Friday, December 16, 2011

What makes me 1158 words.

Yesterday there were parent-teacher conferences at my son's Middle School. We had been up there for something similar just about five weeks ago, but this time they were showing us a "little" report card. What this means is that it's a pre-report card, an idea of how you're doing, as the real, mid-year report card, the grades which "count" are discussed at the end of January(I can't even say given out, because you take nothing home until end of June).

One teacher, the home-room teacher we could say, has the grades for all the subjects. You wait on a line outside a classroom door, inching up towards the front, waiting your turn. Once you enter, the home-room teacher gives you a little piece of paper with all the subjects listed and then reads off the grades, asking the student to write them down. This is a great improvement, and not all the teachers do this, but rather some people walk around writing down the grades on the edge of a newspaper or a store receipt. Yea for progress!

After at least 30 minutes of waiting on line I'm already beginning a slow boil as I ask whoever will listen to me...why can't they make appointments? "How would they do that?" my son, who is more accepting of the Italian ways, asks. "THROUGH THEIR WEBSITE, OF COURSE!" I say, which is a big joke because, of course, there is none. Organization and efficiency are not virtues here in Italy, so everyone sees hanging out at the school for two hours to talk to a teacher or two, for ten minutes total, as OK...or at least the way it's always been.

My son's homeroom teacher is the English teacher, so of course he does well in that subject, in fact a 9 out of 10. He finally has an English teacher who recognizes how well he is able to speak (he is madrelingua, after all!) because she herself speaks well and converses in English with him often. Previous English teachers hadn't a clue and would use the standard tactique of grading him medium well at mid-year and then higher at the end, to show he had progressed. Rubbish. He knew the colors and numbers in English in September and he knew them in June.

While he passed most of his classes at a Satisfactory level, he only squeaked-by in French. Dante was tutored twice a week for months in order to catch up with his class. The tutor helped him with all his homework and prepared him for the quizzes. They also did all the textbook Units that he missed from last year. But would it look if he had a decent grade? Like the teacher's efforts last year with the class had little value. So what happened? She had to give him a low grade to show that, of course, he's struggling. Rubbish again. She even told him NOT to do a section on the one and only test this semester because she thought it would be too hard for him...and then gave him a barely passing grade (but higher still than his pre- report card grade). In fact, if you add up the scores he's gotten in French this year and average them, they are considerably higher than his pre-report card grade.

Dante's Math and Science teacher was out the first two months of the school year. The substitute did little to no work with the class. When she returned it was BAM, right into difficult problems from almost the back of the text! He's not a whiz in Math, but attended tutoring for that also. OK, I'll accept his grade, but Science is Dante's passion and even before the teacher lectures he can answer all the questions. When he had his "oral interrogation" on the skeleton, he got two bones in the forearm confused, but another 50 questions correct. Unfortunately, he got the same, barely-passing grade.

In fact ALL his grades were the same except for English and Behavior, which were 9 out of 10. Yes, I was told, the teachers give their grades while looking at what the other teachers give. Teachers even made comments that you can't be "Bravo" in only one subject if you weren't "Bravo" in the others (so they doubt their own independent assessments?). WHAT!! Of course you can be great in one subject and stink in another. What about Einstein? What about learning strengths and weaknesses?

In fact, the grades are totally subjective. There is nothing qualitative that a parent can be shown to support the grade that was given ("That is private information" a mother was told!). I'm sorry to say that I think the teachers give whatever grade they feel like giving. The parents who regularly bring cookies for the faculty room, or who come in to fix the school's antenna, or are the local bigwigs have children whose report cards show terrific grades even if they work little (there are many example of this for evidence). Since not everyone can have terrific grades, the rest of the kids muddle by with mediocre grades across the board which don't reflect or encourage their passions, interests or take into account any learning difficulties they may have. Foreigners--and this includes Dante even though his father was born in this town--must work harder even still.

Part of the problem with the school here is that my son is shy and in a classroom situation he isn't the first to aggressively answer questions. So much of what they grade the kids on is "oral interrogation". This is perhaps the first mismatch between my son's learning style and the teaching methodology here. What about having a variety of assessment methods for different learning styles? Unheard of!

I wanted to talk to his Math/ Science teacher, but after waiting in line for 45 minutes to see her, she told me that I had to wait until she had spoken to all the parents of her homeroom students first. I admit I lost my temper at this point and stormed out of there, sarcastically saying, "Grazie" after explaining we had been waiting so long, the other teacher had told us to come, etc. etc. I have a real fear now that she will "take revenge" for my reaction on my son's grades this year.

