“The Best of Our Breed”

This year I have a brand  new class, let’s call it….5(I)D. It is the conclusive year, so when you take a class at this stage, it is like adopting a full grown up child: the room for action is quite thin. Nonetheless, I could not resist the allure of 5(I)D as soon as I learnt about its existence. Why? Well, because it is a small group, very small, a selected one, apparently. Hence, I did whatever it was in my power to come into possession of this rare gem. The reviews about the 5(I)D were not that inviting, actually, but rather ” bizarre” I would say, and, strange indeed, there was not a single voice to controvert them. Yet, I was not in the least intimidated, after all, for someone like myself who has had the fortune of working in both the best and the worst school in Rome and nearby, how could these young scoundrels be of any problem? So, even when fate seemed to have taken a different turn, as I was informed that the principal had planned to direct me to another class, I headed straight to her office and said decidedly : I WANT THE 5(I)D. And so, I had it. 

Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes, when I first saw them – we are talking about adolescents of 18/19 years old – as before me there was displayed the most incredible bunch of weirdos grouped all together as I had never seen before. Apparently,  they didn’t – and don’t – seem to respond to the norms of proper behaviour to be followed in class, or better, they do respond, till their basic needs come pressing such as: watching or even answering the cell phone ( “May I? You know, it’s really important”), eating ( “God, I was starving”), talking  loud ( “But , we were just discussing about what you’ve just said) , sleeping ( at least they are silent) , fixing makeup and…. having breakfast .

This is a typical scene at around 8:20 a.m.:

Curly boy : “Excuse me, Mrs Tink!”

Mrs Tink : ( while explaining and deluding herself into having caught his attention), “Do you have a question?”

Curly boy: “Yes, may I go to the bar? I haven’t had my breakfast yet and I’ m not feeling that well”.

Mrs Tink : “Of course”.

Yes, I say ” of course ” , which is of a caustic, sarcastic sort ( in the hope they will understand one day), of course you can go and have breakfast, of course you can a bite to your sandwich or fix your makeup along many other things while I am teaching a class. Of course. After all, do you think I should still explain what is right and what is wrong at their age, or sanction them? No way. All things considered, I never sense their way of behaving as a form of opposition, this is just what they are. If I may say so, this is a class where the “EGO” fails in balancing the urges of the “ID ”  and  the impositions of the ” SUPEREGO”.

So, when it was time to introduce  them to Freud’s tripartite theory of mind and apply it to the characters of Wuthering Heights, I decided to go just a little out of the box to catch their attention, thus using one of my tricks. 

On that occasion , I theatrically took my wallet out my bag and picked  a 50 euro note. I placed the note on the desk and I addressed them with the following words:

Mrs Tink:”Let’s figure that this note has slipped out of my bag. You know it is mine. You are alone; nobody can see you; I could never spot  you.  No cameras, no witnesses. Well, would you keep that note or would you return it to me?”

Curly boy : ( with no hesitation) “I would keep it! No doubt.

Ginger girl: “Well, it depends!”

Mrs Tink: “On what?”

Ginger girl:  “Well, it depends on whether I like you or not!”

Mrs Tink: “And…. do I meet you approval? “

Ginger girl (blushes, mutters something indistinguishable I can’t understand, but I feel I’d better not investigate further).

Curly boy: (while trying to convince the others) “I would keep it, if she can’t spot me, I would keep it.”

Mrs Tink: “All right, let’s say, and I want to include myself in this, that we all would share the instinct of keeping that note for ourselves, so, what would prevent us from doing it? As I am truly confident that eventually you would hand it back to me.”

Curly boy: ” I would not!”

Hooded boy: ( reawakening from his torpor) “C’mon! If you knew to whom it belongs, you’d hand it back!

Mrs Tink: “So let’s say that either a moral imperative, Kant’ s moral law, might press you to give me back my note, or simply fear, the fear of being caught, as somebody might have seen you and report it to me. This would not be a crime, to be sure, but if I knew it, I would eventually  see the “culprit” with different eyes, wouldn’t I? So, this is how the superego works.”

Curly boy ( decidedly): “I would keep it, no way!”

Well, at least I had gained their attention. Eventually the bell rang, I put my 50 euros note back in my wallet and while I was heading to another class, I realized that I had left on the desk something more precious than money, that is, my packet of paprika flavoured crisps. I turned back, but I saw one guy running towards me holding my packet. He handed it to me smiling: ” You see? The superego is at work!!!” 

P.S. When I said I would have produced an article about them, they seemed to be very pleased about it and one went: ” I am surprised, it took you so long to write something about us” . I guess I’ll have material enough this year to develop a series.

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The Dark Side of Talent

There is one infallible and quick way to determine the language level of  non-native speakers, that is, detecting the way they more or less nonchalantly use bad words, but also their reaction when they become the object of that language too. Hence, when the most common Italian  swearword, for example, the one which begins with a “V…”  , to be clear, is translated into the equivalent in English which  begins with an “F…”,  well,“ its native hue of resolution is sickled o’er the pale cast of translation and loses the name of swearword” for an Italian. Of course, one understands the meaning, but somehow it is as if it were blunted in its effect.

