On Wednesday, the third nonconsecutive day of my internship, I walked to class with a bounce in my step. I had such an enjoyable and fun first meeting with the Italian middle schoolers last week that I had been looking forward to my teaching day all weekend. As I crossed Piazza Venezia, my mind wandered to what would happen in class today. Would I be teacher or teaching assistant? Would the classes be rowdier or calmer than last week? Did I prepare enough information to occupy the classes for their hour of English?
Since introductions dominated classes last week, I assumed I would be safe from more questions about American football, famous rappers, Justin Bieber (who is actually Canadian), American films, and even American politics! Yikes, I’m fairly certain that Italian politics will not capture the attention of most 11-year-olds in America, let alone American politics. Some teachers asked me to prepare personal experiences to add dimension to their lessons on American culture. I prepared lessons about taking/giving directions in English, American food, and the American school system. The specificity of their lessons concerning America impressed me – I have never learned about any other nation’s school system within an organized classroom environment. So I made sure to do my homework this time and research the Italian counterparts to the lessons I would present.
In the first class I assisted the teacher in her lesson about the differences between the American school system and the Italian system. The children were curious and well-behaved, albeit more chatty than American students. The teacher bargained with them to listen well to the lesson in exchange for a few minutes at the end when they could choose the topic. Surprisingly, the students knew about Prom – and wanted to know all about flowers, corsages, and boutineers. I told them I’d bring in pictures next time, and then regretted it – I told middle-schoolers I’d bring in pictures of Prom? I can already hear the teasing! Overall, the lesson was enjoyable and I was proud to hear more students speak this week, boldly using more specified vocabulary from their lesson.
The second class brought a surprise – there was no teacher but me, so I got to lead the class. I didn’t expect this. With their usual teacher and disciplinarian absent, it was difficult to hold their attention. So I had to improvise. I asked about their weekends to warm up their English language skills and most were shy about speaking, mostly because they did not want to make mistakes. Noticing this, I decided to break the ice with a little self-humiliation. Remembering my recently-graded Italian paper, I decided to read it to the class and have them pick out my mistakes as I read it in Italian. They giggled at mismatched articles and misused prepositions, raising their hands to explain. I used the opportunity to explain why I made those mistakes, which gave them insight on English grammar structure. I explained that we’re both learning each others’ languages and the only way to learn a language is to make mistakes, even if they are funny. Then one of the better English speakers (there are a few who are fluent in every class, they double as translators when the faculty need to talk to me) raised his hand and said, “That is what our teacher says. ’The worst mistake is the best lesson.’” YES! The class smiled like they finally understood, and I left the class with a huge smile on my face.
In the third class, I was on my own as a substitute teacher trying to capture the attention of a rowdy, but well-intentioned class. Again, it was extremely difficult to hold their attention with the lesson I had planned about American food. I quickly realized that the root of the issue was not the subject matter, but the fact that I was substitute teacher and they were testing me. My goal was to cultivate an atmosphere of fun AND learning, in which the students could still be energetic and creative while learning. So I racked my brain for ideas, and quickly decided to play a game that would sneak in some English: The Infamous Name Game. I played this game freshman year as an icebreaker; you must introduce yourself using an adjective beginning with the same letter as your first name, and then the whole class must repeat the names each time a student introduces him/herself. After five minutes of dictionary shuffling, we had some fun learning names and adjectives together. Red Robert, Nice Niccolo, Cloudy Claudio, Mini Manuel, Easy Eleanor, Vague Valerio, Angry Alessandra, Violet Viola, Magic Michelle, Invincible Ian, and last but not least (of those I can remember), Dirty Daniel, who later wanted it changed to Dangerous Daniel. By the end of class, I had achieved my goal and strengthened my relationship with the class.
After the last successful classes, I was thinking that this must be my destiny. I had so much fun teaching, I related to the students, and the language barrier seemed to dissolve with every class. And then came class 4, the infamous rowdiest class in school. But this time, the teacher asked me to stay an extra hour because they were short on teachers for some reason. As soon as I agreed to that, she brought in an orphan class, leaving me with forty Italian middle schoolers for two hours. I wish I could talk about how I came up with some amazing idea that captivated them all, or that I had a meltdown or something because that would be more entertaining than reality. What actually happened was me counting to thirty in English several times for the first hour, and each time they became angels by twenty-eight, and after a few seconds resumed talking and throwing paper balls at each other. At one point the second headmaster came in to say something very sternly, but then he engaged me in a language-barriered conversation about my voice and some choir he directs. By the time he handed me a magazine and a note where he scribbled some dates and times (I still don’t know where I’m supposed to show up and why on these dates), the paper balls had resumed and he left the room anyway. So instead of counting to thirty, I took advantage of my high tolerance for chaos. I hopped from table to table answering questions from the students most interested in learning. I came up with a game to motivate the questions for the last forty-five minutes. This game could be seen as a controversial teaching method, but I witnessed the playfulness of the faculty with the students, and decided to emulate that relationship. Whoever gave me a question would write it on a piece of paper (to practice writing and vocalization). I would answer it and then crumple it up and toss it at the misbehaving students, who naturally wanted to retaliate. I made a rule that they could not retaliate unless they asked me a question about America or English. It worked! The shy students began to use English and little by little the whole class became engaged in the game. Although the earlier classes were easier to teach, establishing a connection with the wildest class was most gratifying of all. It was so successful that I might throw paper at students in all of my classes from now on.