Italian lessons: what we’ve learned from two months of home schooling

Most of us in Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, remember the weekend of 22 February very clearly. To begin with there were just rumours – phone calls and messages flying around between friends – but then it was confirmed: all schools in the region were going to close for a week.

The decision was, in many ways, shocking. At that time, there had only been three deaths from Covid-19 in Italy, and only 152 reported infections. It seemed strange that education was the first social activity to be sacrificed. I guessed it was because it wasn’t perceived to be economically productive. Nothing else was closing: football grounds, bars, shops and ski resorts were still open for business, and no schools in any other European country had closed.

Still, to our three kids – Benny (15), Emma (13) and Leo (9) – the idea of a week off seemed like bliss. We had moved back to Parma from the UK three years earlier, and by comparison with the UK, education here seemed relentless. Many pupils go to school six days a week and there are no half-term holidays. But my wife, Francesca, who is Italian, and I were both worried. She works with Syrian refugees, which isn’t a job you can suddenly drop, and I had just been offered a 9-to-5 job, after 21 years of being freelance. We, like all our friends, suddenly had an acute childcare crisis.

The announcement had been so sudden that schools had few plans or resources in place to teach remotely. Italy spends a lot less on education than almost every other western country. Spending per student (from primary school to university) equates to $8,966 per annum, compared to $11,028 in the UK and $11,502 in Sweden. The under-investment is so serious that in December 2019, the education minister, Lorenzo Fioramonti, resigned in protest.

Nor did many Italian teachers seem to know how to approach this new world in which they found themselves. There is minimal teacher-training in Italy. University graduates are often thrown into a classroom without any knowledge of pedagogic theories or practical experience. Inspections are almost unheard of. The result is that Italian education is, at its worst, particularly conservative and condescending: the pupil is seen as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge that is regurgitated in exams.

Because of that lack of money, and because, according to the OECD, Italy has the oldest teachers in the world – 59% are over 50 – Italian schools are heavily analogue. Kids carry a dozen books to and from school every day in massive backpacks, like Obelix and his rock, which did not seem like a promising basis for remote learning.

But if Italian schools weren’t perfect, they were surely better than nothing. The idea that we now had to recreate formal education within the narrow walls of a city flat with no garden was daunting. We lacked the time, energy or even knowledge to replace their teachers. Nor, the kids made it clear, did they even want us to try.

Parents and teachers across the country had to scramble to devise ways continue our children’s learning. But slowly – over the course of two months – something rather unexpected happened. As we started to ponder how this experiment of home schooling could best be delivered, it began to feel as if it was us, the parents and teachers, as much as the pupils, who were being educated.

The first week off school was the lull before the storm. It genuinely felt like a holiday. Being pragmatic and slightly puritan, we don’t let the kids watch TV, or ourselves drink alcohol, on weekdays. When it was announced that school was closed, we lifted the rules. On 1 March, another week of school closures was announced, so we went up to the mountains, half an hour outside the city, to plant trees and play cards. On 4 March, a new government decree announced that every school in Italy would be suspended the following day.

In those early days it was all fun. I left the children spelling tests under their plates or pillows, and if they wanted to watch TV they had to learn elements of the periodic table or the bones of the human skeleton or how to tie knots. It felt as if we were, finally, the right side of that ancient Roman dichotomy of “otium-negotium”, an idea to which Italians occasionally refer. Otium was the time of creative repose when you were able to freewheel and follow your fancies – unlike negotium, which was all about business and the practical side of life.

We had a few advantages, I suppose. The ages of our kids mean that there are no tantrums at one end, and no alcohol or boyfriend issues at the other. We enjoy just hanging out together. I’ve also spent much of my life teaching. I’ve taught everywhere from primary schools to prisons and universities. For years, at home, we’ve had mealtime quizzes. One Christmas, Benny even gifted the family three bells of the kind they have in hotel receptions so that we could truly have “fingers on buzzers”.

The few educational theories I have come from the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who believed that play is the path to a child’s wholeness and wellbeing. Games give children the chance to make decisions for themselves and provide an opportunity for spontaneity, fun, deceit and calculation. So for those first two weeks we played incessantly: perudo (“liars’ dice”), blackjack, euchre, backgammon and epic table-tennis tournaments with various handicaps (playing left-handed or subtracting your age from your score). The kids weren’t learning much, but at least poor old Leo was learning to be a good loser.

Being the youngest, he needed some fun, and since at this point his class had as yet no lessons organised, I asked his teacher if we could make 10-minute English lessons for his classmates. The aim was as much to cheer them up as to learn English. We would wear wigs and teach his peers the English names for body parts by sawing them off and using lots of fake blood. We taught grammar through declining lavatorial verbs. Emma would edit the videos and we would send them to the class WhatsApp group, which had, until now, been a basic tool for school admin and parental gossip.

