Student Voices – Reflections on Teaching English to Refugees in Rome

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Kiah Zellner-Smith
June 10, 2016

During the Spring 2016 term, a new project emerged for IES Abroad Rome students studying that allowed them to teach English to refugees through the Social Action Seminar. Hear from Georgina Cortinas and Shannon Boley, two of our students who took the course, on the challenges and rewards of teaching English abroad!

Shannon Boley | Religious Studies major, Hamilton College

“I’ve learned so much about teaching abroad that I frankly wasn’t expecting when I signed up for this internship. Initially when I was applying to do this, I thought that I would be a teacher aid in an Italian refugee class and might teach English with their help on the side. When I arrived in Rome, we realized that the commute time and our busy schedules did not lend this internship to be like that, and instead I, with one other student, would start-up an English-language refugee class at the center. I was determined, proud, and a little scared, especially when we visited the Italian language class and saw the crafts and everything they were doing. Yet Georgina and I persevered, and created a once-a-week, interactive English class. This pushed us out of our comfort zones, but also made me realize teaching language abroad is something I feel comfortable and confident at. This type of immersion was exciting, difficult, and insightful; we had quite a learning curve!

Georgina and I were not able to find a well-suited ESL textbook, and created all of our lessons on our own, based on topics we thought to be the most important. We divided into units of: Who am I? (Introductions, emotions, family); Shopping (Food, Travel, Clothes); Practical and Leisure (Doctor’s Visit, Sports, Weather/Time and Review); and the last class will conclude with a review game and a party. We certainly covered a wide range of topics, and found these were often most talked about in daily life.

We introduced the past tense, future tense, and present of verbs like to be, to have, to go, and to play. Having taken French, Hindi, and Italian, I thought about what topics we covered and the importance of speech and vocab. Learning and practicing words, which they also could do from home with online flashcards, is something I realized was very important. The practical, interactive sessions and activities really help lock in certain concepts, and are fun, as well. After our lecture, we made sure there were games. We did a mock doctor’s visit, a script with TSA and travel agent, where I helped them book a pretend flight, a food scavenger hunt where they asked shopkeepers the price of certain items, and creating a family tree. Keeping it interactive and engaging was something we really had to focus on, for many reasons.

We realized that giving homework worksheets or things to bring back was not a possibility. As our internship advisor explained, when students come from an unstable home life, where they’re applying for jobs and asylum status, they aren’t in the stable supportive environment that helps you learn. And as the weeks progressed, I saw this myself. A good rule of thumb was that we never knew at what time and how many students would come until the class that day ended. Sometimes students without the advisor would come in separately 20 minutes after the others, or even the advisor would be totally different depending on the week.

I’ve learned the importance of cooperative group learning, and how making students feel comfortable with each other can help encourage them to learn. It is a fine balance of pushing and not pushing too hard, since this is a voluntary endeavor for them as well, and two-hour commute time round trip.

Going with the flow has been essential for teaching this class, and celebrating the improvement within the class time. Since their visits are so sporadic, it’s hard to track their individual improvement, but grasping some concepts by the end, having fun, and being a safe, home-like space is what we try to accomplish and celebrate. These men deserve the best (and yes, we have only male students). We have not had much time to go into their personal stories, but you hear bits and pieces as we talk about where they’re from, and the family unit. One student is eighteen and traveled alone when he was only sixteen years old to Italy, and lives at the center, plays soccer, and does not go to school. Another has 13 siblings, all back in Pakistan, and has been away for nearly four years.

Every student is considerate, sweet, and well-behaved. I could not teach better or more worthy students; they have gone through so much. But their willingness to learn when their life still remains in turmoil, and their smiles and kindness, show a resilience that is admirable to say the least. They brightened my week, even though the work is challenging and stressful at times. The pay-off is immense and has certainly shaped and given meaning to my semester abroad in Rome, Italy.”

Georgina Cortinas | Sociology & Communication Major, Trinity University

“Designing an English course without any previous experience teaching at first seemed a very daunting task to me, but teaching the men at InMigrazione during my semester abroad has been well worth any challenges I have encountered.

It was a struggle, at times, to teach a class of students who were all at different levels with their English because no matter how much we tried to cater to each student’s needs, I worried someone might be left out.  It was difficult, sometimes, to see one student picking up new vocabulary, practicing speaking, and feeling confident, while another was visibly overwhelmed.

I was not able to learn each student’s story because that was not the focus of our class, but it was certain that their lives were far from easy. At the last class, Ercole told my partner and I that our students really did enjoy coming to class because if they hadn’t, then they wouldn’t have bothered to make the long trip all the way from the InMigrazione center every week. I understood then that with everything our students have going on in their lives, creating a small space to learn and grow and feel comfortable doing so is a very special effort to make. Treating the men with respect and attention, never ‘dumbing anything down’, and never treating them like children was fundamental in doing so.

As for myself, I have gained an increased understanding of what I want out of my future, as well as increased confidence in my abilities as a teacher, and an increased awareness of what the demands and responsibilities of being a teacher are.

I know now that if I decide to pursue a career as a college professor, I would be happy. I know just how important it is that teachers care about their work and care that each student is learning something from them. And I have known how influential good teachers can be for students so I hope that my partner and I were able to impart useful knowledge and a pleasant experience onto our students.

When I think about the future of this program, I feel very optimistic. I hope that future study abroad students are able to have as good an experience I have had in Rome, Italy. Most of all, I hope that a strong curriculum can be built to meet the needs of every student, and that the men who are able to come to class can get the most out of their experience.”

For more student-curated content, check out our blogs, where you’ll find advice, travel tips, and first-hand accounts of what's happening at our Centers around the world straight from our students. Interested in enrolling in the Social Action Seminar? Then apply to study abroad in Rome with us!

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Kiah Zellner-Smith

IES Abroad News

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