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.

‘Not doing’

 

Tempus fugit. And it flies filled, yet liberated from the frantic programming which drove our days in school.

As quickly as time flies do moods change: highs are checked by the reality of coexisting and finding space for ourselves as individuals within this new rhythm. I have had moments – a number of them – of doubt and worries, as I knew I would. These moments (or, more accurately, these nights; naturally, they usually come typically and frustratingly, at night, worries queuing up to plague me while I try increasingly frantically to sleep), are however, inevitably inverted fully by a conversation, an article, a podcast which convinces me yet again that this decision is right.

This absolute security is driven overwhelmingly by the growing body of evidence – psychological, anecdotal or fuelled by developments in neuroscience – that continually challenges preconceived notions about the ways in which children learn and seeks to move on or overturn the prevailing system of schooling. Over the last week, by way of example, I have been inspired, reassured and motivated by articles such as Jo Boaler’s research into the ways in which our brains are wired to think mathematically, by books such as Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, and by the Education Futures Podcast interviewing Peter Hartkamp in Beyond Coercive Education. Collectively, such reading and listening, supported by the unprecedented speed at which modern life is being radicalised by technological advances, reinforces my belief that ‘schools’ as we know them are on their way out. That is not to say that learning in communities won’t form part of the future of education, but these communities will look radically different from the way in which they look today.

This is not going to happen quickly, for one simple reason.

Risk.

Risk in innovation is good. Risk in business is usually calculated. Risk in banking… well, I won’t go into that one. But Risk, with a capital R, in education is unfathomably daunting. It’s daunting because people are afraid to take the Risk to ‘not do’. To ‘not do’ could define broadly what being outside mainstream education looks like.

Risking and thereby ‘not doing’ is daunting, for the simple reason that this Risk is perceived to be playing as at dice with our children’s future.

Inside mainstream education there is an overwhelming drive to ‘do’ rather than to ‘not do’. By ‘doing’ I mean these sorts of things: putting children in after school clubs, in breakfast clubs, slotting in extra lessons to catch up, extra lessons to get ahead, following after school clubs held at school with extra curricular clubs in the neighbourhood. Schools themselves drive this: if children are perceived as ‘behind’ (behind expected levels of attainment which have been determined at a national level, which define learning as linear, ascribe educational milestones to specific ages and fundamentally hold schools and de facto children accountable to test scores), those children are given extra lessons to catch up: they are put into more lessons, given less freedom, less play time, less autonomy in an effort to fit them into the (outmoded, in my opinion) system, which insists on boxing children into a post-industrial revolution educational model. They are put into these extra lessons because the system wants them to fit into a particular model, a model which insists, as Sir Ken Robinson reminds us frequently and eloquently, that children enter school at one point, travel through a system of specified milestones and are churned out the other end with a specific set of frequently tested, easily measurable body of knowledge. The knowledge so frequently tested and with which these children are equipped is, however, increasingly criticised by those in industry and business, who report regularly that graduates are ill equipped to work in the modern world. That knowledge has been gained all too often at the expense of developing far more difficult to measure soft skills, such as critical thinking, resourcefulness, resilience, the desire to continue learning, creativity, innovation, curiosity, empathy, self awareness, self regulation…

So, here are some examples of what ‘not doing’ the education system looks like.

 

 

It looks like taking our time to get to places, so we can leave on a Friday (a school day, in terms time), to stop off at Stonehenge on our way down to a weekend away with friends. We walk through the fields to the stones. Three children, equipped with three audio guides, listened to thoroughly unsynchronised, thereby allowing me to listen to the same audio in triple delay, gleaning nothing on my own and instead delighting when the children turn to me with nuggets of information – what the mounds around us are, who and what are in them; why that stone was called the blood stone; where the sun rises at solstice. We sit in the sun and the children draw: H’s sketch tries to take in the stone circle itself; P is interested in how the stones were put there and draws a diagram. We take our time wandering back, picking daisies. We stop in the visitor centre and watch the seasons change in the projected stones in 360 around us.

Not doing looks like exploring maths, art and nature as we draw out the Fibonacci sequence, then translate it into art and a Fibonacci view finder. We spend the day spotting the Golden Curve in art around the house. We take it outside to see if we can spot it in nature.

Not doing looks like seizing the chance to immerse ourselves in art and visit the Hockney Exhibition. P takes the audio again and tells me about key paintings. H is fascinated by faces. They sit and draw again. P’s is bright, colourful, with bold lines and strong sense of Hockney. H takes the chance to think again about how you draw people. S’s sketch catches the eyes of other visitors. I offer it up at a relatively low price – cash in now on an early SD?