So, when I accidentally came across an Instagram page with the name of my school preceded by that word which begins with the “F”, the options were just two: either the owner of the page wanted to soften the effect of the word, fearing the impact of the one with the “V” – and that would make this person an excellent English speaker – or simply, and more likely, only the poor knowledge of the language was the reason of  that choice, thus underestimating the inevitable consequences.

On that page there was also a sort of manifesto where the owner blabbed about the absolute necessity of changing the school system introducing new subjects  – those you don’t have to study, of course –  to replace the old ones, pleading also that this revolution should have been made with the teachers. One thing in particular really struck me: the core of those words was the necessity to speak and to be heard by adults, which could be a good thing but for the fact that the name of the page began with the word which begins with the “F” and the few pictures that had been posted represented all threatening people holding a gun.

Something had to be done. It was decided to give CSI Casalpalocco/Roma the charge of the investigation in order to quickly spot the rebel out of 1.300 students. Despite all the efforts, after weeks of inquests the crime division came up with nothing – actually, I have to say I was quite disappointed, as this Italian unit seemed to be much below the standards of the American ones. However, there is one thing I have learnt watching series, namely,  these kind of minds enjoy being tracked down just to demonstrate how smart they are in eluding any attempt to spot them , but in so doing they often make a mistake and this is what happened. Our rebel, in fact, yielded the temptation of sharing the shot of a note from the electronic register. Even if names were deleted, it was easy to identify the class, so, after some cross interrogations and a few threats we found our culprit.

Yet, I am sure that had the name of the page started with the “V” rather than with the “F” the fate of our “hero” would have been a tad more trying, as, after all, everything ended with no much fuss: the page was deleted, one day suspension and not much more than that, as far as I can remember. This was four months ago.

After a few  weeks, while I was examining some videos, 253 actually, of the students who were taking part in a challenge I had organized ( https://makeiteasychallenge.it/) which aimed at selecting the best candidates for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, my attention was particularly drawn by one of them. The subject was not that challenging but that guy definitely knew how to nail the attention: he looked straight into the camera, relaxed, with a confident smirk, he definitely enjoyed what he was doing.

The video was extremely accurate, he had even subtitled it and that meant he had clearly in mind the effect images and words had to have on the viewers. He wanted to be heard and understood.  I had never seen him before, so I checked his name as it sounded, somehow, strangely familiar. I am sure you have clearly understood that it was our guy we are talking about. It could not be otherwise, in fact , I had not  noticed before, but even in that video there was the stamp of his rebellious nature, that sordid pleasure one must feel in daring break the rules, even for one second.

The second I am talking about is the one I resolved about censoring, as while talking about Dopamine effects, he had  thought necessary to mention and show  the name of a porn site. I  had not said anything to him, after all, it was just a second. “He’ll never notice it”, I was sure. Well, he did notice it. One day, in fact, he came to visit me, claiming his second back.  He did his best to explain his reasons. Apparently, without that precious second the balance of his work so meticulously achieved was lost forever. He was absolutely determined, and as he didn’t mean to listen to my reasons, so, I had to tell him that the price for having that second back was being out of the competition.

It was an effective argument, and you know why? Because he cared about it and a lot. He cared, and when he learned he was among the 25 finalists in the school, he soon shot the most amazing video demanding the vote of his mates, friends and relatives for the following step of the competition, showing a great deal of pride for his achievement. He cared, as when we eventually were in more friendly terms he helped me promote the final award ceremony. He cared, as in that ceremony I noticed he was definitely the most elegant among the finalists and eventually, no need to say, he won.

Few days after his victory in a video on TikTok he had made for other exciting plans he was pursuing, he mentioned these four crazy months of his young life . “We decide what we want to be” was the moral he had learned from this adventure and now he had decided that it was much more rewarding being constructive than destructive, that he could also be, nay, he was an “excellence” of this school and even more. Way to go, Gabriele!

Lady Bracknell’s Wisdom

II do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.” (The Importance of Being Earnest)

Far-sighted  Lady Bracknell had wisely identified the virus which would have endangered her world made of privileges one day: education. Masses could not constitute a problem so long they were kept ignorant, hence, untouched by schooling which was spreading in the 19th century. Just  like any other virus, Lady Bracknell thought it needed to be circumscribed otherwise: 

“… it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” (The Importance of Being Earnest)

Hence, if education  were effective in England as elsewhere,  it would threaten the established order, Lady Bracknell feared. And the grand lady was right to be worried, because this is exactly what happened in the following decades of the early twentieth century. Education actually tampered worldwide ignorance  making no distinction amongst gender, social class and colour of the skin, thus providing access to that “social elevator” thanks to which anybody could be allowed to reach a station different from where he was placed at birth. Till something changed. Lady Bracknell, as conscience of the advanced “Western civilization”, made her voice  be heard again: “ Are you really  sure that increasing to such extent the number of educated people would result into an improvement of mankind? Can’t you see the dangers of giving anybody the tools to fully understand the schemes on which societies are founded?  You mean to fight ignorance, and this is commendable, but then, in such world of cultivated people, who would accept to stay at the bottom of the social ladder– unless you admit  immigrants in your “advanced countries”, who, on the other hand, once part of the democratic educating system you planned, would also expect to advance socially eventually? “

When these kind of doubts started to surface towards the end of the twentieth century, it was too late to  go back. The right to education  for anybody could not be discussed or circumscribed again to station, gender etc. , hence, other ways should have been found to satisfy that conscience with its ominous speculations.  Eventually, three strategies were detected : a) re-defining the objectives of education and educators; b) proving that education was not the only “social elevator”; c) lowering learning standards.

