• Anita Demitroff

Crossing paths and sowing seeds: how colleagues from other fields can inspire you

Updated: May 8, 2021

Today's installment of “C is for collaboration” is about Andrea Bettinelli, a teacher trained in Argentina who has helped many children (and teachers) in Galicia to make their worlds bigger.

Imagine the specialist in additional learning needs, who's used to working with the whole child and all age groups across the curriculum, gets a class of his or her own … in Pre-school education, with three-year-olds!

What incredible work would they'd be able to do!

Well, that's exactly what happened to Andrea Bettinelli, who has lived in Lugo (Galicia, Spain) for decades.

Because her Education degree is from Argentina, where teachers get broader training, Andrea found herself in demand for teaching posts in almost any sector.

The year Andrea passed the state boards, she ended up being sent to a school in my neighbourhood, Manuel Masdías, in Ferrol, Galicia, Spain.

Then, on a walking weekend, Andrea and I met at a mountain inn. We then ran into each other by chance in Ferrol. Happy serendipity. It made sense that she stayed in my flat in the working week to save her the long drive back to Lugo. That continued contact through talking shop over breakfast, lunch and dinner had a profound impact on me as a teacher.

Here are seven things I have learned from Andrea.

1. Even in a city school, children can have contact with nature, both in and out of the classroom.

Andrea was not only diligent in getting her pupils digging in the school garden on a regular basis. Nature made its way into her classroom. There were two pet snails around whom Andrea knitted a narrative that enraptured the children. One of these beasties actually escaped and ate its way through the classroom’s toy house. Pet fish also lived in the classroom.

On another day, the children cut their way through some mackerel to examine the gills and other bits inside. Andrea recognised the value of athe hands-on element; she entrusted them with cutting and messy work.

We followed her example in Learning Space, the joint venture between EDAI and You First, with good results, even though one or two pupils (and teachers!) were squeamish.

It wasn't just about the big and messy, though. Sticks and chestnuts from the school's lovely grounds were used in all kinds of creative ways, from maths to art projects. Indeed, Andrea's simple tip of getting restless children to snap branches into pieces worked for me, as my pupils made “nests” for the birds from a story.

2. Good reading habits and summarising skills through oral presentations can start as young as three.

The photo has been lost, but I can still remember my awe at seeing a three-year-old positioned in the middle of his seated classmates as he recounted, in his own words, the book he read with his family the night before. He looked like a TED speaker.

What saddens me is that these book club type presentations often peter out by mid- to late-Primary in many schools, despite the wonderful initiatives made by school library teams to promote reading; as if the weight of the content-based curriculum squeezes this kind of activity out. Yet these book sharing sessions are a way of fostering summarising and reading across the languages.

Their experiences in the garden were transformed into a foot-painted mural, which soon became of a visual representation of the planting process. That was when we came up with the idea of the English teacher riding the coattails with bigger projects, perhaps by creating a chant. The rain comes down, down, down. The snails come out, out, out. The plants grow up, up, up. Her school's English specialist didn't get a chance to exploit this opportunity, but Andrea has inspired my colleagues and I to be on the lookout.

3. Artistic expression starts young.

Children as young as three can express themselves through artistic representations we might think are beyond their grasp. We've already seen, with books like the “Colour Monster”, that they easily understand the relationship between colour and emotions. However, Andrea took this one step further by allowing art sessions to flow and therefore be more child-led. The typical dove as the Peace Day craft activity became the “Love Chicken”, happily multi-coloured and fat. That was more meaningful to the children than the other symbol.

4. Cooking embraces all the subjects.

Taking advantage of the fact that one of her parents was a professional cook, she entered her class in a cooking competition held by the Galician government. They didn't win the top prize, but improved their maths, healthy habits, collaborative learning skills, communicative competences and even their handling of technology, as a video was made. Some children even learned to use cutlery for the first time. These initiatives have been put on the back burner during the pandemic, but we need to be revisited.

Again, an English teacher could easily find complementary activities: a role play in a restaurant or in a shop and a song or story about cooking,

5. Be flexible and child-led.

Andrea was aware of the curricular content she had to follow, but she allowed her classes to evolve organically, making the most of learning opportunities and following her pupils' interests.

A case in point is the ongoing story about the snails. Paradoxically she covered the same amount of content as her more traditional colleagues would have and this progress was enshrined in the lovely lapbooks she and her pupils made each term.

6. Look for opportunities for practical maths throughout the day:

This is a point echoed by Sandie Mourao, the Early Years ELT specialist. Like the person mentioned in a previous blog entry, Cristina Botana, Andrea integrated robotics too. Cubie from You First had made a visit and she made me think that, as an English teacher, I didn't integrate numeracy and robotics enough.

With pre-Primary children, if you are simulating a picnic, you and your children have to count out the plates for each child or share out the contents of the biscuit box. In Loose Parts sessions, we can organise objects by size. Older children can help with the equal distribution of material or think about the spacing of the letters on a poster

7. The community has to be involved.

I've already mentioned how a parent led the cooking session. In reality families became involved with all kinds of activities and Andrea had made strong roots in two years she was at the school.

A few years later, Andrea got re-posted closer to Lugo, in Baamonde, and she is now back in the field that is her speciality: educational psychology.

However the seeds she has sown while she was in Masdías school are still evident. She certainly has kept me thinking about Early Years issues!

If you would like to ponder some of the questions raised in this blog post, such as the role of child-led activities in art, check out Cuddlebug Kids.

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.

Photos courtesy of CEIP Antonio Masdías, Ferrol (Galicia, Spain).