Blog

Free Public education isn’t necessarily formal or How I got into unschooling my kids

In my last post, I mentioned, just at the very end, that Elena’s book ‘Io Imparo da solo‘ (translates to: ‘I learn on my own’) got out in print. A big box of books arrived and we were all excited to see the content: 40 nicely stacked books with an inviting looking cover. There are some energetic spots of colour splashing from a child’s paint brush on a white background. Proudly, the name: Elena Piffero, is written in small block letters at the top left corner. It reminded me the ending scene in Back to the future I, when Marty McFly finally comes back to a different home in 1985 – his father (George), now equipped with a modern (80s!) hairstyle and sun glasses is all confident and happy. He is so chuffed at seeing his first Science Fiction book being printed. I even enjoyed playing with the thought, that it could have been me (just like Marty McFly) that got to change Elena’s fate; maybe it was me that got the best out of Elena and made her write the book. Ah well, I like the thought anyhow.

Since I didn’t get the chance to read the book while it was written (especially because I wanted to prevent myself from giving any excessive criticism, as I usually do, which is always counter productive, especially in the phase of writing) I was very eager to read it myself and see how she presents her side of the story (I think I know it, but it’s still different when reading it and seeing what one decides to emphasize). Snatching one family copy to the bedroom, I surpassed my ability to read in Italian and finished it in nearly two days. I love the introduction, I like its modest tone and the subtle shifting between private life and academic citations. It touches nearly all of the aspects that we discussed together throughout our way to unschooling: from the practical to the philosophical and all without pretense and heaviness. It made me very proud. I truly recommend it. I think it’s a great essay and would be an important contribution even if translated to English (a language in which so much has already been written on the topic) as it sums up a lot of works in the field as well as gives a personal touch.

As for me, I wouldn’t have thought of writing about our experiences as unschoolers nor be able to back it with so much scientific rigor. When it comes to our path into informally educating our children Elena was the one who did all the research and I mainly followed. Obviously, I have my side to the story, I have a slightly different upbringing and path that led me to reach the same conclusions. My approach is not always similar to that of Elena’s and she writes it nicely in her book too. We always had (and still have) discussions around education and how we can enhance learning opportunities as well as social encounters for every member of the family (children and parents alike). However, I never felt the necessity to voice my thoughts on education or on my educational choices, to the wide public. I voice them loud (sometimes, too loud) and clear in my inner circles of friends, among colleagues and obviously within the family. I don’t voice them in the wide public because, most of the time, I just think that greater people have already said it all, written about it and did a fantastic job too – how can I contribute more?
As you might guess, this is going to change. Since it’s all about the school and I just love the film (the film that shaped my future as a scientist too) I’ll put it in the words of Marty McFly answering the patronizing headteacher, Mr. Strickland who tells him: ‘No McFly has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley … ‘ – ‘Well History is going to change!’

History is going to change because of how some members of the public reacted (on social media, of course, where all the smart stuff are said) to Elena’s courage to write about a non conformist choice we took and for sharing our experience in public. They didn’t react to the content of the book, they haven’t read it, that’s too difficult. They don’t even know what the ideas in it are. Like Marty, that ignorant headbutting just made me angry. And that’s why I don’t mind writing my way into alternative education in public.

Thankfully, many have defended us and have answered respectfully while putting the aggressors in their place. I didn’t give much attention to the feeds on social media as I know it just brings on a lot of frustration. This, with my inability to write coherently and effectively in Italian, kept my keyboard silent for a while. However, since people were fighting for us and showing immense support I just thought that I have to give a contribution. For the sake of supporting Elena, I think it will be good to show her that she is not alone in this. It’s her book but I can still support her by shedding a little more light on our decision.

It is not the ignorant ranting people that I’d like to respond to but to the so called defenders of ‘free public education’ or ‘free public schools’ as they use the terms interchangeably (but they are not actually the same). There are those (even among friends and generally-think-a-like colleagues) that believe that it’s causing more harm than good trying to promote and find alternatives to what we know as the formal schooling institutes. Many of my critics claim they’d rather focus on trying to improve the existing schooling system from within. It’s an ‘equality issue’, as they see it: a ‘socialist view of education’. I also heard many times before: “You can’t leave a sinking ship”, when speaking out loud about abandoning the schooling system (in three different languages, btw).
Understanding that public does not necessarily mean formal (schooling – i.e. classroom based) and that informal doesn’t necessarily mean private or inferior quality were pivotal revelations in my transition from an idealistic socialist teacher to a somewhat rebel become unschooling father. If I was still working in the public sector I’d be striving for free public informal education for all. The latter, just to be clear, is my own notion, not something Elena wrote in her book or vaguely suggests. The transformations in thoughts as a trained teacher are not talked about in Elena’s book as they are solely mine. Maybe introducing a little on my upbringing as an educator can help.

From informal teaching to formal and back

To shed some light on how I got to adopt unschooling not just as a family choice but as an educational experiment to push for a better public education system I’d like to present (hopefully, in brief) my formation as an educator-scientist and teacher. I will highlight experiences from both sides of the education system: as a student and then as a teacher.

Early experiences in learning and teaching – informal

Since I was 15 I found myself working as a teacher/tutor. I just loved sharing my knowledge and passions with others. At the time, I was an enthusiastic aero-modelling hobbyist and a member of the local aero-club (just for keeping note – this is: informal, private education- my parents paid a lot of money for this exclusive club). That period in, hindsight, was also one of the most influential informal learning experiences I encountered as a child. I learnt a lot and out of my own interest. After gaining some experience as a model builder myself, I was given small groups of 9 year-olds to instruct how to build planes out of balsa wood and then go fly them in the fields during the weekend. I used to skip classes in school to go and build models and to prepare for my kids classes. I just loved the hands-on approach to learning, something I didn’t really experience in school, but also everyone in the workshop/class advanced in his own pace without being rushed or judged.

Something that stuck out to me years later on that period in the aeroclub: Although there was lots of physics, math and material science involved in planning and building our models, (for example I learnt all about the properties of carbon fibers, Kevlar and fiberglass and how to calculate their strength in building) I was considered academically weak in math, physics and chemistry in highschool.
My parents weren’t unschoolers but they had expressed freely their discontent from the education system and allowed us to slack as we wished, school results never mattered to them although they insisted we obtain an academic degree in something. They spent a lot of time and money to compensate for what they thought was a failing system. School was an evil necessity – at least it’s free and inclusive– and that’s for a good cause and an educational point by itself. But is it?

Working in the informal public education sector

In university I studied Chemistry but found myself spending more than half the time in the National Science Museum in Haifa, working as a science guide and demonstrator. This was actually my longest experience in an informal education institution which is also a public institution. Entry to the museum was heavily subsidized by the Ministry of Education and the museum was run by academic volunteers and poor students like me that earned a very small scholarship for sharing their passion for science. The museum collaborated not only with public schools but offered services to old people’s homes, hospitals, prisons as well as to the general public. Without noticing it, I worked with the museum, on and off, for nearly 8 years. I had particular interest in working with the curators and the workshops that built new exhibits. Their efforts to create the finest learning experiences for the general public was advanced science and pedagogy put together. Looking back, it was the epitome of what I wanted science education to look like: Learning was free, self directed (or assisted on request), it was hands-on and socially inclusive: we had Arabs, Jews, old and young, families, individuals and even soldiers roaming all together in the big halls of the museum. They participated in group activities that we ran throughout the day. To include the poorer communities that could not afford travelling to our museum I worked in a small team of tutors that traveled by van to small villages around the country. From Bedouin villages in the south to remote towns in the north.

My best experiences in teaching science. Our mobile museum van in an educational centre in Baqa al Gharbia, Israel

These images of immense diversity have never occurred again once I left the museum and moved into the formal schooling system. Later on when I became a qualified teacher, I thought I’d be able to incorporate my experiences in the classroom. It took me a lot of time and struggle to realize that it is just not possible. The learning styles are just not compatible. Informal learning is used by schools to patch up their weaknesses but by definition they cannot embrace them as their own. At the time, I wanted to become a qualified teacher because one thing was lacking for me in the museum: continuity. Visitors came for short visits. I could see how they enjoyed and got inspired but I thought I couldn’t see them grow and show them more. I wanted to have longer sessions and feel like I was developing some long-term science skills. Becoming a teacher seemed the best thing to do.

On a personal note and to tie the story to ours as a family, it’s also my experiences in the museum that led me to meet Elena in Cairo. It was there in the museum that I realized that I, as a Hebrew speaking Jewish museum tutor, could not communicate with the Arab population as well as I wished to. School never offered me the opportunity to mingle with Arabs nor really learn Arabic for the same reason (I did take Arabic in school but the way it was taught didn’t prove much useful). I then decided to travel to Cairo to learn Arabic so that I could come back to my troubled home-country and practice all my idealistic-socialistic-peace-and-love-education ideas. There in the language school I met Elena which made my Arabic learning experience more complete as I was bound to stay there for nearly six months the first time and come back for another long period. During those periods, I had time to reflect on my ideas and, by chance, indulge for the first time in a professional setting of education.

