Category Archives: parenting

The Paradox of Choice

‘Mummy, I feel like I am on that wheel at the park in Grosseto. If I run up one side, it’s England and if I run up the other side, it’s Italy. I don’t know which way to go.’

P.’s articulation of this equivocal state captured perfectly our own feelings. November marks the start of the final weeks of packing up before we move back to England.

P. is torn, as we all are, by the paradox of choice that brought us here initially. We created it for ourselves in choosing to step out of who we were and push on the boundaries that we create for ourselves in life. On one side stands England and for H. and P., returning will doubtless bring some relief as they pull on the garbs of familiarity in their daily life: the walk to school, friendships which will be negotiated in mother tongue, the comfort of being close to family, of the consistency of having Tom around regularly, of not having to say goodbye to him on his London weeks.

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Dam building and wild water in Italy

On the other side stands Italy, the spirit of adventure which brought us here and which has defined our time on the Amiata. An experience in Italy that has pushed our boundaries, as individuals and as a family. Italy that has, paradoxically within its restrictive and potentially infuriating bureaucracy, afforded us extraordinary freedom in countless ways. The paradoxical confusion of P.’s feelings are played out for all of us in our emotions and in our existence here.

Teetering on the poignant cusp between Italy and England I feel this paradox acutely in what this year has offered the children. In leaving England, we left a school system that I felt strangled the very children it was supposed to teach. Despite the best intentions of many teachers who can see the pitfalls of the curriculum, the driving force of English schooling strait-jackets children into rote learning and tests, conforming them out of creativity. We plucked them out of that, held hands and leapt into the dark, in truth knowing very little about what it would be like here. Not knowing and, initially, not understanding, was, on reflection, extraordinarily liberating not only for me, as an educational professional and as a mother, but also for the children. School in our first year in Italy became about the language, and understanding what was going on, rather than about tests, testing, keeping up or racing ahead, in whatever way those featured within the tiny school the children attended. To be within an education system only temporarily affords a very different and potentially liberating perspective.

The unfolding of the school year ran in parallel with our increasing understanding of Italian. With the flowering of language came the understanding that this is an education system that is utterly broken, albeit in very different ways from that in the UK. Information with which I suppose I could have armed myself easily before we came, had I chosen to research. There must have been an instinctive self-correction there: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and too much knowledge would almost certainly have compromised our decision to move here. So we left one education system that, in focusing solely on measuring, testing and results, is losing its way and risks disenfranchising from learning a vast swathe of the next generation, to a system that is beyond ripe for reform both administratively and inside the classroom.

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Outdoor learning at Poggio d’Oro

As with almost all things Italian, however, for every broken system, incomprehensible law, unfathomable decision, there is another way, a ‘giro’ or a ‘soluzione Italiana’ if it can be found. The circumvention to those regulations which are less palatable, coupled with an innovation which is actually key to the Italian mindset, are two qualities which meant it was possible for my Italian friend and I to set up our alternative school here in Italy. Thus it is, that, despite the trials of last school year, H. and P. are now enjoying three months in a school that is overwhelmingly joyful. We came from a schooling system that struggled to maintain creativity despite the system, through a state run school here that nominally aspired to teach differently, but was strangled regularly by the bureaucracy for which Italy is renowned, to reach this brief, beautiful, halcyon period. Three months of school that feels wholesome, alive and joyous. Poggio d’Oro (literally, ‘knoll of gold’) does feel golden. Perhaps particularly golden in the poignancy of this moment, as we stand once more on the cusp of change. This golden hillock is giving children their childhood. Freeing them to learn in ways which excite, energise and inspire them.

As I walk up to school for our regular afternoon meeting, I hear the children’s games. One day they have found treasure, beautiful coloured stones and they are deciding as a close knit team of children, where to keep their precious booty. Another day they come running over to tell us that they have found out where the chickens have been laying their eggs, they’ve collected eight and put them inside to be shared out. One afternoon they are tasting the juice they pressed from grapes when they learned about wine making with a local producer – excitedly they tell me it has started to ferment naturally – they are making wine!

On other occasions a friend brings them back from school. They tumble in the door, generally grubby from a day which at some point has been spent outside gathering autumn’s bounty or starting to build their wooden base house or down in the cantina making a town from clay ready to light up at Christmas. Their faces are shiny with excitement – they have made me crotcheted necklaces, they need to buy screws and nails so that they can carry on constructing their base, they made soap out of olive oil and pressed flower leaves in. They are learning songs for Christmas and they had a go at a new martial art. Tomorrow is their beloved Feda who teaches them music. Only two more days til woodwork on Friday.

