A Fabulous Journey through Grammar
"Viaggio nella Grammatica Fantastica" (A Fabulous Journey through Grammar) aims to bring children closer to traditional subjects in a creative, stimulating and inclusive way, such as the teaching of grammar and spelling, through the use of workshop teaching and innovative methodologies. Reading and writing are the main "tools" of learning. They are so-called "transversal" skills that are practiced in all disciplines and in the most diverse fields of knowledge: students practice them at school, but also transfer them in many school areas of informal and non-formal learning, in a process that is strengthened throughout life. On the basis of our experience, creating favourable conditions for the activation of a relationship of sympathy between children and language, in its many forms, is therefore crucial to limit de-motivation and rejection of the study of the same, with the consequent risk of early school dropout in the last year of lower secondary and in the first two years of upper secondary school.
Narrative, origins and objectives of the initiative
What kind of project is this? Please give a short description (summary) of it.
A Fabulous Journey through Grammar is a project - created by ProXXIma Association - lifestyles for the citizens of the future - and it aims to bring children closer to traditional subjects in a creative, stimulating and inclusive way, such as the teaching of grammar and spelling, through the use of workshop teaching and innovative methodologies.
Reading and writing are the main "tools" of learning. They are so-called "transversal" skills that are practiced in all disciplines and in the most diverse fields of knowledge: students practice them at school, but also transfer them in many school areas of informal and non-formal learning, in a process that is strengthened throughout life. On the basis of the Association experience, creating favourable conditions for the activation of a relationship of sympathy between children and language, in its many forms, is therefore crucial to limit de-motivation and rejection of the study of the same, with the consequent risk of early school dropout in the last year of lower secondary and in the first two years of upper secondary school.
As Loredana Perla, Professor of Didactics and Pedagogy at the University of Bari, also mentioned, in the preface of the book Primitive grammar for digital natives aspiring to be sapiens sapiens, “grammar is a fundamental branch of the knowledge of the school, but the experience that students have varies depending on the methods chosen to teach it. There are dogmatic methods that do not discuss rules and concepts presented to children, ending up making it a boring mental gymnastics, full of dusty analysis for which the children do not understand the need, and there are playful methods that make it vice versa, the pleasant discovery of that enchanted territory that is the language of Italians”.
All the teachers of the 700 participating classes also received information on where to find www.proxxima.it, the really materials structured by the project team in order to continue the work in their classes.
Please tell us why, in general, this project is considered a successful one?
A Fabulous Journey through Grammar is an effective programme for at least 3 reasons:
- In a creative and stimulating way, it brings children closer to traditional subjects, such as the teaching of grammar and spelling, through the use of a didactic workshop that has proved effective for children with disabilities and with special educational needs as well as with able-bodied children because it is based on a plurality of approaches (theatrical, artistic, imaginative, as can be seen from the mini videos on the home page of the web site (www.proxxima.it) and on a variety of tools to be put into play. The tools used are the result of twenty-five years of work, both within private and public schools, as specialists in creativity, creative writing, and as editorial designers. Each member of the team lives and processes the laboratory experience in the classroom in an absolutely personal way, rectifying, or rather continuously transforming the common "repertoire", made of, as Wenger recalls in his text "Community of practice", "words, tools, ways of working, stories, gestures, symbols, actions or concepts that the community has adopted during its existence".
- The workshop activities, carried out in more than 700 classes, are suitable for all children. The different workshop proposals use an imaginative, humorous, always varied and stimulating language and require a motor and emotional activation that appeals to the will and feeling of the child. In the lower classes (second and third) and with children with special needs or with disabilities, the approaches used (artistic, imaginative and theatrical) allow the pupils to grasp the grammatical part and feel at ease because they are not required to use writing or reading themselves. The methodological intent is to give children time to gain knowledge and understanding from experience, setting up an appropriate environment that offers a plurality of experiences (different from normal school activities and able to polarize energies and resources often left in the shadows). The appropriate environment we refer to is the stage space in which the Country of Grammar is imagined, within the physical space represented by the classroom;
- Participation to the show-workshop allows an excellent revision of the main parts of speech and provokes floods of laughter, generating a trail of enthusiasm as can be seen also by scrolling through the feedback received from teachers and presented on the homepage of the website of ProXXIma (www.proxxima.it). “In renewing my gratitude and that of my students, I would like to make some comments about the show. I start from a well-known phrase by Gianni Rodari - "In our schools, generally speaking, we laugh too little. The idea that education should be a bleak thing is one of the most difficult to fight..." So cheers to those who bring a load of laughter, those who know how to excite, stir up passion and accompany us by the hand to discover the cheerful and dynamic side of "serious" things (...) “
And why would you consider it a grass-roots initiative?