Professionalism – becoming a qualified English teacher

In Cairo, I took, in the first two months, a full time course in spoken and written Arabic. It was the first time that I enjoyed a language course (something which never happened when I attended public school). There was something very professional about it. We got a lot of opportunity to speak and I immediately found myself getting interested in the teaching methods. I was also staying longer than I initially intended in Cairo and had to find a job. It was a fellow Arabic student that happened to be a qualified English teacher that got me interested in taking a CELTA course in Cairo. The course was mind blowing, I thought I knew something about teaching before I started the course but this was something extraordinary. From student centred activities to non verbal communication, teaching grammar concepts by examples rather than by rules and so on. “Wow”, I thought to myself, I never got the chance to delve in such professional discussions. Then, I was sure that a teaching degree will open immense new opportunities. What I never dared asking myself is why my own experiences as a high school student never matched this newly acquired idealistic view on what will lead me to becoming a better science educator.

Teaching for EF in China, a private school in a public setting

Before I would materialize my plan I wanted to gain some international experience as an English teacher and traveled to Harbin, China where I worked for the private Swedish franchise company – EF (English First). The education culture in China was very far from the idealism I developed before my arrival. I quickly felt guilty for working for a private company that served mainly the super rich. Even when we had collaborations with public schools, it was evident that these were not inclusive schools. They consisted mainly of the wealthy. Most of all, I felt horrible when I realized that my weekend classes for children were full of poor kids (with very rich parents) that never got the chance to play – I mean it: never. They were there because their parents wanted them to be ‘successful’ at the cost of ruining their childhood. However, I enjoyed learning from excellent English teachers and improve my teaching skills and worked with a wide range of age groups and abilities. I also learnt more about the local customs and got a chance to stay for a longer period than that of an average backpacker. I even learnt some Chinese. I thought to myself that If I came back to Israel to teach science, the education system would be different. It would be less competitive, more inclusive. Israel is not like China. What I didn’t know is that a school is always a school.

Into formal teaching – free public schools

Here finally comes the part where I can say: been there, done that.. (and thus, eventually, I am granted the professional credibility when I say that I think that unschooling is a sound pedagogical alternative.. better still: trust me, I’m a teacher!). But I really understand that it’s not trivial to many and I can confess that it took me a very long time and not without struggle as I had to surrender to the fact that, for a very long time, I’ve held on to ideals that can’t coexist with the traditional schooling system (as we know it).

Back in Israel I returned to university and enrolled in a second first degree: Education in Science. It was a special programme for science graduates to complete in two years. By the end of it you were awarded an additional degree in science education and a national teaching license for middle schools and high schools. When I look back, I can’t believe how naive I was. I really thought that I’d come out with a bunch more tools, more pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills to do what I really wanted. As I also had Arabic in my sleeve, I thought I could then do wonderful things, maybe even help bridge between the Arabic and Jewish communities through work in public schools.

In teacher training I had a particular interesting and thought provoking course. It was Philosophy of Education and we got to discuss different educational ideas. For most of the trainees, it was just another course and many did not develop any criticism or doubt. However, I know of one Engineering trainee that decided to leave the programme altogether after he suggested discussing the works of Ivan Ilich as well and the course coordinator, kindly refused. I only understood which book it was he wanted to discuss, after Elena mentioned it years later when we already started unschooling. Prior to his departure, I briefly talked to him and listened to his arguments and found them interesting but too harsh on the public school. After all, I thought to myself, am I not here to improve the system? I was convinced, at the time, that’s we should just focus on providing the highest quality tuition to the public for free. When we got to interview a teacher from a democratic school, for example, (later she became my mentor in the public school in which I taught a year later), most of the class, including myself, just attacked her for working for a private school which was elitist and exclusive. We weren’t open enough to listen to what a democratic school, in terms of pedagogy and psychological development has to offer. I also wasn’t ready to confront the idea that maybe it’s not those who run away from the formal public schooling to be blamed but the something within the public school . Not that I think that democratic schools are the solution.

Like a warning LED that blips in increasing frequencies, doubts and contradictions to my beliefs kept appearing. At first, they appeared less frequently but by the time I got to the end of my second year of teaching in a high school, they were constantly flashing in my face that I felt like hitting the abort button and so I did. Here are some ideas that gradually changed my mind:

Before the time TED talks became a McDonalds of cool ideas there were a few mind blowing talks which started making me wonder. If you have never listened to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about creativity in schools watch it now. It is one of the most viewed talks on TED and there is a good reason why. This among other ideas were the first warning LEDs that started flashing in my head. The lack of creativity in public schools. I started reflecting on my own upbringing and why I never followed my artist heart. Something that still dominates my thoughts at the age of 40.

If you liked that talk (go on, it’s 19 minutes of your time, but I can guarantee you’ll be inspired) and still believe in the old fashion schooling system can be mended by increasing funds or changing syllabus you might want to listen to another one by Ken Robinson – changing education paradigms

So to sum up other warning LEDs firing up and , like many enthusiastic young teachers you’d talk to you’ll find plenty of episodes in which I tried to introduce something new or change something for the better and got rejected, marginalized, and opposed by teachers, students and parents. However, I’ll give you a bullet-point list of the major issues I struggled with:

  • I had no control over the syllabus of my teaching: the government wanted to teach a bunch of facts, I thought it would be better to work on practical skills, basic concepts and scientific reasoning. Lack of flexibility in syllabus planning to match the necessities of your students seems nearly a fundamental pillar in schooling and will never be able to be changed.
  • I could not change any assessment method. I tried cutting down the number of tests and exams, but they are fixed by the school. I tried converting exams into creative projects but parents and students complained it was too much work. Other teachers didn’t like the idea either because they couldn’t compare ‘performances’ between classes. Even if they did agree, it’s the state exam that everybody set their eyes to.
  • I couldn’t change teaching methods (e.g. flipping the classroom or project based learning) because that would mean changing assessment methods and extending learning time. Head teachers complained I could not cover the syllabus in time (come back to point one, I’d rather leave my students learn less in a natural pace than ask them to choke on lots of facts I stuff on their plates).
  • Some kids really didn’t want to be in class, and I suddenly realized that if they don’t want to, nobody should really force them.
  • Social integration? That’s not really part of the curriculum… there goes all the Arab-Jewish initiatives I wanted to take part in. However, I did manage, through the museum again – informal education.

Back to university – research as informal learning and teaching

So I aborted the public school and went back to university. I never thought I would since I never really enjoyed the stress of studying for exams in university either. Learning at university level was still very schooled, though I knew I could quit if I wanted and that nobody really forced me to stay. I was in a crisis on many levels, freshly married to Elena we discovered that living in Israel is not going to be easy. I came out of teaching confused, still idealistic and maybe even disappointed with myself for giving up so early. If you look at the statistics I was just another one of the 50% that leave a teaching career within the first 3 years. During my time as a formal teacher, I tried to be as enthusiastic as I could towards chemistry and convince my students that research is so exciting. I never done any of it myself before. So I found a taught masters course in Warwick, UK which led me to undertaking a PhD.

When I started my PhD I entered a new world in the academic universe. I was also lucky to enter a successful, highly equipped and vibrant research group which was also very international. It seemed like a new world because there were no exams and no lectures but then again so much to learn: from working effectively on a computer to the actual lab work. There was a lot of theory to catch up with and every project was multidisciplinary. There was no way you’d be prepared for everything. I had to learn on the go and I loved it. There were no right and wrong answers. You had to discuss your ideas and find scientific reasoning. Sometimes it was because no one actually knew what the ‘right’ answer is and sometimes it was purely because this is the culture of scientific research. It was also not really a new world, as I found myself enjoying going to uni as much as I did going to the aeroclub back at the age of 15. The hands-on approach, the learning on your own pace. Being able to learn directly from your supervisor, a postdoc or a peer. Mostly, I didn’t feel examined and constantly evaluated by some teacher.

Soon I started helping in supervising project students and flashbacks from teaching in the museum started coming back to me. This time with a huge difference: I had a long term coaching experience, which I always longed for when working in the museum. Each student came with different strengths and weaknesses and it was interesting to see how they developed their independence (and what made them work on it). It took me a lot of time before I could point my finger at this. It’s probably just that effective learning is informal by nature (read Elena’s book) and that sometimes formal education just backfires. Reforming the traditional school needs a big shift in thinking.

Embracing unschooling as an alternative

All these thoughts boiling in my head came at the time that Elena started her own research about home education. Our eldest was not even 2 years old and we had endless discussions. I admit sounding a lot like the critics that I’m trying to answer now. I wanted to adopt my parents approach: School is an evil necessity and as long as you support your children against the evils of school, they’ll get out of it unharmed.
I did… didn’t I?!