So, I continue to find the education here in this little village appalling and I'm back at the point I was 18 months ago when I asked what are our alternatives. Then I decided to do a year of home-schooling with an American curriculum, but for that we had to leave Italy.

I've been offered an English teaching position in the after-school program in my son's Middle School starting in January. Maybe I'll start my own undercover guerrilla warfare plan. Cookies in the faculty room, anyone? Just to get us through the end of Middle School, June 2013! Not that I think local High Schools are much better...

If anyone has any suggestions that don't include $30,000 a year International School in Rome, I'd love to hear them!!

And for anyone who's gotten this far...thanks for allowing me to vent.


Unknown said...

my son is too young still but I have been thinking about how to get him through Italian schooling when its time. not enjoying the fact that theres a real lack of focus on creativity and individual growth, and very poor level of actual education - say like speaking english is really tsk tsk.. but of course we can't afford private schools (and the thought of sending him with spoiled rich kids is daunting). so home-schooling? aaahhh... oh by the way there is a homeschooling group in Lucca I found through expats in italy. they may know of other options where you are. other than that, perhaps try a montesori school?

Diane said...

Katerina, if you can accept that they do things by rote and provide creative outlets elsewhere AND your son has no learning /organization issues, perhaps your experience will be better. Homeschooling here must be ITALIAN homeschooling (naturally) and that's not an option for me, plus the testing they'd give him at the end of the summer would be very difficult--to prove to everyone that he should have gone to school all year. Ahhh...

LindyLouMac said...

A good vent, the joys of eduction and parent teacher evenings! At least we do not have to worry about such things any more.

In answer to your question about Kiwis. I have absolutely no idea of what varieties ours are, just that they are very old! I would take advice from locals before choosing and remember you need at least a ratio of one male to three female plants.

stefano said...

Where do you see your son in 10 and 15 years? After you have answered this question you may have a better idea in the next year or two.

Anne said...

Oh how I wish there were a perfect solution to fix the public education system here in Italy. Life long home schoolers, my two middle school daughter's are attending middle school here in our tiny town for the first time this year. To say it has not been a very good experience so far would be an understatement to say the least. The girls are learning Italian better though, so for now we suffer through, not sure what we are gonna do for next year though. Homeschooling is still on the table for us.

The following website has been really helpful to us for all things homeschooling here in Italy, for example end of year exams are not always required-

Also, as I read your post I couldn't help but wonder if instead of hiring a tutor to help your son muddle through the crazy school system, you could perhaps hire a tutor to help him thrive at homeschooling, even if it is in Italian. If the teachers/schools are anything like they are here he probably wouldn't be missing out on anything at all!

Diane said...

LindyLou--are you suggesting that "this too shall pass"? If so, you're right and I keep reminding myself of that.

Stefano--I think my son would ideally like to re-settle in America, all the while missing some aspects of Italian life, no doubt. University is the big thing...if he continues in the Italian school system University here won't cost much in comparison to USA tuition bills. OTOH if he established residency and then went to a State school it wouldn't be tooo bad in America either. I'll be ranting and raving right through his University education if he goes here, BUT he's OK with it all...and maybe that should be the bottom line?

Anne: My son actually ENJOYS school because he gets to see his friends and at least his misery has company I suppose. Funny things happen, they laugh together, it's like colleagues at work. He's OK with it all, though he does say he learned more when we did our year of American homeschooling. Tutoring for Italian homeschooling would probably cost us about 600 Euro per month divided among several teachers. GULP!!

Patricia said...

Diane, what a revealing post. My sons are grown but I remember the emotions of parent-teacher conferences and the deep desire that your child be seen and taught in a way that allows him to reach his potential. Sounds like you are in a real "culture shock!" I do agree with the comment "This too shall pass." I am sure there are also "intangible...non-gradable?"...benefits he is experiencing from his experience. It will be interesting for you to get your new bird's eye view when you begin working within the system! Can't wait to read about it.

Elizabeth Petrosian said...

I'm new to your blog, and I wanted to let you kow that this post was very moving--and disturbing, for what it says about Italian middle school--and struck a chord with me. My children have, thus far, had a very good experience with Italian elementary school. They've been lucky to get good teachers, of course, but in general I think Italy shines more when it comes to early education. There aren't a lot of bells and whistles, of course, but overall it seems fine.

However, I have not heard anything good about the middle schools, little that's good about the high schools, and the fact that university here is "free" being the only thing to recommend it. Your experience would seem to confirm this. One of your readers/commentators put it so well when she voiced the concern of all us expat-mums have: "the deep desire that your child be seen and taught in a way that allows him to reach his potential." It is this lack of the long view--toward the realization of potential--that scares me about having my children continue their schooling here. That and things such as you point out--the apathy, inconsistency, and even egotism of the teachers, etc.