Despite all those good intentions, it was hard not to feel inadequate, even anxious. Well-meaning messages were circulating among parents about which museums, theatres, aquariums and zoos had opened their virtual doors. Many were posting pictures of their well-behaved children clicking their way through the Guggenheim, while ours were watching House on Netflix. We quickly felt defeated by the sheer volume of offerings, and guilty that we weren’t sharing these cultural delights with our children.

The following weekend, on 8 March, the government announced that the whole of Emilia-Romagna (plus Lombardy and the Veneto) was to be placed in lockdown, and that schools would be closed for at least another month. Three days later, on 11 March, the entire country went into full lockdown.

We were slowly realising how dark things were becoming. On 12 March, we passed 1,000 nationwide deaths, and only four days later passed 2,000. There was defiance and denial as we sang on balconies and people hung out bedsheets with the wrong-headed slogan “andrà tutto bene” (“it’ll all be fine”), but the mood was turning as the death toll continued to rise.

It was at this point that teachers dumped a load of homework on their pupils. Having had a fortnight to plan how to teach through the crisis, many decided that the best way was to send out entire chapters of books for children to learn, and hundreds of pages of exercises to complete. After a fortnight of freedom, pupils were now overloaded.

The other thing that changed was that my new job started. For the first time this century, I had bosses and meetings and responsibilities. It brought to an abrupt end my educational clowning. Suddenly no one in the family had much spare time and nor, it seemed, such good cheer.

The closing of all Italy’s schools meant teachers found themselves having to invent a new kind of classroom from scratch. There were no ministerial guidelines or approved websites. “The entirety of this new form of online teaching,” said Daniele Martino, a middle-school teacher in Turin, “was created by us teachers at the last minute.”

At the beginning, it was chaotic. There was little coordination between different teachers within the same schools, let alone across different schools, and parents reported finding themselves boggled by a vast array of IT platforms: Meet, Classroom, Zoom, Jitsi, Edmodo. The problem wasn’t only that sites and servers crashed as the country’s almost 8 million students all logged on. Many kids couldn’t connect at all.

The Digital Economy and Society Index rates Italy 24 out of 28 European countries in its “digitalisation index”, and last year Italy’s national statistics agency, Istat, reported that 23.9% of Italian families have no access to the internet. As one teacher said to me: “We’ve discovered how democratic pencil-and-paper is.” The attempt by many teachers to get less-privileged students the necessary laptops and internet connections is one of the untold stories of this crisis. By 19 March, the ministry of education claimed to have distributed 46,152 tablets throughout the country. Since then, an emergency budget has created a €70m fund for providing computers to those without. Even if the necessary hardware is distributed, one special educational needs teacher told me that online classes just don’t work for children who need bespoke lessons: “Those who are already doing well at school are now doing even better, but those who were struggling are just falling further behind.”

At the start, I got the sense that no one really knew how to do what was becoming known as “DAD” – didattica a distanza, or long-distance learning. When teachers were struggling with IT, it was often their pupils who came to the rescue. “I have an exceptional digital consultant”, said Claudio Dionesalvi, a literature teacher in Calabria. “He’s 11, and is one of my students. He’s like a junior version of Mr Wolf in Pulp Fiction.”

The teacher-pupil balance also shifted. In an online classroom, if pupils aren’t interested or motivated, they can hide far more easily. They can feign technological issues, freeze the camera, mute the microphone. Around this time, I did a few online lessons for various schools and saw the problem close up: when the pupils weren’t engaged they would drift away and, not having them there in front of you, you couldn’t bring them back into the circle.

Teachers were having to learn new ways to draw their students out. “I could no longer do the classic head-on, knowledge-passing lesson,” said Betta Salvini, a history teacher in Parma. “I now involve them all the time, I turn the lesson upside down so that they are the protagonists, so that I hear their voices.”

But school was also being reinvented because Italy’s traditional educational stick had been removed. Usually pupils are given many tests each month and if, at the end of the year, their average score is insufficient, they’re bocciato – failed – and have to repeat the year. Now, teachers quickly realised there was no way to stop students cheating in tests. When someone is in their bedroom, and all you can see is their face, you have no idea if they have the book open on their lap, or are messaging friends or Googling the answer.

Traditionalist teachers were beside themselves. One parent in Umbria told me how a teacher stormed out of the virtual classroom when she discovered how many pupils were cheating. Then the new education minister, Lucia Azzolina, suggested that in the circumstances, no pupils would be sent back to repeat the year again. Between the cheating and the automatic promotion to the next school year, teachers who needed a big stick suddenly found themselves disarmed.

