Tag Archives: montessori

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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A Film and a Festa

I’ve written before about Italian bureaucracy, but it really is as bad as everyone says. And worse. Barely a day passes here without someone saying to me, at some point, ‘Ah…. questa Italia…. Beh, siamo in Italia…..’ , usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug which reads to me as a cross between resignation to absurdity and badge of honour.

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ready to bake – biscotti salati

It affects every walk of life, from procuring a loyalty card at the supermarket to taking food into school on birthdays. Indeed, at birthdays, children are only allowed to take into school a cake bought at a shop, accompanied by a receipt, to celebrate with friends. Despite the fact that Italians are so proud of the cooking of ‘nonna’ or ‘mamma’, so protective of family recipes and the correct ways of making dishes and eating food, the law (I have yet to find out whether this local, regional or national) would rather decree that children eat shop bought food, no doubt loaded with excess sugar or glucose fructose syrup, than a home cooked treat. The irony is that at gatherings outside school hours, such as the merenda we shared yesterday after the children’s end of year performance, the table is heaped with a sumptuous array of homemade crostata, biscotti salati, pane, et cetera et cetera. At such events, everyone enthusiastically contributes something and everyone enthusiastically tastes everything.

 

 

We came across the same problem recently when we made our film for a competition run by Social Business World, which asked schools to contribute, through film, stories from every day life about living together in an ethical, sustainable and ecological way. I wrote the short film script, (we were restricted to five minutes) and a friend translated it into Italian. A dynamic Italian mother here found someone to film it, and we were ready to shoot.

Ready, that is, aside from the Italian hoops we had to jump through.

Of course, the school had to seek permission even to be involved in the project from the Dirigente (the director of schools in the area, a sort of head of education for the area).

The Dirigente decreed yes.

The Dirigente then cut a whole section of the script which involved inviting the materna school and families in to eat together. In doing so, she cut one element of the film, the intention of which had been to show community building and collaboration.

The Dirigente allowed parents to come in and prepare with the children food made with ceci (chickpeas, the small village is known for its cultivation of chickpeas, particularly its specialty, black chickpeas).

But she forbade the children from tasting the food once it was made.

Obviously the fact that it was not pre-prepared, shop bought food, accompanied by a receipt, meant it was a potential danger. This despite the fact that the teachers were there, watching the parents prepare it. The children would be allowed to eat it off site, and out of school hours, however. I have yet to understand quite whether or how these two things join up: if a child is going to become sick from eating something, this will happen whether they eat it in the school grounds before 16.30 or outside the school grounds at 16.31, and surely in each instance there would be the same possibility of litigation. Surely, I said, if it is a matter of parental consent (at 16.31, parents are present to consent to their children eating the food), we simply have to ask them to sign a form before we prepare it and taste it?

Apparently not. Given that Italians love signing pieces of paper and disclaimers in all their forms, I was surprised by this.

Nevertheless, we parents had something to sign simply to allow our chidren to partake in the film.

So, with a heavily edited script, we went ahead anyway. The children enjoyed making the film celebrating as they did so something of their community, the local livelihood and the international make up of the small school. You can watch our little film here.

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Cherries – eaten and enjoyed…. after school hours

 

The competition was small, albeit nationwide, but we were pleased to win and be invited to a three day festa in northern Italy.

And then came the process of organizing the trip. I lost track of the number of missives flying between parents and teachers regarding travel arrangements. We seemed to waste several of the four to five weeks we had to organise it discussing whether to go by train or coach, with very little resolution. But finally, with two weeks to go, the Dirigente decreed that it would be impossible, in such a short space of time, to pull together the paper work to procure permission for the trip. (From whom? From where? This I don’t understand – surely as the Dirigente, she can procure and sign the relevant papers…. ).

As with (virtually) all things I have experienced here, there is a block. Then there is a ‘gira’. I honestly think Italians revel in the blocks in order that they can come up with the circuitous way round it. The way round it is for it to be a trip organised by parents, this is naturally a neat absolution of responsibility on the part of the school or the Dirigente. And thus we continue to organise it in exactly the same way as we were organizing it before, but this time, without the need for the mysterious additional paperwork the Dirigente felt unable to deal with. We still had to sign a form, however, saying that we as parents take responsibility for our children on the trip that we are organizing for them, as parents.

