The Final Act

There was one Act more to be written to complete my midsummer tragicomedy, the final one, but I had to see things clearly before giving it a proper end and, amid the maze of distress of these first weeks, “clearly” was not a word I could use to describe any of my actions, which have been mostly fretful, clumsy, confused, accidental. But now, I can say I see all the pieces of the puzzle, particularly after a conference call, which has been vastly illuminating. Clouds are now gone. It was held by an eminent ex magistrate who is charge of safety rules in our school (RSPP) and the exciting theme was: “culpa in vigilando” . The usage of Latin suggested that it couldn’t but be a very serious subject. Latin is the language of law, after all.

Act V
RSPP😒 : “As responsible of the protection and prevention service of your school, I am obliged to elucidate some points of the recent dispositions in matter of Covid -19, as from your behaviors, it doesn’t seem to me you are fully aware of your duties, despite the short vademecum of 97 pages of guidelines I gave you to read and memorize”.

One teacher😤: ” 97 pages cannot be considered actually short, it was almost the length of my university dissertation and with no pictures too. I guess a list of rules of one or two pages would have been more likely to be followed”.

RSPP 😑(calmly):”Ignorance is not admitted by the law. You are teachers, after all. What are 97 pages for you?

The same teacher😤: ” A lot, considering the load of things we have to do these days”.

RSPP:😑:” By the ways, you must be aware of the repercussions of your actions, and that’s why we are here. First of all, you MUST bear in mind that the Covid, according to article 42 of the decree-law 18/2020, is equated in all respects to an accident at workplace.”

Teachers (in religious silence) 😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳

RSPP 😏(smiling): “I see I have caught your attention. So, being principals in all respects your EMPLOYERS as stated by D.M. n.292/1996 (general startle) , they are responsible of the safety and health in the workplace as specified by the legislative decree n. 81/2008. This is the reason of the 97 page guidelines. If principals fail in risk assessing they may be charged of “culpa in organizzando” according to art.2043 of the Civil Code, but if YOU don’t observe those rules you may charged of “culpa in vigilando”,art. 2048/51 of the Civil Code (pauses).

Teachers (still in religious silence) 😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳

RSPP 😑(clears his throat): “Let’s be more clear: if a student falls ill with Covid in your school, he is considered as a WORKPLACE VICTIM and if it is demonstrated that it happened because of YOUR negligence, you’ll have to pay the consequences”

Teachers (in unison) “Us”?😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳

RSPP 😑(sternly): “Yes, you. So, we’d better recap the main rules. First, you MUST wear your masks. When the students arrive they will receive new masks to be worn”.

One teacher😒 (sarcastically): “This is ridiculous. Students are all assembled outside school in the morning and don’t wear masks, their parents don’t wear masks when they drive them here and at the end of the day they are assembled once again with no masks;  they quickly take them off, as soon as they walk through the school gate. But if one of them gets ill, I might be blamed. Excellent”.

RSPP😏(with visible satisfaction): “I may agree with you, but this is the law and we are not here to discuss the law. Once the students are in classroom, they must sit where indicated, and they can take off their masks, but you must always control they are seated properly”.

Teachers ( in the Meet chat, as he doesn’t want to be interrupted):” What do you mean by “seated” properly?”😳😳

RSPP 😒(a little annoyed):  “They must keep the upright position and cannot turn, otherwise, they must wear the mask. If you walk along the class, they must put on their masks as you pass by,  if you call one of them to the blackboard, you and those sitting in the first row must put on your masks”.

Teacher (in the Meet chat): “If I have understood well, while one student is at the blackboard, I should control that the others are seated still, like statues?😳

RSPP😑: “Yes”

Same teacher😤 (mike on) :” Do you think it possible? So, any time Jacopo X., for example who has never been still in five years and in his entire life, I suppose, turns his head and, heaven forbid, gets ill, it is my fault, is it correct?

RSPP 😏(visibly satisfied): ” Exactly”. “And you MUST not forget to write on your register those who ask to go the bathroom and those who, for any reason, walk into the classroom, pricipal included.

Another Teacher 😤(takes the floor): ” Excuse me, but that would be hard to follow, if we were all in class, but it is not so. You should not forget that we have also other students on-line to follow. Students who have their needs, often connection problems. How can I guarantee, that Jacopo, as to mention one, does not turn, while somebody at home requires my attention or walks in? How can I demonstrate, I haven’t been neglectful?

