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.

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.

thumb_IMG_3468_1024

 

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

thumb_IMG_3422_1024

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.

Loving Language

 

birch woods

 

I was delighted to read in a (relatively recent) paper of the beneficial effects on the brain of learning a second language.

A tangential segue here into newspapers: I miss them. I have tried reading them on line, but I’m afraid it doesn’t cut the mustard. Newspapers, like books, need to be held. Newspapers enjoy being rustled and flicked out peremptorily, if necessary. Headlines like to be scanned in a way which just isn’t satisfied by scrolls and clicks. Suffice to say, therefore, that I am always delighted when a copy of one of the big UK dailies makes its way over to me, albeit days or weeks in arrears.

This particular article cited ‘good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect the brain in later life’ with Professor Antonella Sorace of Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University saying that, ‘bilingualism opens the mind in a very fundamental way’, improving mental ability and warding off possible mental decline in later life. Nowadays of course ‘studies into…’ are sometimes so ubiquitous that if one looks hard enough, it’s possible to find statistical support for even the most absurd life choices. However, as a fully signed up language aficionado, I naturally revel in this kind of study, particularly when said professor is reported recommending that children ‘learn languages from the age of five until they reach university.’

H. and P. are perhaps a little too young to appreciate the significance of the potential long term effects of being here, but with mental health issues so prevalent in the news, and having recently watched Still Alice (yes, yes, I know that, as usual, I’m at least a year late with anything vaguely pertaining to popular culture… ), it’s good to know that we are oiling the right cogs to improve cognitive function in later life.

shadows

And it has indeed been fascinating watching and listening to all three children learn through this non-optional immersion, and particularly interesting to observe how each child’s age, previous learning experience and emotional response to the enormous change of moving here, has affected their responses to la lingua Italiana.

 

It would be fair to say that, until recently, P. superficially, at least, has been stubbornly refusing to admit to the young brain’s natural malleability and aptitude for language acquisition. However even his dogged determination* is belied by ‘off guard’ moments, such as that a while ago, when, overtired and overwrought, he went to bed worrying about school the next day, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow, Mummy, I’ve got to talk in Italian all day and I don’t even know how to say “I don’t know”!’

I can help with that, I countered: ‘Non so.’

So automatic was Peter’s reply that he forgot to impose his self-regulated check: ‘“Non LO so” Mummy!’ he corrected me, nonchalantly inserting the article I am all too apt to forget.

It was one of those moments. He’d inadvertently given the game away and I tried not to let me my smile show. His accent was spot on: my ‘so’ sounded a bit like the English ‘so’, P.’s ‘o’ was short, clipped and Italian. What a gift: a mind malleable enough to absorb the accent so effortlessly and so accurately.

This moment, coming also at a time at which Tom and I have worked hard to try to assuage P.’s fears and help him respond to the change he has found so hard, marked something of a turning point for him and with some small differences at school and efforts at home, he is gradually letting down the language-resistant guard he had put up. Last week he happily told the teacher that, ‘il babbo viene prendermi prima pranzo oggi perché ce l’ho la tossa’. That’s quite a few words for a boy who has hitherto insisted he doesn’t speak the language. It’s amazing what one can communicate when one wants to…I have a feeling that he’ll be able to chat too, when he has a few snowboarding lessons on the mountain…

snow

From day one, H. embraced Italian, picking up bits and pieces over our summer of fun and building on this more formally from September in school. H’s situation has undoubtedly been made easier by age and circumstance: placed in the second school year in Italy and already a competent reader and writer in English, she has been able to slip into learning here, picking up the language through the curriculum without having to overcome the hurdles of learning to read and write and growing both linguistically and emotionally. Just last night, as I muttered to myself: ‘Dov’é i miei guanti?’, H’s automatic response was spot on: unconcerned by the whereabouts of the gloves themselves, she nevertheless quickly corrected me, ‘dove sono i miei guanti’. Of course, I’d used the singular instead of the plural of the verb. I stood corrected and very happy. Elsewhere, H has grown in confidence out of the home, thoroughly revelling in taking responsibility for ordering coffees, cakes and hot chocolates in Italian when out and about, booking restaurant tables over the phone and happily taking responsibility for bringing Daddy up to speed on various linguistic necessities.

