Italy: It's good to talk
Conversation teacher Kate Morris engages her students on the subjects of ideal jobs and cultural stereotypes.
The Italians call Mantova La Bella Adormentata, or ’the Sleeping Beauty’ because this town gets so deathly quiet, especially at night. Mantova’s high school students are the exception to the rule. They are most definitely wide awake and full of prodigious energy.
I’m teaching conversation at Liceo Virgilio, the classical and linguistic high school in the centre of the oldest part of town. The school itself is also very old, and built as a gift to the town from Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria Theresa of the Habsburgs. The ceilings are frescoed and 30 feet high but not much has happened since the 1700s by way of renovation. The gym, for example, must have been an old ballroom. Now a flimsy net on the ceiling protects the paintings from basketballs. Technology is almost as scarce as it was Maria Theresa’s day, making my teaching tools varied out of necessity – YouTube clips in one classroom and chalk in the next.
I am the first conversational teacher the school has ever had, and since it is the program’s first year there is no set structure so I am free to approach teaching anyway I choose. Through a little trial and error, I think I have found ways to spark conversation among each group of students.
My first class this morning is a second-year class from the classical school. They study French, English, Latin and Greek, as well as all the other necessary topics. Despite the ambitious curriculum, they are not overly bookish and retiring. Quite the contrary. As I approach the classroom, I hear the hum of chatter. When I walk in, there is an audible spike in the energy level. “Kate is here! We don’t have to work!” I can practically hear them thinking. The secret is to help them learn without them realizing they are doing some heavy lifting.
Today they are going to partner up and describe the perfect job for each other. I ask them to list different kinds of jobs, and I write them on the board. “Furrier!” “Mafiosa!” “Astronaut!” “Housewife!” With the list as their inspiration, they’re off. They must consider their friend. What is she good at? What characteristics does he have? Then they put the pieces of the puzzle together. “Mario would be a good president of Italy because he is lazy and does not like to work, but he wants to make lots of money easily and be a leader.” Everybody agrees that they have been accurately judged, except for the girl who was told she would be a policewoman.
Next class: older students from the linguistic high school. They’re too sophisticated for games, so I ask them to consider stereotypes. I came up with this approach because the students constantly ask me what Americans think of Italians. Jersey Shore comes up a lot. “Do Americans think we are like the Italian Americans on Jersey Shore?” I’ve realized that I’ve never really had to think about how Americans generally perceive Italy. As we talk, I realize this country probably conjures up visions of pizza, wine, Tuscan villas, the seaside and beautiful people.
Now I turn the table on them. I ask them what they think of Americans. Most of the students at the school are girls, so Gossip Girl and the The OC are their reference points. “You are rich!” “You live beautiful lives!” “You have expensive cars!” “Big houses!” And, of course, “You are fat!”
I respond by showing them a clip from Eat Pray Love. Julia Roberts is talking to some caricature of a man in a barber shop in Rome. His last name is Spaghetti. He is saying, “You Americans, you don’t know how to enjoy yourselves! The point of life is not to work but to pursue la dolce vita. Relax and don’t worry so much all the time.” I ask the students if this is a true depiction of how Italians approach life.
“No! We work all the time!” they say. Given their multitude of classes, I believe them. To keep up with so many languages, they must have to study all the time.
The school day finishes early here. When we spill out onto the cobblestone streets, sunlight is pouring down from the tile roofs of the stone buildings. Down the street, I can see the blue cathedral dome and the old, empty towers of the medieval city. The laziness inherent in the la dolce vita philosophy might be a myth, but it is certainly sweet to live here.