Tag Archives: home schooling

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.

Setting up School

Our immersion in Italian bureaucracy a few weeks ago, when buying our piccolo fabbricato rustico, is naturally but the beginning of a segue into what we are fondly calling our bella avventura.

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While we have been fast track learning how to prune olive trees and keep vines, I have also been intrigued by my collaborations with a culturally different mindset, joining up with a small group of Italians and internationals to set up a progressive, independent school here in Tuscany.

In attempting this, I am struck by how very much more possible things are, on one level, with how very much more complicated they are on another. Thus I alternate between being inspired and frustrated. Establishing a school, albeit a modest prototype at present, ironically feels infinitely more possible here than it would do in the UK. There are laws here, but there are also interpretations of laws and there are the odd laws that are more ‘belle’ than ‘brutte’. So while the state school system is rigid to a T, and entering a regular state school classroom would remind one of 1950s England, a key law governing education of children states only that parents have a duty to ensure that their ‘child is educated’. This is markedly different from a law saying that parents have a duty to send their children to school. So far, not so very different from UK law which allows for children to be homeschooled.

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The school building, set among fields and vineyards.

What marks Italy as an interesting place in which to try to do something different is the way in which it is possible to move from homeschooling (and frankly, anyone who can homeschool his or her own child deserves to be kept in mind for canonization) to setting up an establishment which can deliver education, but is not subject to the application forms, red tape, rules and approval that would be needed to create a Free School in the UK or indeed the regulations that a quick google reveal are required to establish a UK based private school. Thus here, an associazione is formed, fees for schooling are taken in the form of monthly subscriptions to the association, of which all parents and children attending school automatically become members. The school is therefore established and run in essentially the same way as a sports or social club, with a committee of a minimum of three named persons responsible for finance and administration thereof. The school’s articles, which we have written, are as wide and all encompassing as possible, allowing for the school to diversify as it grows.

Bingo, we are essentially setting up a very, very small quasi-private school. Freed from the fetters of state education administration, we are freed from such absurd rules as that which requires permission for a parent to donate to pupils photocopies of an educational book on growing your own vegetables…For sure, there will be stumbling blocks ahead and Italian bureaucracy will no doubt frustrate frequently, but within impossibilities here, it is the glimmers of possibilities which have allowed us to get this far that we need to pursue.

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Clearing the building

Bringing an Anglo-Saxon mindset to a meeting with a group of Italians on getting the school up and running, however, is another story. I am drawing on all my Arab blood and background to try to bring to the fore a mentality more akin to the Italians in the group. An early meeting was a perfect illustration of the confusione we have to overcome to make this project operate. Present: two Italian from the north; one Italian from the south; one British-other (that’s me; I feel the ‘other’ Arab blood is of particular importance in such circumstances); one Swiss/American (C.); one British/Ukrainian (A.) and one British (N.) who has lived here for years, speaks fluent Italian and has agreed to coordinate and facilitate meetings and the cultural exchange.   The distinction between the Italians from the north and from the south is important, the mindset of Italians being so regionally specific.

Arriving home from the meeting, which had run for two hours, and would have continued had we not curtailed it, Tom asked me how it had gone. I was, rarely for me, a little lost for words. Finally, I came up with ‘indescribable’. Under the impression that the meeting’s purpose had been to distill the school’s philosophy into a succinct and marketable form which could be used to attract more parents; to consider in more detail what the school day would look like; to allocate specific roles to group members and to discuss the development of the website, I felt slightly detached from myself as the ‘meeting’ unfolded before me. A. opened the meeting with a clear statement and focus, but within minutes we seem to have digressed entirely from any decision making on the point made, and thoughts flitted about, covering the teaching day, drawing parents in, what we wanted children to feel like.  All lovely points, but none of them particularly to the point.  As the discussion descended into a debate between the northern and southern contingents of the group, A. and I tried to bring the meeting back to the focus, and I tried to translate mentally, contribute verbally (my Italian feeling hopelessly broken and inadequate) and respond to endearing comments la Principessa’s was whispering in my ear.  This cycle of a point being made, followed by elaborate and inconclusive discussion repeated itself throughout the meeting, to such a point that when A. asked N. for translation of what exactly was going on, N. laughed that he couldn’t really translate, there not even being agreement between the Italians. C. went off to stretch in despair at trying to operate like this and I continued to feed rice cakes to la Principessa, who was blissfully unaware of any sense of lack of achievement, happy to have me sitting still in one place for more than five minutes so that she could keep up with her running commentary, (‘Ah, Mamma, num-num. Nice num-num. Mamma no eat num-num? Me more num-num.’ And so on)

Just as A., C. and I were at the point of deciding to quit while ahead and take our toddlers home to bed, there was a flurry of action and a delegation of roles: A. and I were to work on distilling the philosophy, I was to work on curriculum overview and A. was to take on the website development.

So that’s all good then.