Slowly, and by actually trying it out first, I came to realize that embracing informal education is a valid alternative. It worked when I was as a child, I found it again working in the museum and finally it came back to me in research. Why shouldn’t it be the best for my child too?

Going back to the socialistic point of view. Why shouldn’t the education system be public and informal? It sounds like something unreachable. But in fact, I believe that unschooling our children maybe a good way forward. Private alternative schools were out of the question as they are mostly elitist and, in a way, still suffer from the same problems that formal public schools have. But, what about shifting more responsibilities and funds to actual public spaces where informal learning happens? like libraries, museums, cinemas… etc. What if instead of training teachers we’d prepare coaches that followed families in their unschooling adventures, providing free-public informal education?

I actually find more people within the formal education sector that understand the ideas above than those that just think of holding socialist views. Public education does not have to mean formal. Informal is not anti institutional. In Lilliput school is the shrine.

Open day: 28th September 2019 and What’s new at The Old Stable – English school

Il nuovo anno scolastico è proprio qui dietro l’angolo ed è il primo anno che stiamo effettivamente cercando di essere visibili. L’anno scorso (il nostro primo anno), è stato un po ‘sperimentale: alla gente piacerebbe il nostro approccio di insegnamento non convenzionale? Le famiglie sono all’altezza dell’impegno? Come utilizziamo i nostri spazi nel modo più efficiente? Farà troppo freddo in inverno? Per chi dovremmo suggerire? Bambini? Adulti? adolescenti?

The new school year is just here behind the corner and it’s the first year that we are actually trying to be visible. Last year (our first year), was some what experimental: would people like our non conventional teaching approach? Are families up for the commitment? How do we use our spaces in the most efficient way? Will it be too cold in the winter? Who should we pitch for? Children? Adults? teenagers?

Con tutta la nostra precedente esperienza nell’insegnamento e nella pianificazione di progetti educativi, avevo ancora anzia quando si trattava di lavorare nella nuova scena italiana. Quanto sono tradizionali gli italiani? 😉 Ma dopo un anno e alcuni corsi che abbiamo tenuto, sappiamo che funziona e abbiamo apportato alcune modifiche per renderlo ancora meglio e, eccoci qui.

With all our previous experience in teaching and planning educational projects, I still had butterflies when it came to work in the new Italian scene. How badly are Italians traditional? 😉 But after a year and some courses we ran, we know it works and we had a few adjustments to make it even better and, here we are.

The half-cleared vault – space for activities in the open air

Allora che c’è di nuovo? Innanzitutto. OPEN DAY! – 28 settembre dalle 16:00.
Questo sarà il nostro primo per il pubblico. Non ho idea di quante persone arriveranno e se avrà successo, ma il nostri obiettivi principale sono: far vedere alle persone dove siamo e chi siamo e, soprattutto, dare loro un assaggio del nostro approccio educativo: concentrarsi sulla comunicazione e divertirsi usando SOLO inglese.

Upgraded classroom

So what’s new? First and foremost. OPEN DAY! – 28th September from 16:00.
This will be our very first for the wider public. I have no idea how many people will come and whether it’ll be successful but our main goals are: to let people see where we are and who we are and, above all, give them a taste of our unique approach: focusing on communication and having fun using ONLY English.

Oltre a un nuovo corso per adolescenti e due livelli di corsi per adulti, abbiamo alcune buone notizie sugli spazi!
Abbiamo un’aula meglio attrezzata con riscaldamento aggiuntivo e un nuovo computer. Abbiamo una sala dedicata per lezioni private e abbiamo ripulito la volta nella stalla per attività di gruppo quando il tempo lo permette.

Apart from a new course for teenagers and two levels of adult courses we have some good news regarding spaces!
We have a better equipped classroom with additional heating and a new computer. We have a dedicated room for private lessons and we have cleared up the vault in the barn for group activities when the weather allows.

Quindi, se avete mai pensato di imparare l’inglese in modo rilassato e pratico, venite a trovarci sabato 28 settembre dalle 16:00, quando inizieremo con attività per bambini che sono ottime per tutta la famiglia. Se avete amici che potrebbero essere interessati, portateli con voi!
Spero di vedervi sabato!

So if you ever thought of learning English in a relaxed and practical way, come and see us on Saturday the 28th of September from 16:00 when we’ll start with children activities which are great for the entire family. If you have friends that might be interested bring them along!
Hope seeing you on Saturday!

Storms of summer 2019

What a summer full of adventures, pretty stormy too, in many respects eventful to our Old Stable project. It’s been hectic and yet again when I sit down to write about it, it all looks as if time has slipped so quickly in between our fingers: so much has happened in so little time.

From an upsetting visit of a hungry fox, through a mini tornado with ghastly winds and political engagement. We had a busy summer even though we didn’t have plans for building projects (finally, we had a summer’s rest from that!). However, I did really want to clear up some of the mess we’ve accumulated in the last two years and free some of the spaces we so wish to use with the people who visit us. But it’s only in the past two weeks that we finally got to do something about it. So let’s start with a general overview and hopefully I’ll add some pictures on the way. This post will include:

  • The joys and dramas of having animals in the countryside
  • Crazy storms and their effects on the garden (and my dear hops) including a few trees that needed to be cut down. more dead animals.
  • Elena’s political activities: from volunteer to list member and finally commissioner. Completely un-planned yet so obvious it would happen eventually. This summer was a lot about that and the adjustments we need to make for it
  • ‘Io imparo da solo’ , Elena’s book about unschooling in Italian just came out in print.
  • Gearing up for next year teaching activities

Joys and dramas of having animals at The Old Stable

The idea of coming here was to be closer to nature (and family) and to enjoy the ability to produce at least some of our own food. This, at first, involved just creating a vegetable plot but animals started coming very soon after. At first, finding mice running up and down the stable (remember that Autumn of cyclists visiting?) called for a cat who did the job well and changed my initial thoughts about cats as a pet. Soon after mining the cat, came the chickens with just a few ex-industrial hens. The joy of collecting your own eggs and having your chickens follow you like pets is enormous. So is the joy of cuddling a cat on an early morning beside the fire place and having him follow you as you go to collect wood. We also collected a random rabbit, that’s a different story. However, there is a lot of drama that comes along too. As I wrote earlier in a post, we also got some 10 chicks later on to realize we’ve added three more males to our flock, resulting in: a cock fight, a badly broken leg and finally, my first attempt at wringing a cockerel’s neck followed by preparing chicken broth.

Our new flock of chickens arriving late August, our chick ‘Tempesta’ (storm) is standing proud on the feeder

Late spring come fox and pretty much killed all our chickens but one. It was quite devastating and I felt guilty for weeks for not making sure the chicken pen was closed properly that night. Feathers all scattered around the yard and around the fence, a hint of what might have happened the previous night, and only one survival walking carefully between the debris. I found only one dead chicken in the field outside our house. The rest must have been dragged to the fox’s den. It took me around a month before I headed up to Spilamberto animal market to get a few more chickens only to discover that during the empty period a rat has decided to occupy the nearly empty chicken pen and thus the new flock had strangely refused to go in it to sleep. I dreaded another fox visit and found myself another month trying to catch the rat with: traps, glue and even poison so that I can finally put the chickens in the pen again and close carefully against another fox visit. The chicken saga hadn’t finished yet… our friend the pharmacist has brought over a hen with all her 10 little chicks under her wings. She heard about our fox’s visit and she had too many to take care of and so we got mummy and children as a comforting present. We were very happy observing how mummy chicken takes care of her little ones. Mummy hen and chicks were of a different type called here ]french chicken’ (francesina): short, small and somewhat round.. they can fly and lay eggs pretty much everywhere. Little did we know that a family of falcons had nested that time in our barn

The backside of the barn where we store wood and grow hops. This year we also had a nest of falcons that happily fed on our chicks

In fact, this year we noticed that the number of pigeons nesting in the barn has dropped considerably and it took us a while to figure out why. Eventually we noticed that mummy french chicken has been loosing chicks everyday and their numbers went from 10 to just 2-3 in a weeks time. Funny thing is that the chicks seem to have disappeared during the day time. One day our middle child told us she saw a big bird looking over the chicken pen fence.. ah ah we understood , here comes our falcon. Mummy french chicken had only one chick left. A little yellow cheeping chick. His story is not over yet and you’ll find it in the next part about our summer storm and the havoc it created in our garden.

