The Warmest of Welcomes
I had my first day of practicum this week and my emotions were all mixed together. I was nervous, worried, excited, and happy. I could not get my mind to stop racing and my stomach to stop flipping. My thoughts were everywhere. What would the school look like? Will the children like me? Will they know how to speak a little English? Will the teachers be excited to have us in their classes? Will the teachers know how to speak English? Will it be harder to plan lessons for these children than it is back home? My mind was filled with different ideas and questions. I could only hope for the best and to be honest, I think the best is what I got.
When my partner and I arrived at the school we were very early so we simply waited in the lobby and talked about what we were excited for and what we were nervous about. It was really nice being able to talk about all of my thoughts and feelings with someone else that was in the same position as me. At 10:30 we went upstairs to meet the teacher and the class. The teacher greeted us very warmly and was able to speak a little English, which was comforting. All of the children in the classroom were looking out the door at us and were smiling. I do not think I have ever seen happier expressions in my life. When we walked in they were staring at us like, as if they won a huge prize. We introduced ourselves to the class and once I said my name was Francesca they all started asking if I spoke Italian. I find it funny that most people of Italian culture immediately assume that an Italian name means that there is a possibility the person can speak Italian. I explained to them that I speak a little Italian and can understand most of the things that they said. This made them even more excited. The teacher also seemed very relieved that I spoke a little bit of Italian because it will definitely help her if she cannot say something in English.
We then went around the room and each child introduced themselves. They all were able to say, “My name is ____”. It was so cute hearing them speak in English with their Italian accents. It was easy to recognize that they were all putting in quite some effort to say this sentence. However, not one child said anything incorrectly. I was very impressed with their English and their confidence to speak the language. It proved to me that I should be trying harder with speaking Italian. None of the children were shy or embarrassed to speak English even though we knew exactly how to say what they were saying in English. I think that I need to pick up this care free and determined mindset that they have.
After the introduction we went to the back of the room to observe the class. The students were obviously distracted by our presence, but their teacher easily regained their attention if it was ever lost. It was remarkable to see the control the teacher had over the room. It actually reminded me a lot of classroom teachers in America. It was clear that there were many well-known procedures and rules. For example, the students knew to switch the sign by the door to the color red when they left to room to go to the bathroom. Therefore, this meant that only one child would be permitted to leave the room at a time. When they returned from the bathroom they would switch the sign by the door to the color green. Another example was when the teacher would try to get the class’s attention after an activity she would talk very quietly and slowly. This would require the students to lower their voices and eventually become silent in order to hear their teacher’s instruction. That was something that I thought was amazing and very similar to classroom instruction in America.
While we were sitting in the back observing we could not believe that the classroom had a smart board. This was the only classroom in the entire school that had a smart board because all of the other classrooms had black boards. I was amazed that this one class was lucky enough to have this technology. As we continued to sit and listen to the lesson, the students at the desks closest to us kept looking our way, waving and smiling. The strange thing was that the entire lesson was taught in Italian; meanwhile we were told that this hour was supposed to be English instruction. During the instruction the teacher actually called my name out and asked if I understand what is being taught. I told her that I did and she was very pleased. I was proud of myself for understanding the content that was being taught and the language being spoken around me. Honestly, if I were like my partner who did not know any Italian at all, I feel like I would have been a little scared and would have felt very out of place. It must be scary sitting in a place where you are lost due to a language barrier and all I can say is I was happy for my Italian language knowledge. However, for her it must be a really intriguing experience.
After the instruction was completed the students had to complete a worksheet related to the lesson. Many of the students finished quickly and made their way over to us. The teacher did not seem bothered by this, however, one of the students did not even try to do his work and he was wandering around the room. I was absolutely shocked when the teacher walked over and grabbed him by the arm to sit him down at his desk. In America if you touch a student at all you would be in enormous trouble, possibly lose your job. Continuing on the topic of physical contact, there was an assistant in the room who had one of the student’s sitting on her lap while she was completing the assignment. Even though this is not aggressive physical contact it would still be prohibited in America. This was very surprising to see. One more incident was later on in the lesson, after all of the students completed their work, the students had to go to the front of the room and share one of their writing pieces with the class. One of the students was sharing, but the class was not paying attention. The teacher took her hand and covered his mouth to make him stop speaking so she could get the class to pay attention to him. I could not believe this. All of this physical contact really surprised me because it would be something I would have never thought to do in my life.
