What new routes can be taken to increase the study of Italian language and culture?
This question is at the center of a lively debate involving teachers and students at many levels in both colleges and government entities, and includes the numerous supporters of such projects as well. It is a debate that La Voce di New York has been following closely by featuring the opinion of various experts and by writing about new innovative projects devoted to the task. Among the latter, there is a new intensive course aimed at high school students that will be run for the first time on the Montclair State University campus in New Jersey. The course lasts three weeks (from July 10th to 27th) and consists of seven hours of activities each day during which course participants will be completely immersed in Italian language and culture, even during their lunch breaks. Behind the scenes various Italian professors and American and Italian-American teachers are working hard to make this ambitious project a reality.
Patti Grunther, an Italian teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School was the one who first came up with the idea. “Many students aren’t able to start studying Italian in middle school and so have difficulty getting up to the AP level, and even when students do have the five years of required study, they may not always feel ready to tackle an AP Italian class or the AP exam as seniors. I was searching for a way to provide students with a study experience so intense that it would either substitute or reinforce their 4th year of high school study and thus prepare them for the AP level in their senior year,” Patti Grunther tells us. On the one hand, the course meets the needs of students seeking reinforcement and consolidation in order to feel prepared for AP Italian, with the added plus of getting college credit, and on the other hand it fits the bill of promoting Italian language and culture through new approaches.
Patti Grunther turned to Teresa Fiore, the Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies and Associate Professor Marisa Trubiano, both of whom teach at Montclair State. The three decided to join forces and together plunged into the challenging task of planning and organizing this new teaching venture which has called for the participation of numerous other people and organizations. First and foremost, two New Jersey schools (Clifton and Palisades Park High Schools) came on board in what was to become a sort of consortium of NJ high schools, followed by various offices and departments at Montclair State. A partnership with Montclair’s Early College Program lets the course’s participating students earn three college credits (transferable where accepted by individual colleges and universities). Further support is being provided by the MSU Italian Program whose professors will be guest speakers in the classroom on a variety of relevant topics. In addition, the Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair, whose involvement has been key from the project’s inception, will be offering an array of pedagogic, economic and administrative supports. The project has also received help from IACE (the Italian American Committee on Education) and from members of the Italian-American community such as the Inter fan club (Facchetti, NJ) and the Juve fan club of New York, which are both offering to finance scholarships. Additional scholarships are being funded by local Montclair residents and the Italian program itself.
The instructional approach of the intensive course is student-centered as the pupils will be the main protagonists in the classroom, participating actively in the learning process. Indeed, this is not your traditional academic language course and yet its goals are highly ambitious: the students will be required to master university-level skills, all the while taking part in campus life.
Professor Trubiano explains, “This course offers a unique opportunity for high schoolers to become college students for three weeks; they will polish their linguistic and cultural competencies, as well as learn about the professional pathways open to them with a specialization in Italian studies. In a multicultural community within a global-market environment, having broad knowledge and advanced-level communicative skills in other languages and cultures has, at this point, become indispensable.”
The dynamic teaching materials used in the course will include Italian audiovisual clips, advertisements and music, all available online from the RAI web portal Istituto Luce Cinecittà. University professors will present related lectures and activities on stimulating topics from the Made in Italy brand to immigration issues to audiovisual translation and subtitling. In light of the close proximity of Manhattan to Montclair (only 25 minutes by bus leaving directly from campus!) numerous trips are planned, all to be conducted exclusively in Italian. These include both “must-see” destinations for Italian culture like the Metropolitan Museum, as well as culinary hotspots like Eataly, where students will get hands-on experience with a wide selection of Italian delicacies. Guided tours have also been planned for New Jersey sites. Paterson, known as “the silk capital”, is one of the course’s destinations where students can learn about Italian immigrants who once worked in Paterson’s silk factories and whose work and political activities are celebrated in the Botto House Museum.
“The idea is to give Italian-language students a chance to learn and talk about both historical and contemporary Italy while taking advantage of an area like ours that is so profoundly Italian thanks to the deep roots put down by past waves of immigrants and to the dynamism of the present-day flow of Italians to the area”, Teresa Fiore says as she describes this immersive all-Italian initiative in the heart of New Jersey to La Voce di New York. The course is aimed at Tri-State (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) high school students called “rising seniors,” i.e. students who are in the summer between their junior and senior years of high school. The vast majority of these students will in all likelihood be continuing on to college once they graduate from high school.
Professor Fiore explains that there is rich “human material” in this geographical area from an instructional point of view. In fact, in New Jersey alone there are more than 150 Italian programs in high schools throughout the territory. However, many of these students do not continue studying Italian after high school, and even when they do, it is not often that they decide to major in Italian. The most common reason is that most people are unaware of the various job opportunities open to graduates with a good knowledge of Italian language and culture. This presents a challenge to today’s Italian teachers, namely that of capitalizing on the passion that exists for Italy and for the Italian language – something so clearly expressed by Jhumpa Lahiri in her eloquent book, In Other Words – and to transform this passion into continued and structured study that prepares students for future work in the crossroads between the social sciences and the application of technology. Along with enthusiasm for Italy’s artistic and cultural riches, for its cuisine and the natural beauty of its scenery, there exists the growing appeal of the Made in Italy brand, a field that can link Italian studies to professional opportunities. However, in order to harness this traditional love for Italy and tie it to new business opportunities, it is necessary to connect these pools of Italian students to practicing professionals active out in the world of business. This is why Professor Fiore has been saying for quite some time that Italian is not only “la bella lingua,” but it is also a useful one.
She continues, “A project like the one we are about to launch for high schools on the Montclair campus is an ever increasing necessity for supporting the study of Italian: and it is also a very stimulating experience. We’re talking about the fourth most studied language in the world in various forms and formats; all the same it is absolutely critical to create opportunities for the long-term study of Italian and to equip young graduates to actively take part in the rich fabric of relations between Italy and the rest of the world, in particular with the United States, a nation that remains an essential partner for our country. A project like this, however, calls for partnerships between public, private and nonprofit entities, especially as far as infrastructure is concerned, and requires dialog between high schools and colleges regarding specific course content. The underlying principle of this course is promising and by joining forces we see room for growth throughout the field of Italian studies that goes beyond individual schools or universities”. This new course aims to plant a seed that will grow in this direction and La Voce intends to follow its development closely this summer, an experience that will no doubt be intensely Italian for both instructors and students alike.
For further information about the course, visit the official webpage From High School to Higher Education… in Italian!