Monday, March 9, 2015

An American describes her brief experience in an Italian high school

Italian high schools have difference strengths and weaknesses from American schools

. How do Italian high schools compare with those in America? I have invited a guest blogger to describe her experiences. My daughter Lindsey, along with her sister Suzye, attended high school in both countries. They attended Instituto Gramsci in Padova in 2001-02, and although they did not spend the entire year there, they attended long enough to make some valid observations.

Suzye and Lindsey in 2007
Their attendance at the school caused them some distress because they had just started to learn Italian, and after about two months, their teachers had some concerns of their own. The principal told us that the teachers didn’t understand why the girls weren’t trying harder at their classwork the way the other foreign students were. The school had made an effort to put Lindsey and Suzye in the best classes, but they weren’t doing their homework or participating in class. As our conversation continued, I realized that we were at cross purposes. The other foreign students were immigrants who had come to Italy for a good education and a better life, so they were highly motivated. Lindsey and Suzye simply wanted to make friends and experience Italian culture. They were keeping up with their American school requirements in their free time, and they would probably not get credit for their work in the Italian school, so they saw little reason to worry about their academic performance. After I talked to them about the problem, Lindsey withdrew from Gramsci and started taking Italian classes at a language institute. Suzye opted to stay in Gramsci for a few more months and try to work harder to satisfy the teachers. She said it was hard to listen all day to teachers when she still didn’t understand Italian, but she wanted to put up with boredom for the sake of friendships she was developing. Lindsey has agreed to share some thoughts about her experience.

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Italian high school was nothing like I was used to. The classroom walls were entirely blank, and students stayed in a single room for the entire day. Each hour for six hours, an insegnante would come in, deliver a string of words that were unintelligible to me, and then be replaced by another instructor who would do the same. Students also stayed with a single group of classmates year after year, so they got to know their “school friends,” as they referred to each other, quite well. Groups of school friends were like family, and no one was friendless or lost in the shuffle in the way students at American schools can be.

At first I was bothered by the lack of color and the lecture-only style of instruction, and thought it must be boring to see the same people every day, year after year. American teachers were always plastering the walls with motivational posters and maps and designing small group activities that encouraged movement and discussion. I never thought I would miss all that, but I did. Over time, however, I realized that neither school system was not necessarily better or worse—just different. 

Italian students are treated more like young adults, while American students are often viewed as teenagers on the verge of rebellion. As a result, I suppose, my Italian classmates seemed to take school quite seriously. They were always studying for some exam or another, and they were extremely well-behaved. They had one old teacher who was the bad kind of eccentric, the kind who babbled nonsense and was mildly inappropriate towards female students, and some of the students complained quietly when he wasn’t around. And yet, even he was treated with the utmost respect. And though they studied hard, Italian high schoolers generally maintained a sense of lightheartedness and humor. Students were always playing jokes on each other, going out dancing together or finding something to talk and laugh about in the most animated way.

They were allowed to smoke cigarettes at school, outside the classroom or even in the bathroom if it was too cold. They could bring in a bottle of wine to share with the class on special occasions, and when they had parties, everyone drank, though no one got drunk. Instead of having a history of prohibition, Italians have a history of enjoying fine wine, so there was not the emphasis on excess that permeated American high school parties. I’ve heard that in Italy, if someone was considered an alcoholic, his or her goal was not to stop drinking entirely but to learn to drink socially—to stop at maybe one or two glasses. It seemed like a pretty balanced approach to me.



Italian students did occasionally have grievances with their school system, and on several occasions I arrived at school to find everyone leaving in one big cluster. The students would hold impromptu strikes, though I never saw one last more than a day. Young people would blast loud music from cars and renegade sound systems, dance in the streets, shout slogans and paint colorful graffiti onto stone pillars and walls. I never really understood what they were striking about, but since just about every industry in Italy enjoys a good strike now and then, perhaps the students were just practicing for the future. Or perhaps they were also annoyed about the lack of stimulation in their classes.



I was surprised that the teachers at Gramsci expected me to study and keep up with the lectures when I hardly knew a lick of Italian. I had tried to study from my language books during the long and tedious lectures, but the teachers thought that was rude. I should pay attention in class, they said. So instead of looking at language books, I stared off into space. I believe learning a language through immersion is possible, but one should possess some basic knowledge of the language and be exposed to more simple sentence structures and repetition in the beginning.


The benefit I got from attending Italian school was entirely social. I lived for the breaks between classes, when all the students would crowd around me to practice their English skills. Although I was only fourteen, I was much more interested in befriending the upperclassman, who were in their late teens and early twenties. They possessed the greatest skills in English and were the most open to true friendship. Once I established relationships with some of the students and Suzye and I began receiving regular invitations to go out on the weekends, I saw no reason to keep up the facade of listening to lectures in class. It was a relief when I was offered the opportunity to drop out and take language classes instead. I’m sure my Italian teachers were just as relieved as I was when we said our final arrivederci.

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