If the sacred fire of teaching placed you in a school, because you romantically thought to educate, forge personalities or simply to  give the basis for future opportunities, I am sure you have grown a bit disappointed, like myself, as today  a teacher is mostly required to be an entertainer. The quality of courses is measured on how lively and fun these are perceived . That is why we are kindly suggested  to get a degree at the Barnum Circus Academy , which we eagerly do and you know why?  For fear of being labelled with scarlet letter “B” of boring. If you demand neatness, correctness, insight you are BO-RING. And what about the knowledge of dates and rules? SACRILEGE!!!! Knowledge has no longer reference points such as time or space, it ..floats in the air.  After all, is it really important to know when  the French Revolution  took place? Isn’t all the effort to memorize dates a waste of  time ? It seems it is, underestimating the fact that, for example, while memorizing you could notice that the date in question is  a sequence of 789 (1789), thus stimulating the neurons which rule associations and being able even to create nets of knowledge. In fact, I could also venture to say  that 100  years before another important revolution had taken place: the Glorious Revolution and compare the two. With one effort, two dates and two revolutions.  But it seems I am obsolete in having such expectations and this why the majority of our students roams in “meaninglessland”, as they  have grown unable in time to give the necessary  time and space frame to what they apprehend. Those dots of knowledge, if not connected, end up inevitably engulfed  by the abyss of ignorance.

Of course, any measure of learning,  such as tests or more, must take into consideration the sensibility of the student, who must never perceive that measurement as too oppressive or frustrating . Homework is mostly seen unnecessary and pointless and should never conflict with the truly useful time our students spend in their many activities. When I try to make my point asking if Usain Bolt would have been such a champion anyhow without training , they are all aware that talent is not enough to reach such goal. “Well, learning is the same”, I reply . “What did you say?” Ah, BO-RING.

Maybe they are right. I am boring. After all, our society has opened to a myriads of “working” opportunities which are not strictly connected  with schooling. The new “professions” such as youtuber, influencer, footballer, tiktoker etc. provide this generation with what they believe to require : money and visibility. Here in Italy, for example,  being a “tronista” has been one the most craved “positions” amongst the youngsters these last 20 years. A “tronista” is a young  man or a woman  who sits on a throne for weeks till she/he decides to pick one among the many suitors who are, episode after episode, eliminated. If this is what they have in mind, how many chances do I have to make them be interested in what and epiphany is, for example? Epiphy…..what?

That is why, we teachers have given up in time. We have given up tilting at windmills preaching effort and dedication  and accepted to do what we are demanded : lowering learning standards and we did it, no need to say, with the approval and great satisfaction of parents or at least the majority of them. Those parents believe that the aim of education is just getting the diploma, what we call here contemptuously “a piece of paper”. That diploma is nothing but a toolbox ,and what makes the difference is the number of the tools you have collected during the school years, rather than the box itself. If the toolbox you are given is just an empty box, unless the student in question is a youtuber, influencer, footballer, tiktoker, “tronista” or any other excellence of this “social” era , he’ll need money and time to obtain those tools, in short, those who have means and connections can anyhow manage their way in the world , while all the others will be left behind to follow their dreams of effortless success.  So, after more than one hundred years it is reasonable to say that Lady Bracknell’s fears have been crushed: the privileges of the upper classes are secured today more than ever. The wise lady can look at the future with great confidence.

The Labyrinth of Knossos

Have you tried to talk to an operator these days? One thing is for sure, you need a lot of time and patience, the patience of Job at least. In fact, when the recorded voice starts to speak with that gentle, hypocrite tone of one who pretends to be of help, while, in truth, means only to confound and make you give up, you are well aware that a very long journey is about to begin.

Press 1, press 2, 3,4,5….9, the numerous options are only a way to distract from the only and real object of your search, which they know well to be: a flesh and blood operator. Instead, if you are lucky enough, you may end up attempting to make useless conversation with a virtual dog named Toby, which seems to have been created only with the purpose to make you feel dummy.  Yet, we know, we feel, that the flesh and blood operator of our dreams is somewhere there and we keep searching in that labyrinth of Knossos, made up by the alternatives that we are generously given, but no way. Heaven forbids, that you press the wrong number!  You’ll find yourself with only two options left: starting again from square 1 or giving up. I often give up, I have to confess.

