Category Archives: real teacher reflections

Master Teacher of My Childhood: Differentiation in the ’70’s.

I was not a wonderful compliant student.  I was more of a disaffected and socially awkward GT type who sometimes chaffed under school routines and expectations.  There were some years that didn’t go too well.  My first grade classroom, however, I remember as being remarkable.

During kindergarten, I had suffered from social ostracism to some degree.  I can remember a girl I wanted so much to be friends with making it public that she was not including me in her birthday party. I remember being mocked by the teacher.  I can remember hiding on the playground, or playing alone.

It apparently was bad enough that my mother went down to the school and complained.  The principal replied that none of the kindergarten classrooms were likely to be any better.

“Then in first grade, can you please put her in a first-rate classroom?” Mom asked.

That, the principal promised to do, and did.

My first grade teacher let me sit in the classroom library, an alcove with books and cushions, and move at my own pace from easy readers to chapter books.  During independent work time, she had set out converted shoe boxes which had been turned into math facts machines — you fed in a paper card with a problem on the front, and it came out the bottom,  having turned itself over, and displayed the answer. I mastered the math facts quickly but I absolutely refused to do my “boring” math workbook.

Still, most days were pleasant and equitable in that peaceful classroom.  I can remember the teacher’s aide, who every afternoon poured a gallon of water into a plastic pitcher, and then, the next morning, used the “aired out” water to refill the tank of our class goldfish.  The swish of the water pouring in was one of those comforting routines of childhood. Taking care of the fish, taking care of the children, peace, serenity.  I don’t remember any mean girls from that year.

Mrs. T. knew I didn’t need much of her attention.  She let me bloom at my own pace and I never felt ignored or slighted.  Yet I had a completely unfilled-in math book.  She must have been doing math in small group  … or was math done whole group and I was I just refusing to participate?  At any rate, it was close to the end of the year.  She called my mother and proposed the turtle solution. If I would finish the book, she would buy me a pet turtle, which she knew I deeply wanted.  This got me interested.  I immediately took the book home. I sat in my room with a pencil and went through page by page. Counting the ducks and writing how many in all.  Circling groups of three balls. One digit addition.  Then subtraction.   There was something like 150 pages of things like that.  When I had finished it, my mother came after school and I was awarded two red-eared slider turtles.

I remember my mother, very respectfully, thanking my teacher.  I remember my mother’s black pumps and her early 70’s dress, skimming above the knee, and Mrs. T.’s sensible brown teacher loafers, the hem of her blue suit skirt.

Now today, looking back, I marvel at the breadth of Mrs. T’s knowledge of differentiation and her creation of the positive learning environment for all students in a diverse classroom. As I learn more about children, about instruction, the teachers of my childhood drift back into my mind, as my first grade teacher did today, and I marvel at what they knew long before research had explained it.  God bless you Mrs. T.

 

The Italian Licio Classico: Education from the Heart of the Classical World

By Giulia Bertagnolio, guest blogger

Aristotle had a school where he used to teach philosophy in a small village near Athens called Liceo, which explains the origin of the Italian word for a certain kind of secondary school. In Italy, liceo classico – a classical studies high school – has existed since Napoleon, 1796, even though some schools had been teaching Greek and Latin before he reformed the school system.

In 1923, G. Gentile proposed a law to reform the liceo, which became a school aiming to shape students’ way of thinking and educate them in the humanities, including Latin and ancient Greek. It was an elite school that trained students to reach the most highly paid and important professions (surgeons, politicians, lawyers). After five years of liceo classico, students could enroll in any university, while other licei did not give the same opportunity. Other reforms followed and more subjects were introduced. For example, philosophy turned into a core subject. Classico was structured almost as it is today (some schedules might differ slightly, depending on the school): the first two years are called gymnasium and the last three are called liceo. Students learn grammar rules within the three languages: Italian, Greek and Latin; they learn how to translate texts from the classics (versioni), which is the foundation of the classical method.

After 1969, access to any kind of university was made free to students who completed high school, regardless of the type of secondary education the student had received. This caused liceo classico a loss of prestige and importance. However,  if you want a rigorous education nowadays, liceo might be the right choice. It is considered that Latin and ancient Greek help develop the brain’s ability to reason and to interpret history, from its ancient roots in Greece, from the spread of writing and through all the ages in which Latin was used as a lingua franca in Europe. These two languages’ grammar systems and vocabulary increase students’ logical abilities and creative skills and allow them to learn about old populations and their literature, for example, epic poems such as Homer’s The Odyssey, and great  Italian poems like Dante’s Divina Commedia and many other works of art. Students who attend liceo classico face a weekly curriculum of 21 hours of History, History of Art, Philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Italian out of a 27-31 hour weekly schedule. This is a large amount of hours dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of those subjects: students translate classic texts, learn to recite poems, learn to read ancient languages that represent the basis of our European culture and origins.

