Words by Pat Eggleton
Meet Sarah Fontò, who blogs, from “deepest, darkest, Lomilla” about educating her son at home, her husband the “Italian Sock Dropper” and the “Holy water” next door!
Sarah, why did you come to Italy and when?
Fifteen years ago. I'd emigrated to Thailand at 21 because my first husband wanted to go home. Some years later the marriage went bellyup.
I went home..and home wasn't there any more, I still felt like a fish out of water (expat syndrome) and I missed teaching. After a few months of faffing around feeling sorry for myself I was offered a job in Portugal, but a couple of other teachers I knew were going to Italy. So I stuck a pin in a map of Europe and actually managed to hit Italy. Then I booked a coach ticket to Milan. I arrived on the 3rd of August, which is a pretty good indication of how little I really thought about what I was doing and how well I researched it.
Can you tell us more about your husband, the “Italian sock dropper”?
Yes. He both remembered and forgot mother's day. I'll give you three guesses which mother got presents and a fuss made of her and which one is sulking mightily whilst glowering at a posse of socks littering the living room floor.
Whereabouts do you live in Italy?
Lomellina, home of fog and mosquitoes. Because somebody had to be within spitting distance of his beloved Milan. It took me four years of crowbarring just to get him this far.
We swapped a tiny trilocale [three-roomer] in Milan for a huge cascina [farmhouse] and it was such an improvement. A big, old farmhouse is a lot of work, what with lugging wood, the zoo I have squired, attacking triffid-like weeds in the summer, but compared to being stuck in the little box in a city I found so hard to live in once we had a baby, it is great.
Did it take you long to get used to Italian life?
I think it did to some extent, although I didn't find it particularly hard going as the learning curve was so much less steep than in Thailand. I sort of floated above it to some extent when I was in Milan and I was working full-time surrounded by Brits and Americans, enjoying the differences and being grateful for widespread, cultural similarities.
Then I went into newborn fug. An extended version. I was mad as hell over the birth, because the Sock Dropper chose the hospital based on “ease of parking” and failed to notice it was a hospital that practised “drug free birth”. I sort of blamed the entire nation (and everybody in it) for allowing a system to evolve that forced me into twenty-four hours of screaming agony followed by major surgery. I may have taken it ever so slightly personally.
Between the people who seem to stalk new mothers just to exclaim “ma signora, non si fa cosi!!” and the mad paediatricians who attack small penises, go on and on about how your milk is water and “wrap that hot baby up or he'll die from a slight breeze”... I sort of went off Italy quite a lot for a while.
I suppose when I moved out of Milan about five years ago the rhythm of my life changed. There are no other English speakers but there were loads of green places for kids to play in together which meant parents that I met parents, so quite quickly I just slotted into place.
Son of Thor, the baby insomniac, started sleeping better around then too which may have had a lot to do with it.
Could you speak Italian before you moved here?
“Cappuccino” was the sum total. I learned “brioche” by month two. Then I met the Sock Dropper and he forced me to spend extended holidays with his entire family in Liguria. Mother-in-law made it her personal mission to beat Italian into me by waggling kitchen implements in a menacing manner and shouting their names at jumbo jet decibel level. It sort of worked actually.
That sounds a good way to learn! How old is your son and when and why did you decide to educate him at home?
He is nine. We started home educating this academic year. The short version is that after a lovely time in a nido [nursery] and an OK time with the nuns in maternal [preschool] in Milan, we came here - a school district which appears to be doing its level best to demonstrate why Italy limps in near the bottom of the PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] tables.
The final straw was the tenth meeting I called with the director. It reeked of déjà vu. I complained vociferously (again), he responded (again) with,
“Yes I know ! We don't want to employ these people, but the regional authority sends them here and there is no way to get rid of them. This is Italy. My hands are tied.”
Having the same conversation again and again and again was futile. I considered the alternatives, picked the one that ticked the most boxes in terms of offering improvements and had the shortest “cons” list. It happened to be Home Education because our location excluded the more obvious choices of going private or an international school.
There is a section about the legal process on your blog but can you tell us what the most important regulations are?
