Where in the World is Jenn Scheffer? Part 1
When Renee Dacey, the World Language Department Chair at Burlington High School, asked me if I wanted to spend two weeks at Istituto Tecnico Pilati of Cles in Northern Italy and take part in the Burlington Exchange Program it felt like I had just won the lottery. Except for a few visits to Canada, this American girl has never been outside of the U.S. I couldn’t believe I was going to experience Italian culture and their education system. I immediately said yes to this once in a lifetime opportunity and wanted to share my experiences so far.
I am staying with a lovely host family while I am here in Italy. Luca Crociani, an IT teacher at the Pilati High School, his wife Silvia and their three children, Verdiana, Eleonora, and Niccolo, have welcomed me into their home with open arms. When I arrived at the Verona airport, I was greeted by the family and with Eleonora, age 8, saying to me in English, “welcome to Italy!” It was exciting to finally meet Luca, as we had connected months prior on Facebook and through email, and the feeling of the trip being surreal was gone!
Although Luca’s English is quite strong, almost immediately I realized that the language barrier might pose a challenge. However, thanks to Google Translate, and the fact Verdiana is practically fluent in English, we have managed to communicate well with one another. We share quite a few philosophies as well, one being that teaching is the best job in the world! My first authentic Italian experience with Luca and his family was a quick espresso (which I’m getting used to since I’ve been drinking it daily) at the airport and then it was off to Verona. After stopping for gelato, we visited the Arena and then visited Juliet’s balcony. Amazing doesn’t being to describe the beauty of these historical sites and of the surroundings in general. The architecture and landscape are like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life, I am truly in what Luca has called “the Old World.” The view to school each morning is breathtaking and is a daily reminder of how fortunate I am to be here-thank you again Renee and Mark! I have been spoiled with delicious, home-cooked Italian food, have visited beautiful castles and museums, tomorrow I am heading to Venice for Carnevale, and Tuesday I am going to Florence. Next Wednesday I am joining Luca at his college class and hearing about the integration of iPad apps for teaching physics. Those learning adventures will be shared in Where in the World is Jenn Scheffer Part 2.
As an American educator, it’s been truly fascinating to shadow Luca and witness how students interact with each other and their teachers. I’ve noticed some similarities, but many glaring differences compared to the American education system. The biggest differences include how students transition from class to class, the length of the school day, and the structure of the work week.
In terms of students moving from class to class, they don’t. They stay in the same classroom the entire day, with the same students. The teachers move from class to class. In fact, students stay with the same classmates for all five years of high school (grades 8-12 attend the Pilati school). The school day begins at 7:50 a.m. and ends at 12:10 p.m., almost two hours earlier than the 2:00 p.m. end time in Burlington. However, students have an afternoon class period once per week which runs from 1:30 p.m. until 4:50 p.m. Every day this week, because he lives close by to the school, Luca and I are able to go to his home and have lunch with his children. In addition, there is one day during the week that every teacher has off. Luca’s day off is Wednesday. Teachers are assigned their day off at the start of the school year and it changes annually. I wasn’t aware of the short days or having Wednesdays off before arriving in Italy and it was honestly a nice surprise. And although this sounds like a much lighter schedule for teachers in terms of work hours, Luca does quite a bit of work from home and also comes to school on his day off to work with students individually. Additionally, if there are department meetings on a teacher’s day off, they are obligated to attend. However, I also wasn’t aware there is school on Saturday. So today, for the first day in my life, I attended school on a Saturday. It actually turned out to be the best day of the week so far. I’ll explain later.
According to Luca, the shorter school days allow students and teachers to do more of their work at home. Students can spend more time studying and teachers can spend more time preparing lessons and assessing student work. But the benefits of this Italian lifestyle are not entirely work related. The structure of the work week also lends itself to an increase in family time; something many Americans crave more of. Over the past week, I have definitely spent more time at home with Luca and his family than I have at the school. This work-life balance is drastically different for many U.S. families. Parents work late hours, kids have part-time jobs, are involved in sports and clubs (or all of the above) and sitting down all together for a meal is often rare. Because of their hectic schedules, students find themselves staying up until the morning hours to get their school work done. The pace of life, both at home and at school, for teachers, students, and families in Italy is much slower and relaxed. And I have enjoyed it very much. As different as the nature of the school day is, the students are quite similar to Americans.