Hwriting2The cursive script H. has learned at school here is a beautiful visual testimony to the working of a young mind ready to absorb learning. We came down from playing in the snow on the mountains yesterday to spot the first violets and crocuses of spring. Face turned to the first warmth of spring sunshine, H remarked: ‘I know why it’s primavera in Italian, Mummy – it means first truth which is right with all the life coming.’ Such moments are affirmations for me: this journey has been tricky at times, but how glorious to experience the connections being made in children’s minds and the learning that happens when they are given the space to absorb, move and respond at their own pace. The beauty of language and the beauty of life fused together in a passing comment which meant so much.

 

violet.jpg

 

*A symptom largely of his difficulty settling into the materna school and the confusion of being too young here in Italy to start Primaria before September this year.

 

 

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

 

A few of my favourite things… about the senza zaino school


IMG_0125

While I do love ‘brown paper parcels tied up with string’, for now, I am content to enjoy these little touches of the senza zaino school.

The tascapane: literally ‘pocket-bread’ – the sort of bag that would have been used in days-gone-by to take a parcel of bread and cheese to lunch in the fields; (you can see why this appeals to my Old School Romanticism); they use this instead of a backpack, or ‘zaino’. H. has a lovely hand made, blue cloth bag, the shoulder strap of which is adjusted by decorative buttons on the side. It’s light-weight, attractive and practical. P. has draw string bag for his water bottle and snack, with a plastic pocket on the front to keep safe letters going home.

Scarpe: Specifically, pantofole (slippers or indoor shoes) and scarpe – outdoor shoes. No explanation needed. Needless to say, I think this is great. I have always admired the practices of other cultures, such as Arab and Eastern European, of automatically removing outdoor shoes on stepping inside. It’s just common sense not to want any number of disgusting things we step on outside, trodden inside.

I like the named scatola (plastic box) on which P. places his shoes and the little, named cubby hole for H.’s shoes. I like the fact that the shelves and boxes are fixed at a child’s height and are easy for small hands to operate. The onus is on them to keep themselves organized and there’s a proper space for everything: for shoes, for coats, for snacks.

It’s not only the boxes and cubby holes, but also the naming thereof: the children have a little wooden tag with a photo of them on one side and ‘oggi non ce sono’ followed by their name on the other: ‘today so-and-so isn’t here’. When they come to school, they turn the tag over to the photograph to show that they are there. It’s functional, personal and also encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. P.’s shoes go on the box and other things go inside – in P.’s case, usually all the warm items of clothing I’ve insisted he wears on these chilly mornings, which he insists on taking off as soon as he can. P. is extremely warm blooded. It is only since we have hit frost in the mornings in the last week that he has reluctantly succumbed to wearing socks and boots instead of bare feet and Crocs.

Asciugamano! Hand towels! Parents are asked to supply a named hand towel with a loop so that it can hang on a peg in the toilets. So easy, so civilized. The towel comes home at the end of the week for washing.

Cuscino: The children of the Scuola Materna l bring a cushion in for agora time, the circle time which starts each day. Cushions and soft mattings are already at school for the Primaria children. And I am reliably informed by H. that scarpe and pantafole are removed before coming into agora.

Colazione. The children are encouraged to bring a snack for colazione (breakfast or mid-morning break) and the Scuola Materna recommends a different snack type on each day of the week, which both encourages a healthier attitude to snacks and less jealousy over who has what, thus we rotate through yoghurt, frutta, salato, dolce and then to libero – free choice. Colazione is put into a designated space at the start of the day. I’m not sure how committed all children are to bringing the correct snack, but the intention is there and it appeals to me. It also encourages me not simply to chuck the same thing in their bags every day.

the moon

The moon at sunset.

 

Grembiule: this is the cover up the children wear over their own clothes. The latest parents’ meeting noted to ‘mettere sempre il grembiule’. I have to say that this isn’t always the case, though I do try to remind H. to put hers on and this is something to work on – again, it makes sense – own clothes might be fine, (you can see I’m not entirely convinced by this), but school uniforms are practical and help to iron out those differences between children which are too often the cause of classroom conflict, so the grembiule is neat and practical.

