When my Italian adventure began, I didn’t know just how closely I would follow the GLI theme “Culture and Politics”. The appeal of ACLE, or Associazione Culturale Linguistica Educational, was the chance to see Italy in a unique way and to teach a group of students that were similar to American children (but much more boisterous and fond of the song Baby Shark). I knew I would have fun teaching English to these kids and that it would be a valuable experience for everyone to share in each others’ cultures, but I didn’t know how powerful ACLE’s curriculum and a little passion could be.
Exchanging language and life experience with someone from a different culture enriches perspective, sure, but my abroad experience brought even more to the table. ACLE’s model is centered around creating bonds with the Italian students and sharing your piece of the world with them. One of our afternoon themed activities is “Culture Day” in which each tutor has their own workshop based on their country or state. These workshops include games, crafts, songs, and general silliness. A fellow tutor from Canada brought maple syrup for her students to try and taught them the Canadian National Anthem. I prepared a mini-lesson about the Salish tribe and conducted a Native American Art Workshop. More than anything, ACLE wants to promote a global community because, in general, Italians tend to have a rigid mindset about the rest of the world. Most citizens never move away from their home country, and 99% of Italy’s population is native. Arrigo Speziali, the founder of ACLE, told us that it doesn’t matter if the students learn a single word of English; what matters is that they become inspired about the rest of the world and start considering themselves to be global citizens.
In addition to broadening Italian students’ perspectives, ACLE has started to implement an environmental agenda to their curriculum this year. Students learn about keeping the oceans clean, deforestation in the Amazon, and acid rain alongside grammar lessons. While Italy is bellisima, there is a lot of trash in this country. Reusable water bottles are nowhere to be seen (ACLE gave the tutors new metal water bottles this year to try to counteract this trend) and everything is made of disposable plastic. Right now, I am watching an Italian woman dump bottle after bottle of water into a pot to make tea even though the Rome tap water is perfectly fine to drink, and, to top it off, threw the plastic bottles into the “organic waste” bin instead of the “plastic” recycling bin. At camp, we encourage environmentalism by having the students brainstorm how we can help keep Italy beautiful, sustainable, and clean. The ACLE curriculum calls for crafts, like turning a water bottle into a planter, and science experiments, like carving “monuments” out of sidewalk chalk and pouring vinegar over it to represent the effects of acid rain. The creativity of this environmental-minded curriculum has a huge influence on the students. And the best part is that they have so much fun doing these activities that they don’t even realize they are learning!
Italy’s culture has many differences from our own. In my classroom, the students were very passionate and easily distracted, which I took to mean that I wasn’t doing my job correctly. Actually, that’s just how these children are, and a classroom of excitable students is much better than students asleep at their desks. People kiss you on the cheek, and you have to learn which direction they go for first in order to avoid an awkward maneuver. They barely eat any vegetables and your diet consists almost entirely of carbs. You WILL eat pizza every day. The biggest cultural changes were, for me, jarring because I’ve never been outside of the United States before. After a while I adjusted. The key is to jump in and consider everything an adventure rather than a struggle (and call your mom twice a day when you’re exasperated).
My perspective on global community changed this summer because it is one matter to discuss what “global community” means while you’re sitting in a UM classroom but quite another to tell a 12-year-old boy named Matteo what Native Americans are for the first time. In our current political climate, it is more important than ever to learn appreciation and empathy for those in different cultures than our own.
This experience developed my leadership skills tremendously. The first (rather silly) growth spurt was the trip itself. I call this abroad experience my trip of Firsts: first time on a plane, first time out of the country, first time being away from home for several months, first time trying to navigate public transportation in a foreign language, etc. There were no baby steps involved in this process, and I am proud that I accomplished those things and lived to tell the tale. Another way that this abroad experience made me a better leader is everything ACLE asks of their tutors. Every day, I would lead a group of 15 to 80 students in songs, games, crafts, and lessons. I conducted my own classroom, the first opportunity I’ve had to do so as an Education major. I’ve collaborated with colleagues and ACLE staff to make each camp the best that it can possibly be, and I’ve evolved a lot through this process. My newly acquired leadership skills were born out of necessity to do my job well and to not get lost in Europe, but I’m grateful for every uncomfortable growth opportunity I’ve stumbled upon along the way.
This experience has brought about one big question: will this generation of students change the world because of our influence? The adult population of Italy doesn’t see climate change or global community as priorities, but it is my dearest hope that the students I’ve had in my classrooms will change that mentality. It has never been more important to be good stewards of our planet.
Italy embraces you the second you step off the plane (and I’m not just talking about the humidity). During my time here, I have known nothing but welcome from everyone I meet. This trip has taught me that human beings are fundamentally the same everywhere: children are crazy and playful, everyone loves to laugh, being good at charades helps surpass any language barrier, and family is everything. People here live passionately, and I hope that I have adopted some of that zeal for life. I will always be grateful to the many host families who have taken me in and the friends I’ve made among the tutors and Italian ACLE staff.
To anyone considering going to Italy, know that Italy will love you back just as hard as you love it. Say yes to every adventure, get to know people who speak broken English on the bus, and try every flavor of gelato under the Tuscan sun. I will come back to the USA with a suitcase full of souvenirs and a bigger heart, because Italy has taught me that the best thing we can do with our short time on Earth is to love every moment as much as we possibly can. Thank you, ACLE, for helping me grow as an educator and a human being and thank you, GLI, for making that growth possible.