The Sisyphean method

The last runner in a relay is the one who takes on him a great deal of responsabilities about the success or failure of a race. No matter how good or bad his mates have been; when he catches the baton, he knows that it is his face that the everybody will remember, when he  eventually crosses the line. It might be a moment of glory, of course, but of  bitter disappointment too, as he has not been able to give his contribution to take the team to success. This truth concerns not only relays or sport in general, but also many episodes of our lives. Whenever we find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of being the “last runners”, we are often ovewhelmed by the weight of the new responsabilities and tasks, which we do not completely feel as our own. That’s why I always try not to find myself in this position, but this year, as I haven’t been smart enough to avoid the dart, here I am, holding a baton.

I actually have “inherited ” a class, a bunch of nice people, in truth, but I have to say that after a couple of months I feel like a “last runner”, who has not started to run the last part of the relay yet. I am just holding a baton at moment going nowhere. The point is that apparently  the great majority of these students, average age 17, seems to have learnt one, only one, I swear, learning method: Sisyphus’s method. In case you don’t know, Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades for his general trickery, by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit. This for eternity.

So, the “Sisyphean way” consists in making the effort of studying and forgetting the second after a test or an activity has been accomplished. Hence, the next time they need those rules or concepts to understand another topic, they start afresh, and on and on and on. In this “rolling up” process, apparently, the thought of developing and risking another learning strategy has not crossed their minds yet. The greatest danger of  this method, in my opinion, is: boredom. Even if Camus imagined Sisyphus smiling and happy too, while pushing up the stone, as he assumed he had accepted the punishment assigned to him, I am sure he was bored to death, as nobody is able to love any subject in this state of frustration.

Of course, they delude themselves remarking that the “hill” is too high, the “stone” too heavy or that they have not properly been trained in “stone rolling” and that is why they are so fatigued and would like somebody to share the effort with (parents, teachers, private tutoring). The fact is they don’t realize that, while Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to repeat the action for eternity, they are free, they can choose how to roll up the stone and even how to prevent it from rolling down again. They could break the stone in smaller pieces, for example, or try to flatten the top of the hill or even find a simpler path. Of course, in all those other activities they would find a teacher ready to help them, because that means they are struggling to find a way, their way. At end of this new effort, I am sure they would be even surprised to find out that they could like, after all, “rolling stones” and it is also fun.

Party Time!

I’ve always thought that video making could be a very effective tool in teaching, in particular in teaching a language. It can help any student to break the ice, to get used to the impact you have, when you shift to a language which is not your own. Being able to say, even a few words, before a camera, cannot but build one’s confidence and teach anybody to fsce their natural shyness. My greatest obstacle had always been, actually, to find a group of student daring enough to do it. Maybe I was a step ahead of my times, as, when I started prosoping this kind of effort, the reaction I received was always the same: ” You must be jocking“? I was not, but looking at those incredulous eyes, I didn’t feel like exposing those adolescents and the insecurities of their age on a video, so I did nothing. For a while.

But time goes by. The new generations are now used to watching and being watched, posting their photos, videos or stories on social media, but I realized that times had actually changed, when the answer to my usual proposition turned eventually into a: “Why not?” Since then, it has been easier and easier to involve students, who have learnt to use their favourite means of communication even for school activities, giving way to their bondless creativity and skill. At this time of the school year, when our lazy summer days and beaches are in sight, ( or at least we hope so, as we have had a “springless” spring so far), I usually organize a big school party to celebrate the achievements of the students and on this occasion we also enjoy watching their videos and award the best productions. Since they have become so many in time, we have found more convenient to build trailers with some parts of the movies made by each class, thus avoiding any risk of boredom and having the maximum of fun.

After so many years I am still amazed at the genuine creativity of students, that is why I wanted to share with you this year’s trailers, so that you may give a look at them, if you wish. Let’s start with the youngest. They are about 15 years old and I guess they shot about 30 videos about literature, grammar teaching and even some commercials:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/2A_2019.mov

The next are about one year older and they made free interpretations of Shakesperian tragedies and ballads, this year’s Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene was particularly effective and the best actor awarded played the role of Juliet wearing a flashy pink wig :

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/3A_2019.mov

This other group of students, who are about 17, 18 years old, filmed many versions of Darcy’s proposal from Pride and Prejudice and the beginning of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some of them are second only to the Iron Maiden’s interpretation in matter of creativity:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/4A_2019.mov

And this was the movie that ended the ceremony which included them all:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/2019_you_teach_finale.mov

I know, it is the proud teacher who is writing this and very likely looks at them with the eyes of love, but how could I feel otherwise?