Capture these moments. Imprint them. Hold them close and fast. The clock ticks and I want to make this a reality in England too. The paradox of choice.

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How P. Will Beat the Captain and His Hired Sportsmen*

I am forced to do exactly what I’ve been harping on about for all these years.  The force is self induced: the choice to put myself in this situation was taken entirely freely.

I am being made to consider what it really means to say that in England, children learn too much, too young and my guinea pig is P.

For years I’ve struggled with an education system which brings children in at the age of four and pretty quickly subjects them to tests, from the faintly annoying to the utterly absurd.**

For years I have thought it at best risible that there can be 364 days difference in the ages of children who are arbitrarily put into a class based on their age on 1 September from which point they are measured against one another, regardless of well-intentioned teachers’ attempts to the contrary.

 

So, on a blind wing of faith, we came to Italy, a bizarre conflation of the ridiculous (a clunking, archaic state system) to the sublime  (pockets of progress, change and innovation such as Reggio Emilia). We chose Italy thinking that we would be liberated from the shackles of the English system and we would worry about inevitable adversities later.

It would have been virtually impossible to appreciate fully, until we lived it, quite how comprehensively Italy would throw P. into a radical ‘slowing down’ of his formal education. Thus  last September, when his English peers were sitting at desks, heads down, P found himself ‘back’ in materna, ‘only’ dealing with the challenge of learning a new language, in a system which is adamant that children should not learn formally until the age of six.

It means that P. is, to all intents and purposes a year ‘behind’.

He is a year ‘behind’ where he would be, or would have been forced to be, had we been subject to the English education system. He is a year ‘behind’ the parameters, standards, deadlines and requirements of a system obsessed with measurable standards. So P. hasn’t been forced to read and write so called number sentences, interpreting ‘mathematical statements involving addition, subtraction and equals signs’, he hasn’t been forced to sit down on a chair, at a table, to ‘describe position, direction and movements’, or ‘count in multiples of two, fives and tens’.

He hasn’t been made to write stories according to requirements to inform, describe, imagine, explain or whatever arbitrary writing objective has been chosen that day or week. He doesn’t have an assessment number or letter marked beside his name. He hasn’t sat down to toil over English language incongruities that could confound the mind of a boy who would rather consider the nautical purpose of the buoys he sees floating on the sea than concern himself with the illogical spelling exemplified in this sentence.

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Instead, out of school, in the long holidays and in weekends which we have reclaimed as ours, P. has climbed rocks at the rate of a mountain goat, explored rivers, built dams alone or with friends, working collaboratively or independently, he’s found some little mission and worked out how to solve it.

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He’s wondered over the changes wrought by nature through the seasons. In doing so he has – unbeknownst to him, started to play with Heraclitus’ philosophy of continual flux – wondering if it is possible to stand in the same river twice. He has wondered how the sea can be salty when the rivers are not when the rivers flow into the sea. He wonders if lightening is sharp and what exactly is air?

He has dug the earth disturbed only by the constant singing of the cicadas in the trees above him. He has, he believes, communed with deer and eagles who have befriended him, his imagination always alert to the possibility that the former could have eaten from his hand or the latter might have landed on the bench next to him. Coping with the loss of our own cat while experiencing killing of animals in the tradition of the ‘caccia’ as hunters circled the hills around us, we have talked about reincarnation. Teetering on the edge of high sensitivities, we have wondered about the potential of other lives and of what the idea of an afterlife means…

He has watched the stars at night, marvelling when he identified Mars above us and wondering what it means to be part of the solar system; he has interrogated what the idea of a black hole means: how could this world we know ever end if the star on which we rely burns out. He has tried to align his growing understanding of science with his sense of faith – how can humans not exist, if our spirits live on after we die, Mummy? You said that Zephyr’s spirit lived on. You said that we would go to the same heaven. How can there not be a world if we carry on as spirits?

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He has set up experiments with ice and water and challenged me to make vinegar react with bicarbonate to make his jet boat go, modifying constantly his own experiments. He has moved from one compulsive obsession to another, wondering how the boat we take to Elba floats on the water and then constructing his own fleet of ferries from Lego when we come home, displaying them according first to design, then to size.

He has started to uncover ancient Rome and the empire, standing in the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins local to us, he has interrogated the joys of a superlative acoustic space. He has visited Venice, experiencing its mesmerising beauty. Choosing his mask he engaged with the notion of disguise and playing, admiring the exploitation of subterfuge when Venice was a bustling port to the rest of the world.