I will come back to your blog for more insights--thank you!

Jane said...

Oh Diane, I am so sorry and sad to read this. It seems you have been fighting the school system ever since Dante started. I remember a post from years ago about his just sitting on the steps after after school--can't quite pull the memory completely out. You had been relating your experiences on Expats. Do you have any kind of choice as to what school he goes to?

Diane said...

Jane, you're right. I've been having these problems since the beginning. He gets a choice at the end of Middle School, so we have another year and a half. He's not that unhappy, so that's a consolation. I'm going to start teaching English a few hours a week in an after-school program and we'll see if that changes things, or at least my perspective. Italian parents seem to take it all in stride, so I think it's part of my enduring "culture shock"...

ramiz said...

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TEFL Ninja said...

Ah love I feel your pain. I home edded my son for 4/5 elementare. He went back into the school system for prima media, but I pulled him out about again ten days ago in utter frustration.

It was that or leave the country.

My tolerance for the paucity of teaching in my area has reached an all time low.

Diane said...

Sarah, I'm sorry your experiment with the middle school didn't work out. Now what?`Can you hide him and jump back into homeschooling or are you transferring him to a different school? Are you doing that online British school next year? How will that work with the Italian authorities?

Today we have the real mid-year report card meetings (the above was just the preliminary) and it might be difficult for either of us to go and wait around for we will pick it up at a different time I think. Just as well as I'd probably not be able to hold my tongue. So many of his teachers have been missing classes for some kind of meeting. Yesterday he had three hours with no teacher in the room! Three games of spin the bottle were going on as well as a "truth or dare" game. The only positive thing to occur recently is that he and his friends may start a school newspaper. Let's see what the advisor lets them write about...

Lynn at Southern Fried French said...

Hi Diane,
Wow, this is really interesting and perplexing. I see my ex-pat daughter struggling with the same issues with our grandkids (they opted for private schools, but it's SO expensive).
The good news is he's learning multiple languages. That will put him ahead of the game. But as for the rest---yikes, the things he is missing. I would want to supplement it with some sort of American or British curriculum--on-line resources perhaps? Bon courage, you have a challenge on your hands!

TEFL Ninja said...


I am home educating him again and told them that, sp far nobody has sent the police to my door. But some investigation of how truancy cases work out once they get to court...well I can't say I want a criminal record, but the fine of 30 euros doesn't worry me much. And the picture from the appeals court pretty much underlines that they are loath to use the social services option of taking your child off you, even when true educational neglect is combined with other forms of neglect.

So sod it. I will just cancel our residency if they up the ante and see if they can spare the manpower to check I am sticking the regulation number of days we allowed to spend in Italy.

He'll start with Inter High next year, and along side we'll do Italian, Italian centric history/geography.

I'll do the annual exams every year, but frankly no longer care if we pass or not. Careful reading of normativi points out something I never noticed before, there is no section on "what happens if your kids fails the idonità exams".

Like the school system and the private schools being externally tested I guess they do it case by case, and since enough kids in the school overseeing me end up failing and repeating the year (several times) so they are still in prima media at 15, 16 without the school being closed or the teachers found wanting...... they are going to find it hard to make a case that will get by what seems to be a very "liberal" magistrate class. Especially since I can prove an appropriate, personalised education is being provided. I think after 8 years of my being a thorn in his side the director (now in charge of the elementary AND the media) would rather ignore me than use all and any powers he has at his disposal to try and whip me into line.

In more cheerful news DS has a new maths tutor, who I am mentoring as she intends to enter the system as a teacher. She is amazing. Picks up the how, what and why of teaching like a sponge and runs with it in a highly creative fashion. And he has a new Italian tutor, a scuola media teacher, just about to retire. If you cloned her Italy would shoot up from the bottom of the PISA tables like a rocket.

She also makes me feel sane because she and I share the same stories, impressions, deductions and feelings about our colleagues in the system. She doesn't approve of home ed per se, but she has zero issues with understanding my motivations for choosing it.

I'm not a stress free zone, but at least I don't start to mutter darkly everytime we drive by the school now.

What has been a shocker this year is that last time pulled him at least half of the parents of his peers and freinds were highly critical. This time Mario keeps getting accosted by the same parents randomly coming up and saying"hai fatto bene, la scuola fa SCIFO!"

I find this turn around a bit odd. Maybe media is the straw that breaks the camel's back, or maybe peoples' tolerance for deficiencies in statale entities in general is at a lower ebb, given the backdrop of the economic crisis. Hard to tell really.

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