One of the key questions of the project relates to the ways in which interdisciplinarity in both theory and practice can inspire new patterns of teaching. Our collaboration with teachers and national teaching and education bodies is fundamental in this respect. The following interview with two experienced teachers of Italian at secondary school level, Carmela Amodio-Johnson and Peter Langdale, offers some initial ideas and raises a number of issues about the impact of education policies and curriculum design in both fostering and hindering interdisciplinarity in the classroom. Read on and let us know what you think.
Peter Langdale [PL] is currently Head of Italian and Academic Tutor at North London Collegiate School. He was previously Head of Modern Languages at Merchant Taylor’s School, Northwood and at St George’s British International School, Rome. He began his teaching career at Dulwich College where he introduced Italian at GCSE and A Level. Other activities include editing the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association Newsletter and membership of the Italian Committee of ALL.
Carmela Amodio-Johnson [CAJ] has been a teacher of Italian since 1982 and has taught a wide spectrum of levels in many London Schools and Institutions. She was GCSE & A Level Examiner for Edexcel, member of ATI, ALL and SIS, and Chair of ALL Italian Committee of six years. She organised and run several successful Italian Inset – Days, and retired in 2012.
CHOICE AND FREEDOM
- How much choice do you have when it comes to designing the curriculum?
[CAJ] Very remotely as a teacher of Italian of GCSE, A/S and A2 in Secondary Schools I have been involved in designing the Curriculum. On the contrary in Adult Education at the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s, the Head of Modern Languages would appreciate my input due to my cultural and linguistic expertise as a native teacher.
[PL] The first aspect is, of course, whether Italian is taught at all in the secondary curriculum and then at what stage it is introduced and examined. I am not aware of any statistics but I do know of schools that introduce it in Year 7, 9 or 10 leading to GCSE in year 11. A small number of schools such as my own introduce Italian as an ab initio course to A level or Cambridge Pre-U in year 12.
That Italian is taught at all in secondary schools is rarely down to independent senior management decisions. Many of the most thriving Italian departments were born originally because of the enthusiasm of individual teachers (hired to teach another language or subject). In other cases, Italian began to be taught for demographic reasons (large Italian immigrant communities in the area, for instance).
Individual Italian teachers/departments in secondary schools have little or no input into the amount of teaching time or resources available as these are determined at MFL department or whole school level.
- How far is the syllabus pre-designed?
[CAJ] Exam Syllabi can be updated or changed every tree-four years minimum.
[PL] In schools where Italian is taught, the syllabus is largely determined by outside factors such as
- national curriculum and/or frameworks
- available resources
- examinations that pupils are expected to sit (by far the most constrictive)
All of these tend towards a design of the content/topic aspects curriculum around a set of ‘general topics’ which are shared with all other modern languages. At GCSE these are what you might find (AQA):
Lifestyle, Health, Relationships and Choices
Free Time and the Media, Holidays
Home and Local Area, Environment
Education and Work
At A level, these develop into the following (Edexcel), the first four clearly designed to follow on from GCSE:
Youth culture and concerns
Lifestyle: health and fitness
The world around us: travel, tourism, environmental issues and the (Italian) speaking world
Education and employment
Customs, traditions, beliefs and religions
National and international events: past, present and future
Literature and the arts.
Within these ‘topics’, these is a great deal of teacher discretion in how they are taught and with what materials. The reality is that up to GCSE, teachers will tend to rely on textbooks such as ‘Amici’, especially where they have been written with an eye to our examination system. At sixth form level there are no textbooks written for the purpose; I am told that the market is not large enough to justify this. The result is that teachers have to look for teaching resources in a wide range of books (mainly published in Italy), magazines and increasingly the internet. They then design the teaching of individual topics around the available material, their own particular interests and experiences.
- Do students have elements of choice in what they study? For example, could they learn about different periods/topics according to their interests?
[PL] The element of individual choice is very limited in the syllabuses as at present designed. In theory, able students at GCSE could undertake a piece of research of their own choice for their writing or speaking controlled assessments, but in practice these tend to be rather mechanical and limited by the linguistic level reached by that stage and the limited examination requirements.
At AS level, students have to choose and prepare to one of the four topics in italics above for their oral exam (how culturally specific that will be is very much at the discretion of the teacher).
At A2, students have to choose and prepare an issue for their oral exam. This may or may not be culturally specific (over the last few years my own students have chosen issues ranging from why Berlusconi should not be prime minister to advocating the learning of classical languages for all).
Until the last revision of A Level, students had to choose and individually prepare a topic for their oral exam that had to be culturally specific, but alas, this was dropped. It has however been revived by the Cambridge Pre-U syllabus (my students are currently preparing a wide range of topics from ‘il Palio di Siena’ to a novel by Sciascia).
