On the necessity of private lessons

fed2I  have a nephew, beloved nephew, who is the sheer example of the generation of the teenagers of these times. His life mostly focuses on football, both as main topic of conversation and activity as he is a full-time footballer, shoes, some girls and of course, social media. He is very “social” indeed, in fact, you can find him on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Ask and I don’t know what else. He enjoys a constant symbiosis with his smart phone, from which he doesn’t wish to be separated for more than few minutes as he feels the world that matters is there. Unfortunately there is a parallel world that every now and then knocks on his door in a less alluring form, a nightmare in fact: his school report.

fed1So, when  last year, Federico, this is his name, brought his first term report card, his parents were shocked to learn that only physical education stood out among the poorness of his grades. In order to avoid the ghost of a possible failure, an army of teachers was recruited and I was selected among them. I was really happy to help. We decided that Federico could come to meet me  only on Saturday afternoon, as he had already planned all the lessons with the other teachers and there were still the three-time a week football training sessions and the Sunday match to take into consideration, of course.

I made all my best to make of that afternoon a very pleasant time. I wanted him to be happy to come and he was, actually. I often made him come for lunch, my husband is an excellent cook, or if he couldn’t, he always found a tray with cakes or pastries waiting for him. Sometimes after the lessons, we even brought him to a shopping centre to buy him something as a reward, you know, we wanted to thank him for keeping us company on Saturday afternoons, when you have really nothing better to do. fed3

The first lesson always seems  a success. Always. The student displays a certain interest and praises you for your passion, clarity which go far beyond what the teacher does at school. Always. For a while you are flattered and your self-esteem dramatically increases till the next session arrives. We had studied the Tudors, the Act of Supremacy etc., so when I checked what Federico had understood, I had some random facts and a lot of nonsense back. Just to give you an example, it took a few minutes to convince him that Henry VII couldn’t be but the father of Henry VIII, as seven comes first. He was surprised.

Then I remembered. I remembered me a long time before, while I was taking Latin private lessons, when I was at high school. I hated Latin, I just couldn’t see the point why I should study Latin, which I regarded only a dead, useless language.Those hours bored me to death: “Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi…” , that nightmarish lullaby still echoes in my mind. I learnt only what I needed to pull through and soon after I forgot everything. Strange indeed, when I went to university I chose to study German as a foreign language and well, even if the grammar, the structures resembled so much those of Latin, it didn’t find it so detestable after all, but rather did love it. I loved it so much that I started to take into consideration the studying of Latin again. So one day I found myself searching my old Latin grammar book, which I had safely placed in a remote corner of the shelf. It wasn’t that bad after all. fed4

At the end of school year Federico succeeded in filling his gaps in the majority of the subjects (English included, in case you want to know) , but he had to give Maths and Physics in the September session of exams, which he passed. However, his mother had noticed that when it was almost the end of the school year, Federico seemed to have made some progress in both Maths and Physics, despite she had decided not to waste her money in further lessons. Well, once alone and without anybody to support him, he had naturally started to organize his work, and his grades had actually improved, not enough to pass the year sparing the exams in September, but there were good sign of amelioration and for free.

Private lessons are hardly ever useful. Parents must understand that their children learn a lot from their mistakes, particularly if they are let alone to face them. They learn to be responsible for their actions and autonomous. Remember, their failure is not your failure and everything may turn into a great chance of growing. Let them grow. Therefore, you may imagine my reaction, when a mother, at a parent teacher conference, displaying a certain apprehension, wanted to have my opinion about some private lessons for his son, who had not manifested any real problem till then. I smiled. I took her hands and warmly said: “Go shopping!” She was speechless and I added: ” Get the money you wanted to spend on these lessons, buy yourself something nice and have fun!” She thanked me, the last time I saw her.

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Flipped classrooms and videogames

flip1I’ve always had the feeling that school is just like a huge, everlasting video game. Think about it, every year there is a new level to pass and if you achieve a good score, you may even get a prize eventually. Step after step you see the finish line coming closer, till one day you manage to grab your diploma. At that point, you realize you’ve left your adolescence behind and you should be ready to enter your name in a new game: the game of adulthood. If you want to play this game successfully, you should be fully aware about what to do with all the “boosters” you have collected in those happy years: going to college, university or looking for a job, but do you really know it?

