48. That’s the number of times little Dieguito has missed class since the school year started. Whether it was because the weather was bad, or someone wasn’t feeling well, or for whatever other reason his parents could not take him in that day, there has always been some excuse.
27. That’s the number of bilhetes, or tickets, that little Dieguito has received for not having done his homework on the days that he has gone to school.
The first time I saw his caderno –the notebook where he is meant to write down his homework for the day, but that he instead had filled with bilhetes– he was taking it out to get his father’s signature. (Every time a child receives a bilhete, he has to take it home to have a parent sign to say that they have seen that their child has not done the work.) Dieguito’s father looked down at the bilhete, signed it without asking a question, and Dieguito was ready to return to his computer games for the evening.
Sitting there witnessing this interaction, I was a bit surprised. I was expecting some kind of scolding, or at least an interrogation of some sort. Why hadn’t he done the homework? Maybe he had not known how to do it. Maybe he was being lazy. Or maybe he was just not receiving the proper kind of encouragement.
I asked him, “Dieguito, why did you get a bilhete?”
He responded, “Because I didn’t do the homework.”
So I asked him, “Why didn’t you do the homework?”
He just shrugged.
“What’s your homework for today? Do you need some help? Maybe we can do it together.”
He took out his paper: a list of long-division problems, which he clearly did not understand or even know where to start. I sat down with him and we began to work through the problems together. And very soon, this became our nightly routine.
Every evening, I would arrive home and the first thing I would ask was, “Dieguito, what’s the homework for tonight?” And then, we would sit down together to work through it. In the beginning, Dieguito was still a bit reluctant. If we came to a calculation he did not know right away, he would want me to give him the easy answer, and it took a bit of convincing to make him try and keep him engaged.
But as we continued on with our nightly routine, he began to become more and more self-motivated. Instead of me arriving to the house and asking him if he had homework, he started to be the one to run to me when I entered, excited to announce, “Look!! This is the homework I have for today.”
This week, I was in for an even better surprise. As I walked through the door, Dieguito came over with a huge smile. Not only was he happy to show me that he had homework, but this time he beamed wide as he held out a whole page of problems that he had already completed by himself with no help and not even a reminder.
Doing homework has become something that Dieguito looks forward to and something that he is proud of. He excitedly shares how he now gets good feedback from the teachers, and he even comments on how he can see his own handwriting is improving. Homework time has become a highlight of his day; but if it were this easy, he could have been doing it all along. So why didn’t he?
Honestly, I think he did struggle a bit with the content before. His teachers were probably not giving him all the support he needed, and I definitely don’t think he was asking questions when he did not understand. But perhaps more critically, he was also not receiving much motivation at home. His parents were not involved in making sure he did his homework, and they were not quite setting the example that going to school everyday was a priority.
But was it their fault? Big Diego, Dieguito’s father, admits himself that he was never very good in school. And Brenda, his mother, did not get very far herself. They probably both grew up in homes where their parents did not offer them much support with school either. And like that, it continues in an on-going cycle where parents do not fully motivate their children through school, not because they do not care, but because, never having learned from a good example themselves, they do not understand what kind of support is required.
The education system in Brazil has its problems, undoubtedly. Poor infrastructure, the lack of qualified teachers, poorly designed curriculums, etc.; these are all surely huge obstacles, as well. But the more basic problem starts with setting an example at home.
Since I started working with Dieguito, he still earns an occasional bilhete when he forgets to write down the full assignment, and he still misses a day of school here and there. But just knowing that someone else cares –that someone will be disappointed if he forgets to do his homework, that someone will be proud when he gets good marks– he now cares about school and his own progress, too. And seeing the transformation, his parents are now becoming more involved, too, realizing how they can also take a more active role in their son’s learning process, as well. Really, as I see it, it’s a big change that starts with something small. Showing a lit bit of interest and offering a tiny push for motivation can go a long way. And of course, it all starts with setting the right example.