There is then the requirement to study a film, play or novel. Theoretically this is meant to be prepared individually, but I am not aware of any department that does not ‘teach’ this, having chosen the work on behalf of the pupil.
[CAJ] Yes they do. In fact, although their choice in both GCSE and GCE is limited by the Specifications set Topic Areas, these entail wider and varied sub-topics. Also students can negotiate with their teacher for both Speaking and Writing Units, topics in which they have a particular interest or that appeal to them more.
INTERDISCIPLINARITY IN TEACHING AND MEDIA
- What opportunities are there to look at social media or consider new narrative practices using technology?
[PL] Within the topics at GCSE and A level there is clearly the opportunity to look at ‘social media’ as a phenomenon, their growth and the impact on their lives and those of others. However, if the question means studying how social media are being used in a cultural dimension and in developing new ‘narrative practices’, that is probably well beyond the scope of A Level.
[CAJ] I have exploited towards the end of the 2000s in the classroom and still do at times in my private tuition now, the use of the Internet and especially You-Tube and Facebook in order for my pupils to have “live and updated” information and resources. Pupils can also for their homework, research on their own at home or in a Language Lab. Again Facebook, Twitter, Video-conferencing and Skype whenever financially and curricular academically possible are and could become the new tools for enhancing both teaching and learning.
- Do you get in guest speakers from different places/organisations of interest? If so, do you think specifically how these people may talk about art/technology/music etc, i.e. what interdisciplinary perspectives they might bring in?
[PL] In my school we provide a quite exceptional range of extra-curricular talks and events. We get in a range of speakers in many subject areas, though I would hazard a guess that this is not universally the case (constraints on funding, geography etc.). Given small numbers for Italian, we cannot justify speakers just for Italian students, so we try to get them in in one of two contexts:
a) Weekly talks open to all years 11 to 13.
b) Modern Languages ‘symposia’ held once a year geared to all MFL students.
Recent Italian talks have been by speakers from UCL (we are London based) and have been focussed on Film. At the same time, speakers ‘for’ other languages have given talks on anything from medieval French literature to Brazilian popular music.
It is worth mentioning of course that in many schools study of matters Italian will come into other subject areas, notably History (typically fascism and the Risorgimento) or Art History.
(We also, rather uniquely, have a weekly series of open lectures given by members of staff and I have tried to ensure an Italian presence there. I have given lectures on ‘Dante and Primo Levi – two visions of Hell’ and at the request of the English department another on Dante and TS Eliot.)
[CAJ] I have indeed invited guests – visitors to come and talk or give lectures to my classes, for example Professor Arturo Tosi from Royal Holloway University gave after school time a power point illustrated talk on “The Commedia Dell’Arte” to an audience of mixed students of Italian and Drama. The talk was followed by a dance and movement workshop on the main Characters of the Commedia, performed by the Drama students. I always provide the students with the related vocabulary and spend some lessons on the topic the Speaker would deal with beforehand. The visitor-speakers bring in with them, together with their interesting life experience and professional skills, the inspiration and stimulus for the learners of how the study of the Italian Language could be embedded in a more varied and viable Curriculum at both Secondary School and University.
- Do you go on trips to places of interest and incorporate mobile learning activities? Is the choice of these places influenced by ideas of interdisciplinarity in learning?
[CAJ] Most of the outings, trips and exchanges organised and delivered during my thirty years of teaching Italian in London have been planned by keeping in mind some ideas of interdisciplinarity: Art + History of Fascism & Italian Language at The Estorick Collection of Italian Modern Art in Islington; Latin + History of Roman London & Italian Language at The Museum of London; Fashion + Design & Technology and Italian Language at the Armani Exhibition at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. In those days I used hand-outs, maps and paper questionnaires; nowadays I would use tablets and mobiles for the learners to download back up maps, information and assign activities and tasks.
[PL] We organise trips where possible in London, to exhibitions, galleries etc. (and to the cinema and theatre where appropriate). Recently we visited the Estorick Collection in Islington with a guide in Italian, and we are hoping to repeat this with the Italian fashion exhibition at the V&A later this year.
Clearly, trips such as these are subconsciously influenced by ideas of interdisciplinarity – awareness and understanding of different aspects of Italian culture and society.
Trips to Italy in holiday time are another important aspect. It is virtually impossible to fund full-scale school trips for the small number of A Level students I have, but I do regularly take year 10 students who are not studying Italian on a trip to Florence and I have also ‘piggy-backed’ on an Art History trip to Italy. Schools with larger cohorts of Italian students do organise successful exchange programmes with schools in Italy.
- What media are commonly used to support learning activities? For instance films, tv, internet, music, art etc.
