Day 194:

Back to School

The school year here begins in February and ends in December. I arrived in Brazil at the end of September, was put in the senior class, attended school with the seniors for the last 3 months, and "graduated" with my senior class in December. "Graduated" because I didn't actually graduate. I just went to the ceremony, walked with my class, and received a fake diploma.

Now I'm in the senior class of 2018. School started on February 5th. The last time my teachers saw me, I couldn't speak Portuguese. I had to google translate every other word, I didn't know what was happening 50% of the time, I didn't have textbooks, and I didn't know even know what subjects my class was taking. Returning to school and being able to speak to my teachers that haven't seen me since December showed me how far I've come with the language.

I still have a long way to go, but progress has been made.


There are a lot of differences between my high school in Alaska and this high school in João Pinheiro.


My private school has a uniform. All it is is a white shirt with the school's logo, jeans/some sort of pants, and shoes. I think even the public schools here have uniforms. Since all of the students are required to wear uniforms, there were no "Back to School Clothing Sales," which was a shame. My wallet could've used a good discount on clothes.

Having a uniform is a blessing. I don't have to think about what I'm going to wear in the morning, which means I get a few needed extra minutes of sleep. The only problem is that the combination of jeans and 80-degree weather leads to an overheated me. I'm still not used to the temperature.

The seniors make their own senior year uniform. The ordering, payment, and design is done by the seniors themselves. We received them today. Every senior has a "pelido," or nickname of their choosing on their back of their shirt. Mine is Alaska.

Class of 2018

Class of 2018


The teachers here switch from classroom to classroom, carrying a single backpack, a water bottle, and a small box with chalk and a chalkboard eraser. The students don't switch classes. I miss having that short 6 minute passing period in my high school to go from my locker to my next class. It was very short, but at least I had a transition. 

I've showed a couple of classmates my yearbook from Alaska, and the general reactions are "It's like it is in the movies!" 

I talked to my host mom, who is a retired teacher, and she said she always dreamed of having her own classroom where she could put up math posters and keep board games and books for the students to use. Since the teachers switch from class to class, they don't have their proper classroom to decorate. This means the classrooms are really bare. There are only chalkboards, desks, and projectors.

My favorite class is history because the history teacher takes us to one of the two classrooms that have projectors and teaches using slideshows with pictures and written text. I don't have to concentrate as hard when I can see the written words on the screen. The United States of America is mentioned every day in history class. All I learned about Brazil from my history classes in Alaska was that it was colonized by Portugal. I wish I had been taught more about the history of South America in my world history class in Alaska.

One day in history, I wasn't fully paying attention and the history teacher was talking about taxes. That would've been a fine time for anyone else to not being paying attention, but the word for "tax" in Portuguese is pronounced Tasha.

My name.

All it took was my history teacher to put a little too much emphasis on the word tax, and I shot to attention, thinking he was calling my name. He wasn't. He was just talking about taxes.

I go by Natasha here for a reason.

Three of my teachers teach 2 subjects. The Portuguese teacher is also the literature teacher, the math teacher also teaches physics, and the History teacher also teaches Sociology. 

There are no substitute teachers. If a teacher can't make it to school, their class period is filled by another subject. For example, the English teacher wasn't at school on Tuesday, and the Portuguese teacher was available to teach, so she filled in for that class period and taught Portuguese. The English teacher returned later on that week, and filled in for a period the Portuguese teacher was supposed to teach to keep it even.

There was a day where the Geography teacher didn't show up and no teacher filled in, so my class had a free period to do whatever we wanted. Later I found out that the Geography teacher quit. We had a week without Geography while the school looked for a replacement teacher. 

There are a lot of subjects. There's History, Sociology, Math, Physics, Literature, Portuguese, Essay-Writing, English, Spanish, Philosophy, Geography, Chemistry, Biology, and PE. 14 subjects.

Class schedule: Monday-Friday

Class schedule: Monday-Friday


After the 3rd class period (9:30 am), there is a break for a snack. There is a snack bar where you can buy salgados (fried cheese-filled or meat-filled pastries), hot dogs, soda, juice, or ice cream bars in the open cafeteria/common area. Some students stay in their classrooms, but most get something from the snack bar and sit at the tables in the cafeteria.

The seniors bring out the school speaker every day during this time and can play whatever songs they want. Every Wednesday during the snack period, the seniors sell açaí or cake or some sort of food to raise money for their graduation at the end of the year. 


School for middle school and high school students (me) starts at 7 am and ends at 12:25 pm. For the youngsters, school doesn't start until the afternoon. 

I go to a private school. It's not cheap to attend a private school. The textbooks are expensive (R$1000 or $300 USD) and there are other added costs as well in addition to the tuition. My host family lives far away from my school, so I take the bus to school every morning. It's R$110, or $35 dollars per month for me to ride the bus. 

My bus stops at my house at 6:30 am, so I wake up at 5:30 am to get ready.

After I get out of school at 12:30 pm, my bus picks up the younger students on the route as they drop off the older students. As I'm returning home after school, the elementary schoolers are just starting their school day. They'll attend class in the same building I go to, just later in the day. 

There are 6 50-minute class periods Monday-Friday. We didn't have a solid class schedules until the 23rd, 3 weeks into the school year. My class also didn't get their textbooks until 3 weeks into the school year, and up until then, the teachers had just been lecturing and writing on the chalkboard while the students took notes. 

One week of every month is set aside for testing. For the first half of the day, we have classes like normal. For the second half of the day, the 3 high school grade levels are mixed and put in different classrooms to test. The proctors give us our respective tests for our grade level and we can leave when we finish them. I don't remember anything like this last year, probably because I arrived so late in the year. I'm guessing they do it like this to prevent cheating.