It is the very same story whenever you need to talk with your bank, insurance, hospital, principal : you always find a wall in the form of a switchboard before you. No need to say, all categories but one: teachers.Teachers are required to be available 24 / 7. We must be ready to  inform, listen, reassure, pacify, advise ( even on fashion matters in my case) any time. This happens as  the norm that regulates our duties in this matter is ambiguous. It generically says that we must keep the lines of communication with parents open, but they end up to be so open that, eventually, we can be reached through meetings, mail, voice mail, WhatsApp,  phone calls, even stalking if necessary; festivity included, of course. If a parent believes to have an  urgent need to confer with a teacher, the latter is expected to be at the parent’s disposal.

The point is that since the advent of the electronic register the lines of communications should have been open enough to limit such pressing requests only to extraordinary events. Families would be constantly informed about grades, comments about grades, lesson topics, school attendance, homework, activities and more, if they read the electronic register. But they don’t. In fact, I always have an endless line of people who want to talk to me anyhow.

Hence, I believe there is only a way to put an end  to all this : a switchboard for us teachers too, after all, I don’t think we are less deserving than other categories. Once skimmed our agenda from the unnecessary meetings, we should be able to focus only on the situations that really require our attention and effort.  I figure it might work like this:

Voice mail: welcome to Mrs Tink’s parent-teacher communication area; if you want to be informed about your son’s grades, press 1.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 1): Dear parent, check the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to get information about your son’s school attendance, press 2.

Mrs Tink’s voice( after pressing2): Dear parent, check the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to get information about course books and syllabus, press 3.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 3): Dear parent, check the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to talk about teaching methods, personal experiences and suggestions, press 4.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 4): Dear parent, you can book an appointment through the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to book an appointment  with Mrs Tink, press 5.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 5): Dear parent, you can book an appointment with Mrs Tink through the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you do really want to talk to Mrs Tink, press 6.

The line goes dead.🤭

A Modest Proposal

There has always been  a lot of talking  about how to reform the school system  since……ever, and I understand  that this topic is a major issue worldwide. If there is a debate, it means that there is a problem. I am also sure that nobody has a clue of how to solve it – sometimes I suspect even the will -.  I have experienced  in years the most insane, pointless reforms –  usually at no cost – with the only result of systematically taking down the old educational system – which requires to be modernized, no need to say  – without adding anything worthwhile, sensible, effective. The consequence? At  first an imperceptible crack was heard (and ignored) , then  a tiny slit became visible (and ignored), till, in one fell swoop, an endless chasm opened before us, the chasm of ignorance.

I teach to students from 14 to 19 and whenever it is time to meet the new young classes , my  colleagues and I always end the first week in shock, as every year we believe to have seen the worst and every year we realize that the worst has yet to come.  It has now become customary to refer to students of 14 years of age, who have “ freely”  decided to join the family of the   “Liceo Scientifico” ( which is a high school whose main object should be to train for university) as “not schooled” yet. That is : a 14 year old scholar, after  8(!!!) years spent in the educational system circus, can barely know how to behave properly or develop any  learning method and, more recently, even produce an intelligible writing. You can imagine my amazement when few days ago I asked one boy  to write some words ordered in a column on the blackboard and to see that he was, actually, organizing them  in a sort of “cloud” rather than in a column. Words scattered here and there with no logic or any logic I could decipher, let alone his handwriting: cursive, capital and  small letters were all displayed before me in a hypnotic dance.😵

It seems, in fact,  that the latest generations are no longer used to holding a pen in their hands. They are so disoriented and naïve in a certain way, that dialogues as the one that will follow have  become routine:

Mario: but Teach… why did you mark this word?😕

Mrs Tink: because it is wrong. The correct word is “pet”.😏

Mario: This is what I have written.😇

Mrs Tink:  No Mario, you have written “cet”, the first  letter is something between a “c” or an “i”… but it is not a “p” for sure…🤔

Mario: but Teach, had it been an “i”,  I would have dotted the “i”!😐😇

Mrs Tink: Mario…..do you know what an alphabet is?🤨

Mario: Yes , of course,  a,b,c……….?😇

Mrs Tink:  Mario wait, I need to rephrase the question:   do you know what the function of an alphabet is?🤨

Mario: (no answer)…🙄

Mrs Tink: well, an alphabet is a sort of  convention, by which we agree that the sound at the beginning of these words, for example, like: “Pub, Police, Pop and Pet” , takes the form of this graphic sign: “P” in the written form. This sign cannot be changed at one’s pleasure or state of mind, otherwise,  we could not understand one another. In fact, if I rewrite those words with the sign you used, they might become : “Cub, Colice, Cop and Cet”, and this is what I assume. So, as long as I have to grade your tests, you’d better  make sure I understand what you  write……. because you want me to understand, don’t you?🤨

Mario: of course, I do!🥴🤕

Mrs Tink: good boy!😏

Assessment board (a child neuropsychiatrist , a psychologist  and a speech therapist in a reproaching tone) Mrs Tink ! Have you ever considered that Mario might be suffering from dyslexia or dysgraphia?🧐🧐🧐