And thus, it seems to me, we played out the physical equivalent of an Italian newspaper article, in which the ‘noce’ of the story is often completely obfuscated within elaborate, embellished, albeit beautiful, language and style. Precision and focus in writing is perceived as cold and the same, I feel, would be true of a meeting driven by a clear, formal agenda. Yet at the end of the meeting, there was a sense of movement and progression. As my friend, married to a Sicilian, pointed out to me later, it’s about putting aside the Anglo-Saxon expectation of how things ‘should’ be done, and recognizing that there is more than one way to operate. The Italian interest in the ornate linguistically transposes itself into its modus operandi. There are many challenges ahead in bringing this school to fruition, not least the culturally different mindsets of those of us who are involved. But, handled correctly, the conflation of the organizational discipline of the Anglo Saxon mindset and the internal know-how and sensitivities of the Italians, could ultimately be the strength of the school. Indescribable, yes – or rather, not something I would describe as a meeting… but mulling it over since, I have hopes that our diversity could prove the strength to realise the vision, and in this little corner of Tuscany we will found an exciting, inspiring and progressive educational experience.

 

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Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Language

 

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I was delighted to read in a (relatively recent) paper of the beneficial effects on the brain of learning a second language.

A tangential segue here into newspapers: I miss them. I have tried reading them on line, but I’m afraid it doesn’t cut the mustard. Newspapers, like books, need to be held. Newspapers enjoy being rustled and flicked out peremptorily, if necessary. Headlines like to be scanned in a way which just isn’t satisfied by scrolls and clicks. Suffice to say, therefore, that I am always delighted when a copy of one of the big UK dailies makes its way over to me, albeit days or weeks in arrears.

This particular article cited ‘good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect the brain in later life’ with Professor Antonella Sorace of Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University saying that, ‘bilingualism opens the mind in a very fundamental way’, improving mental ability and warding off possible mental decline in later life. Nowadays of course ‘studies into…’ are sometimes so ubiquitous that if one looks hard enough, it’s possible to find statistical support for even the most absurd life choices. However, as a fully signed up language aficionado, I naturally revel in this kind of study, particularly when said professor is reported recommending that children ‘learn languages from the age of five until they reach university.’

H. and P. are perhaps a little too young to appreciate the significance of the potential long term effects of being here, but with mental health issues so prevalent in the news, and having recently watched Still Alice (yes, yes, I know that, as usual, I’m at least a year late with anything vaguely pertaining to popular culture… ), it’s good to know that we are oiling the right cogs to improve cognitive function in later life.

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And it has indeed been fascinating watching and listening to all three children learn through this non-optional immersion, and particularly interesting to observe how each child’s age, previous learning experience and emotional response to the enormous change of moving here, has affected their responses to la lingua Italiana.

 

It would be fair to say that, until recently, P. superficially, at least, has been stubbornly refusing to admit to the young brain’s natural malleability and aptitude for language acquisition. However even his dogged determination* is belied by ‘off guard’ moments, such as that a while ago, when, overtired and overwrought, he went to bed worrying about school the next day, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow, Mummy, I’ve got to talk in Italian all day and I don’t even know how to say “I don’t know”!’

I can help with that, I countered: ‘Non so.’

So automatic was Peter’s reply that he forgot to impose his self-regulated check: ‘“Non LO so” Mummy!’ he corrected me, nonchalantly inserting the article I am all too apt to forget.

It was one of those moments. He’d inadvertently given the game away and I tried not to let me my smile show. His accent was spot on: my ‘so’ sounded a bit like the English ‘so’, P.’s ‘o’ was short, clipped and Italian. What a gift: a mind malleable enough to absorb the accent so effortlessly and so accurately.

This moment, coming also at a time at which Tom and I have worked hard to try to assuage P.’s fears and help him respond to the change he has found so hard, marked something of a turning point for him and with some small differences at school and efforts at home, he is gradually letting down the language-resistant guard he had put up. Last week he happily told the teacher that, ‘il babbo viene prendermi prima pranzo oggi perché ce l’ho la tossa’. That’s quite a few words for a boy who has hitherto insisted he doesn’t speak the language. It’s amazing what one can communicate when one wants to…I have a feeling that he’ll be able to chat too, when he has a few snowboarding lessons on the mountain…

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From day one, H. embraced Italian, picking up bits and pieces over our summer of fun and building on this more formally from September in school. H’s situation has undoubtedly been made easier by age and circumstance: placed in the second school year in Italy and already a competent reader and writer in English, she has been able to slip into learning here, picking up the language through the curriculum without having to overcome the hurdles of learning to read and write and growing both linguistically and emotionally. Just last night, as I muttered to myself: ‘Dov’é i miei guanti?’, H’s automatic response was spot on: unconcerned by the whereabouts of the gloves themselves, she nevertheless quickly corrected me, ‘dove sono i miei guanti’. Of course, I’d used the singular instead of the plural of the verb. I stood corrected and very happy. Elsewhere, H has grown in confidence out of the home, thoroughly revelling in taking responsibility for ordering coffees, cakes and hot chocolates in Italian when out and about, booking restaurant tables over the phone and happily taking responsibility for bringing Daddy up to speed on various linguistic necessities.

Hwriting2The cursive script H. has learned at school here is a beautiful visual testimony to the working of a young mind ready to absorb learning. We came down from playing in the snow on the mountains yesterday to spot the first violets and crocuses of spring. Face turned to the first warmth of spring sunshine, H remarked: ‘I know why it’s primavera in Italian, Mummy – it means first truth which is right with all the life coming.’ Such moments are affirmations for me: this journey has been tricky at times, but how glorious to experience the connections being made in children’s minds and the learning that happens when they are given the space to absorb, move and respond at their own pace. The beauty of language and the beauty of life fused together in a passing comment which meant so much.

 

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*A symptom largely of his difficulty settling into the materna school and the confusion of being too young here in Italy to start Primaria before September this year.