything as long as they’re in English. You can find the first installment here and the second installment here

Brazilian comics and everything in between — Ismael

After patiently waiting his turn (as his presentation was delayed for one reason or another week after week), Ismael presented about comics and graphic novels in Brazil. He opened talking about an strip called Monica’s Gang, which has garnered some international fame and also inspired television and manga spin-offs. This stoked a spirited conversation among my students, many of whom have strong thoughts about this beloved childhood title.

Ismael continued to cover some other popular Brazilian strips, and then he detailed some famous Brazilian cartoonists and listed his favorite (under-appreciated) Brazilian comics. I actually really like graphic novels, so I enjoyed seeing what Brazilian artists had to offer. I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to read them—given how hard graphic novels are to find, and how unwilling I am to spend money on things I will then have to worry about carrying home—but I will have the chance to read Monica’s Gang! Ismael gave me a couple back issues, and I’m super excited to use them to understand this cultural touchstone and practice my Portuguese.


Brazilian literature — Giorgia

Giorgia gave an overview of Brazilian literature for her presentation. I’d heard about Amado and Assis before—they’re some of Brazil’s most famous writers—but I was surprised to hear about Lispector, who was basically Brazil’s Virginia Woolf. Also, Giorgia talked about The Yellow Woodpecker Farm, which I actually recognized from my host mom telling me about children’s books she used to read to her children. It’s since been turned into a TV show that (of course) spawned some sort of meme casting a witch-alligator character as a gay icon.

Paulo Coelho was also in Giorgia’s presentation. I know Paul Coelho from banning his book The Alchemist from being suggested in the book club I started in college. Giorgia said she initially was skeptical too—which seemed to be the consensus among the students in this conversation—but after she actually read his books, she discovered she really enjoyed them.

(I suppose I should give The Alchemist a try someday, but I don’t think I’m wrong to be skeptical. Any book that preaches that the universe conspires to help you achieve what you want, and is then lauded by enormously wealthy public figures, seems a little too self-serving to me. Also: I think the fact we eventually achieve what we want is more of a testament to our ability to make meaning from our experiences, rather than some sort of universal conspiracy. Rhetoric!)


Brazilian political scenario — Cristiano

Over the course of two hours, Cristiano gave the most ambitious presentation I’d seen: an attempt to explain (and provide historical context for) Brazil’s contemporary political climate. I knew I was in for a true crash course when I saw the summary slide alone included a dozen different bullet points. I don’t have space to chronicle all of the history Cristiano recounted, but I do want to highlight a few takeaways.

First, Brazil started as an extractive colony. In other words, it was never a place foreigners sought to build up so much as a place foreigners sought to exploit. From the beginning, this puts Brazil at a disadvantage (compared to somewhere like the US) in terms of infrastructure and development.

Second, Brazil’s history is littered with constitutions. It seemed like some of my students didn’t fully realize this point, but Cristiano argued it’s vital to understanding the state of politics in Brazil. If there’s a precedent of scrapping the past and starting over, it’s difficult to commit to fixing the problems that one government/plan entails.

Third, Cristiano argued that Brazil is currently in the midst of a parliamentary coup. I know this is an interpretation other Brazilians would vehemently disagree with, and I also know that I don’t know enough about politics to gauge its merit, but I do think Cristiano made his point convincingly. And regardless how you interpret the situation, it sounds like one fact is certain: Brazilian politics are incredibly complicated and incredibly fraught.


Brazilian educational system — Bruna

To wrap up this series, Bruna presented about the Brazilian education system. Essentially, different levels of government finance different levels of education: elementary education is funded by the city, secondary education is funded by the state, and post-secondary education is funded by the nation. There are also private schools, and you can have state schools that also offer elementary education, but that’s the general pattern.

I was also surprised to learn how dismally some teachers are paid—in the lowest-paying cities, teachers are making maybe US$1.25-1.75 an hour. Of course, these cities are likely in extremely rural/poor areas, but if anything, I think the low salary underscores how economically disparate Brazil still is. (I work as a communication consultant for the UN food agency IFAD, which is still financing rural development projects in Brazil.)

What was also interesting was the qualification needed to be a teacher. To work with young kids, you just need to complete a program in high school—which is why so many of my young students are already teachers. Others are teaching in private language schools, for which formal credentials aren’t always necessary.

Given that my class is full of teachers, everyone was eager to share their experiences in schools both as students and as teachers. One topic of conversation was how teachers are looked down upon around Caxias—many of my students related stories of having to justify their interest in teaching to family members, or being told that they were too smart to teach. I think we have a similar attitude in the US, but at least in my experience, there’s a component of it that treats teaching as at least a somewhat noble pursuit.

Bruna’s presentation prompted a discussion that lasted until the end of class, and I think it was actually the most vibrant conversation we’ve had. So I thought it was a fitting way to end this series of presentations—eagerly and effortlessly sharing experiences,  practicing English, and fostering intercultural exchange.

What I need to know about Brazil, according to my students (2/3)

This is the second post in a three-part series about the presentations some of my students are giving me. I told them the presentations can be about anything as long as they’re in English. You can find the first installment here and the final installment here

My family — Eduarda

Eduarda talked about her own family for her presentation. She’s from the next city over, where her neighbors are her extended family. From what I can tell, the definition of “family” seems to be pretty fluid. To some of my students, it only meant their nuclear family; to others, it included extended family. It just seemed to depend on where everyone lived.

She also included some pictures of what her family likes to do for fun. Like many other people around here, they flock to the beach when they can. Also, they drink a ton of chimarrão (bottom left-hand picture) and eat a lot of popcorn. In the summer, they snack on watermelon, while in the winter, they opt for pinhão (pine nuts, bottom right).


