And are you managing to teach them out there?

Several people have asked me how I am managing to home educate while glamping out in our tiny casetta which, for the first three days we were here, still had no water. My replies initially were largely mumbled self justifications as to why we do not strictly need to be ‘doing’ anything; that they are allowed a holiday, that this is effectively their summer holiday; that actually it’s language immersion in any case; that when you start to home educate, a period of ‘de-schooling’ is generally recommended.

But then I am jolted out of these mumblings by a comment from one of the children and I reassert the faith this journey demands.

On our first day here, while Tom and I put our casetta rustica to rights (one wouldn’t think much time was needed to organise such a tiny space, but I am proved wrong), the children pulled out the newly acquired paints. I could wax lyrical about the self organisation involved here, about the peer to peer learning between age groups, about H. guiding la principessa and about the three year old principessa so wise beyond her years, learning so much from being around her two older siblings, but I won’t. Paints and sketch books pulled out, the children set to work on their art. P.’s picture was vibrantly bright, broad strokes interpreting the vista before him, ‘I’m trying to do it like David Hockney’, he said. (There is doubtless a national curriculum level for this, probably something along the lines of emulating the style of … being able to articulate interpretations of…. In fact, some of them are probably national curriculum targets pertaining to GCSE level. Many a time did I laugh over ‘the ability to make connections between texts’ while marking GCSE papers, thinking that my then three year old was actually doing that, albeit that her connections were between the texts of Beatrix Potter rather than Charles Dickens; such are the potential shortfalls of a prescriptive mark scheme.)

H. meanwhile continued to work in fine pencil drawings, commenting that she really liked those drawings in the Hockney exhibition we had seen at the Tate Britain, ‘and really I love doing pencil drawings at the moment.’

Hockney resurfaced again when we were enjoying the delights of a beautiful pool as guests of some acquaintances staying nearby. One of the party dived into the pool, then someone else jumped in, ‘That could be The Splash!’ exclaimed H. ‘You know, David Hockney’s splash?’ she elucidated helpfully for anyone not also considering the parallels between our fun and games and one of the UK’s most prolific modern artists.

Still on the theme of art, the children were a few days later excited by the prospect that we will shortly be collecting last year’s vendemmia (the wine made from the last grape harvest). Casa Doust will soon need a label and maybe a more catchy name. The first labels were beautiful, but the wrong shape for a wine bottle. Ah, an understanding of branding, design and different products. These pictures could be used for accompanying leaflets, but not for the wine itself. I predict us fulfilling at least some basic criteria for GCSE design over the next few olive and wine harvests.

Then there are the questions – and answers – for which children are, or should be, renowned. La principessa of course is at the glorious age at which there’s a question for everything, from whether mermaids wear flip flops to whether Peter Rabbit lives in that field over there? At least, three to four years is widely considered the age at which questions peak, but there’s a school of thought which questions this very statement. Should we not be asking the question: why does questioning peak at four and tail off once children start school? A certain allowance could be made for knowing the answers to more basic questions, those focusing largely on the naming of things. But this cannot account for the sudden drop once children are put into institutions which place primacy over correct answers rather than interesting questions.

Among the highlights of my week was la Principessa randomly wondering, as we drove along yesterday afternoon, ‘But HOW are bodies made?’ This in itself gives a glorious insight into the mind of a three year old – from whence cometh this thought? My immediate response was that this was an early lesson in the birds and the bees, but la Principessa started to answer it for herself. ‘There are bones and then there is skin.’ P. and H. took it up at this point. Broadly speaking the response went thus: ‘The bones hold the body together and upright – because otherwise we would be all flippy-floppy! We wouldn’t be able to stand up! Then there are muscles and veins that carry your blood round your body then the skin covers it all and holds it all together.’ H. then piped up: ‘Actually you are made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. And molecules are made of matter.’ Right, that sorts that one then. I do find the car useful for such discussions. I left the three of them to it and was interested that the conversation became more philosophical, focussing on the nature of growing up, everyone starting as a baby (‘in fact, as cells,’ H. chipped in again, ‘in fact as a tiny, tiny, tiny cell’), and growing into adulthood.

Perhaps this development drew on our chats about evolution after reading David Almond’s ‘Skellig’. Perhaps it came from the Philosophy for Children session we attended locally a month ago. Perhaps it was linked to H.’s question at bedtime the preceeding night, ‘But how did we get all these things? How are there cupboards to put things in, and boxes, and all these things we have? How are there books?’ Oh my – this is a Question with a capital Q, perhaps not one for 10 pm, but with any luck it will resurface next time at more sociable hour, when we might be able to delve a little deeper into human development from the Stone Age to the present day.

Wondering about matter, stuff and the notion of being followed us on a visit to the Bosco della Ragnaia nearby. Ah – to be liberated from the freedom of The System means we have choice, and back in Italy we have dipped back into the ‘scuolina’ I co-founded while here* and were able to accompany our friends on this trip to the park of Sheppard Craige which explores the notion of spirituality through sculptures and installations which in turn interrogate and involve visitors. At the centre of one area was a metal frame forming an enormous cube, the cube of ‘niente’. The cube of nothingness, which in its nothingness demands that we question that very notion. As we left, P. picked this out as his favourite part of the bosco, ‘because it’s funny that it’s the cube of nothingness, when even though it’s supposed to be empty, there are actually things in it. Because there’s air and you can see through it and there are things growing in it. How can there be nothing?’