Another new arrival that brought us, unexpectedly, a lot of joy is the bee hive. Elena got this as an exchange for English lessons she gave to a daughter of our friends. I’m being taught how to treat the bee hive and how to collect honey in the summer season, I think at the end we got highly paid and we’d be happy to have more of these fun exchanges. Yes, I do most of it… Elena bring the ideas 🙂

Our new bee hive

On the drama side again, Mining the cat died this August probably from eating some poison from a different field but as I used a bit of rat poison myself in the chicken pen the month before, I still have fears and guilt feelings that it could have been somehow me that caused it. That was definitely a heartbreaking event for us and the kids. But yet again our pharmacist friend came to the rescue and brought us all the way from the south of Italy three new kittens! However, within less than a week from their arrival three kittens became two as one was attacked by either a stray dog or a fox and was found dead in the next morning. Looking back I should have kept them from the beginning indoors until they are bigger (now the two remaining stay in the stables during the night). This just adds to my guilt feelings. So all in all a summer full of dramas around the animals in our Old Stable. The rabbit btw, decided it’s all too much and has escaped. I saw her nibbling here and there in the yard together with a hare that hopped by… but since that black kitten has been found dead I haven’t spotted the rabbit and hare either.

Crazy storms and their effects

The willow in the front before being cut

Whether it’s just the fact that we are now living closer to nature or that we are more and more aware of how the climate is changing globally from media and from being more active in the area, we feel that the weather lately is going crazy and that the consequences are grave. The month of May was a very strange one with a big dose of rain nearly on the verge of flooding. The worst day was at the very end of May with a frightening storm composed of 115 km/hr winds that shaved everything on ground and showered hail as big as tennis balls. The storm only lasted 15 minutes or so but the effects were horrendous. The aftermath looked like someone cleared up the garden and combed the grass vigorously to one side. branches and leaves were scattered everywhere. It was so shocking that I dared take no pictures. My glorious hop plants that looked like they’ll be giving me endless fruit were torn from the bottom of the vine stems. It took two days to see the effect as they turned brown and shriveled on the ropes. The willow at the back had one of it’s major branches split in two.

The willow at the front (that was way too close to the building) showed a big fracture along its trunk. Eventually, we had to take it down and now the front patio lays empty.

The willow at the front after being cut down

The chickens were hit the most with three dead, probably from the hail hitting them hard. It’s how I get back to our little chick story. Mummy french hen got killed by the hail but her one and only chick that survived the continuous falcon attacks was found shivering and cheeping under a bush. We took him in and let him stay indoors for nearly a month before letting him out again.

Mining the cat (RIP) and Tempesta the chick

He and the cat became the children’s best friends. The cat sitting on their lap, the chick on their head. He got the name of Tempesta – meaning Storm. We could have been hit harder and many around us lost windows and even solar panels. Our roof stayed intact. However, since that storm every time the winds start getting stronger or the clouds begin to darken I feel the shivers and run to close all the shutters. In July we escaped to Switzerland to see our relatives, we paid a visit to a glacier in Mt. Titlis … all I could think of is how this might be the last time we get a chance to see a living glacier and how the climate is definitely changing. Man’s fault or not.

Elena’s political activities

Summer offered us another type of storm (at least in my opinion): entering politics or worst still, the local administration. We’ve always wanted to get involved more in the community and push for change (from cyclability to reducing waste, education reforms and welcoming immigrants). Elena has taken things seriously. It started with giving a hand writing a political programme for a local list that ran for the local elections somewhere early spring. Elena got very active in the environmental debate and tried to formulate a programme that will include building the long awaited Nonantola-Modena bicycle path among other things. Within a span of a few months we found Elena being selected as the commissioner for: environment, mobility and urban development in the newly elected administration which was formed by a coalition of the democratic party (PD) and the new list (Una mano per Nonantola). It’s a storm because it shuffles the way we have to approach our projects. It minimizes the amount of time we have as a family and separates Elena, in some way, from developing our teaching activities at The Old Stable. I’m restricted in writing about our experiences as a family with Elena being part of the administration as I might be accidentally giving some sensitive political information… I can only say that it’s not easy for Elena or me… and the frustration in working in the adminstration is immense. I started understanding why things don’t move much in Italy. I’ll let Elena write about it.. she really should. She says she’d write a whole book. which brings me to…

Io imparo da solo – Elena’s book about unschooling

Just before the election time (or was it in between), Elena sat down to complete a book she always dreamt of writing: a book for parents who want to know what led to our decision to unschool our children. The book has come out (in Italian, of course) and is printed by Tera Nuova. I started reading it, as I never got the chance before, and I find it quite a good read. The right humble pitch it deserves. A link to the book you can find here.

Gearing up for the new academic year

With all the storms behind us, or simmering down, at least, summer is also a good time to regenerate and pick up the enthusiasm for improving on last year’s teaching activities. This summer I had the pleasure of meeting some enthusiastic teenagers that are keen on trying new things such as role playing games and theatre activities. We are coming up with some new ideas and hope to get more enrollments this year. More about this hopefully soon (and in Italian !)

New website layout and courses for 2019/2020

I]anno accademico 2018/19 è finito e abbiamo avuto un po ‘di tempo per riflettere sull’anno precedente, esaminando ciò che ha funzionato bene e ciò che ha bisogno di miglioramenti. Abbiamo parlato con quelli che hanno partecipato ai corsi di quest’anno, con quelli che sono venuti per lezioni private e in generale con quelli che hanno mostrato interesse nelle nostre attività. Prima, abbiamo aggiornato il nostro sito web per riflettere meglio il nostro approccio. Come noterai, per il momento si concentra maggiormente sulle attività di insegnamento inglese! Stiamo ancora sognando di estendere le attività culturali per includere mestieri tradizionali come la tessitura e la produzione di birra, nonché l’apertura alla comunità non italiana … ma a tempo debito.

Our 2018/19 academic year is over and we have had some time to reflect on the previous year, looking at what worked well and what needs improvements. We spoke with those who attended the courses this year, with those that came for private lessons and just in general with those who showed interest in our activities. As a first, we have updated our website to better reflect our approach. As you’ll notice, it is focused more on English activities, for the moment! We are still dreaming of extending on the cultural activities to include traditional crafts such as weaving and brewing as well as opening up to the non Italian speaking community… but all in due course.

Durante l’anno abbiamo visto che l’atmosfera rilassata è stata apprezzata sia dagli adulti che dai bambini che vengono qui. La maggior parte apprezza l’approccio pratico all’apprendimento, che pone l’accento sulle capacità di parlare rispetto ai corsi basati sulla grammatica che hanno frequentato in precedenza.

Throughout the year we saw how the relaxed atmosphere is appreciated both among adults and children who come here. Most enjoy the hands-on approach to learning with emphasis on speaking skills compared to the overly grammar based courses they have attended previously.

L’anno prossimo lanciamo un nuovo corso per adolescenti chiamato Let’s Role (-play).
Questo corso è rivolto agli studenti delle scuole medie che desiderano intraprendere attività divertenti migliorando il loro inglese.

Apriamo un nuovo corso per principianti adulti assoluti. Fa parte della serie Chat and Laugh ma sarà solo per i principianti in modo che possano godere di un ritmo più lento e andare avanti insieme.

We will be launching a new course for teenagers called Let’s Role (-play) .
This course is intended for middle school students who’d like to engage in fun activities while improving their English.

We are also opening a new course for absolute adult beginners. It is part of the Chat and Laugh series but will be only for beginners so that they can enjoy a slower pace and move along together.

Infine, ma non meno importante, farò del mio meglio per pubblicare post in italiano, in particolare con suggerimenti su come migliorare le tue abilità linguistiche. Sarà una curva di apprendimento ripida per me, ne sono sicuro … quindi per favore sii paziente 🙂

Last, but not least, I will really try my best to publish posts in Italian especially with tips for ways for improving your language skills. It will be a steep learning curve for me, I’m sure… so please be patient 🙂

Spring 2019 – long awaited update

Translation in to Italian in progress…. Sto lavorando alla traduzione di questo post sul blog. La vostra pazienza è apprezzata!

I’ve definitely been neglecting our website and blog (In general, my on-line presence has been diminishing since we got here but maybe that’s just a good thing). During this time, a few issues were itching me to write about, though as times before, a long string of excuses delayed everything until one reaches a point where he feels it’s all too late and irrelevant. I constantly need to remind myself that the whole point of our online space is to keep us reflecting and appreciating our own progress as well as to reach out for those interested to join our project, in some way or the other. It helps outsiders not only to see what we are currently up to, but also how we actually got here.

What I hope will follow is a brief description of the main things we have been working on during the winter months and early spring as well as important events that shaped our current direction. This time round I am forcing myself to pick up on the next level of my Italian and thus I’ll be trying to translate this post to Italian (with the help of google of course! and the proper Italian speakers around me). I have promised myself that I will follow up shortly on individual topics mentioned below. Let’s hope I’m disciplined enough to deliver these promises.

  • As I wrote in the Christmas post, we dedicated much more time to music and music education. We had thoughts, in the past, of creating our own family folk band and time has ripened. After taking an experimental practice challenge and spending cold evenings close to the stove with our fiddles, whistle and guitar, we gathered enough confidence, courage and repertoire to keep a relatively engaging and energizing 15-30 min act.  Our famous incident in November with playing in the market has transformed little by little and accumulated to the formation of our family band named by our eldest as: ‘Naughty notes, family band’.
dsc_0275.jpg
Founders of ‘Naughty Notes, Family band’ (including the cat). * Kids are not shown for respect of their privacy. However, all  absent three are the heart and soul, obviously!

