“Yes – Matteo Renzi big money. No – Matteo Renzi house.”
This was a ten-year-old student’s referendum explanation, and you can imagine the finger-rubbing and palm-dusting gestures that went with it, while a stronger student did her best to give the essential facts about the room of something and the room of something else. Later that day, I asked an eight-year-old why he was rolling on the floor shouting “soldi, soldi”: apparently he was pretending to be Donald Trump dreaming. “Donald Trump sleepy, money in the mental”: Donald Trump dreams about money, pronounced moe-nay, and Christmas is approaching, and tiny Italian children take in the world around them with huge dark eyes.
Teaching is terrifying. In comes a child, bright, loud, full of ideas, totally oblivious to the proper procedure for taking his books and pencil-case out of his bag and putting them under the table, as receptive as a receptive skill, and increasingly convinced that those chosen to govern his world are those who only care really about their own bank accounts. For the next eighty minutes, he is in his English class. In theory, perhaps, in some over-confident highfalutin hand-wavy theory, he has an eighty-minute opportunity to develop such internal structures of intellect and character as will keep him from mindless consumerism, from the temptation to buy power; eighty minutes that the world need not encroach upon, from which a free human being might push back against the world. Seventy-three minutes, by the time he’s got his books and pencil-case out of his bag and put them under the table.
But his teacher has been distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. Perhaps the previous lesson went badly, and a really atrocious one seems likely to follow; maybe she’s conscious that the parents of Child A have been in to complain about the behaviour of Child B, Child C’s shoelace is undone, Child D must not be allowed to sit at the same table as Child E, Child F is overexcited already, Child G is coughing and spluttering with a head cold, and Child H apparently still thinks ‘I’ve got’ means ‘mi piace’; what’s more, she’s just realised there’s no point putting that toy vegetable in the sensory bin when she’s not sure herself if it’s a lettuce or an artichoke, and Norton the hand puppet has gone AWOL, and the IWB is an abomination that causes desolation, and she can’t remember at all what the plan is for this lesson, and she’s left her reward stickers in the teachers’ room again.
How fortunate that any good YL course book, available from a university press near you, will surely address this challenging situation with one ‘values’ page per unit, for example with a story about waiting your turn or a song about washing your hands before meals. The reality, I suppose, is that one does in fact push back against chaos and corruption by training kids to wait their turn, wash their hands before meals, and generally conduct themselves in a civilised and decent manner. It’s disappointing to find that you lack competence in this sort of area, either when you go into a lesson determined to love your most difficult students, only to find the atmosphere as disorderly and unproductive as it ever was, or when you totally forget what’s likely to happen if you introduce glitter glue into the mix.
And, as mentioned, Christmas is approaching, and with it, lots of reasons for glitter glue, wrapping paper, presents, sweets, games and general good cheer. Young Learner Christmas should be the height of jollity: make a reindeer, sing a song and everyone can leave feeling happy. For this, imaginative ideas, clear thinking and a sensible staged lesson are indispensable. Ceaseless vigilance is required on the part of the teacher. All activities will be fun and creative and yet remain beautifully and magically in order.
I remain unsure what you do if you’re trying to achieve this, and you’re a bit rubbish at it, and you also happen to believe that the Real Meaning Of Christmas anyway is something to do with letting go of authority, something about messiness rather than tidiness, about weakness, sadness and squalor, about the wealthy and the poor, about up-ending an established order, and about the greatness of any random nameless child in the kingdom of heaven. I suppose one perseveres, mainly, back to the front line with Norton all present and correct after all, just in a different drawer to his usual one, and perhaps with assistance from a host of origami angels and a few reindeer.