Mrs Tink: (annoyed)😖😤 I have, and, if I may, it should be none of my concern at this stage, because,  as far as I know,  the assessment of graphic competence should be performed after the so called “ learning phase” which is usually at the end of the second grade and Mario attends the ninth grade. Hence, Mario could be either the victim of a system which has not been able to assess his learning needs or he is simply lazy, just like many of his peers, who are no longer used to seeing  neatness and correctness as a value, as it requires time and effort, effort they wish to direct somewhere else ( with the support of their families), of course.  When they get to the ninth grade in such conditions, it is almost a lost battle.😑

Assessment board: Mrs Tink, we believe it is urgent that you take a training course on learning disorders of 25 hours starting from tomorrow!😑😑😑

Mrs Tink:😭😭😭 if you think that yet another course will solve the question, all right, let’s take the course, but allow me to say a few words more. Don’t keep burying the school under loads of useless projects or “prodigious”” reforms,  if you cannot imagine beforehand  to what  those plans will take. As for now, their effect on teachers – on me – is only cultural frustration and paralysis of creativity. Before thinking of something grand, I would suggest you to start with something  apparently small, but more effective.  Any school reform should start from the beginning, that is, the “elementary “ school. It is in the first five years that you lay the foundations  of an effective  learning process even through the aforementioned diagnosis, which would have positive outcomes, as done in due time. Otherwise, if  we keep building on clay, we cannot but sink in that chasm and I am sure many – you?- would not be displeased about it.

In Our Own Flesh

The act of writing is not often that smooth. Sometimes  you don’t have much to say, sometimes you don’t have much time, but it may also happen that even if you don’t have much to say or much time, you feel compelled to write few lines, as now. Nothing exceptional , nothing new,  just the necessity of setting few things right.  The origin of this disquisition has come from the perusal of some papers that my students  wrote for the secondary high school examination on the theme of “progress”. The  following  statement caught my full attention :

“ … this is what we have  experienced just this year, in our own flesh, with the pandemic:

despite the new technologies, the school was not  fully prepared

to change the teaching system…”

Whoever reads my posts may ask: “well, what’s wrong with this? Isn’t  it exactly what you keep on saying?” True, but it has been claimed by somebody else. I mean, I may say, for example,  that a type of skirt does not look good on me because of my large hips and I am fine with it , but  if anybody else asserts  that I have large hips, well, it is annoying.  Hence, reading my same thoughts  from the “pen” of one of my students,  I have to confess , bothered me a little. The point is that I know  that with “ in our own flesh “he meant , actually,  the students’ flesh only and  by using that expression he had  justified  the lack of attention, involvement  and results of an entire school year. You did all this “ in our own flesh”  and you are to be blamed for this. I/we are justified. That’s all.

Well, that is not all. Actually, his words made me ponder about the contribution these teenagers gave to endure these exceptional times in terms of ideas, cooperation, innovation; they are young , after all,  and should able to infuse the “system” with new ideas, but I could find…..none. They have played or have been made play the role of the victims (“in our  own flesh”, in fact), therefore justifying their apathy. I firmly believe, now that my student makes me think of it , that if I should choose a word to define their generational attitude, that word would be:  reactionaries.

Since the very start of this pandemic, with hundreds of dead every day , they have kept waving the “ school only in presence” flag,  without caring  much of  the virus diffusion . Nothing was to be changed. They claimed that the process of learning had to be empathic and it could  happen only if you had  their schoolmates around , and this is one of the reasons why, there will be a remote  secondary-school graduation examination tomorrow  for many, as entire classes and teachers  have been recently infected  by too much empathy.

As for technology, I have already written that this generation is less technological than what we may suspect, unless  we believe sharing  videos, photos  and liking a picture to be a technological skill. The majority of them has no clue of  how to download, save, rename and upload a file and has found tremendously hard to learn it.  Furthermore, if it is true that the remote teaching effort has often been a mechanical pouring of the same things done in the classroom  through a video , it is also true that the students have made any development in teaching , learning and even in empathy, as I believe that even in a remote class there is room for empathy, very difficult . More or less  these were the main activities in which they were mostly involved:

  1. DISTURBING: sound effect , freeze effect
  2. PRETENDING (1) disconnection and  audio problems when necessary;
  3. COPYING entire pages from  most common websites, as if they were not accessible to teachers, who have actually  learnt the great power of  “copy “and “paste” commands to find the original source.
  4. PRETENDING (2) to answer questions, while actually reading something on video (easily detected as their face all of a sudden seemed like being affected by paralysis,  while the eyes move sideways. You may even hear the  gentle clicking of the mouse, if  a change of page is needed sometimes).
  5. DENYING whatever has been written above.

Therefore, we have, actually,  experienced the very same old pattern of teacher/students relationship, that is,  the mice which attempt to fool the cat, remote style of course. I have no other significant contribution to the learning cause to record. Many generations of adolescents have experienced tragedies “ in their own flesh”, worse than this one, that’s part of life.

