Published On: April 26, 2017

The Joys of English

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Leonardo Silva Brito is from Rondônia and grew-up with a deep love of reading. His parents, both teachers, made bedtime story time so enticing that by the age of six, he was reading to his mom. He read all the books he could get his hands on. And while his parents fostered his enthusiasm at home, his teachers did the same at the public school he attended.

One of Leonardo’s most important teachers wasn’t actually a teacher but the secretary in his school. Rose had lived in the United States for four years, and began providing free after-school English classes to anyone in Leonardo’s school who was interested.

“It was through Rose that I started to love the English language, and it opened up so many things for me,” Leonardo remembers. When Rose left the school to return to the US, Leonardo decided, “I felt an obligation to pass along this knowledge that I had learned from her. So I decided to give free English classes to other students after school. I realized how much the classes had changed my life.”

While taking on this new challenge to teach English, Leonardo was also excelling with his Portuguese writing. At the age of 15, Leonardo placed 3rd in the world in a global letter-writing competition. The recognition gained him a fellowship to attend a youth conference, where he met 16-year-old Gabriel Saruhashi from São Paulo. They became instant friends.


Leonardo at work



Gabriel had co-founded “Letters for Learning,” an organization that helps disadvantaged Brazilian students get excited about learning English through letter exchanges with students in Ghana and India. For Leonardo, Letters for Learning was the perfect approach to make his own English classes exciting. He proposed to launch Letters for Learning in Rondônia. He suggested to Gabriel they work together to expand the organization to Rondônia and then to other states as well.

Growing up nearly 3000 km away from Leonardo in São Paulo, Gabriel, too, had an early passion that his family and teachers supported. His parents were entrepreneurs, and he’d always dreamed of running his own business. When he was in 4th grade, the family was facing a difficult financial period and Gabriel wanted to do something to help. He took some money he had saved and started selling candy at school to the other kids. Soon he was turning a small profit. “When I gave the money to my parents, they asked me where it came from, and when I told them they were so proud. I realized then that I could help others while doing something I loved.”

keep-calm-and-learn-englishIn school, Gabriel was deeply involved in a STEM competition to build the best Formula 1 car in miniature. He led his 8-member team to win a global competition that took them to Abu Dhabi to receive the award. “Returning to Brazil, I felt I could do anything,” Gabriel remembers.

In high school, Gabriel began working with students as a volunteer English teacher. He immediately saw that the students hated English class because the rote learning method was ruining their interest. They could memorize nouns and verbs but refused to speak. “Language is all about communication and they weren’t communicating.”

Gabriel decided that letter-writing would be a way to make English fun to learn and get students communicating their thoughts and ideas. “I believe that young people need to be the protagonists in their own lives, and letter-writing put the learning into the hands of the students rather than the teachers,” Gabriel explained.

So Gabriel contacted his best friend, Lucas Sato, who had moved to India a few years earlier and explained the idea to Lucas. He found that Lucas was finding similar problems with English in his own school. Together Gabriel and Lucas founded Letters for Learning to establish letter exchanges that not only got students excited about learning English but also helped them learn about the lives and dreams of people their own age from very different cultural backgrounds. Today Letters for Learning has expanded to 40 youth volunteers and 70 students working in India, Ghana, the United States, and five states in Brazil.

Gabriel describes, “Culturally, it always seemed that people in high school couldn’t do anything to change their lives or help the world. I was sure I could because I had been making money from my candy business, and designing the Formula 1 car. I think that was the difference for me. For those facing that hesitation or frustration, it is important to find one person who will support you. For me, there was the teacher who invited me to be an English instructor and supported Letters for Learning at its start-up. For Leonardo, it was Rose.”

students 2



Today, Gabriel is a freshman at Yale University in the US, one of the eight most prestigious colleges in the US that are a part of the Ivy League, which also includes Harvard. Gabriel has passed the leadership role for Letters for Learning to team members like Leonardo. At Yale, Gabriel has taken on new challenges like helping develop a support/buddy system for resettled Syrian refugees.

Leonardo is looking forward to college too, and in addition to leading Letters for Learning, he is helping another youth-run start-up called InspiraSonho (InspireDream), a platform for young people to connect to opportunities like fellowships, scholarships, and social change organizations. As Leonardo expressed to other young people in an interview with Globo, “Never stop chasing your dreams because although sometimes it is rather hard, you start gaining knowledge which is something that no one can take away from you and that has no price.”

[This piece was adapted from an article on the Askhoka website]

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