Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Christmas Post

So I got back from my beach vacation and saw that everyone wrote about Christmas! Ok, so this is my one.

This was my second Christmas in Brazil, and I was sad that we didn't get to go to my US home this year to alternate. Of course I miss everyone at my US home, but I've found that if I just focus on enjoying the moment here, I do okay and don't get too sad. This year was particularly nice for the following reasons:

*Jamie was here!
*The nice Christmas Eve dinner was held at Alexandre's parents' house this year instead of his aunt's house, like last year (just more comfortable and less socialite-y)
*Alexandre's mother is obsessed with Christmas decorations, and as a result, decorates her house as much as my grandma does and plays Christmas music and everything
*The food was deliiccciiiiooouuusss, and the FIL made turkey and ham instead of repeating last year's shellfish platters (so more familiar and traditional for me)
*Alexandre's cousin brought her boyfriend, and so we had some more young people to talk to.


The Three Musketeers 

hubba hubba, husfriend!

Being silly... "It's CHRISTMAS!"

Alexandre's cousin and her boyfriend, and us sneaking into their nice picture last minute

I don't know if other Brazilian families are the same, but Alexandre's family celebrates on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day. So Christmas day was pretty uneventful-- we slept in, had leftovers for lunch, and then drove to the beeeaaaachhh. :D But I also got to talk to all my American family back home before we left, which added to the not-too-bad homesickness. :) And I only "had a little cry" (as my grandma (Nanny) would say).

I think we're also at a point where I can stop referring to Alexandre's family as "Alexandre's family" and refer to them as "my family", because Christmas really felt like that, like they're my family too. :)

Ok? So no worrying, all you family over in Californ-i-a. I'm being treated well and welcomed and Christmas is different but still good.

Beach pictures to come! Happy New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010


Just a quick update from paradise!

Jamie, Alexandre and I are at his parents' beach house for the week. The in-laws and the siblings got lazy at the last minute and decided to stay home, so we get the place ALL TO OURSELVES! (A far cry from last year, when the sister-in-law brought along her gaggle of girlfriends!).

It's been raining a lot, so far, I've only had about an hour of sunny beach time. So it looks like I'll just be white and pasty forever. But being confined in the giant beach house isn't so bad. There's a little patch of untamed rainforest (mata) behind our house, which is full of BIRDS that, when combined with Alexandre's my camera, are providing me with hours of entertainment.

The highlights of bird identification have been the red breasted toucan and the Brazilian tanager, which is endemic to (i.e. only in) Brazil! But I saw both of those from the safety of the backyard. Walking into the actual mata is kind of scary. I wish Tracy were here... I know she'd totally go in there with me!

But of course, you can't have awesome rainforest and bird species without insects. Before I enter every room, I do a bug check. Only one moth so far, and it wasn't nearly as big as the ones in our apartment. But poor Jamie is getting eaten up by mosquitos.

Other than that, we're having a fabulous time reading, relaxing, cooking, and enjoying a giant beautiful beach house all to ourselves. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Next Year

All right, I doubt the suspense has been killing you guys, but I've been very excited to post what's going to happen next year!

So. Alexandre was definitely accepted into one residency (here in Hicktown), and has been practically accepted into 3 more (one releases its results today, the other 2 in January, but he got through all the hoops, was at the top of the pack, and just had to do some final things as formalities). One of them is just outside of Sao Paulo (some people say it's still technically Sao Paulo), but that one is not his first choice. But that's ok, because his other two options are both less than 2 hours from the Big City!

However. It's almost certain that next year will not be the first year of his residency. Why? He has decided (or we have decided) that he will join the military as a doctor for one year. Some Brazilians reading this may already be familiar with this system, but let me explain it to my American family, friends and readers before they think I've married a republican war monger.

Ok, so recent med school graduates in Brazil have the option of postponing their residency in order to serve as a doctor in the Brazilian military. If they are accepted into a residency, they're allowed to hold their place and postpone their residency for one year (so basically, they're guaranteed a spot in that residency when they get back). That's why we were waiting to see if he got into a residency first (but of course he did because he's a smarty-pants).