When the students came to the back of the room to talk to us they started asking us our favorite colors, our favorite animals, our favorite sport to play, where we were from, etc. I was shocked with how much English they actually knew. There was one girl who I was beyond impressed with. She was speaking in English and was not afraid to keep going. She was making long statements, asking questions, giving answers. Obviously she stumbled a lot of the time and got flustered and nervous when she could not think of certain words, but we urged her to keep trying. It was great to see a 4th grade student try so hard and really use all of the English knowledge that she has. A little while later this same girl came over to us with two paper bracelets that she had made. On the bracelets she had written “Inglese”. My partner and I started laughing because it was funny that she labeled us as what the teacher told the class we are. She knew both of our names, but she knew that we were obviously not Italian. I thought that the gesture was so kind and it made me feel very welcomed into the class. We then thought about this a little more and realized that the students thought we were from Britain because they were told we were English. Therefore, we laughed it off and immediately told them we speak English, but we are from America. When they heard that we were from America they were more excited than before. The students’ enthusiasm towards us definitely made me feel a lot more comfortable.
There was another girl who was very good at art. She actually drew our favorite animals for us and gave them to us to take home as presents. The best part about the animal topic was that when they asked our favorite animals they knew exactly what a cat and bunny were. We even asked them how to say bunny in Italian and they were proud to teach us their language. It was a rewarding situation on both ends because we were speaking to them in English, allowing them to practice their literacy skills, and they were teaching us Italian, welcoming us into their culture and their classroom. The children really never stopped smiling. This one girl who was the artist I think forgot that we spoke English towards the end of the class because she would sporadically turn around and say some long sentence in Italian and would speak it very quickly. I tried my best to understand, but she spoke too fast for me to pick up everything that she had said. The strangest thing about this was that she did not even think twice about what she was saying or the fact that we were not giving her responses. I guess sometimes you want to express yourself and share your thoughts, but there is no other way to do so than in your own language.
Towards the end of our observation time the teacher made her way to the back of the room to speak to us about lesson plans. My partner tried to ask her what she would like her to teach next lesson. The first time that she asked the question she told her to slow down because she was talking to fast. The teacher laughed when she said this, but I could tell she was a little nervous and flustered. Now I can imagine what I look like when I am trying to understand a fast-speaking Italian citizen. It was weird watching this scene from an outside context. My partner then explained her question again at a slower pace, but the teacher was still confused and looked to me for help. I told her earlier in the class that I understand some Italian. Thank goodness I did and I was able to translate what my partner was asking. The teacher was so relieved and smacked her head as if she knew what my partner was saying to her, but simply forgot the words. The teacher explained herself and thanked us for coming. The students all warmly waved goodbye to us and said that they could not wait until next week when we come back.
Walking out of the room, I felt like a weight had lifted off of my shoulders. It was amazing how much English the students knew and how welcoming both them and their teacher were. The classroom set up was perfect. Seventeen students separated into groups of 5 or 4 with their desks. A smart board and the walls covered with student work, posters, and lesson topics. The atmosphere of the classroom was welcoming for both the students and visitors. I definitely look forward to going back again next week.
Looking back on this all I have to say that it is most definitely challenging trying to converse with the people around you when they only speak another language. However, with these students it made it a lot easier and a lot more fun. I did not feel left out of place or lonely at all today. Rather, the students were incorporating me and my language with their discussions. Their fascination with us made me feel like a celebrity and very welcomed in their class. At the beginning of my experience I was nervous and worried, questioning what could go wrong. Overtime I realized that children are the best people to encounter because they accept everybody and will never unnecessarily judge people.
Embracing the students’ kindness and fascination, while also being able to speak to the teacher in bother Italian and English, allowed me to feel apart of their classroom. I felt like I definitely fit in very well and the students also helped me to realize that I should not be afraid to speak Italian. I have to attain this carefree attitude that they use when they speak English. This experience started out with a lot of thoughts and nerves, but it transformed into a very positive experience. I became one with a community that I never thought I would be complimented by or fit in with. This experience has helped me to feel more welcomed and confident in Italy. I am very excited to further pursue this class and begin to utilize my Italian language knowledge with the students and the surrounding society.