A Fabulous Journey through Grammar is a grass-roots initiative because it is the result of local activation, discussion and confrontation processes involving different local actors active in reducing early school dropout in the area of Turin and Province. The work-team carried out discussion sessions with teachers of primary schools in Turin and its province (Moncalieri) who highlighted the importance of identifying different approaches to teaching/learning Grammar and Orthography. During 2015, ProXXIma collaborated free of charge in the classes of these teachers, in order to develop activities capable of supporting the interest and motivation of the students, so as to support the effort to reach the goal of linguistic competence.
What challenges needed to be solved in this project?
A Fabulous Journey through Grammar aims to create the foundations for the achievement of linguistic competence, the basis for any discipline, from primary school, in order to prevent early school dropout, already developing in the second grade a relationship of "sympathy" with the written language.
International research on key competencies for lifelong learning increasingly highlights the need for specific educational interventions focused on these skills, also in consideration of the extent of the changes that digitization is introducing in the didactics of read-writing.
Language teaching can do a great deal in this direction, promoting the construction of stimulating learning environments, particularly necessary in those contexts where economic poverty generates and feeds educational poverty. School curricula should aim to create favorable conditions for learning so that every pupil has the opportunity to experience the language in all its forms (listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary and linguistic reflection), to experience it and to build up a linguistic competence as far their abilities allow.
A linguistic competence interwoven with "affective and emotional languages", so that all children can feel part of the community-school and share its values. "Teaching the rules of living and living together is an even more unavoidable task for schools today than in the past, because there are many cases in which families encounter greater or lesser difficulties in carrying out their educational role as an educational community” (Jacques Delors, I 7 pilastri dell’educazione).
- to promote active participation by the class group in the processes of learning grammar and spelling, valuing the learning styles and the different resources (physical and cognitive possibilities) of each one;
- to use different languages (theatrical, musical, etc.) to increase language skills and thus promote greater possibilities for expression by all children;
- to propose interdisciplinary and inclusive ways of learning;
- to provide new ideas and tools to activate didactic paths calibrated ad hoc on the needs of one's own class group.
Is this initiative based on any particular theoretical framework? Which one?
The workteam’s approach is based on a holistic pedagogy, in which the child is seen as the builder of their own knowledge, as in Montessorian psycho-grammar, but where, at the same time, the teacher is the mediator between the child's interest in the world and their interpretation of it. The world is thus presented to children through images and experiences appropriate to their development and individuality, allowing them, through active learning that uses a theatrical and artistic approach (using both workshop activities and educational games, but also stories, nursery rhymes and poems that are recited with the body and voice) to enter into contact with the surrounding reality and develop those skills that will enable them to guide in future life their learning path. The use of workshop didactics acts as a powerful generator of meaning for the student (who is considered a creative actor and responsible for their cognitive and heuristic journey) and is an inclusive tool also attentive to differences.
(Appendix) Is your intervention standing on its own or is it a part of a bigger and more holistic approach?
Please describe the group(s) intended as beneficiaries of this initiative
Why has this group (have these groups) been chosen?
In order to prevent a complex problem such as early school dropout and to implement inclusivity, it is necessary to start from primary school, particularly from second grade all the way to fifth grade. It is crucial to create a "sympathetic relationship" between the children and the elements of speech from the beginning of the course of study, with the aim of maintaining a high level of interest and motivation by children for their language. The intervention should start in the second grade because in the first grade children are already engaged in the process of literacy and often, especially in classes with high percentages of foreign children, they do not get to master the entire alphabet even by the end of the first year. In addition, the creation of the class community takes time, which is why it was considered more profitable to activate the process from the second grade.
Could you please tell us something about the relative size of the (of each) target group, within the school/university population, region and/or country?
