Lost in Translation

class

If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any school  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!

 

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On School Books

school-books

With this post, the trilogy about teachers’ frustration, or at least my frustration, for what concerns parents’ expectation from the school system comes to an end. Hence, having analyzed old and new attitudes towards the “pointless” habit of assigning homework, I would like to add few words on school books and how they have changed in time according to the new methodological requests.

As soon as you open a school book of your children, I guess you may promptly spot what’s new: pictures. Nowadays school books are mostly made of pictures rather than words. Even books of subjects which are less likely to require pictures, as for example, philosophy, are assembled with colorful paintings, drawings, fun activities and such. Books must be engaging and attractive, and to be attractive pictures work better than words, of course. I do understand this, because in my school days books were dull. When my philosophy teacher, for example, assigned us 12/15 pages to study, my first thought was: are there any pictures? We were really lucky if there was at least one, as once, books were made of words. If I had to study the Socratic method, for instance, I would have read pages and pages about the way Socrates succeeded in eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close logical reasoning, plus extra essays on his famous disciples like Plato, plus notes at the bottom of every page without a trace of a picture. All grey.

Nowadays, it would impossible to propose such a book and I would not do it myself either. All these words would cause a shock to the Instagram , Facebook, “Why bothering about writing, there are emoticons” generation. The same topic, very likely , would be better and easily explained on modern books just using three drawings, yes, three would be enough. The first one would show Socrates while speaking to his disciples who look at him in silence😕, then in the second one he starts to asks questions and questions thus catching his disciples’ attention 😮and the final one the enlightened devotees eventually start to speak while Socrates displays his satisfaction 😄. His method had worked 👍.

Teaching has become mostly visual nowadays, which is fun for us teachers too. However, I have noticed that too often when our students are asked to read, because it happens sometimes, and analyze a text, they don’t understand the meaning of many words. For example, one day in a class with students of about 19 years old, we were talking about the “welfare state”. I gave for granted that they knew the meaning of the word, as even if we have borrowed it from the English language, it is commonly used on newspapers and political debates every day. However; nobody, and I say nobody, knew exactly the meaning of the word “welfare”and things did not improve significantly, when I translated it into the correspondent Italian “stato sociale”. A thick fog surrounded them. They were 19 and potential voters.We are so focused in transmitting knowledge with the help of images that we do not realize that words are starting to become meaningless for many of them and us too .

Hence, I cannot help but wonder, when every now and then we are asked to give our opinion on such “irrelevant” matters like Brexit in the U.K. or to vote the reform of the Italian Constitution, as it will happen here in Italy on the 4th of December, we should assume that all these people are informed as they can read and fully understand what they read, otherwise, upon what ground will they choose? I guess that the 40 something millions of citizens who are demanded to decide to vote YES or NO for the reform of the constitution, should, as prerequisite, at least be acquainted with the 139 articles which form the constitution plus the various sub-paragraphs and then analyze carefully the amendments to form an opinion. All this without the help of explanatory pictures? I have my doubts.

The parable of the iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about the love for fashion, he may prove wrong, as it’s about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect thing, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit, shoes or bags. It is the thrill. And for that emotion we lie first of all to ourselves and to the people we interact daily, saying that we do need it, that we cannot do without it and, of course, it will be just the last time. I will not be so. The psychological traits of Becky, Sophie Kinsella’s heroine, may seem absurd and comic at the same time, but they are actually real, so real that when my mother read “I Love Shopping”, she commented reproachfully :” it seems she knows you”

