How does a Wanderer end the school year and kick off the summer? She heads for Umbria to teach English at a Summer Camp for three weeks. Just me and five others against an army of 30 of Italy’s most darling little angels. In addition to losing my voice, teaching the importance of sportsmanship, and pulling out 8,000 splinters, I made several observations about the lifestyles and habits of Italian youth.
Things I learned at Summer Camp:
- Italian mothers are master packers – daily outfits, including morning and evening attire, are put in separate plastic bags and labeled with the day of the week.
- While Marco Polo was Italian, the swimming pool game named in his honor is not internationally recognized.
- Six kids will overcome two grown men 100% of the time in tug-o-war.
- All Italians fear death from the phenomenon known as “La Congestione” (no available English translation), caused by swimming too soon after eating. And most kids will tell you that they know someone who died from it.
- If the Azzurri (Italian soccer team) are playing, you better be prepared to reorganize the week’s schedule so the kids can watch the game.
- For every 30 kids, at least 1 will actually like the flavor of Marmite (same as Vegemite).
- In a Bake-the-Cake competition, the real battle is a debate over who’s nonna – grandma – has the best secret recipe
- Any means of retaliation (physical, verbal, or psychological) is fair game if someone has insulted your mamma.
- As a counselor, your best weapon to prevent attempted room-escape is a deck of cards or a magic trick.
- Any Italian can tell you that there are only 6 continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, Antarctica, and America. North, South, and Central are all one.
- Mascaccia – means tomboy, and according to the kids, I am still one of them.
- Everybody loves dodgeball.
After the chaos that ensued in Week 1, I was dreading Week 2 with my class of third graders. The optimist in me said, “Yes, week 1 was hell, but surely it can only get better from here.” The pessimist in me said, “You have got to be out of your freaking mind to step back in that classroom.” The realist in me said, “It doesn’t matter how the lesson goes, it’s 50 euro for an hour of your time. You have to do it.”
I am not a quitter; I’m too stubborn and too competitive to admit defeat. After an appropriate amount of sulking, whining, and procrastination (approx. 5.5 days), I dragged myself to my desk to start planning the lesson for Week 2: Animals.
While the memory of that first day is a bit of a blur, I did make two mental notes that would assist with planning future lessons. First is that the kids had a ridiculous amount of energy. Therefore any activity which involved getting them out of their seats was teacher suicide; they’d be too wound up to sit back down. The second is that they LOVED anything that had to do with markers.
So I made worksheets, lots and lots of worksheets. Crossword puzzles, word searches, matching games, coloring activities. Anything to distract them and keep them in their seats. Better yet, they could take these worksheets home to Pappa and Mamma to show them how much they “learned” in English.
Also important was the fact that I adjusted my expectations of myself. One hour once a week is not enough time to really teach much of anything. The kids study english with their normal Italian teacher, so my job is simply to work on their pronunciation and get them accustomed to the American accent. So as long as I hear a few English words spoken throughout the hour, it’s a job well done.
So despite every self-preservation instinct telling me not to go back to that school, I walked into that classroom for Round 2 of Miss Katie vs. Italian 3rd Graders…
And I am proud to say I won. The kids were enthusiastic about learning new words, entertained by the silly animal flashcards, and excited to show their parents the drawings they made of their favorite animals. The hour flew by and I didn’t even need my Plan B!
As for Week 3, the topic was Halloween – which is known but not celebrated in Italy. But what 8-year old doesn’t like ghosts, witches, and vampires?!?! I had the kids draw their own Haunted Houses and write a few spooky sentences to go with it. Again, they were on task and well-behaved.
After 3 weeks it’s Miss Katie: 2, Italian 3rd Graders: 1. I am cautiously optimistic and hopeful my winning trend continues throughout the year.
I have absolutely no background or experience as a teacher. What I do have is a TEFL Certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and a desperate need to earn some money before I can continue my wandering. So when I arrived in Rome in August, I was determined to learn how to play the role of English Teacher. I’ve devoted the majority of my days (and nights) to studying English Grammar and watching YouTube videos of ESL teachers around the world; I picked up tips and techniques for classes of all sizes and students of all ages. Being the obsessive organizer that I am, I created my own library of lesson plans, vocabulary flashcards and worksheets on my computer, sorted by level (beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc).
Work was not difficult to find; the demand for “Mother Tongue” English teachers is ridiculous. I started three weeks ago as an English tutor, working 1 on 1 with kids (ages 6-18). The downside is that I spend an incredible amount of time on the bus getting to/from the lessons; but the pay is good enough that with only 11 lessons each week, I earn enough to pay my bills and survive in Rome. Though it should be noted that “surviving” in Rome is hardly what I was hoping to accomplish; but hey, it’s a start.
Anyway, when my company told me about the opportunity to earn 50 euro teaching a class of 3rd graders once a week for an hour this year, I couldn’t say no.
My first lesson was last Friday, October 14th. I did not know how many students were in the class, nor did I know their English level. I was advised to assume that the kids knew nothing and simply start at square one. My first lesson plan was to go over basic introductions. By the end of the class, I wanted them to say “Hello, my name is ____,” “I am _____ years old,” and “Nice to meet you.” Pretty standard for ESL Day 1. I also wanted to assess their knowledge of the ABC’s and numbers; I had prepared a number of activities, games, and songs to keep them engaged. I was armed with a backup plan in case they were more advanced than I assumed.
I walked into that classroom with my head high, determined not to make the same mistakes other ESL teachers make and confident in my ability to manage the classroom.
That all lasted for about 10 minutes.
What happened over the next 50 minutes is a bit of a blur. I distinctly remember looking at the clock and thinking, “dear god, I have gone through everything and I still have 25 minutes left. What on earth am I going to do?!?!?” It was a nightmare. There were paper airplanes and aluminum balls flying across the room. The girls were fighting over markers and the boys were erasing what I had written on the chalkboard. I was outnumbered 17 to 1; by the time I got the attention of one half of the class, the other half was wreaking havoc.
I had lost complete control of the classroom and I had NO idea how to go about getting it back. At that point I abandoned any hope of teaching anything. My goal was simply to make sure nobody got hurt; I am happy to say I could at least accomplish that much.
When the bell rang, I walked the kids out to the playground to meet their parents. I left the school in a state of shock. I was just eaten alive by 17 third graders and I had no idea where I went wrong.
Think back to Elementary School and think about how you treated a substitute teacher. It’s a “Play Day,” right? Now imagine it is Friday afternoon and you are tired from a long week. Your teacher has gone home for the weekend. Half your class has also left; but your parents signed you up for a “supplemental” lesson in a foreign language and you’re stuck for an extra hour. Under these conditions, no child would have the least bit of interest in listening to some American girl teach them how to say “My name is _____.” I was basically set up for failure from the get go.
I went home, not sure how to even start planning for Week 2. I cooked myself a steak and drowned my sorrows in a bottle of Italian red. This is going to be a ridiculously long year.
Third Graders: 1 Miss Katie: 0