For everyone Postcard from Italy: learning in lockdown

My dream of moving to Northern Italy was more about coffee, European travel, maybe some Emilia Reggio PD. I certainly didn’t factor in a pandemic.

The situation in Torino, where I now live and work, has been a huge learning experience – and not just for the kids. Nine weeks in, I finally have some time to reflect.

We had no time to prepare. At first, schools here were closed for a few days, then a week; suddenly, we were all in lockdown. Parents, teachers and students were all thrown into this together, and have had to adapt quickly, while also dealing with the shock and grief.

The kids were quick to get used to the situation. After about four weeks, they stopped asking when they were going back to school. Social and emotional wellbeing has been a big priority when it comes to students, but it has been neglected as a priority for adults. Except for the occasional email from leadership, I have not found teacher and parent wellbeing to be at the forefront of this experience. 

Constant adaptation is hard work, it is stressful – and finding a balance has taken time. As we are looking at working in this way for another six weeks, I am curious to see what creative ways my brain will find to make lessons continue to be exciting and interesting and collaborative.

Some children struggle with onscreen learning; it can be a battle to maintain their attention, especially with the younger ones. Games, dances and fun ways to participate need to be constantly available, and I have found that I have to have everything lined up in a browser tab, as it is impossible to find two minutes to prepare the next task. It takes a lot of extra time to make these resources. Structure is important, with a predictable pattern for each lesson, then offering a choice of activities within that structure.

Some are using the opportunity to be creative. I have one student who devises a new visual gag each time he appears on screen.

For other kids, this style of learning is a dream. Some of my students are making amazing progress with both English and literacy. The fact that they are thriving reminds me that the standard school systems are not set up for everyone. These kids tend to be driven and motivated, but also shy – the type of kids whose voices might not be heard in a bigger classroom. 

Some are using the opportunity to be creative. I have one student who devises a new visual gag each time he appears on screen. Others are stepping up to help each other, like the budding public health official in Grade 4 who made a slideshow for her classmates about the impact of the coronavirus on kids.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been delivering professional development to parents. Some are diving into this experience with gusto; others have been crippled by a fear of failure or have rigid expectations of education.

While access to technology is not a big issue for this cohort, reliable internet connections have been difficult for some. And with entire households at home, there have been times when shared spaces and devices have made things very challenging.

I don’t have a dedicated workspace either. I share a one-bedroom apartment with my partner, a novelist. Our needs are very different – my job is noisy, while she needs to concentrate – but we make it work. The kids are used to seeing her appear in the background. I’ve always been out at school, but now I can’t help doing this diversity work.

Our work is more visible for parents now, and perhaps more valued.

Seeing into each other’s homes like this, it’s like the pandemic has opened a door between worlds. To glimpse details from each other’s lives – pets, siblings, partners, meals – breaks down the formality, and has deepened the relationships with students and families. Our work is more visible for them now, and perhaps more valued. At the same time, I think parents only see the tip of the iceberg – they recognise the time on screen with the kids as ‘teaching’, but they still don’t necessarily see the many hours of planning and development that go on behind the scenes. 

As we head into report writing, I find myself challenging expectations about what good results look like. Instead of rigid assessment structures, there’s now an opportunity for us to reflect on how we’ve coped – to celebrate students’ resilience and adaptability, their kindness and empathy, and their creativity. 

If we do succeed at this kind of teaching and learning, it will come down to trust in every direction – between parents, students, teachers and leadership. Also, trust in our governments to make good, evidence-based decisions. 

I’ve been disgusted with some of the arguments to keep schools open in Australia. I sometimes get the sense that politicians think teachers are expendable, or that we’re capable of delivering the impossible. Having taught for two decades in a diverse range of schools, I cannot imagine any real-world classroom operating with social distancing measures in place. It’s unfair to teachers, unfair to kids. But I also acknowledge that there are many kids for whom school is the safest place to be. It’s a tricky balance.

This week, the Italian government finally announced what we’ve been expecting: schools will not reopen until the new school year begins in September. While this is an exhausting way to work, I do appreciate the clarity and the decision not to risk the health of staff, students and families. The door between our worlds is already beginning to close. But maybe we should try to keep some aspects open. I hope that some of the lessons from this time will stay with us, because they might help us to create more accessible ways of learning, stronger schools and safer classrooms in future.

Read a first-hand account of the crisis from three Italian teachers working in Florence here.

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