Was it the discussion on nothing that led us to talk about time? H. wondered how many hours there are in a year. It always happens when we are driving, but 24 x 365 gave us an opportunity for not insubstantial mental maths on one journey. It’s not been the only opportunity for numbers. Making cherry jam and cherry studded biscuits from our harvest without the aid of kitchen scales gave us plenty of opportunity for weight estimation. The biscuits were devoured (and by non family members) and the jam is delicious, so they can’t have been far off. And when there are twenty four ice cream flavours on offer at Elba’s best ice cream shop and five people each having three flavours and we visit twice… well, then there are plenty of chances for fractions and mental tally charts.

And then there are those milestones and moments that form one’s learning and development in the widest sense: the independence, confidence and self responsibility which should naturally evolve for children as they grow and which some children are able to develop through their upbringing and some through clubs, but which are also often sorely lacking in the over-programmed timetables of children’s lives. Thus for H. and P. to decide to go on the ‘campeggio’ being organised at the school was a defining moment of independence for them. A moment in which they not only spent a night away from home and parents, but did it in a foreign land and in a foreign language. Great was their delight and sparkly were their eyes the next day when, recounting not only escapades and excitement of the night before (star gazing with an astronomer, seeing black holes – that actually you can’t really see, Mummy, because they are black spaces – cooking sausages on the fire, reading ghost stories in English then translating them into Italian for those not bilingual), they proudly handed me their sleeping mats, blankets, clothes and towels. All neatly packed up. All present and correct. ‘The maestra didn’t help us at all. We did it all ourselves.’

So am I managing to teach them while we are here, in the stifling heat of a June the like of which have not been seen before? No. Not at all. I haven’t set out to teach them a single thing. There hasn’t been a moment in which I have defined a learning objective, set a target and predicted What I’m Looking For (the WILF I so abhorred when teaching). But have these weeks been educationally rich, culturally interesting and full of the wonders of conversing daily in a foreign tongue. Teaching and learning: they are two different things. The time is beyond propitious that we redefine what it is to educate and to be educated.

*The scuolina is essentially an affiliation of families all of whom seek to educate their children otherwise, a ‘non-school school’ which allows children broadly to direct their own learning.

A New Journey

14 March 2017

It was the fronted adverbials that did it. For every jittery moment I had in considering the next leap we were to decide to take as a family, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and spelling lists involving such vital everyday words as ‘quoits’ continually resurfaced in my mind. In the dark hours of the night these thoughts confused themselves with Gradgrind’s exacting definition of a horse, (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive….’*), and I would wake with resolve. Education has to be about more than this, right?

I was on the edge of tears when I handed the letter in and spoke to the children’s teachers. I actually like schools. Correction, I like the potential that learning in and being part of a school community has to offer. I like shared values, collaborative learning, the energy and inspiration of the most passionate teachers. I like access to resources, shared spaces, singing together, performing, assemblies. I like my children finding role models in other adults. I like the idea that one moment, one teacher, one idea can be a turning point in a child’s life. I like celebrating beautiful work through displays, I like choosing themes and exploring them through myriad connections. I like proud parent moments. And possibly more than that, I used to like proud teacher moments. I liked mentoring children, discovering new ways of helping things to click. I loved those light bulb moments. I loved it when I’d managed it and they’d been inspired.

In short, I am not anti-school.

But I am thoroughly disillusioned with the way in which the system is moving. Happiness classes being trialled for 8 year olds, stress and children’s mental health disorders costing the NHS £105 billion a year, children needing to be ‘school ready’, and the red thread linking all the reports, articles, comments… the red thread is the constant need to test, to measure through testing, to drive results upwards and forwards, at the cost of – of learning being defined by a symbolic badge, demonstrating little more than the ability of a small being to regurgitate specific information at a fixed moment in time in response to a specific question. Education has been reduced to the acquisition of a grade, of passing a test, of getting a certificate.

I want children to learn more than how to guess accurately an answer that is in my – or the examiner’s – head. And I feel the imperative for this ever more acutely when I see the rate at which the world around us is changing. As technology disrupts every area of our lives, the primacy of a knowledge-based education has to be challenged. Ironically, even as technology such as a translation ear piece reaches accuracy which will radicalise communication, mainstream education takes a step backwards, insisting on rote learning of facts, on drilling and testing. It’s the old fashioned model of children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with predetermined information, rather than the consideration of children as naturally curious, naturally ready and hard wired to learn, to question, to inquire.

I recently read a perfect analogy for the futility of constant testing: weighing yourself daily doesn’t make you lose weight. Precisely: weight loss can be sought more reliably by moving more and eating less. And testing will not lead to better results any more than weighing will lead to weight loss. Better ‘results’, or more accurately, better outcomes, or children who are better learners, more eager to learn, more able to ask pertinent questions, more inquiring of mind will be and are the natural results of environments which give children opportunities to do what they do naturally and very effectively, namely, to learn.