That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

That sacred Closet when you sweep —
Entitled “Memory” —
Select a reverential Broom —
And do it silently.

‘Twill be a Labor of surprise —
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probability —

August the Dust of that Domain —
Unchallenged — let it lie —
You cannot supersede itself
But it can silence you — (Emily Dickinson)

Every year, on the 27th of January the world observes the Holocaust Memorial Day. On that day we are called to remember how far can the folly and cruelty of man can go. We must remember; and teach our children that the privilege of being born in such a long time of peace and wealth, at least in this part of the hemisphere, is not for granted, it may not last forever as those dangers are always behind the corner. Peace must be defended by any attack ignorance and arrogance may launch.

Some students from a school in Palermo saw those dangers and on the occasion of the Holocaust Memorial day last January, they decided to put their thoughts in short video made of a few slides. The above poem by Emily Dickinson with its warnings was the elegant introduction to their work, just to say that they had actually swept that “sacred locket” with the utmost care and that in that “domain of dust” they had perceived the semblance of the same ghosts of the past still roaming in the present. Of course, they wore different clothes, their manners could seem more agreeable or even affable sometimes, but there they were. Hence, they proceeded comparing the Italian racial Laws of 1938 step by step, that is, those laws which restricted the civil rights of the Jews, to the first Security Decree of the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini of 2018, which regulated the rights and protection of the immigrants in our country with the conclusion that they had similar traits. It wasn’t actually even a very original work, as a popular Italian magazine, “L’Espresso”, had already extensively compared the two measures a couple of months before. Nevertheless, this demonstrated that those students were at least well informed and displayed an uncommon poetical taste.

That article had no consequences of any kind, there is still freedom of expression as far as I know, but things didn’t work the same for what concerns those students in Palermo or better, their teacher: Rosa Maria Dell’Aria. The latter, in fact has been recently put off her job for two weeks. She was considered guilty of  having allowed her students to express their free point of view rather than censor it and require a disciplinary measure against them. Don’t rub your eyes, you’ ve read it right, she was requested to censor her students’ thoughts, thus ignoring the Statute of  Students, which in paragraph 4 of article 4 states very clearly that “in no case the free expression of opinions correctly manifested and not detrimental to the personality of others can be sanctioned, neither directly nor indirectly,  ” and in case somebody forgot:”The life of the school community is based on the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, on the mutual respect of all the people who compose it, whatever their age and condition, in the repudiation of any ideological, social barrier”. The video was clearly a free expression of opinions just like the article and the cover of the “L’ Espresso”. Hence, the teacher was punished for complying with the Students’ Statute and acting correctly.

What I find really alarming is the presence of the DIGOS (the police department dealing with political security) in a school of teenagers in Palermo. Does that mean that if a student expresses an opinion that the government dislikes, the police department that deals with political crimes or terrorism is allowed to intervene? So, am I to expect to find the police in my classroom if somebody says, that the second Security Decree, for instance, which should be approved tomorrow, goes openly against human rights, as everybody says, because it means at stopping immigration sanctioning those who go to the rescue of the immigrants at sea with fines between 3500 and 5500 euros for each migrant transported, thus condemning to death those who will try anyhow to leave their countries looking for a better future. This is but an intimidation. An attack on the freedom of students and teachers. An attack on the free and democratic school and teachers cannot be found divided or distracted this time.

At end of the video, those student asked a question: what is the point of celebrating the Holocaust Memorial Day, if we seem to forget everything, making the same errors of the past? But, they had an answer and a good one, in my opinion: commitment. Remembering is the key that should make us feel like committing ourselves more, learning from the errors of the past to create a better future, because if we choose only to be the spectators of life, we may not enjoy the show sooner or later and then it might be too late to change channel.

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro’s Accomplishments

“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.)”

