Italian: Study Abroad Student Sally Wade Teaches English

The following story was written by Italian student Sally Wade:

When I set off for my second journey in Italy, I was looking for an immersive experience. I wanted to see Italy not through a tourist’s eyes; I wanted to be more than a passive observer. I spent last summer in Florence studying Italian and Renaissance Art History with the W&M Study Abroad Program and it was my first taste of Bella Italia. I came back home with a deep sense that learning Italian for me was more than just conjugating verbs; I was simultaneously becoming bilingual and getting to know a whole different culture. We live in a world rich with diversity and, in learning Italian, I’ve begun to see more of that diversity – different people, cultures, perspectives, traditions, and lives. In short, studying abroad for a summer just made me sure that I needed to do it again. A five week dabble in the complexly beautiful Italian culture simply wasn’t enough time.

I was fortunate enough to be able to return, this time to the medieval hilltown of Siena, for four months this Spring. I chose a program called Siena Italian Studies which structures its program around a philosophy they call the “FICCS Approach” (Full Immersion: Content, Culture, and Service). Essentially, students are given the opportunity through homestays, intensive language courses, language exchange partners, and service projects to fully immerse in the Sienese culture. My own ability to immerse has been the product of many pieces of this journey – my homestay, traveling, making friends with the barista who makes my espresso each morning, my language partner from the Università di Siena, and my struggles (and triumphs) as an ESOL teacher.

Each component has its own story and place in my heart, but I’ve decided to talk about teaching English here because I think it’s a pretty unique part of my experience. This is one of the service projects we’re offered as part of our program and it is truly an eye-opening opportunity. The basic idea is that teachers at the public elementary schools here in Siena are required to teach an hour of English per week, but often times these teachers don’t speak more than very basic English. So every Wednesday for the past four months instead of going to my regular Italian language course, I walked to the Scuola Pascoli where two 5th grade classes await the arrival of their English teacher. Yes, that’s me. With the help of their regular teacher, Daniella, I put together an hour-long English lesson for each class.

I saw immediately some of the difference between American and Italian classrooms. My students call Daniella and me either by our first names or simply “Maestra” (i.e. teacher). I saw that some of the taboos which exist in American classrooms are not found here. Teachers are much more affectionate with students – hugs and kisses are normal. If a student gets a question wrong or forgets his textbook at home, he is publicly denounced and shamed. Grades are announced in front of the entire class. I can honestly say that there are things I like better about the American system, while other things are simply done better by the Italians.

The majority of our lessons were spent putting together a skit in English about Scooby Doo and the Mystery Gang. Apparently, the classic television show “Scooby Doo” has been dubbed into Italian and airs frequently on public television here. The kids know all about Daphne, Fred, Shaggy, and the whole gang so they were very enthused to be putting on a play about one of their favorite shows. Putting this play together was a learning experience in so many ways. I had to think of not only how to explain the pronunciation of words, but also what their significance. I learned how difficult it can be to hear the difference between here and ear and her. To us, it’s second nature, but to a 10 year-old who has just begun to learn English, it’s extremely difficult. Trying to explain the difference (both for the pronunciation and meaning) between well and we’ll was, in a word, trying.

Often times, I had to explain something in Italian if they weren’t understanding it in English which was always scary and often embarrassing. My Italian is far from fluent and I had to check my pride at the door each week and not care about achieving perfection, but focus on communicating. At the end of the day, my goal was for them to understand. I hope (and think) that them hearing me speak in broken, imperfect Italian encouraged them to have no fear. I wanted them to know that it wasn’t important to me that their English was without error – it was important that they came to class each week and tried. If they tried their absolute best and never gave up, I could not ask one single thing more of them.

And believe me that’s what they did. Together, we worked hard to cross the pesky language barrier and found that we could communicate and learn together. Each week, I was surprised to find that not only had their English improved, but their personalities were shining more and more brightly. The icing on the cake was that my Italian began to just flow from my mouth with much less effort and minimal stumbling.

Unfortunately, as I write this piece, it’s drawing near to the end of my time in Siena. Last week was the last English lesson with my precious fifth graders. The play isn’t quite ready, but I’m absolutely sure that it will be by the end of the month when they will present it to their families. I was showered with thank you notes as I left and treasured all of their kind words. (I particularly loved their spelling errors – you can see in the pictures that I obviously didn’t teach well the difference between leaving and living!) We exchanged both email and home addresses so that we can be penpals if they wish. Regardless of whether we keep in touch (and I hope this happens), I leave knowing that I these students will always hold a special place in my heart.

Aside from improving my Italian, I had the opportunity to meet wonderful, intelligent, and vivacious children. I had the privilege of seeing them leave behind their fears and put in the courage and dedication necessary to put together something of which they can be tremendously proud. I know this because I am tremendously proud. I am also very grateful for this opportunity to see inside Italian culture. Not only did I find what I came for – to see beyond tourist Siena – but I walked away with an experience I will never forget.

Sally Wade

webmaster help