RSPP😑: “This is the law. I cannot add anything more”.

Another Teacher😤 (takes the floor): “Let’s recap. Every day I welcome my students and check they have their masks on, once seated  with one eye I control they are still, while with the other I try to connect with the students at home, if everything goes right, if…….,  I make the roll call, always making sure they are still and I have to record any movement in the class. Considering that those at home are allowed to disconnect fifteen minutes before the end of the lesson, when am I allowed to teach, actually? What am I supposed to do exactly? The guardian? The babysitter? This is madness”.

RSPP😏 (nonchalantly): “And, you MUST not forget to sanitize the desk, the chair and the computer you have used. You’ll be alble to find the products in the drawer “.

Teachers (speechless) 😶😶😶😶😶😶😶😶😶😶😶😶😶

Teacher 😂(writes a comment on WhatsApp chat):” How often have I told you, that one day we would have eneded up cleaning the rooms and the toilets of the school? Well, that moment has come!”😭

Learning exeunt.

 

 

 

 

An Ordinary Day

I’m no technician, this is for sure, and I have never had the smallest inclination for plugs and wires; as far as I am concerned what happens before pushing the power botton is a mystery.

So the morning of September 15 at 8:00 a.m., when I stepped into my class, ready to tackle for the first time the abyss of what is here called “integrated didactic”, that is the new emergency educational strategy to “safely” re-open school with half class at school, while the other one is connected at home, you may imagine my distress, when I saw that there was no computer connected on my desk, but only a key hanging from the locker as to hint:”do it yourself“. 

Myself? Oh, my! With no Mr Run around, I am lost in these matters, plus I had to solve the problem quickly, as the students would have arrived in few minutes. I opened the locker and I found a tangled maze of wires, a sort of nest where the computer cozily rested. I stood there, watching that puzzle from a while, when I heard a boy say : “Hi Teach, do you want me to help you?” But for the distancing rules, I would have hugged him with gratitude: “Yes, please! ” And he quickly set to work, as I tried to memorize exactly what he was doing, because I had a feeling I would have had to reproduce those movements again and again. Fortunately, he ended right before his mates came in, and so it started that first nightmarish schoolday, a sort of madness that has become my daily routine.

Once the connection was established with those at home and after having done the call roll, I welcomed them all with the usual words (It was 8:15):

Me 😄:Good morning everybody, I hope you enjoyed your holidays, despite the restrictions of covid rules……I know this year will he weird, but I am sure………..bla bla bla.

Giuseppe at Home and the others 😩😩😩(waving trying to catch my attention ): “I can’t hear you”!

Me 😐(faking a certain familiarity with the matter using Meet chat): “Giuseppe, you should check your connection and sound options or…….”

Giuseppe at Home (politely ): “Teach, could you please check YOUR mike?”

Me 😳(blushing): “ My mike? Oh, you are right! It is off! (trying to hide my discomfort) 😊Now, can you hear me?

All at Home :“Yeeessssss”

Me 🤗(with a sigh of relief): “Splendid, splendid! So, what a start! Well, we will begin this year with a quick revision of some grammar rules, even to check if what we did during on-line learning did actually work. So let’s start with the usage of the Simple Past. I hope you remember that the Simple Past is used to….. ( taking a piece of chalk and  slowly moving to the blackboard, but with a corner on my eyes I see all the faces on the screen waving again and making indinstict noises. Voices come and go), what is the matter?😩

Students in class (everybody buzzing, while Andrea says) : “I think they can’t hear you”!

Me😤: Again! (to those at home) “Can you hear me?”

Elena at Home😔: “Only if you speak close to the computer’s mike. When you move I can’t hear you. Actually, your voice sounds more like a whisper even when you are closer”.