The fact is, that it happens more and more often to ask my students, who are about to leave the high school, about their plans for their incoming future and receive as an answer: “well, I don’t know yet”, even those who are highly proficient. Their confusion often doesn’t seem to fade even when they eventually go to university, as I am told that many of them slouch from one university course to another one for many months of years before finding something it might suit them, or quitting. Hence, what really matters is not the finish line, but how you get there and the kind of person you have become and good grades cannot be the only proof of your future success in life, for sure.

flip3The main goal of teaching should be the development of the personality and skills of students, first of all, helping them develop successful learning strategies, otherwise they could not be autonomous and fully able to grasp material without the support of somebody. Such a student will never be able to develop any enthusiasm for any subject, as his main concern will be only to pull through in any possible way. For example, he will study for the imminent test, employing himself in storing as much data as possible, data that will be  quickly forgotten as soon as the school day is over. A useless, frustrating effort. After all, if you are playing, a game of Farm Heroes Saga, for example, what makes you go to the next level, the strategy you have learnt after failing sometimes for days and days, or the exact knowledge of the number of apples, onions, carrots etc which were on that level? Good game, however.

flip5Internet provides us teachers with incredible opportunities for learning and one of our major task should be that of guiding them to the most advantageous use of such a powerful tool. Seven years ago, for example, I decided to create a website (tinkerbell.xooom.it), in which I stored all the material I found useful and attractive for my classes: information, links, on-line dictionaries and grammars, language platforms, dictations, games etc. It was just like my own virtual book, where they could find whatever they needed, but what I found particularly challenging was the fact that they were free to do the amount of work necessary for tests, exams etc. For some students 10 minute effort could be enough to understand a rule, for example, whereas others need hours.  I wanted them to learn how to manage their time and be responsible for their choices and I guess it has worked. I also wanted them to discuss about the things they learnt and on this purpose I needed something more “alive” and creative, that’s why I started this blog experience: to offer different perspectives and provoke discussions.

flip4I was a kind of surprised when I learnt that what I was actually experimenting was normally defined a “flipped classroom”, that is “ a form of blended learning in which students learn content online by watching video lectures, usually at home, and homework is done in class with teachers and students discussing and solving questions. Teacher interaction with students is more personalized – guidance instead of lecturing”. I became fully aware of that, after reading an enthusiastic article on “La Repubblica” few days ago, which praised a book  ” La classe capovolta” ( the flipped classroom), written by Maurizio Maglione a teacher of Chemistry at high school. Oh my Gosh,  I was a revolutionist and I didn’t know it.

I’m not a revolutionist and they are not revolutionist as well. This modern “flipped” vision of the role of teachers dates back at least to the eighteenth century when Jean Jacque Rousseau in his book Emile wrote that education does not mean merely imparting information or storing knowledge. It is not accretion from without, but the development of the child’s natural powers and abilities from within. He only couldn’t have Internet as didactic weapon. I’m sure he would have enjoyed it.

Valentine’s lovebirds

 

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Saint Valentine ‘s day is the sweetest feast of the year, as we celebrate love on this day, or sort of. Valentine, actually, was a bishop and martyr of the Christianity, so, how could he be associated to love? As far as we know, Saint Valentine came from a patrician family and was consecrated bishop of Terni ( a town of Umbria, in central Italy) in 197 a.d. when he was only 21. In the year 270 Valentinus (his latin name) was invited by the orator Cratone to come to Rome, to preach the Gospel and convert the pagans. Valentinus was arrested and was sent to the prefect of Rome, to the emperor Claudius II himself. Not at all intimidated, Valentinus tried to convince Claudius to embrace Christianity, whereupon Claudius not only refused, but condemned Valentinus to death. However, Claudius eventually pardoned him and entrusted him to the family of Judge Asterius. Valentinus was arrested a second time under Aurelian, who had succeeded Claudius II. The empire continued to persecute the Christians, and as the popularity of Valentinus was growing, the Roman soldiers captured him and took him out of town along the Via Flaminia to scourge him, fearing that the population could rise to his defense. He  was beheaded on the 14th of February 273, at the good age of 97, by the hand of a Roman soldier: Furius Placidus.