1300s: I’m dying from the Black Plague

1800s: I’m 9 & work in a coal mine

1900s: I’m off to fight in a war

2020s: Remote teaching and the pandemic are robbing me of my youth (source Twitter)

Hysteria and Farce

It’s over. This school year is virtually over, before than expected, actually. It is about to end in the same hysterical way it started and progressed. Truly hysterical, as at first the great thinkers who are in charge of this ship called “School” meant  to prolong our sailing one month more, only to make it end eventually a week before. Why?  Well, it seems they ran out of provisions and had to disembark some young cabin-boys  who were recruited just to be able to finish the journey. To cut a long story short, they had no money to pay the substitute teachers – I wanted to stick to the metaphor, I do apologize -. By the ways, a trip to “Summer School” land was still in their plans with an investment of about 561 million euros, but when they understood that this plan would have been deserted by both students and teachers – whose only thought at the moment is to cut and run as soon as possible –  they steered to “Summer/Autumn School” land , where they had more chances to find somebody more receptive. After all, it is part of human nature to forget the past after a long vacation and be more responsive.

Hence, if the initial idea was  to extend the school calendar to recover, in a more relaxed way, the time that the pandemic had “stolen” from school, we have come to the conclusion that, after all, it is right to take away precious time from students. Just hysterical. The usual farce.

This year we have been asked to experiment everything and its opposite, without a clear goal, always navigating by sight . We have ended up crushed by a school system which has never been able to interpret the exceptional circumstances, keeping the old bureaucratic structure, typical of the nineteenth century school, intact, despite the many lockdowns, despite the quarantines, despite 100%, 75%, 50%,25 % on-line classes and  despite all this, we have found the same heap of useless papers at the end of our journey.  So, here we are, squeezed between the anxiety of evaluation and the rush towards  the secondary-school graduation examination scheduled for June 16.

Flying towards different solutions has been impossible, as we systematically crashed against the same big rock: the immobility of the school.  Italian school is a muscular, non-adaptive system  and even if the world around it changes drastically, there is  no way of reacting and curls up like a hedgehog. The maximum flexibility the system has been able to imagine has concerned staggered entrances or to extend the school year until the end of June, and – how I could  have forgotten this – one seater (useless) desks . Nothing more. School has turned up to be a place with no imagination and vision of the future and this gives an idea of the degree of the structural agony in which it has slipped into.

It is understandable that in these conditions many have called for a return to face-to-face teaching, because it is more reassuring from a professional point of view – for teachers – and from a social point of view, for students and families. The only true novelty that the school-system has forcibly introduced is remote learning,  which is not a small thing, unless the remote teaching effort is reduced to mechanically pour the same things that were done in the classroom into the container of digital devices, as it has actually happened in the majority of cases.  Not a changed schedule, not a changed program, just the blind obstinacy in seeking the same results with a technique completely unsuitable to obtain them. Only systems which are under a spell of some obtuse forces can think of transporting physical education hours into remote without even thinking about it. That is why teachers are not victims in this story but accomplices of the system.

In the never ending complaining for what we have been demanded to do in these circumstances, the majority of teachers have kept looking back to an ideal past rather than working for the future. I feel like we have missed the chance to take charge of the school system and demonstrate we were able to make it sail to more interesting and modern destinations. This pandemic has been a great opportunity for all of us to experiment new teaching techniques, but rather than putting them together and discussing all the best practices that many colleagues, I am sure, have developed, I fear most of them will be buried to be forgotten as bad dreams in order go back to a school where chalk and eraser must be always at hand.  At that point, we will be happy, safe, old.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple”

 

Everyone, who has been teaching for many years now,  knows how learning has changed, since we started. We are now requested to be entertaining, dynamic, technological and on this purpose we are continuously overwhelmed by new educational theories in a sort of didactic frenzy. Another thing I keep observing every year is that school books have become way less extensive than they used to be with a great deals of patterns, photos  and alluring covers. When I was a high school student, schoolbooks were made of words only, dull and the very few pictures were usually/unfortunately placed  at the very end of the book, so when we had a daily assignment of twenty pages, twenty meant  twenty, no discount.

 Books nowadays are 50% made of pictures. Learning must have a visual and quick impact to catch the students’ interest, who actually strain in being focused for more than 20 minutes. One of the most recent learning theories is to segment the lesson in 3, 4 different moments in order to keep their attention constantly alive. But, is this what we have become ? Comedians who seek for the audience’s clapping by means of a good laugh or the wonder of a magic trick? As, there is another thing I noticed. There has been  a growing lexical gap between me and them in time, and I don’t mean in English, but in our language: Italian. Not long ago, I remember translating the word “bedside” into “capezzale” and they looked at me as if I had all of a sudden started to speak German. We are talking about  18 year old teenagers who have never come across a simple word like that and  which they understood only translating it literally from the English: bed= letto,  side = lato, “ al lato del  letto”= “capezzale”. They are of age and can vote.  What has become clear to me is that the outcome all our endeavors in order to keep them away from  the  “boredom-land”  of activities like reading, writing etc.  has only brought to a dramatic impoverishment of their language eventually.

Several studies have demonstrated that the outcome of the decrease in lexical knowledge and the impoverishment of the language consists not only  in the reduction of the vocabulary used, but also in the linguistic subtleties that allow to elaborate and formulate a complex thought. The gradual disappearance of tenses, for example,  gives rise to a thought almost always in the present, limited to the moment: incapable of projections in time. How is it possible to capture a temporality, a succession of elements in time, whether past or future, and their relative duration, without a language that distinguishes between what could have been, what has been, what is, what could be, and what will be after what might have happened, actually happened?

