“Jennifer USA, Jennifer USA, Jennifer USA,” greeted Anoka-Hennepin special education supervisor Dr. Jennifer Babiracki as she visited a school during her three-week tour of Brazil.
After playing host to three principals from Brazil last fall, it was Babiracki’s turn to be the guest. A special education supervisor, Babiracki was one of nine U.S. educators to take part in the U.S.-Brazil School Administrators Exchange Program and visit Brazil in August.
Babiracki flew into Sao Paulo, a state of 42 million people located in southwest Brazil. As part of the program she also visited Minas Gerais, the second most populous state in Brazil, and Goias, a smaller state. During her time, Babiracki met with members of the National Council of State Secretaries of Education, visited schools and saw a couple of familiar faces.
“I got to see two of the principals I hosted last year; they welcomed me with open arms,” Babiracki said. “At each school I visited, they had an opening ceremony. They always started with a Brazilian hymn and they sang or played the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Hearing the song brought tears to my eyes; I was so proud to be an American. Then everyone would start crying with joy because I was crying. It was just fantastic.”
The purpose of the trip was to educate principals, teachers and community members about education in the U.S. Babiracki also spoke to educators about using research-based strategies to improve student learning. In the past eight years, school has become compulsory for all students and some schools do not have programs in place for special needs students.
“Brazil has very dedicated and good teachers, they just need resources and training to accelerate student learning,” Babiracki said. “The teachers wanted a lot of information. Whenever I presented, I had tons of questions. They wanted to know how things worked and they were always thinking of ways they could apply the information to their setting.”
Because Babiracki had such a positive experience when the principals visited her last fall, she wrote a grant to keep open the lines of communication using WebEx.
The first part of the grant, “Cultural Connections,” allowed students at Adams Elementary School to communicate with elementary students in Brazil.
“A lot of people knew about Classroom Connections,” Babiracki said. “I knew it had had an impact, I just didn’t realize how far reaching it was; not only for the schools but for the communities, too. Everyone knew about it.”
The second grant allowed Diane Gallagher and Angie Haffner, autism resource specialists, to use WebEx to provide teachers training.
This was such a positive experience that Gallagher paid her own way to fly to Brazil to meet up with Babiracki after Babiracki’s official visit ended. The women stayed in Machado, Minas Gerais with one of the principals who visited Anoka-Hennepin.
Gallagher said she accepted the invitation because she thought it would be a good culmination to the WebEx training. Gallagher and Babiracki were able to present certificates to about 80 teachers who participated in the WebEx training.
During the week, Gallagher and Babiracki worked with teachers at Dom Pedro I School. Gallagher worked with special education teachers on a computer program used to create visual supports, provided additional strategies to use with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and made program recommendations for working with special needs students. One of the days, Gallagher and Babiracki made a presentation to 350 educators, principals and community members.
“One principal traveled 16 hours to hear us speak,” Babiracki said. “The presentation was on autism inclusion and the U.S. education system and he came because his school is trying to improve services to kids with disabilities. He wanted to learn more from Diane and me; he said he learned so much, loved the training and thought it was amazing.”
Gallagher said the teachers in Brazil are using the information learned during her and Haffner’s WebEx presentations. Gallagher appreciated the opportunity to meet the teachers.
“All of the people we met were even more wonderful than I expected,” Gallagher said. “They were, without exception, dedicated, appreciative, generous, caring and hard-working. They have limited resources in comparison to ours, yet they were very dedicated to meeting the needs of their students.”
Gallagher called the process of working with the Brazilian educators “amazing.”
“I’m very grateful to Jennifer for involving me in the training and for encouraging me to join her in Brazil,” Gallagher said. “I hope that we will be able to continue to expand our relationship with Dom Pedro and other schools there.”
For Babiracki, the trip to Brazil was not all work. A major component of the U.S.-Brazil exchange was for educators to learn about each other’s cultures. While in Minnesota, the principals from Brazil discovered how fun a Minnesota Wild game can be, the beautiful stillness of a cabin on Lake Vermilion and the Albertville Outlet Mall.
During Babiracki’s time in Brazil she made sure she tasted many different foods and she learned how welcoming people are.
“Breakfast was always breads, fresh fruits, squeezed juice and an itsy, bitsy coffee,” Babiracki said. “I always wanted a big coffee. There were a lot of fruits native to South America, a lot of fresh melon.”
During her stay with Adriana Lemos Caixeta Vieira in Machado, Babiracki learned it was the culture to meet the entire family.
“I met all of her aunts and uncles, her grandmother, her great-grandmother,” Babiracki said. “We went to their homes for a snack and coffee or for a meal. We met people at church and they all insisted we stop over for coffee. They said they would be honored if we visited their home.”
Babiracki also had the opportunity to visit historic sites in Minas Gerais and Goia. One city she visited had 16 churches. Babiracki saw cobble-stone streets and European influenced architecture. Everywhere she went, Babiracki was often greeted with hugs and kisses and always given gifts.
“I was surprised with how loving, warm, kind, and open people were,” Babiracki said. “It was amazing how much they shared with me and how much they loved having me at their city. I couldn’t believe the generosity.
“Every classroom I went to gave me gifts. The kids wrote letters or gave me chocolates; there were a lot of soaps and lotions unique to Brazil. One teacher knitted me a scarf and another school gave me a pair of boots. I brought the students pencils, stickers and American flags.”
Babiracki hopes to continue her work with her new friends in Brazil. She hopes to write another grant to continue the WebEx trainings, expanding the number of teachers in Brazil who take part.
“When I met with the teachers, we kept talking about how we can continue to work together,” Babiracki said. “I thought what we were doing was cool, but I didn’t realize how much they thought it was cool, too. They are hungry for training.”