The Brazilian military is not like the American military (luckily). Brazil is not involved in any foreign wars (or any wars), so the military is more like a National Guard. As a military doctor, Alexandre will have two main jobs: (1) being a physician for soldiers at his military base, and (2) working as an educator for poor people around town, like leading classes at elementary schools about how to brush your teeth and stuff. (He'll also probably end up doing some basic clinic work for the poor populations in town.)

But. The reason this idea is so tempting is because of the money, of course. Because we're married, Alexandre will receive double the salary (which was already high to begin with). Also, his military shifts are only part time, so he'll be able to pick up extra shifts at private hospitals for even more money. THEN, we get a moving bonus depending on how far away Alexandre is from his home town. (In fact, the farther he is from home, the more he makes!)

Not going to get into salary details, but he'd be making enough that I wouldn't have to work (I still will, of course, but, well, less!)

And now, for the city. When you sign up for the military, you can request cities that you want to move to. Then you have to take a test on medicine. If you volunteer to sign up AND you do well on the test, you get first pick of your city. So Alexandre made a request, and he did well on the test, so he'll most likely get it.

So what was the city that he requested?

Are you ready?

Scroll down some more....








That's the AMAZON RIVER right there. Or maybe the Rio Negro, where it meets the Amazon.

So Manaus is not our definite destination, but it's very likely. None of the military doctors want to move to Manaus, because it's far from their families and girlfriends. (Oh yeah, and because it's in the freaking AMAZON.) But we don't have that problem. We also have the double marriage salary tempting us, plus the VERY HIGH moving bonus. 

The goal of all this is that we'll save up a bunch of money so that when Alexandre starts the residency, we can either buy or put a down payment on an apartment, we can have a calmer life, and he won't need any help from his parents, he won't be a stressed out resident working 100 hours a week just to pay the bills. His meager resident's salary won't faze us. He'll have time and energy to ONLY focus on the residency, maybe to do some research, and, very importantly, study for his boards to get a fellowship and then work as a doctor in the US. 

As for me, I'll have a year to live in a big city along the Amazon River to do something Good. What should I do with myself? I might just focus on translations and not teach private English classes. But what to do with the free time? Teach kids for free? Teach teachers? Take pictures of birds all day? Try to write a book? ... Hmm...

It's an exciting time. We won't know the final choices for the city until January 18th. Alexandre said that they usually offer you 4 or 5 choices, and then you pick one.  If you did well on your test, you get more choices. 

So that's our tentative plan! Run around the Amazon for a year, come back down to live the good life in Greater Sao Paulo, and then move on to bigger and better things, which will most likely include the US of A. 

I'm open to it, and excited for the endless possibilities. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jamie's Here!

So I kinda fell off the face of the blogging earth, but it's because I have a visitor! Long-time friend Jamie is here visiting for the holidays!

Her trip has been grand. Dear Buddy Bruna whisked us around Sao Paulo for a couple of days, taking us to all the tourist-y spots and helping me get Jamie drunk on caipirinhas (who am I kidding? We were all drunk). The two friends got along swimmingly, of course, because they're both pretty easygoing fun-loving gals with the same sense of humor.

One thing we did in Sao Paulo that I hadn't done before and that I totally recommend was going to the top of the Banespa Tower at the end of 25 de Março Avenue. It's free, you get to go up 36 flights, and you can see the whole city!

Alexandre is STILL working on residency test/interview stuff, and he missed out on all the fun. :(  I'm so sad. I freaking miss that guy. He MIGHT come home tonight, but depending on one place, I might not see him until the 23rd. :(  We're not going to officially know our new place until the 18th of Jan (!!) but I'll probably end up telling you guys what's happening beforehand, because I'm too excited.

Anyway, Jamie and I are back in my small town, lounging and going for walks and eating a lot of meat (not much else to do!). After her first churrascaria do interior, Jamie said, "Jesus, these Brazilians are so spoiled with their meat! They're like, 'Oh, it's a Monday. Let's go have some cheap and life-changing steak for dinner, no biggie.'"

Gatinha has also latched onto Jamie like an adorable little leech. She follows Jamie wherever she goes (even into the bathroom), and refuses to sleep anywhere except for on Jamie's sweater and the foot of Jamie's bed. Jamie is helpless to resist her, of course.