900 teachers and 14,000 primary school children were involved (12,676 in Piedmont out of a total of 191,399 students and 1324 in Valle D'Aosta out of a total of 5981 students).
The activities proposed within the project pursue the Italian language objectives proposed by the Ministry of Education.
In Italian primary school, children with special needs in education are 53.832 (1,95% ), the percentage of ADHD children goes from 5 to 8%, and children with disabilities are 90.845 (3,3%).
Which social characteristics are taken into account and what is the geographical area covered?
For the programme already carried out, the social characteristics were most diverse, since schools applied through online registration, as required by the Diderot programme - the founding framework from the Bank Foundation within the project operates, that guaranteed participation according to a first-registered basis (the first selection criterion was just the time of enrollment). The new, to be launched in the city of Milan in the school year 2018-2019, has a smaller target (about 500 students) and the primary selection criteria is that of critical socio-economic conditions, with a high presence of foreign children. The project will include a greater number of workshops (at least 3 per class), participation in the show-workshop and also the training of the teaching staff through a participatory and heuristic approach.
On which level is the project implemented?
Please describe the political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative
Did the initiative have political support?
The initiative is part of the Diderot programme of the CRT Foundation and enjoys the support of the Regional School Office for Piedmont, which conveys the initiative to schools through ad hoc circular letters.
How did it fit with local, regional or national policies?
The School Office of Biella (a province in Piedmont region) was very impressed by the project and between June and September 2017, decided to support a seminar organized by Proxxima for 100 teachers and a training course for 20 primary school teachers. The exchange of ideas with teachers was very important and highlighted the need to use a more relaxed pace for the teaching/learning of different disciplines (and not only of grammar) and approaches that leverage fun, so as to ensure that all children learn with serenity and joy.
Who are the stakeholders supporting the initiative?
The stakeholders who support the initiative are: banking foundations (who have offered financial support to the project), the members of the Charity who offer voluntary work and expertise, and the school teachers who have contributed to the design and approach of our intervention.
Are there particular demographic changes present that are influencing the project?
The increase in immigration, especially from North Africa, has produced cultural and economic discrepancies particularly in cities such as Turin, Aosta, Novara, Milano, affecting also the schools in these districts. The houses where once immigrants from Southern Italy had lived are now the homes of people from Africa, South America and Asia. Within many immigrant families, in particular those from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, consideration of the status of women is more similar to that present in Southern Italy in the 1970s: wives and daughters are subject to their husbands or fathers and have to look after their male brothers, to whom everything is due... Since every single school reality is a microcosm in itself and much depends on the professionalism and motivation of the teaching group, the ProXXIma work team has developed a range of activities to be used according to the contexts encountered and the problems identified (problematic relational dynamics, presence of children with special needs or disabilities, etc.).
What is the institutional strategy and culture of the (educational) organization?
ProXXIma is a social promotion association, made up of people from different fields (pedagogical, psychological, health) who have worked together for a decade on an English project, d.side (drugs apart), adapted to the Italian context (Giving Education That Encourages Important Decisions) and active in Milan (from 2004 to 2011), Umbria (from 2004 to 2009) and Trentino (from 2011 to 2013). ProXXIma aims to promote the psycho-physical development of the individual, their rights and well-being as well as the development of tools for in-depth studying and innovation in education. ProXXIma recognizes the importance of the role of the family, the school and the community as promoters of growth and supports participation, integration and social cohesion through:
- cultural projects for public and private actors
- educational and training projects for public and private entities
- research and development activities
- creation of innovative tools for educational and recreational purposes (edutainment).
The experiences of different professionals in different schools and Italian regions have allowed us to "test" a method based on the integration "in the field" of creativity and methodological and scientific rigor, of the artistic and rational "souls", capable of generating enthusiasm in children, but also in adults; a method with emotions as the common thread. It is often forgotten that learning is linked to pleasure (it has been scientifically proven that memory improves when it is linked to pleasant emotions). Therefore, the fundamental messages of the courses are mediated by play. Through the promotion of an exploratory, interactive and reflective attitude, children have the opportunity to take an active role, respecting the needs and requirements of all, thus becoming protagonists of the learning process.
