Faculty in Focus: Mari Formicola, Lower School Portuguese Teacher

The Graded Gazette

Books and knowledge are very important to you. When did you develop a passion for reading and learning? 

I was a very curious child. I have always been passionate about learning and understanding how things work. During my childhood, the adults I interacted with used to say that I was that kid who often put them in embarrassing situations because of my desire to know everything.

I am a second-generation Brazilian. My grandparents immigrated to Brazil from Europe under challenging circumstances, and knowledge was essential for their survival in a new country. As a result, in my youth, I was often told to study because “no one could take away what was in my head.” 

My paternal grandfather was an Italian maestro who struggled in Europe because there were very few opportunities for musicians there at the time (between the World Wars). So he came to Brazil in search of professional opportunities and met my grandmother. They were both very cultured people with a great interest in the arts. 

Mari and her grandmother

My maternal grandmother was Hungarian. Her father did not want her to pursue higher education, so he offered her a six-month trip to anywhere in the world to keep her from studying. She decided to visit Brazil and, once here, she met and fell in love with a Hungarian architect. That architect, my grandfather, had left Europe out of fear of being persecuted for his socialist ideals. To convince his future father-in-law that my grandmother would be busy, active, and happy as his wife in Brazil, he bought her several banana plantations near the coast. Once they were married, my grandparents hired Hungarian laborers to work on their plantations, and my grandfather put some of his socialist ideas into practice by sharing part of the profit with the staff. Unfortunately, my grandfather died before I was born, but my grandmother played a huge role in my upbringing. She spent a lot of time watching and caring for me. In her house, she spoke Hungarian, so I had the chance to learn the language. She influenced me tremendously. 

My childhood was filled with many loving and highly-educated people. They told me wonderful stories and often gave me beautiful books that greatly impacted me. My grandmother would always talk about her youth in Hungary. She was the one who most encouraged me to read widely and learn enthusiastically since she had relied upon her knowledge and intelligence to build a new life for herself in Brazil. 


Do you have a favorite book?

It would be impossible to name a single title as I have several favorite books and authors! I believe that readers change as they grow older and that books can take on a different meaning at different points of one's life. I grew up in a family of avid readers and had access to many books, so I have read a lot. Some of my favorite books are strongly influenced by my affection for the people who recommended them to me. For my First Communion, a dear aunt gave me The Little Prince. She inscribed a special dedication to me on the inner cover of the book, saying that each time I read it, I would learn a new truth about life. When I was ten years old, my teacher and classmates gave me Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter, and I adored the novel! Pollyanna was a girl who was able to bear terrible things because of her inner strength.


Before you became a teacher, you worked as a psychologist. Tell us a little more about that. 

Psychology and teaching are my two passions, and I think they complement each other very well!

Pedagogy has never been highly regarded in Brazil, so when I was choosing what to study at university, my family persuaded me not to pursue a career as a teacher. At the time, I was unsure of what I wanted to do, so I took their advice and enrolled in a psychology course instead. 

As a psychologist, I studied the emotional, social, physical, and neurological development of children, as well as disorders that affect each of those areas of development. I worked for an alternative therapeutic program with children who have psychosis, and in a previous role, I assisted children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia. 

I quickly realized how crucial it was for children in challenging situations to receive emotional support from their schools and communities. This realization prompted me to pursue a degree in pedagogy. 


Mari in class

You took a class with Madalena Freire, Paulo Freire’s daughter. What was that like? 

Madalena Freire, like her father, is one of those Educators spelled with a capital "E"; someone who knows a lot but never loses the humility of knowing there is always more to learn, who is open to the new, the unknown, the different. Spending time with such an educator and having the opportunity to focus on my professional development was a transformational experience. 

The course I took with her spanned three years. Madalena also served as my advisor, and she helped me manage a very challenging group of students at the school I was working at then. That class was composed of eight- and nine-year-old children with severe behavioral problems and poor academic performance. The process was difficult but transformative for everyone involved. 

We had weekly picnics with the class, creating a space where they could share experiences and concerns. The students brought in food for the picnics, too. Slowly, the relationships between group members began to change, and the students acquired new respect for school rules. 

Mari and Madalena Freire

The work we did reflects the deeper learning practices that Graded teachers have learned in the Graded Learning Lab. Through this experience, it became clear to me that a sense of belonging is necessary for students to perform well academically.


Many people seem to think that teaching lower school children involves little more than playing games all day. How do you respond to that? 

I would invite those people to “play” with us for a day! They would quickly notice that we do spend a lot of time playing, singing, painting, drawing, and having fun, but that there is a lot of intentionality behind everything we do, which makes all the difference! 

Mari and her students

Every activity is carefully planned and serves a specific purpose. The beginning of lower school is a period of critical importance since it is when students build a foundation for all their future learning. It is also the time when, hopefully, all of the fun and games instill in children a genuine love of learning that will last a lifetime. 


What have been some of the most impactful moments in your pedagogical career? 

My favorite parts of teaching are the moments when students realize that they understand something. When, suddenly, things click. In those moments, children feel immensely capable and empowered; they get excited about the endless possibilities of education, and they become eager to learn more.  Those moments are magical. 

A few years ago, I worked with youth and adult literacy at FEUSP (USP’s College of Education), and I was tremendously affected by the experience. Those students taught me about the impact that reading and writing can have on people’s lives. For example, as soon as my students learned how to read and write, many of them got new ID cards with their own signatures, which was a transformative moment for them. 

During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to work with a group of Graded colleagues on a project called Graded Beyond Boundaries (GBB), which also deeply affected me. The project supported teachers at public schools in nearby communities by helping them adopt tools and platforms for distance learning. Graded teachers also coached public school teachers through the online teaching process. 


What are your favorite things about working at Graded? 

I love working at Graded. Have you ever heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? We are the village! (And it’s an incredible village!)

The school environment is vibrant and constantly changing. Even the teachers who have worked here for decades feel renewed because the community is always learning and growing. 

I feel very respected as a teacher here, and I have been able to participate in amazing professional learning programs. A teacher is constantly faced with new questions, and Graded is full of curious, intelligent educators who reflect and learn together. 

And the kids are amazing!


How does your profession influence your outlook on life?  

Multiple factors shape my outlook on life. I am very aware of the privileges I grew up with and how my family’s values influenced my choices. Because of my ideals, I believe I have a responsibility to people who are less privileged than I am. 

Being an educator comes with tremendous responsibility. You’re never really done; you’re always thinking about your students and your next activities. And your students are constantly looking up to you as a role model. 

I am always hopeful and open to learning. I like the idea of always being able to improve, to grow. I have a very restless mind, and I think many other educators do, too. 


What do you like to do in your free time? 

Besides reading? I am a collector! I love to collect life quotes, and my favorite quote is by Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” 

I am also a collector of floaty pens. These pens used to be very common in souvenir shops around the world; whenever I traveled somewhere new, I would buy one. Once floaty pens became harder to find, I started buying other decorated souvenir pens, and eventually, my collection expanded even more to include hotel pens. 

Part of Mari’s pen collection

My other hobbies include going to the beach, traveling, and taking pictures. I have been to amazing places like the Amazon, Iguaçu Falls, Tuscany, and Carmel. But, the NEXT destination is always the most interesting for people who enjoy traveling! I am eager to visit Hungary, Israel, Alaska, and Antarctica. 

I enjoy spending time with friends and family, and I am a huge fan of movies. (I love all movie genres except horror!)

Last photo of Mari and her grandmother