Only one hundred years ago the admission to culture for a woman was not for granted. Virginia Woolf herself had received a different education from her brothers who were sent to prestigious colleges, while her sisters and she were mostly home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. After all, nobody expected a woman at those times to become a scientist, run a company or simply be freed from patriarchical conventions to achieve her own independence. The famous passage from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about the definition of an “accomplished woman” still fitted somehow the idea of what a woman should be like:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” (Pride and Prejudice)

In short, a pretty monkey to be exhibited in society whose accomplishments aimed at attracting a man and make him eventually her husband. Yet, there had been women in the past for whom education had meant more than playing an instrument and embroidering a cushion and had struggled for their share of learning.  Actually, if we want to find the first graduated woman in the world, we have to go far back in time to the seventeenth century and, oh my god, in Italy. She was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

Born in Venice in 1646 , she was the fifth of seven children. Her father, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, was an ambitious and intelligent nobleman who was not afraid of going against the flow. He had chosen, in fact, to marry a woman much below his station, Zanetta Giovanna Boni, thus defying the gossipy and exclusive Venetian society. Such an unconventional father will have a fundamental influence on the girl.

Elena was only 10, when she understood how strong her passion for intellectual study was. At those times, when women were only allowed to choose between matrimony and the nunnery, Elena embarked on a new, solitary and in a way scandalous path. Elena showed a surprising ease in learning and her father could not ignore it, therefore, she received tutoring in Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music. But that was not enough. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, so that her command of languages brought the title Oraculum Septilingue. Yet, Elena’s greatest love was philosophy and in particular that forbidden land  – for a woman –  which was theology. Therefore, in 1672 Elena’s father sent her bright girl to the distinguished University of Padua, which was one of the main and most celebrated universities in the world, but tied to ecclesiastical power.

Even if she knew that women were not allowed to achieve a degree in theology at those times, she really didn’t care much about it. She just wanted to continue her learning, but it was her father who wanted the world to recognize and celebrate his daughter’s incredible knowledge and insisted on her getting the deserved degree. So, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree, but her application met the resistance of Gregorio Barbarigo, bishop of Padua, whose authorization, as Registrar of the University, was binding.  He refused the idea of conferring the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman, an act that, he believed, would have made them look ridiculous at the eyes of the world. Elena insisted again, but this time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead.

A woman with a university degree became soon common talk, so the day of Elena Piscopia’s examination there were so many spectators that rather than being held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received the Doctorate of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua. At age thirty-two she was the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree. In addition, she also received the Doctor’s Ring, the Teacher’s Ermine cape, and the Poet’s Laurel Crown.

Being a woman, however, she was not allowed to teach at university, yet, she became an esteemed member of various academies throughout Europe, and received visits from scholars from all parts of the world. Elena enjoyed debating, giving lectures in theology, and composing music. After successfully receiving her degree Elena Piscopia devoted her life to charity.  She will die in Padua on July 26, 1684.

Two more centuries will have to pass before women can enter universities. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia has been the first who initiated a long and very slow process of inclusion of women in the world of culture, demonstrating that intelligence and brilliance do not have gender.

 

 

On Beaters, Wooden Spoons, Belts and More….

More and more often I come across posts praising those instruments of torture which have characterized our childhood and early adolescence at least. I myself have clear memories of having experienced the entire set above and even more, as my mother – a woman half my size, who was in charge of my corporal punishments – used to throw on me whatever she found at hand, if she couldn’t have any of the above educational tools with her. I can still see the heavy, Murano glass ashtray flying towards me. She just missed me an inch that time.

The comments to those posts or pictures shared on fb are the most interesting part, as almost all of them detect a new phenomenology which is spreading among the parents of today who, actually, were the beaten children of yesterday. Those tools of awe, in fact, seem to have become in their memories sorts of magic wands in the hand of enlightened educators, who were our parents. The words are mostly  of comprehension and warm gratitude, even with a touch of melancholy.

 Now, I understand that time alters the impressions that events leave on our mind – or skin – so that we remove the worst part of it, but I would like to ask a question to all those nostalgic admirers of past and stricter systems of education:  if you do believe they worked, that somehow they helped you find the right way or become stronger,  if it is so, well, what prevents you from using them? I’ m not suggesting that your wooden spoon should become again your educational totem, it wouldn’t work and you would look like nuts, besides, there are a lot of laws to protect your children in case of injuries inflicted and THEY know it well.