Me🤔: “All right. What time is it? 8:35 already! Let me think, 🤔what if I use my headphones? (Taking the headphones out of my bag ) This must be the audio jack…so ….where is the audio port? Here. Let’s try……. the pink goes with the pink… 🤔( meanwhile the students in class watch me amused, how they love to see me in trouble, for once). Done, can you hear me ?😕

Students at home: (everybody but one) “Yessss. (Beatrice shakes her head)

Me: “What is the matter Beatrice?”😩

Beatrice: “I can only hear an echo”💁

Me: ” If all the others can hear me, I can’t help you.😒 There must be something wrong with  your computer. Try and read my labial while I speak, I am sorry. What time is it? 8:45! So…….(speaking close to the screen so that Beatrice can see and writing in the Meet chat at the same time). In English there are regular and irregular verbs, to go, for example……oh, wait a minute! What’s going on?😭😭(Beatrice, Roberto, Maria, Sofia are leaving the meeting while the others’ images are still………3….2..1….all disconnected).

Students in class: “They have just written in our chat that they can’t manage to get back in again!”

Me😥: (visibly uneasy) “Tell them😥…tell them😥…..what time is it ? 8:55. Tell them, I’ll write what they have to do on the register” (the bell rings, I leave the classroom fretfully).

Students in class🙋‍♂️🙋🏼 (warmly): ” See you tomorrow Teach!”

Me:😄 “Oh, yes, see you tomorrow !” (maybe they had some doubts about it after such an exploit and definitely they must have felt pity for me. Definitely)

 

 

 

 

Escape

I still remember a question one of my teachers asked us on our first day of high school:
“What’s the use of studying?” “Who can answer this question?”
We were puzzled and stayed silent for a while; nobody actually dared to utter those words of truth but not exactly of wisdom we had in mind, that  is, we had never thought about it, we were there because we had no other choice. He was waiting.  Someone eventually attempted to give some vague answers like : “to have a job“,  “to be better people” etc., but he wasn’t satisfied at all and kept shaking his head. When none of us could come up with fresh ideas, he said with a smile at last: “to escape from prison“. We looked at each other in amazement.

Ignorance is a prison”, he added , “because inside that prison you don’t understand and consequently you don’t know how to act. In these  5 years we have to organize the biggest escape of the century. It won’t be easy. Remember, they want you to be dummies, but if you climb over the wall of ignorance, then you will understand without asking for help and you won’t be deceived easily. You will be free. Who wants to join in?”

This episode came up to my mind when I read that only one adolescent in twenty fully understands a text. And I think of the other 19, who struggle to escape the prison and risk to be sentenced to be ignorant for life. A democratic country must save them, above all because it is right, but also to avoid the greatest risk : weak minds demand “the strong man ” to guide them.

(free adaptation of an article from Corriere della Sera)

A Midsummer Comedy

September 14th: back to school. So close! Too close! Yet, we don’t have a clue about how the new school year will start. Of course, I understand that everything depends on the trend of data and I don’t want to preach about what ought to be done, because I really don’t know and I respect whoever holds such an office as Minister of Education these days, this said, I think it is worth telling what has happened in these two past months, just to get the picture to what degree of confusion and dismay we’ll tackle our going back to work. It may sounds like a comedy but it is more like a tragedy and one act is yet to be written, the most important one.

Act I

The Minister of Education and her advisers have summoned 20 teachers, each as representative of one Italian region, to inform them of her decisions about the start of the new school year.

Minister of Education (smiling with satisfaction 😏): “As we have to keep distanced according to our guidelines, I order that from now on there will be no more crowded classes. 15 students each class top. This is my wish. I am happy to say that this is the dawn of a new era for schooling in Italy.”😑

Teachers (with deference): “Splendid! It was about time! We all rejoice with this resolution Madam, but, if it has been so decided, I am sure you have considered  that at least 200.000 teachers are to be hired plus, doing the Math, we need twice as many classrooms”.

Minister of Education: “How dare you mistrust your Minister, you dummies! Of course, I have thought about the spaces required (haven’t I 🤔?)! There is no need to build new schools: there are cinemas, theatres, B&Bs and much more that can be of use in this emergency. You, for example, you!

Teacher (😳):” Me?”

Minister of Education: “Yes, you? Where do you teach?”

Teacher (😳😥) : Casalpalocco… near Ostia Lido… Rome.

Minister of Education (triumphantly): “You see? You are the perfect example!!

Teacher (😳): “Me?” “How so?”

Minister of Education: “Yes! There are plenty of suitable sites where you work: apart from the splendid beaches, which can be utilised from September to early November and, if the season is fine, from March to June, you have the fortune of being close to the Roman site of Ostia Antica.” 

