mercoledì 24 marzo 2010

gli ormoni

The students of my FCE Prep class at fancyshamncy high school Parini have been dropping like flies. Maybe it's the sunshine or the proximity of their spring break, but only about 12 people out of 30 showed up today. And this with the teacher who hired me begging me to teach another course because my feedback is so good.

When I arrived at the school, I noticed two students making out by the motorini, and I also noticed the girl, G, was in my class. I stopped looking and gave them a wide berth, kind of adorable, none of my business, and when I started class I had forgotten.

Anyways, the small number of kids meant that I could be more chatty with them, and after we finished going over the practice exam, we chatted about the novità in our lives. I asked G what was new, and she blushed, smiled, and said, "Nothing." Three other girls burst out laughing.

"Nothing?" I asked. No one gets off with "nothing". "What will you do for vacation?"
"I will...go to the mountains," she replied, setting off another set of snickers. I said it would be good to get some fresh air.

I then asked A what was new in her life, and she said, "I am happy. I am happy for G, because she has finally got a boyfriend!"

G's face turned from a red into a deep crimson, and all the girls, G included, giggled until they were snorting. I said, "Ah, oh, that's why she's now the color of her shirt." I felt a little bit of their excitement and embarrassment and almost turned red myself. I felt the urge to tell her that despite what everyone seems to believe, having a boyfriend isn't really so important, that you can do wonderfully without one, maybe even be more yourself, and make sure you don't let him affect how you feel about yourself or tell you want to do. But I held my tongue and let her be happy. It was time for excitement, not old Smithie lectures.

Relationships are a funny thing here. Scratch that, everywhere. But talking about them seems to be an especially favorite pastime here. Everyone has a great interest in your personal life, and in sharing theirs. I've had a teacher complain to me about her yearly French tryst, who never puts in enough effort. I've overheard teachers discussing the relationships of students (How can S be dating him? He is such a pig! I was very surprised). Once Elena explained to me that she knew a boy was doing better in English because his girlfriend of one year was making him study. Students kiss in the hallways.

Also, I made the (possible) mistake of telling Ms. R that I am involved with someone here, and she immediately assumed that 1) we were engaged, 2) we were living together and 3) that I was going to remain in Italy forever and now she and I can meet for tea every now and then. I replied that I had to leave in June, and she was horrified. "What will happen to your relationship?" she asked. I shrugged hopefully.

It's the brutal truth: the one entity that doesn't care about you and your boyfriend is the Italian immigration police.

lunedì 22 marzo 2010

line of the day

Rounding a corner on my faithful bike, Natty, on a rainy day, yellow Paddington bear hat on my head, middle-aged Italian man watches me pass and says,
"Che brava!"

a word on grades

Back from a long hiatus of indifference to blog-writing. Turns out when the suns out it can be hard to stay inside. Also my parents were here, and I was busy running around with them and eating. Word to the wise: All the pain and suffering to make a reservation to see Da Vinci's Last Supper is worth it!

I've been thinking a lot about grades and motivation, especially after an incident a few weeks ago at Zappa. Zappa is the technical school I teach at, as opposed to the classics and scientific high school, and I have noticed that the average level of English is lower here. Some of the kids are still wonderfully positive and allegri, but they do struggle more than the kids at the other schools. (This goes in hand with the common belief that linguistic and classics high schools are the best schools with the highest-achieving students, followed by scientific high schools, and then by technical and vocational institutes. As with all common beliefs, it is not entirely true, but I have noticed general differences in the academic levels and economic status of the students at my schools.)

Anyways, in one of my 4th year classes at Zappa where we were learning business English, the students, in pairs, had a project of conducting a mock interview. One was the potential employer and one was the potential employee. One boy, M, missed the day we assigned this project and, because these kids rarely check up on the work they missed when they're absent, did not have a partner and was not prepared to act out the interview. We decided that I would be the employer, he would be the employee, and we would do the interview next week.

The next week, I sat down with him in front of the class and asked him questions, not all of them from the script in the book, and he responded decently. He stumbled over some phrases and didn't understand every question, but I could understand him. The teacher then asked me to give him a grade.

I knew about the Italian grading system already, even though I almost never give grades myself. It goes from 0 to 10, with 6 as passing, on the surface pretty similar to our 0 to 100 scale. However, I had been surprised in the past when I heard students rejoice over 7s and 8s. For me, those grades seemed low.

I thought of the boy's performance, and decided it deserved about a C. It was hardly spectacular, but he had reacted well to unexpected questions. So I whispered to the teacher, "Perhaps a 7?"

M overheard me and immediately began cajoling the prof in Italian to let me decide. I could tell from her face that she disagreed with my opinion, so I asked what she thought was best. "Listen," she told me, "you have to understand how its works. If you give these students a passing grade, they will not study anymore because they think they have done well. They stop working. If you want them to study more you have to give them a lower grade. M especially will not study."