 

 

 

So, those are just a few of my favourite things. Homework: turn it into a song good enough for Maria to sing. A song, actually, might well have featured here, H. has been singing non-stop ‘La scuola che c’e’ – a song written by a child at another senza zaino school, celebrating all things senza zaino and what it means to a child to be at a school ‘fatto per me‘ – made for me.

snow 1

First snowfall

H. is part way through writing me a list – in beautiful cursive script – of the little tasks the children are charged with on a daily basis. In the mean time, I leave you with news that Winter has arrived, stealthily and overnight, shocking us into thick winter coats, scarves and hats and an excitement in the children that could scarcely be contained when we saw the first scattering of snow on the mountain top on Sunday and enjoyed the first frost in the olive groves this morning.

 

Senza Zaino

The impetus for our capricious move here was the Senza Zaino school movement in the area. Senza Zaino is probably best described as a way of schooling not dissimilar to the Reggio Emilia and Montessori teaching methodologies. The name ‘senza zaino’ is primarily symbolic of three core values nurtured in the schools: responsibility, community and hospitality. The name itself means ‘without backpack’: work is completed in school and children are no more sent home with oodles of homework than they are subjected to tests at an absurdly early age. As a vociferous critic of the way in which Primary education in the UK is going, I was – and am – keen for my children to experience a different way of learning.

To this end, I’ve been trying to understand better how Senza Zaino works, usually by listening with almost two ears in a meeting while simultaneously distracting la Principessa with drawings, grissini and finally biscotti and checking up on H. and P. who are enjoying new found freedom running outside in the very small village in whose community the school nestles.

Some of the finer details may well have passed me by, but to date, the Senza Zaino system is practically appealing, educationally interesting and inclusive and feels supportive emotionally.

Above all – aside from the small practical differences which I love (more later) – I have been struck by what it feels like to be part of a school which truly embraces its community. November is ‘banca del tempo’ (time bank) month, when we, as parents, are asked to propose how we will support the school’s curriculum. These progetti are over and above the extra curricular ‘progetti’ already planned for the year.

The first meeting to discuss the progetti was itself was revelatory: parents sat in a circle with the two teachers and there was a genuine sense of working together, of the teachers wanting parental input and support, of being open to and valuing what parents could offer, practically and educationally. There was no sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ or of parental input being limited to the specific area of fundraising.

view12.11The sense of collaboration from a community which extends beyond parents is already strong: the Vedic Art progetto run by a local artist is already in place once a week. After Christmas, a local mother will hold a series of Yoga Fit sessions and an ex-pat who has lived in the region for years will also be holding a series of Music Therapy sessions. At the meeting, a permaculture specialist from a town some 40 minutes away led the discussion around creating a vegetable garden or ‘orto’ using traditional methods whenever possible, thus it was suggested that we commission a local carpenter to make child-sized wooden spades, rakes and wheelbarrow; everyone discussed how children would be involved at every stage, from preparing the area, digging the ground over, planting and tending crops through to harvesting, cooking and eating the produce of our labours. The parent committee clearly fundraises to support such events, in much the same way as we are used to in the UK, but the advantage of being part of such a small school is that all parents could discuss openly the nature of the projects to be supported. The orto seems set to be a genuine community collaboration and the teachers welcome any help – from a few hours digging the ground over at the start to a regular commitment from parents once the garden is up and running.

Our last letter home was full of suggestions for the ‘banca del tempo’ – for language lessons or activities from other cultures, small carpentry projects, photography or drawing groups; there was also an appeal to help on ‘rainy days’ when the children cannot go out to play. The message is clear: parents have skills and ideas which can surely only be of benefit to the school; it feels a far cry from the UK, whereby parental interaction in school feels strictly limited to set times and occasions.

