Joel Rufino is an historian, a children's author, an educator for the poor, and a well respected member of Brazil's black community. As an Ashoka Fellow, he is turning his experience and skills to developing culturally appropriate instructional materials that will work for black and poor students as well as for school drop-outs.
Joel was one of eight children born to a black family in Brazil's northeast. As a child, he was taught by middle-class teachers who held little understanding and empathy for his cultural background, much less for the life he and his friends were experiencing. The educational system and school materials were all oriented toward the "model Brazilian family" -- a white, upper-middle class family. Joel's own training and experience as a teacher confirmed his belief that there is an urgent need to adapt school materials to fit children's immediate reality -- not only to facilitate learning, but also to strengthen their self-esteem and pride of their own heritage.
Joel Rufino is uniquely equipped to develop these materials. He is a black historian whose books on the role of blacks in Brazilian history are well respected. He is also a successful author of children's books -- books which draw heavily upon Brazil's rich heritage of black and indigenous tales, myths and traditions. Now, as an Ashoka Fellow, Joel is combining his talents as author and historian to develop basic readers that disadvantaged children can relate to and that draw directly from their heritage.
Joel's "laboratory" is the Tia Ciata School, named after a prominent black matriarch from the 1920s. Tia Ciata serves street children: the subculture of beggars, scavengers, thieves, prostitutes, drug-pushers, shoeshine boys and others who teeter on the margin of Rio de Janeiro's society. These children have much in common: they come from impoverished, often broken families; many have been abandoned; they are illiterate school drop-outs; 90% are black or mulatto. In pedagogical circles, they are looked upon with disdain and are generally considered incapable of learning.
Tia Ciata proves otherwise. The secret is to adapt schooling to the children's own environment.
Tia Ciata is an experimental school with no classes and no exams. Its goal is to teach students to read and write and do basic mathematics. And its approach depends as much on the students as it does on the teachers. Joel is one of its volunteer coordinators. He teaches in and learns from this unique environment, refining his approach and gathering materials for his books.
Joel began by observing the children's behavior at Tia Ciata: their resistance to classroom formalities, their need to "own" a book, their ways of interacting with teachers and fellow-students. Through this observation, Joel began to understand how these students "live the literary experience".
Armed with this knowledge, Joel then took a more active role. He established a literary "workshop" at the school and assumed the role of the Master Story Teller. The students are his apprentices. Drawing upon the secrets of this time-honored art form, the children blossom into vivid storytellers, chroniclers of histories, reporters of the living barrios and slums. In this way, they are stimulated and encouraged to learn the basic skills necessary to transform their moving and creative narratives into written stories. The pride of authorship and of learning helps to surmount the learning impediments spawned by poverty, race, and an alien school environment. This is Joel's secret.
Jose was one of Joel's first students. He was an illiterate petty thief from a broken home. From the beginning, Jose showed a surprising narrative talent, telling a number of moving stories whose central themes revolved around abandonment, vengeance, and the police. Jose was drawing upon his own personal experiences to weave his stories. Joel drew upon this talent to fire the boy's imagination and to educate him. It is working. Not all of the children are as prolific as Jose, but they all have something to tell. Joel is reaching them through their stories.
At Tia Ciata, everyday experiences are also grounds for discussion, dramatization and picture-drawing. For instance, if a student is caught stealing, the class may play out a trial with defense lawyers, judges, victims, and families as a means of probing into basic questions of morality.
Joel also works with teachers. He explains to them the "cultural background" of the disadvantaged children and encourages the development of the pedagogical "tools" and approaches required to relate to the children. For Joel, poverty, marginalization, abandonment -- the whole set of values and symbols of the subculture -- characterize the street children and are the key to reaching and educating them. The materials he is developing for teachers and children draw upon this environment and also on black history, African tales, and native lore. The materials for the children come with teachers' guides and offer pragmatic advice on how to plan, present, and follow up learning sessions.
Joel Rufino's innovative work and its potential for significant social impact is beginning to capture the attention of Brazilian educators. He has been invited to lecture on his work by
universities, municipal and state ministries and commissions, and the National Book Foundation.
The timing could not be better, since 1988 is the centennial celebration of the emancipation of slaves in Brazil, Brazil being the last country to liberate its slaves. Joel hopes that Brazilian society will come to understand through its celebration of this event the need for a second, equally profound effort to emancipate its black population from the bonds of poverty, ignorance, and cultural prejudice.