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 was about 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 homework to tell me which was a truth universally acknowledged for them in 200 words. Of course they didn’t know to whom this line belonged 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 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 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.
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 A 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, your grandmother opens the door and 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 before, she’s 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 dear Jane would be annoyed by them?

 

 

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Few Tips that Will Make any Teacher Happier and More Relaxed

The web is flooded with pages of teachers who keep on complaining about how badly our category of workers is considered. We have lost our prestige, wages are low, we have become the favourite targets of scorn of both parents and their children, in a word: losers – with a university degree – . Let me tell you my dear friends and colleagues, that this is what we are, because this is the way we behave. In the desperate effort of gaining back the consideration we imagine to deserve, we have accepted to condescend to any form of compromise and customization of our profession. We try to be what they want us to be, with the only result of becoming all a sort of Monsieur Malaussène, that is, the scapegoat of any situation. Look at the above picture well; we don’t have to please them and beg for their approbation, we don’t need their compliments and gratitude, it’s our job, and once you have no expectations of this kind, you will be free to do as you please, according to the plans and targets the school and yourselves have decided at the beginning of the school year, of course. So, first of all, let’s close all those pages where we picture ourselves (we do it, pure masochism), as a bunch of beggars always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We are teachers. We are Gods.

Hence, as I promised, I am going to give you, some tips which have made my life as a teacher happy and relaxed so far. First of all, knock on the door of your principal’s door as little as possible. Whatever your reasons might be for asking personal admittance, unless it is strictly necessary, refrain from doing so. Very likely you would like to make the principal acquainted with your problems and this is exactly what school managers don’t want to hear about: problems and in particular your problems. Theirs are enough. They want solutions. It would be a very good thing, for example, if your principal forgot about you existence. Think how many things you could do, if you were an unseen presence in the school.

Excuse me, you are?”
“Mrs Tink!”
“Oh, yes! Of course.”

Another moment of great frustration in a teacher’s life is the P/T conference. We expect this day to inform in particular those parents whose children have manifested some difficulties and find solutions together. It seems all for the good, but it is not. The point is that,once again, we come with a load of problems they, actually, don’t want to hear about. First of all, because they already know them, even if they pretend not to and also because, in way, we judge them through their children’s effort and behaviour. They feel uneasy about it and I can understand it. So, every time a parent like Mrs Mother of Riccardo comes to talk to me, her attitude will be like the one who is just preparing herself for an ultimate duel. The air of someone who has just a little time to dedicate me and that inevitable scowl on her face. Now, if I attack her, making the list of my complains, she will defend herself and her son, thus the meeting will turn into something useless and disappointing for both. But if I start with some positive remarks, and if there aren’t any, conceive one, trust me, a harmless, sweet lie, just like this one:

“Well, you know, Mrs Mother of Riccardo, your son is……..very nice and…….I like him very much”.

You’ll see soon her face brightening and that scowl disappear in a second. In the following minutes you’ll be able to tell her whatever you like about her son. She will accept it with a smile.

One paragraph cannot but be dedicated to our relationship with students. Please stop to befriend them on Facebook, Instagram or text them on Whatsapp. They are not  your friends, you may have a friendly attitude with them, of course, but they can’t be your friends and you know why? You grade them. They see that invisible line between you and them and whenever you feel like ignoring it, encouraged by their seeming cordial attitude, and decide to cross that line, you will become their object of scorn in their secret pages, where the access is denied to you. You may befriend them one day, if you do wish it, when they leave school.

As philosopher Umberto Galimberti says:

“If a student  becomes are a friend of yours, you no longer have any authority on him. And what about the teachers who go to have a pizza with their students: are you kidding? I have taught for 51 years, I have never gone out for a pizza with students. Because if you are God and eat pizza, you are no longer God! God is famous because no one has ever seen him!If you are there at the table with them you are one of them! That’s enough! It’s over, your authority is dead! How can you go the following day to your class, after having spent the night talking nonsense at a table with a piece of pizza in your mouth. You cannot anymore!”

I want to be God, what about you?

