The Penny Wirton School is a very special Italian language school for new migrants, founded by writer Eraldo Affinati and his wife Anna Luce Lenzi. The school is special because it provides a simple and efficient solution to the problem of linguistic integration of immigrants and is managed entirely by volunteers.
Founder Eraldo Affinati with some students
The concept is simple and effective; whoever has a bit of time can become a teacher and help an immigrant to learn the language. Lessons are conducted one to one allowing the teacher and student to establish a personal relationship and the learning can progress at the student’s own pace. This method and the fact that it is run exclusively by volunteers, makes the school a meeting point between immigrants and locals, creating a common ground for integration that works beyond linguistic, social and cultural differences.
We have decided to introduce this beautiful project because it shares many values and elements with “What Expats Can Do”. We believe there are common points that can create links and teachings, and hopefully, inspire the creation of similar projects in other parts of the world.
Reading the constitution of the Penny Wirton School, we were struck by some particular aspects.
“Those who teach at the Penny Wirton School are special people”
Teachers are individuals, with different beliefs and experiences, who give their time to this project for their own reasons, however, “in the end they are all driven by the same desire to give”. This reminds us of our challenge nr 2: The discipline to challenge our own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what we share with people rather than what divides us.
Diversity is therefore something that marks each one of those participating in the school, not only the students coming from different backgrounds and countries. Even from a professional point of view there are diversities: anyone can teach the language, included those who have never taught before or whose work is not related to teaching.
Every teacher is
“genuinely interested in the stories of his students: whoever they are”
Interest in diversity and curiosity regarding others are common elements in all success stories involving migrants, no matter where. And this reminds us of our challenge nr 1: Developing curiosity for strangers.
Everybody is welcome at the school at any time. The school is open the whole year round. The capacity to efficiently welcome everybody at any time probably depends on the teaching method: “the strength of each lesson lies within the personal relationship that grows, in different ways, between the teacher and the student”.
The teacher is a person who has “the capacity of establishing a contact with the people he meets” The gift of empathy is at the centre of the teaching method: one to one lessons, because “every person is different and must be considered as such”. Again this links to one of the challenges we suggested, The ability to directly experience lives and lifestyles of those different from us.
This project was started in Rome 10 years ago, and has been so successful that today there are 22 schools in other Italian cities. We asked Anna Luce Lenzi, co-founder of the Penny Wirton School, to describe the elements that made this initiative a success.
The Penny Wirton School was created in 2008 to teach Italian to immigrants. The big challenge was to teach to young people coming from different countries, who hardly understood each other in a simple Italian. It was necessary to intensify the teaching of the language, to look the students in the eye and encourage their learning. We found it easier for some (Albanian, Moldavian, Romanian), and less so for others (Afghans, Egyptians).
Our school is based on a kind of freedom which is unthinkable in institutional structures, the freedom that comes from a direct personal relationship, one to one or in very small groups, made possible by the many people that are willing to teach for free: both students and teachers are volunteers. There are no classrooms, no marks. The only grade book used is to describe the work being done. We register attendance, not absence. We write down names and activities of the students, to allow every teacher to follow the student’s progress. The only style is the contact, the relationship between student and teacher, who sit side by side and “study” each other reciprocally.
In order to facilitate this process, we must start by looking for and establishing a rapport between students and teachers. Being professional teachers or well-intentioned volunteers is not enough: What is needed is, above all, the interest and capacity of adapting to the individual circumstance of the immigrants.
We make it clear that our primary aim is the teaching of the Italian language and we do not provide any other form of assistance. It is however obvious that the most important teachings are about respecting each others dignity; the chance to sit close together and understand each other; a mutual interest in each other as people and a continuous exchange of ideas. In the Penny Wirton School, people of different age, background and cultural conditions are welcomed in the same way: the one to one contact takes place in big large rooms, where you can learn and see others learning, where you have difficulties and see others having them: No one is blamed and each one advances at their own pace.
It is a sort of inner freedom that spreads and permeates the school and the persons in it. We put a lot of energy in explaining to the volunteers that they must not approach teaching with the classical concept of school. What is favoured here is the contact, the interested gaze, and the smile of one who feels understood and understands. Sometimes, after the first period, the volunteer does not feel able to teach a method without explanations and formal classroom structure, and leaves. However, in most cases the satisfaction and the happiness between student and teacher are reciprocal: Enthusiastic volunteers call other volunteers, satisfied students bring friends: This is why the school grows and develops with the strength that comes with volunteering and an open heart.
Anna Luce Lenzi
Article collected and organised by Claudia Landini and Cristina Baldan
Translated from the Italian by Barbara Amalberti
Photo credits: Penny Wirton School