Teacher (😰):” I wouldn’t call 10 km close, Madam, but even if this were an option, how  could we get there? There are about 1.300 students in my school. Do you mean that 650 of them should be sorted among cinemas, beaches, B&Bs, theatres and Ostia Antica Roman site?”

Minister of Education (smiling): “Clever, isn’t? And after two weeks they will rotate with the other half!!”

Teacher(😤): ” I beg you pardon, but I, for example, teach in 6 different courses, so do you actually mean that in a day I could bounce from school, to the cinema, to the theatre, to the B&B, to the beach and eventually end at Ostia Antica to meet my students? Did I get it right?”

Minister of Education (😡): “Are You telling me, that you don’t wish to help your country and make sacrifices in such desperate times?”

Teacher (😢): “Of course I am not, Madam, but I was wondering, what about December, January and February in my case? And what about those who live in places where they are not so fortunate in sites or weather? Any tips?”

Adviser : (whispering)” May I suggest to take some time and think about new solutions, Madam ?”

Minister of Education ( quite annoyed): “As I see you don’t wish to oblige me, you are all dismissed for now. You will be summoned, you as soon as I can break something new to you.

All teachers exeunt

 Act II

A week has passed and the Minister has summoned another meeting.

Minister of Education: I am proud to announce that in only a week we have found the proper solution. The school year will start and we will be able to satisfy all the safety protocols and the wishes of those who selfishly seem to care only about their needs (glancing  at the teacher who had spoken the week before). I decided to divide each class in two halves and while one half remains in class the other one will follow the lessons at home. Well, what do you have to say now?”

(The teachers confabulate for a while till one takes the floor😟 )Teacher: ” Hem! Splendid! We all rejoice with this resolution Madam, but, if it has been so decided, I am sure you have considered that since the quantities of the data flow uploading will enormously increase with this option, the IT connection of thousands of schools will have to be enhanced, so…..there is a chance that we may not be ready.”

Minister of Education (😤) : ” Again! ” ” Of course, I’ve thought about the general situation of IT connection in schools ( 🤔haven’t I ?), by the way, ( she hesitates), as representatives of the school community, how many of you would be or will be ready by September? 

 6 Teachers (in unison) : ” We would “!

Minister of Education ( 😳) :” Six!!” ” Six out of twenty?” ” And what do the others have to say ?”

Teacher (😟): “I am glad to hear that some of my collegues may boast such effective connections, in my case I can only say that despite our numerous requests, we have received no funds yet, we have also been waiting for the making of 10 classrooms for three years, but still in vain”,

Minister of Education (very annoyed). “Who is speaking?” ” Ah, it is still you from Ostia Antica,…..”

Teacher (😩) “Casalpalocco”

Minister of Education : “Whatever”!😡

Adviser ( whispering): ” As you can see Madam, those who declare to be ready come mostly from the North of the country. Large investiments will be required for the South in particular and, if I may (passes a letter), a note has just arrived: the State Council has given an adverse opinion about the matter. May I suggest to take some more time and think about new solutions, Madam?”

Minister of Education (muttering): ” It seems the the State Council has nothing to do but meddling with school matters these days”. (to the teachers): ” You are all dismissed for now. You will be summoned, you as soon as I can break something new to you.

All teachers exeunt

Act III

It is almost the end of July and the Minister has just summoned another meeting.

Minister of Education (visibly satisfied)😃: “ I am very proud to annouce that we have reached a final and definite plan. As one meter distance has to be guaranteed, I have disposed to buy one and a half million brand new one-seater desks with wheels (general startle😳😳😳), which will replace those old two-seater desks at the cost of 325 Euros each. Hence, never say again that this Ministry doesn’t invest on education. We do. I do”

(The teachers confabulate in agitation, till one takes the floor😟 )Teacher: ” Hem! Splendid! We all rejoice with this resolution Madam, but, if it has been so decided, I am sure you have considered that those desks are quite….. cramped. We are all aware these kind of desks are largely used in other countries, but they have different systems of education, they use tablets and test through multiple choice. We don’t. We still have books and use dictionaries to translate from Latin or Greek and to write compositions, let alone the wheels………”

Minister of Education (now infuriated, interrupts the teacher 😡). “I have had Enough!” “The point is that you live in the Middle Age, YOU are the Middle Age. You don’t want to update you teaching methods, you have made a crusade agaist the use of technology and on-line learning, you despise any novelty! It’s about time you renew your strategies and make them more suitable for the new generations. The mind of our students is not a funnel to be filled but a fire to be lit”😑

Teachers (all together😕😳): ” A funnel !” “You mean, a vase!”