So yes, another Christmas away from home. I'm having a good time and trying to make the most of it. I'm sure I'll pull a Rachel on Christmas day, because it's what I do on every American holiday that I spend in Brazil, even if it's only for a few minutes.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Goodbye, Fiona!!

Dear blogging friend Fiona is leaving Brazil tomorrow, and so this entry is a shout-out to her.

You can find her awesome blog here.

I'm so happy that we got to meet face to face while she was here. I feel lucky that we both ended up in relatively small towns, and that these small towns were relatively close together.

I'm thankful for everything we shared, both in person and over the internets! The food, the words, the recipes, the Big Ideas. She's one smart woman!

So, we'll miss you, Fiona! Brazil's summer sun will shine a little less without you under it.

Please keep writing, pretty please! And I leave you with one final piece of advice: Never underestimate a quero-quero, no matter how tall you are!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Toucan Adventure and Attack of the Scissor-Bird

So my fellow foreigner friend Lizbeth may be leaving Brazil soon. :( Good for her and her husband, but bad for me. Her husband's coming down from the US this week so they can work on their visa stuff, so she and I planned one final adventure.

Lizbeth really wanted to see the toucans here in town, so I agreed to wake up super early on Sunday morning so that we could go look for them. (In my experience, toucans are easiest to find at sunrise and sunset.) I picked her up at an ungodly hour for a Sunday, and we went off, totally disheveled, to the places around town where I'd seen toucans in the past.

First place, no luck.
Second place, no luck.

So then we were walking around the third place, and I was pointing out all of the other birds to Lizbeth. Not sure if she was that interested, but she humored me and said "wow!" a lot. But even better than her "wow"s was her TOTALLY AWESOME FANTASTIC FANCY CAMERA! It's a Nikon 290 with a manual lens (not sure if that's the official term) and it's 1 bajillion times better for getting pictures of birds than my piddly Kodak EasyShare (I mean, the name alone...)

I mean just LOOK at these pictures that she got! Totally effortless! She took some of these out of the car window while we were driving!

(this picture was my vision, but her expertise... and fancy machinery)

And now, bum bum bum... the bird pictures:

Burrowing Owl (my post about these little guys is here)

Pica-pau do campo (I've written about these ones can compare my picture to hers...shameful)

flying!! Amazing camera!!! I'm bowled over!

Guira cuckoo (blog entry about them here...even with the fancy camera, they were still hard to capture!)

Oh man. I feel like I just took my kids to some overpriced photo shoot. Like... I used to think my camera and I took pretty pictures, but now I think I'm a little behind the times.

So wait, there's more. We were on a toucan adventure, remember?  I'll get to them in a minute. Because on our way to the toucan spot, we spotted some tesouras (aka fork-tailed flycatchers) in a surprisingly low tree. I was excited, because usually they're only high up, on telephone wires and stuff like that (this is the best picture I'd ever gotten of one).  So we were snapping away.

Lizbeth took these, of course, not old man EasyShare. Look at how incredible the birds' tails are.

I should've known better. The birds were super low in the tree because they were in their nest, and suddenly the momma bird got pissed. She started twittering (the real meaning of the word!) and went straight for my head!

going in for the kill!

It wasn't the first time I'd been attacked by a bird, but it was just as scary, this time because she was obviously angry! (I think the other one was just dumb and confused.) The little tesoura rammed into my pony tail! I yelled and tried to run, but tripped over my own feet and fell.... onto my camera. And now it's pretty much broken. The lens came out of its "socket" (for lack of a better word), and now it's kind of tremble-y and sometimes has to be forced back in. It's working for now, but we'll see how long it holds out.

Who knew that the little innocent-looking tesourina could be so ruthless?! Never mess with a mother and her babies! Expensive lesson learned. One could say that it was subconsciously on purpose in order to buy a camera like Lizbeth's... except I hadn't seen her pictures at this point, and also, I don't have hundreds of dollars to drop on a camera right now. But if, one day, I do, you know what I'll be looking for! (It'll be okay though. Alexandre has a really nice camera that he never uses. I think that I'm allowed to claim it as mine if it has sat in a drawer for more than 6 months, right? What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine...isn't that the saying?)