We had our first official band performance during the Irish Festival (Irlanda in Festa) in Nonantola for St. Patrick weekend. It’s a start of something exciting and has inspired me to think about parallels between our English teaching activities and the music education adventures we are going through as a family. For my part, I started finally, to take violin lessons after years of picking up things on my own as well as very bad habits that I realised that could not serve any good example to my young classically trained children. The whole topic definitely deserves more attention on the blog. Yes, I promise!

  • Elena has finished writing her book about un-schooling, submitted her script to the editors and we are eager to see it getting shaped for publication. At the time of Elena’s research and writing we engaged in much talk about what we are doing as an un-schooling family the conflicts and accordance it has with the music lessons the kids are taking and the approach we adopt when it comes to teaching English at The Old Stable. This goes back to the previous point but it stands on its own right. The book is fruit of Elena’s hard work at the end of the day!
  • We had time to realize what works, refine and experiment with our teaching styles. Though the year started very slowly with few enrollments to the adult courses (if you recall we had lots of hops between fears and hopes, also economically speaking), we later on took on a few private students that kept us afloat and helped us realize our teaching strengths. Although we initially wanted to avoid private tuition, we find a lot of satisfaction and opportunities to know our students better. We have formed a large and happy group of primary school children and two nursery groups. Both prove successful and highly enjoyable.  With the year coming to a close (another two-three months), it’s time to re-assess and pitch our plans for the next year.
  • Wanting, since we got here, to participate in concrete activities that promote environmental issues and cultural understanding, this winter, we got to the point where we just had to make a move.  Since there are so many issues to fight for and so many ways to do so we had to choose our wars and weapons! Here is the list:

    • Using the bicycle so often has resulted, naturally, in joining the campaign for accessibility for bicycles.
    IMG-20190317-WA0000
    Elena and the cat with our cargo bike fleet: The Urban Arrow and the Xtracycle

    Elena has definitely taken the active role here and has joined numerous meetings with the local administration together with FIAB Modena and Legambiente. To see the fruits of these meetings you can check out the blog she started which serves for collecting and spreading all news about the Nonantola-Modena bicycle path. On my part, I mainly do the cycling and have explored the percorso natura to Modena and St. Anna. I’m collecting evidences for points of improvement where we pedal to Castelfranco-Emilia. I told Elena that I’d be willing to make more youtube videos (like the one I prepared on the Urban Arrow in Bath) but this time, in Italian! These will be about our bicycles and cycling experiences, short clips to get people inspired and aware of what is feasible.

  • Elena has joined a candidate list (Una Mano per Nonantola) for the Nonantola municipality elections. It is formed by a number of members of local associations. They meticulously worked on a working program and Elena was involved in the environmental section, promoting again cyclability and other issues. For my part, I give the ‘moral’ support (Elena will disagree!) and as a result of her late night meetings, scything and feeding the chickens and rabbit fall on me. But really, if I had to choose I wouldn’t change for anything.
  • Winter months are always slow when it comes to embarking on big building projects. As a result instead of building and fixing things I feel that we have just piled up on furniture and bric a brac that we thought might be of use in the future for our activities. Our ‘Old Stable’ looked like (up until two days ago! and not really over yet) a messy junk yard and during the winter months we just kept on dreaming on how it will look like when we’ve finished putting everything in place. (We are still dreaming on how it will look like). However, with that in mind. Last but not least is updates on beer.

    DSC_0300
    Cascade shoots reappearing from the ground after a long winter break.
    • Beer has been on the make on a relatively regular basis. Winter temperatures allowed me to experiment with my first batches of Lager yeast. It sure makes a difference in taste.
    • First year’s harvest of cascade hops was, as expected, relatively poor. But it allowed around two batches of 50 L of beer to be completely free of commercially grown hops. It definitely gave me a taste for more!
    • Earlier this month the cascade hops re-emerged from the ground with healthy looking vines thick and green… ready for their seasonal climb. I’ve ordered more variety of hops and enlarged the hop yard.

    So with this Spring update, I’ll leave and start picking up on our ideas. I hope writing more in detail about some of these topics fairly soon.

    Running up to Christmas ‘scrambled thoughts on toast’. Reflections on our project, music and education.

    The day starts early when it’s still dark and in the bedroom it’s, at times, below 14 C. Loading up the stove with wood, then feeding the chickens, the rabbit and the cat. The reward is seeing the sky lit up in a pinkish shade of blue with strikes of yellow hovering above the little shadows of barren trees and a distance farmhouse. A quiet coffee and maybe a few morning pages before the kids wake up and breakfast ritual is rolling.

    DSC_2038
    Where have the last two and a half months gone?

    Where have October, November and (already more than half of) December gone?… actually we are already past Christmas and It’s nearly New Year! It seems we had so much happening that we couldn’t even sit back and reflect. It’s time to update a little even though I feel it’s all going to end up in a big plate of scrambled thoughts on toast.

    In case the warning about ‘scrambled thoughts’ alarms you or you are just about to be tired of reading anyway here’s the guardian’s summary of our last couple of months at The Old Stable: Looking back, it were two and a half months all around music and education.
    Key events:

    • We attended a book launching event in Nonantola where Sonja’s (92 year old woman from Israel) childhood diary was translated into Italian. Sonja was one of 72 children hosted in Villa Emma during WWII and was saved from the Nazis by being hidden by families in the area. her diary covered among other adventures, the period in which she stayed in Villa Emma in Nonantola. The way the event was managed, the way the stories were portrayed and the lack of respect (in my opinion) to Sonja left me disappointed and wondering what is our role as parents in keeping the history alive and mainly the important lessons that these stories bring with them.
    • I took a mind blowing course arranged by Musicians without Borders in Bologna coming back with a thousand things to think about and do. (some connection to Sonja’s story here)
    • We had a drama (with a happy ending) around the children’s music activities where we were fined for ‘begging’ as we played music in the market. It all triggered a cascade of social initiatives, open discussions and new friendships. It was also a big push to do more music!
    • We watched two operas in Pavarotti’s Theatre in Modena. Where we also knew the viola players (there is a connection to the Musician without borders course and the drama mentioned in the previous highlight). That is more operas than I saw in my whole lifetime (I saw one before that as a teenager in 1992 with my grandma in Vienna, she loved opera)
    • We also held our first weekend beer course and as a result: 80 L of various types of beer are waiting to be drunk soon.
    • Finally, a quick visit to Israel to celebrate and reflect on my 40th birthday, also involving music and you got the picture.

    Keep on reading if you wish to get that ‘scrambled thoughts on toast’. Unfortunately, this time round I don’t think that pictures can give a visual summary of it all. But I’ll try.

    Reflection_old_stable
    Reflecting on the progress of The Old Stable Project. October 2018

    Starting with some reflections on where we are heading with the project. We are entering our second year in The Old Stable and yes, there is still plenty to do when it comes to renovation, building, planting, setting up the language school and learning ‘new’ skills of farming (two weeks ago, for example, I found myself on YouTube learning how to clip chicken’s wings so that they don’t fly over the fence and horribly, then last week, I had to pull a rooster’s neck as he got badly injured during a fight). But what really remained so far behind the scenes is the constant debates and brain storming sessions we have around what we really want to do with our new lifestyle. I think it boils down to redefining what The Old Stable is about. We are still in the phase where we try to articulate what we want to do and why we have made this big change in the first place. In essence, we still ask ourselves on a frequent basis the following question: why did we leave everything and come here in the first place?

     

    Elena would probably emphasize the eagerness to do something connected to the land, to the environment, to live a more sustainable life, to be closer to the family and god forbid, maybe get involved in some activism. I agree with all these reasons, but I’m not sure where it started for me.  Basically, I think we left our academic jobs and came here in order to have more time with our children, to really get to follow their growth. It seemed that a change from a hectic job where you leave in the morning and come back in the evening just to be stressed out because you didn’t finish a draft of a paper or an experiment on time was badly needed.  We wanted to go back to our inner artists too, to have more time to watch the world around us, be more creative like we used to be when were slightly younger: draw, write, play music. This realization became more vivid when we started our path in ‘homeschooling’. After a year and a half of ‘homeschooling’ in England it just made sense that we all needed to get rid of some rigid social structures and expectations. And that, just like our kids, we just needed more time to do what we like.