ig4However, in the opulent western societies the word “need” is not exactly what it meant years ago, as the powerful messages and stereotypes, we are bombarded with through medias every day, confound us in such a degree, that we find hard to distinguish the difference between what we want and what we need. Do I really need that brand new pair of shoes, the 85th pair in fact, or do I want it? Can I truly live well without the last technical gadget? Do I really need it? We slowly become addicted to that intense but short emotion of possessing the thing of our dreams and as soon as that moment of pleasure and satisfaction burns out, we need to replace it quickly with another one even stronger that might fill the emptied space of our soul and on, and on, and on. Till nothing will satisfy us. Just like the iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, if you ventured to read this post this far. Well, few years ago I made a fantastic trip down to Costa Rica. We drove along the Pacific coast, till we reached the most renowned national park of the country: Manuel Antonio. The scenery was breath-taking: tropical white sandy beaches surrounded by a luxuriant, wild nature. We decided to explore it all in the quest of the most beautiful beach. It was August, and after an hour of walk under the heat of the sun of those latitudes, we were so sweaty and worn out that we decided to stop. The nearest beach was named “Puerto Escondido”, well, it wasn’t actually the most dazzling one we had seen, furthermore, the sea bank was mostly inhabited by hundreds of huge colorful crabs and iguanas. However, we were too tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. All the crabs instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move and stood there not at all intimidated by our presence.

ig5After a refreshing swim, we lay down on the beach to rest and sunbathe. The iguanas had kept on observing us motionless like greenish prehistoric statues, till I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the language of food. As I had some Pringles with me, I approached the nearest iguana and I handed delicately one crisp. After some long seconds of immobility, the inanimate creature attempted a move, craned its neck, smelt the Pringle and gave a small bite. It was a great success. The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was so proud of my experiment till a French tourist, who had seen the whole scene, came by and told me, well….he actually lectured me, that iguanas are vegetarian, that they are not used to salt and that with my “feat” I was destroying their sense of taste. Once tried those strong artificial flavors, they wouldn’t have gone back any longer to their usual, now tasteless, food. I learned the lesson and I kept on thinking about those words. We are the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? I don’t think this will cure my “little” compulsive problem. 🙂ig3

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.

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.

Back to school!!!

 

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back 2When a new school year begins, teachers display clear signs of a disease of a peculiar kind :forgetfulness. The first day of September you see them advance indolently to work, their faces, altered by a couple of months of holidays under the sun, manifest all the frustration of having been torn away from their lazy summer days to be thrown into the pit again. Believe me, it is a shock. Soon after the first convivial moment, when new and old colleagues are engaged in conversations about the wonders of the past summer days, the usual routine which regards work planning, exam organization and stuff of this kind should get started, but you soon realize that you can’t, because your mind is blank, as you had removed all, even the most common operations you’ve repeated every single year. What would a Freudian psychologist say? That we have put a veil on everything we reject of our job and hidden in a remote part of our mind and now, that is about to surface again, we are under stress, maybe. That’s why I am about to tell this story again, because I want it to be a reminder of what I do love of my job.

back3Some years ago, my husband and I joined a program of long distance adoptions in Paraguay. The idea of helping the minors of the poor countries and their families, providing them with an economical help, so that they could receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people, if I may say so. Once subscribed, after few weeks, we received a letter with all the personal data of the adopted child, which, unexpectedly, turned out to be a very exciting moment, as we hadn’t had the name of the kid yet. I still remember my husband slowly unfolding the letter, looking at the picture and saying with a big smile: “it’s a boy”.

His name was Wilfrido. In the picture, a little brat of about five was doing his best to show us his gratitude with a big toothless smile, even if he seemed a kind of uncomfortable in his brand new school pinafore, maybe too large for his age. Once our adopted son had materialized in that picture, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort enthusiasm. We began to think that we might do many things for him, for example providing him with a high school education and even more, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, the boy didn’t really look like the student type, but maybe I was wrong.

back 4Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered .Fortunately, the following years went much better. He eventually learnt to read and write, even Maths. When he improved enough to write a letter, he started to give me information bout his life and family. I was particularly impressed when he told me that he usually reached school on foot walking for seven miles (!!!) or on horseback. He also added that he liked studying after all. But one day, we were informed that Wilfrido and his family had left the village and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed, maybe I could have done more to give him the opportunity of having a better future, maybe.

