"Please divide into groups of three. Each team will be given a map and a worksheet with specific tasks to complete. Using only these limited resources, here is your assignment: explore the city of Terracina."
This was the intentionally limited guidance that SYA Italy teachers provided to their students as they piled out of a bus into a town in Southern Lazio they had never seen. Add on the fact that the students were trying to speak a new language, and the activity takes on another level of challenge — and that is exactly what the teachers were trying to cultivate.
"We have created a curriculum that students can do only here," says Resident Director Patrick Scanlon. "We don't want to repeat the scholastic experience that our students can have anywhere else. We want to challenge our students and to help them achieve the sense of accomplishment that comes from facing unfamiliar situations and then having to find their way through them."
With this approach in mind, the SYA Italy teachers designed the Terracina activity to help students build skills that they will need in order to be successful in the year ahead: navigating unfamiliar places, working collaboratively, and engaging with locals and a new culture, all while speaking a new language. As the year goes on, the challenges will become more and more sophisticated, as will the reward.
"At the very beginning, our students need to learn how to talk to people, and not be afraid to do that," explains Alessandra Tuzi, the Italian language teacher. "The more responsibility we give them, the more they have fun, and the more they feel that they have been challenged and that they are learning a lot."
The worksheet, written entirely in Italian, asks students to complete five tasks while exploring Terracina:
- Identify five roads, and investigate the meaning behind their names.
- Locate the main city square, and describe (in Italian) what is happening there.
- Find the city's most important monuments, and describe why they are important.
- Ask someone that you meet in Terracina to write down an Italian expression. Next, translate the expression to English, and describe its meaning.
- Find a restaurant to eat dinner, and try products that are local to southern Lazio. Describe the food, and whether or not you like it.
"Exploring the places students go, they can notice different cultural elements, and try to understand them," explains Daniele Gatti, who teaches the SYA Italy Global Citizenship and Italian Language and Culture classes.
Gatti describes how Italians typically orient themselves in cities using street names and monuments instead of the four cardinal directions. Through the assignment, students learn the importance of these features in the local culture and history, and also begin to learn how to navigate using them.
And as for the language component, there is no better way to learn than by speaking to locals. "As our students travel throughout Italy, they will notice the different dialects. By the end of the year, our students are able to understand clearly the difference between Milanese and Sicilian dialects, for example." And this activity in Terracina, and others similar to it, is where the learning starts.
After exploring the city, interviewing locals, and tasting regional food, the students headed back to the bus and returned to their lodging for the night. Later, in advisory, students discussed what they learned, and what the experience was like. They all recognized the discomfort of having limited resources at their disposal, but they also shared a feeling of empowerment.
"We can already see that they are becoming more curious about the place they are living in," Tuzi said. And that is exactly what the teachers at SYA are hoping to inspire.
Instead of serving as an isolated field trip, the Terracina activity is the norm at SYA Italy. Every Wednesday, teachers set aside the entire day for Fieldwork, in which they collaborate and build lessons based on the place richness of Italy; the people that live there replace the typical role of a textbook.
Two weeks after the Terracina activity, teachers started a Wednesday Fieldwork experience by handing out a worksheet titled "Escursioni a sorpresa." They passed around a hat, and asked the students to out draw pieces of paper. Their assignment: in advisory groups, find a way to get to the town written on the piece of paper using only public transportation, and complete the tasks on the worksheet. The teachers withheld a key piece of information, which added to the level of difficulty of the task — none of the cities are directly navigable by train.
Teamwork, communication skills, Italian language proficiency, and cultural awareness — these are the themes that the teachers at SYA Italy are building upon each day in class. Within a few weeks of arriving in Italy, it is safe to say that the students are fully immersed in the Italian culture and language, and that in the coming months the students will continue to build on the foundation of skills that they are being challenged to practice today.
Cover photo by SYA Italy 2018 Campus Reporter Noah H.