School: Italian vs. American
(& all the details in between)
One of the questions I have been asked the most during my time here in Italy is, “Which school system do you think is more difficult: Italy’s or that of the United States?”. In reality there is no easy answer because there are so many differences, so I’ll point out some of the main ones that I noticed this first semester (their two semesters are from September to January and then February to June). I have stated a few of these points previously, but this is solely devoted to the school systems of Italy and the U.S.
First is classrooms. You never “change classes” because you stay in the same room for the entire day. The only exception to this is gym class when you go to the gym, but even then the teacher first comes to your classroom to check everyone in and write on the student portal what we will be doing for that day (every class starts by teachers taking attendance and then logging what will be covered that day in class). If you are late (you have about a 5-10 minute grace period after the bell rings to actually be considered late) or absent one day, you bring in your justification book that your parents sign, or if you are older than 18, you can sign it yourself- no reason is needed, just the time of entrance and their (or your) signature [see figure 1]. Seems a lot easier than some of the trouble I had to go through to get a doctors note for my old school, but every place is different! It’s only if you miss more than the allotted number of school days (about a month) that you need a real doctor's note- amazingly enough a girl in my class has already missed more than 35 days because she is sick so often.
Since you don’t change classrooms, the room is yours, the student’s, to do what you please. This means that your class paints it the color that it wants and can decorate it as much or as little as you choose. My classroom is a soft hospital gown blue and decorated by a map of the world, a cross that Gesù Cristo was once hanging off of, but then fell off due to rough play, a small Italian flag (we are the only class to have an Italian flag up- update: that has since come down) and a small American flag that I brought in and gave to my class (which hung for months, but has disappeared as of late). Ours is one of the more minimalist classrooms. Others have student drawings taped up or language posters (language school) or one is even painted bright green and has a welcome mat and plants in it. After the Paris attacks, half the classes put up a version of a “Pray for Paris” sign and for Christmas, some had Christmas lights around their boards [see figure 2]. It really is up to your class. This also means that your desk is actually yours, well for the year anyway. You can draw on it, store snacks, or if you are like me, store all of your books in it (there are no lockers, so everyone else lugs all of their books to and from school every day).
The students can also organize where they want to put their desks, the only exceptions being fire safety and general ease of use getting around. In most cases the desks have an order already set when the year starts (just because all of the desks have to fit in the room), but ours is different. Our classroom is one of the largest (it had to be big enough to fit the 29 students in our class and the teacher inside) and unlike every other class whose desks are evenly spaced in pairs across the room, we have four rows of desks all smushed together since the location of our board is in the left corner of the room and everyone wants to be able to see somewhat. It’s funny how people's grades tend to be in direct correlation with where they are positioned in regard to the board..
There are five classes every day and each class is an hour, so the school day lasts from 8-1. There is a break at 11 for a snack where you can get a caffè or tè from a hot coffee vending machine or go to the “bar” and get a piece of pizza (slices do not exist here in Italy) or sandwich. Living with my new family up the mountain from my school, I then ride two buses to get home, so I eat around 2 [see figures 3]. This works out perfectly because my host brother finishes his school at 2. He has one additional hour every day so that he does not have to go to school on Saturday like my host sister and I do.
Italian schools have staffed hall monitors. I think they probably have a different title, but that is what they do; sit in a desk in the hall for the whole day. There are two for each floor strategically placed on opposite ends of the very long hallways that make up our school, near the bathrooms and exits, one for the gym locker room area as well as one for the laboratory who acts like a teacher's assistant, fetching any of the needed materials.
The Italian school system places more emphasis on independent learning. My host sister phrased in nicely by saying how since they spend less time at school doing work and learning, they are expected to do more studying by themselves at home. With your afternoons free, you can thus choose to spend them how you would like. My siblings in both families are good students and often spend their time studying. There is not as much homework to do in the sense that something is collected and gone over in class (the majority of textbooks have the answers printed right next to the corresponding problems), but teachers may give problems on the material that you are covering. These problems are optional to do because it’s never going to be graded and may or may not be gone over in class depending on the teacher. It’s more a chance for you to see what you need to ask questions about the next time you meet in order to clarify whatever you don’t understand.