The point is that today’s parents seem to be at a loss. I remember a comedian, who effectively summed up their psychological state saying that they have been the first generation to have been slapped both by their own parents and their children too. This is not far from the truth, actually, but why has it happened? What have they done to deserve such a treatment? Modern parenting has given up the idea of punishment as educational instrument in favour of a milder approach, the “let’s be friends approach” and this is very likely the core of the problem, as this orientation – and here is the observer/teacher speaking – has generated lots of confusion so far.

Educators, whether they be parents or teachers, cannot be friends of those they mean to educate. We can be friendly and listen, encourage and help, of course, but we can’t be friends, because our role naturally prevents us from being so. I know that many of you may object to this point and are ready to tell me the hours you usually spend talking with your children with – you believe – great satisfaction and success. Sorry, but  I’m afraid you are deluding yourselves. There is a line between us, a line that we adults for many reasons often pretend not to see, but it is always very visible to them. Can students be truly friend of a teacher, that is, someone who eventually judges and grades them? And for what concerns parents, do you believe that your children forget, while you are endeavouring to talk to them choosing the kindest and most loving words, that you are the one from whom depends their chance of having a new smart phone, money, Playstation etc.? That’s the line.

Trying to be friend to avoid a generational, educational conflict is a great mistake, as that conflict has always been important for the definition of characters. Growing also means to question or fight those figures whose task is to guide and teach. It has always been so. And you know what? They’ll admire your firmness , eventually – not so soon, I admit – , just like we ended up thinking our parents like heroes, forgetting the effect of the weapons the used to be so on us. They were not afraid of their role. We should do the same, unarmed, of course.

Mrs Tink Did Not Win The Big Apple

We are going to New York. This is what my husband Mr Run texted me about three months ago. Why? When? I thought. It sounded all so strange, as we had never talked about it before and he is not the kind of man of sudden decisions, unless he has got everything under control. In fact, the text ended with a link. Ah, there it was. Again. It was a link to a brand new contest named “Italian Teacher Award” organized by Model United Nations and one of the major Italian newspapers: La Repubblica. One of my colleagues had already sent me that link a week before and I had promptly put it aside after a quick glance. It was about describing in a text of about three thousand  words characters one’s own educational project, or even more than one, afterwards, the projects of all the participants would have been examined by a Judging Commission, made up of personalities from the Italian culture and school, according to the parameters of didactic innovation, originality, impact on students, integration of disadvantaged students and repeatability. The chosen six would have won a didactic trip to New York.

Didactic trip to New York? It sounded like a sort of oxymoron to me. Didactic is not exactly the word that I usually associate to New York. The prize consisted in a tour of those schools which are renowned for fighting school drop-out, promoting integration among students or those which are active in terms of technological innovation. As for the accommodation, I had full board guaranteed in a SINGLE bedroom –so, WE I would have gone to New York. Now, let’s speak plainly, I belong to the Sex and the City generation! Had I been awarded with such a prize, I would have expected to enjoy whatever New York could offer in terms of trendy restaurants,clubs, shops  etc. and, as a winner of such a contest, to lodge at the Four Seasons. At least. Should I go New York to visit schools? It sounded more like a punishment than a real prize to me.Yet, how could I disappoint a husband for whom I am not a teacher, but THE teacher? So, I did take part to the contest, eventually, with the only aim of…. winning it. I am quite a competitive sort of person and I would have felt more than satisfied just winning it. But I did not.

I set to work and wrote a passionate text where I described my project, which was more or less a synthesis of some of the themes and episodes I have already dealt with in this blog. “What do you think about it? Can it work?” I asked Mr Run. After a while, he proudly replied: “Now there are just five prizes left…..only, it seems a bit too long!” “Too long? They said 3.000 words and I have not even reached 2.000” He was right. It should have been 3.000 characters long, spacing between characters and punctuations marks included. Certainly, describing an extensive and integrated project in 400 words rather than 2.000 and keeping the same effect, well, it is not such an easy task. After the resizing it sounded poorer – having, of course, the original in mind – so we decided to add an explanatory slide. As I couldn’t find a way to make it any better, I submitted the project and kept my finger crossed. It was November 30th 2018.