[CAJ]The media commonly used are TV, films on video and mostly on DVDs, Audio & Music CDs, Computer (Power Point activities and tasks on Magic Board), and Internet.
[PL] The internet is now a crucial source of teaching materials (newspaper articles, blogs, and grammar exercises, audio and video material…). There are an increasing number of sites which can point students and teachers to suitable material (e.g. for listening and cultural topics, news.centrodiascolto.it).
TV. Via the internet, it is now possible to access a fantastic variety of TV programmes from soap operas to documentaries. In practical terms one can advise students to spend a little time watching Italian programmes (for instance via rai.tv), but in class its most effective use is as audio-visual material for studying historical and political issues (for instance via La storia siamo noi or Blu notte).
Music, mainly in the form of popular songs to back up or reinforce grammatical points of as starting points for discussions on topics. Examples might include Celentano (il ragazzo della via Gluck) and Gaber (Quant’è bella la città) when studying issues of town versus country or the post war economic boom alongside reading extracts from Marcovaldo and other material. Encouraging pupils to listen to and learn songs can be very motivating and profitable. I have used extracts from opera as well as popular song. I have also used extracts form opera to introduce grammar points (eg passato remoto using Vissi d’arte and other arias.) I have also used an extract from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to talk about the pastoral in year 13 enrichment classes.
Film. It is worth distinguishing here between film as an object of study (as might be chosen as an alternative to the study of a literary text) and as a support, backup or illustration when studying a topic. For example, there is no shortage of films illustrating issues to do with organised crime or terrorism, but it is unlikely that any would be studied in their entirety when studying the topic. Let us not forget however, a film as the end of term ‘sweetener’ – the opportunity to spend the last two or three lessons of the term or year ‘enjoying’ watching a suitable film.
Art. Less common to use art or photography as they are essentially ‘wordless’ and therefore do not provide new vocabulary or expressions per se. However, images are often used for a variety of purposes such as a stimulus for speaking or (descriptive) writing. However, it might be possible to incorporate works of art in the study of Italian history such as these:
Or posters such as these when talking of the post-war economic boom (or classic TV adverts for the same):
- Can you talk about a specific example of interdisciplinary teaching?
[CAJ] In March 2009 as the teacher of Italian at Latymer Upper I was asked by Mrs Barbara Romito Head of Languages at The Latymer Preparatory School to help and work jointly in the planning and coordination of a special event for the primary children called “The Italian week”. The event saw the involvement of a team of teachers from the Prep School and a few from the Upper including almost all the disciplines: Mats, Science, Geography, Music, Art, Drama, Dance, Italian Language, and Latin. The whole of the Prep building was covered with the pupils’ art-work items and posters reminiscent of the most famous Italian Cities and People like Leonardo, Galileo, Michelangelo and others. Each day of the week had a theme and all classes were engaged: for the Science lesson a visitor Speaker arrived dressed as Galileo Galilei to surprise the pupils who later worked on an experiment switching from English to basic Italian science terminology and using all apparatus labelled in Italian. My Students of A2 Italian performed a mini slapstick Comedy based on Commedia Dell’Arte’s characters for the joy of their younger peer and it all ended with the “tarantella” being danced by teachers and pupils alike!
[PL] A recent example would be viewing Bellocchio’s La bella addormentata when studying the topic of euthanasia/assisted suicide through the story of Eluana Elgardo (along with short television clips of statements from politicians). This was only a partial success as more work would be needed to refine what aspects or passages from the film to concentrate on – the pupils found the film rather confusing!
- If you could influence a move towards interdisciplinary teaching practices, what are three things you would do?
- Influence examination boards/Ofqual in the construction and design of new A levels (or teaching frameworks) so as to make the prescription top-down.
- Commission/write models for teachers to use – i.e. exemplar teaching units, possibly with materials, but certainly providing teachers with the structure and incentive to teach elements of a GCSE or A level course in this way.
- Training for teachers. Could the next phase of the project involve a teacher conference?
- CURRICULUM DESIGNINING: I would try to influence the people at the very top, Head of School, Director of Studies, my own HOD about introducing interdisciplinarity via giving them practical examples of it in my subject.
- TRAINING STAFF: all teachers should receive a proper training about interdisciplinarity with specialist talks and hands-on workshops.
- MICRO-PROGRAMME: start with a micro-programme of a week, a month perhaps and try a combination of subjects; assess and evaluate the pro and contra and good luck!
- What resources would you need in order to bring more interdisciplinarity in your teaching?
[CAJ] I reckon to have access to the Internet through mobile learning tools such as portable devices like mobiles, tablets so that the students can read and download the required information. We have to take into account of course the students’ progress and knowledge of the language and perhaps suggest them accessible Italian sites that we as teachers have tried already.