 

 

 

 

 

The Patience of a Fisherman

Subiaco is a charming little town on the top of a hill. The perfect place to go if you want to escape the noise and the confusion ( and the dirt) of such a big city like Rome and feel like living in the contemplation of those beautiful surroundings for a while. There is a rich, flourishing nature and amazing views, which make it fit for walks; you can also enjoy a visit  to the spectacular Abbeys of Santa Scolastica and St Benedict. It sounds like heaven, I know, but that heaven has always been the bugbear of any substitute teacher living in Rome and in its surroundings. Being very distant from the capital, it means you need to move there and live in that sort of holy hermitage for a year. And it snows heavily in winter. Apart from the distance, the point is that I am a sea creature, accustomed to the warmth of the sun and immensity of the sea, how could I have endured an entire year alone on the top of a hill, surrounded by snow?

A call came to my aid. I was offered a one year contract in a school nearby. It wasn’t exactly kind of school I was used to teaching, but one whose majority of students is not fully aware about what they ought to do and why. Literature was not of much use there, apparently. By the way, I had escaped Subiaco.The afternoon I came back after my first school day is still impressed in my mind. I went straight to my bedroom, I laid on my bed staring at ceiling wondering: ” What shall I do ?” “An entire year like this?”  I had bartered the exquisite, holy permanence in Subiaco with the chaotic, undisciplined noise of that school. I did deserve to rot in that hell. What would I do? I have to say that in that period I felt a sort of a Roman Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds” and just like her I needed time to be familiar the overall situation and understand the primary law of teaching : never count on the support of principals.

In a school there is always a boss among students, a leader who is respected, intimidating and very popular and that student was in one my classes, let’s call him Riccardo. I guess Riccardo must have been 15 then, a plumpy boy with lots of earrings and spiky hair. He always looked at me with his black, defying eyes and often made me the target of his mockery. Of course, every time he did something annoying ( let’s say 5 times in two days if I was lucky), I wrote a disciplinary note on the school register and proudly took him to the principal, who happened to be a former English teacher. The last time I took him there, she scolded him once again and sent him back to his class. I was about to follow him, but she made me a sign to stop. When the door was closed, she said: ” Do you mean to fill the entire register with your disciplinary notes, Miss Tink?”

Since that day I knew I could not count on the principal’s support, and having learnt that disciplinary notes are a sign of weakness rather than of strength, I thought: had I made Riccardo respect me, I would have gained the respect of all the others. Maybe flattery could have worked.I started to talk to him in a more friendly way and tell him about all the marvels and the importance of learning English. I told him how his life would have changed, he would have found a good job and travelled; he could have seen the world and escape his harsh reality, he could have been, why not, a steward ( after a good diet, of course), Fiumicino airport is very close from where we live and……as I kept telling him this sort of things, he kept on looking at me with his interrogative eyes and put an end to that flood of nonsensical words with this statement: “But, Miss Tink, I will never leave Ostia!” Ostia! I was prospecting him a grand future, I was offering him the world and he had said he would have never left Ostia, as if his real world began and ended in Ostia – an area of Rome – ; he couldn’t even think of Rome or Italy. Humbled and defeated,I understood that if I wanted to survive that school year, I could only rely on my imagination, breaking the schemes, just like Michelle had done.

So, one day I came up with the idea of dividing the class into two groups, or better in two teams and give them the glorious names of universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, for example. I appointed a team leader for each group, and told them that every grade, every activity would have been turned into points to be added day after day. At the end of the school year, there would have been a big party to celebrate the winning team and the best students with cups, medals, diplomas. As soon as I turned myself into a teacher referee, I realised I had gained an immense power. Everybody wants to win and once you accept to be part of a team you are no longer responsible for yourself, but for the team as well, that was my trap. If you miss one test, for example, your team will score less and that might be decisive for the final defeat. Therefore, I soon noticed that nobody skipped tests any longer, but above all everybody wanted to take part in the competitions/tests I did every day. They could be the heroes of the day. Effort had turned into fun.

Riccardo had become a burden for his team and had lost much of his influence over his mates. He wanted to have their attention back, of course, but unfortunately (for him) by means of the most unheroic deeds. One day, for example, while their mates were working on negatives and questions, he decided to zip up his parka so that his head could not be seen and yelled: “It’s hot in here!”  Noboby said a word or attempted to laugh for fear of having points deducted. It was my triumph, but I wasn’t satisfied.