Tomorrow, January 14th 2019 the award ceremony will take place at Auditorium della Conciliazione in Rome  and we don’t even know when/if it starts and the names of the winners. Actually, the other 715 participants and I have understood to be among the losers, as nothing has been communicated to us so far. Nothing has appeared on the web page of the contest, which has been dead since December 7th, nor have we received an informative mail. I guess it shouldn’t have been that difficult – if we consider that we are talking about United Nations and La Repubblica – to write a mail, the same mail, to the other 716 teachers, kindly informing them on the result of the contest: “Thanks for joining in. Try again” would have been enough, if you really didn’t know what to write. We have not even been invited to the ceremony, but surfing the internet I have found an invitation card directed to the Italian association of principals, thanks to which I could be acquainted of the fact that everything will start at 5:00 p.m., while originally we were told that it was at 8:00 p.m.. As I live in Rome, had I decided to go the ball, like Cinderella, I wouldn’t have found anybody in.

Teachers matters, recited the contest notice, but as always, the devil is in the details. If we mattered, we would be treated with the respect we deserve. I prefer facts to empty words. Yet, who is to blame for all this? My husband, of course. That’s why I told him that I will never recover from such bitter disappointment till he takes me to New York himself. Next summer would do. In the meanwhile let me see, if I can book a room for two at the Four Seasons!

 

 

It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged

Never leave the old road for a new one, if you don’t want to take the risk of dealing with unexpected situations and this is a truth universally acknowledged for me. I’m writing this, as, few days ago I meant to introduce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in one of my (many) classes, but I felt like doing it in a different way this time. I wanted them to focus on the opening lines of the book, so I assigned the following homework: tell me which is a truth universally acknowledged for you in 200 words. Of course they didn’t know whom this line belonged to and I never mentioned the name Jane Austen. Just asking. The name would have been revealed only afterwards.

Of course, they were puzzled and attempted to understand what I was actually expecting. None of them was crossed by the thought that those words might belong to somebody and “google” them. I thought them smarter or maybe I was too good at hiding my purposes. By the way, after a little hesitation I started to receive answers. Some of them considered safe to produce the truths universally acknowledged of the world and the universe like:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the speed and position of a subatomic particle cannot be known. This concept can be found in the “Uncertainty Principle” of Heisenberg……”(Umberto P.)

Is it really so? I don’t know and I didn’t mean to check it. Another one attempted to give a scientific demonstration in his way:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a  50 cc scooter  is slower than a 125 cc  scooter…” (Vittorio F.)

Then all a sudden the answers took the form of universally acknowledged Italian truths, which mostly regarded pizza, pasta and family:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged  that when you cook carbonara pasta, a poor dish of the Roman tradition made with eggs, bacon, pecorino and pepper, you  ABSOLUTELY don’t need to add onions.” (Andrea R.)

Actually, there has always been a dispute on this point and I agreed with him, no onion in a good carbonara is required. Even with the following truth I agreed:

” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that pizza and pineapple cannot be a good match … Pineapple is a fruit and YOU CAN’T PUT FRUIT ON PIZZA!!!! . A good pineapple is sweet and juicy and I think that Italian people will never appreciate a taste like this.” (Flavio F.)
Fruit on a pizza is absolutely blasphemous, we do prefer mozzarella as topping. Ah, I’ve got one about it:
 
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that mozzarella cheese, should never be kept in a fridge….as the low temperature alters its flavor”. (Fabio D.B.)

Words of wisdom indeed. And what could be said about the following one?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you go to visit an Italian grandmother, you have to eat a lot. Even if you’re on a diet, you can’t leave that home without having swallowed whatever she has prepared for you. It has always been so and I think we all love it. When you arrive, as your grandmother opens the door,  you can smell all the food she has prepared for you. It seems impossible, but even if you tell her that you’ll go to visit her only two hours in advance, she will be able to cook for an army. It is a grandmother’s power. Many of us go to have lunch at her home on Sundays, others go to visit her rarely, but it doesn’t matter. What really counts is her happiness when she sees you and her special attention that only a grandmother is able to give. Moments like this are the ones that describe better the word “family”. Moments like this make our adolescence amazing. Family is the most important thing in our lives.” (Eleonora R.)
This was more or less the tenor of their answers, do you think they would annoy our dear Jane?