Apparently the coach is booked and we leave in a week’s time, for the village of Montello, Treviso, for the Festa of Ritmi e Danza dal Mondo. As with many idealistic celebrations of peace and diversity, there will, I am sure be much talk, all of which will be fabulous, stimulating and aspirational. But if the talk is to turn into action, there will, of course, be a series of bureaucratic hurdles and caveats as well as several reams of paper…

Aspirationally, however, we are excited. Aspiration and small steps are important… After all, the raging fires of revolution start with small flames.

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few of my favourite things… about the senza zaino school


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While I do love ‘brown paper parcels tied up with string’, for now, I am content to enjoy these little touches of the senza zaino school.

The tascapane: literally ‘pocket-bread’ – the sort of bag that would have been used in days-gone-by to take a parcel of bread and cheese to lunch in the fields; (you can see why this appeals to my Old School Romanticism); they use this instead of a backpack, or ‘zaino’. H. has a lovely hand made, blue cloth bag, the shoulder strap of which is adjusted by decorative buttons on the side. It’s light-weight, attractive and practical. P. has draw string bag for his water bottle and snack, with a plastic pocket on the front to keep safe letters going home.

Scarpe: Specifically, pantofole (slippers or indoor shoes) and scarpe – outdoor shoes. No explanation needed. Needless to say, I think this is great. I have always admired the practices of other cultures, such as Arab and Eastern European, of automatically removing outdoor shoes on stepping inside. It’s just common sense not to want any number of disgusting things we step on outside, trodden inside.

I like the named scatola (plastic box) on which P. places his shoes and the little, named cubby hole for H.’s shoes. I like the fact that the shelves and boxes are fixed at a child’s height and are easy for small hands to operate. The onus is on them to keep themselves organized and there’s a proper space for everything: for shoes, for coats, for snacks.

It’s not only the boxes and cubby holes, but also the naming thereof: the children have a little wooden tag with a photo of them on one side and ‘oggi non ce sono’ followed by their name on the other: ‘today so-and-so isn’t here’. When they come to school, they turn the tag over to the photograph to show that they are there. It’s functional, personal and also encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. P.’s shoes go on the box and other things go inside – in P.’s case, usually all the warm items of clothing I’ve insisted he wears on these chilly mornings, which he insists on taking off as soon as he can. P. is extremely warm blooded. It is only since we have hit frost in the mornings in the last week that he has reluctantly succumbed to wearing socks and boots instead of bare feet and Crocs.

Asciugamano! Hand towels! Parents are asked to supply a named hand towel with a loop so that it can hang on a peg in the toilets. So easy, so civilized. The towel comes home at the end of the week for washing.

Cuscino: The children of the Scuola Materna l bring a cushion in for agora time, the circle time which starts each day. Cushions and soft mattings are already at school for the Primaria children. And I am reliably informed by H. that scarpe and pantafole are removed before coming into agora.

Colazione. The children are encouraged to bring a snack for colazione (breakfast or mid-morning break) and the Scuola Materna recommends a different snack type on each day of the week, which both encourages a healthier attitude to snacks and less jealousy over who has what, thus we rotate through yoghurt, frutta, salato, dolce and then to libero – free choice. Colazione is put into a designated space at the start of the day. I’m not sure how committed all children are to bringing the correct snack, but the intention is there and it appeals to me. It also encourages me not simply to chuck the same thing in their bags every day.

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The moon at sunset.

 

Grembiule: this is the cover up the children wear over their own clothes. The latest parents’ meeting noted to ‘mettere sempre il grembiule’. I have to say that this isn’t always the case, though I do try to remind H. to put hers on and this is something to work on – again, it makes sense – own clothes might be fine, (you can see I’m not entirely convinced by this), but school uniforms are practical and help to iron out those differences between children which are too often the cause of classroom conflict, so the grembiule is neat and practical.

 

 

 

So, those are just a few of my favourite things. Homework: turn it into a song good enough for Maria to sing. A song, actually, might well have featured here, H. has been singing non-stop ‘La scuola che c’e’ – a song written by a child at another senza zaino school, celebrating all things senza zaino and what it means to a child to be at a school ‘fatto per me‘ – made for me.

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First snowfall

H. is part way through writing me a list – in beautiful cursive script – of the little tasks the children are charged with on a daily basis. In the mean time, I leave you with news that Winter has arrived, stealthily and overnight, shocking us into thick winter coats, scarves and hats and an excitement in the children that could scarcely be contained when we saw the first scattering of snow on the mountain top on Sunday and enjoyed the first frost in the olive groves this morning.