The School of Penny Wirton


Eraldo (Affinati) and Anna Luce (Lenzi): your life before the foundation of Penny Wirton School?


We both graduated on Silvio D’Arzo, the author of the novel from which we borrowed the name of the school. The real expert on Silvio D’Arzo is Anna Luce Lenzi who is well known by the literary critics who worked on the writer from Reggio Emilia (Italy). We both have a literary background but we had also a strong pedagogic inclination moving us to found this peculiar school for immigrants.



And where are you after the errand you took around five years ago now?


The errand lasts since around ten years ago! Now we feel responsible of so many people who, passionate as us, move on the idea to teach Italian language to young migrants. We have the sensation that this free task can stimulate the main and better resources of our country.



The School of Penny Wirton started and multiplied in different Italian cities with the same model of open school without classes to teach the basic Italian language to foreigners always providing free courses with volunteering teachers. Or it helps who already speaks Italian and write it to improve. Which is your inspiration, how many centres, teachers and ‘students’ do you have?


In this moment we can count on twenty five Penny Wirton all around Italy. We have several hundreds of students and of volunteers. For those of you like to go in depth or/and collaborate with us, we suggest to visit our website:



If the students ask about novels to read in order to improve their relation with our literature – or with our poets – can you unveil your favourite for the aim?


Our students are often illiterate in their mother tongue: they are, for instance, kids who never held a pen in their hands, so for them the act of reading is just the end of the learning. Anyway, we also count on literate students. In that case we might suggest easy and fluid texts. There is one, for instance, of Hans-Georg Noack, entitled Benvenuto (Welcome), translated from the German by Anna Luce for the types of publisher Gallucci that is worth well for the task, also because it tells about when the immigrants were us, the Italians.



Which is the perfect identikit of the right volunteer, where this person can get in contact with you to give his/her time and what do you wish they donate to you?


We have two kinds of needs: the retired, not always a former teacher, and the young student who operates with us using the given alternation schooling-job. The best thing, maybe, to see is the young Italian guy teaching our language to same age migrants. Every volunteer is pushed and moved by a different motivation: social, religious, political, or existential. Everyone gathers anyway in the same gesture: to give. And everyone brings himself, his or her sensitivity, his or her life and world. When the volunteer goes back home, he or she is always humanly and socially enriched.



Among your teachers you often have sons of the second generation of migrants and among your students you also have minors without parents arrived in Italy with lots of fortune. Is the language teaching the universal key that means above all welcoming and inclusion?


To learn a language is everything, as Don Lorenzo Milani (at whom I dedicated my last book, L’uomo del futuro) knew well. It means to become adults, to learn to think, to write, to live. Through the teaching of the language also Italians can experiment the real quality of integration that cannot be reduced to the pure service of teaching but is mainly made around the quality of the interwoven human relation.



Virtues and weak points of your method?


We do not want to simply entertain. For, we use two volumes we have written just for the migrants: Italiani anche noi (also us Italians), both published by Margine. They are the Libro Rosso (red book) and Libro Blu (blue book). They actually contain lots of exercises, lots of drawings and a few chapters of grammars. Our fragility, all in all, is wanted and is linked to the fact that we do not have any source of grants and everything can end today. We are lucky because lots of people call us and want to work for free with us!



What do you like to import here in Italy from the varied world of social cohesion and social promotion you saw abroad and not yet found here?


The composure and the harmony have to be conquered day by day: everybody knows that. You must have a dream in your head and keep the bar straight because you will find also those rowing against your direction. But when the little kid Mohamed arrives everything is gone and we just continue to work.



A talent you have, the one you miss?


The talent, as Penny Wirton had, is the one to be rigorous and flexible at once: every lesson is recorded and every presence is communicated the same evening of the class. We lack the institutional experience and the administrative talents therefore we always lacked in finding adequate places for our social action. But we made do also thanks to the help of so many excellent people.



Which is a nice thing happening to you recently at your schools and to you on a more personal side?


The smile of our students is our better reward: especially of those who wish to be allowed to come to the lessons everyday. It is such an incredible spectacle for all us, the teachers. As if Pinocchio, instead of selling his spelling book, would have asked it as a gift to you. Some Afghan kids do that and make alive the world of Malala Yousafzai (the young Pakistan female activist who was awarded with Nobel Prize) when she said that a book and a teacher can change the world.



What did you learn from life until now?


You have to stay with empty pockets. If you would try to keep something, you’re designed to loose it.


The Italian version of this interview, written by Diana Marrone, has been commissioned to Slow Words by Foundation Easy Care and has been published in a new column that Slow Words designs each month (until May 2017) for the Observatory of the ‘Social Cohesion Days’.

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