Liceo classico is the only high school where ancient Greek is taught and where Greek authors (historians, politicians, philosophers, poets and playwrights) are studied. This distinguishes it from every other high school here in Italy. This does not necessarily mean that it is a better school, though it is a high level preparation and the effort required often discourages students, who end up choosing other schools.

As for my experience, I attended Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico in Torino, Italy, from 1992 to 1997. This liceo is a rather famous one in my city; Italian poet Cesare Pavese and book publisher Giulio Einaudi studied there. My time at liceo was very happy, despite the amount of time I spent studying. I loved ancient Greek and its free way of writing and I really fell for the Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and their exploration of the human condition at the very beginning of western civilization. I did not always appreciate the long tests, unexpectedly challenging pop quizzes or scary teachers (there were some…) but I can say now, more than 20 years later, that it was worth it.

Giulia Bertagnolio is an English teacher at “IPIA Plana” vocational school, Torino, Italy. She has been teaching ESL in secondary schools since 2004: she has worked in adult education, night school, liceo linguistico and liceo artistico. Giulia has taught English language and literature for eight years in a linguistic school because of her love for the language and the classics.

The first aim of Giulia’s teaching is the relationship with her students; her teaching degree thesis was centered on this very topic. She loves researching and practicing action-research in her classes. She loves reading books to her two daughters and adores the cinema.

A Classical Educator Reflects on Writer’s Workshop

The ancient Greeks wrote on papyrus, made of cross-hatched strips of the plant.

Just to be above board at the first:  I think Writer’s Workshop is 100% compatible with classical education methods and curriculum.  If you don’t think so, let me explain …

In grad school this week, we were assigned an essay about Writer’s Workshop by the famous (to public school teachers) Lucy Calkins. I have glanced over her materials in the past, but a vignette from the Calkins essay we read struck a nerve with me.  She told of a writer who remembers being sick as a child and her mother bringing her orange slices that were almost too beautiful to eat.  If she ate them, they would be gone forever, and this thought seemed awful.  “These oranges are part of my life,’ she thought, ‘and I am going to forget them.”  Thus was born in her the desire to write.

How deeply I have felt that same sense of the treasured moments of life slipping away.  Once, I jokingly told a friend that I had a “disordered attachment to being alive.” Attached to every second, I clutch at time as it slips past.  I feel a momentary sadness for every passing day.

I can’t be sure, but I have the belief that students feel the same way about their lives.  When Calkins says “we can’t give children rich lives but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there … “ I feel like agreeing  “everyone’s life is rich in some sense.”  Even boredom is a kind of gift, if used in the right way to drive us to become creative.  But is this seeking the richness in life, and writing about feelings, really a classical strategy?

Writing freely and personally is what the ancient Greeks did when they studied what interested them the most (such as philosophy and education).  Dialogue about what we are writing and thinking is what Plato did at his Academy, arguably the first university.  Writing workshop can be seen to descend from these impulses and practices, giving every student the treasure of time to seek out and sift out what is really important to them, and bring it to a sharper focus.

Sometimes classical educators have the impulse to eschew all “new” methods.  However, Writer’s Workshop is not actually a new method.  It reminds me very much of the activities of the aforementioned-in-this-blog Bronte sisters in Claire Harmon’s biography Charlotte Bronte a Fiery Heart.  The three sisters wrote and shared homemade books and stories for years and years, wrote letters and diaries … all the types of activities we now do in Writer’s Workshop.  In other words, Writer’s Workshop mimics not just ancient scholarly environments but the home school of the early 19th century.

As a classically inspired educator in a public school,  I’ve always had faith in students to work by themselves or together in small groups. From the earliest I have found that although we can’t dispense with direct instruction, independent learning is powerful as well, and proceeds mystically as students self-engage in meaningful tasks.  Of these tasks, I know of none more powerful than writing.

Therefore, as we seek to classically educate students, I think we should look to these earlier models, and answer “yes” to students writing on self-selected topics and sharing their writing.  Although I never agree with anyone all the time, I admit that I believe we owe a great deal to Lucy Calkins and her writer’s workshop promotion, for allowing this venerable method of developing young minds to be known all over the country, to the  good of students.

What is Classical Education — Definition for my Grad School Colleagues

Music and dance as well as fine art are all part of the classical education tradition.

I was asked in online grad school for a quick definition of what classical education is.   I paused for a moment, then thought: wait!  I can do this.  And here’s my response.

What is classical education? Well that is the $64,000 question …

I will say that classical education emphasizes literature and history that is considered excellent over time, and also certain pedagogical methods that are actually truly ancient such as memorization of poetry and speeches, live performance of drama, and ancient language study especially Latin. There is a focus on chronological history, and great books. Many classical programs include the ancient subjects of music, fine arts and dance. The result of this education plan has been high achievement for students across a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds. Although classical education has been at times misused and misunderstood, so that people often think of it as exclusive or repressive, as I understand it, it is a humanistic and progressive method of education.