Danilo Casertano is co-founder of the Association called Manes which runs three educational projects in Ostia, near Rome. They started the first famous Forest kindergarten Asilo en el Bosco, now called the Sea Kindergarten. Danilo shares with us some amazing insights and his privilege vision about education after so many years of traveling and seeing different systems and experiences in several countries.
A project that started outside the school for kids in risk of dropping out
We have three projects running in Ostia:
Those projects that we had they were manly one, an Association called Manes. We started it in 2009 and we started as a project outside the school. He started to have children that were having problems in school and manly there were kids in elementary school. In Italy but in many other countries in the world, being at school could become very difficult since you were young: you will start to have headache, hurting the stomach, I don’t want to go….one week, two weeks, three weeks, even if you are six, seven, eight or nine years old. Now there is like a phobia of being at school.
So we started with this project, helping these guys, and then these projects became kind of a school. So there was me and there was Mirko another guy. We were into a school of music, that in the afternoon was a school of music but in the morning was totally empty, and into this place we started to have three kids we started and then became more, four, five, six…So they kept growing and at one point, six years ago, we received a recognition from the Minister of Education that we were good in helping those kids where the schools were causing them problems, so kind of strange contradiction…But thanks to this recognition we were accepted by this public school where we are now.
The first famous Italian public forest kindergarten
At the same moment our association started a project that is called Asilo en el Bosco with a private company to open the first Italian forest kindergarten. Maybe we were not the first in terms of time but we were the first that was watched and seen by the other people.
Thanks to the social media, Facebook manly, we became very popular, so the TV came, the radio, newspapers. So our association at that moment was having two projects running at the same time, the Asilo en el Bosco, for little kids, outdoor in the countryside, and the other project which is called like street school for guys who were older having problems in schools.
So for many years we carried on these two projects together and then two years ago we decided to leave the Asilo en el Bosco and to establish all our projects into this public school. So right now we have the Sea Kindergarten which is a project for about 25 kids from 3 to 6 years old. Then we have the primary school of the sea and the woods that is called which is a primary project for about 35 kids in mixed age from 6 to 10 years old, so therefore the 5 years of primary school. And then we still have the street school program for these kids in middle school which they failed some years, so they have to recover or they are at risk of dropping out for many different reasons from social problems, family at risk, crime…so there are different things.
So we have these three different projects all into a public school which made a huge difference for our association, because thanks to the agreement that we have with the city of Rome we can run all these projects into a public contest so which is one of the best things we have reached over the years. We started outside the school. I always make this metaphor like the Pirates. So we started as pirates so we were outside. Now we are “corsairs”, this is the “legal pirates”. So now we are into the school but still we have all the freedom to choose the method, the people, the methodology, the tools, whatever, but we are into a public contest, so we have become legal pirates.
«Method means strict. There are different streets to find who you are and your talents»
About these projects that we have, the main thing is why we run these projects. There are different reasons.
First of all is that families, children and teachers that are into those projects are people having problems in staying into standardised environment.They are not able to do what everybody else does. This is the common rule that we have.
The second «why» is that we want to act in a different way. We want the freedom to do something different but on the other hand we want to be responsible of the context that we are living in. So we want to make a change, we want to change the society. We want to change the educational paradigm but we want to do it with the society not against the society and this is a huge challenge even for myself that I am the founder of this thing and for the other people. At one point we have decided we wanted to do it in a different way. So we want to make a change being inclusive of the reality.
The third «why» is that we wanted to make a difference respecting the fact that there are different methods. Method is a word that comes from the Greek and the deep meaning is «strict». So a method is strict. So we think that we want for children and for ourselves too, to discover who we are in terms of which are our talents, which are our fragile parts, we want both. We want to discover where we are strong and where we are weak.
So this is a goal but then to arrive to that goal to find who you are deeply there might be different streets so different methods. So the common route again: we want to learn who we are as individuals and as a group and we have recognized that there are different methods for doing it.
«If you are into a cage, you react as an animal into a cage»
Then maybe the last «why», we have discovered that if we change the environment, the place where we educate, we have to change mentality, mindset, we have to change ourselves. The environment for little children until they are teenager is so important.
If you are into a cage, you react as an animal into a cage. So either you yell and shout, or you accept the fact that you are in jail. And this is also what happens to us, as people, as teachers. Maybe I was the one that pulled into a cage at one point, will start yelling maybe, I was that kind of teacher… but outside, I will feel in a different way. I think that in our method, in our “street” there are five things that we all pretty much share as teachers and those five things start from “where”, where do we teach.
So we have this feeling and also this perception that once you are under the sky and not under the roof is totally another story. So we believe that is very important to walk, it’s very important to explore, to stay in contact with nature in order to have an alive education. So for us the environment is the first thing because we have seen that we are different once we are outside.
So that’s the first thing: being outside as much as we can. Of course it’s also the quality of being outside it’s not just the sake to be outside. It’s to be outside in order to have experiences. To do a lot of things, to be in contact with the animals, the plants, the minerals, in order to be in contact with people of other ages and with real life. And then there are so many connections to the health. So it’s healthy to stay outside, to walk, for us is very important.