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So, no, P. cannot yet write number sentences, or chant his multiples of two, he doesn’t know that the books we read together have been defined by the powers that be to have a specific purpose – to entertain or inform, apparently (it always amuses me how mutually exclusive are these definitions of the purpose of writing).

No, he cannot perform these prescribed tasks, because he’s been too busy playing. He’s been too busy tinkering with Lego or moving rocks by the river. He hasn’t watched the clock tick slowly in a classroom, his bottom wriggling with pent up energy, because he’s been too immersed in exploring, creating and pushing his boundaries.

So now, I have to have the courage of my convictions. I have to believe whole- heartedly in the very instinct that brought me here. And that means to believe that it will all come good, that the application of ‘formal learning’ doesn’t have to be imposed – too much, too young. I have to walk the talk of Finland, albeit I am doing it against the grain of the system in which we will ultimately have to operate.  I have to resist comparison to his peers, whose parents are my friends, and not succumb to the competition to be measurable and measured that is insidiously eroding the true meaning and value of learning. I have to believe that now, ripe with curiosity and bursting with questions, he will be best placed to allow the ‘formal’ learning to slot into place and overlay this year of constant play. I have to have courage in my own conviction that his intrinsic love of discovery will carry him through.

*It’s a slightly elusive title if you aren’t familiar with Quentin Blake’s tale of Tom, who spends his day fooling around, tinkering and playing and never doing as he’s asked. His stern, authoritarian aunt despairs of him, but guess who comes out trumps?

** Take the Year 1 automaton, sorry, ‘reading’ test, which requires children to decode so-called “words” which don’t even exist.

Processes or progress?

Every time I think I have reached an understanding of quite how frustratingly convoluted this country is, I am confronted with yet more examples of the sublime and the ridiculous.

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You think you dread the queue at the post office in the UK? Think again. It took me 15 minutes to collect a parcel yesterday, and that was after I’d already queued for 10. Bear in mind that I have to collect everything – normal post included – from the Post Office because the Italian Postale refuses to recognise that our address exists. It should all be so straightforward:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter
Man reads name. Man gets parcel. Man gives me parcel. Exit stage left.

But instead it runs thus:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter.
Man takes paper.
Man looks at paper.
Man wonders what is written there, even though it has been written by a colleague at the Post Office.
Man takes three paces behind him to look at the two parcels left there.
Man examines paper and parcels.
Man seems unable to join dots up, so I help him out, asking to look at the parcel, which I am fairly sure is mine.
Man reluctant to accept help; reluctant to show parcel.
I try again, ‘Fammi vedere?’
This time he brings the parcel towards me, not too close, mind, it’s more of a waft, at several arms’ length… perhaps to show me the parcel properly might be to relinquish control.
I confirm it is mine.
Then we start the painful process of trying to scan the barcode.
I kid you not. He scanned it about 15 times.
Then he walked off.
With the parcel.
I saw him hand the parcel over to a colleague who disappeared with it.

Mamma mia – how difficult can this be? I am collecting a parcel with my name on it, which has already been recorded as entering the Post Office from the deliver company, hence the slip of paper in my PO box.

Some minutes later, the colleague enters, with the parcel, affirming that it has, indeed already been scanned and I am indeed allowed to remove it from the Post Office.

Eh voilà. Parcel collected.

thumb_IMG_3397_1024I think I have said before, Italians actually seem to enjoy this. Nay, they REVEL in it. Give them a reason to create an obstacle to something simple, and create it they will.

Take the procurement of school text books. Not for the Italians a simple system whereby schools receive funding, including that for text books, allowing them to purchase the books and distribute them directly to pupils at school.

No, we can make this far more exciting and protracted, which is particularly fun in the stifling heat of July, the month in which we are allowed to collect our text books.

I say merely ‘collect’ but it’s more of a process than this word implies, a process involving at least two additional bureaucratic steps; this naturally goes hand in hand with additional paper work and signatures. So, a ‘cedola’ – or coupon – is required in order for pupils to receive their books. In the case of pupils already at school, the ‘cedola’ is given in the last weeks of school – with strict instructions, however, not to take the next step before a designated period in July. For those not already at school – such as P., moving up from materna to primaria, – the cedola is obtained from the local education administrative office. Of course, precisely where in the area you leave affects just how ‘local’ this office is. But why create a system which could avoid an additional 40 minute drive?

