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!

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 🙂

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

The first nine weeks

We finally got an internet connection and it took us nearly three months to get there!
There is so much to update that I don’t know even where to start. Looking back at the photos we have taken during the first months, a lot has developed but yet pictures don’t seem to truthfully convey what we’ve been through.

For the first few weeks it was difficult to contain the sheer excitement of just the size of the open spaces. However, tensions tried to sneak in and overtake the excitement as we soon also realized the amount of work ahead of us: rotten wooden shutters to replace, a hay storage full of pigeons, leaking taps and lots of vegetation, to name a few tasks that do not include just setting up the kitchen and unpacking our boxes from England.

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The house and the Old Stable as received in the beginning of June

I think it could have become just too overwhelming to manage. Luckily, Elena’s family is just so helpful and positive. We got lots of guidance, advice and physical help, but most important, a lot of encouragement that we can do it and that we are progressing well.
The garden was mowed, big bulk of vegetation cleared, we learnt from the ‘experts’ how to do anything from mixing cement to refitting shutters using affordable materials (I say ‘experts’ as Elena’s family have experience in DIY when it comes to countryside houses, but that’s was never their day job). We got a hand and equipment such as: proper scaffolding, grinders and even a circular saw.

On the days it rained we were disheartened and got worried, but when it was sunny and the lads (that is Marco and Loredano) came for a coffee and to check that we were doing fine, our smiles came back and we were motivated to continue.

Bit by bit the green rotten wood has turned to a yellow builder’s wood (you buy them here coated with a yellow paint). We decided the shutters need a bright new colour something more ambitious than the forest green that it had before.

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Learning from family how to fit new shutters… 12 in total. Loredano has done this job in the two houses he lived in previously

Archaeological evidence, gathered by Elena has revealed that an older period had the shutters and windows red, so we went for it. Elena was responsible for the painting while I was doing the fitting and cutting.

It was such a sense of satisfaction to complete one side of the house and move on to the others. Visitors and delivery personnel are happy with the vivid red that is evident from the junction at Via Mavora as it is lively and makes it easy to find us.

In between working on shutters, garden and mosquito nets, Elena was making sure we already start enjoying the traditional activities practiced in our area such as making the annual family stock of tomato juice (passata) and giving a hand during the grape picking period.

 

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Finally, we are ready to start working on the stable doors and get our place ready for social gatherings,  start lessons and develop our workshops. I’ll keep the blog space updated as I go along!

 

 

“Eccovi le chiavi… però la porta non chiude”

4 giugno. Atterriamo a Bologna e salutiamo i colleghi di Barak, che hanno preso il nostro volo per partecipare ad una conferenza dell’Università di Bologna; Barak li raggiungerà domani. Il tempo di lasciare le valigie a Nonantola, abbracciare tutti e rifocillarci di albicocche e melone a casa delle nonne e poi via, inforchiamo la bicicletta per pedalare verso la nostra nuova casa. L’ormai ex padrone ci aspetta seduto sulle scale: “La casa adesso è vostra. Ecco le chiavi, ne ho solo una copia, le altre ve le porto quando le trovo. Ah, però la porta sono tre o quattro mesi che non chiude dal di fuori. Si sarà abbassata sui cardini, dovrete metterla a posto.” Saluta, fa salire in macchina i cani e se ne va.

L’erba è alta, le fronde del salice piangente toccano quasi terra nel vialetto di ingresso. Però il glicine è fiorito, le rondini sfrecciano tra il fienile e i campi intorno, il silenzio si interrompe solo quando un refolo di vento fa stormire le foglie dei pioppi. Siamo all’inizio del nostro nuovo, grande progetto e non sarà certo una porta di legno abbassata sui cardini ad intaccare il nostro entusiasmo, anche se ci fa sudare un po’ perché per chiuderla dobbiamo sollevarla di forza.

Il sole sta per tramontare e la luce calda si stende sui campi di grano quasi maturo mentre pedaliamo di nuovo verso Nonantola, verso la casa della zia dove sono in corso i festeggiamenti per il terzo compleanno del cuginetto. Si sente già qualche grillo.

Siamo tornati, e siamo felici.

 

4 June. We land at Bologna Airport and wave goodbye to Barak’s colleague, who are on our flight to attend a conference organised by the University of Bologna; Barak will join them tomorrow! Just the time to leave our suitcases in Nonantola, hug everyone and feast on apricots and mellon, and off we go, pedalling on our bikes towards the new house. The ex-owner is waiting for us on the staircase. “The house is yours now. Here are the keys… ah, by the way, the door does not lock from the outside. It’s been three or four months… It probably moved down on the hinged, you’ll have to get it fixed”. He gets the dogs into his car and waves goodbye while driving away.

The grass is luscious and very tall, the branches of the weeping willow almost touch the ground along the driveway. But the wisteria is in full blossom, swallows dart between the hay deposit and the fields around, the silence is broken only by the poplar leaves rustling in the evening breeze. We are finally at the beginning of our big project, and it won’t be a wooden door too low on the hinges to scratch our enthusiasm: it just makes us sweat a bit because in order to lock it we have to lift it by force.

The sun is about to set and the warm light caresses the wheat fields while we pedal back to Nonantola, to auntie’s house, where a party for the cousin’s third birthday is awaiting us. We even hear a few crickets.

We are back, and we are happy.