The pressure is on then, to think of something to offer – not least from H. and P. who are keen to know when I will be coming in and what I will be doing. H. is full of ambitious sewing projects, but I’ve seen the handiwork of one mamma and won’t be competing on that front! Since the first meeting, one mamma has already spent the day in school cooking from scratch small doughnuts with the pupils, who wrote and illustrated the step-by-step method for making them in their books, thus educationally, one activity covers many bases: maths and science, writing and literacy and art. Another mamma will soon be running four afternoons pre-Christmas to make decorations and one parent is considering a polaroid photography project.

autumnAmong other highlights in the calendar, we have been told about a day trip to Siena for a history trip focusing on the famous palio della contrada; there is the ‘degustazione’ progetta, an exploration of the four seasons and five senses through a visit to the local ‘frantoio’ (olive press) where the children will see the journey from olive to oil and taste the finest extra virgin olive oil on fresh bread; finally winter can’t come quickly enough for our children to participate in the ‘settimana bianca’ – the white week when they will go daily to the mountain for ski or snowboard lessons. I’m still enjoying the glorious autumn sunshine of this post’s photos, but even I feel excited about wrapping up warmly for snowy mountain days… just so long as I’ve figured out snow chains, tyres and how those two go together with cold fingers and three children, all will be well.

Breakthrough!

Breakthrough sounds like this:
From P: “I played the whole day with V. and V. [the Italian boys of his age]. We did ‘costruzione’ and in the afternoon we played with macchina.”
And like this, his hand dangling out of the car window: “I love the olive groves.”
And tonight like this, “Mummy, I want to be in this good mood all this evening and all tomorrow morning.”
From H., looking up from her drawing last night, sotto voce “Mummy, I really love my school: senza zaino.”

Breakthrough feels like this:

Four mornings with no tantrums, despite the fact we have all woken up heinously early, at 5 or 5.30 a.m.
Four evenings with children who have giggled with each other while drawing and colouring; started to make up a dance to perform and have begged me to load the dishwasher, no less.
Four evenings in which we have cuddled up for stories without having to have a good old ‘sorry’ first.
IMG_5091Thus I am tentatively suggesting that we have turned a corner. It’s not a hairpin, (which, by the way, on ascents and descents from the mountain, the children love) more a gentle curve. Just a few small steps forward for the family, no giant leaps for mankind required.  Maybe it was simply a matter of time, maybe Operation Settle the Children helped, the first strand of which was welcoming Octavia into the house; it continued thus:

1: Love Bombing

Or a bit of Love Bombing: this is basically a way of a parent spending one-to-one time with his/her child, but it’s special time, because the child gets to choose what they do and normal rules don’t apply. We took the principles of Love Bombing and over the last two weeks we adapted it in the only way it would work for us. In reality this took the shape of P. spending an afternoon with Tom in the garden, stacking logs and digging a big compost hole. P came in buzzing from his ‘workman jobs’. We’re trying to snatch a bit of time on our own with each of them, time in which we do our best to bite our tongues and let them lead. P. and I made cupcakes together. H. and Tom had some time shopping and chatting in the local town. Nothing jazzy, more a conscious effort on our parts to try to get ourselves out of the rut.

2: A Taste of Home

SCD Fridays! Home Comfort, it would seem, is a bit of Strictly Come Dancing in front of the fire. They were tickled pink when we got it working. There’s no television in the house, which is great, and no one has missed it, but with the autumn evenings becoming chilly, we all enjoyed curling up on the sofa and indulging in pure entertainment.

3: Home School Fridays for P.

Until ‘Breakthrough’, P had categorically refused to engage with the Italian boys of his age. The barrier marked his frustration: he is not with the older, English speaking boys in H.’s class and this has both annoyed and confused him. His barrier compounded his frustration as he limited himself to playing exclusively with the English speaking children girls in materna all of whom are delightful, but considerably younger than him. To get him out of his rut, Home School Friday helps him feel a bit more grown up. At the same time, it shortens what is otherwise a very long week for him. On the whole, H. has been quite mature in understanding why she is still going to school on Fridays. Home School Friday also means P. gets some more Mummy Time. Not quite Love Bombing, but Lovely Time nevertheless.

  1. Fior di Bach (Bach’s Flower Remedies)

Game for anything, I took the advice of a friend and the children are having ‘Magic Drops’ a few times a day:

Walnut – the most important one for us, it helps children to cope with change;

Impatiens – to help them feel less stressed and encourage more cooperation;

Sclerenthus for moodiness and needing to find balance.

As with all ‘alternative therapies’ how can I measure if it’s working? I can’t. But I’m quite happy to carry on for a bit, especially given the change I’ve seen since starting it seven days ago. Might start taking some myself, too.

 

P1170852