I got a 4/7 on my Portuguese & Literature Test, 4/7 in Philosophy, and 5/7 in Geography. Those were my best scores (and we won't talk about the others.) The tests are in Portuguese of course, and I would have been happy with anything above a 0. I did manage to get above a zero on all the tests I took.



At the end of every week, there are quizzes. The quizzes are usually 2.0 points and the tests are usually 7.0 points. The final grades are given on a scale of 1-10, not A, B, C, D, & F. I believe 10 is the equivalent of an A.

Everyone stays in the same room the whole day with the same group of classmates, so everyone takes the same classes. Electives like photography, art, weight training, yearbook, welding, drama, choir, band, etc. don't exist. You don't get to choose your classes. School sports programs also don't exist in my private school. Want to play an instrument or perform in a play? Not offered by the school. Want to travel and play against rival schools with your school soccer team? Can't do it, there is no school soccer team.

All of those after-school clubs, sports, and classes that I took for granted don't exist here. It makes me sad. I can picture a lot of the kids in my class excelling at a sport or acting or singing with a choir, but they don't have an organized group to do that through the school.

On some days, there are afternoon classes, a.k.a, the bane of my existence. How it works is the normal school day ends, I take the bus home, I get home at 1 pm, I eat lunch with my host parents, have just enough time to nap (I'm an old soul, I need sleep), and then I have to go back to school at 3pm. This is a huge pain for anyone that lives far away from school (me) because the bus doesn't make its rounds again for afternoon classes. Only seniors have classes in the afternoon, so there's no point for the bus to come around to pick up and drop off just the seniors. It's a 40 minute walk to get from my house to my school, and that's not practical. These classes are mandatory, so my classmates have to get a ride from their parents to return to the school in the afternoon. There's 3 classes and they last until 5 pm and at the end you have to arrange for another ride back home. 

This is a cultural thing. They do it this way so the students can eat lunch with their families at home, because lunch is the most important meal of the day here.

P.E. is in the afternoon as well. Almost no one goes even though it's a required class. It's at 5 pm. I didn't even know my school had a basketball court and soccer turf until 3 months into my exchange. 


They're wild. The first day of school was really loud and crazy. 

I haven't seen a discipline system put into effect. In Alaska if a kid repeatedly disrupts the class, they get sent to the principal's office to have a chat. If a kid is repeatedly tardy to class, they have detention after school. Here it's up to the teacher to maintain order in the classroom. 

The classroom dynamic is more relaxed than in American schools. No one raises their hands to answer or ask questions. To answer or ask a question they just raise their voice. Students often call their teachers by their first names, or tia/tio, which translates to aunt/uncle but is used as a respectful term for someone older than you. Students often joke openly with their teachers.   

In Alaska if a kid sleeps in class, the teacher calls them out. It's not like that here. My classmates often sleep in class and no one says anything. The students do hide their phones though. That is the same. There's a "No phone" rule, but my classmates still try to secretly scroll through Instagram or watch Netflix during class.

There were two Junior (2nd year) classes last year, but a handful of students in both those classes moved to larger cities to pursue a better education for their senior year, so my school decided to combine those two classes into one giant senior classroom. There are 38 seniors in one room. The exchange student from Mexico is in the same classroom as me this year. 

Can you imagine moving to a bigger city at 16 or 17 years old just to attend a different high school? I can't. But from what I've seen, it's common here. The parents that can afford to send their kids to another city to attend high school there do so. There is a lot of pressure on seniors to study hard and do well on ENEM and/or a vestibular, and some private schools are better than others at preparing their students to take the tests. If seniors do well enough on the tests, they get admitted into the Federal Colleges, which are free. 


 (Exame National do Ensino Medio or High School National Exam) is the official university entrance exam of Brazil. If you don't pass the exam, you're not going to college. 


Colleges here don't look at if you were captain of your football team, how many hours you worked in the soup kitchen, if you were president of student government, how many foreign languages you speak or AP classes you slaved over, or whether or not you went on exchange in another country when they admit you to their college. The only thing that matters are your test scores on the ENEM.

Some universities have a vestibular test in addition to the ENEM. The subject matter varies depending on what college you're applying for.  

On the first day back to school, my teachers referenced ENEM a couple hundred times. During classes, the teachers always make sure to remind you what material will likely "cair na prova", or show up on ENEM. You can take ENEM during your 1st and 2nd year of high school to practice, but your scores on the practice tests won't count.

The SAT (the United State's college entrance exam) is completed in one sitting of 3 hours and 45 minutes. The ENEM last for two days, with one session lasting 4 hours and 30 minutes and the second lasting 5 hours and 30 minutes. I thought the SAT was bad.

There are testing days every couple of months to take the SAT or ACT, but ENEM can only be taken once a year. My host cousin was telling me if you don't pass the first time, you can take it again the next year. She said some people take ENEM over and over again until they get a good enough score to be admitted into one of the free Federal colleges. Taking the test over and over again takes years. 

I never thought I'd say this, but I am now thankful for the SAT and ACT. I prefer the USA college admissions policies.  


Everything about school here is different from in the United States. It's interesting to see the differences, but it also makes me frustrated. I wish the same opportunities that are offered to students in the United States were offered in Brazil. There are numerous resources and clubs and sports teams in my high school that I didn't take advantage of when I was in high school in Alaska. I wish I had. I can't go back in time, but the least I can do when I go back to Alaska is volunteer at my high school, share what I have learned here, and encourage high school students to make the most of the resources available to them.


Until the next post,

Natasha Talvi


NEXT POST: Trip to Goiânia (visit to an old friend), trip to Uberlândia, and EASTER

Tasha Talvi