Feeding Hungry Minds
I hesitaded before accepting the invitation to write about our latest experiment at the education center at Mirto in Sicily.During the last six years we have held many seminars to look at the various aspects of the experimental work we are now engaged in at the center .But it was only at the beginning of 1975 that we managed to develop our enterprise on a more permanent and organic basic.I want here to show what the major difficulties were,and how we are seeking to overcome them.(In writing about the center I want to make a distinction between the words “to educate”-from the Latin, educere –and “to teach”-from the Old English, taecan,to make a mark or sign).
We began with children of five or under, though ,we are now taking six-year-olds: altogether we have 90 children and six educators. As we grow our experiment will include children of both sexes up to about 14 years old.There is no discrimination of any kind in our selection of children.Generally they come poor families or from families with whom we have previously worked on certain ideas about education.Others are suggested to us by a local committee, in an informal but responsible way.
At first the families saw the center as little more than a day-care “asylum”,some sort of refuge where children could be unloaded for a few hours a day, taking them off the streets and perhaps even teaching them something useful.
Our aim is to show how initiatives of this kind can produce real grassroots self-analysis, through the involvement of the children and families.In doing this we always keep an eye on a changing relationships,both within families and in their dealings with the outside world.
Such a process of democratic involvement provides a lever to use against the Mafia and against fascism.This is precisely what happened over the construction of a dam in Partinico.When the farmers, against strong opposition,organized themselves democratically to take control of the water, they were able to get out of the parasitical position in which they found themselves when the Mafia were in control.
Our aim is to find out and develop together with the children their deepest interests trasforming their natural curiosity into a method of inquiry and discovery.We want to create a form of “maieutic” enviroment, in which we each become midwives to the other, bringing our latent ideas into clear consciousness.We also are trying to experiment in the neglected field of non-violent action and make careful assessment of our work.
Mirto is near the mountain of Partinico with grounds of some eigth hectares The entire valley around the Gulf of Castellamare can be seen from the center. During most seasons it offers the children direct contact with flowers, plants, animals, earth, sand and the water of the stream nearby.The children are intensely fascinated by the different flowers that they find in the fields every few weeks. It would be interesting to find out the deeper cause of this particular fascination.
Note : (through his work as a social reformer in the people’s fight against the Mafia in Sicily, Danilo Dolci has become a widely respected international figure.This article,which first appeared inThe times (London)Educational Supplement, describes Dolci’s most recent project,an experimental school for children of the peasant community in Partinico, in western Sicily. In no other place in Italy is public education available to children on a full-time basis)
In order that they can travel to Partinico, we have to organize the children’s transport by shuttle-bus. At present the bus travels for 10 minutes along a bad road, which the Sicilian regional government have pledged to improve. But this apparent drawback provides us with a change to meet the families: we have to work out with them where and when the bus should stop on its journey to and from the educational center.
The construction of the center had been discussed at grass-roots level during the preliminary and at each subsequent stage, by the use of drawings and models.
The result was remarkably good for educational purposes, but the reinforced concrete (with we had to use because of the possibility of earthquakes) caused excessive noise in the building and gave it an unfortunate solidity which could have been avoided.
When we start building again on the other side of the stream, we shall try to overcome these defects.
Our beautiful small amphitheatre, which seats more than 600 and has a spendid view of the whole valley, has proved very useful. It was constructed from the mountainside itself, the tiers being cut into the marble a material we only discovered after work had starded and the topsoil had been removed. The valuable water –mill which already stood on the site will shorty be restored for use: at present it is used as a house for the gardener and as the storehouse for agricultural implements.
The simple furniture – such as small, adjustable work desks – was made entirely by local artisans to the right scale for use by little children.
Since we wished to set up a distinctly anti Mafia, anti fascist educational center, with the help of friendly groups, we have had to find the money to pay the costs of construction. Should the experimental school succeed, we shall therefore have the option of choosing our own methods and educators, who will be financed by the state.
The educators, who have previously been in contact with the children and their families, each begin with a small group of five, six or seven youngsters, wich eventually grows to about 15. This is to allow a close relationship to develop from the start between educator and child.
At first, the child arrives with some member of the family, usually the mother, to avoid the trauma of separation wich can often be so harmful, especially among the poor. The child gradually explores its new environment, becoming increasingly interested in the surrounding objects as well as the other children.
He or she comes to feel it as an extension of the familly setting.
The adult is seen not as a stranger suddenly taking the place of near ones, but as a trusted friend of the familly. Mother is there to begin with, helping in the educational center ; she will stay at home only when it becomes quite natural to do so – usually after about a fortnight.
We have realized that in the second year a shorter period is adequate, because by then the children talk to each other in the streets.
It is important to emphasize that every child comes only if he or she wants to. Where a parent is over-protective or when other difficulties arise, the child is given special attention with the help of a psychologist. It is obviously important for some of them to have pediatric care. This may seem an expensive and time-consuming way of starting children at school. Nevertheless, we feel that the decision to allow children to be involved in understanding and making their own decisions could have a profound effect on the whole educational process.
Each morning, the educator asks all the children in turn what they would like to do that day. This usually takes about 10 minutes, or half an hour at most. If, after everyone has had his say, there is disagreement about the choise of activity, the discussion continues until a solution is found, which everyone, including the educator, is happy with. The experience of reaching decisions in this way, of learning to modify and coordinate one’s own demands to those of others, and of learning to plan ahead, both personally and in a group, is of value to everyone.
Inevitabliy, there are risks in this method: the procedure may become a mere ritual, especially if the educator doesn’t fully understand the process. It is also perfectly natural for the children sometimes to grow tired of working on some topic or activity, even if they have chosen it themselves.
