Upon walking into the classroom on my first day at San Gaspare Scuola Primeria in Florence, Italy, I was met with wide eyes and open mouths on the awe-inspired faces of the third grade students in my cooperating teacher's class. My cooperating teacher introduced me (slowly) as a student teacher from the United States of America, and a few gasps were heard amongst the students. My sheer shock that the students were utterly amazed by an American was only exacerbated when I realized that I could not communicate with them in their own language. Beyond the few words I knew in Italian, I assumed the communication between the students and myself was bound to be difficult. However, I could not have been more wrong. The students in the third grade at San Gaspare understood more of my English than I did of their Italian. Using hand motions, pointing, and facial expressions, the students and I connected on a nonverbal level. To my embarrassment, I learned that these eight-year-olds were mastering English much quicker than I was learning Italian in my beginner language course at my abroad university.
As I observed the lessons following my arrival, I noticed how my cooperating teacher handled the dichotomy between the English and Italian cultures. In order for the students to effectively absorb the English language, my cooperating teacher constantly incorporates Italian cultural aspects into her lessons. During a lesson on food vocabulary, she taught the students the English words for their favorite Italian dishes such as a ham and cheese sandwich (“panini con prosciutto e formaggio”) and ice cream (“gelato”). The students responded more enthusiastically to a lesson they could relate to in their own culture, thus enticing a positive learning atmosphere and better understanding of the material. Throughout the rest of my time at San Gaspare that first day, I noticed how the posters on the wall, the students’ artwork, and the decorations were reflective of the Italian culture with images of their summer vacation and Italian phrases used in the home. Although the goal is to teach the English language to the students, my cooperating teacher recognizes that it is also important to remain true to one’s own cultural background. In comparison, the American classroom is beginning to recognize the importance of culture since the number of students from diverse cultural backgrounds is increasing. A culturally competent classroom is necessary for the fluorishment of a student’s education because it informs a child that his or her culture is worthy and recognized. Fortunately, the third-grade students at San Gaspare Scuola Primeria are encapsulated in a culturally competent classroom that allows them to absorb the English language while holding onto their Italian roots.