So that was some sad panda, but the day was totally worth it, because at the Third Toucan Place, we hit the jackpot! The tree had like 5 toucans hanging out! What luck. With my toucan tracking skills and Lizbeth's camera and photography skills combined, we got these results:

doin' a little dance, showin' off its red booty

this one was shy

starting to fly away! I look just like this when I run.

Oh man. They are just gorgeous. I feel so lucky to see them. They're by far my favorite bird. For me, they represent all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings that I might take the time to articulate in the blog one day. I'm thinking about getting a tiny little hidden toucan tattoo the next time I go home to visit. Still haven't decided. I don't have any tattoos and I don't know if I'm a tattoo kinda gal, even a tiny toucan tattoo.

Alexandre would like me to point out the following disclaimer: Brazil is not just one big rainforest full of toucans. In fact, most Brazilians have never seen a toucan in their lives. Alexandre has only seen them because I pointed them out. We just happen to live in a relatively unpopulated area that has a few, and even then, they're not like, smack in the middle of downtown, so most of the locals haven't even seen them before. BUT! I have, and I look for them, and those who seek shall find!

So yes, Lizbeth's toucan adventure was a success, and it was so worth waking up at the crack of dawn for! And I'm sad that she's leaving, but happy that we had this fun day together.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Alexandre got into a residency, and we're definitely leaving Caipirópolis! 

However, we still don't know where to! It's not the place where he got in.

I know, I know. That doesn't make sense. It's a kind of complicated but good situation. Possible adventures await us!

That's all you get for now! You'll know about the new city in a few weeks!

It hasn't really sunk in yet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe when I know which city I'll be calling home. 

Back to our regularly scheduled programming!

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Gatinha has figured out how to get herself outside the screen door, but she can't get herself back in.

Looks like my project needs some adjustments! (Not to mention the crumbling wall of our balcony...)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Win!


Can you see what it is? A Velcro screen on our balcony door! 

I couldn't handle all the bugs in the apartment anymore, especially the moths. Also, Alexandre has been gone way too much for tests and interviews and is not always here to save me from them. So This week, I took care of the problem. Some research online and in the phone book (yes, they still exist) led to me to a screen and fence store on the outskirts of town. (It was kind of like a small Home Depot, and its clientele are mostly small-town farmers. They sold all kinds of materials for barns and different kinds of animal enclosings. I learned the word agropecuária - farm animal husbandry!)  The store was buried in the industrial district on nameless streets, and was kind of hard to find, but I did it! I came equipped with measurements of our door. The employee was super friendly and showed me all the different options for screens that they had. Some included magnets, but I wasn't sure if the "metal" of our door would be strong enough for the magnet to hold. So then he recommended Velcro. Genius! 

The store sold rolls of Velcro and sheets of screen material (this one is called mosquiteiro, I think) and also strong glue. Velcro is conveniently the same word in English and Portuguese. The guy explained how the glue worked. I bought everything and then took the screen material and the Velcro to a seamstress (costureira) in the neighborhood.  In a day, she had perfectly sewn one side of the Velcro strip onto the screen. 

I took it home, and my friend Lizbeth came over for dinner and then we put up the screen. She helped me measure out the other side of the Velcro strip and glue it onto the door frame. I am so happy she helped. She majored in engineering in college and is very mathematical and patient, willing to wait the WHOLE 10 minutes that the glue needed to dry, and triple-checking our measurements. I'm way too squirrely for a project like this alone, and she kept me from destroying everything or gluing it up crookedly. 

The result of our efforts is the wonderful screen that you can see above. HOORAY!

Sheet of mosquiteiro screen material: $R7.00 (!!!)
Velcro roll with more to spare: $R28.00 
Industrial glue: $R5.00
Seamstress's work: $R20.00 

A full and good night's sleep, with a nice breeze, no little bugs to brush off, and no way for big bugs to enter: PRICELESSS

All I can say is that I can't believe I waited so long to do it! If you're suffering from bugs and mosquitos, invest in this little project today! 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lessons Learned

So December is just NOT a good month for teaching private classes. Students are getting antsy for vacation, and I think some are also worrying about money for the holidays. Last December I was still working at a school, with relatively few private students. And the December before that, I didn't teach because I went home to visit really early in the month, like the 6th or something. So this is my first December trying to be only a private teacher. It's not profitable.