A few weeks ago, H. came home and told me that ‘you can’t “crash quietly into a tree.” Excuse me? H. insisted that no, you cannot, under any circumstance write the descriptive phrase, ‘“I crashed quietly into a tree”, because, Mummy, a crash is noisy, so you can’t do it quietly.’ Why not, I asked her? If you wrote that for me, I would be delighted – perhaps you would be trying to express the terrifying internal silence as your life flashes before your eyes just before the crash. No. Her teacher had said you can’t write it. So you can’t.

I don’t have issues with the teacher, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. I take issue with the fact that creative writing has become prescriptive, and at such a young age. It was bad enough at GCSE when we taught children to write for a specific reason (writing is grouped into a purpose, fitting neatly into a pithy triplet – to argue, persuade, advise or to inform, explain, describe; any child who veered off into imaginative territory which didn’t fit the marking criteria would miss the grade, however engaging, stimulating and original the work), but at least at GCSE there is the hope that you can tell the more creative students just to play the game this once and then get back to their interesting writing. H.’s comment was an insight as to why September generally began with Year 7 English classrooms filled with the same exciting simile: “I ran as fast as a cheetah.” To this is creativity in writing reduced.

So I arrive at a point in which I am by turn petrified, ecstatic, excited. I feel liberated and freed. We have stepped out. Out of an institution and into a story which we will co-create. I am under no illusions: there will be whole chapters in which I will be exhausted, distressed and questioning why I haven’t just sent them all to school to give myself a break. There will be whole chapters in which I will struggle to be teacher and mummy and still find moments to be Amy.

I hope I will remind myself in these moments of the following:

  • Before the children went to school, they actually learned a great deal. All of it without any direct instruction. They learned by imitation and experimentation, by trial and error. They learned to sit, then crawl and onwards to walk and run. They learned to speak and once they could, a whole new world of questioning was theirs. They learned lots of right and when they might have transgressed the boundaries to wrong. They learned masses about their own small world and a great deal about this massive world around them. They noticed and compared, commented and thought. They decided what and how they wanted to play.
  • I have questioned from day one whether teachers at the school really know my children or are really able to help them flourish and develop their talents. Aged four to five, H. used to create poetry books in her own time, carefully stapling pages together, writing short poems and illustrating them. This stopped with the onset of Year 1. I have wondered about a system which hasn’t the time or inclination to nurture the interests of the children within it. I’ve wondered why my children are being told to write in a prescribed way when they are in the full throes of creativity.
  • I have always been surprised by the teachers telling me what my children are capable of, as if I don’t know and then telling me what they think she/he can’t do, simply because they haven’t been privy to the insight I have.
  • Slavishly following catatonically boring reading schemes has done nothing to inspire either of my oldest two children to read. In my humble opinion, it has achieved nothing but the opposite, reducing  the fascination and wonder of words to a mind numbing linear process of decoding.
  • Although I am aware that my children would, more than likely, have left school largely unscathed and with fond memories, they would also have left thinking that learning is only learning if it is validated by a test and a mark. They would have left thinking that learning is work, to be got out of the way before the real stuff – play – can happen. The distinction between work and play was already apparent. Play was happening at home and work happening at school. Play was become what ‘I choose to do’ and work is what someone ‘makes me do’.

This is not the route I saw myself taking, but I hadn’t accounted for quite how comprehensively the national curriculum and the obsession with testing can pervade an education system. It’s another unknown and another potential risk. Today, though, the sun was actually shining brightly – quite literally. The sky was cobalt blue. It felt auspicious.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times

How P. Will Beat the Captain and His Hired Sportsmen*

I am forced to do exactly what I’ve been harping on about for all these years.  The force is self induced: the choice to put myself in this situation was taken entirely freely.

I am being made to consider what it really means to say that in England, children learn too much, too young and my guinea pig is P.

For years I’ve struggled with an education system which brings children in at the age of four and pretty quickly subjects them to tests, from the faintly annoying to the utterly absurd.**

For years I have thought it at best risible that there can be 364 days difference in the ages of children who are arbitrarily put into a class based on their age on 1 September from which point they are measured against one another, regardless of well-intentioned teachers’ attempts to the contrary.

 

So, on a blind wing of faith, we came to Italy, a bizarre conflation of the ridiculous (a clunking, archaic state system) to the sublime  (pockets of progress, change and innovation such as Reggio Emilia). We chose Italy thinking that we would be liberated from the shackles of the English system and we would worry about inevitable adversities later.

It would have been virtually impossible to appreciate fully, until we lived it, quite how comprehensively Italy would throw P. into a radical ‘slowing down’ of his formal education. Thus  last September, when his English peers were sitting at desks, heads down, P found himself ‘back’ in materna, ‘only’ dealing with the challenge of learning a new language, in a system which is adamant that children should not learn formally until the age of six.

It means that P. is, to all intents and purposes a year ‘behind’.

He is a year ‘behind’ where he would be, or would have been forced to be, had we been subject to the English education system. He is a year ‘behind’ the parameters, standards, deadlines and requirements of a system obsessed with measurable standards. So P. hasn’t been forced to read and write so called number sentences, interpreting ‘mathematical statements involving addition, subtraction and equals signs’, he hasn’t been forced to sit down on a chair, at a table, to ‘describe position, direction and movements’, or ‘count in multiples of two, fives and tens’.