One day Riccardo arrived a little late. Before he could reach his seat, I attempted to set the bait one more time and said: “Riccardo, come here. If you can write the conjugation of “to have” on the blackboard, I’ll give you……..20 points”. It was a very generous offer for that challenge and he knew it. He took the piece of chalk, advanced to the blackboard and gazed it for a while. Nobody said a word. There was a solemn stillness in the air. It took him almost five minutes to write it down and every time he seemed to be on the point of doing wrong, I could feel the tension among his mates. He did it; eventually.The entire class burst into a loud applause. He was moved, happy, stronger in a more positive way this time.

Riccardo failed in all the subjects that year, all, but English. Today, when I think about those episodes, I cannot but thank him for having inadvertently contributed in making that school year was one of the most memorable of my entire career.

Is There a Future for Teaching?

April September is the cruellest month. It smells of sirocco, which with its warm breath and threatening clouds confounds the bright serenity of summer days thus foreshadowing the coming of autumn. There are still a few good days to be enjoyed of course, few, but they have the bitter taste of the awareness that something is just about to end. I guess this is the sort of melancholy which affects those who, like me, live by the sea, love the sound of the waves and looking out at the horizon. We are accustomed to live outdoor so many months of the years that home seems like a prison when September comes.

April Sempember is the cruellest month. In such a miserable state of mind the month begins with its most terrible mortal blow: teaching staff meetings. I believe that any teacher in any part of the world would agree with me if I say that the most salutary effect of summer vacations is: forgetfulness. Only few weeks and you realize that you have almost forgotten everything: papers, passwords, the inevitable conflicts you had in the past.  I am sure that two or three colleagues of mine must have given me reasons to get on my nerves last year, but actually, I can’t remember why at the moment and so I just say hello to them with a smile. That’s why before the first teaching staff meeting there is always a certain cheerfulness and excitement in the air, we are all tanned, friendly, light-hearted. Before.

April September is the cruellest month.The reading of the agenda of the meeting has the immediate effect of quickly awakening minds from the summer slumber and in that very moment illusory forgetfulness gives its way to memory and harsh reality. From the list of the issues to be discussed, school appeared to be a cautious bureaucratic system with no real identity or goal different from satisfying the wishes of families, who have actually become our customers and we know that customers must always be satisfied. So, if we don’t want to lose ground in the competition with other schools, we have learnt in time to dedicate a lot of our efforts in creating and customizing learning products, with the hope our customers might find them appealing, we have become travel agents, project makers, data analysts, advisors and what more! Is this what we wanted to be when we started?

April September is the cruellest month. After at least two hours of an endless discussion on school trips, on which destinations even the closest stations to go, hadn’t been all of us fully in such process of metamorphosis into somebody/thing we don’t know yet, had we had a shred of dignity left, we should have stood up and say, what has it all to do with me? And quit the assembly then. My friends, teaching once was a sort of romantic, generous job. Teachers were those who had the task of transmitting knowledge or better the curiosity of knowledge to generations. They made the difference, but now, if the nature of the activities we are involved into are often so very far from teaching, is it still so? In a time when information can be easily got on the web, if teachers no longer make the difference, why should society need them?

There are already apps with avatar trainers who teach how to work your glutes, abs, Pilates, Yoga, cooking etc. , I’m sure very soon they will be programmed to teach Latin, Math, History with customized lessons and looks as well. It seems that one of them has already been tested. His name is Will. So, my dear friends, if we accept to give up making the difference not only September will be the cruellest month, but also October and November and all the months of the years as the teaching system, as it is now, will have no reason to exist.

 

 

Wilfrido or On the Necessity of Education

Some years ago, my husband and I had the great opportunity of joining 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 might receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people, if this makes sense. 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, because we hadn’t been given 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 pic, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort of excitement. We began to imagine how many things we might have done for him, as providing him with a high school education and even more if he proved to be talented, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, actually, the boy didn’t really look like the student type. His eyes were so lively and that pinafore he was forced in could barely discipline his free spirit. Maybe I was wrong.

