By Mariah Belber, The College of New Jersey

The hallways at Udine International School in Italy look like those in any school in New Jersey where I’d ever been placed as a preservice educator. Cubbies for storage line the halls, student work papers the walls, and posters and fliers announce upcoming events. Smiling staff members welcome students to another day at school.

But there are many differences as well, beginning with the sound of conversations among students and staff. They, of course, speak Italian, not English in this school that holds Grades 1 through 8.

The most significant difference is in how the school delivers its curricula. Of course I knew the school’s curriculum would not be based on the Common Core State Standards that I’d grown familiar with stateside. What I did not expect, was the lack of textbooks. The challenge of creating a fourth-grade unit on Ancient Greece from scratch was one that I was not expecting, but it was a great experience. It permitted me to focus on what the students were interested in learning, and what I could do with each of the standards I was given. It allowed me to do a deeper dive into the Olympics—the students loved winter sports—and we could have our own Ancient Greek Olympiad!

I was surprised by the lack of emphasis on cellphones and social media in fourth grade at the school. When I presented my first lesson with the students, I included a “show me your selfie” activity. Many students were baffled. They didn’t know what a selfie was.

It was refreshing to see kids getting the chance to be kids, without the stress that comes from social media. The students loved watching YouTube, and knew how to dab (a dance with the head bowed into the elbow to show confidence and pride), but none of them used Snapchat or Instagram. Only one student had a phone, which was never brought to school. The lack of focus on technology kept these students focused and excited on lessons, and meant they were very excited when they got the chance to use technology.

While multilingualism is a key component of the school’s mission and vision, the students and many staff members speak Italian as their first language. This offered me insights into how English language learners may feel in my classes back home. During a required safety training at the school, I was completely lost because the presenter only spoke Italian. Fortunately, another teacher in the school translated.

The language differences did offer some joyful moments. The students had initially assumed that I, like most of their teachers, understood Italian. They soon discovered otherwise and we turned it into a game called “How do you say ____?” A student would say a word to me in Italian and ask how to say it in English. We used Google Translate and had some laughs when the grammar was tremendously incorrect. This experience will help me empathize with students who have language barriers.

In the end, the students were just like any other fourth graders I have known, and they needed the same things any other student needs from a teacher: support, love and compassion. 

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