A ‘cedola’ for each child in hand, we then go to a local ‘libraria’. The books of course, aren’t in stock in the bookshop, they have to be ordered and delivered, which means that we get two trips to the local libraria for the price of one. It’s not that this in and of itself is hard, it’s just that it’s entirely unnecessary. We don’t pay for the books, they are state funded. We don’t choose which books we want, so this isn’t an extra step designed in order for us to assert a degree of autonomy over learning.

For that matter, neither do the individual schools choose their books – they are state written, state distributed text books. Herein lies another problem of the Italian education system. A big one.

Thus at the bookshop we wait while the correct boxes on the cedola are ticked and information is entered into the computer system (the same information which has already been entered at the education administrative office, where it was required in order to enrol children at school in the first place).

In a week or so, we will be able to go back to the libraria to collect the books, which naturally will involve a little more box ticking and paper shuffling.

The whole ‘cedola’ system is simply a way in which we can overcomplicate a system that could be really quite straightforward. The beauty of it, of course, from a bureaucratic point of view, is that it allows for provision of another piece of paper, which must carry an official stamp and be signed by the ‘dirigente’ (director) of the area’s schools – a nice opportunity to assert authority and clarify hierarchies.

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe it’s all designed specifically to keep people in work and humanity in communication. Perhaps Italy is fiercely protecting its archaic cedola system in order to keep local book stores alive and local authority officers in jobs. Perhaps the several steps required before we are in possession of our tools for learning should be seen as a triumph of the supremacy of human interaction. Perhaps this is something we will yearn for in England when we realise that our pursuit of progress and modernisation consigns us to engaging in futile and furious interactions with ‘online processes’, as we rage against machines and systems which crash on us at the crucial moment

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La Burocrazia Italiana

Ah, La Burocrazia Italiana, I come to understand it in different ways, each day.

I have decided of late that Italians wear this bureaucracy as something of a badge of pride. “Ah, questa Italia….’, ‘Ah, questa la burocrazia Italiana’… ‘Ah, benvenuta in Italia….’

Incredibly, manifestations of Italian bureaucracy find their ways into every part of Italian life… it almost seems to influence la lingua. Now, I like language and I love grammar. There, I’ve said it: I actually really love knowing how words fit together into sentences, I enjoying debating the use of the predicate of ‘to be’ in written and spoken form. But I digress. Even as a grammar-loving would-be linguist, I find Italian grammar archaic and faintly baffling. Italian verbs exist in 14 forms: seven simple tenses and seven compound tenses. In reality, Italians probably use only a handful of them on a regular basis in speech. Nevertheless, they exist and children are taught them rigorously in school, alongside a variety of verbal moods and intentions. While to get along happily speaking Italian on a daily basis is no different from learning any language by immersion, even I am tempted to set Italian grammar aside for a very rainy day. Or make that month. Teaching the correct use of the possessive apostrophe in English seems chicken feed by comparison.

This labyrinthine obfuscation is manifested beautifully in Italian law. I’ve been told that whenever new laws are passed in Italy, rather than replacing or revoking existing laws they are simply melded on, the effect of which is that for every law in Italy, there appears to exist its opposite or a contradiction. (Very possibly this is not actually that dissimilar to English Tort, but – to the outsider at least, it seems that Italians wear this obscurity with some pride.) To this end, it’s impossible to get a straight response to anything. The answer depends not only on whom you ask, but when you ask him or her and I have found, whether you ask again… and again… and again.

By way of illustration:

I went to procure Tom’s codice fiscale. Now, when I went to get the children’s and mine a while back, I was asked whether my husband needed one. No, he didn’t at the time so I didn’t get it (an oversight on my part, but I do seem to specialize here in creating extra work for myself in these situations). Thus it was, a month or so ago, that I returned to said office – and, by chance, to exactly the same officer who had served me last summer – to procure Best Beloved’s codice fiscale. This, by the way, is a computer generated reference without which it is impossible to do anything here – even, as I found out – buy a pay-as-you-go mobile phone SIM card. Seated in front of said officer I pulled out all our documents – and I mean all of them, I had gone prepared, with every certificate, passport, driving licence, proof of address we had between us. ‘Ah, non e possibile’ because he’s not present. I stalled him – hang on a minute – this had been perfectly possible just six months ago when you asked me if I wanted to generate his codice fiscale at the same time as those of the rest of the family, when he had also not been present. Apparently, on this next visit, it was absolutely not possible. The stand off began. It continued thus: me explaining that he recalled the last visit (I stand out somewhat here in this un-touristy region of Italy, being English, with three children, two of whom are very bionde, all three of whom are pretty noisy; people tend to recall us); me pointing to the three children before me (all of whom were conveniently getting hungry), reminding him that I have travelled an hour to get here… me wondering if it really was impossible to generate this code now? It’s amazing what happens when you ask the same question several times over… miraculously, I could sign Best Beloved’s name for him and procure the coveted codice fiscale. There’s something to be said for this bureaucracy then. It’s a sort of ‘computer says no, but actually I could try to find a way if I feel sympathy for you’.