    Initially, it wasn’t my intention to share much of our personal exploration around education choices as I wanted to keep this blog dedicated mainly to the development of The Old Stable project. In addition, people get on the defense when education topics are discussed, as if we were trying to prove how bad parents they were for doing or not doing something. But, as it is becoming clearer to me that our education choices ARE an important part of The Old Stable project, sharing the developments without disclosing some of our thoughts around education will be missing on a big deal of how we got here.
    Elena, on her part, is currently writing a book about ‘unschooling’ in Italian. It’s not her own idea it has been actually requested by an Italian printing house, so lately we had these topics discussed around the table again. In a way, it helps fine tuning our ideas.

    john_holt
    John Holt’s ‘How children learn’ published in the mid 60’s is probably that which influenced us the most for taking the ‘non’ schooling approach

    I’d like to connect my scrambled thoughts to the events I highlighted earlier and can’t see where to start. There is so much in this ‘non’ schooling world that’s it’s hard to know what’s best to say first. All I wanted to share really is that our basic belief is that a child needs far more time then we can even imagine to: play, figure things out on his own, and be bored without any interference. Not sending the kids to school just allows them more time to do all the things I just mentioned (and I’ll leave the other advantages to a different time). Basically, this means that the parent has to be somehow more at home (whether it is one or both). Once we started freeing our own time to allow this natural growth, we realized how we benefited from it too.

    Questions that we never thought of before, started surfacing and a lot of ‘taken for granted’ answers started being questioned, too. I’ll mention one that we get a lot of, regarding socialization (how do you get the kids to socialize?). That particular one made us reflect a lot about what socialization really means and I think it can explain a lot of my scrambled thoughts for this post. As much as school provides some opportunities to socialize with children of the same age, it also minimizes (or even prevents) socialization in other contexts such as: with children at different ages (much bigger or much smaller), old people, the sick, parents at work and so on.

    An example of how socializing skills (or the lack of it, in this case to be explained shortly) comes in when I think of the book launching event in Nonantola earlier this October (a link to how the papers presented the event, in Italian is here, this is also where I got the photo of her with the mayor and the director of the Villa Emma foundation). A much more revealing interview with the Villa Emma foundation director is linked here

    sonja Borus_Sulpanaro
    Sonja Borus at the old people’s centre in Nonantola, October 2018. A total lack of communication skills on the part of the Villa Emma foundation director. Rather than being angry, let’s do it better!

    The event of Sonja Borus’s translated diary launching struck me in a way that I am still trying to get to grips with. I got very angry, but the positive side is that it made me want to socialize much more, especially with the old and to make sure my children do so too. It made me realize that at The Old Stable we should take part in the debate around how immigration is dealt with, in the present, and to provide opportunities for people from different generations to speak to each other. How were these immigration waves been dealt with in the past? and what are the lessons we could learn?

    In brief, how I saw the book launching event managed is as follows: An old woman, holocaust survivor came all the way from Israel to see the places and to speak about her experiences to the current citizens of Nonantola. This was supposed to be a truly golden and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask questions and to listen to someone that was a survivor rather than a local. The day started with an ‘informal’ meeting in the old peoples centre where Sonja could have met and spoken to some of the people that knew or actively participated in the events around the saving of the Villa Emma children. It turned out to be a very long speech by the director of the foundation who hardly spoke directly to Sonja, passing on the microphone to a few old people of Nonantola who told their stories (or their parents’) but with very little attention or direction to the star of the event.  Sonja doesn’t speak Italian and was accompanied with what seemed to be a pathetic translator. Even when there were some comments or things that may be of interest to Sonja the translator just sat there doing nothing.

    It seemed to be an event to praise the people of Nonantola in the past who took on to save the Villa Emma children, to retell an historical event as a myth. What they appeared to be saying is: ‘All the people of Nonantola were taking their moral responsibility to save the children of Villa Emma and that all were part of the resistance, we must keep this heroic episode alive!’. Yeah, sure… but how?… and is this really the way for keeping the stories alive? How is that, now-a-days the anti-immigration stance is alive and kicking also in Nonantola? wasn’t there a way to get the debate a little less superficial? Aside from the shallowness of the debate, the opportunity to listen to the story from the point of view of a survivor was totally lost. In the event, Sonja’s daughters were present and I had to ask them, in private, after the morning session was closed, whether they deliberately asked the organizers not to ask Sonja any questions or let her speak. No, they also found it a bit strange but then they were also grateful for being invited and for being partially funded by the association for the translation work so they couldn’t really complain. I found it shameful that such an opportunity that will most probably never come back has been discarded so easily. I was then optimistic, it could have still been just a bad start of the day, maybe during the official launch of the book, later in the afternoon, Sonja could talk more about what she wrote in person to all the people in Nonantola. However, when we gathered in Salla Verde next to the municipality there was now also the German historian who worked for years on the topic of Villa Emma and a dry teacher-like translator who had lots of comments to say about the translation work. There was so much irrelevant talking and Sonja was left to wait for nearly two hours before she could say anything. The commentators spoke about her ‘non perfect’ German language and her emotional stress that is conveyed in the diary as if she wasn’t there at all. Nothing was ever said in person. At that point, my blood was already boiling and I couldn’t stand it no longer. Elena had to stop me from bursting out from the crowd shouting what a disgrace to ignore such a person and what an opportunity was lost. I’ll never be a good politician, I’d burn all the bridges before I could get anywhere.  So that was beginning of October and I’d promised that I’d write an open letter to the director of the Villa Emma foundation on how badly the event was managed. However , by the time I was ready to write and was organizing my thoughts on how to create more opportunities to make a discussion around the Villa Emma story as part of our activities in the Old Stable (brain storming all the Israeli-Italian connections I can create) .. our next adventure came up, somehow it’s all connected in my scrambled thoughts on toast.

    Come end of October and as part of our efforts to provide different socialization opportunities for the kids (as I mentioned above and especially after Sonja’s episode). I happened to be left with Emily, our middle daughter one Monday morning and we came up with going to Nonantola’s morning market to play a few tunes we recently learnt on the violin and mandolin.

    violin_fine_Emily_Resto_del_Carlino
    Elena and Emily as seen in Resto del Carlino

    That time of day the market is full of old people that do their vegetable shopping just in front of the municipality. I thought to myself that that was a wonderful opportunity to meet, make people smile, and to let Emily show her skills without being judged.

    It was great, Emily played and the appreciation was immense, smiles, claps and also pocket money. While we were closing our instrument cases and I was having a conversation with a local journalist who shared my thoughts on the previous week’s book launching event, two municipality police approached. I had no clue what was their problem but it was clear that they wanted to fine me for something. It took them a while going through the municipality rule book. I was slightly shocked, a bit embarrassed. Was there a strict rule against playing in the market? something I didn’t really understand? Anyhow, they could warn me and I’d just go away… finally, they handed me a €100 fine which only later I understood to be for begging and disturbing the public… also for taking an advantage over a minor in doing so. Looking back, it’s quite humiliating.

    Emily cried, but a overwhelming number of people (mostly old!) ran to comfort us, make sure that Emily wasn’t too traumatized. Nearly everyone, including the mayor but not the policewoman that fined us, were supportive and encouraged us to go and play in the streets again. We even ended up with a new friendship with an old man that was part of the group of teenagers that knew well the children of Villa Emma, back then in 1943. He was present in Sonja’s book launching event the previous week. As soon as the policewoman went away he got Emily some jam he made at home and told her about similar things that happened to him in his childhood. The best part of the story from my point of view, is that we got closer to the teachers in the music school we are attending in Bologna and that we got such a big boost of encouragement that we ended up playing music more than before. A month later our family violin teacher, as well as two other music teachers and three families from the music school came to busk with us in front of the municipality. It was such a meaningful social event, especially for the kids.

    DSC_1415
    Busking in Cork, Ireland, June 2018. Busking is becoming a family tradition and we find it a great way to connect with people in the street. Mainly a way of sharing happiness through music.

    You can get more of the ‘fine’ story here (translate to English, if needed). I’d go on about explaining why I think that busking is such an important thing to do, not only for gaining confidence in performing but also for the social aspect of sharing one’s music… but it really is worth a post by itself and I’d rather try to tie all this to our reflections on the development of the Old Stable Project. After the event, it just occurred to me that for some people music is just not appreciated enough and that it is really considered ‘begging’.

    So, can we somehow get people through our activities to:

    1. Socialize more (and bridge the age gap between the old and the young)?
    2. Create more opportunities for locals to meet immigrants in a friendly atmosphere?
    3. Get people to appreciate music and share their music?

    At that time I was desperately thinking out loud and trying to use the few local contacts I have to gather what we can actively do in these areas. I mentioned in the last post that we started attending some local meetings on the themes of immigration and environment. Elena is a little more active in going to meetings :). I went to one meeting of ‘Anni in Fugga’ which centres its activity around helping immigrants in the area to get through the Italian bureaucracy and to integrate more easily. As well as to listen to what they are up to, I wanted to offer a place to hold some social and musical events and keep brain storming loudly our ideas until we can offer something concrete. I only realized later that the name of the association ‘Anni in fuga’ (which means ‘years on the run’) is the book title of Joseph Indig’s story of the children of Villa Emma and from which the idea for the name of the association was taken. So within my scrambled thoughts… it all connects somehow.

