Photo caption: Luca Piergiovanni uses educational podcasting, mixing new technology with old knowledge, to revamp his students' curriculum. Behind, his alumni put together another episode of the Chocolat3B podcast. (Fulvio Paolocci/GlobalPost)
COMO, Italy — One typical school day near Lake Como, a group of eighth graders walked up to the principal’s door with a rare request. They wanted to stay after school to study poetry. Their new literature teacher was “very cool,” they said. The principal was stunned, but agreed.
That’s how middle school teacher Luca Piergiovanni— a 37-year-old former disc jockey with a degree in literature — began an unprecedented experiment in Italian schools last year.
By bringing in his mixer, microphone and CDs, he taught the basics of poetry analysis through music — and podcasting. What started as an after school project, with students recording radio shows on poems and pop songs, soon evolved into a class website, with podcasts available for free on the iTunes Store. The students were hooked.
“Today’s students are digital natives, their brain patterns have changed with technology,” said Piergiovanni, sporting a shiny piercing under his lip. “If they get bored in class, it’s usually the teacher’s fault,” he said.
Piergiovanni’s class website, www.Chocolat3b.podomatic.com, has already garnered international acclaim. The site is a colorful patchwork that features podcasts on everything from information technology and multimedia to poetry and pop music.
“Everything has become more exciting, more interesting for us students,” said Federico Battaglia, one of the Chocolat3B producers, who is now in high school. “Doing podcasts entices us to study poetry,” he said, “something that clearly didn't happen before.”
Piergiovanni uses the students emotional reaction to poetry to trigger their critical thinking. In one podcast, the students explored commonalities between a desperate poet writing from a trench during World War I and a mournful, anti-war songwriter from the 1970s. In another podcast, the students analyzed a break-up song from the 1980s that was inspired by a chapter on tragic love from Dante’s "Inferno."
Choosing podcasting as an educational tool wasn’t just a matter of giving traditional teaching techniques a makeover. Piergiovanni says this new medium has also given students an entire new set of skills.
“The educational value of podcasting in schools is huge,” said Piergiovanni. “Students learn how to work in a team, give each other tasks, and do all the research needed to interview experts for the podcast,” he said.
Chocolat3B podcasts have inspired similar initiatives in other countries, from Turkey to New Zealand. However, Piergiovanni admits he himself was inspired by a pioneer teacher in the United States. Jeanne Halderson of Longfellow Middle School, in La Crosse, Wisc., created Coulee Kids in 2005. She is now an Apple Distinguished Educator.
Piergiovanni wasn’t snagged by Steve Jobs — rather, he lost his job. Because the Italian school system is entirely based on seniority, widespread layoffs in education this year forced Piergiovanni out. He now works part-time in a new middle school, with a salary less than that of a custodian.
The bad news quickly reached Roger Schank, the CEO of Socratic Arts, a virtual company that promotes innovation in education.
A self-defined “revolutionary of education” who has studied learning processes for the past 35 years, Schank offered Piergiovanni a job. The teacher is helping Schank create a new curriculum for first-grade teachers.
“Luca’s first project,” said Schank, “is to have the children retell the story of 'The Ugly Duckling,' by writing a rhyme and setting it to music,” he said.
In this activity, children will have to use a computer tool to develop choreography, prepare props to accompany the song and produce a video to showcase their work — a far cry from traditional storytelling.
“School as it is today is boring and irrelevant,” said Schank. “This is true in every country.”
Schank, a former professor at American universities, is also familiar with the education system in Italy. Ten years ago he got in an argument with Italy’s minister of education who was boasting that Italian high schools still teach Latin, unlike the rest of Europe. “I told him that was nothing to be proud of,” said Schank.
Piergiovanni spent last summer preaching the advantages of podcasting to his colleagues in 40 schools throughout the Como region. He was promoting a new project called “PodClass,” in which he teachers how to podcast on his own time. In the end, only 15 colleagues joined him.
“Many think students already spend to much time in front of their computers,” said Piergiovanni.
On the contrary, both he and Schank believe that technology is the key to engaging students in learning.
“Plato said that people only learn by doing; generations of scholars have echoed his idea, but the schools completely ignore it,” said Schank. “If this was somewhat understandable before the availability of computers, today it is simply deplorable,” he said.