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Starting again

Going back to school and learning from what happened: “The essentials are what mark the road to follow.” In September Traces, Anna Frigerio, the headteacher at the Sacred Heart School in Milan, speaks about returning to the adventure of education
Alessandra Stoppa

It’s back to the classroom, to the in-person school desired by everyone. Over these fraught and difficult months, there were more and more calls for it from political and cultural leaders, even amidst the guidelines, controversy, logistical questions, and efforts to adapt teaching. Everyone agreed: we need to go back. But to what? Back to before? For Anna Frigerio, September is not a “return to the past,” not even to a past as recent as that of the world before Covid. ”What we experienced was not an accident. It calls for a change of some kind.” Frigerio has worked for seven years at the Sacred Heart Foundation in Milan, where she is the headmaster of the classical and scientific schools and the educational coordinator for all levels of the institute (spanning from preschool through high school, with over 1,200 students and 100 teachers). Before taking on this role, she spent many years teaching in public high schools, where she loved to challenge students by discussing Thucydides’ saying “κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί,” “an eternal possession.” Without mincing words she told her students, “All the things you are studying, you will not remember. The pits in the Divine Comedy, the Persian wars, the theorems... So what will remain forever?” Today that question takes on a new weight as her school is preparing to reopen and she stops to do the painstaking work of reflecting and discussing with all the teachers. “It’s not a matter of summarizing what happened during the storm; it’s that the things we learned opened us up to some- thing different. They illuminate the ordinary and mobilize us toward what is new.” It's more a matter of taking off again than taking stock.

A new academic year is starting. We could think of it as a “final exam” for the institution of school after the unprecedented “test” of the pandemic. Some see this as finally reaching a goal, others as just a beginning: are we going back to normal, to the past, or taking a step forward?
We are taking a step forward, paying attention to two risks: on the one hand, thinking of the experience we have had as just a reaction to the emergency, and now that it has passed we can go back to “real” school; and on the other hand, an excessive reliance on distance learning. School is always about being present, whatever form that takes. The point is, what is at play in that presence? What does it mean to relate to students? Does it mean having them close to us? And what does it mean to say that the other person is significant? ... Clearly, in living out these questions, you use the tools you have: a computer screen cannot render the subtleties of a relationship, but having “live” classes also cannot guarantee that you are really reaching the other person. Everything depends on your attitude coming in, so the question to hold onto is this: What does it mean to be profoundly present in a relationship?

Anna Frigerio

You speak of a “question to hold onto.” Now everyone is saying we have to learn from everything that happened. How can we make sure we do that? First of all, we need to recognize that everything we discovered during the lockdown is not, as I mentioned before, just an alternate format or phase. Those discoveries touch on substantial, fundamental questions. Making sure we learn, holding onto what is of value, requires a human attitude of openness.

What do you mean by that?
The time we are living poses many questions, including those regarding well-established frameworks. I’ll offer an example: there are students who, at school, seemed to be “in retreat,” but who showed their face more in distance learning. So is the group dynamic of a class the better context for learning? There is no doubt that learning takes place together, but we also saw how one- on-one relationships are essential.

That has been another mantra repeated recently: we are going back to what is essential. The entire Italian school system had a chance to reflect on the essentials. But what does that mean?
For me, the essentials are those things that mark the road to follow, what helps us understand how to proceed. Not novelty for its own sake, but a newness that you can recognize. As I said, the theme of being present is essential. I do not mean an act of the will by means of which I am in the classroom and can say, “Now I am present.” It is working on oneself in an ongoing relationship with the other, with the students and your colleagues.

Could you give an example?
During the pandemic, we entrusted a great deal to the students. And not because we thought, “Now we have confidence in them.” We were forced to do so. We had to proceed in a way that required them to personally take on part of the work. At a technical level, it is similar to the Anglo-Saxon method, in which the student prepares the content and presents it to the professor, who begins on the basis of that material, which deepens the dynamic of a class as “dialogue.” Above all, having confidence in them–giving them tools and a scheme to work with–allowed for them taking a step toward autonomy that led to beautiful relationships. That really surprised me.

The sudden closing of school brought out that great question of freedom. Over those months, the story of each teen or boy or girl was different, and what made the difference was this: how he or she was helped and encouraged to use his or her freedom. I saw some students flourish and others regress. Percentage-wise, the first group was bigger, but the damage to the others is still there. The surprising thing is that the students who accepted the challenge to become more autonomous were the same ones who sought out more of a relationship with their teachers. For me, that is one of the most important facts to come out of this period. And if we had to have confidence in our students, we also had to have it in the content.