    Then our violin teacher suggested that I contact someone from Musicians without Borders to see what they had to say (check out the link, if you are interested to know more about them). I ended up taking a mind blowing course that they were holding just a couple weekends later in Bologna.  Their general idea was to get musicians to volunteer in immigration centres in the Bologna area and use music to connect between people. We learned how to run musical activities using vocals, body percussion and more. The organization itself has a wider scope and you can read more about the organization in the link I’ve inserted earlier. For me, it was perfect timing as it was relevant to everything i was thinking about at the time.  From teaching to getting involved in work with immigrants to just doing things related to music. This is when my scrambled thoughts went all gushing everywhere.

    busking_galway
    Getting rid of complexes. ‘Hanging out with musicians’ as a Bodhràn player in Galway, Ireland in 2004.

    Initially in the course I felt like an imposer.. I’m still struggling to get rid of the stigma of being an amateur percussionist and being defined as ‘hanging out with musicians’ like many drummers are.  The fact that I was training to run musical based workshops along side the first violist of the Emilia Romagna regional orchestra didn’t make any sense to me. However, we shared a lot in common with mainly our eagerness to do something with music for the benefit helping immigrants. I came back with a billion ideas to implement! Who knows, maybe one of these days we could get the workshops and courses running at The Old Stable!

    To connect it to our opera experiences… it was there in the Musician without Borders course where I got an invitation to attend an opera in Modena, as the first violist could arrange cheap tickets for us. He was playing in Il Corsaro.

    teatro-comunale-luciano-pavarotti-modena-18_IM15252
    The theatre in Modena… the kids got to see two operas within a month’s time

    I ended up going with both the daughters and it was a fantastic experience (everyone thought we’d get bored!). They got the chance to see a live orchestra in a proper opera house. Going back to socialization opportunities, the majority of the public were pensioners. They were excited to see such young children attending. A woman even asked the girls to tell her at the end of the show what they thought of it… and they did! She was very happy.

    A month later we got to see our actual violin teacher who also plays the viola, playing in a different opera in the same theatre. This time, it was also an opportunity to meet with a friend from the music school!

    Finally, a nice conclusion to this music-education mumble has come with us playing with a epic local group for Christmas, passing by the old people’s home and various points in the town.

    Xmas_music_2018
    24th of December, 2018. The abbey in Nonantola. Music it is.

    I think that that was enough scrambled thoughts for now. Congratulations if you made it up until here. Like many of my posts, apart from sharing the developments, the actual writing about it really helps myself refine and vocalize ideas.

    Let’s hope that The Old Stable projects develops to something more connected to music.
    I am working towards updating more about the first beer course that was held end of November and more about our musical adventures!

    Till next time!
    Happy New Year

     

     

     

    Hops (between) hopes and fears

    This post is about hops, those that brewers harvest but it is also about the hops we experienced in the past two months between feelings of fear and hope.

    Autumn has practically arrived at the doorstep and has fooled us with long spells of heat and sun just before it came knocking at our door. I think we knew it was coming and felt it creeping. A frantic two month of last minute preparations was accompanied by the silent awareness that our time is running up before the sun goes away and prevents us from working outdoors. Our last August-September efforts included: closing up the old chimney in the kitchen, finishing up the classrooms, painting the kitchen walls and window bars as well as the inner windows, putting sealant around the window frames, collecting wood for the fire and finally connecting the remaining wood burning stoves to the chimney.

    This transition time between summer and autumn is also when the aroma of the hop flowers are at their peak.

    DSC_1913
    A happy homebrewer in early autumn

    For a homebrewer, this is a reason to hop around the garden with joy. Alas, I’m still learning what’s the right time to pick the cones. Too early will lend some grassy flavours to the finished beer.

    DSC_1911
    A hope cone

    Too late, and I’ve lost the season’s harvest. Rubbing the cones between one’s hands releases the familiar aromas of an IPA. This year I harvested two varieties: Cascade (the American variety that is so fruity to the smell) and Brewer’s Gold which lends a great balance between mild grass and fruitiness.

    class1
    Our classroom ready for winter activities

    Our main task in the past two months was starting up the teaching activities and getting enough students to enroll in the English courses. It feels like that the entire ‘The Old Stable’ project relies on us being able to work from home. It’s only in that way that we would be able to spend time with the kids, manage the garden and hold social and cultural activities in a sane manner. Up until now, it was the sweet part of starting something new, throwing ourselves to the wild and hoping it all works out with the important difference that we had enough backup funds to get us going. It was the fun part of being a builder, carpenter, decorator, gardener and headmaster without being stressed about income. Now it’s time to live up to our own expectations and make our dreams a working reality.

    We designed our courses and tried to work out what was the best strategy to pitching up activities. We might have started too slowly. We advertised via friends and Facebook with only a few visits to the nearby schools handing out leaflets. Now the ‘academic’ year has started and we are far from filling up our courses. In fact, we are feeling a little on edge. We even started having doubts that we would be able to afford the kids’ music lessons, the one and only outsourced activity that the kids are involved with. Welcome to the life of being an independent! I feel a little embarrassed to share my worries as it was definitely expected and for the main part there are plenty of people out there that deal with this feeling yearly and here I am complaining after years of being spoilt, earning a monthly income without having to care about its actual source.

    Putting aside the economical worries associated with opening one’s own business, the political atmosphere in Italy, particularly in the area of immigration has started to become quite toxic. As much as people ridicule Salvini’s actions and discourse, his speech has infiltrated the mainstream conversations and allowed those with xenophobic ideas to feel free to express their views. In fact it were Italians votes that got Salvini into the government. If not just sadness, these developments evoke fear that a very bad time is approaching. Being brought up in a family that suffered losses in the holocaust I only think of the worst to come. This time it’s not the Jews they are after, but I still have this sensation that I can’t trust the people around me. what do they really think? and on which side will they be when the time of truth comes?

    DSC_1880
    The castle of Brisighella. A weekend that blew some fresh air in our activism sails

    On the other hand, good things happened too, and maybe not surprisingly we wanted to make the most of the little opportunities and positive ideas that came along. It started with Elena being invited to participate in a small weekend festival in Brisighella devoted to environmental and social issues. The focus this year was on reducing waste at home. Elena was invited to talk about our experiences as a zero-waste family without a car. We were hosted by a very nice family and got to meet people that were like minded, interested and wanted to do something. This already brings a bit of hope. We came back full of energy to be more active on the bicycle issue. Elena has kept on creating contacts in the last couple of months and has become an active member of the ‘Legambiente’ in Nonantola. I’ll let her write about the ‘Nappy library’ and the campaign that is running to complete the construction of a bicycle path connecting Nonantola and Modena. She has quite a lot on her plate and can guess that this gives her something to hold on to and hope that good things will come out of it soon.

    As for me, in the last month I got in touch with ‘Anni in Fuga’ of Nonantola, an association devoted to helping the local community of refugees in their daily tasks and integration. I was hoping to offer some space and ideas to arrange cultural exchanges especially around music at The Old Stable. Although it’s still early ideas I got a warm welcome and the members seemed interested. By chance through our violin teacher in Bologna I got to participate in a three day course run by Musicians without Borders and Musicians for human rights which really blew my mind. It was great meeting other people that wanted to do something too. I’ll have to write about this later and more lengthily, it’s still early times but there is a feeling that we are getting towards realizing some of our ideas.

    We’re still slow with our tiny business but know very well that it is a matter of determination and patience.. all to come in good time.

    So in summary, two months and a half between hope and fear, lots of hops in between.
    I hope updating with our social activism soon. Till next time.

    Inizio officiale corsi 2018/19

    Per la versione italiana scorri verso il basso. Migliorerò il mio italiano col tempo, la vostra pazienza per favore 😀

    So here we are! It’s been a year of work to sort things out but we can finally announce that our first official activities are starting from October this year!

    Last year we already had our first classes of Play and Rhyme Time and Tea and Talk but our pioneer little students and their parents as well as the adults from Tea and Talk were hosted in our living room. They had to share with us our children’s mess! and had to settle with only a small table in a circle. We might miss the first year of trying things out on a very small scale however it’s time to keep things a little tidier!

    class1
    Empty class with space for our toddler students. Those who started with us last year will recognize the yellow carpet.

    We now have a designated classroom with a big blackboard and plenty of space for our youngest students to roam and dance to their favourite nursery rhyme songs. The room will be able to accommodate courses during the colder winter months too!

    We have arranged a calendar of courses and we hope to get them all filled with happy English learners soon!

    class2
    Our old style classroom blackboard. Originally the back panel of the transportation box for our bicycle.

     

    For now, we offer two courses for children: Play and Rhyme Time (nursery age, 3-6 years old) and Fun Time! (elementary school age , 7-11 years old)

    For adults we offer two types of courses. The first, for complete beginners (or nearly complete beginners): Chat and Laugh, which we hope gives the idea of the course’s approach: lots of fun and practical!
    The second, is for the more advanced or intermediate level who wish to dive into conversation: Tea and Talk.