Few years later, I would have seen the whole experience from another angle. I was in San Josè, in Costa Rica and I needed some directions. One boy offered to write down the address I needed for me ; I could have written it myself, but just he didn’t let me do it. He picked a pen and diligently started to move it on a piece of paper, as if he were drawing. It took him five endless minutes to write that piece of information, but somehow we didn’t dare hurry him even if, I confess, we were a little annoyed. Eventually, he handed me the note. I soon noticed that his handwriting was incredibly neat and elegant, but it was only when I met his eyes that I could clearly see that sparkle, I saw his great satisfaction, pride and dignity. He smiled. He might be one of the many Wifrido that people the world. I had done something good after all.That’s why I teach. Because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I see that sparkle in the eyes of one of my students. Wish you a great new school year. 🙂

 

Threatened and humbled

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Let’s admit it, we are scared. Teaching has become such a risky occupation nowadays, that our most urgent concern, believe me, has nothing to with education at all, but rather with our professional and physical safeguard. Why? There are two main reasons : there has been a shift of responsibilities from family to school for what concerns the care of the child, but at the same time parents find harder and harder to accept teachers’ judgements. Cooperation has become critical, that’s why nowadays everything is focused on communication, which unfortunately has turned out to be a major weapon to be used against teachers.

hit2Families must be accurately informed about school performances, truancy, behaviour (please pay attention to the passive voice), therefore it is our duty to inform them and not THEIR duty to come to school and inquire after their child. Even if we have parents/teacher meetings one hour a week in the morning with every single teacher and twice a year in the afternoon with all, plus informal communication via email, two report cards, well, this never seems to be enough.That’s why towards the end of the school year every teacher leaves everything off to provide the families with the most recent updating in order to avoid the drama, which despite all the effort is always inevitable, but above all the risk that the school might be sued for not having informed in due time.

The problem is that this tiring, bulky system does not work, because all these meetings are mostly attended by those families whose children have no real problems, while those who really have, rarely show up. They probably want to avoid the mortification of listening about their child’s (temporary) insuccess, which is felt either like their own or more often like the teachers’. It seems absurd, but it has happened that somebody deliberately left wrong telephone numbers in order not to be contacted. So when the end of the school year approaches, we start to feel that certain agitation that makes us worry more about form than contents. What really matters nowadays is whether we have diligently compiled, informed, signed , registered; everything but educating and forming the new generations. The truth is that we are missing the real object of our profession: the student.

hit 1When school is about to end, drama is always behind the corner. Those families that you haven’t seen for a whole year, suddenly materialize when they read that their child has failed. What you meet, then, is anger, rancor, bitterness that can become violence sometimes as it happened in Cosenza (south of Italy) only few days ago. The parents of a sixteen year old girl are summoned by the deputy head-mistress of a high school to inform them of the reason of their girl’s failure and to discuss learning strategies for the future. A normal procedure, in fact. At first it seems an ordinary teacher/parents conference but all of a sudden something changes. The atmosphere becomes more agitated so that the deputy head-mistress grows alarmed and invites the two to leave the room. The father, then, rushes to the door to bar the entrance and while the teacher struggles to find a way out, the mother attacks her from behind, makes her fall and once on the floor, grabs her by her neck and twist it with the intent of breaking her neck bone, while her husband is on watch at the door.The teacher attempts a reaction, but the father starts to kick her in her breast and stomach repeatedly till she faints. Then they manage to slip outside the room and leave the school unseen from a secondary entrance. When the teacher awakes, she has to be carried to the hospital and afterwards she sues the two. The girl has declared to be very proud of her parents’ doing as justice has been done.

Now, this is the end of the school year and maybe I am tired, but I cannot help but wonder how my life would be much easier if I gave high grades indistinctly to everybody. Wow. Everybody would be happy and relaxed. After all, if many parents don’t understand the importance of evaluation and don’t care about their children’s education, why should I? 😉