Minister of Education (out of her senses 😡😡) : ” You have not come here to impart ME a lesson!” “If I said a funnel, it is a funnel!” “Check Wikipedia and you’ll see” (somebody laughs😆 ). “Who dares? I am sure, it is always you from Ostia Antica!”

Teacher : “But, I didn’t say a word!” 🤐”By the ways, Casalpalocco”.

Minister of Education (shouting): ” Whatever!”😡

(A teacher attempts to say something after a few minutes of silence) Teacher (gently): “It is not a bad idea after all, Madam, the wheels…..a more lively ….. why not? But, may we ask to be informed if the desks can be sent by September 14th, so that we may arrange things in our schools?

Minister of Education (to her advisors): “What do you answer to this?”

Advisor (clumsily🙄) : “They will arrive, of course, in due time”.

Teachers : “And when is it ?”

Advisor (whispering to the Minister) : ” May I suggest to take some more time so that we may check this matter about the desks, Madam?”

Minister of Education (to her advisor😩) :” I can’t believe it, we don’t know when they are ready!” (addressing the teachers) “You are all dismissed for now. I’ll call you as soon as I can break something new to you”.

All teachers exeunt

Act IV (a short one)

It is August and the Minister has summoned another meeting.

Minister of Education: ” You will all wear masks at school”. “That is all”.😑

All teachers exeunt 😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳

Act V

September……….💪💪💪

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Online Teacher

I know that it is common belief that in these desperate times of pandemic outbreak, teachers are those lucky ones who stay at home – it has been almost 5 weeks – paid to do nothing, but redecorating the house, baking soft bread, delicious cakes and biscuits all day, with the only concern about what to make for dinner, soon after lunch is over. Long days passed watching all the series Netflix, Prime, Sky can offer and, of course, reading, surfing the net here and there and, it cannot be forgotten, a few necessary gym sessions, as I suspect all those calories will deposit somewhere I don’t wish to very soon. In short: a paradise. Well, if you are one of them, I feel like reassuring you, as nothing of the kind has happened since March 5th: there is no paradise, but rather, a hell.

At first it was like a whisper: “online learning“. The effect was that a breeze, which, however, being that soft leaves you unperturbed.  So, it was easy to pretend to ignore the meaning of that gentle hint for a while; after all, how long were we supposed to stay at home ? Two weeks, top. But two weeks have become a month soon, one month two and now the most likely perspective is that we will go back to school in September, maybe, according to safety protocols. Back to normal won’t be soon; back to school, in a real classroom with walls and 25/30 students in plus the teacher won’t be soon.  Hence, in one fell swoop, that delicate whisper quickly turned into a nightmarish trumpet blast: “ON-LINE LEARNING”!!!!

Just like in any sudden reawakening, fears and anguish overwhelm you, before you can  focus and get in control of the situation. So, having soon discovered that online learning didn’t actually mean sending a few links, homework and a “I hope you are fine” note, we found ourselves facing the inevitable: the screen. Our presence in the life of our students was required either on air or with recorded lessons, and this was really an undiscovered country for us all. The unknown may thrill or frighten, depends on our dispositions, however, it was clear that that foreign land could not be avoided forever.

So, we all began to move our timid steps in “online learning land” watching tutorials about learning platforms, video platforms like  Zoom, Cisco WebEx, Meet, Google classroom, Edmodo, just to mention the most popular here, till we picked the most performing ones. Then, it was the time to plan when and what to do, scheduling the timing of our video lessons with colleagues and students. Hence, to be more efficient and quick, I found myself having 6 WhatsApp groups with my collegues and six with my students. I know, I wrote several times against sharing whatsApp groups with students, but I couldn’t do otherwise and trust me, in these emergency moments, they are extremely useful. Of course, I have no more privacy. You may imagine any time our principal sends a new directive, what hell that happens in my phone.

When everything is set, what remains is one big question: what kind of lesson could I give? And when you start to figure the possible choices at hand, it becomes clear that the old learning material is no longer useful and has to be transformed into something new and more effective on a screen, as powerpoints, for example. Could anybody watch only my face and keep following me, while I am talking about “the Waste Land”  without the help of images or patterns? Impossible. Therefore, before going on air, lessons have to be carefully planned, and I’ll leave to your imagination the amount of work and hours that this job has required and will require.