    Finally, we are excited to try out some new workshops:
    How about learning how to make beer at home, in English? with Inglese a tutta birra
    Or what about doing some theatre in English?
    Last but not least we hope getting some interest in an intensive workshop in communication and presentation building aimed at the professional level!

    At the bottom of this page (under the Italian) we also have our first flyer with information on the courses we offer this year. If you know anyone interested please pass this on!


    Eccoci qua! È stato un anno di lavoro per sistemare le cose, ma possiamo finalmente annunciare che le nostre prime attività iniziano officialmente primo di ottobre di quest’anno!

    L’anno scorso avevamo già le nostre prime classi di Play and Rhyme Time e Tea and Talk, ma i piccoli pionieri ei loro genitori, e anche gli adulti di Tea and Talk, erano ospitati nel nostro salotto. Hanno dovuto condividere con noi il casino dei nostri bambini! e hanno dovuto accontentarsi solo con un piccolo tavolo rotondo. Ora è il momento di tenere le cose un po più ordinate!

    Abbiamo un’aula designata con una grande lavagna e un sacco di spazio per i nostri studenti più giovani per ballare le loro canzoni preferite. La sala sarà in grado di ospitare anche i corsi durante i mesi invernali più freddi!

    class2
    La lavagna nuova! 

    class1
    La aula didattica

    Abbiamo organizzato un calendario di corsi e speriamo di averli tutti pieni di felici studenti inglesi presto!

    Per ora, offriamo due corsi per bambini: Play e Rhyme Time (età della scuola materna, 3-6 anni) e Fun Time! (età della scuola elementare, 7-11 anni)

    Per gli adulti offriamo due tipi di corsi. Il primo, per principianti assoluti (o quasi principianti): Chat and Laugh, che speriamo dia l’idea dell’approccio del corso: molto divertente e pratico!
    Il secondo, è per il livello più avanzato o intermedio che desidera immergersi nella conversazione: Tea and Talk.

    Siamo entusiasti di provare alcuni nuovi workshop:
    Che ne dici di imparare come fare la birra a casa, in inglese? con Inglese a tutta birra
    O che ne dici di fare un po ‘di teatro in inglese?
    Ultimo ma non meno importante, ci auguriamo di essere interessati a un workshop intensivo di comunicazione e presentazione per il livello professionale!

    Abbiamo anche il nostro primo volantino con informazioni sui corsi che offriamo quest’anno. Se conosci qualcuno interessato per favore passa la parola!

    leaflet_2018_version2_gpeg

    One year on

    Yet again I’m skipping more than a month in reporting on our progress.
    It’s been a year now since we moved to Italy and set up home in The Old Stable and I guess there is room for a short reflective post about how it has been so far.

    We came with great ideas to make our home a place to work from and share our passions, there were plenty of ideas to develop and keeping a blog and a website was a way for us to play with ideas and help us monitor our progress.

    DSC_0384
    We came with big ideas

    Most of the pages in the website, if you had a look before are pretty much like having a virtual bank of activities we could run in The Old Stable. Aside from a couple of children Rhyme and Time courses and one adult session of ‘Tea and Talk’ , we haven’t put into practice any of the other ideas this year. We had put aside some enough funds to allow ourselves to work at home for a year without really earning.

    DSC_0391
    External changes within the first summer

    This allowed us time to plan our own activities and save a bit by doing whatever we could in renovations, on our own.

    From day one we had our hands full with all sorts of construction work: from fixing the roof to installing a stove and rebuilding and painting the shutters before winter, to arranging the vegetable plots and getting chickens. At the same time our minds were trying to imagine what kind of activities we’d manage to set up from home to at least cover our running costs. Now time is up and we hope opening The Old Stable for regular activities this autumn.

    As I mentioned in early posts, we realized that during autumn and winter times we can’t really hold activities in the actual Stables without a properly installed heating system. The barn building needs a lot of initial investment in order to make it suitable for holding activities in it, but that is really the long term plan.

    So it was about in late May, when spring came with its new energies that we started insulating the very top floor so that we could use the rooms upstairs.  The rooms at the top floor were used in the first year as a storage place for old furniture given to us as presents. Things we knew we could use one day but didn’t really have the space to mount them. During the winter it gets very cold and in summer it gets unbearably hot. It’s only later that I learnt that these conditions (extreme hot and cold) are ideal for making Balsamic vinegar to allow slow acetification during winter and sufficient liquid evaporation during summer. That’s why traditionally, those that make thier own balsamic vinegar keep it in the top floor.

    DSC_1197
    The first room to be tackled. The top floor, without insulation turns out to be ideal for making your own Balsamic vinegar.

    The first thing to do was to do some research on the materials we could use. Although we wanted to use sustainable and as much as possible natural materials, we also wanted a material with high insulation capability, economically viable and relatively easy to work with. That’s quite a lot to ask for. But we settled with a multi-layer reflective and breathable material which was not cheap and probably not the most ecologically sustainable, but I believe that a good insulation saves a lot of energy and that pays back on the ecosystem too.

    DSC_1593
    Initial wooden frame to external walls.

    Building wise you can follow the pictures to see how it all went. From a basic wooden frame to laying the silvery shiny NASA-like material to adding a spacer (practically another frame to allow an air gab between the insulation material to the cover which was either cellulose fiber wall or a tongue and groove wall ceiling. For the roof we used a double layer insulation, meaning that two spacers were used. Sounds simple but it took a lot of time and frustration to get things in good shape.

    DSC_1595
    Laying the first layer of insulation on the external walls

    Now the rooms are ready to be painted but I haven’t downloaded the pictures that show the wooden ceiling and the cellulose plaster boards, yet. Within a month we should have them arranged as classrooms and a small guest room and I hope to post these as soon as we are ready to start publicizing our teaching activities.

    The months of August and September are planned to be dedicated to updating our website pages, especially those that are related to the English teaching. We plan to arrange a few promotional events and start recruiting students for next year.

    The hops are growing, and beer is being drunk, chickens are happy and the rabbit too.

    Until the next one.

    April-May 2018, Spring brings enthusiasm

    Yet again a blog entry that is slightly overdue but this time I have a good excuse… we were really busy, we are still very busy, in fact I’m taking away precious sleep time to write these lines and tomorrow we wake up early for another day full of work to be done. Hey, but I’m not complaining one bit, this is so much fun and there is so much to be looking forward to. The featured picture I chose for this entry is of one of the ex-battery chickens we have adopted late April. The picture was taken the day she arrived. Although with hardly any feathers and skinny as can be, evidently she is all full of  enthusiasm and eagerness to learn about the outside world, roam around free in the open and to appreciate real sun light. I think it sums up our mood… battered slightly by the cold winter and the realization that much more needs to be done before we can pitch up activities in The Old Stable we have emerged with regenerated enthusiasm and optimism with the first rays of proper sunshine. We have come with new ideas and it’s time to get work done.

    So in brief, in case you wanted to watch the photos and skip the wording, the last month and a half included: building a chicken coop and getting chickens in (and a cockerel), pitching up a hop garden (I thought I’d have to wait for next year!), seeing our veg plot sprouting, building a temperature controlled chamber for the fermentation vessels in the brewery and starting renovating upstairs in order to open airbnb-type activities.

    We had two couples from England coming for visits early to mid April and it pushed us to rethink on how to accommodate for guests. It seems that our visitors loved it here and we enjoyed sharing our experiences. We got to a conclusion that insulating the upstairs rooms will allow us to move to the top floor and leave the first floor where we sleep now for guests. The unfinished bathroom on the first floor, left by the previous owners, needs to be completed and that can create a whole separate living unit for a family on the first floor. Potentially an airbnb.

    So below is a snippet of how we build our chicken coop from scrap materials. We got ideas from the internet.

    We have now on average 3 eggs a day and the chickens from the industrial battery have gained weighed and grew back their feathers! such a pleasant sight.

    The setting up of the hop garden was an adventure by itself but I’d let the pictures below do the words. I’m in a steep learning process and didn’t know which types of hops can actually grow here. Luckily I found an Italian nursery that was very friendly and helpful. I’ve planted two varieties that should uphold the heat of the Emilia Romagna area: Cascade and Brewer’s Gold. A few plants look like they have suffered from the heat wave of early May which unfortunately fell on the week they were transported to their new home but a couple have already started climbing up their strings and I have hopes (in hops) that the others will survive and catch up.

    DSC_1170

    Last but not least, below is a picture of the initial frame I’ve built for the fridge that will be used as a controlled temperature chamber for fermentation. I think it’s time I wrote a proper post about the brewery and how it has developed so far. The project is complete and I can’t believe that I’m practically ready to brew all year round!

    Before I conclude this update I’ll add a picture of the room we have started insulating ourselves with a multi layer NASA like insulation roll.
    Hopefully my next post will be with pictures of a finished project! Until the next time!

    DSC_1210
    Upstairs room, intended to be a classroom and library as we start insulation work