There’s actually a reason for this, it seems and it’s rooted in the Robin Hood-esque behaviour of underclasses rebelling against the feudal system which strangled Italy for so many years. Herein lies the reason that to call someone ‘furbo’ – slightly cunning, is said with a slight hint of admiration. And it’s something we might need to learn, as we are about to embark on a whole new step in our Italian adventure…

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Mission Outdoors. Part 2

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Mission Get The Children Outside continued at the end of winter with Strand B: Bring the Outside into the School Day. Naively, I thought that this might be relatively straightforward in a senza zaino school. Instead, I have stood face-to-face with what it is to be culturally at odds with the place in which I am living. I have felt keenly the British-ness of my blood even as the same blood fires up in the passionate emotion I attribute more readily to a different heritage.

One of the foundations of a senza zaino school is the involvement of parents and the community. Thus it was that I mooted, en passant, with the maestre, the possibility of spending more time outside, particularly given that there was, thus far, no provision for ‘ginnastica’ in the school week. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate misunderstanding, control over the school day or lack of experience of teaching within this type of system, but the suggestion was pretty much rejected. Even under the ‘banco del tempo’, apparently we parents cannot simply come in to play ball games with the children in the field. I rather wondered to myself why not, but for now, left it at that, even while the teacher continued to exspostolate as to how cold it was outside, apparently further fuel to their belief that the children’s health is protected by being inside.

Thus it was that the group of like-minded and, it has to be said, mainly international parents rallied together to consider how we might address this situation, all of us aware of the detrimental effect of limited time outside on our children’s behaviour.

One of the very lovely banco del tempo projects of last school year was the orto or vegetable garden, developed using traditional permaculture and organic methods. Embraced by parents and teachers last year, everyone seems keen to maintain it this year. Thus it was that we decided to try to extend the project and begin it sooner, in order to get the children outside from now, ahead of our schedule to dig the ground over and think about earth, water and planting from early Spring.

So we planned to begin with the children and the community: a core value of the senza zaino school is to harmonise links between school and community and the majority of local children are from farming and agricultural backgrounds. I ran this idea past the teacher…. and was disappointed to be met with, what I considered a fairly luke-warm response*, mainly concerning the number of projects running in the school and the potentially compromising effect this could have on learning… argh, my Italian lets me down again: surely such a comment rather misses the point of senza zaino, where learning should be happening through diversity of projects and a range of non-traditional teaching methods. I showed the teacher the orto plan and suggested ways in which we could bring the curriculum in, there being opportunities for maths and science a-plenty, to say nothing of related writing activities. No, it is ‘piu commodo’ apparently, to teach inside in the classroom… The case for outdoors just grew stronger: such a comment is fuel for my fire. I re-organise my strategy:

  1. get the children outside for the orto project;
  2. try to build some maths into the orto project;
  3. demonstrate through this that it is possible for children to learn through experience, outside;
  4. use the senza zaino philosophy and vision slowly to try to encourage the maestra to have the courage to teach differently.

I start with a) and b); c) and d) are longer term aims. I think I will have to move piano piano, with the support of as many other parents as possible, if we are to make progress.

But it feels like a golden opportunity. This senza zaino school is young, only in its second or third year of being. We need to harness this novelty and surely we should aspire to it being practically and truly a senza zaino school, moving it away from paying lip service to the theory and only implementing those elements such as classroom arrangement which are easy to enforce. The real value of this kind of education lies in how children take responsibility for their own learning; how a school engenders in children a true love of learning by engaging them in their education; how a small school setting can offer an education which is less restricted by formalities and therefore more open to diversity of teaching ideas and methods. So, now it’s time to try to negotiate labyrinthine Italian bureaucracy in a bid to affect small changes…

*More on this next time… suffice to say, for now, that it’s interesting trying to interpret and understand properly nuance and intended meanings cross-culture and language.