Let’s Make it Easy

Not long ago, while I was on a couch to the Dolomites, I was drawn in by a conversation between two sisters. As soon as the elder, who was I guess about twelve, caught a glimpse of the first snowy cliffs, she started to explain to her younger sister things like: how orogeny worked and why those mountains were so high. Since she wanted her to follow what she was saying, she tried to select her words carefully so as that even such a topic could sound appealing and be understood by a little girl of eight.Trust me, it was a formidable dissertation. The sign that she had been able not only to catch the girl’s attention – and mine – but also to involve her was that her feed-back was absolutely great: her little sister, in fact, kept on asking a lot  of questions which were actually quite pertinent. She was in. I couldn’t help but wonder if many of my much older students would have been able to reach that simple and effective clarity of thought, which is typical of those for whom studying means understanding rather than the dull repetition of something which has not gone beyond the level of dark matter yet.

I often mention this episode in class as an example of how I think students should approach studying, as, only when you are able to understand a topic to such an extent to make it accessible to anybody, particularly if that anybody is not that smart, you may say to have actually learnt it. That is why when I heard about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge I was absolutely fascinated. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual competition for students from all over the world, ages 13-18, which consists in submitting a 3 minute video that explains a challenging and important concept or theory in mathematics, life sciences, or physics in a very simple way.The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, therefore, Google, YouTube, Facebook .

The final prize, which consists in a scholarship of $ 250.000 for the winner,  $ 100.000 for the school he attends and  $ 50.000 for the teacher who has inspired the project of the student, is very appealing, for sure, but what I truly encompass is the message of the Breakthrough Challenge : pushing teenagers to use their creativity, technological ability and knowledge to make complexity simple in a new way or language is just amazing. So I started to wonder how I could have made the students of my school take part in the Breakthrough challenge, considering that there would have been a major difficulty for them, that is, the language, as they are Italian. At this point my beloved husband Mr Run came to my aid and decided to put aside his running shoes and turn himself into Mr Webmaster to create a brand new website for our own parallel competition, which we called “Make it Easy Challenge”)with the aim of selecting the contestants, very likely the first Italian contestants, for the Breakthrough.

The next step was to convince the students to join the challenge, and this, trust me, was the difficult part. The admirable colleague, who has supported me in this new project, and I had tried, at first, to captivate them showing the prospects they could have: being the first Italians to take part in the challenge or even, why not, winning the scholarship and go to Los Angels and so on. They seemed genuinely attracted by the idea, but, they eventually kept on hesitating. Something had to be done, so we resolved upon using the most effective weapon teachers and parents have in their hands: threat. Magically about 100 videos came out of the blue and I can proudly say, some of them are very good. Afterwards, the  videos have been watched and voted by the same students who had made them and the 25 chosen will be judged by the other students of my school, hoping that they will join next year edition, and a panel of Maths, Physics and Life Sciences teachers. The winners will the celebrated at the end of this month. So one thing I can say for sure: Mark Zuckerberg, watch this : www.makeiteasychallenge.it! We are coming!

On the necessity of private lessons

fed2I  have a nephew, beloved nephew, who is the sheer example of the generation of the teenagers of these times. His life mostly focuses on football, both as main topic of conversation and activity as he is a full-time footballer, shoes, some girls and of course, social media. He is very “social” indeed, in fact, you can find him on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Ask and I don’t know what else. He enjoys a constant symbiosis with his smart phone, from which he doesn’t wish to be separated for more than few minutes as he feels the world that matters is there. Unfortunately there is a parallel world that every now and then knocks on his door in a less alluring form, a nightmare in fact: his school report.

fed1So, when  last year, Federico, this is his name, brought his first term report card, his parents were shocked to learn that only physical education stood out among the poorness of his grades. In order to avoid the ghost of a possible failure, an army of teachers was recruited and I was selected among them. I was really happy to help. We decided that Federico could come to meet me  only on Saturday afternoon, as he had already planned all the lessons with the other teachers and there were still the three-time a week football training sessions and the Sunday match to take into consideration, of course.

I made all my best to make of that afternoon a very pleasant time. I wanted him to be happy to come and he was, actually. I often made him come for lunch, my husband is an excellent cook, or if he couldn’t, he always found a tray with cakes or pastries waiting for him. Sometimes after the lessons, we even brought him to a shopping centre to buy him something as a reward, you know, we wanted to thank him for keeping us company on Saturday afternoons, when you have really nothing better to do. fed3

The first lesson always seems  a success. Always. The student displays a certain interest and praises you for your passion, clarity which go far beyond what the teacher does at school. Always. For a while you are flattered and your self-esteem dramatically increases till the next session arrives. We had studied the Tudors, the Act of Supremacy etc., so when I checked what Federico had understood, I had some random facts and a lot of nonsense back. Just to give you an example, it took a few minutes to convince him that Henry VII couldn’t be but the father of Henry VIII, as seven comes first. He was surprised.

