LINDEN, NJ — In a Service Learning Project that led them 4,500 miles away from Linden, and more than 1,000 meters above sea level, Linden High School students spent this past summer in remote, picturesque villages in Italy, where they taught English to local students while learning to appreciate a different way of life.
For many of the 15 students who made the trip, it was their first time outside of New Jersey, let alone the country. For others, it was a return to Europe, with the added opportunity of teaching others.
All of them, given the chance, wanted to return to Italy, they said.
“I liked teaching the kids English. They know a lot, and they began to improve, by the end I feel like they knew a lot more English than they did when we came there,” said Maryjo Riscinti, a junior at Linden High School. “I learned that the world is so big and beautiful, and there’s way more than Linden out there. They all know each other. In Linden, it’s a city, not everyone knows each other, but there everyone knows each other, and they were very humble and welcoming.”
The students left with Alphonsina Paternostro, the high school’s Supervisor of World Language and ESL, and several other Linden staff members on Thursday, July 23. They would stay in the small, historic Italian towns of Vallata, Vallesaccarda and Trevico for three weeks, teaching Italian students during the day — they held lessons in a museum, the house of famous playwright Ettore Scola — and rooming with local families at night.
“I wanted them to experience life in a smaller town. The authenticity of the Italian life, in a small town, not from a big city, where it’s basically like here. And I wanted to give them the opportunity to give their time,” said Paternostro. “The towns put together a program for us. This was not done through the school system there, but it was done through the three municipalities.”
Some of the Linden students, they said, were nervous about staying someplace new for 21 days. But it didn’t take long for them to get acclimated into the culture of rural, Italian life.
By the middle of the trip, many of the students were comfortable participating in the “Parade of Battaglia di Chianchione,” an annual parade held in the town of Vallata. For the procession, students wore costumes that resembled traditional Italian clothing from 1496.
Other highlights of the trip included the spectacular food and gelato, historic sites dating back 1,000 years, trips to Rome and Naples, and the friendly nature of the townspeople. The local families treated the Linden students as their own daughters and sons, said the students, and teaching the younger Italian children quickly became a treat.
“They were so sweet. The first day, there was such a language barrier, so it was really hard talking to them. But once they were comfortable with us, it was like they were like our kids, our little brothers and sisters, we didn’t want to part with them. And there was this one kid in particular, Antonio, and we used to see him around at fairs and stuff,” said Brianna Armstead, a recent graduate of Linden High School who went on the trip. “We used to see him with his parents, and he’d tell them ‘oh, those are my teachers!’”
The attitude of the Italian students, who were separated into class sizes of about six or seven per Linden student, made the transition into Italian life that much more exciting, Linden students said. And for a few, their experiences in Italy convinced them that teaching will be in their futures, one way or another.
“Teaching kids English, I never would have thought I wanted to teach English, but coming back to America I’m thinking about what I want to do when I grow up, because it changed my life,” said Damien Allison, a junior at Linden High School.
Allison had been to Italy once before, on a scholarship, but the opportunity to work as a teacher made an impact on him, he said.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “Teaching English there was a lot of fun, I’ve made close bonds with the students. And if we teach them English, we have the opportunity to learn Italian, because of the dialogue.”
There was a lot more to love about the trip, according to Linden students and staff members. It was a way for the students to gain valuable experience teaching, foster a greater cultural understanding of the world and experience a foreign way of life.
This trip wasn’t the last that Italy had seen of Linden High School students, they said.
“I had the best experience. Everything from the food, the people, the culture, everything was just wonderful. I want to go back myself. In the beginning I was a little nervous to leave home, but it was wonderful,” said Lizzy Ortiz, a Linden language teacher. “I learned a lot, something that I’m going to keep with me for the rest of my life that I didn’t anticipate walking away with in the beginning.”