One of the biggest highlights for me this semester in Rome was getting the opportunity to volunteer as an English tutor at a local Italian high school. I spent one hour each week with a classroom of 25 fourteen to fifteen-year-old students on Monday mornings. You can imagine that trying to keep control of a large group of loud teenagers can be a bit overwhelming. I still remember my first day, three months ago, and how nervous I was. I had absolutely no experience as an English tutor. What if I look like a fool and don’t know what I’m doing? What if the Italian students don’t like me? What if they don’t speak English well and we can’t communicate? What if the professor I’m working with is intimidating? All of these fears went away almost immediately once I went to my first class.
The professor I was working with was incredibly kind, welcoming, and helpful. She gave me plenty of freedom to structure my time with the students however I wanted and would give me suggestions for lessons if I ever needed any. The students were also incredibly friendly and as excited to meet me as I was to meet them. On the first day, I did a short “getting to know you” activity with the students in order to find out their interests, what they want to learn from me, and assess their level. I was surprised to discover that even though I had the youngest age group of the high school, they still spoke English very well. Some students were more vocal than others, but all of them were able to hold a conversation with me. My main goal was just to get the students excited about speaking English and to practice with a native speaker.
Tutoring in a foreign country with a group of young teenagers did present some challenges. Italian high schools are set up differently than in the States, so it is actually the teachers who have to move from room to room in between every class and the students all stick together in the same room for the whole day. This results in two consequences: the students form their own strong packs and become incredibly antsy being cooped up in one room all day. I can’t say I blame them. I know I may have been chatty in class as a fourteen-year-old, but I swear these Italian teens could out-chat any American classroom. However, I was up for the challenge and ready to demand the class’ attention with the only way I knew how: make it fun!
The students, like myself, were most interested in talking about cultural differences between Italy and America so I came up with some new activities and games each week to discuss these. One week I brought in a speaker and we listened to some American music and even danced a bit. We discussed the lyrics and any words they didn’t understand. Of course, I had to throw in some musical theatre, so I played them a song from Hamilton. This ended up being my favorite song with them because not only did the language used in the music and rap style challenge them, I also was able to share with them some American history and my passion for musical theatre. Some other activities we did included a spelling competition, grammar auction, American slang, and a discussion all about food. The students got very competitive when we played games, especially when they knew there was a prize on the line so I liked to bring in some chocolate or treats to bribe them into really engaging in the lesson that day. I have to say, it was effective.
I can honestly say I loved spending an hour a week with these kids and usually it didn’t feel like enough time. My class continually impressed me and I loved getting to know them more each week. It was so interesting learning about our similarities and differences and they still like to make fun of me for eating “everything pizza”. Unfortunately, I had my last class with my students this past week and I was more sad than I expected. I am definitely going to miss seeing them each week and I am hopeful that they will retain at least some of what I thought them even though I think they may have taught me more than I taught them.