He hasn’t been made to write stories according to requirements to inform, describe, imagine, explain or whatever arbitrary writing objective has been chosen that day or week. He doesn’t have an assessment number or letter marked beside his name. He hasn’t sat down to toil over English language incongruities that could confound the mind of a boy who would rather consider the nautical purpose of the buoys he sees floating on the sea than concern himself with the illogical spelling exemplified in this sentence.

P1170692

Instead, out of school, in the long holidays and in weekends which we have reclaimed as ours, P. has climbed rocks at the rate of a mountain goat, explored rivers, built dams alone or with friends, working collaboratively or independently, he’s found some little mission and worked out how to solve it.

IMG_2506

He’s wondered over the changes wrought by nature through the seasons. In doing so he has – unbeknownst to him, started to play with Heraclitus’ philosophy of continual flux – wondering if it is possible to stand in the same river twice. He has wondered how the sea can be salty when the rivers are not when the rivers flow into the sea. He wonders if lightening is sharp and what exactly is air?

He has dug the earth disturbed only by the constant singing of the cicadas in the trees above him. He has, he believes, communed with deer and eagles who have befriended him, his imagination always alert to the possibility that the former could have eaten from his hand or the latter might have landed on the bench next to him. Coping with the loss of our own cat while experiencing killing of animals in the tradition of the ‘caccia’ as hunters circled the hills around us, we have talked about reincarnation. Teetering on the edge of high sensitivities, we have wondered about the potential of other lives and of what the idea of an afterlife means…

He has watched the stars at night, marvelling when he identified Mars above us and wondering what it means to be part of the solar system; he has interrogated what the idea of a black hole means: how could this world we know ever end if the star on which we rely burns out. He has tried to align his growing understanding of science with his sense of faith – how can humans not exist, if our spirits live on after we die, Mummy? You said that Zephyr’s spirit lived on. You said that we would go to the same heaven. How can there not be a world if we carry on as spirits?

IMG_8125

He has set up experiments with ice and water and challenged me to make vinegar react with bicarbonate to make his jet boat go, modifying constantly his own experiments. He has moved from one compulsive obsession to another, wondering how the boat we take to Elba floats on the water and then constructing his own fleet of ferries from Lego when we come home, displaying them according first to design, then to size.

He has started to uncover ancient Rome and the empire, standing in the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins local to us, he has interrogated the joys of a superlative acoustic space. He has visited Venice, experiencing its mesmerising beauty. Choosing his mask he engaged with the notion of disguise and playing, admiring the exploitation of subterfuge when Venice was a bustling port to the rest of the world.

IMG_2227

So, no, P. cannot yet write number sentences, or chant his multiples of two, he doesn’t know that the books we read together have been defined by the powers that be to have a specific purpose – to entertain or inform, apparently (it always amuses me how mutually exclusive are these definitions of the purpose of writing).

No, he cannot perform these prescribed tasks, because he’s been too busy playing. He’s been too busy tinkering with Lego or moving rocks by the river. He hasn’t watched the clock tick slowly in a classroom, his bottom wriggling with pent up energy, because he’s been too immersed in exploring, creating and pushing his boundaries.

So now, I have to have the courage of my convictions. I have to believe whole- heartedly in the very instinct that brought me here. And that means to believe that it will all come good, that the application of ‘formal learning’ doesn’t have to be imposed – too much, too young. I have to walk the talk of Finland, albeit I am doing it against the grain of the system in which we will ultimately have to operate.  I have to resist comparison to his peers, whose parents are my friends, and not succumb to the competition to be measurable and measured that is insidiously eroding the true meaning and value of learning. I have to believe that now, ripe with curiosity and bursting with questions, he will be best placed to allow the ‘formal’ learning to slot into place and overlay this year of constant play. I have to have courage in my own conviction that his intrinsic love of discovery will carry him through.

*It’s a slightly elusive title if you aren’t familiar with Quentin Blake’s tale of Tom, who spends his day fooling around, tinkering and playing and never doing as he’s asked. His stern, authoritarian aunt despairs of him, but guess who comes out trumps?

** Take the Year 1 automaton, sorry, ‘reading’ test, which requires children to decode so-called “words” which don’t even exist.

Setting up School

Our immersion in Italian bureaucracy a few weeks ago, when buying our piccolo fabbricato rustico, is naturally but the beginning of a segue into what we are fondly calling our bella avventura.

olive pruning

While we have been fast track learning how to prune olive trees and keep vines, I have also been intrigued by my collaborations with a culturally different mindset, joining up with a small group of Italians and internationals to set up a progressive, independent school here in Tuscany.

In attempting this, I am struck by how very much more possible things are, on one level, with how very much more complicated they are on another. Thus I alternate between being inspired and frustrated. Establishing a school, albeit a modest prototype at present, ironically feels infinitely more possible here than it would do in the UK. There are laws here, but there are also interpretations of laws and there are the odd laws that are more ‘belle’ than ‘brutte’. So while the state school system is rigid to a T, and entering a regular state school classroom would remind one of 1950s England, a key law governing education of children states only that parents have a duty to ensure that their ‘child is educated’. This is markedly different from a law saying that parents have a duty to send their children to school. So far, not so very different from UK law which allows for children to be homeschooled.

outside the school

The school building, set among fields and vineyards.