The organizational culture of Proxxima, based on the "Community of practice" of which Wenger speaks, pursues a common enterprise as a result of a collective process of negotiation and is based on mutual commitment and a shared repertoire that we constantly rephrase. Reification makes it possible to "crystallize" a complex experience, allows to have fixed points, to create, "anchors" and is, therefore, a source of memory, but no member of the Association implements those same practices in an absolutely identical way, each instead elaborates them in a personal way sharing ideas, insights, and doubts with the team. And it is precisely the presence of this duality between participation and continuous reification of ideas, artifacts, and processes that are the constant and fundamental characteristic of the Community of practice of the project.
To what extent does the initiative have an influence on institutional policy (or potential influence) of the (educational) organization?
The project is also "impacting" on school policies. The following is an example. The desire to deepen the methodology used by ProXXIma in the teaching/learning of grammar, experienced during the grammar workshop in the classroom, led the faculty of Agliè (Circolo di Castellamonte) to request two training courses "tailored" on grammar and spelling, one for first and second grade teachers, the other for those for third, fourth and fifth grades, which were activated in September 2018.
The initiative has a great influence on the institutional policy of Proxxima organization for the impact it has had on the "community of practice" of the Association, a community that has proved capable of learning from experience, developing forms of evolutionary mutual commitment and expanding the shared repertoire and "reifying" it.
The initiative also has a potential influence on ProXXIma thanks to the methodology used which, through different approaches (theatrical, artistic, heuristic), can also be used in areas other than the teaching / learning of the Italian language and cross national borders.
(Appendix) Is there public support for your initiative and the issue it addresses?
(Appendix) What other factors do you think have been important for the success of this initiative?
Please describe the overall initiative design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals
Please describe the specific activities carried out.
The design of the project is the result of years of work in schools by our team to meet the educational needs of children of all backgrounds and abilities as expressed by their teachers and as observed by our professionals. Our approach is deeply influenced by the in-depth discussions held with teachers during ad hoc meetings.
The project rationale is to apply the most innovative, effective and evidence-based (through direct experience as well as scientific research) methods and project design in order to address the educational challenges faced in primary schools for the teaching of grammar. The extent and duration of the activities have been calibrated in order to be highly effective within the single-class group but also in order to reach a substantial number of teachers and class groups.
The project consists of class workshops, a show-workshop (theatrical performance with professional actors where the children play an active part) and teacher training activities. The method uses a highly participatory, enjoyable approach capable of involving every child - irrespective of their physical and language abilities. The collaboration, mutual attention, and respect created within the class group are strong drivers for the participation and integration of children of all abilities. This process of inclusivity is also strongly supported and sustained by the key objective of improving the learning of the common language (Italian) through the method for the teaching of grammar.
- implementation of a one-hour workshop for each class from second to fifth grade (on a specific part of the text of choice working on nouns, verbs, and adjectives), calibrated according to the age and the grammar curriculum.
- implementation of one show-workshop "In the Country of Grammar" of 55 minutes, with professional actors and live music, for 6 classes at a time (maximum 140 children). The show, which can be replicated within the same day, offers teachers the opportunity to watch the teaching/learning method used by the ProXXIma team through the use of:
- a cheerful, amusing and, at the same time, rigorous screenplay, which, thanks to the different registers used (comic, poetic, didactic), is highly inclusive;
- a prologue capable of "polarizing" the attention of children, preparing them to gradually enter the Kingdom of Language.
A minimum of 3 participating classes is required to activate the workshops. To activate the show-workshop 6 classes are required, for a maximum number of 140 children.
What were the key roles (teacher, student, management team etc.) within the project?
Students played a key role in giving us direct and quick feedback on how the workshop activities impact on them. It’s immediately visible in their posture and glittering eyes showing a change in perceiving grammar as something lively. They ask “to play” with it, in order to generate a deeper knowledge on nouns, adjectives, and verbs and on their use. A key role was played by the teachers from the different schools who took part in the road show and who, often with great enthusiasm, acted as spokespersons among their colleagues. Also, the support teachers, especially in the school year 2017-2018, shared with the team the need for an approach of this kind not only with children with special needs and disabilities but with all children, so as to improve the relational climate of the class. Last but not least, a key role was played by the team management and the identification of the "actors" to be deployed, maintaining a constant dialogue and confrontation with all ProXXima professionals involved in the project.