 

 

Not doing looks like having a home day because we are tired. Taking the bikes out, falling off and P wondering ‘why do you cry when you hurt yourself?’ I don’t have much of an answer, but I know that doesn’t matter. Because ‘not doing’ also means undoing all your preconceived notions of education. Not doing and being out of the system is about not expecting to know all of the answers, but rather fostering the curiosity that drives the questions. P returns to his own question later, adding in other physiological responses to pain. I am pretty sure the thought will resurface and reconnect at another point.

Not doing looks like joining in everyday jobs too. We have to nip to the shops but we remember the watch batteries need changing. The children are delighted to wear their watches again. P tells me that at school they had only started to teach him quarter past and half past. He wants to know how to tell ‘all the times’. I’m driving the car. He would rather like to know now. I think about how I would have taught this if I’d planned it: with a clock, with several clock faces drawn on paper plates, with coloured pens and moveable hands. I can’t do that, because he wants to know now. So I try to explain, without taking my hands off the wheel to gesticulate as much as I would like. The rest of the day is punctuated by P. telling me what time it is: the learning is happening because it is real, driven by him. It’s not finite, he doesn’t definitively know how to tell the time, though I imagine if I had tested him on it that day, he would have done fine. We have and will continue to revisit telling the time, and have done – while waiting for trains, buses and tubes, when wondering what time our friends will arrive, or how long the pasta takes to cook. We tell the time in real time.

 

Not doing looks like deciding they want to sew. P. makes a heart cushion ‘for the kittens’. He draws out the template, folding the heart in half (symmetry), cutting template and material, working out how the machine works. He’s off. He runs upstairs to find his Boys Craft Book, pulls out an old t-shirt and runs himself up a drawstring bag, cutting it to size (measurements). H flicks through craft magazines and wants to make a padded bag. We work through the pattern, measuring our materials, working out how we need to pin the pieces together and why. The sewing machine breaks. It’s frustrating. We turn to hand sewing for a while and P embroiders letters in chain stitch on phone cases that he has carefully measured out 2 cms wider and longer than a phone.

Not doing looks like taking the local preschool up on the invitation to share some of our Italian with the children there. H. leads a session, carefully introducing why we are there, including all the children in the session, thinking of activities that will involve them. They sing their hearts out – Italian nursery rhymes the tunes of which the children will know from English, followed by a beautiful solo by P. The preschool children would like them to go back to teach them numbers. H and P would be delighted, they say.

We’re not doing and, on balance, we’re loving it. We haven’t done many – any – worksheets and not a great deal of writing. It would be hard to mark what we have done against a set of prescribed metrics. I’m not sure the activities could be divided up according to subject silos and I haven’t a clue whether the children are a level 3, 4 or 5. Instead I know that we have created and made, food, art, woodwork and crafts. We have questioned, wondered and marvelled. We’ve been out in the real world and had real world conversations. My brother has a poster on his wall: ‘Do what you love and the money will follow’. I am considering making my own, slightly altered version: ‘Do what you love and the learning will follow’.

 

 

 

 

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

Era una casa, molto carina

I wake with the children’s rhyme resounding in the voices of innocence, the simplicity of intonation and of the ditty’s sentiment seem so perfectly attuned at this moment to the earthiness of being here.

There’s a dear little house, standing in the corner of two vineyards and an olive grove. It’s not quite without a roof and has a charmingly basic kitchen. We have yet to work out the issue of bodily functions. But it is our sanctuary, standing, small but perfectly formed, solidly at the foot of the Monte Amiata. Incomplete though it is, it already feels like a bolthole. My sliver of sunshine, actual and metaphorical. My still point in the turning world.

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I have escaped there for solitude. Time to think and to be.

The leaves on the fig tree curl in acidic yellow edged with brown, sharp against the gentle grey of the branches. The vines are almost bare, knotted and woody arms edged with gnarled nodes from which shoot russet brown sticks. Here, bleak winter is modulated by memories of the year’s seasons: delicate ever silver green leaves of the olive tree soften the barren season. Late autumn sunshine seeps through the peace of hearing a single fig leaf fall crisply to its counterparts on the ground. These indeed are:

‘Visions flitted Guido

Titian – never told –

Domenichino dropped his pencil –

Paralyzed, with Gold –’*

Paralyzed with Gold. I am in this still point and I am paralyzed by the gold of being here. Paralyzed by endless skies, crisp colbalt blue in the sun and the precision lines these draw in nature. Even with clouds the extraordinary effect of the expanse of sky bestows a light which is inexpressibly arresting. A light which sharpens the landscape into an awe-inspiring intensity. 

I am standing rooted in my still point and the apparently infinite wealth of nature is a panorama before me. 

But the world is turning and turning…. life seems both so inexhaustible and so precariously finite. I am in this still point. 

I can turn from the world’s pain, at this moment so acute and widespread; this is an extraordinary and humbling privilege, felt more profoundly as we move into our last weeks here.