What marks Italy as an interesting place in which to try to do something different is the way in which it is possible to move from homeschooling (and frankly, anyone who can homeschool his or her own child deserves to be kept in mind for canonization) to setting up an establishment which can deliver education, but is not subject to the application forms, red tape, rules and approval that would be needed to create a Free School in the UK or indeed the regulations that a quick google reveal are required to establish a UK based private school. Thus here, an associazione is formed, fees for schooling are taken in the form of monthly subscriptions to the association, of which all parents and children attending school automatically become members. The school is therefore established and run in essentially the same way as a sports or social club, with a committee of a minimum of three named persons responsible for finance and administration thereof. The school’s articles, which we have written, are as wide and all encompassing as possible, allowing for the school to diversify as it grows.

Bingo, we are essentially setting up a very, very small quasi-private school. Freed from the fetters of state education administration, we are freed from such absurd rules as that which requires permission for a parent to donate to pupils photocopies of an educational book on growing your own vegetables…For sure, there will be stumbling blocks ahead and Italian bureaucracy will no doubt frustrate frequently, but within impossibilities here, it is the glimmers of possibilities which have allowed us to get this far that we need to pursue.

oustide the school 2

Clearing the building

Bringing an Anglo-Saxon mindset to a meeting with a group of Italians on getting the school up and running, however, is another story. I am drawing on all my Arab blood and background to try to bring to the fore a mentality more akin to the Italians in the group. An early meeting was a perfect illustration of the confusione we have to overcome to make this project operate. Present: two Italian from the north; one Italian from the south; one British-other (that’s me; I feel the ‘other’ Arab blood is of particular importance in such circumstances); one Swiss/American (C.); one British/Ukrainian (A.) and one British (N.) who has lived here for years, speaks fluent Italian and has agreed to coordinate and facilitate meetings and the cultural exchange.   The distinction between the Italians from the north and from the south is important, the mindset of Italians being so regionally specific.

Arriving home from the meeting, which had run for two hours, and would have continued had we not curtailed it, Tom asked me how it had gone. I was, rarely for me, a little lost for words. Finally, I came up with ‘indescribable’. Under the impression that the meeting’s purpose had been to distill the school’s philosophy into a succinct and marketable form which could be used to attract more parents; to consider in more detail what the school day would look like; to allocate specific roles to group members and to discuss the development of the website, I felt slightly detached from myself as the ‘meeting’ unfolded before me. A. opened the meeting with a clear statement and focus, but within minutes we seem to have digressed entirely from any decision making on the point made, and thoughts flitted about, covering the teaching day, drawing parents in, what we wanted children to feel like.  All lovely points, but none of them particularly to the point.  As the discussion descended into a debate between the northern and southern contingents of the group, A. and I tried to bring the meeting back to the focus, and I tried to translate mentally, contribute verbally (my Italian feeling hopelessly broken and inadequate) and respond to endearing comments la Principessa’s was whispering in my ear.  This cycle of a point being made, followed by elaborate and inconclusive discussion repeated itself throughout the meeting, to such a point that when A. asked N. for translation of what exactly was going on, N. laughed that he couldn’t really translate, there not even being agreement between the Italians. C. went off to stretch in despair at trying to operate like this and I continued to feed rice cakes to la Principessa, who was blissfully unaware of any sense of lack of achievement, happy to have me sitting still in one place for more than five minutes so that she could keep up with her running commentary, (‘Ah, Mamma, num-num. Nice num-num. Mamma no eat num-num? Me more num-num.’ And so on)

Just as A., C. and I were at the point of deciding to quit while ahead and take our toddlers home to bed, there was a flurry of action and a delegation of roles: A. and I were to work on distilling the philosophy, I was to work on curriculum overview and A. was to take on the website development.

So that’s all good then.

And thus, it seems to me, we played out the physical equivalent of an Italian newspaper article, in which the ‘noce’ of the story is often completely obfuscated within elaborate, embellished, albeit beautiful, language and style. Precision and focus in writing is perceived as cold and the same, I feel, would be true of a meeting driven by a clear, formal agenda. Yet at the end of the meeting, there was a sense of movement and progression. As my friend, married to a Sicilian, pointed out to me later, it’s about putting aside the Anglo-Saxon expectation of how things ‘should’ be done, and recognizing that there is more than one way to operate. The Italian interest in the ornate linguistically transposes itself into its modus operandi. There are many challenges ahead in bringing this school to fruition, not least the culturally different mindsets of those of us who are involved. But, handled correctly, the conflation of the organizational discipline of the Anglo Saxon mindset and the internal know-how and sensitivities of the Italians, could ultimately be the strength of the school. Indescribable, yes – or rather, not something I would describe as a meeting… but mulling it over since, I have hopes that our diversity could prove the strength to realise the vision, and in this little corner of Tuscany we will found an exciting, inspiring and progressive educational experience.

 

IMG_2506

Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission Outdoors. Part 2

IMG_1393

Mission Get The Children Outside continued at the end of winter with Strand B: Bring the Outside into the School Day. Naively, I thought that this might be relatively straightforward in a senza zaino school. Instead, I have stood face-to-face with what it is to be culturally at odds with the place in which I am living. I have felt keenly the British-ness of my blood even as the same blood fires up in the passionate emotion I attribute more readily to a different heritage.