Was I a little uneasy my first time on the video? Yes. Was I a kind of clumsy ? A lot. Was it a memorable lesson? Nope ( not even the lessons which followed). Do I enjoy my online classes? Very much. And do you know why? Because, I actually feel a certain thrill, just like an explorer who sees new interesting scenarios opening day after day. I believe that these months’ forced experience will eventually project education to another dimension: the future. Of course, online learning cannot fully replace the original model of school, but it can become complementary and make schooling more dynamic. There is always some good even in the worst moments.

 

 

 

A Certain Something

Teaching is a profession of a peculiar kind. It is not only about the transmigration of data from one mind to another, but rather about educating new generations, moulding personalities, thus giving them the basis for future opportunities. If this is the delicate goal to be achieved, upon which criteria teachers ought to be selected? 

Here in Italy, for example, it is enough to have a university degree and pass a competitive  exam, where mostly the knowledge of the subject you mean to teach is tested. Then, after a probation year, during which apparently your teaching skills should be carefully verified, but practically nobody cares  – unless one day you screw everything up and yield to the impulse of strangling Pietro, who has kept annoying you for an entire semester, thus clearly demonstrating your inaptitude – you become a licensed teacher at last. But is this selecting procedure adequate?

Best education, best grades, don’t necessarily make you the the best of teachers, and even training courses, refresh courses, developing courses are of no use, unless you possess that something which truly makes a teacher, which is  a natural disposition you’ve been born with and that cannot be apprehended on books. Somebody might object that this could be the same for any job, but, of course,  I disagree. If you don’t search that sense of gratification that you achieve when you arouse the pleasure of understanding in others’ minds and if you cannot communicate your passion and the genuine intent to involve them, teaching will make you miserable for the rest of your life.The necessary effort of understanding those minds means being aware of the fact that, as students grow you must grow with them, thus accepting to re-invent yourself, your style, update your  language and ready to put aside what once was useful, as generations change and quickly. All this should not be felt as frustrating, as it often happens, but rather, challenging. But still, it is not on books that you learn it.

Teachers should be above all charming people, let’s use a more trendy word: sort of “influencers” and this is incontrovertible to me. Enchanters, mentors and leaders at the same time with the great ambition of making students enjoy what they learn rather than just do it. I dislike those pages on the web run by the same  teachers, where we are mostly described as ill treated, underpaid miserable bunch of people, in a form of a joke. I don’t mean they are telling lies, of course, a lot ought to be done and spent on education, but reinforcing the common idea that teachers are losers doesn’t make really any sense as nobody wishes to emulate a loser. We should set the example, but a successful one. 

We won’ t be considered more just saying we wish to be so, we must act, create another story telling, which is the truth for most of us actually, that is : even if there is neither big money or success, teaching is a privilege and a great one. And when we are attacked on our few prerogatives like, for example, having two months of holidays every year, rather than feeling guilty and be on the defensive, acting like losers in the effort of explaining how much time we spend on extra work, grading, burnout danger and so on, take my example and reply : ” I am sorry, but you are wrong, I have THREE months of holidays and even more, since our mayor has taken the habit of closing schools, when it is likely to rain!” This kind of explanation allows me also to kill two birds with one stone, as it could be for many a very good reason to choose another mayor next time; after all being a little subtle constitutes an essential part of being a teacher.

Hence, if you keep complaining and truly believe that what I have said so far is not required or essential, trust me, choose another profession,  if you don’t want to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life; if you feel underestimated, please change, you are still in time ; if you are hungry for money and success, go away, especially if you are young, the school is not the right place for you, if you are looking for popularity, why choosing the classroom as stage, when there is the vastness of the web; if you have all or only some of these ambitions and you still want to be teacher, your working life will be like hell.

So long the selection procedures of teachers will be focused mostly on knowledge rather than personality or attitudes, so long you believe that attending training courses may be a remedy to deficiencies in character, thus making a good teacher, I am afraid, you’ll only have a teacher. Schooling needs new life blood that only strongly motivated, passionate, brave educators can give, but those ingredients can’t be found on books, but in their hearts.

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.