Then I remembered. I remembered me a long time before, while I was taking Latin private lessons, when I was at high school. I hated Latin, I just couldn’t see the point why I should study Latin, which I regarded only a dead, useless language.Those hours bored me to death: “Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi…” , that nightmarish lullaby still echoes in my mind. I learnt only what I needed to pull through and soon after I forgot everything. Strange indeed, when I went to university I chose to study German as a foreign language and well, even if the grammar, the structures resembled so much those of Latin, it didn’t find it so detestable after all, but rather did love it. I loved it so much that I started to take into consideration the studying of Latin again. So one day I found myself searching my old Latin grammar book, which I had safely placed in a remote corner of the shelf. It wasn’t that bad after all. fed4

At the end of school year Federico succeeded in filling his gaps in the majority of the subjects (English included, in case you want to know) , but he had to give Maths and Physics in the September session of exams, which he passed. However, his mother had noticed that when it was almost the end of the school year, Federico seemed to have made some progress in both Maths and Physics, despite she had decided not to waste her money in further lessons. Well, once alone and without anybody to support him, he had naturally started to organize his work, and his grades had actually improved, not enough to pass the year sparing the exams in September, but there were good sign of amelioration and for free.

Private lessons are hardly ever useful. Parents must understand that their children learn a lot from their mistakes, particularly if they are let alone to face them. They learn to be responsible for their actions and autonomous. Remember, their failure is not your failure and everything may turn into a great chance of growing. Let them grow. Therefore, you may imagine my reaction, when a mother, at a parent teacher conference, displaying a certain apprehension, wanted to have my opinion about some private lessons for his son, who had not manifested any real problem till then. I smiled. I took her hands and warmly said: “Go shopping!” She was speechless and I added: ” Get the money you wanted to spend on these lessons, buy yourself something nice and have fun!” She thanked me, the last time I saw her.

Should teachers friend their students on facebook?

facebook-hacking-1040cs051612Certainly Facebook has altered the meaning of the word “friendship”. Once your friends were the few selected in time, rather than the many, very often little less than complete strangers, that appear on a Facebook page. If perceived success depends on the number of happy faces that you can boast as friends, well I am out, because to me it seems all so cold, impersonal and superficial. My students have tried to explain to me all the potentialities of this tool, but I am not easily convinced. Some of them, I admit, had really good points. One in particular made me ponder, as he professed that thanks to Facebook I could contact again the friends I have lost track of in time, school mates for example. Hmmmm, I mused, maybe I faltered for a while, but then I promptly recovered and said that if I had lost touch with them, there should have been good reasons after all; you know, for me friends are still the few selected ones and those I don’t see any longer, maybe just didn’t pass the test :). Furthermore I don’t like being tied to the past.

facebbokHowever, I have a Facebook account: with a fake name, of course. Few months ago I wanted to go and see some pics on a on-line newspaper, but I wasn’t allowed, unless I had a Facebook account. Ok, why not, I said? I created one with my mother’s name and somebody else’s surname to preserve my anonymity. I have to admit, apart from having access to pictures, it was fun after all. I started to work a little on it in my spare time. I made an avatar of myself, loaded some pictures, shared posts I liked, but it was only when some of my closest friends and colleagues made the great mistake to friend me, that I really understood the real potentiality of the tool: intelligence. Reading the comments and scrolling the lists of friends I could know who knew who, the degree of intimacy, things in common etc……For example, before talking behind somebody’s back, you can make sure that the person you are talking with is not his/her intimate or if you like somebody and you have the occasion to talk to him/her, you may check the list the things, books, movies he/she likes and start a conversation. From this point of view Facebook is genius.

Big-BrotherI couldn’t refrain from checking some of my students’ pages as well, and one day I jokingly told them to pay attention to what they wrote as “big sister teach” was actually reading them. They tried to find the account, but I knew I was perfectly safe behind my anonymity. I was just teasing. But one day, there is always one day, I just couldn’t really resist from commenting something written by one of my colleagues that BANG, found out, and after a few secs I received my first friend request. From a student.

I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even tempted, because I don’t think that students and teachers should be friend, even on Facebook. We can have a friendly attitude but we cannot be friends. In this age of confusion, roles have to be clear. On Facebook the line of what is appropriate in a teacher-student relationship is often blurred and therefore dangerous. I guess it is very difficult to be yourself over Facebook and keep the respect of students at the same time. Of course social networks are extremely helpful for both students and teachers, I can’t deny this, but on a personal level, it isn’t acceptable for them to socially interact.