Our little house will stand firmly here, embraced by the mountain, joyously open to the valley. A disparate reality. I stand, absorb and dance with this beauty only to turn to the grey pages of other realities. The streaked faces of the children of Syria juxtapose excruciatingly and pitifully with the children’s song in my head.

I take this moment to fathom my fortune and feel gratitude. I take this moment to fathom my fortune and make small promises to myself, promises to remember these disparate realities, the bella and the brutta of the world, to remember these realities and my good fortune in relation to each, now more than ever in the crushing reality of the world stage as we move into the last days of 2016. 
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*Emily Dickinson

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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Processes or progress?

Every time I think I have reached an understanding of quite how frustratingly convoluted this country is, I am confronted with yet more examples of the sublime and the ridiculous.

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You think you dread the queue at the post office in the UK? Think again. It took me 15 minutes to collect a parcel yesterday, and that was after I’d already queued for 10. Bear in mind that I have to collect everything – normal post included – from the Post Office because the Italian Postale refuses to recognise that our address exists. It should all be so straightforward:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter
Man reads name. Man gets parcel. Man gives me parcel. Exit stage left.

But instead it runs thus:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter.
Man takes paper.
Man looks at paper.
Man wonders what is written there, even though it has been written by a colleague at the Post Office.
Man takes three paces behind him to look at the two parcels left there.
Man examines paper and parcels.
Man seems unable to join dots up, so I help him out, asking to look at the parcel, which I am fairly sure is mine.
Man reluctant to accept help; reluctant to show parcel.
I try again, ‘Fammi vedere?’
This time he brings the parcel towards me, not too close, mind, it’s more of a waft, at several arms’ length… perhaps to show me the parcel properly might be to relinquish control.
I confirm it is mine.
Then we start the painful process of trying to scan the barcode.
I kid you not. He scanned it about 15 times.
Then he walked off.
With the parcel.
I saw him hand the parcel over to a colleague who disappeared with it.

Mamma mia – how difficult can this be? I am collecting a parcel with my name on it, which has already been recorded as entering the Post Office from the deliver company, hence the slip of paper in my PO box.

Some minutes later, the colleague enters, with the parcel, affirming that it has, indeed already been scanned and I am indeed allowed to remove it from the Post Office.

Eh voilà. Parcel collected.

thumb_IMG_3397_1024I think I have said before, Italians actually seem to enjoy this. Nay, they REVEL in it. Give them a reason to create an obstacle to something simple, and create it they will.

Take the procurement of school text books. Not for the Italians a simple system whereby schools receive funding, including that for text books, allowing them to purchase the books and distribute them directly to pupils at school.

No, we can make this far more exciting and protracted, which is particularly fun in the stifling heat of July, the month in which we are allowed to collect our text books.

I say merely ‘collect’ but it’s more of a process than this word implies, a process involving at least two additional bureaucratic steps; this naturally goes hand in hand with additional paper work and signatures. So, a ‘cedola’ – or coupon – is required in order for pupils to receive their books. In the case of pupils already at school, the ‘cedola’ is given in the last weeks of school – with strict instructions, however, not to take the next step before a designated period in July. For those not already at school – such as P., moving up from materna to primaria, – the cedola is obtained from the local education administrative office. Of course, precisely where in the area you leave affects just how ‘local’ this office is. But why create a system which could avoid an additional 40 minute drive?

A ‘cedola’ for each child in hand, we then go to a local ‘libraria’. The books of course, aren’t in stock in the bookshop, they have to be ordered and delivered, which means that we get two trips to the local libraria for the price of one. It’s not that this in and of itself is hard, it’s just that it’s entirely unnecessary. We don’t pay for the books, they are state funded. We don’t choose which books we want, so this isn’t an extra step designed in order for us to assert a degree of autonomy over learning.

For that matter, neither do the individual schools choose their books – they are state written, state distributed text books. Herein lies another problem of the Italian education system. A big one.

Thus at the bookshop we wait while the correct boxes on the cedola are ticked and information is entered into the computer system (the same information which has already been entered at the education administrative office, where it was required in order to enrol children at school in the first place).

In a week or so, we will be able to go back to the libraria to collect the books, which naturally will involve a little more box ticking and paper shuffling.

The whole ‘cedola’ system is simply a way in which we can overcomplicate a system that could be really quite straightforward. The beauty of it, of course, from a bureaucratic point of view, is that it allows for provision of another piece of paper, which must carry an official stamp and be signed by the ‘dirigente’ (director) of the area’s schools – a nice opportunity to assert authority and clarify hierarchies.

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe it’s all designed specifically to keep people in work and humanity in communication. Perhaps Italy is fiercely protecting its archaic cedola system in order to keep local book stores alive and local authority officers in jobs. Perhaps the several steps required before we are in possession of our tools for learning should be seen as a triumph of the supremacy of human interaction. Perhaps this is something we will yearn for in England when we realise that our pursuit of progress and modernisation consigns us to engaging in futile and furious interactions with ‘online processes’, as we rage against machines and systems which crash on us at the crucial moment

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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.