She didn't think he had done a good enough job to pass. Also, his relentless attempts to convince the prof to give him a better grade began to change my mind about his effort. We compromised and gave him two options: accept a 6 or re-do the interview the next week with the teacher. He accepted the 6. When we continued with the other interviews, the highest grade was a 7.5, and the kids who received it were quite happy.

Both the students' contentment with lower grades and the teachers' philosophy for motivation surprised me. While a student at a good public high school, I was never obsessed with grades, I always worked hard and appreciated an A as a reward. Maybe I was a little nerdy, but even my less smartypants companions wanted good grades, at least in the B range. Rarely did people fail.

Here, students regularly worry if they will pass the year. And the teachers, convinced that the kids won't study if they aren't worried, seem to keep them in suspense. Small errors lose you entire points off your score. I've never witnessed anyone receive a 9, and I asked F if he knew of anyone who had received a 10 when he was in school. He said, "Mai, never." The system here embodies the idea that you cannot reach perfection, as a opposed to U.S. system where it is possible.

So, I wonder, which system is better? Perhaps a question that I will continue to chew on as the months wind down...

lunedì 1 marzo 2010

a bus ride

Once again I'm posting something about play rather than work, but I had to fix the bus driver in my memory and if I don't write something about him he'll slip away...
This weekend we went to Champoluc in Val d'Aosta, X has a house there. I had to leave Saturday instead of Friday with F because I had work Saturday morning. Train, train, bus from Verres up the winding mountain roads to Champoluc.
On the bus we were at first the only passengers, and we sat up near the driver (F said we were vechietti, I said that if you put me in the back of the bus on mountain roads I will puke). The driver was a small man with gray hair, bald on top, bulbous nose, toothy grin. He asked us if his cigarette, which he dangled out the window while waiting for other passengers, bothered us. I thought of my roommates and said absolutely not. When we set out, he drove to the train station to check for other passengers and to take us down a parking lot ramp (Come un luna park!) as if it were a rollercoaster. Not bad, eh? he asked.
He was warm and wonderful. He asked F if he were milanese and they discussed the merits of city bus driving versus country bus driving. The autista concluded that even the higher pay could not tempt him to Milan. In Aosta the spese were low, the people were warm, life was tranquilla.
Two tween girls got on and sat directly behind the bus driver. They were obviously familiar, they spoke to him like a good friend. He asked them how their studies were going, how were their families. One of the girls began telling him about her parents, who were divorced, and their children with their new companions. He said, Oh so you have lots of brothers and sisters. And she said, No, we're not really brothers and sisters truely. And he said, But they are still the children of your mama, your papà, è sangue lo stesso, blood is blood, che mondo, carissimo amico.
Then he asked,Chi è quel ragazzo che sale ogni mattina? Anche ieri? È maleducato quello, non saluta mai, non dice niente. Ma saluta, ragazzo. Di dove sei che sei così maleducato? Ma cosa ti hanno insegnato tuoi genitori?
He complained about a boy who takes the bus every day but never says hi, never says a word of greeting. Where is he from, that he never learned manners?
At one little village he stopped the bus and noticed a girl getting off. He asked her, Can I ask you a favor? You know what it is? She said, Of course. He gave her a sack of groceries he had bought earlier in the day and told her to bring it to his wife (Sai dove abito, vero?). The girl stepped off the bus and the driver called out the window, Grazie! She replied over her shoulder, Niente! He turned to us and explained, Così mia moglie mi fa da mangiare, altrimenti mangiamo le patate e basta! (This way, my wife will make me something to eat, otherwise we would be eating potatoes and that's it!).
As we climbed further into the mountains, the height of the snow beside the road growing, the light fading away, he sang along to the songs on the radio. More people got on and off the bus, never very many. At one point he stopped the bus to let off an elderly woman. He asked her, Give me a goodnight kiss!
No, I will not.
And why not?
She replied, You know and I know that you have a wife at home.
Yes, and you have a husband, who is watching us right now!
And we turned to look out the window and sure enough, I saw a dark stooped figure in the warm orange window and the curtain fall as it was released. The old woman and the autista laughed, she made her careful way down to the curb. He turned to us, È un terrone come me! È tanto geloso, quello. (He's a redneck from the south like me, he's a jealous one alright!)
He would turn to us now and again, smiling and saying a word or two. F asked me why I was being so quiet, and I told him it was because I had to remember everything, fix it all in my memory. We had to arrive, though, and I was a little sad when we did. I had that feeling that we were friends now and that we should know each other's names or kiss goodbye or share something that meant we were more than just customers of a service. I could have stayed on that bus for a long time, my head on a warm shoulder and my ears filled with singing and friendly words.