I was not. Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered, but the following years went much better. He only needed a bit more time to get used to that pinafore. When he learnt to write he began to send his own letters. He always thanked us, of course, but he particularly enjoyed telling about his life and his family. He said that it took seven miles to reach his school from where he lived, which he did on foot or on horseback when his father allowed him. He also added that he liked studying after all, but I did not believe him very much on that point, it was a sweet lie full of gratitude.

One day, Wilfrido and his family left the village never to come back again and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed, I felt I could have done something more for him, as if I had not been able to fulfill my task. Few years later I would have seen the whole experience from another angle. I  was in Costa Rica and I needed some directions. One boy offered to write down the address for me. He picked a pen and slowly 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 and even if we were a little annoyed at first, somehow we felt we didn’t have to hurry him. Eventually, he handed me the note. His handwriting was incredibly neat and elegant and when I met his eyes I could clearly sees a sparkle, I saw his satisfaction, pride and dignity. He might be one of the many Wifrido that people the world. Maybe I had done something good after all.

In a week time I will be back to school and I needed to tell this story to remind myself in such distressing, absurd times why I teach, because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I can see that sparkle in the eyes of one my students.

Copy,Edit,Paste.

We were very different from the students we teach, it is a matter of fact, but pray, when I say different I don’t mean better, just different. Making an effort to understand that assumption is, my opinion, essential, if we do aim at being of any help to the generations we are supposed to form. This epiphany came across my mind after the sixth school board meeting few weeks ago and after hearing for the sixth time in a row the same things: teachers complaining that their students are not able to develop any learning strategy different from memorizing useless notions which are usually soon forgotten and students complaining on the amount of homework and above all on the fact that they don’t understand what we actually want, that we should feel satisfied and praise them for the (pointless) effort they produce. At the end of these meeting each party goes home fully convinced to be on the right side of the question and the next day everything starts afresh.

Since I would like to try and work on bridging this gap between we teachers and our students, I will focus on what I consider the two most striking generational differences on which to ponder and a humble suggestion in the end. So, difference number one is: parents’ behaviour. Really, I do not understand. Whenever I have to attend P/T conferences, there is one common issue: since teachers give too much homework, parents feel somehow compelled to help their children do their homework  – if we are lucky – or they do it in their place. I’m wondering, this must be the reason why I didn’t have children, as, if after a day at work, you have to cook or look after the house and family and besides, there are your children’s homework waiting for you, well, it is hell. The parents of my generation never thought about doing our homework, for many reasons, but first of all because it was our duty and responsibility, however, they did check whether we had done what had been assigned, I can assure you and I have vivid memories about it and….bruises.

The second difference, of course, concerns the media. Being digital natives means not only that you have grown up online spending a lot of time on various social media, but also that you have developed the attitude of getting to information very fast and superficially at the same time. Messages must be simple, short, catchy  and whatever requires thought, pondered analysis is pushed aside as “démodé”. If this is the scenario, is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Learning proficiently is like making your own fix net of information and the new generations should actually have the effective digital native attitude, rather than the old Sisyphus one. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades 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, and this is exactly the 3 step learning strategy of most of my students have developed: study/memorize,forget,start afresh. That is why they always assume it is too much homework, because they keep on studying the same things they had forgotten, which, however, keep on surfacing even when they deal with apparently different topics.

The correct approach when you study is: copy, edit, paste. An example: if it took an entire hour to study 3 pages about the Magna Carta, I said study, not memorize, when you deal with the Petition of Rights, you’ll have just to copy the concept, edit it with the new protagonists and paste it. It will take 45 minutes this time. Furthemore, if your history teacher wishes to assign you homework on the English civil war, you already know the basic events and you’ll have just to do a little editing, hence 15/30 minutes will be enough to accomplish your task. If you studied the characteristics of English Romanticism and studied some poems, it should be quite natural to find the same issues when you study the Italian poet Leopardi, for example. In this way boredom and a great waste of time would be avoided. Homework is not your enemy, as all the time you spend on training in one of the sports you practice is not your enemy if you have goals. Working pointlessly and with no passion, that is your enemy.

 

 

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.