«If you switch space you have to switch also mindset about time»
The second thing is about time. If you switch space and you don’t switch mindset on time then it’s terrible. Space, you know, divided by time is the formula of speed. So if you have more space but the time is the same it means that you have to run and the example is this:
This teacher wants to go outside and then comes back to the classroom and says “Ok, now they have been outside now we have to do the homework”. And since they have been outside if they don’t change mindset about time they will run as well once they are inside. And it’s the same thing if you put it in one day but it’s the same thing if you put it in years. So if you go slowly the first year, the second year and then start running the third year, children get mad anyway. So the second thing is to go slow and go deep. So changing the mindset on time is very important.
Then for us time needs three things.
Time is chronos and it means the “linear time”. Actually in nature is a circular time. So it’s the time we have to come to school, then there is one break, then lunch…so this is chronos. Usually schools always think about chronos. Chronos is the only time that matters. So it’s linear, which is useful to have it, to know that there is time to respect because there are people working, you know, the people who prepare the meal, the parents and so on…So the time “chronos” is real but it’s not the only time.
The second time is the “kairos”. Kairos means this moment, there won’t be another moment like this. So it’s carpe diem in latin. This moment is very important, once you consider education and you get kairos into education it means that if today it’s raining and I want to go to the sea because I want to see the sea under the rain, it’s an experience that it’s worth it to make it. Maybe you have thought about other things to do… I mean always thinking about what it’s special now. Many teachers come to school with a perfect lesson prepared but maybe it’s not the right time to do that lesson. Maybe the best time it’s a week from now. So if you are a teacher and you are opened to this idea of time, you will consider what it’s important to do in this moment.
The last word in Greek is Aion that means “ethernity”. Any time you stay with the children and you don’t have this feeling of eternity you don’t have this feeling that life is after us and behind us. You will always feel that everything is urgent. Once instead you consider that life is eternal you feel a little bit more relaxed, you are something and someone in a big time and space.
So those are some ideas about time…
«If you want to do something different you need trust»
The third thing is about relationship. If you want to go outside and if you want to go deeper and slow in education you must trust the children that you have and children must trust you and families too. So if you want to do something different than the book and if you want to do something different than always have been done over the time you need trust, you need relationships. So you need to be a person who listens also to be able to be listened. So relationship is the third think that it’s very important to consider.
«The spare time is for playing: this is the biggest lie ever told to the human being»
The fourth is play. Play is the most important thing. We are humans only when we play. And if you think about, the common understanding is that working is standing at the serious bank. The other time, the spare time, it’s a game, which doesn’t count. And this is the biggest lie ever told to human being. Because human beings actually learn when once they play. If you play you learn, otherwise we forget. Because humans learn if they are constrained to do something but it’s not real learning. I mean it’s like something that you repeat because people have told you something. Or you do something once it’s useful. If you need something you learn it. But then it’s another kind of thing. The real learning for me is once it’s a game. Game is a very serious thing. There are rules, but they are flexible because into a real game rules are useful for gaming. Instead most of the times in schools, rules are more important than students. Laws are more important than learning. So game playing is the center. If you are able to transform everything that you do into a game so it works.
If you think about it, in Italy we spend like 50 billions euros for learning for education. But we spend hundred like twice for betting. But I am not like blaming the betting, I am just saying, look what it works. What it works is what is game and betting was twice than education. And then if you add the soccer, the cinema…think about what is works in reality. Everything that it’s game, that it’s a play. And I like the idea of what Walt Whitman said “And the powerful play goes and you may contribute a verse”. In the game of life, each of us can contribute with his own words. So this is the fourth, game and playing is the most important thing.
«If you want to learn something different you need to get out of your family»
The last one is community. It’s learning how to be a community because it’s not easy. We are born into families. Aristoteles would say that family is a natural community and the rest is polis, is city. So school is also the place where you learn things that come out of your family and if you want to learn something different you need to get out of your family. Family could be a great experience and an awful experience at the same time. So once you get out from your family you meet the polis, the city.
Nowadays schools are outside the city. There are fences and in the city you don’t find kids. You have seen it today. We were the only class going around in the city. And this is very sad, because if you take children out of the community then the community alone is a community without future. So if you put children into the community then it’s totally another story and teachers should be the bridge from the past and the future. So forming community is a fifth element.
«We always try to find a balance between the time we spend outside and inside»
So the three projects they have different stories. The little children from the sea kindergarten we have this kind of weekly routine. It’s hard to talk about daily routine. There are certain things of course that are always the same so they arrive at school at eight and they get out at four….
The school is very close to the sea and to a natural reserve of protections of birds. Usually two times a week the children arrive directly on the seashore and we spend until noon, around 12, we stay at the sea. The same thing happens twice a week we meet at the natural reserve, which is another kind of environment of course, there is more green. And then on Friday we stay into the school in order to live more in the school because we have many children that after lunch they go out.
We have to find a balance between staying inside and outside. I must admit that the children they like to stay inside. You know children are strange, if you don’t bring them outside they want to be outside. If you want to bring them outside they want to be inside. So on Friday we prefer to live the outdoor school yard which is another kind of outdoor. We always talk about the outdoor inside the fence or beyond the fence.
