At the orientation for my teaching job in Italy this summer one activity made a particular impression on me. It consisted of breaking into small groups and taking turns miming out various expressions that were written on slips of paper. Absolutely no speaking allowed. The point of the exercise was to have us practice substituting words with body language. This skill would be crucial in order to break down communication boundaries with our Italian students, but it became immediately obvious that performing and interpreting body language did not come easily to many of us. I observed, for example, my group members and I intuitively mouthing the words we were trying to communicate, whilst struggling to perform corporal actions that could deliver the same message.
You may wonder why such a seemingly ordinary game of charades evoked such interest in me. As I made my way to Italy to teach English this summer I had one great fear. I was terrified that I would be unable to make a connection with the children I would be teaching. Given that I had no previous teaching experience and couldn’t speak their language, I felt that my qualms were justified. My trip began with one week in the beautiful coastal town of San Remo, during which I familiarized myself with the Associazione Culturale Linguistica Educational’s personal educational mission.
A.C.L.E is non-profit company that has been operating for over 25 years and is endorsed by the Italian Ministry of Education. I learned quickly that working for them is about a lot more than getting children to memorize grammar rules and repeat phrases like parrots. Rather, it is first and foremost about understanding a specific philosophy towards education. At its core, A.C.L.E aims to dismantle the traditional chalk and talk method of the Italian Education system. Through incorporating drama, games and songs within didactic lessons, the company reconstitutes the human body and emotions as the centerpieces of the learning experience. Arrigo Speziali, the founder of A.C.L.E, spoke to us at orientation about his own education as a boy in Italy; one which he said robbed him of any emotional involvement in his own learning process. And today, all across the country, this method of teaching remains the dominant approach in education. For the most part, teachers do not encourage a dialogue within their classrooms and Italian students are never asked about their ideas, or how they feel. It’s a formula for what A.C.L.E refers to as “education for amnesia”.
To counter it, they hire over 300 English-speaking revolutionaries (also known as A.C.L.E tutors) each summer to teach their native language to children between the ages of five and 16 in a creative and interactive way. They pay for your transportation to and from the various city/summer camps you are assigned work at, and even set you up with your own Italian host families who will feed you and make you laugh until you can no longer breathe. All they ask for in return is your patience, team spirit and ideas. If you can’t find a flaw in this deal it’s because there isn’t one. Gospel truth.
The A.C.L.E philosophy is easy to grasp and agree with in theory; the challenge and reward is in embodying that philosophy every day of the job. All throughout orientation and afterwards, I kept thinking about the ways in which my academic education has implicitly conditioned me to value my mind over my body and sentiments. From the hierarchy of our subjects to the way we are graded, Western academia has constructed and ratified a binary between the rational and emotional spheres of human life, in which the latter is relegated. Subsumed beneath the mind and its rational faculties, the body is granted secondary status and viewed as subordinate. It’s not something we’re fond of admitting or even reflecting upon, but it’s the reason why we flounder when we’re asked to stop using words and communicate solely via our bodies. It’s quite paradoxical that we look to language as the symbol of human rationality, and yet, language could not be expressed or comprehended without an emotional engagement within the world. Instead of highlighting the multitude of valuable ways in which the emotions help navigate our rational judgment, we tend to cast them aside as trouble-starters that only cloud our reason. We polarize the emotions and reason as if they represented two mutually exclusive domains of human existence when, in fact, human beings can only be open to the world by using both of them. Before I arrived in San Remo, I thought I had understood all of this a long time ago, but in the midst of struggling through a game of charades it suddenly hit me: I didn’t really get it. Sure, I grasped the problem of the false binary in theory, but in practice I was just as guilty of holding the same prejudices towards my body.
And that’s when I realized that what I was really afraid of was getting out of my own head and confronting the limits I had assigned to my body. As a woman I have always been sensitive to the numerous ways in which my body can be objectified and my emotions used against me. I have spent the last decade of my life waging a personal war against the possibility of being used in any of these ways. I thought that by retreating into my mind I could protect myself. I turned against my feelings, viewing them as something I should be suspicious of and constantly subject to the most intense filtering process before acting upon. In the name of my supposed freedom I dismissed my body until I could nearly convince myself it was weightless and invisible, only to have come to realize now that I was censoring myself from an entire dimension of self-education. In fact, the most vital thing I have learned about education and freedom is that they both become meaningless if we only use them to withdraw into ourselves.
My experience teaching in Italy reminded me of all of the wonderful things my body is capable of and does for me. Working with my Italian students every day involved taking the risks of not being listened to or understood and, worst of all, failing; but it also carved out a space for me to reawaken the part of myself that loves to sing, dance like a fool and even lie on a classroom floor with a cowboy hat on my head pretending to be dead, all so I could capture the attention of a dozen 12-year-olds. In five weeks they helped me rediscover one of the best feelings in life- surprising myself in my abilities. I had denied myself that for too long, and my time in Italy showed me how doing so was the far bigger risk in life. What I love most about children is the way they still trust how they feel and don’t apologize for it. They have yet to be won over by the great big lie that feelings give us no practical knowledge about ourselves and others. In this way being around them was truly liberating, and I feel slightly guilty because I came to work for A.C.L.E hoping to fulfill the role of teacher, but in the end I’m pretty certain the kids taught me more than I could have ever hoped to teach them in one [unforgettable] summer.