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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.

 

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Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Key with a View

We are the proud owners of this key.

key

The hand over of the key, in exchange for a cheque, was a ceremonial process at the end of a five hour meeting, involving a mere twelve people who each signed their names some 22 times between the hours of 11 am and 4.15 pm.

We can only be in Italy.

Yes, this is how one purchases property and land in this country which relishes bureaucracy with the same attention to detail as it does a simple bowl of pasta. The translator (one of the twelve people involved in the meeting), seemed intent on making sure I was absolutely clear about this, when she phoned me three days after The Purchase Meeting, apparently to make sure that ‘now [you understand] what we mean by things taking time and having to be done properly in Italy’.

I cut the conversation short, (she would happily have spent an hour talking me through the various idiosyncrasies of existing here), assuring her that I was quite aware that we are in bureaucracy heaven. Where else would you pay for land and property with a cheque book? Yes, at the end of The Purchase Meeting, the notaio (notary) started tapping numbers into the archaic receipt printer on his desk and a ream of receipt paper curled its way towards the floor. After about two metres of receipts were printed out, he announced the final figures and we wrote out cheques for land, property, translator’s fees, notary fees and taxes. One has to celebrate the fact that there’s a great deal of trust involved on the side of recipients that cheques will hold good. Apparently CHAPS payments do exist here. But how much more fun it is to sit through a five hour meeting than simply to wait for an impersonal phone call to assure one that payment has gone through and the key can now be collected from the agent’s office?

Strictly speaking, actually, we had not quite reached the end of the meeting: the translator was painstakingly editing the translated contract, typing with two fingers, to include the few extra words and phrases the notaio had altered during the reading of the contracts. Having laboriously hand written the changes after the notaio had read the contract for the first time, in Italian, we spent the next hour listening to the translator re-read the document, in English, a responsibility which afforded her the stage she so obviously craved, revelling in the utmost precision, pausing frequently for rhetorical effect. Given that Tom and I had been reading the English document as the notaio read the Italian only two hours before, we didn’t feel this second reading in our language was strictly necessary. Even the notaio was spotted dozing off in his leather chair at the head of the table.

It was as the vendor went for another cigarette and we reached the 30 minute mark waiting for the translator to finish on the computer, that we heard that she’d had a personal crisis: her mother had had her bag stolen, so she was fielding calls on this. Given she was typing with said two fingers, I didn’t think we stood much chance of her multi-tasking phone calls to mamma with completing the electronic document, so I suggested to the notaio we move on to signatures or cheque writing. Or something to move us towards being home before sundown. Our dear friend and witness to proceedings (in Italy, one needs someone to witness the notaio witnessing the translator translating into English, witnessing us understanding the English, a convoluted multi-check process which exemplifies an inbuilt reluctance by anyone to take responsibility for anything), was whispering to her four year old daughter that it would be better to eat merenda (afternoon snack) with Daddy, than wait for mamma to come home for it.

Signing the documentation, was of course, not straightforward. There were five copies of the contract in Italian, (to be accompanied later by five copies of the contract in English), together with five additional sheets. Tom and I had already had our knuckles rapped at 11 am, when we had signed the privacy and identity documentation (at least three times apiece) using only our first and last names, and in my case – illegibly. I wasn’t aware that it was a requirement of signatures to be legible? Thus we were primed to write our full names – middle included (I have two, this was a source of some consternation, but fortunately I am capable of writing four words in a row) – and in a clear style. Anyone who has tried to read a card written by me, will know that a requirement of legibility demanded a change to my writing, but it was Tom who was pulled up this time: he had to repeat his first five afternoon signatures. Apparently they looked too like print, and he needed to write them in ‘corsivo’. This slowed the process down only a little, however; far more time consuming was the way in which the notaio asked the first signatory to sign all 15 sheets before re-stacking them into their original order to move them all onto the second signatory. Fortunately the vendor’s three adult children were as keen as Tom and I were to speed the process up, and lined themselves up, pen in hand, ready to sign, move sheet on, sign, move sheet on. Of course, there was a strict order in which signatories were to sign, which was no doubt connected to some unspoken hierarchy: naturally, the notaio signed last in a  ceremonial process conducted in the final minutes. Incidentally, his signature, large and sprawling, was entirely illegible. It was, however, in corsivo.

Thus ended The Purchase Meeting. We left with the key, five cheques fewer in our cheque book. And not a single piece of paper. Apparently we will be summoned at a later date to collect documentation once it has been made official.

 

And the key with a view? It’s the key to this piccolo fabbricato rustico, standing amongst cherry and fig trees and looking over our vines and our olive trees. A key with a view, holding our dreams.

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Mission Outdoors. Part 2

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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.