val4So, where is love? If we want to find a connection to love, we have to narrate some episodes of his life, which are surrounded by an aura of mystery and legend. One of them refers to the period when Valentine was under house arrest of Judge Asterius. There he performed for the first time the miracle of restoring sight to his blind adopted daughter. When Valentino was about to be beheaded, he performed this miracle a second time. Through his prayers, he succeeded in healing the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness. On the day of his execution he left her a note that was signed “Your Valentine”.

According to another story, Valentine, former bishop of Terni, united in marriage the young Christian Serapio and the Roman centurion Sabino: the union was hampered by her parents, but once overcome their resistance, it was soon discovered that the young woman was seriously ill . The centurion called Valentino to the bedside of the dying woman and asked him never to be separated from his beloved: the holy bishop baptized him and then joined him in marriage to Serapio, after which, they both died.

val2Another legend tells that one day the bishop  saw a young couple, who were fighting. He went towards them holding a rose and invited them to hold it together in their hands: the couple departed reconciled. In another version of this story, the saint was able to inspire love in the two young people by making several pairs of pigeons fly around them. Those birds were so sweet as they seemed to exchange tender signs of affection; the word “lovebirds” has its origin from this episode. “Lovebirds“, in fact, is translated in Italian with the word “piccioncini” (little pigeons) and if we see somebody showing affection in public, we commonly say that they “tubano” (coo).

Therefore, “lovebirds” from all over the world, how are you going to spend your Saint Valentine’s day? .

Urbanization and a cup of tea

tea2In the eighteenth century Britain experienced considerable demographic growth along with the birth of an industrial economy which brought to extensive social change.The British population doubled after 1721, from 7.1 to 14.2 million people and most of the growth occurred after 1750 and particularly after the 1780s.  This was due mainly to a fall in mortality, which was particularly marked during the first half of the century and affected all socioeconomic groups. However, this reduction does not appear to have occurred for economic reasons only, but also for the significant improvement in domestic hygiene, the introduction of smallpox inoculation or the rebuilding of housing in brick and tile. Between 1810 and 1820, average family size reached five or six children per family, the highest rate in any decade in modern British history and this continuous rise in the rates of growth made Britain the world’s first industrial nation.This is in short the explanation you may read in every history book, but what you may not know is that this dramatic increase of people, who started to crowd the new-born industrial districts may have had another cause: tea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe population boom of the first half of the eighteenth century clearly coincides, in fact, with the mass adoption of tea as national beverage. The fashion of tea drinking had started to be associated with rising luxury consumerism and became a means for demonstrating status and sophistication. English pleasure gardens, like Vauxhall Gardens, became tea gardens and were popular especially among women who were excluded from the coffee houses. Moreover, tea-shops   – such as that first started by Thomas Twining (1717) – began to proliferate and catered the sale of tea to women for brewing it at home. As the preparation of tea was very simple, tea consumption soon surpassed that of coffee. Imports grew from six tons at the beginning of the century to eleven thousand at the end. By the 1850s tea had become tea had become a staple even of working-class diet.

tea5However, it was not only the ease of tea preparation or its delicate, tasty flavour that made this infusion so popular, but rather its natural components. The presence of caffeine, for example, produces addiction and it is also a stimulant. Tea drinking, in fact, was promoted during the Industrial Revolution by factory owners, as it facilitated alertness and concentration. Furthermore, brewed tea possesses several important antibacterial properties that, in times when drinking water could not be considered properly safe, help reduce waterborne diseases: the tannic acid released in the steeping process, for example, kills off those bacteria that haven’t already perished during the boiling of the water.

Tea addiction and the consequent habit of using boiled water caused a microbial carnage. Physicians observed a dramatic drop in dysentery and child mortality during that period, even because the antiseptic agents in tea pass on to infants through breast feed. With the decrease of waterborne disease agents, the healthy tea drinking population began to swell in number, becoming that immense labor pool that will make the fortune of the country.