When I first moved from Italy to the United States, I also moved from teaching classes with over 100 students – who were supposed to passively absorb knowledge from a lecture – to an educational system in which active participation counts as much as the performance in a final exam. I had to step down from a podium and look at my class from a different perspective. For a start, smaller classes gave me the opportunity to learn my students’ names. After having taught one course or two in New York, I decided that I would strive to create an environment in which all the students know each other’s names. This is the first step toward the establishment of a collaborative milieu, in which students learn better because they perceive their class as a community, and the instructor as a firm but friendly guide to the materials they are studying.
My research’s emphasis on emotions and affect influences the way I think about classroom dynamics and my pedagogical approach. Affect refers to non-linguistic variables such as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety, which can prevent not only the acquisition of a second language, as per Stephen Krashen’s theory, but the learning process in general. Emotions, for example, play a role in the way bodies align in both society and in smaller groups, as Sara Ahmed has shown. Conversely, the position of people in space can alter the emotional and affective landscape; how students occupy the space in a classroom can influence their responses to the learning experience and can enhance or inhibit their sense of community. Therefore, my students always sit in a circle, which allows them to see everybody each other’s face and to feel part of a group. They are also encouraged to choose different seats with each class session so that they get to know a broader group of students.
When a community exists, it is easier for the students to lower their affective filter, an element that according to Krashen prevents comprehensible input from reaching the language areas of the mind. I start to build a sense of community from the very first minutes of class, when I ask my students to take attendance. This activity, which I use as a transition from a non-learning to a learning mode and also to set the atmosphere in the classroom, is conducted in Italian in the language class, but can be used to build a sense of community in all kinds of courses. Depending on the structures we have covered in previous classes, I ask the students to describe the absent ones. By giving the class a real task, this easy, collaborative endeavor is an opportunity to review material already studied and retrieve information about fellow students that they have learned in previous classes, through one of my favorite activities, the “speed date.” During a “speed date,” the students use the target language to gather information about their colleagues and assess shared interests and different backgrounds. Each of them engages in a dialogue with at least four different partners and has to retain the information in order to choose his/her best match for a subsequent activity. Besides lowering the affective filter, focusing on a real task improves students’ performances. I plan this activity for either the beginning of a class period to review and reinforce learned structures, or towards the end to practice the new structure and vocabulary introduced during the lesson. The students need to move around during the speaking session, which also helps create a relaxed atmosphere and helps them stay attentive, especially during evening classes.
Similar to the “speed date” activity that I use in language classes, I also regularly encourage students to work in pairs in my literature courses. Typically, the pair discusses a specific question and then each student reports to the class their partners’ opinion, stating why they agree or disagree with them. Having to report someone else’s point of view is a way for even the shiest student to engage in the discussion. This activity usually leads to energetic conversations, in which everybody contributes their comments, and give others their feedback, in a discussion that students can lead themselves, after I provide the initial question.
I have an eclectic teaching method, that involves every aspect of the life in the class seen as a community and every skill the students have to master. For example, in all my courses, I dedicate a part of at least one class to a discussion of “How to email your professor without being annoying” using Laura Portwood-Stacer’s article on this topic. Moreover, in my language courses, the study of grammar and vocabulary takes place within the context of reading, viewing and discussing authentic Italian cultural production, including book chapters, short stories, movie clips, poems, journalism, and music. For example, in the Advanced Composition course that I taught at Hunter College, I focused on different genres and writing styles, which included creative writing, reviews, and academic essays, while using literature, maps, songs and video clips as a point of departure for discussion. The course was focused both on content and language, and for each didactic unit my students produced both personal responses and textual analyses. The activities were finalized to the writing and the writing helped the student to develop their critical thinking and their awareness of their own language, while practicing the structures of the target language. For the elementary courses, I designed a scaffolded project that involves the students’ visit to a local museum holding Italian pieces of art. The students choose one work of art, visit the museum and take a selfie. Their final assignment is to write a short description to attach to the selfie and to put on an interactive map of Manhattan. The scope of this project is to connect the students with the expression of Italian culture, bridging the geographical distance between their city and Italy.
Teaching a series of writing intensive courses and my activity as a Writing Across the Curriculum fellow helped me find ways to integrate low-stake writing assignments in all my courses, even elementary language and culture courses. These range from journal entries to free writing, to exploratory writings of different kinds, and to annotations, which my students are asked to share. Sharing written production and peer review activities make students less anxious than having to submit the assignment to the instructor, but also more accountable to each other. The Blackboard platform used at CUNY and other platforms available online allow for group discussions and forums, so that students can also share their materials online and continue the conversations started in class. Individual or group presentations about secondary sources improve students’ reading skills in the discipline of literary studies; typically, they have to create a reverse outline and discuss titles, locate thesis statements, unpack arguments – an exercise in reading that will make them better writers of academic papers.
In my content courses, I teach the conventions of literary criticism, but my ultimate aim is to teach students how literature can have a resonance in their lives and help them gain awareness as citizens. For example, in my course Resistance Writing that I taught at Queens College, my students were able to draw parallels between a specific historical moment, the Second World War in Europe, and the current political situation in the United States, coming to the conclusion that reading and writing are ways to resist political and social oppression as well as boredom and stress. Moreover, by focusing on emotions in some of my courses, I provide material that is relatable to students. In my course The Upheaval of Emotions in the Italian Novel of the 20th Century and Beyond, my students are encouraged to assess their own emotional response to a given text, and then guided toward using critical tools as close reading and stylistic analysis.
Teaching a variety of courses at different levels at CUNY and SUNY has given me the opportunity to work with a vast variety of students, with different trainings, ambitions, and difficulties. Regardless of their goals and learning styles, however, I design my classes so that my students have to engage with their peers and have a sense of accountability and commitment. Yet, precisely because every student has unique skills, when I assess my students’ progress, I consider improvements in both written and oral production, as well as other forms of production that include PowerPoint presentations, recording, and online journal entries. For example, in my Italian Advanced Composition class, my students had to conduct interviews and record them, and then present their results to the group. In this way, even in a writing course, I was able to encourage and assess oral production.
During the years teaching at CUNY, I have developed a teaching philosophy centered on providing students with linguistic and critical tools while promoting their active engagement as citizens of the class and society.