One of the foundations of a senza zaino school is the involvement of parents and the community. Thus it was that I mooted, en passant, with the maestre, the possibility of spending more time outside, particularly given that there was, thus far, no provision for ‘ginnastica’ in the school week. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate misunderstanding, control over the school day or lack of experience of teaching within this type of system, but the suggestion was pretty much rejected. Even under the ‘banco del tempo’, apparently we parents cannot simply come in to play ball games with the children in the field. I rather wondered to myself why not, but for now, left it at that, even while the teacher continued to exspostolate as to how cold it was outside, apparently further fuel to their belief that the children’s health is protected by being inside.

Thus it was that the group of like-minded and, it has to be said, mainly international parents rallied together to consider how we might address this situation, all of us aware of the detrimental effect of limited time outside on our children’s behaviour.

One of the very lovely banco del tempo projects of last school year was the orto or vegetable garden, developed using traditional permaculture and organic methods. Embraced by parents and teachers last year, everyone seems keen to maintain it this year. Thus it was that we decided to try to extend the project and begin it sooner, in order to get the children outside from now, ahead of our schedule to dig the ground over and think about earth, water and planting from early Spring.

So we planned to begin with the children and the community: a core value of the senza zaino school is to harmonise links between school and community and the majority of local children are from farming and agricultural backgrounds. I ran this idea past the teacher…. and was disappointed to be met with, what I considered a fairly luke-warm response*, mainly concerning the number of projects running in the school and the potentially compromising effect this could have on learning… argh, my Italian lets me down again: surely such a comment rather misses the point of senza zaino, where learning should be happening through diversity of projects and a range of non-traditional teaching methods. I showed the teacher the orto plan and suggested ways in which we could bring the curriculum in, there being opportunities for maths and science a-plenty, to say nothing of related writing activities. No, it is ‘piu commodo’ apparently, to teach inside in the classroom… The case for outdoors just grew stronger: such a comment is fuel for my fire. I re-organise my strategy:

  1. get the children outside for the orto project;
  2. try to build some maths into the orto project;
  3. demonstrate through this that it is possible for children to learn through experience, outside;
  4. use the senza zaino philosophy and vision slowly to try to encourage the maestra to have the courage to teach differently.

I start with a) and b); c) and d) are longer term aims. I think I will have to move piano piano, with the support of as many other parents as possible, if we are to make progress.

But it feels like a golden opportunity. This senza zaino school is young, only in its second or third year of being. We need to harness this novelty and surely we should aspire to it being practically and truly a senza zaino school, moving it away from paying lip service to the theory and only implementing those elements such as classroom arrangement which are easy to enforce. The real value of this kind of education lies in how children take responsibility for their own learning; how a school engenders in children a true love of learning by engaging them in their education; how a small school setting can offer an education which is less restricted by formalities and therefore more open to diversity of teaching ideas and methods. So, now it’s time to try to negotiate labyrinthine Italian bureaucracy in a bid to affect small changes…

*More on this next time… suffice to say, for now, that it’s interesting trying to interpret and understand properly nuance and intended meanings cross-culture and language.

The Great Outdoors

It goes without saying that immersing oneself in another culture serves to accentuate one’s own sense of identity, both personal and national. Immersing oneself with children amplifies this, particularly when said children attend school in another place.

our winter

The kind of winter we’ve been having…

I am reminded of how strange I appeared to locals when living and studying in the Middle East. I would walk apparently unfathomable distances, setting off to tuts and mutterings that it’s ‘ba’ed’ – far away – and impossible to undertake such a journey without a car. Likewise, I craved light and the sun and would emerge from shuttered houses onto balconies long before locals set foot outside.

Similarly, here in Italy, my attitude to the outside sometimes seems diametrically opposed to that of the locals and nowhere do I struggle with this more than with the children’s school. The first few times the children told me they’d been inside all day, I shrugged it off and changed the subject. However, as the autumn days drew in and winter months arrived, I quizzed them a little more, to be met with their insistence that they were inside all day. This was puzzling because, while we have been coasting through the darker months – December, January and now February – winter itself has yet to make an appearance. Save a week in late January in which we were greeted with stunning displays of frost such as that below, I have been struggling to find a use for my woolly hat and thick boot socks. Even on colder days, there has been little rain to speak of, certainly none of the weather that might actually stop teachers in the UK from throwing the doors open and the children outside.

 

frost.jpg

 

And there’s another point: in the UK said children will often be outside in shorts and or skirts and socks, running around the playground, scraping knees and throwing coats off even while their breath marks the air before them. Indeed it is with a heavy sigh on days of torrential rain that teachers tend to resign themselves to the boisterous behaviour which usually accompanies days on which children have been cooped up.

Not so here: in Italy I have been scolded on mild and sunny October days for my children being outdoors without hats. One is left wondering if there is some bureaucratic legislation decreeing a date in the autumn from which hats must be worn and play must be taken inside and a date in the spring from which we can revert to lighter clothes and outdoor play.

P1020319.JPG

View from the children’s school 

I broached The Great Outdoors with the teachers one morning, asking if, given it was a lovely sunny day, P. could play outside. The school has a lovely field overlooking the glorious valley. It’s a travesty not to use it. My query was met with exasperated looks and the same explanation I have heard innumerable times since: ‘if the children go outside, they will get colds and coughs; we have some children who had bronchitis last year, how can they go outside in the winter?’ This is where I find my Italian lets me down, frustrating my ability to articulate clearly the many arguments for playing outside. I try to moot whether children dressed appropriately in warm clothes might not benefit from the fresh air. I attempt to point out that keeping thirty children cooped up in a few rooms for eight hours is more likely to propagate the spreading of germs, to say nothing of the effect it will have on their behaviour. I mention the health benefits to children of daily exercise and movement.