At first it was annoying me.  Many people who had said they were going to have classes in December when I asked at the end of November ("many" as in like... half) decided at the last minute (as in like...30 minutes before the first class of the month) that they didn't want December classes after all, or that they want fewer classes, or whatever. It was irritating me because if it had been any other month, I would be seeing them again and I could ask them to pay the ef up. But these people are conveniently skipping out at a time when it'll be difficult to charge them, even though they had, after all, made the commitment to x number of classes. It was especially irritating from the people who were getting group rates. Two pairs had one person ditch December at the last minute, leaving their partners with a ridiculously cheap 1-on-1 class, and leaving me with shitty pay.

So I've spent the last few days grouchy and irritable, and getting even more so every time another person called to cancel.  But... vou fazer o que? Alexandre told me that I should write an email to the flaky people demanding that they pay for the December classes that they scheduled. I thought that would be kind of unprofessional on my part, and it'd end their year with me on a bad note. They're being sucky and are taking advantage of the situation at my expense, but at the same time, it was my mistake not to make contracts for December. I told approached the month with phrases like, "Ok, well I'm working until the 15th... do you want to maintain your schedule as normal until then? Ok... so December will cost you x reais." Verbal agreements just won't do. Maybe these students justified their flakiness with thoughts like "Oh, well she didn't even demand a contract, so I guess it's not a big deal!" and "Oh, I'm only canceling my last 4 classes! It doesn't count if they're the last four!"

I'm trying to be optimistic about it (3-hour work days! More time for cooking and pre-beach exercise!). I think it'd be worrying me much less if I knew that I'd for sure have an income in January, but I don't. I don't know where we're gonna live, and I won't know until the last minute. I have been saving this year for this moving situation, but I WAS expecting about 3x the salary in November and December that I actually earned. If we move, I have to help pay for moving expenses AND start looking for a new job (or new students) once I'm there. It's a stressful transition time.

However, it's very likely that we won't be living here next year. (Actually, as of the 10th, we'll know whether or not we're staying, but not necessarily where we're going TO.) So, it's possible that I'm not going to see these students anymore. If we do end up living here, I am going to be very selective about who I accept back as a student (NOT the flaky people). In fact, if I continue teaching next year (not feeling really eager about it as of now), I am going to be much stricter about everything. It was hard to implement strict rules with long-time people who'd been used to flexible rules. But now it'll be a new year and a new start.

These are some rules I'm going to set if I keep teaching next year:

1. I'm making the schedules, and the students are not. It seems so obvious, but I've been too nice. People insist, "oh, but I just CAN'T have class on Tuesdays! Please, please, let's have class on Friday night." No more. Here in town, I have a big waiting list, and in a new town, I'd rather just start off being selective, even if it means that I get paid a little less during the first few months. If a potential student doesn't want to fit into the schedule I want, he can go study at a school or with someone else.

2. More groups, and less (or no) 1-on-1 classes. I've realized that people in small group classes, especially if they're with some friends, take the class much more seriously than when they're alone. I think it's similar to exercise logic. Like, if you schedule to go jogging with a friend, you're much more likely to go than if you just tell yourself you'll go after work. Group classes are also a way to protect myself and my salary more. If one person suddenly quits, I've still got his friends at that hour. (And if his friends don't quit, he's less likely to quit himself.) And obviously, it's way more profitable (AND more dynamic... some students are really shy/boring/quiet and will NOT talk for an hour straight). My strategy for this is to raise my rate for 1-on-1 classes to something ridiculously high, and then to offer something reasonable for small group classes (never more than 4 people).

3. No more casual 1-or-2-hours-a-week students. My other lesson has been that students who study English in class with me for 2 hours a week or less DO NOT take their classes seriously, and, more importantly, do not improve. Almost no students will do homework regularly, so speaking English one night a week and then leaving your books in the car is not enough. People need to have a 3-hour minimum of classes if they're serious about it and want to improve. If they don't even have time for 3 hours of class, how will they have time to study at home? (Hint: They won't.)

