Story of schoolboys of Barbiana resonates today as educators help disadvantaged kids reach potentialsBy William Harms
The founding director of the North Kenwood-Oakland Charter School, a veteran teacher, administrator and education researcher, is reviving interest in one of the classic stories of 20th-century education—the experiences of disadvantaged schoolboys inspired by their teacher, who also was a priest in their remote Italian village.
“You Won’t Remember Me: The Schoolboys of Barbiana Speak to Today,” published by Teacher’s College Press at Columbia University, is an account of the school where students learned to overcome social-class limitations. “It resonates today as educators help socially disadvantaged students realize their potentials,” said Marvin Hoffman, Senior Research Associate at the Center for Urban School Improvement and Associate Director of the Urban Teacher Education Program.
“I’m not sure how any book, in literature or social sciences, earns the classics label. For me, it simply means that it had a major impact on a whole generation—my generation—of teachers, and it confirmed the belief that teaching could be a means to bring greater equity to our inequitable society,” Hoffman said.
The schoolboys in the small Tuscan town brought discouragement with them when they came to the small school operated by maverick priest Don Lorenzo Milani. Born into poor families, these schoolboys had been told by former teachers that their futures were limited. But they succeeded by learning to write and think for themselves in Milani’s classroom. They spent long hours there and took part in yearlong projects.
They wrote essays in the form of letters to convey their opinions about social class and to challenge their former teachers. Those essays were collected in a book, Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una professoressa), published in 1967, which became an indictment of the way the boys had been treated in conventional Italian schools. It was a best seller in several languages, and Hoffman looks afresh at the book to see what lessons it has for today.
The first paragraph of the book, a letter addressed to a composite teacher, sets the tone and provides the title for Hoffman’s work:
“You won’t remember me or my name. You have flunked so many of us . . . You flunk us right out into the fields and factories and there you forget us,” the student wrote.
Hoffman read the book shortly after its English version became available in 1970. It has inspired his own work, and he has shared it with other teachers.
“During the first year of our new UTEP (Urban Teachers Education Program), I read some excerpts from my weather-beaten copy to our students and found that it resonated with them in the ways it had when I was at their stage,” he said. “So I felt it deserved to be back in the world because the problems the schoolboys were addressing had not improved one whit.”
Teachers are trained in UTEP to become effective in working with disadvantaged students in urban schools.
The lessons of the book also have guided administrators working on the expansion of the University Charter School campus. “When we were planning our new University of Chicago Woodlawn campus high school, we became committed to the principle that ‘standards are fixed, time is flexible,’ ” he explained.
Urban schools seeking to improve outcomes for students frequently have to increase the amount of time students spend in school. At Barbiana, school was in session 12 hours a day, 363 days a year.
“Expanding time in school is what we do in our charter schools, by adding tutoring time, summer time and after-school time. This is based on the belief that all children can learn,” Hoffman said.
Schools also need to reflect the reality of students’ experiences, Milani believed. John Dewey, an early Chicago professor who founded the Laboratory Schools, also respected that principle, as do teachers and administrators at the University Charter School campuses.
“There are so many ways in which the schoolboys of Barbiana point up the way in which school is organized to favor the children of the doctors, not the peasant children,” Hoffman said. “School doesn’t reflect their reality, especially the school of high-stakes testing. The schoolboys had the capacity to be great teachers, but couldn’t pass the teachers’ exam. Success in school, as it was constituted, would only rip them from their communal moorings, and that was a deal they were not prepared to make.”
The school organized by Milani respected the boys as learners, while also respecting their backgrounds, practices that made his school flourish, as do schools that have followed Barbiana’s example.