My comments are met with blank stares: ‘fa freddo fuori, come si fa?’ – it’s cold outside, what are we to do?

I leave, vexed both by my language and by this closed mindset, yet at the same time conscious that I am the outsider who has chosen to live here. And that means choosing to take the rough with the smooth. I try to focus on the smooth, in this case the smooth that I can do with regard to school: I can take the children out of school early when I feel they need a break. I can offer my help as a parent through the banco del tempo of this Senza Zaino school movement which embraces parental engagement.

play 2

A place to play

So, to start with, I park the car 15 minutes’ walk away from school. I collect the children early most days, to give ourselves time to play outside We walk to the car, run about in the olive trees and play in the beautiful stone ruins, shouting to the skies and the birds, looking up to the mountain, which seems to approve of our outdoor abandonment. The wind catches our breath and reddens our cheeks; our fingers tingle with the cold. La Principessa races forward with her hands behind her, flying to keep up with her siblings. I realise that this is probably good for me too.

We climb into the car to go home and I start to plan how I can take the outdoors into the children’s school day….

sunset

 

The Walkie Talkie Walk

P1020161Walkie Talkies topped both H. and P.’s letters to Father Christmas this year.  Father Christmas evidently concurred that this was a great idea and H. and P. each opened one half of a pair of walkie talkies on 25 December. La Principessa looked on, eyebrows raised, ‘Me?’ I attempted to distract her with a rather lovely painted wooden recorder from her stocking… however, I think Father Christmas is already resigned to another walkie talkie appearing in the house well ahead of 25 December 2016.

Up, dressed and full of the day’s excitement, we suggested that the children play outside with their new toys, to test the range, while we sorted out breakfast before the grandparents arrived.

Some ten to 15 minutes into the range test, the children finally realised that walkie talkies work best if both participants are using the same channel and I popped outside to see how they were enjoying this new form of communication.

I found P. armed with a long pointed stick, ‘I’ve got my spear,’ he announced, ‘I’m going to walk down to Granny and Grandpa’s!’

Really, I asked – on your own?

He was adamant and apparently fearless.

I asked H. if she wanted to go with him. No, she didn’t.

I tried asking again, this time suggesting that she should go with him. No, she shouldn’t, apparently: ‘P, you go, I’ll stay up here with the walkie talkie and check you’re ok,’ she said. I liked her inversion, presenting staying behind at Base Camp with the walkie talkie as an important role of responsibility, thereby deflecting attention from the fact that she was secretly a little afraid of walking down with P, alone, to the apartment their grandparents were staying in.

By this time, P. was at the bottom of the drive, radio-ing in. ‘I can hear you, Mummy. I’m on the lane, I’m ok’.

For a minute, H. toyed with the idea of joining him – she even ran down to the lane, only to turn round the moment she was off the boundary to return to the security of the house.

Meanwhile, the intrepid explorer and his spear had dipped out of sight. I should explain that I could see the end point for which P was aiming. It’s about 20 minutes walk away, all on the stone tracks that pass for roads cutting through the hills and olive groves here. We’ve done the walk together countless times, and I was under no doubt that P. knew the way – it being only two turns, would not get lost and, on Christmas Day, there was likely to be none of the ‘traffic’ that we do sometimes meet passing to and from the olive press.

Nevertheless, this was a Milestone with a capital M. It’s one thing to know the route, to make a judgement that it’s safe and not to be worried about cars on roads, it’s another to watch your five and a half year old boy walk off by himself, with his trusty spear (and walkie talkie). I tried to put myself in his shoes: what does it feel like to be five years old, walking down a lane surrounded by nothing but the silence of the olive trees (and one’s walkie talkie)?

I’ve thought before (here) about the notion of labels such as ‘danger’ and ‘dangerous’ and the fear with which we, as parents, imbue our children. It’s a well-intended fear, borne from love and fuelled by a primal desire to protect. I know that from an early age, I taught my children to stand away from cars, to think about where they were walking, to look before running across the road. Though I might have tried to explain rationally, very real dangers meant that in practice this often became an alert: ‘Don’t!’, Stop!’, ‘Careful!’ and ‘Watch out!’ peppered our walks to school in the UK. In trying to teach them that we need to take care around cars, amongst other things, I unwittingly instilled in my children fears which at times have become distorted and as they become older, I have seen them worry disproportionately in spaces and places where I feel considerably more comfortable. H.’s reluctance to walk down with P. was a manifestation of just such a fear mingled with her own need to be ready, at her own time, to take that kind of independent step.

So when P. took to the lane on Christmas Day, I felt fortunate that we are in a space in which he can make bold choices and gain so much strength from the satisfaction of doing something on his own. I burst with pride when he arrived at the gate to the apartment and radio-ed in. ‘I’m here, Mummy, I can see Grandpa’. His little voice crackled down the line, a fitting reminder that, only 50-odd years ago, the notion of children running wild all day in the countryside would have been commonplace. How far we have come in such a short time, and yet what have we lost?