I think that a lot of people have seen movies that depict American schools as really easy because people always seem surprised to learn that, yes, I did in fact have a lot of homework every night along with sports practice and other things to do with the addition of our school getting out three hours later. It’s also difficult to describe how there are different levels of classes, so you can take easier or harder classes based on your abilities and interest level in a subject. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been transported back in time to the one room schoolhouse days of America, with everyone learning the same things, no matter what level they are at something. An example of this is a boy in my class whose mother speaks English at home. He has a beautiful British accent and is great at English, but he is in the same class as other people who can barely string a few sentences together. In the U.S., those students would be seen in “AP English” and “English 1” respectively because the classes you take are more based on your skill level.
The way that classes are taught is different as well. There is very little student participation, with the majority of lessons being taught as lectures, so it’s more like what you would experience as a student at a university. There are no student presentations or group projects and if you go to the laboratory to do an experiment, it is the teacher who actually does the experiments/ demonstrations. Students just watch. In the five months that I’ve been here I’ve been to the laboratory a total of five times, so that just goes to show how infrequent they are (to put it in perspective I think I had weekly labs in my Chemistry class). More lectures means less use of the board, which was one of the most challenging parts of school here for me when I arrived because they spoke too quickly for me to understand, much less take notes on. The board was another surprise because it isn’t a white board with dry erase markers, but a blackboard with chalk [see figure 4]! We also have a version of a “Smart Board”, but teachers only use it as a projector. I guess no one taught them how to use it or they don’t care. Although I have read on quite a few blogs from Italian exchange students in the U.S. that they were shocked by how young the teachers are in the States.
The bathrooms took a little getting used to, being squat toilets instead of the western style, but by now it’s completely normal. I will admit to looking up how to use one after being here for three months, just to make sure that was doing it right. The teachers have what Americans would call “normal” toilets, except there is no seat on the toilet bowl.
In my high school, students safety was always a priority. One way of providing that was having an unobstructed view into every classroom. This meant every door had a window in it that was viewable from the outside, or doors were just left open in general. Here, I realized pretty quickly that there were no windows or other ways to see into a class because if you want to enter a class, you need to knock on the door. The class then lets out a chorus of, “Avanti!”, meaning “Come in!” to whoever is outside (I believe it’s only supposed to be the teacher who says this and gives the outsider permission to come in, but in reality it’s everyone together). Sometimes these interruptions are from the hall monitors, bringing something for the teacher to sign about a change in schedule for the class (it almost never has anything to do with the teacher in the class at all, but they need proof that an adult was present to tell the students the change). Other times it is other students asking for latin dictionaries, calculators, or art design tools. You really never know who is going to come through the door, but it always provides a small break in the class which is taken full advantage of.
Once classes are formed in your first year of high school, there isn’t a lot of change from year to year. The only exception of this is splitting a class because it was too big or joining two together because it was too small in the previous year. Every year you elect two leaders of the class who are the connection of students to teachers and tell the class about any school changes or events. They really do a lot and are the class leaders. I actually ran to be one in my class, my speech being “Hi, Vote for me because I’m Caneel” which was about all the Italian I could string together, but I still got two votes (Yes, one of them was my own, but one was not!)!!