“Many of my colleagues are really struggling”, said Riccardo Giannitrapani, a maths teacher in a secondary school in Udine. These two months, he told me, have been more about a re-education of teachers than of pupils. “Before, we used to discuss students in meetings by giving them numbers, even down to decimal points – 5.4, 5.5.” These marks, he said, became an end in themselves, creating acute anxiety among not only the children, but also their parents.

There has always been a battle in Italy between hardliners and child-centred reformers such as Maria Montessori. It now seemed as if progressives had the upper hand. Salvatore Giuliano, a headteacher in Brindisi and a former education minister, told me: “A child of 15 has far more creativity than we have. Every time you give them the freedom and tools to create something, they will astonish you.” Giuliano described some memorable student-led presentations he has seen in recent weeks. His favourite was an extended family – parents, siblings and grandparents – all dressed up as the planets and moving around the room.

Many teachers have had to soften their approach, to take into account what their pupils were going through. “Some of them have lost a grandparent”, said Paola Lante, a primary-school teacher in Milan. “Their parents are losing their jobs or are fighting at home. At the end of the day, a teacher has to be a steadying influence, a social worker and a psychologist.”

At the beginning of the lockdown, Giannitrapani, the maths teacher in Udine, published an open letter to his pupils saying that he shouldn’t be the one overloading them, but vice versa – they should be bombarding him with their questions. Sara Scotellaro, in Naples, has 120 pupils in various classes: “They no longer have a timetable and you have to be constantly available”, she said. “They have this need to be immediately reassured – that their work has been received, that it’s OK, that you’re happy with them.”

That fluidity of boundaries has had advantages and disadvantages. In video lessons some pupils have found it embarrassing to share their personal spaces – their bedrooms and, in the background, even their embarrassing parents. Many teachers describe seeing a new side to their students. “There’s no longer the intimidation of the pack,” said one teacher, “and so they’re bringing out what they really know. I’ve got a 13-year-old, the son of two ex-offenders, who has produced some diaries of extraordinary depth.” Lante told me about a very timid student who never speaks in class but who, it only now emerges, is exceptional at languages. “It makes you understand”, said Lante, “that we need a very varied form of education”.

By the third week of March, after a month with no school, Francesca and I were also beginning to see our children in a new light. Like most kids, they’re monosyllabic when describing their days at school – “fine” usually does it. Now, as lessons were literally taking place in the kitchen, we were unexpectedly in the classroom with them. We could see what was going on.

It was both painful and funny. We realised that one of our children, exuberant and confident at home, often froze when asked a question in class. Another, usually conscientious and honest, was asked by her teacher to show her artwork. Because it hadn’t turned out too well, she held up her drawing up against the window, and held the painting she was supposed to have copied behind it, so it showed through behind her own. That mini-deceit made her work look rather sophisticated.

Another consequence of lessons taking place at home was that the greatest problem in schools – boisterous disturbances – suddenly subsided. One of our children has a class that is usually very noisy: the kids misbehave and the teacher yells, and soon everyone is shouting over each other. Now, with the children subdued by their parents’ presence, and the teacher aware that parents could be listening, there was a new-found calm to the lessons and, we thought, a genuine warmth to the encounters.

But there was no timetable to our children’s lessons. There were odd hours here and there, sometimes in the early morning, sometimes mid-afternoon. Our elderly laptops and wifi were often inadequate, and so the only working devices were passed around. There wasn’t a lot of rhythm or relaxation to our day. Francesca and I were still trying to take up a lot of slack, but as March turned into April, our initial energy had subsided.

We had passed 10,000, then 15,000 deaths from Covid-19. Even though the kids had enough spare time to be habitually bored, they were no longer cleaning the house or doing their daily learning tasks. Spelling tests and fitness regimes were forgotten. They seemed to have become – if not agoraphobic – certainly “agora-meh”. They wouldn’t even walk around the block. They were getting up later each day, and even when vertical, it became hard to persuade them to get out of pyjamas.

As often happens when you stop doing something, you suddenly wonder why you were doing it in the first place. Benny, who has been obsessive about ballet all her life and attends a dance academy, entered a profound crisis. She said she wanted to stop dancing altogether. Even Leo, a football fanatic, barely mentioned or played with a football any more. It felt as if their passions had evaporated somehow.

It’s hard, as a parent, not to be frustrated, especially if – as a writer – you regret that they never read books. Every time I emerged from my office, I would see them all on their screens, headphones on. Lessons had become indistinguishable from down-time. For all the idealism about digital learning, it seemed extraordinarily passive to me.

I tried to take things in hand. Mealtimes were raucous because they had so much pent-up energy, so I thought “if they’re not going to read, I’ll read to them”. I would bring a book to table, not realising that I was becoming just like one of the conservative teachers I had always scorned, force-feeding them my passions and using knowledge to sedate and subdue. They would snigger and scoff. “I just don’t get poetry,” Emma grumbled.