Apparently he slipped into the apartment with Grandpa and sat down to a bowl of museli. When he came back up to the house later, I asked him how he felt. ‘Good, Mummy. It was a bit scary. But I knew my way.’

 

IMG_0546

 

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

The Chocolate of Delayed Gratification

It would appear that, unbeknownst to me, I am in the midst of my own quasi-Marshmallow Experiment. Before I continue, I should just caveat:

  • this experiment with only three participants is probably too small to be considered scientifically sound;
  • there is no ‘control’ with which to compare results from the three participants;
  • the experiment is being conducted on rather an ad hoc basis, in that it was stumbled on and not preceded by a clear methodology.

With this in mind, read on.
The Chocolate of Delayed Gratification at Casa Doust runs thus.

cal 4We have three advent calendars. I bought this nativity scene a few years ago: every day we add a small paper cut out – the star, the sheep, a shepherd etc. etc., until we reach Mary, Joseph and finally the baby Jesus. We use it every year and enjoy the familiarity of what is added and when.

 

cal 3The second is a paper calendar or two sent by a grandma or two. This year two: a lovely red circle with a painting from the National Gallery and a delightful Christmas card advent calendar.

 

 

 

cal 2The third is a handmade pocket calendar sewn and given to us by Grandma when three other Gibson-siblings, now in their late 20s and, ahem, rather late 30s, were wondering who would be allowed The Original Sewn Calendar from childhood days gone by. Fond memories of our Christmas tree on its navy background will be nurtured in the house of Gibling the Younger and we older Giblings are consoling our sentimental sides with the handiwork and love of Nonna’s new creations. We move the marker daily and remove the hidden treat from the pocket.

The hidden treat. Herein lies our would-be marshmallow. The Advent Angel fills the 24 pockets with small chocolates. This year, they happen to be rather fine specimen from a delightful local chocolate shop. There are 24 pockets and three children, thus I have three each of eight different chocolate types. It’s all very egalitarian. Everyone will get one of each type of chocolate. She or he just has to wait his turn. As we near Christmas, on the last three days, there are two extra small chocolates in each pocket – to satisfy mounting excitement and, as it turns out, to reward delayed gratification.

As Advent approached and anticipation and excitement built, the children realised they would get to open an Advent Calendar every day, but only get to move the pointer in the chocolate calendar once every three days. They had some discussions about who was to go first. Even S., realising something interesting was going on, joined in with, ‘Me, me, ME. ME!’, asserting her right to participate.

H. very generously announced, ‘P. and S. can go first, I don’t mind’. Her generosity and altruism was immediately rewarded when she calculated that, as we rotate in order, in letting the others go before and waiting until 3 December for her first chocolate, she would also get number 24, which obviously has particular status. Bingo: the rewards both of generosity and of delayed gratification.

As an aside, please note that, because nobody was stressing her out about learning or using her times tables, H. readily, easily and of her own volition, used her three times tables to work this out. More on what motivates children to learn in another blog – for now, suffice to say I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a great deal recently.

The reason I am writing about this, though, is because of what happened on Day 1, as P. jumped out of bed in a frenzy of high energy excitement: ‘Advent! My day on the chocolate calendar!’ S. joined in the shrieks of delight and charged round the room squealing after her brother. (She’s quite infatuated with him at the moment, and spends most of every school day talking about him, thus: “P. P.? P? … Ahha, P…. Ahh, P.’, I think it’s partly because she likes the fact that she can say his name.) Needless to say, 21 month old S. was perhaps not quite so au fait with this turn taking lark as P. and H., but we explained that she would have her turn. Tomorrow.

As P unwrapped his golden square of chocolate, with anticipation not incomparable to that of Charlie searching for a golden ticket, he stopped and looked at me. ‘I will give a bit of it to S. and a bit to H.,’ he said…

… Altruism and kindness shone forth and I could almost see his halo. I was delighted.

‘And that means that tomorrow, when S. gets the chocolate, she’ll have to give some to me. Right?’

The halo dimmed a little, but I understood the need for equality.

So, here is my interesting twist on the Marshmallow Experiment . They have understood and taken on board that they are taking turns and – crucially for me – they are neither squabbling about that (don’t worry, we are far from perfect: they find other things over which to squabble!) nor are they demanding more than one chocolate calendar in the house. Beyond this, they’ve worked out that they can control that chocolate and influence the next one or two days. Generosity will pay off – a smaller piece on one’s own day will guarantee, with that sense of justice and fairness which is so innate and so strong within the hearts and minds of little people, a taste the next day.

Thus it is that each of the children waits for his or her day and chooses what he or she wants to do with the chocolate – they’ve all realised that it’s in their control. Even S. goes up to it, touches it fondly and asks ‘Me?’. Okay, sometimes it’s rather more of a statement, a ‘ME’, but two little people are quick to correct her if she’s a day early. We may forget whose day it is on the other calendars, but we never forget whose day it is for the chocolate pocket. But on her days, S. has embraced the generosity shown her by her siblings and readily shares her chocolate.

So now I kick back and wait for the more profound element of the experiment. I’ll let you know in about 25 years time, when the birds may have flown the nest, what effect this annual ritual may be having on the longer term character development of my little group of three.

 

birds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com