The use of capital letters and punctuation has become on option of late. An increasing number of my students (who theoretically  are supposed to  be used to studying  Latin, philosophy, physics..) are absolutely refractory to start the sentence with the capital letter , for example,– due to the extensive usage of WhatsApp, I know -, but,  every now and then,  they use it with some nouns, like “ Book”, for instance.  Why? Are you German? No useful answer is produced, but distraction. Let alone punctuation. They master “the stream of consciousness” technique without having read a single line from Joyce’s Ulysses;  it just comes natural.  These “deadly blows” to precision and variety of expression  are but symptoms of the difficulty in organizing thinking,  which affects not only learning, by the ways.  Fewer words, fewer conjugated verbs, lack of speech organization mean less ability to express emotions and process a thought. Without words to construct an argument, complex thinking is made impossible. The poorer the language, the more the thought disappears. If there are no thoughts, there are no critical thoughts and  there is no thought without words.

The historical moment we are living, dominated by mass medias way of communicating, reflects exactly what we have said so far. What is this constant polarization in any matter : vaccines, masks, politics, football, but the consequence of the habit of simplification, which leads to the rarefaction of critical thought? We are no longer used to seeing or better understanding the nuances of a question; everything  is black or white, and you know why? Because it is the simplest thing to do, but “ the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

School should give the tools to understand what is complex, rather than yielding to this process of simplification. Let’s start from words again. Let’s make read and practice the language in its most diverse forms, even if it looks complicated, especially if it is complicated, because in this effort there is freedom. Everything that creates complexity is the real architect of the improvement of human mind. Without complex thinking there is not any truth.

What’s Wrong with Teachers

Few years ago my previous principal summoned me to ask my illustrious opinion about the introduction of the latest trend in matter of education, that is: CLIL. Our eminent thinkers, who people the aisles of the Ministry of Education in fervent industriousness, had thought that it would have been fine to introduce the teaching of one of the school subjects in English for at least 50% of the allotted hours, and this the last year of high school. Before my dormant reason could react to make me hold my tongue, I heard myself saying: “bullshit”. Yes, bullshit; because we have a few or no such teachers that can explain a subject like Physics, for example, in another language. Bullshit; because, that is the year of the final exams, and even if there were such experts, this switch in language would inconvertibly mean in a consistent loss in the quality of contents. Anyway, as I feared, I had gone too far – Mrs Tink is not used to such a language, after all – I looked at my principal blushing a little, but she only said: “I agree”, “ the matter is your hands”. Mine? Oh, my! And this is how I have been put in charge of CLIL organization in my school, a position which have held firmly for years as nobody wishes to snatch it from my hands .

Of course, this meant attending tedious meetings at the Ministry of Education, of which I only remember the most amazing lasagne ever tried. I still recall myself attending boring conversations without saying a word , but with the corner of my eyes I endeavoured to spot the next tray carrying, more steaming lasagne to dart over them. Of course, as if the morning sessions were not enough, I was afflicted by  afternoon meetings too. I could hear no word that could convince me of the goodness of the project, till, one last speaker caught my attention, which was still blurred by the enormous  quantity of carbs swallowed. More than a full concept, it was a word: mission. Wait a minute, wait a minute: “How did we get there? What mission are we talking about?” I whispered to my neighbour. They were talking about money and career. This new figure, which they meant to introduce, was actually over qualified for high school, hence, somebody had enquired about which benefits such teacher would have had, in short: “what’s in it for me?”.  “Well, nothing”, he answered. “Let’s call it …. a mission”, he replied candidly.

A mission. This is the greatest trap teachers have fallen into these last years. We have been led to believe that we are not qualified professionals but something more, missionaries, that is people who have received a divine call at the service of education and because of such vocation are expected to grow accustomed to whatever situation or to respond to any requirement students, parents, politicians may develop for……nothing, of course.  That is why for teachers there is not a real career or any prospect of wallowing in gold, we are supposed to be content with the outcome of our vocation only. And whose fault is this? Ours,  just ours, because in time we have abdicated to our original nature of educators to become a sort of hybrid with no more defined identity or clear goal. When did it all start? I don’t know.

The events during this pandemic have made no exception. We have been asked to acquire new skills, mostly technological to tackle remote learning at the best and we did it. Once back to school, we have become computer technicians, Wi-Fi experts, Zoom and Meet masters, but that was not enough yet.  When we realized that the computers we had given or the line did not work properly, we instantly started to bring our own devices or to use our own router Wi-Fi, as it was our impellent mission, of course, to make things work anyhow. When school closed, even if our efforts were actually doubled, or privacy annihilated, for the public we had become do-nothing privileged, who should have gone to work to school in any case, taking the example of supermarket cashiers who never quitted their workstation, real heroes of the situation.

Now, think about any other worker. I would like to know which company requires its employees to use their own devices, or to buy more gigabytes in case the Wi-Fi does not work and use private routers. But we are missionaries, we are expected to find a solution to make things work with nothing in return, and if you dare say something, you are reminded that you are lucky enough in these days to still have a job.