What ideas, tools, theories, models, methodology (etc.) have been used to reach the goals?
Mainly, two approaches have been used, both with the stakeholders and with the staff involved in the project, to achieve the following objectives:
- a concerted or participatory approach
- a heuristic approach
Since teaching means choosing between many psycho-pedagogic, philosophical, sociological and anthropological options, there is a need to understand how these different visions interact with each other, influencing, shaping, designing and redesigning the teaching workshops proposed within the project "A Fabulous Journey through Grammar".
The theory of warm cognition (whereby when you learn something and put it into memory), on a cognitive level you experience an emotion of which you are only partially aware, which leaves a trace in the brain circuits connected to the memory of what has been learned. The method of discovery (certainly not a novelty in the field of pedagogical disciplines, which requires you to create opportunities for certain mental experiences to take place. It must use a rigorous and complete approach, but also a playful and engaging one so that it leaves a lasting trace), have accompanied us along the way making us choose the workshop as “a device for global school innovation: organizational, pedagogical and didactic at the same time" (Baldacci 2004), through learning by doing and the use of active methodologies”.
Structured according to age group, the workshops are considered by all members of the team really "learning contexts in which the relationship between children, the ability to play and collaborative work are solicited". The use of a heuristic approach, moreover, has contributed and continues to contribute to fostering interaction between the different actors involved in the design and implementation process, helping them to better understand the complexity of the reality in which they work.
What are the final revenues of the project?
Please describe if your project ensured its sustainability
If so, how did you ensure the short-term impact of the project?
In the city of Milan the project is experimenting the possibility of involving schools in co-financing the initiative and working on the development of various editorial tools, both for children (in bookstores from November 2018) and for teachers, which would provide a form of co-financing in the future. Finally, ProXXIma's 2018-2019 agenda is to invest more in communication to make the Association and its projects more visible, thus attracting the interest of small and large stakeholders.
And how did you ensure the long-term impact of the project?
Has your project been replicated elsewhere?
Please tell us about the resources used in this initiative
What was the budget for the initiative?
A total of 90,000 (ninety thousand) euros for the two years 2016/2017 and 2017-2018.
How much did the initiative depend on volunteers?
How were the costs perceived by the public/the sector/other stakeholders?
To what extent did the initiative achieve its objectives?
Please describe the evidence to support the success of your initiative.
Apart from the analysis of the questionnaires attached, the evidence of the success of the programme emerges from the numerous registrations received online in October 2017 (more than 18,000 children were registered compared to a total project capacity of 6,000).
Did the intervention lead to any unintended (positive) outcomes?
The success of the show-workshop and the feedback from the teachers (who told us how, even after some time, the children were still able to recount perfectly well all that had been staged) highlighted the importance to focus on the theatrical method and create a new show, more complex from a grammatical point of view, so as to accompany the children in their development
What indicators (quantitative and qualitative) have you measured to demonstrate success?
To measure success the most important indicator is given by teachers’ feedback who report that, after some time, children still remember very well what they did in class and strongly want to repeat the experience. In the case of the show-workshop, "success" for us is that the children remember the sequence well, reviewing or discovering, depending on their age, important grammatical elements such as verbs, nouns, adjectives. Let us report, as an example, the feedback of a teacher who attended the show-workshop with his class, where also his son participated: "Friday, April 7, the audience was made up of pupils from different schools, those of the school where I work and others of the school that my son attends (IS San Francesco di Aosta, third grades). That evening at dinner, my son Tommaso and I talked about the show we both attended and he remembered everything and told his sister every detail of what we saw. Not only the sketches but also the ritual to call Professor Grammatica, the songs of the doubles and accents, the edict of King Discourse (which requires that the verb always comes out first to decide which noun or pronoun to accompany). To the question if the show had been long or not, he answered as follows: I know it lasted an hour because the teachers told me, but it seems to me that it lasted less than 5 minutes”.
