After teaching at primary schools in several areas of Rome for many years, Marisa Madera is now acting headmaster of the “Scuola Primaria Pietro Mancini” primary school, attended by children from a diversity of backgrounds and family situations.
The “diversity” of the children attending the Torpignattara primary school, with whom Marisa Madera works on a daily basis, is one of the most representative images of this part of Rome; at the same time, it is also one of the most unexpected. Representative, because many of these children come from families who have moved here from all over the world and are facing the task of integration, while others come from Italian families who often move here looking for a cheaper place to live after a divorce or after one or both parents have lost their jobs. Unexpected, because these apparent differences, often leading to prejudices regarding the academic and social performance of schools such as the Pietro Mancini school, dissolve as soon as you step inside. To meet Maestra Marisa, as “her” children call her, we are paying the school a surprise visit on a Saturday in May, knowing full well that this means we will miss the opportunity of seeing the teacher interact with her students. Yet in the colourfully decked out classrooms, decorated with children’s drawings, we unexpectedly encounter countless parents with their children. They are working together on seeding the school garden and decorating the windows of the assembly hall with little plants flowering in lively colours. The niqabs, the mixture of Roman and foreign accents, the most disparate levels of gardening competence – from the father who works in a greenhouse to the female university professor specialising in botany – don’t seem to matter at all.
Ms Madera, has working with families from different backgrounds made your work more difficult?
On the contrary, I would say that I learn something every day in teaching these children and spending time with their families. It’s the most interesting job I know, and this way it’s even more worthwhile because you’re constantly forced to test yourself and learn something new. Some of my students are labelled “difficult” because they come from complex family circumstances or have different cognitive abilities. I have met many such children, but in the end, they have always fitted in, even if it was sometimes necessary to learn sign language in order to communicate with deaf-mute children or to have long discussions with mums and dads outside of work hours.
Are you employing any special didactic methods with these kids?
These kids need an appreciation of their innate abilities at school, just like they do in their families and in society, regardless of which nationality their parents belong to or how much money the family has. That’s why my colleagues and I, with the support of our fantastic headmaster Malvina Fiorani, organise a range of activities that allows the children’s sensibilities and talents shine naturally. Just recently, we held a journalism workshop, reading the national and regional press in order to produce our own newspaper; we have participated in national competitions on issues like legality, human rights protection and environmentalism. Each time, our students’ work stood out because of its quality. Last month, we attended an audience with Pope Francis, whom we presented with poems and drawings made by the children. We also had a conversation with Ulrich Hub, who, along with colleagues from other schools who had labelled us as a “suburbs school”, was surprised at how profound our questions were.
Would it be fair to say that your students represent a Torpignattara the public doesn’t know?
These children are tomorrow’s citizens, and only with our help, by equipping them with all the instruments to learn and understand, by providing them with strong values, will they be able to create a city that is better than the one they are going to inherit from us. These students are only seven or eight years old now, but they are already capable of dealing with issues like legality, cultural integration, the acceptance of difference and civic education. Their parents tell us that they also carry this knowledge outside the school and into their families, and in certain family situations they are sometimes the first to do so. When they read about problems in this area in the local newspapers, they are the ones who want to write about what does work and how to solve these problems. This is where I don’t just understand them as a teacher: I myself came to Rome with my family when I was their age. As a Calabrian who had emigrated to Germany, I didn’t speak a word of Italian. I experienced “otherness” at first hand and learned that it can become a treasure if you share it with others the way only children can.