July 28, 2010

Kids want to learn Italian? Benvenuti!

Elementary school students recently learned basic Italian over 10 weeks during a class taught by Giulio Cefaloni and students from Mahopac High School at the Mahopac Italian Club. Cefaloni, a member of the Italian American Club, has been teaching the class for four years. Photo by: Kristin Maffei.
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While many elementary school children see Saturday mornings as a time to watch cartoons or sleep late, some Mahopac students had been using the time in a more valuable manner and taking Italian lessons.

The lessons, offered by the Italian American Club of Mahopac, and the Mahopac High School Italian Honor Society and Italian Club, were recently held over the course of 10 weeks. Taught by Giulio Cefaloni, a native Italian speaker and a NYS certified teacher, and Italian students from Mahopac High School, the classes covered basic language skills from numbers and days of the week to family and body parts.

The classes began four years ago, when Cefaloni started wondering how the Italian American Club, which runs many events for adults, could best pass on their cultural knowledge and heritage to the youngest members of the community. A former language teacher who worked in the business world for decades, Cefaloni decided to come full circle and begin giving weekly lessons to elementary school children at the club. Working with Italian teacher Luciano Racco, Cefaloni recruited Mahopac High School students to help teach.

Cefaloni said he benefited from their "skills, energy and enthusiasm," while they earned some of the 120 community service hours they needed to graduate.

The classes were taught primarily through oral practice and speaking exercises. Given the young age of the students, reading and writing skills were not a major priority, but more than half of the students return each year, and they learn more in depth lessons. Since Mahopac students begin formal language classes in middle school, the course at the Italian American Club helps sensitize them to the language and prepares them for learning languages at a higher level.

The lessons aren't only beneficial for the students. Kati Wettje, an incoming senior at Mahopac High School and one of this past year's student-teachers, said it was important to know the language really well in order to teach it.

"It also acts as a review for us, because we're going over the more basic things we haven't learned in many years and may have lost," she said.

Of all the student-teachers, only one, Giulia Giammo, is a native speaker of Italian, but all have taken multiple years of the language and all have a special energy that helps them bring out their students' speaking abilities. Games like "Simon Dice" (Simon Says) and the use of a plastic skeleton help the children learn body parts. Beginning to learn a language at an early age is beneficial for children, who pick up language skills much faster than adults. Learning a second language helps kids with a variety of other subjects, because language is based in logical structures like math, but also involves oratory skills and a comprehension of stories. Student-teacher Gina Trovato, who just graduated, plans to attend Quinnipiac University in the fall to study nursing, and notes that knowing Italian helps with vocabulary in anatomy and other sciences.

"It's definitely important to have no matter what career you choose," she said.

It's also deeply important, Cefaloni says, because learning another language fosters understanding and compassion in a world where understanding and compassion is in short supply.

"Right now, we have a global world," Cefaloni says. "To learn a language is to understand a people and their culture. In learning about other cultures, we can have a more humane world."

Learning Italian, for example, helps to break up the negative stereotypes that media like "Jersey Shore" on MTV and "The Godfather" have perpetuated about Italian-Americans.

"There is no sense in dwelling on stereotypes, because Hollywood uses them to sell media," Cefaloni said. "I prefer to dwell on the positive things that Italian language and culture have created. We are Americans first, but we like to study our culture and preserve our heritage. This is what makes America as great as it is. Our heritage is what got us all here."

The class is very diverse, with many students who have no Italian heritage at all, and several for whom Italian is a third language. Saturday mornings have allowed them, along with some parents, to gather and learn about a fascinating culture and language, as well as help prepare them for the academic classes they will take in middle and high school.

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