In time we have accepted all this and the pandemic has made it only more clear, if possible . Yielding to all kinds of expectations, different from educating, without even attempting to a fight, has greatly contributed to the breakdown of the old education system, which was mostly based on merit, discipline, effort, to supplant it with a pointless approach where subjects have been replaced by projects, discipline by a maternal, over protective attitude and effort, well, it is a word to be used only for sport, nowadays. We teachers are also responsible for all this and the possibility of a change is all in our hands. I think and it is high time we take off the  – I fear for many comfortable – disguise of  missionaries and change direction; a little exercise could be of help : let’s try and remember what made us want to be teachers and I am sure it was not a matter of vocation , but something more. We have to go back there, from where we started.

The Things I Have Learnt this Year. Part 1.The Digital Generation.

I’ve decided to skip the Christmas posting this year,  as I have not much to celebrate or to say about the topic. Yet, the end of the year, and such a year, is the appropriate moment to stop – it shouldn’t be difficult during lockdown – and ponder on what we have learnt or understood, as desperate times are often so very revealing and the naked truths might be unexpected or even shocking.

I’d like to start with what is generally called the digital generation, that is the generation of those who, according to common belief, were already able to understand the know-how behind any digital device since breastfeeding. Those, whose thumbs slide fast on a phone screen and sneer at you if they catch you “hammering” a text with your index, making you feel an old, pitiful idiot. Those who live constantly connected with their smartphone stuck in the palms of their hands. Well, this year I have discovered that the skills of this digital generation are generally overrated. They are not digital at all, unless we call digital only those who can text, share pics or videos, like posts only and, please, don’t tell me they enjoy the vast prairies of information. They don’t. Their seach for knowledge begins and ends with Wikipedia and however, never goes beyond page 1 of Google.

Before the spreading of remote learning revealed this absolute truth, I had had some clues here and there, but I had never given them much consequence; there wasn’t a pandemic after all. I had noticed once, for example, that the computer my husband and I had bought for my nephews looked quite “neglected” in their room, despite we were told it was a “I can’t do without it “ gift. I also noticed they never seemed to remember where the i Pad we had given them the year before was. Never. By the ways, when they eventually found it, it was regularly dead. So, they actually could do without both of them.

At school I had been misled by the fact that any time I had a problem with devices or connection, I could always rely on one or two “helpers” for each class, but only recently I have realized why they were always the same in any class I taught and the reason is that the others have never had not a clue of what it ought to be done, like me, and two in 25 is the exact percentage of those who consciously use technological devices. 2 in 15, 8 in 100, this is the truth.

Any truth needs to be proved and the occasion was my first remote classwork – quite oxymoronic, isn’t it? – during which the students had to perform the following complex operations: download a text, fill in, save the text, upload it. A piece of cake. Of course, I had given them days to make practice with a mechanism, I was sure they were absolutely familiar with. Well, it was not so. As soon as the test began, I was flooded with the following list or problems:

1.Teach!!! 😱I cannot download the text! It says I have already downloaded it, but this is IMPOSSIBLE! I did NOTHING😇!!! Soon others tagged along behind, but unfortunately for them the rest of the students had succeeded in downloading it, so I understood that the system actually worked. After a quick check, I saw that all of them had “unconsciously” downloaded the text more than once, even seven times.

 Ok. I’ll reset your downloads and try again. Only once now or you are out”😤. A good threat at the right time always works, believe me, in fact, I received no more issues of this kind.

2.Teach!!!!😱😱I cannot fill in the text, I don’t know why 😇!!! Soon others tagged along behind but unfortunately for them the rest of the students had succeeded in writing in it, so the system actually worked.

“How can that be? It is a txt file! Which device are you using? Haven’t you tested it before?”🤔

(more or less they all give the same answer)I’m using my phone! Yesterday it worked!😩

“So, you are telling me that yesterday everything worked?”🤔

“Yes, it worked on the computer!”😥😩

“But you are using your phone now – and I might discuss your choice of device for a classwork, even if from remote – and you should have tried on the device you had planned to use, otherwise what is the point of giving you time and tools to practice? What phone are you using?”😤

“An i Phone.”😥

“You need to download a specific app, to be able to write in a txt file with the i Phone, these issues should have been solved before the classwork and not during the classwork.😤😤

3. (after few minutes)Teach😱😱😱!!! I don’t know what happened, I  did NOTHING, whatever I wrote has just disappeared!!!😱😥😇

“Have you saved you answers?”🤔

“NO, I haven’t.”😥😇

“Well, you’ve learnt something today, you’d better remember next time”.😤😤

4. Teach😱😱😱😱!!! I don’t know what happened, I saved the text , but I can’t find the file anywhere, it has vanished, evaporated, dissolved….😥😥😥

“Like magic, you mean?”😤🤔

😳

“How have you named your file?”🤔

“I have not”.😥

“Good. Well, you’ve learnt something today, you’d better remember next time”. 😑😤

Did anything change in the other classes? Absolutely not. Same issues, same drama, same confusion. Hence, lesson learned: you may even be born digital, but actually being so, well, that’s another story.