But for those who say it is impossible for children of four and five to understand enough to deal with such structural problems. I offer this incident. A little girl, returning home on the bus one afternoon, had a sudden illumination, and said to her friends:” But the Mirto Center is ours!” “ Of course it is” , some other replied. “ Well then” the child continued after some thought, “why does my sister’school belong to the directress?”.
We must be careful not to create myths about the conditions of the children or of the adults. We place a hight value on the resources of the local culture, but try to avoid some of the deschooling proposals, which often seem to be rather improvised, though they are useful for breaking windows where fresh air is needed. Tolstoy, a century ahead of his time, held sincere if romantic views about the minds of young peasants. But at least Tolstoy was able to make his own experiements with the children, and develop close, rich and subtle relationships with them. We feel there is more scope to develop autonomy, both in research and in training, on the basis of communal decision-making, if we can steer clear of the dispute between authoritarianism, and anti-autoritarism.
The children are naturally attracted by the conutryside. While they spontaneosly discover the flowers, trees, rochs, snails and so on, the adult educator tries to find ways of deepening such observations. What is different, what is the same about this tree and that one?: In this way, the children discover that no one day is like onother: no flower like another; no single petal like another, but, at same time, that everyone has a nose, everyone has two eyes, every almond-blossom has five petals. This method of observations offers them a lively, poetic route to the concept of abstract number.
Local games are thoroughly analysed by the children, who decide which are the most interesting and rousing, which the most sterile and repetitive.
Among the materials available, those found and brought in by the children have the most notable success.
The children have the use of two small houses made by a local artisan to resemble the houses of the area: a small wash-basin; and little beds to play with, or to sleep in when they are tired. There are also two small, battery-operated sewing-machines, made in such a way that the children dont’s harm themselves, a carpenter’s bench, materials to plaint with; modelling clay; pieces of wood, cut to varying size, which can be arranged and rearranged in the carpeted area; and materials for associative sense- experiences.
If some children show curiosity about the trees emerging from the lake created by the dam, someone who partecipated in the actual buiding of the dam is brought in. They will then get the children themselves to try to achieve a similar process with the stream. The story will be told of how the big dam, wich once did not exist, was finally brought into being . The children then experiment among themselves, though on a much reduced scale, to learn how a dam functions.
We have started singing together. Songs for children are generally far more didactic than musical, and the local songs are beyond the scope of children’s voices. The existing musical literature designed for infants, such as there is, often has charatcteristics which are too remote from the children’s own culture, as for example Kodsly’s Hungarian compositions. So we attempt to compose our own, more appropriate music.
No great urgency is felt about reading and writing. As the children’s interest successively depens and organizes itself, so it becomes easier for them to develop these skills. Although the national language is used, dialect is not excluded, particulatly early on. Learning a few songs in other languages can help children’s phonetic abilities.
Gradually a group of educators has been formed – by elective affinity so to speack. Some had participated since the beginning in the center’s work, in which efforts had been made to allow people to assume responsability for their lives, to be aleart to questions of quality, and to value local culture while opening it up to the best that exists elsewhere.
Apart from the work itself, everyone undergoes training. Discussions are held twice a week, on method and on ways of solving difficulties. Once a mouth the meeting coincides with that of the council, which is made up of all those involved in the center’s work. At this meeting the fundamental issues affecting the development of the area are discussed.
Daily records are kept: these chart the progress of individual chidren and predict their likely development. Care is taken that all meetings between adults, as well as those with the children, allow for a discussion of the potential of everyone present. We are trying to raise the critical faculties of everyone, including the educators.
Seminars on the various disciplines are arranged as the need arises. Relations with other schools are on an informal basis, through teachers’contacts, through the istitutes of pedagogy and psychology at Palermo University, and in particular through meetings as the training center at Trappeto.
There is no lack of educators willing to gain qualifications in their work, while unpaid voluntary assistants are at the same time assimilated into the groups. But we need to take care that the assistants do not work against the principles of our method. On the other hand, the educator needs to be aware of and be able to evaluate the creativity of the assistants. Once assistants have proved their worth they become educators.
The chielf difficulty lies in the training of ourselves, the educators. Coming as we do from traditional schools, we have had to unlearn and re-discover a great deal. There are some things we find particularly difficult:
To be able to see the world thorough the children’s eyes.
To partecipate in the group life of children, and yet to remain detached in order to develop our power of observation.
To document progress in a relly scientific way, and not merely to keep descriptive diares. (Even the person driving the bus takes notes on the reactions of families and their children during the journey.)
To overcome difficulties of communication and reach a state where reasonable criticisms can be made candidly.
To balance our own creativity with that of the children.
To achieve the necessary self-control (giving individual attention to each child naturally becomes tiring; smoking is forbidden in the educational center).
To known how to integrate within the group of educators basic attidudes and competences.
To overcome the exhaustion of much of the work. Besides work at the center from 8 am to 4 pm, there is a great deal of preparation of material, personal reflection, documentation, finding out about experiments elsewhere, attending meetings, and visiting families.
To work in such a way that hypotheses, theory and practice mutually interact with one another. We want to employ methods that are scientific, while retaining a freshness of imagination for each encounter – above all for those with the children.
Muriel Rukeyser Angel of declaring, you opened before us walls, the lives of children, water as power. To control the water is to control our days, to build a dam is to face the enemy. We will form a new person who will step forward, he it is, she it is, assumes full life, fully responsible. We will bring all the children, they will decide together.
We will ask these children: what is before you? They will say what they don’t see. Once again we breathe in discovery. A man, a woman, will discover we are each other’s sources.
Breaking Open (Random House)