There is not a lot of change after your first year because upon entering high school you have to choose which “school” or specialization you want to study for the next five years (I thought being 18 and picking my major when I go to college was stressful, much less 14!). These choices include “Classics”- studying more Greek, Latin, and general classical works, “Applied Science”, “Human Sciences”, “Integrated Science”, “Linguistic”, and my school, “Scientific” [see figure 1 again for the logos]. We take 10 classes that include Math, General Science (includes Chemistry/ Biology/ Geology), Physics, Latin, Italian, English, Philosophy, P.E., History (we just finished covering the American Revolution and the history of America in general [my teacher, “Yes we will quickly cover the history of the US because it is very short”- true, but very funny to hear] which was fascinating to study in another language and from another perspective- the actual war against the British and the civil war were just bullet points! No tactics or battles were discussed, just the names of each side and who won [see figure 6]), Art (about half is art design, drawing complex interwoven 3-D figures with shadings [see figure 7], and the other half if art history which is incredible to learn about some of the famous works that I’ve gotten to see so far in person in Rome and Milan), and Religion (an optional subject that about half my class stays for, the others have an hour of free time where they can go to the school cafeteria and do other work) [see figure 8 for my personalized schedule]. Other schools offer technology and art specializations as well, or you can go to a lower, “easier” level of school (mine is the highest level, called Liceo).
Private schools are generally thought to be for the students who would have had to repeat a year at Liceo or who are generally not as smart. Also, although “Liceo” is a public school, very few people transfer in from other schools or other areas because people generally move a lot less here. Instead, families tend to all stay together in the same town. This causes some tense conversations for some families when students in their fifth year are deciding on the college they want to attend.
School wide protests still happen here. They are organized by the elected student government and seem to be very effective so far. We had one in December and another one is scheduled for the middle of February. The December “sciopero” was in protest against the lack of heat in the school since the school was trying to save money [see figure 9]. The students came to school at 8, like any other normal school day, except everyone waited outside the main school gates. At around 9 everyone marched around the school and sang chants and held up their really creative signs. The local news station even came out to cover it. The next day when we went back to school, it was nice and toasty. Side note: it’s funny to walk down the hallway during our 11 o’clock snack break because you will see clumps of students spaced evenly down the course of the hallway; all leaning against the heaters.
Grades are measured from 1-10 here with a 6 being passing. This is very similar to the U.S. system of 1-100, but a big difference lies in what is being graded. Grades at my old school were majorly comprised of homework, participation/harkness, presentations/projects, and tests (although it varied between classes) and were also weighted according to importance. Here, all grades are weighted equally and it is possible to have as little as two grades to make up your average for the semester. These grades are comprised from written tests or oral tests, or what we call “Interrogazione”. There is only one class that has homework that is graded, meaning it is very important that you spend a lot of time on it since it is worth the same as a test. Another big difference is that there are no exams at the end of a semester or even at the end of the school year. The only exam comes at the end of your fifth and final year of high school, which is what you need to officially "pass” high school.
The 5th year exam. This is the pass or fail of high school. You also take one at the end of your last year in middle school. Each tests covers all the material that you have learned over the course of your time at that respective school. You also take a practice test in your third and fourth year of high school that count as test grades to help prepare you. They are given by a separate committee, not your teachers, and include both written test portions as well as oral. It is similar to the exams that U.S. students take around Christmas and before summer break, with very subject being on a different day for a week, but they are a bit longer, being between four to six hours depending on the material. The material you are tested on also varies every year. This year the math test is apparently centered more on generic math, while next year's will put a bigger emphasis on physics.
Grades are not sent to colleges or seen by anyone else other than you and your family, so this means that students can really do as much or as little as they want to get by and pass the year. I believe it is this reason why repeating grades seems to be more common here. In my class of thirty, two girls have had to repeat a year. However, if you do well enough, you can be eligible to get money from the community where you live. My host sisters each got about 400 euros from the government of the town where we live for having some of the highest grade point averages in that community. Other communities only give around 200, but it is still a substantial amount. My parents in the U.S. did this system with me in Elementary school one year, except I think I got 50 cents for every A. Close enough..
In addition to the amount of grades that make up your average being different and their lack of being weighted, the ways of testing are also different. I stated earlier how the two types are written or oral tests, and will now explain the different skills they give you for life. Afterall, isn’t that the whole purpose of school- to prepare you for jobs/ life after school?
