AN ENGLISH TEACHER IN THE SECRET GARDEN:
VOLUNTEER WORK AT THE NIDIACI IN OLTRARNO
by Anna Lord
Last year I volunteered as an English teacher for children at the Nidiaci Gardens in Oltrarno. This space is currently run by a group of local volunteers, mostly parents of young children who keep this lovely walled garden open on a daily basis, providing a space where young mothers and grandparents can socialize and where the children can play in a safe environment. I was expecting to make a small contribution to my local community (one hour per week)but little did I know that a whole new world would open up for me.
I am an experienced teacher and have helped students from all kinds of backgrounds and in various different countries, including the Himalayas. Most of my Italian students can be put in the category of “desperate”. They usually arrive at my doorstep when either they or their parents (if they are still at school) are terrified about an upcoming exam, job interview or job – either local or abroad – after having written “fluent in English” on their CV. I’m a bit like a doctor who on the first appointment has to make a thorough diagnosis and then solemnly deliver the test results i.e. tell my students or their parents whether the young man or woman will in fact (in my opinion) pass their exams/be fluent enough for the job interview or be able to go and work for a big multinational corporation in Norway. I am always truthful and in each separate case I really try to do my utmost to help my poor desperate students. I have a lot of feathers in my cap with students who have passed their exams with flying colours, others who have started great careers in Italy or started their own business and some who have even found fantastic jobs abroad. The largest obstacle to overcome in most cases is to convince my students that English is not a dead language like Latin and that no matter how competent you might be in grammar (and many Italian students are often far more competent than their British or American counterparts as far as grammar is concerned), you must actually speak to people. My job is to get them to start communicating by approaching people who don’t speak a word of Italian and saying things like “where do you come from”? Or “can I offer you a coffee”? As soon as they realize that the person who they spoke to actually understood the question and even answered them and maybe even asked them something back there is usually a moment of sheer and utter joy and from then on a new world opens up to them, one which is not just confined to Florence, Tuscany or Italy.
This is my job (or one of my jobs), so I was expecting more or less the same scenario at the Nidiaci gardens. From day 1, things turned out to be different. For a start the children who come to the gardens are often not Italian, in fact the Italian children who attend classes are a minority. Most of my students have foreign mothers, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Filipino. So they are already bilingual and their mothers understand how important it is for their children to speak English in order to be equipped for their future careers in the competitive global market.
As a volunteer I have no pressure for “results” and I don’t have to follow any rigid school curriculum. I am free to teach exactly as I want to which means that I have included skipping, singing, dancing, wearing turquoise wigs or flowery wreaths in my hair, waving a silvery magic wand and even teaching my students to stand on one leg while uttering the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocius”.
The children, without exception, are absolutely adorable and during lessons we laugh and joke. This experience is doing wonders for my own creativity and I sometimes feel quite childish myself, I find myself remembering nursery rhymes, songs and games from my own childhood and wanting to share them with the children. We also paint and draw together. I have called my course “Magic English” as I strongly believe that childhood (and adulthood if we hadn’t forgotten) should be a magical fun experience so this is what I try to convey. I am learning a lot from this experience. Sadly I have noticed that the official school system is still very cruel and out dated and that a lot of it is still based on punishment. We should be nurturing children!
During the cold months the course is held in quite an unattractive building but as soon as the weather improves we have the most beautiful classroom in the world! Our “classroom” is a sheltered courtyard surrounded by stone walls with a beautiful tree in the middle. The “floor” is grassy and the “ceiling” is the sky. There are no desks, chairs or blackboards. It is simply divine. This is an experience which I shall certainly remember and treasure and I am sure that the same applies to all of my students.
Florence is a small place so the news of my “Magic English” course has spread. I now have three groups of (paying) students in other parts of town (and more requests are coming in).
The Nidiaci association (their website www.nidiaci.com has an English language section) is run entirely on a volunteer basis, and the gardens are hidden on a mysterious street called Via d’Ardiglione, behind the Carmine Church in Oltrarno.
The gardens are open from five to seven daily, when it doesn’t rain, but better check first by calling 349-1575238 (they answer in English). If you have any skills or ideas you would like to share why not drop by and propose your course? My personal experience has been very positive and it’s a great way to make friends and become part of the local community.