4. People will pay for December in November. If next year ends up being like this year, then I have a plan. When people make their contracts for November, I'll say something like, "oh, why don't we go ahead and schedule December's classes now, too, since it'll only be about 2 weeks's worth of classes?" And, with their good intentions and plans to keep studying, they'll say, "Sure, ok!". So then they pay for December up front, long before they decide to drop. I think this will make them much more likely to just stick it out until the end of the year, since they've already paid for it and all. It will also prevent me from having practically no salary in December.
I don't know. I know that the tone of this entry is pretty crabby, so sorry for being so down. I'm just over it. I enjoy actually teaching, but I feel like people don't take English classes seriously, and they don't take me seriously. Maybe I'm just not cut out for the business/negotiating side of teaching and dealing with private students, for standing up to flaky people, for holding my ground with the hours and prices that I want. It's easy to type it all up in a moment of frustration on the blog, but less easy when I've got a guy in my face unapologetically insisting that he is NOT going to pay (like when I tried to stick up for myself yesterday to one of my businessmen students). There's a certain haggling skill / stern-ness that you need to be a private teacher in Brazil, and I don't have it.

Thoughts, please, dear blogging community? I know that a lot of you are teaching or have taught, and have likely run into similar problems. What do you do about these issues? How do you handle flaky people? What do you say to people that you just DON'T want to teach anymore? What kinds of contracts do you use-- long-term, with post-dated checks, or short-term, like month-to-month? I try to give a lot of teaching advice on this blog, but sometimes I'm the one that needs it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Excitement! Nature!

This evening I went for a walk with my new friend Karine. Dear Buddy Bruna introduced us. A new gated community is being built at the edge of town, about 2 miles away from our neighborhood. They've built a long road off of the "avenue" (not the traditional sense of an "avenue"'s just another road; there are fences with cows) that leads to the as-of-yet-unfinished gated community. The new road has been landscaped and a sidewalk was put in. There's also a little pond! It's about another mile up. It seems like the pond was there first and they've built the road around it, because the trees are really old and big and overgrown, not like the rest of the landscaped palm trees that the gated community company obviously put in.

Anyway, Karine and I decided to take a walk to see the pond (Alexandre had seen it when he went running and told me about it).

What a great evening! We started out at sunset (which luckily took a while). We walked all the way to the pond and back, stopping to take lots of pictures of pretty things. Karine pointed out a bunch of fruit trees that she recognized, like acerola and jabuticaba and a different type of mango that I've since forgotten the name of (something "bom" or "bom" something). Yum. We also saw wild cotton plants! (At least I think it was cotton.) I couldn't get very good pictures of them, what with the sun setting and all, but when I do, I'll show ya. (I still can't get over the fact that the earth is so fertile that fruit just grows wild on the streets.)

Here, have a gander at the pictures:

yup, that's right. Cows on the main avenue, only a few yards away from another new condomino complex. Only in Caipirópolis. But look at the colors!

more cows

moo... this one got spooked by the flash and started to lumber away

New friend Karine with the landscaped flowers

the little pond! 

I also identified a new bird: an eastern slaty thrush (sabiá ferreiro). The picture below is from the internet. I couldn't get a good picture of my own because it kept jumping around, but it was pretty easy to figure out because of its distinct coloring and its bright yellow beak:

But the most exciting part of our walking adventure was... bum bum bum...

The toucan!

I know it's hard to see. The little guy was high up and my camera's zoom isn't great. But I FINALLY got a picture of a toucan in the wild! I've seen them quite a few times, but always when I didn't have my camera on me. 

But wait, it gets better! The toucan started making noise! Didn't know they did that. They sound like little piggies. Here, I made a video (you can hear Karine in the beginning, and then my Portuguese. It's pretty obvious who's who): 



As fun as the walk was, we had to head home. The sky was lookin' pret-ty angry: 

a storm's a-comin!

It started to pour just as we got into the neighborhood, so luckily my camera didn't get ruined or anything. 

But yes! Just a lovely evening, don't you agree? It was also great exercise. Three weeks 'till beach season!!

Friday, December 3, 2010

TOEFL Dishonesty: "Omission" Means "Lying" in My Book

OOOOh, I am so shocked at some people's dishonesty. I am telling you all about what happened to one of my students so you can all know that this happens and prevent it from happening to you or your students.

