14 January 2010

one school in all of Italy

When my friend and colleague asked me the "favor" of chaperoning her students on a visit to a local Italian high school, I jumped at the opportunity. I mean, well, I couldn't let her down when she clearly  needed me.  My eagerness was not at all related to my growing curiosity of the Italian school system.

We took about 36 of our American students by bus to a local liceo scientifico to spend the day as guests of a group of teachers and students.  I'm convinced that this type of experience is important on many levels, the least of which is actually mixing our teens with their teens.  You may be shocked to discover that this mixing generally does not occur naturally for either groups out in their communities. But. . . back to the experience . . . or what I learned:

1.  A liceo scientifico is like (never exactly) a rigorous high school for the math and sciences.  A liceo classico is similar to a rigorous high school for the arts (not performing arts) and sciences, often with focus on languages also available.  There are indeed other viable options for those who do not wish for a "college prep" curriculum; however, choosing one of this other schools does not necessarily mean students cannot continue to college, or universit√†.  Students don't attend schools according to zoning, but rather according to ability and interests.

2.  This particular school is popular and must turn away students each year because there just is not enough space, even though they've gotten creative with use of space.   "If you don't want to take school seriously, and you don't want to study, then don't come here," is what one teacher said concerning their annual recruiting.  Students first start with a recommendation from their middle school teachers concerning potential and achievement levels.

3. When the students start the first year they select a "form" or a course of study, and then they are placed in a class of roughly 30 students.  Those kids stay together in that class for the duration of the high school years.  Generally, the group also gets a classroom of their own and the teachers travel to them. (It's a little different in this school because of the space issues.) Should a student fail one course, he may be required to join a lower class and repeat the entire year.  He may be asked to leave the school.  In some cases, summer courses may be sufficient to replace the failed course.

4. There were not lockers in the school, but there were open shelves outside of the rooms where students could leave their belongings before entering the room.

5.  The school day begins near 8 am and ends at about 13:30 -- there was neither a lunch room nor school buses;  I did see lots and lots of bicycles in the school courtyard.  This school is also in session on Saturday.

6.  Official grades are reported twice a year with two progress reports (mostly for those doing poorly) in between, and a system of numbers (1-10) is used in grade reporting.

7.  There was a zona fumatori for students and faculty.

8.  Teachers do not have to coach or sponsor clubs.  This school, however, prides itself in the fact that it does offer a variety of after-school activities for students.  We were treated to a mini Beatles concert by their music club.  The club meets after school once or so a week under the supervision of a physical education teacher -- music is his hobby.  He does receive a small stipend, but it is not much at all.

9. Music education as we know it in American schools does not exist in this school.  The club is just for fun.

10. The students are expected to study 3 to 4 hours each night.

11. There was no student work posted in the school.  Well, actually there was a bit, just a little bit though, of student artwork in one room.

12.  The teacher who ran a physics lab that I took part in had a smartly dressed helper;  she set up all the labs and then attended to all of his needs as the class progressed.

13.  The school facility was beautiful and everything was so . . . . clean.  I also felt very much like I was on a college campus.

14.  I found chalk boards, new chalk boards, in this school as well.

15.  The library was virtually non-existent.

16.  I did not see one Smart Board and only the "media rooms" were equipped with LCD projectors.

17.  The students were mild-mannered and orderly throughout the passing periods -- all 1400 of them.

18. I got the distinct impression that learning is the complete responsibility of the student.  At the end of the five years, they are subjected to series of serious tests that determine if they have "passed" and earned a diploma.

19.  According to one teacher, data shows that their students do not perform mentionably high on these final exams, but they do perform better at the university and beyond.  (I wonder how they track that?) She did not attempt to explain why this is so, but she did mention that it is one of the reasons the school has such a good reputation and is so popular.

20.  The kids in this school have the opportunity to participate in exchanges throughout Europe; they also travel together.

21.  Students are required to buy their own books.

22.  No cheerleaders could be found in these halls.

23.  There were no phones in classrooms and certainly no computers on teacher desks in classrooms.

24.  This school has a planetarium:  we were treated to a show.

25.  This is a public school.

Every single Italian that I encountered in this school, from the janitor to the principal to the parents who prepared us lunch and especially the young people, was kind and respectful.  I can only hope that people get the same feeling when they visit my school. Hope.

I attempted to leave out my opinions (believe me, I have some) and report what I experienced in this one school in the Veneto;  I hope that I didn't generalize too much. . . it's one school in all of Italy.

I would feel very good about my child attending this school.  Now if only I could get an invite to spend a day at an elementary school?!


  1. In a year when I have record F's, I can appreciate that this is a school where kids want to learn. But I suppose there are tradeoffs. I don't know how I would teach without computers or LCD projectors or even a phone. I take a lot for granted, but then I wonder if it would be worth giving it all up to have students who want to learn? To be in an environment where teachers are not blamed for the laziness of their students. Where we don't have to worry that if we assign or say A, B, or C, a parent is going to call and complain or send an email. Sometimes I love my job and sometimes I hate it.


  2. Love reading about your experiences in Italian schools especially since I've just made the rounds of middle schools here to make a decision for my eldest daughter. She would like to attend an "american" style school with clubs, sports, cheerleaders etc...but that is unfortunately out of our price range here in Rome!

  3. Have you seen the documentary 2 million minutes. It compares U.S. schools to those in China and India. Anyway, if Italien schools are any thing like Swiss schools then you will be very happy. We really liked the schools their because they believe in the developement of the whole child. Our children came home with amazing art work and learned how to sing in about 5 languages. While still providing a tuff academic program.

  4. Dana, thanks for this post. Most of what I hear about Italian schools worries me and makes we wonder if Pata would be better off if we lived in the U.S. But now I'm feeling a bit more positive after reading your observations.

  5. This reminded me of stories my Italian friend use to tell me about her high school in Verona. I shared the post with my mom (a middle school IC in Smalltown, Washington) she wants to share it with her principal. I think love the lack of technology. I think much gets lost when classes are too rich in technology.

  6. This is so interesting! It's been many years since I was in a high school myself, but I can still remember much of it. The contrast between my experience and the Italian experience sounds high.

  7. Was this a private liceo? How interesting to read your impressions (I went to a classico (statale), the rest of the family to scientifico (statale)). I'm glad you connected with Amber.

  8. very interesting. in some ways a lot like the schools here, and some ways much better...

  9. Hi guys....
    It was a very interesting visit, to be sure. Again, it was one school in all of Italy and I've no idea if it is representative of most schools. This school was not private; there is at least one (that I am aware of) in our area & it doesn't get the best reviews. I'll send you the link to the school website if you'd like, just email me, but it is in Italian.