You must ask for permission. You must give a reason. Your child will be tested annually.
You must restate your intention to home educate every year [which I forgot about. I must pop into school this week to tell them!]
You cannot count on being given carte blanche to autonomously home educate (“unschool”). In fact you are likely to meet considerable resistance.
You cannot count on being given carte blanche to follow the curriculum of your choice in the language of your choice. In fact if you present a curriculum entirely in a language other than Italian you may well see the director doing his best impression of an enraged and swollen toad.
Once you started to negotiate the legal process were there any stumbling blocks?
Yeah, my lack of patience! It took months for them to get back to me and then it was, “Oh, all right then, if you must”.
Finding out that I couldn't just do the British curriculum. I had to do the Italian one, too.
Other than the above and being left in corridors, forgotten and abandoned, when people didn't turn up for meetings they themselves had decided to set up, no major upsets so far.
Is your son’s process monitored by the Italian educational authorities?
Yes, via the school. They have to test him annually, along with the kids who go to schools who don't have parità [equal status] and I suppose they send the results to the regional authorities.
Does he like being educated at home?
More than school. Less than being allowed to watch telly and play on the computer all day.
Are there any disadvantages for him?
In my opinion, yes.
He doesn't get the myriad of opportunity of social interaction that school offers and he absolutely loved that aspect of school - until the last set of replacement teachers decided that wholesale and constant revoking of breaks for all students was an appropriate punishment for a single minor infraction from a single child in the class. It got to the point where a breaktime spent playing became as ubiquitous as the Dodo.
He doesn't get the experience of learning in a group, having to wait a turn or maybe trying to work independently even when in difficulty because the teacher is tied up with somebody else.
He is “different”. He struggles with other people's surprise and criticism of our home educating status.
How do you ensure he meets children of his own age?
With a great deal of time, energy and effort. He has more after school activities than you can shake a stick at.
On top of that we have oratorio, going to friend's/friend coming here, going to the park after school closes, going to all the local fairs/festivals/events for the sake of the crowds of kids that are milling around playing together, centro estivo, going to see the local adult footie teams play as there are always loads of kids there to muck around with freestyle. We accept every single party invitation that comes even when I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than eat another slice of “Nonna's wonderful crostina!” and take part in the “Who has done The Most Ironing today?” Olympics. I haven't ironed anything for 17 years. I always limp in last, the Eddie the Eagle of Italian Housewife one-upmanship.
I’m with you on the ironing! Do you work to a strict timetable with your son?
We do 9-1 for formal learning. Maths, Italian and English every day, other subjects in rotation.
If it is a day when the school finishes at 12.30 he'll be off to play with anybody who isn't too overloaded with homework.
If it is a day when school finishes at four he can watch one cartoon at lunchtime and then we “unschool”, which is basically following his interests rather than following a set curriculum. At the moment he is obsessed with creating interactive games using web 2.0 tools and driving me mad by droning on about Pluto and its new non-planet status. Tomorrow he is hell bent on making a potatoes clock. We have a kit that we got from our visit to the Leonardo da Vinci Science Museum week. I must remember not to make chips at lunchtime or we will have equipment failure.
At four it is time to dash around to find the latest sports kit I have forgotten to wash and I usually don't see him again till the Sock Dropper brings him home at about seven, as after sports he tends to have a play date or be at the park with his friends.
When he gets back I battle him into the bath, feed him, let him sink in front of his beloved telly and then stick him into bed at nine.
The next day we do it all again.
Weekends, aside from some reading, I don't plan any formal learning. The other kids are free so I prefer to take advantage of their availability.
What is the best aspect of educating your child at home?
He doesn't slap himself on the head saying “I'm stupid, stupid” if he makes a mistake any more.
At school they took rote learning to a whole other level and he is crap at learning “parrot style”.
If he has no comprehension of what it is/why it works that way and he doesn't get regular recycling of material in different formats, he finds it almost impossible to commit it to memory.
That put him at a distinct disadvantage in tests which hammered his self-image.
