Competition in the subúrbio

When we Americans hear the word “suburbs,” we picture a comfortable lifestyle with sizable houses, spacious yards, and safe neighborhoods full of two-car families.

Not so with the Brazilian subúrbio. The word in Portuguese means something more like “periphery” – poor areas, far from the city center, that are often dangerous.

One of the most challenging things I’ve done in Brazil was to give capoeira classes to a group of six-to-nine-year-olds in the subúrbio of Salvador. The first time I entered the school, I saw a ton of kids running around the halls and stairwells screaming, with barely an adult in sight. This turned out to be somewhat the norm, and my group of kids was no different. They all seemed to have ADHD – and there were 20 of them.

If I looked away for two seconds, they would be climbing onto tables, finding things to throw at each other, knocking over chairs, and otherwise doing everything except the activity at hand. Even if I managed to teach a capoeira movement, they’d immediately use it to try to hit their classmates. I did more yelling, disciplining, and threatening to end class early if they didn’t behave (which I followed through on several times) than capoeira.

“How are the kids’ classes going?” my capoeira mestre asked me one day.

“They’re really a challenge,” I admitted.

“Those children are very needy,” he said softly.

I reflected on that. It was very possible that my students’ behavior was a reflection of a chaotic home life. And the school – understaffed and with minimal infrastructure – simply did not have enough resources to maintain order and give these kids a solid education in both academics and good citizenship. But there had to be some way to work with them.

Over time, with trial and error, I began to discover strategies that engaged the kids and seemed to minimize disruptive behavior. The best activities were ones that involved the whole group actively participating. For example, I’d write the lyrics of a capoeira song on the board, then progressively erase words. They’d recite the song in unison after each deletion until they had it memorized. Another favorite was to sit in a circle and I’d do movements in the center, while everyone shouted out the name of the movement I was doing. Then each child had their turn in the center while the others identified their movements. It was loud and chaotic, but it held their attention.

The best activity, though, was when I divided the group into 3 teams and announced that we were having a competition. The rules:

  1. The teams would take turns to come up and choose a slip of paper out of a hat, with the name of a capoeira movement. Their team then had to do that movement 5 times.
  2. If they succeeded, their team would win a point.
  3. If anyone did a different movement than the one on the slip, they wouldn’t get the point.
  4. If anyone stood up or goofed around during another team’s turn, their team would lose a point.

I asked another teacher to keep track of the points, and did enough rounds of the game so that every child on each team had the chance to draw a slip out of the hat. Points were gained, points were lost, and the kids started keeping their teammates in line so as not to be penalized. By the time the game finished, I had no idea which team was in the lead.

“I will now announce the results,” I said. The teacher handed me the scorecard, and the kids settled into an expectant silence. When I looked at the card, I saw that all three teams had ended up with eight points. I’ll need a tiebreaker! I realized – but I had no time to think of one.

“Team 1 has eight points,” I said.

The expectant silence continued.

“Team 2… has eight points.”

Nobody said a word.

“And team 3… has eight points. It’s a tie!”

The room EXPLODED in joy.

“YAAAAAAAAYYYYY!!!!!” they screamed while jumping up and down and hugging each other. There was a smile on every face.

I was stunned. I’d imagined that they’d react with apathy at the rather anticlimactic result, since I’d really played up the “competition” and “points” aspect, and in the end there was no clear winner.

But no – they celebrated.

After all, a three-way tie meant that everybody had won.