All right. So most of you have heard of the TOEFL test, which is an official English test that English learners always need if they want to study abroad and sometimes need if they want to work abroad.  The company that offers the TOEFL test is called ETS, which is the same company that offers the GRE in the US, among other things. It's not my favorite thing in the world to teach, as I've said before, but it's important and helpful so I do.

Anyway. When someone wants to prepare for the TOEFL tests, they have many options. There is a lot of material available to study for the test, like books and CDs. ETS has their own official book. It's pretty good, but kind of boring and hard to look at (soooo many small words on very thin pages). The other two trusted publishers of TOEFL material are Cambridge (I use their materials) and Longman (Also good, but I was trained with Cambridge materials, so that's mostly why I use it). There are many other people and companies that have produced books and CDs and stuff, but these three are the most popular.

Many English learners sign up for TOEFL prep classes at English schools. The English school where my friend Kristin and I worked in the US had TOEFL prep classes. Here in Brazil, many English schools offer TOEFL prep classes too.

HOWEVER. It is very important to know that, while anyone can offer a prep course (hell, I offer one), very very few institutions are authorized to give the real, official TOEFL test.  For example, there's a branch of Cultura Inglesa, a Brazilian English school chain, that offers TOEFL prep classes here in our region. But they are not listed on the ETS website as an official testing center. So once the student is ready to take the actual test, he has to go to another school, the only authorized testing center within a 3-hour radius, to take the test.

The ONLY way someone can pay for a real TOEFL test is on the ETS website. In some cases, the physical institutions are authorized to accept payment, but then they should give a voucher with a code to the test-taker, and this test-taker STILL has to register at the official ETS website, and then they enter this code instead of their credit card information.

Okay so far?

All right, so here's what happened to my student's husband. He signed up for a TOEFL prep class at the local FISK branch. FISK is a big and apparently corrupt English school chain here in Brazil. When he signed up for the prep course, they told him that, once he finished the prep course, the school would offer him the official TOEFL test. He and his wife (my student) were offered positions for their company abroad, and his position requires a TOEFL score. So he thought "awesome, I can sign up for the class and the test." He told the school that he needed this TOEFL score for his new job, and they continued to tell him, for MONTHS of his expensive prep course, that it was an official prep course and the official test.

As you can imagine, it wasn't. They're totally lying to their clients. Well, let me explain something. There's this big thing in Brazilian culture called "omission." Of course it happens around the world but it wasn't ever something I had to watch out for in the US the way I have to here. I mean, you expect it from telemarketers and car salesmen, but not from so many people and companies. "Omission" is what it sounds like-- if you word something a certain way, you aren't lying! You're withholding vital information and deceiving people, but that's not lying!!

Guess what, malandros?? It is.

So FISK offers this "special" version of the TOEFL test. It's called the TOEFL ITP.  English teachers, have you ever heard of it? I hadn't. Apparently, it's attractive to English schools and companies that offer TOEFL prep classes, because the material and the authorization is cheaper. It's "technically" official, because it's offered by ETS.  However, this test is NOT the official TOEFL iBT test, and its score is not an official TOEFL score that is accepted abroad. Here is the ETS site's description of the ITP test (they're talking to English schools):

The ETS site explicitly says at the bottom: TOEFL ITP forms have been administered before and are not fully secure; they should hence neither be used for admission purposes, nor as substitutes for a TOEFL score.

So, clear, right? This ITP is NOT the official TOEFL test required abroad.

Now, take a look at the way the FISK website presents their options for the TOEFL tests:

They don't explicitly tell people that it's not an official score! So they're just omitting, they're not lying! Congrats, FISK! They do say, however, that the ITP test is a "pre-requisitie for signing up for Master's and PhD proigrams in some Brazilian universities."

They also say that it's good for "improving your resume via an internationally recognized entity" and that it gives "access to scholarships at some private and public higher institutions of learning."

They list the dozens of cities in Brazil that offer this test and point out that the score is valid for 2 years. This is also deceiving. Most people that plan to take the TOEFL know that the real TOEFL test is valid for 2 years.

Then, below, they have only a little bit of information about the iBT test, the REAL test, and the few branches of their schools that are allowed to offer it, in only a few cities. They also conveniently do NOT say that the real test is valid for 2 years.