Another indicator is the ability to involve all children, including those with severe disabilities such as quadriplegic children or those with mild forms of autism (Asperger) or those who do not speak a single word of Italian because they have just arrived in Italy from a foreign country (it is common practice for teachers at the beginning of the workshop to express the intention that the child should not attend the workshop, but leave the class with the cultural mediator, and it is the practice to ask that the student remains in class instead). Three examples are:
- In the school of Agliè (a small municipality in Piedmont, Italy) there is a quadriplegic child in class who barely moves his fingers. How to involve him? Thanks to his wheelchair, he became a knight on a beautiful horse and was able to participate in the activity on verbs (riding, galloping, etc.), together with his companions.
- The girl with Asperger, present in a class in Pont St Martin in the Aosta Valley, on the other hand, not only let herself be captured by the theatrical activity of warming up (fluid movements in space with different directions and intentions), so much so that, in order to make her stop, it was necessary to approach her gently and touch her shoulder. Also in the artistic activity (to introduce the work on adjectives), in which she totally immersed herself and created a colorful image with beeswax tiles.
- Finally, in a third grade class in Novara (Piemont, Italy), the suggestion given to a child with Down Syndrome to use, for the creation of the movement of the sea, a cloth smaller and more transparent than that of his companions, allowed us to transform an initially hostile expression into one of surprise, followed by a calm attitude and full participation in the group performance. It was really great to see the movement of the big sea made by his companions with the large cloths alongside the smaller waves he made, and then recover from their experience all the adjectives (calm, serene, moved, agitated, stormy, etc..) that emerged in the activity.
The evaluation tools are given to the teachers in the project "A Fabulous Journey through Grammar", have also been used for other projects within the Diderot programme, and were prepared by Fondazione CRT. They consist of a scoring chart, estimating, as Bezzi recalls in The new Design of Evaluation Research, "the quality of a program (a service, for example) attributing, to each of its components, a score, from 1 to 5, where 1 means "bad judgment" and 5 means "excellent judgment" and also of open-ended questions. As can be seen from the attached PowerPoint document, the scores obtained by ProXXIma in the scoring charts are mainly between 4 and 5.
Through the notes and comments from the open questions, the strengths emerged (such as, for example, the high involvement of children thanks to the educational approach used and the inclusive approach), as well as some requests. For example, the animator were asked to devote more time to the initiative and, albeit to a lesser extent, to implement more complex activities with more grammar.
In the end, the project collected the following important considerations and suggestions.
About the methodology:
- a very interesting methodology for the practical exploration related to the concrete mode of learning of children
- excellent methodology, I would focus on a specific topic
- the project seems well articulated and structured in a playful and captivating way
- the intervention was well thought out and organized in an effective and entertaining way
- a good methodology that stimulates attention and curiosity
- an activity appreciated by all for the creativity with regards to teaching grammar
About the inclusion aspect:
- the activity has been adapted to the classroom context and are the existing problems (also relational ones)
- useful for strengthening the class group, improving the relational climate and language skills
- cooperative, serene learning, which allowed all young people to interact by using their own skills and creative resources
- this activity was also appreciated by foreign children who have just arrived in class
- the children participated with great interest and everyone was able to put their own resources and peculiarities into play in mutual respect and in the total absence of judgment. Even the child with a serious disability was involved (both emotionally and practically) in the performance of the activities. The strong point of this proposal, which contributed to making it inclusive was the theatrical approach. It is certainly an experience to be proposed again and from which to take inspiration for future interventions (excerpt from the email of the teacher Silvia Sposato, primary school of Mergozzo (VB))
About the educators:
- the educator was very engaging and encouraged the active participation of the pupils without forcing them and respecting their different sensibilities, constantly holding the attention of the class group and conveying some important contents of grammar and spelling (excerpt from the letter of the teachers of the school Emil Lexert of Aosta).
- the children were very interested but I would have preferred an activity with more grammar
- I was struck by the educator's empathy
- clear and adequate delivery
From the results, one receives confirmation from the teachers' answers of the competence and communication skills of the educators, with pupils who strongly appreciated the workshops and the show.
Since this is an original and inclusive proposal, which solicits and offers many ideas for the development of didactic paths in the classroom by teachers, it naturally emerges the need to improve the integration of the experiences lived by different class groups, also reinforcing their participation (before and after). In addition, the need emerges to offer an intervention that keeps the same approach with, where possible, more advanced content, that may be also suitable to the eventual presence of particularly gifted students.