«We are not obsessed about the program that should be followed»
In terms of activities there are different activities.
Usually we don’t use structured materials. Of course sometimes we do it, it depends on the teacher, it’s not mandatory. Nothing happens if you use some structured materials. Then in the morning, for example, it is beautiful to write or to draw on the sand. They use small sticks and they draw. Then they listen to stories, they talk, they move, because of the sea there are big stones so they can climb… there are many activities that they would do.
And then you can make questions. If we find a death fish, what is that fish? They make this big questions about life, about nature and then in the afternoon is easier to do more standardized activities: reading, listening to a story, acting, sewing…I mean, there are many other activities that we do. We are not obsessed about the program that should be followed week by week, so we don’t use books, we don’t have like papers to fulfil, it’s not our thing.
On the other hand we have the primary school, and for the primary school it’s very important to start the school outside. Of course if it is pouring rain we don’t do it. But we are in Rome, the weather is not that bad.
So the primary school they usually meet at the sea everyday and they do the first part of the morning which is one hour, one hour and a half usually, they do activities in circle. They also do some social work, since the seashore over the winter it’s not so well capped so teachers and students and families together go and take the rubbish and it’s very important. Children love to do it, I mean children are very proud of what they do and also we make the seashore clean and it’s a very good activity.
Then they make this big circle and they do the singing, they do acting, they move a lot and this is a very good way to start the day so you wake up, the birds will sing, Indians will do yoga…we do those things. Then they go back to school and it’s two groups of mixed age. Each group has got two main teachers that carry the show and they do like the academic stuff: they do the reading, they do math, geometry, whatever…always starting from a practical experience something that put them into reality. This morning there was a class learning the fractions and then they went to the pizza making.
Then they do of course exercises even for the primary school we don’t have books. We have some books for exercises, we are not against exercises, we think that for maths, for grammar and certain things exercises are very useful because all the children are different so there are children that have no problems in doing exercises. Of course there are some others which have problems, we have many children with dyslexia, dyscalculia… you know we are a group of children who have many stories but we love the academic part too, I mean, also because we are into a public school too.
Three different kinds of evaluation: self-evaluation, Waldorf and the standards
So when we talk about evaluation we start from self-evaluation so children are supposed to look at what they do and evaluate themselves. This is done weekly. At the end of the week they have to review what they have done and of course we give them some parameters:
The first one is the effort: how much effort did you put in what you have done. It’s a scale from one to five, they put it how much, and in that case, in this process of self-evaluation the teacher is like the mirror who would tell you, “Yeah I do agree”, you know. Sometimes it’s strange because there are certain kids that usually underestimate what they do and some others that overestimate it and it’s very important for us with girls. There are certain girls that usually underestimate what they do, so it’s very important to give them a feedback but it’s their own process, I mean. For us this self-evaluation thing is important because if you are not able to evaluate yourself alone you will always be looking for outside evaluation.
So the first thing is the effort, the second thing is like «quantity» I mean, you are supposed to do hundred things, how many did you make? So it’s pretty much objective parameter.
Then the third one is the quality, this is, how did you make it? Even on the aesthetical side, how is your notebook, your handwriting…
The fourth one is the collaboration I mean, you are not alone in the class. You have done all your stuff, you have done it right, you put all the effort but did you remember that there were other kids? So collaboration it’s very important, it’s a great parameter.
And then all the other teachers add some other parameters for example: a teacher will add respect so in terms of the other teachers, the parents, students, school staff…So there must be not so many parameters otherwise it becomes too long. And then it’s very interesting to see children over a month, over a year how was like. Like in the stock market, we are going up, we are going down. So the first thing is self-evaluation.
The second evaluation is done by teachers and comes from the Waldorf tradition so which means to give to the children an image so telling them a story so making a metaphor, consider them to be a flower, to be a character of a fairy tale or whatever. We thought that part of the method it’s very worth, that it works.
Then the third one since we are into a public school, so we are into a state school, and we also think it’s correct manly for the families, we have to compare which are the standards of the state kind of curriculum to what actually we have done. Of course what happens is that the first and the second type of evaluation are shared with students, the self-evaluation and the image, students are aware of those things. For this last type we let the families to decide if they want to share the official grades with their children or not. It’s not something we don’t do. It’s something that it’s up to the family. Most of the families as I know they don’t care. Actually because the grades in primary school are not that kind of important. So this is evaluation in primary school. And then we have also some special kids. Those special kids they have of course another kind of path about this national curriculum.
«There is one education that is good for a few children and there are other educations that are good for everyone»
Another big project that we run it’s middle school, like junior high. And we follow this guys and girls who have many problems caused by two hundred thousand reasons. So we are like in the middle from being a school and a family. So each story is different. There are some guys and girls that we have to go home into their private home…that’s the social program of our association which is very very important but I have to admit that everything that we have done started from those things. Because the main idea is that there is one education that is good for few children and there are other educations which are good for everyone. All these guys and girls are different outside. Inside the classroom all of them react like in a very bad way.