So what do YOU think a student is going to do? What would YOU do, if you weren't a TOEFL expert? You'd think "oh, well this prep class is in my city, so I'm just gonna do this one!"  And then you spend months and thousands of reais on a test that has no value in the real world.

The only reason that all of this even came to light was because my student mentioned that her husband was happy because he had taken a practice TOEFL test at home and that his score was 600! I got confused, because the real TOEFL test has scores from 0 - 120. I thought at first that the school was offering the very outdated paper version of the TOEFL test.  So then we got to talking and she told me all about his course and his test, and we did some internet research and figured it all out.

As you can imagine, he was pissed. The poor guy. He doesn't really have time to start over with the classes, and I didn't want to offer anyway. (I didn't want them to think that I was trying to help them just so I could steal him as my student. He started this prep course before he and his wife met me, which is why he's not my student now.) So I told her that if he wanted to borrow my materials to study at home, he could. I mean, his English is strong, at least, but he has no idea what the style of the real test is like. This practice test was on paper, and didn't have any speaking or listening!  

But yes. If you skimmed this very long blog entry, just read this: FISK English Schools lie about the tests and courses that they offer. Perhaps other institutions do, too. If you want to know if you are taking a real TOEFL test, register on their website (it's here) and verify that your institution is listed as an official testing site with a test on the day that they are promoting as "test day". Also, when you pay for the test, you should give money ONLY to, or to a school that is listed as a testing site that will also give you a voucher and a code that you put into the same website after you pay. That's how you know it's the real thing, ok?

Tell your friends, tell your students, and make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. Maybe someone with better Portuguese than mine wants to report it to Globo? Maybe they'll do an exposé on Fantástico. I'd be so pleased.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Knight in Shining Armor

After much whining and shuddering on my part, Alexandre went out and killed all the moths in the stairwell using our doormat.

(Yes, the doormat. They're so big that he couldn't use his shoe.)

And peace was once again bestowed upon the land of Edifício.

(I edited "knight", if you saw my gross spelling mistake that was up for a couple of hours)

Moth Ridiculousness

So I'm getting kind of pathetic. I'm letting giant black moths take over my life. I can't help it. There are just SO many of them, and I am so, so terrified.

According to evidence left on the floor (pieces.of.insect.) and on the walls (kitty paw prints in black dust), Gatinha caught and killed two that came into the apartment last night. (What would I do without her?)

And then today, there were THREE (count them!) trapped in the stairwell of the apartment building. I about had a heart attack last summer when ONE got in. The absolutely worst traumatic part of today was that, like every day, I had to go up and down the stairs like 8 times (no joke) to let my students in and out. Our intercom (interfone) doesn't open the outside gate because some genius (aka whiny and retired) neighbor lady insisted that too many people were leaving the door open, and she was convinced that someone was gonna steal her car. (This was before we moved in.) So now every time students come, I have to go down 4 flights of stairs to let them in.

This bothered me less when there weren't three bat-sized insects trapped in such small quarters.

I know on a rational level that the moths can't hurt me. I know that. But that doesn't mean they don't freak the bejeezus out of me. They're just so big and lopey and conniving and they leave this sick black power on everything they touch. And if when they're stationary, you just never know. The slightest shift in the wind could be enough for them to start flying around wildly, in your face and in your hair.

In an attempt to alleviate my fears / torture myself some more, I looked up the moth on the internet. I learned things that I didn't want to know, like the fact that in Southeast Asia, there are moths as big as street signs, and that in Australia, some indigenous tribes used to EAT MOTHS, like voluntarily put them in their mouths. I also learned that this evil moth that makes it to our town actually lays its eggs as far north as Florida and Texas, and then these caterpillars make cocoons and then hatch and then the moths slowly make their way down south, probably eating goats and small children until they reach super-human size.

So come on, Southerners!  This is your chance! Kill any caterpillars in sight. I know that THEY seem innocent enough, but you have no idea what they can become!

In the meantime, I need to figure out some way to get over this fear, because it's quickly turning into a phobia. I find myself thinking about it way too much, worrying that every little sound at night is a moth coming in to attack me. I don't really understand why. I suppose if we were being invaded by something else, that would be the thing I was freaked out by. (We do get a lot of tiny little geckos, too. But they're super cute and they can't fly.)

Any ideas? Please don't say flooding.
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