Gli Americani Start School in Bologna

Date: September 2, 2013

Time: 8:50am

Place: PreK – 12 International School

Attire: Warm weather uniform, school polo shirt and navy blue bottoms.

Setting: The inner courtyard of an ex-abbey on a narrow cobblestone street in Bologna’s historic center.

Vibe: Friday cocktails at an outdoor terrace minus drinks plus 175 screaming children.

Overall feeling: Nerves + excitement.

ok, this is very nice. can we go home now?

Finally! After a long, hot summer in Bologna’s countryside, our 5th and 2nd graders started school at the beginning of September, in the city’s historic center. The school is an IB (International Baccalaureate) World School that teaches in English but includes daily Italian instruction for foreigners. This place was a big part of our decision to live in Bologna instead of somewhere else in Italy. We loved the fact that almost 70% of the kids are Italian, which we found out along the way is not the norm for an international school here. Most are filled, I guess not too shockingly, with ex-pats from all over the world.  (Similarly, when we were scoping out places to live, Bologna stood out from the rest precisely because it’s a beautiful, historic city that’s filled with Italians, instead of millions of tourists and international folk. Despite it’s fame within the country as the culinary capital of Italy, it seems to be off the map for most travelers.)

For a few years, IB schools had been luring me in, with their focus on being internationally-minded, and their mission to develop people who are: “Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-minded, Caring, Risk-takers, Balanced and Reflective.” That seemed pretty awesome. Now, we have a chance to see if all this wonderfulness is actually possible or just a bunch of pedagogical hooey. Coming from a good New York public school, it will at least be very interesting to see what happens when you lose all those practice worksheets and some of that teacher-led curriculum, and let the kids take the reigns sometimes.

On this first day of school, alarms rang at 6:45am, which is not that big of a deal for my son, Zoel, the early-riser of our clan, but for the rest of us, OUCH. None of us had seen this time of day since June. It was 7:15 before we were out of bed (Zoel was already dressed and ready to go.) Nervousness, excitement and curiosity were on the menu for breakfast, and I was just as tweaked as the kids, partly because I knew it was a big deal for them, but also because I was/am so incredibly jealous of them and the opportunity to dive into a different culture and language within a totally new learning environment. (I’m a geek who would be happy to wonder the halls of academia for life, so this kind of thing gets me going.)

We managed to leave our house in Casalecchio early, fearing that if we got stuck in traffic, or couldn’t find a non-resident parking spot, we would miss the starting bell. (Only residents of the school’s neighborhood in Bologna’s ‘Centro’, which lies within the city’s 12th century wall, can drive and park freely in the area. Visitors to the ‘hood share a limited number of pay-to-park spots and can only drive on a few streets.)

getting used to not having a dryer.

Luckily, traffic was fluid and a parking spot was waiting for us, so we made our way over to the tiny cobble-stoned street where the school is with time to spare. As we turned down the block, we saw the large, red-brick facade and giant archways of the school building, which had been used as an abbey for centuries. Its solid nature and historical architecture made us feel like we were entering a very special place. The central courtyard of the building, which serves as the school’s playground, was packed with uniformed children and well-dressed parents, no sweats or yoga pants to be found! Perfectly coiffed dads and moms and fully made up faces greeted each other with wide smiles and happy, if incredibly loud, voices. My son yelled (to be heard over the rumble of Italian chatting) “There are too many children in here!”, and Leeloo hid behind one of my legs while explaining calmly that she was feeling a bit nervous, and that perhaps we should re-think this whole thing. Her momma was feeling the nerves too. For a second I thought maybe we were asking too much of these little people, but then I reminded myself that they’re tougher than they look, and that kids have the power to adapt to new things in a way that is difficult for us old people. I went to work reassuring them that all would be well as we checked out all the new faces. Soon, Leeloo, my daughter, was up on the chain link bridge with wooden planks surveying the scene from above. While I started thinking about the extra time I needed to start putting into my outfit choices in the morning.

We sprang to attention when an 8 or 9 year old girl with a head of messy blond hair, rang a big brass bell. Parents and children hustled to their proper places. Zoel lined up single file with the 5th graders and Leeloo with the 2nd graders, all behind their respective teachers. The whole scene reminded me of my 8 years at a fairly rigid Catholic grade school – sans nuns in black habits and prayers – which is not exactly what I expected from this seemingly more progressive learning environment. The teachers were all smiley and cordial, but at the same time, no nonsense. All the while, our kids looked a bit too serious, wide-eyed with a dash of anxiety, but holding it together. Just as we kissed them goodbye and wished them a good first day, another bell rang, and off they marched into a brand new world.


How’s the school year going for you? Anybody start at a new place? If you’re far from home or just changed schools close by, were your kids braver than you? Or was it a big challenge for them? Please tell us in the comments.


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