Fortunately they have a wiser mother. We have no garden, but four balconies, and as spring came on, Francesca was planting and weeding. The children were drawn to the gardening, perhaps because it was everything their schooling isn’t – outdoors and manual. Emma propagated her succulents and so needed more shelf space, and went to the garage to do some carpentry. They began sewing, and cooking cappelletti, croissants and – their much-missed English snack – digestive biscuits.

It’s hard to know how much it was more to do with psychology or spare time, but they all began rearranging their bedrooms, moving beds and desks. It was as if they were rearranging their internal and external furniture. Photographs, pictures and books were culled, others were added. They asked for new haircuts. Francesca and I watched it all and tried to work out ways to keep bringing them out of both their closed bedrooms and their private worlds.

I changed my approach. I know that theatricality is sometimes helpful in teaching, so one evening, as I read a poem, I put a small shiny box on the table. They pretended to listen, but were all watching that box, wondering what the game was. I had chosen to read Seamus Heaney’s Digging. It’s a poem about how we look up to, and down on, our parents. It’s about the difficulty of a writer feeling worthy of agricultural ancestors because the pen is nothing compared with the depth of a spade. But it’s also about the need for children to go their own way and not, perhaps, feel unworthy. When I had finished, I just passed them the box. Inside I had cut up all the words of the poem. “Go on then,” I said, “write it your way.”

Suddenly they were excited about poetry. They snatched words from each other, tried them out here and there. As they laughed, the slim pieces of paper flew around the table. With its farmyard diction – “squelch”, “slap”, “rump” – the poem now seemed earthy rather than erudite. Instead of being told to admire a Grecian urn, they now had the clay in their hands.

As they found their new hybrid role of being both pupils and teachers, we said they could award themselves marks both for content (a letter) and effort (a number). It was really, of course, just a way to show them that marks aren’t about approval (external) but honesty (internal).

The more you look at the educational conundrum in lockdown Italy, the more you see everyone’s vulnerabilities. Students have always felt fretful because of their weekly tests and the stigma of being held back a year. But now many teachers feel insecure, too: not just because education seems like the last priority of government, but because they are scared of digitalised learning and fear being replaced by screens.

Even those who relish the technology, like the Calabrian teacher Claudio Dionesalvi, are concerned: “Distance-learning is a strange video game,” he said, “but in the end it’s a torture. A teacher can’t be holed up in front of a screen. They risk becoming two-dimensional – an artificial TV personality.”

Many parents are anxious, not just because their children are losing out on formative months of learning, but also because – without those marks – they have no measure of their offspring’s progress. Chiara Esposito, a middle-school teacher, told me “parents are the most conservative element in the school ecosystem. They become paranoid if their child isn’t ‘an eight’ or hasn’t completed the set book. They’re the ones we really need to educate.”

Surprisingly, even the education technology firms promoting digital learning platforms to schools feel apprehensive. Lorenzo Benussi is the chief innovation officer of the Fondazione per la Scuola della Compagnia di San Paolo, which promotes inclusivity and creativity in education, and a former technical adviser to the minister of education. He is concerned that teachers are using new tech to reproduce the same old teaching methods, instead of grasping this opportunity for a completely new kind of teaching. “When all this talk about digital learning began back in March,” he said, “I was very, very worried, because it’s not about technology. Technology is just a means. Its effectiveness depends entirely on your didactic approach.”

Edoardo Montenegro from Betwyll, which is launching a new social reading app with educational publisher Pearson for Italian schools in September, says something very similar: “A WhatsApp video call or a Zoom meeting isn’t digital learning. Those encounters can be just as frontal and rhetorical as an old-style professorial lesson.”

‘Feasting on fantasy’: my month of extreme immersion in Disney+

No one knows when formal schooling will resume, and everyone feels uncertain of what their role will be when it does. But uncertainty is, according to the great educationalist Loris Malaguzzi, actually a vital ingredient for inclusive, collegiate learning. Only “a willingness to question all your own abilities and knowledge”, he said in 1992, two years before his death, leads to humility and listening. That, he said, “is how we educate each other together.”

It’s exactly two months since the schools closed in Emilia-Romagna. And to us, in our city apartment, it does feel as if, in the gentle argy-bargy of family life, we’ve been educating each other. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but it’s changed how we see ourselves. The girl destined to be a ballerina seems to be mourning the end of that dream. The perfectionist has glimpsed a goal that’s deeper than marks out of 10. The boy who seemed riotous has been revealed as nervously studious. The teacher has become an accompanist and the gardener our guide. And with almost five months to go until schools (possibly) reopen in mid-September, I’m sure we’ve still got a lot to learn.

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