Have confidence in the content?
Yes, by which I mean selecting topics, authors, and texts that have the power to bring out the person, the subject. School does not create the subject; it is there already and emerges. This means centering everything on the formative value of the content: What material constitutes a challenge for the students’ personal search? What can point the way to finding meaning amidst the various disciplines? It is not a matter of compiling a list of things a person should not not know. For a teacher, it means an extraordinary effort and being audacious in their choices.

Let’s go back to Thucydides and his “eternal possession.”
They will forget Dante, but all that they tasted in the relationships Dante experienced will remain: the way they will look at life, how they will let themselves be pierced by other people’s pain, how they will surrender themselves, moved by the fact that reason comes to a halt and leaps to something beyond it... And the same goes for the sciences. What kind of arguments make up mathematical thought? There are math problems that may be humdrum in terms of the real interest of the discipline, but they teach an ordered way of proceeding and critical thought. So this means saying to students, “I am giving you work, I will guide you; I am con dent that the content can intersect with your intelligence and sensibility and that what you give back will be much more than a repetition of what I have told you.” The question of confidence is really a broad one...

What guides educators in their work?
Distance learning is a very powerful “stress test.” It took an immense amount of effort and also offered incredible richness. I would say, above all, that it brought out what was there before: we realized we had the capacity for work, for initiative, and for creativity that was drawing on a history, a history that must always be looked at critically.

Are you referring to the tradition at your school?
Sacred Heart flows from Fr. Giussani’s passion for education, and we have worked here from the beginning to go deeper into that origin, to understand it in experience, with twists and turns along the way.

What does that origin look like today?

It is a continual reflection on the nature of reason. What reason is and how to educate someone to exercise it are questions that involve the whole human person, allowing us to question reality, not filled with doubt but with a confident hypothesis, with an authentic openness to the world. I find that the insistence on reason–not as a sterile mechanism, but involving the whole person–is at the origin of this school. The most beautiful thing is that this comes to light through study “in the field,” by teaching.

How does the centrality of the subject become the vision, and therefore the structure, of the school?
If all of the sudden you have to change everything–as we did–you cannot come up with a model in four days. But you have to provide structure: make choices, take risks; you can’t go on improvising. We, for example, decided not to simply transfer our entire schedule online. We had to work a great deal to come up with a clear program, complementing class time with other tools: recorded videos, individual and group (virtual) meetings, correcting homework, and reviewing exams... and giving students the schedule for the next week in advance, including the assignments they would need to turn in. It was an insane amount of work that involved an impressive collaboration among the teachers. This, too, is a point that marks the way forward.

Working together?
The lockdown shined a light on shared responsibility. I repeat, we witnessed the enormous potential of things we had observed every day, but never dared to really look at it; for example, the way students worked together in the lessons or on the student council. It is crucial to have a unified outlook on the students, a coordinated path of cultural growth, because academic subjects speak to one another, and not only obviously related ones. We always look at organizational efforts with suspicion for fear that things could become rigid. But a structure can communicate a breadth of vision if you consider what emerges from life, from history, from what has happened, and from what we have come to see as an ally. Remaining flexible is a question of maintaining the realism that has guid- ed us in recent months.

Over the last few months, school has been at the forefront of a public de- bate and has been reaf rmed by every side as a priority for all of society. What does that mean for the future of the country?
Schooling can help nurture–or, in contrast, discourage–the development of
openness in young people. For our graduation exams, I waited to greet them one by one, and I was surprised to see young people chomping at the bit to go out into the world. I think the decisive contribution for the country is bringing up people who want to learn, who are open to what is new and are capable of building a vision, of risking... Who are not afraid of newness in a world that is constantly changing; to summarize, young people who are not ideological. The future of the country hangs on this. Everything hangs on this.

You said the challenge is being met not with doubt, but with a confident hypothesis. What is that hypothesis?
Trusting your own humanity. The most moving outcome of education is a person who can make a comparison with all of his or her humanity. Among young people, there is a great risk of wanting to be externally directed: “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” What is the antidote? Being entirely oneself. Humanity takes work; it is continually developing in a person. School needs to nurture that, respecting the various moments of adolescent life; if it doesn’t, it becomes ideology. There are so many factors within this historical event we are living... but they all lead us back to the question of humanity–perhaps the question we faced before we flattened our perception of what we are.