We haven't abandoned rote learning. He has tests at the end of the year so I couldn't avoid it even if I wanted to. However, it's set up to allow him to succeed at remembering in the shorter term and retain it in the longer term, creating a foundation for further learning from then on.
How that success has translated into rebuilding his confidence in himself as a learner … well, it has compensated for the tiredness and then some.
I'm pleased with the massive leaps he has made in terms of academic attainment this year, but that pales into insignificance compared to seeing him unburdened from the belief that he was a write-off at just 8 years old.
What are the main difficulties for you?
Time. Energy. Always being with my child. Yeah, I said it. I enjoyed not being with my kid all the time. I really liked that bit about sending him to school which meant I was on my todd for huge chunks of time.
Another flattering, but rather irritating development is that now he sees me as the Gate Keeper to All Knowledge, which means the why?/how? questions have increased about a squillion-fold.
You try answering questions about Pluto's non-planet status, how the Egyptians kept the bandages on if sticking plaster hadn't been invented yet and how come bees don't get their feet stuck in the honey, all at the same time, while you are still blearily struggling to get the mocha open and find the coffee.
I can’t imagine how you manage it! Have you any idea how many parents are educating their children at home in Italy? Are you in touch with any of them? Are there any associations for home educators?
Very few. Some I have met through my blog, some I have found via their blogs and I am on the main email list. There used to be an email list for English speakers home educating here, but five minutes after I found out how to gain permission it just disappeared.
Are you going to continue to educate your son at home?
Yes, certainly up until terza media.
I'm currently refreshing my GCSEs, slogging through my weakest subjects to make sure I'm up to scratch, so we'll see how we stand for high school.
I'm open to a high quality virtual high school, tutoring or even a boarding school back in the UK if I feel that later on my teaching him is putting him at disadvantage.
What advice do you have for someone thinking of educating their child at home in Italy?
Don't just read the happy clappy stuff about HE. Go trawl through the archives of Home Education Heretic to see what opinions, philosophies, politics and mindsets underpin the sometimes overly positive slant placed on the experience, the outcomes, the ease and the quality of the much bandied studies. Don't just read the posts, as the comments are where the action is.
When and why did you decide to blog about your experiences?
About a year ago. There used to be an email list for expat mums in Italy that were HE-ing. But it disappeared just when I needed it the most. I was hoping to flush out any other HE-ing parents as well as try and plug the sudden gap for anybody looking into it, because it was awful trying to do it by myself, stumbling along in the dark. Then one of my neighbours went all guru-like, claiming that his well water was the holy, magic healing variety and then the wretched Studio Aperto put him on the telly, twice. That’s when my blogging really took off as a way to let off steam, as the alternative was being arrested as the pilgrim slasher.
What has blogging given you?
Not what I expected. I have “met” precious few other HE-ing parents. I’ve only had a few emails asking for more info for prospective HE-ing parents. Instead I have found myself happily ensconced in an informal mini community of bloggers, both in Italy and beyond.
The Sock Dropper loves it. I bend his ear less as I pour my latest pilgrim rant into the interwebs instead.
All your blog articles are interesting but can you recommend some especially for Italy Magazine readers?
My special guide for a niche expat issue – when your locality sprouts a mystical tourist attraction aided and abetted by the TV versions of the Tabloids.
I have pilgrims, hear me whinge !
Plus, for those kids at school, this is my showcase, where I collate the materials both in Italian and English that I use to supplement and expand learning opportunities:
This is the largest collection of the interactive learning games that Son of Thor has learned to create as well as use.
This is a site I use daily to keep up to date with what educational sites in Italy have to offer and what changes are in the wind for the educational system.
This is our maths package that forms the core of our maths programme which we supplement with paper based work and mental maths.
Here is a reading programme I am going to cough up for next week:
Our choice for a spelling in English programme :
The British curriculum I bought
Plus we use the local library so often that we are on first names terms with the staff ( :
Amazon loves me. Their delivery people who have to trundle down our track, not so much.
Thank you, Sarah , for talking to Italy Magazine so honestly, for sharing your resources and for making us laugh!