Italian students love to socialize. Every morning on the way to school I see large groups of students gathered outside on the side-walk talking and laughing. Likewise, when entering the school lobby, all one can hear are the voices of students talking. These sights and sounds remind me so much of what I see everyday in Burlington. The way students dress is somewhat similar as well. Skinny jeans, leggings, hoodies, backpacks, and sneakers are standard attire, however some of the brands students wear are unfamiliar to me. You would never know, based on those first impressions, that one school environment is 1:1 iPad and allows the use of cell phones in school, and the other has very little technology integration. As a technology integration specialist, the way students and teachers use technology, if at all, has been of particular interest to me. I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with Lisa, an Economics teacher, and give her recommendations on digital tools she could use to curate resources, connect with other teachers throughout the world, communicate with students, and create a digital workflow. My first choice would be Classroom, since students and teachers use Drive, but Pilati is not a GAFE school, so I’ve recommended Edmodo and her account is already set up! I also demonstrated MoveNote for flipped lesson and she LOVED it!
Although students of the Pilati School are not allowed to use their smartphones in school, they still rely on them heavily outside of school to connect and share with friends, play games (Niccolo loves Minecraft), and do their school work. Like American teens, Italian students send text messages, share photos and videos, and post to social networks. Their current messaging app of choice is not Snapchat, it’s Whatsapp. Facebook is also still popular, with adults as well as teens, as is Instagram. Twitter is not a tool students or teachers are using. Based on my observations, teens of both cultures engage in the same types of digital communication, they simply use different digital tools. And because of students’ active use of social media, there is a need in Italy, as there is in the U.S., to continuously remind students that what they post online is permanent and adds to their digital footprint. Luca and I had several conversations about this issue and it was not surprising to hear.
My classroom observations and opportunity to do a bit of teaching has been incredibly rewarding. I started my week observing several of Luca’s all boys (ok he has two female students) information technology classes and watched as he taught his students the fundamentals of designing a network. On Tuesday I attended a design class and chatted with two girls who visited Burlington last year and knew my former student Nick Merlino. I also had the chance to visit three English classes; thanks to Fabrizio Covi, who works with Renee to coordinate the Teacher Exchange Program, and answered questions about schools in the states and America in general. Students asked if the depictions of American schools they had seen in films were accurate. Specifically, they wanted to know if students wear uniforms, use lockers, have cheerleaders, and attend the prom. Through my conversations with students, I learned many of them perceive America as a great country. The majority wish to visit the states, possibly attend a U.S. university and potentially work and live in America. Their teachers emphasized it would be important for them to speak English fluently, if that was their goal.
On Wednesday evening I connected my colleague Illaria Hoerle’s Italian IV class to Verdiana through a Google Hangout. The students were able to chat with Verdiana, speaking in Italian of course, and learn more about each other’s families, hobbies, and academics. I’ve really enjoyed my time with Verdiana, as she reminds me a lot of my students back in Burlington. Tonight, as she was reading over this post, Luca referred to me as her “big sister.”
Thursday, I had the pleasure of teaching an information technology teacher and her students how to use Google Hangouts On Air. I helped the teacher set up her Google+ profile and connect it to her YouTube channel and today I followed up with that same teacher and her class. Today the class planned to apply their new knowledge of Hangouts by doing a brief Hangout On Air to say hello to Burlington. One of the students, Sam, set up the Hangout, complete with the lower third featuring the new Pilati school logo. Sam and two of his classmates practiced what they were going to say, in English, and when they felt as though it was perfect, their teacher hit “start broadcast.” I stood on the sidelines and watched the very brief, yet perfect broadcast. When their teacher ended the broadcast we celebrated their success and instantly went to Sam’s channel to watch the video. As with most Hangouts On Air nothing goes right the first time you try it and this was no exception. Unfortunately, there was no sound. Of all the things to go wrong! But, the students are ready and confident to give this another try when I return to the school next week, so stayed tuned for next week’s Part 2. The plan is to have the Hangout On Air embedded so that you’ll have the chance to hear directly from an awesome group of students from the Pilati school and get a glimpse of what life in Italy has been like for this American girl!
Thanks for reading!