Brazilian television — Bruna

Brazilian TV is ridiculous. I don’t say this from any great personal experience—Elaine mostly flips between art documentaries and dubbed TLC shows—but that was my takeaway from Bruna’s presentation.

First Bruna covered the genre of  hours-long Sunday-afternoon variety shows (including Domingo Legal, Programa Silvio Santos, and Domingão do Faustão), with segments that range from hidden-camera pranks to watching a bikini-ed woman trying to stop a speedo-ed man from retrieving bars of soap in a wading pool. When I incredulously asked my students if anyone objected to these segments being aired at like four in the afternoon (on a Sunday!), they all said it felt normal. They’d grown up with it.

Also of interest was some astoundingly credulous reporting on a supposed alien deep in the jungle. Its advice? “Seek knowledge.”


Inequality in Brazil — Marcos

Marcos tackled a heavier topic: inequality in Brazil. His presentation was a primer on wealth inequality, racism, sexism, and homophobia in Brazil. The presentation pretty much speaks for itself, and it’s pretty comprehensive, so you can check it out in its entirety here: LÍNGUA INGLESA V- Inequality in Brazil.

His presentation ended on a slide about fake news, which I’d presented to the class about the week before. This segued into a class-long conversation that ranged from media literacy to history to religion, which I found immensely insightful. My professor tells me that the students aren’t used to being able to talk about politics in school like that, and I think some of them really enjoyed the opportunity.


Idiomatic expressions — Thalia

I love etymology, and I’ve been wanting to learn more idioms in Portuguese, so I really enjoyed Thalia’s presentation. Like in English, we don’t always think about the sources of the idioms we use, so other students were remarking that they learned something, too! Here are four of my favorites:

What I think is super interesting is that pisar na bola seems to be an exact analogue of our expression “drop the ball”—but because soccer’s the dominant sport here, and not baseball or football or something, Brazilians need to use a different metaphor. Also, I think encher linguiça is so much more fun than just “BS.”

What I need to know about Brazil, according to my students (1/3)

This is the first post in a three-part series. You can find the second part here and the third part here.

As we all know, it’s super fun to talk about yourself. In this way, being an ETA can be a bit dangerous for the ego: because I’m still shiny and new, people want to hear about my life and experiences. Basically, I end up talking a lot. But since the Fulbright program’s all about intercultural exchange, I decided to turn the tables with my English V class: every week, one of them will present something (about themselves, Caxias do Sul, Brazil, or just what they like) to me.

I’m sort of proud how it worked out. My students seem to be having a lot of fun with the presentations, and they can practice English as I get to learn about Brazil. Here’s what they’ve been teaching me so far:

Music — Igore

Igore kicked off our series by giving me an overview of music in Brazil. I adapted his powerpoint a bit; the original presentation had the pictures appearing over each other. You can check out all the videos he showed here.

A lot of the music was what you might expect. But I was especially intrigued to learn about a genre that Igor translated as kids’ music. He showed us an example that was delightfully 90s, a bizarre mash-up of edgy visuals and a Kidz Bop chorus of  “Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump!”

And then of course we had an example of funk music that basically reinforces every negative stereotype you could have about Brazil. (As an aside: Elaine detests funk music, and it amuses me to no end to respond to people who ask me what I think about funk with “my mom doesn’t let me listen to it.”)


Neymar’s old tweets — Jéssica

Neymar is a Brazilian soccer star whose bizarre tweets have become infamous in Brazil. My students were shocked when I’d never heard of him—he’s the world’s most expensive player and ESPN’s sixth-most popular athlete. He’s also apparently an avid tweeter, churning out nonsensical updates that quickly turn into memes here in Brazil.

Like, I’d never heard of Neymar, but by the time of the presentation I’d already seen a “Deus e TOP” joke used in a group on Whatsapp.

My students seemed to be split about Neymar. I get the impression that his skills on the pitch have earned him some status as a national hero, but my students’ reactions to his tweets ranged from ironic amusement to sincere regret that someone so careless and ignorant has such a large platform.


Brazilian Food — Susana

This was definitely one of my favorite presentations. My class conspired to bring in a selection of popular Brazilian foods, so we had a little party that day. I may have underplayed exactly how many of the foods I’d already tried as an excuse to eat more…

Susana broke down the foods that are popular in each of Brazil’s regions. Apparently the south, where we are, is known for its meat and adapted versions of European food. “Better versions,” Susana clarified. I totally agree that the churrasco here is outstanding—it’s probably the main reason why I eat like three times as much red meat here—but I’ve also spent several months in Rome and there is no way Brazil has superior Italian food.

Also, I heard from somewhere that to many Brazilians, a meal’s not a meal unless it has rice and beans. Sometime over the past two months, I have 100% bought into this, and even when I visit a buffet with a ton of other foods, rice and beans always find their way onto my plate.


Rio Grande do Sul’s musical culture — Patrick

My state, Rio Grande do Sul, has a proud history of gaúcho music. Patrick, a musician, wanted to break that down for me. He started in the 1960s with Gildo de Freitas and Teixeirinha, who performed a song that’s somehow become the state’s unofficial anthem. When Patrick played it, my students sang along, knowing every word.

Then came the jaunty Adelar Bertussi, whose accordion skills basically revolutionized the genre. He also brought drums into gaúcho music, which had traditionally only included the accordion, acoustic guitar, and tambourine.

Patrick also touched on tchê music, a relatively new genre that relies less on the gaúcho tradition and incorporates elements of other popular genres. It’s popular among kids who grew up going to Traditional Gaúcho Centers, and sounds (to me) suspiciously like ska. It’s divisive for all the reasons you’d expect cultural change to be.

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.

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/