In Our Own Flesh

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

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

despite the new technologies, the school was not  fully prepared

to change the teaching system…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

1300s: I’m dying from the Black Plague

1800s: I’m 9 & work in a coal mine

1900s: I’m off to fight in a war

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

Hysteria and Farce

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Wrong with Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it worked on the computer!”😥😩

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

“An i Phone.”😥

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

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

“Have you saved you answers?”🤔

“NO, I haven’t.”😥😇

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

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

“Like magic, you mean?”😤🤔

😳

“How have you named your file?”🤔

“I have not”.😥

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

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

 

Nervous Breakdown

It’s  been  only 3 months  since the beginning of school and I have the impression of having lived at least seven lives. I’ve become old, all of a sudden. Whatever I do, whatever I have been asked to do, turns out to be eventually pointless, useless, frustrating. I feel like a caterpillar which is, despite all its efforts, unable to turn into a butterfly. Yes, I feel like a caterpillar, but I remember I was a butterfly once.

If you are not a teacher, I’m sure you would think I’m being dramatic, but I am otherwise sure that the teachers from all over the world, ALL of them, will understand perfectly how I feel. What turns my hopelessness into anger is what I read daily about Government resolutions regarding school opening  after Christmas holidays: no ideas, no plans, everything left to chance, but one thing  they have clearly in mind: we MUST go back to school anyhow.

Of course, when you spent 3 billion euros in one seater  desks, as the only real strategy to tackle this pandemic season, we MUST go back to school, I understand . That is why, with the intent of pursuing this chimera, despite negative figures, spreading infection rate, despite what common sense would suggest, we have been obliged to experiment teaching  in any condition. If you don’t believe me, give a look at this list.

DIDACTIC ESPERIMENTS DURING THREE MONTHS OF PANDEMIC:

  • ALL STUDENTS IN. (done) It lasted two weeks. Then we started to notice that teachers and students were going missing as they were put in quarantine. We noticed it; nobody told us. Eventually, I was one of them.
  • ONE CLASS IN THE GYM(done) Since we were running out of classrooms any space had to be used. Being that big, the sound effect is that of a church, with echoes mostly. No problem if you have a stentorian voice. I haven’t.
  • TWO CLASSES IN THE GYM. (done) Some super smart colleague thought clever to use the mike, while the teacher with no stentorian voice was doing all she could to be heard. Blood ran at the end the hour.
  • TWO CLASSES IN THE LECTURE HALL.(done) Just like in the gym , but with no echo and no lesson actually. Try to imagine about 30 kids who are supposed to follow the English class, while other 30 are following the Math class. Blood very likely to run at the end of the hour.
  • OPEN AIR CLASS.(done) A very romantic option. 30 kids under the school portico, with the soundtrack of the barwoman who makes cappuccinos and coffees – God bless her – while pigeons discharge their excrements on desks and floor, if not on kids or teachers.
  • 50% IN AND 50% REMOTE. (done) Most of the time spent on: Can you hear me? Can you see me? While half of the class watches you amused.
  • 25% IN AND 75% REMOTE. (done) Never reached the 25%, as those who were supposed to stay in class knew that they would have been  the privileged target of teachers’ “attentions”.
  • 100% REMOTE FROM HOME. (done) Paradise. How strange that such a despised option in the past might become absolute perfection in the present.
  • 100% REMOTE FROM SCHOOL. (done) But if any student, for any reason, cannot follow lessons from home, can demand to stay at school and so his teachers are, as a matter of fact, banned from paradise, to stay with him. We might also call this option 100% but one.

YET TO BE EXPERIMENTED AFTER CHRISTMAS:

  • WORKING ON SATURDAYS AND SUNDAYS. No comment.
  • STAGGERED ENTRANCES. Which means starting from 8 in the morning and ending at 8 in the evening.
  • SCHOOL YEAR ENDS IN JULY. I know all those maintaining that teachers  enjoy  long holidays would welcome this option with screams of joy, after all we would look after their children till July, how couldn’t we teachers sympathize with them?

Does it sound like a joke? I’m afraid, it is not.

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.