In my high school in the U.S., harkness is a common method of teaching for history and English classes. It involves talking on a specific topic with students leading the conversation (the goal is for the teacher to not have to talk, only redirect the conversation when needed or give another point of view to talk about). This is good preparation for future job meetings, teaching you not only how to express your ideas and speak up for yourself (one aspect of your grade is how often you speak in addition to what it is that you say), but also when to listen.
In Italy, they have oral tests called interrogations where between one and four students sit/ stand in front of the class by the teacher’s desk and are drilled, to various degrees of difficulty on whatever topic is being covered. Some are conversational, some are literal interrogations, probing you on every little detail in a painting for art or events that happened in Dante for Italian. This equips you to be ready for job interviews or public speaking since you are expected to think on your feet (literally and figuratively in some cases depending on the teacher) in front of the class.
One difference between interrogations and written tests is that interrogations can take up to a month to get through the entire class versus everyone on one day. With only three students going every day, that’s ten different class periods of interrogation. Also, sometimes the teacher forgets that they are still doing interrogations because it’s been going on for so long, so a few classes might pass in between interrogations. Interrogations don’t necessarily take the whole class, it depends on the teacher and the material being covered- in physics, maybe 10-15 minutes, in Italiano, always the full hour.
Thoughts on Cheating
Because classes are formed and then remain largely unchanged for the next five years of high school, the students get really close and a class mentality develops. This “team” mentality also transcribes over to when you are taking tests, written or oral. I remember my host dad asking me, “Well, you guys help each other out, right?” (referring to helping each other cheat in class) and my host sister said, “No, they don’t have the same unity as us” or something to that effect. Other examples include:
After my first day of school I was starting to do some of my Latin homework (before the school had me change classes to take more Italian classes during Latin) and immediately a group chat had been formed and the first question was, “Who did the Latin homework?” and within an hour someone had already sent it to the group. That pretty much set the bar for the rest of the year.
When taking a written test, it’s easiest to bring a “biglietto” or little note card with information in to cheat off of, but another common method is whispering. A teacher might be interrupted by the hall monitor and needs to sign something, whisper whisper; another student asks a question, whisper whisper. Everyone breaks out at once comparing answers and asking each other for help. It’s not subtle either, the teachers know what’s happening too, some try to rein the class back in, others just let them carry on.
For oral tests, students can sometimes choose how they want to orientate themselves in regards to the teacher. Often it’s to the side of the teacher so that the student can look out to his or her peers and see their classmates trying to mouth or “cough” the answers to them. It’s rather entertaining to watch.
You can see that cheating really is a problem here and nothing is being done to try and prevent it. It actually just seems like another part of the school system. There is no honor code or real punishments if you get caught cheating either. Once a guy in my class was caught using a little note card on a history test and his test was taken away, but then he just took it again the next time the class met. Another time a different guy google translated the entire latin test, and the teacher knew because it was written how a machine translator would write it, thus still having a ton of errors, so the teacher corrected it as so and the student got a 2, which seemed to be punishment enough. One day I walked into the room I share with my host sister to find her making a formula cheat sheet for math and copying notes into her translation dictionary to use the next day in her latin test. It was so normal that I almost forgot it wasn’t actually allowed, since everyone else in the class was doing the same exact thing.
Today in my art class, the other students asked the teacher, who is in her late 60s and planning on retiring after this year (also one of the more serious ones in regards to how she runs her class and cheating), “Come on, teacher. Didn’t you cheat too?”. The teacher then replied something along the lines of “Well, yes”-not sure if she meant middle school, high school, or college, but she wasn’t going to try and deny her “cheating” past either.
Now I’m not so naive as to think that the U.S. or even my own high school didn’t have people who cheat, but it’s just hard to explain how normal it is here.
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