Last year, two Montclair mothers met to discuss Italian language and culture instruction in Montclair elementary schools. A historical presence in Montclair, Italian heritage is still felt in many households and businesses and the Italian language is heard once again as new immigrants retrace previous generations’ paths, continuing to enrich the cultural scene of the town. Benedetta Balsimelli and Marisa Trubiano were soon joined by Federica Grigioni, and the partnership named La Freccia Azzurra was formed in June 2018, inspired by the tale by the well-known Italian author Gianni Rodari. The book recounts the story of a group of toys in La Befana’s workshop who board the Freccia Azzurra toy train to rejoin a needy boy and give him a toy of his own during the holidays.
Montclair High School has long had an Italian program and the Renaissance at Rand Middle School has offered Italian culture courses in the past. At the elementary levels, however, no Italian was offered, and with the support of Montclair resident and Italian teacher Patti Grunther, Frank Sedita III, now Montclair Schools’ World Language Supervisor, and Italian faculty at Montclair State University, conversations began about how to start an Italian after school program to introduce children to useful vocabulary in Italian, holidays, stories, recipes and art.
The Edgemont School has offered three successful sessions from September 2018 to May 2019 and St. Cassian School has offered two sessions from October 2018 to May 2019. All sessions were organized by La Freccia Azzurra in collaboration with the Edgemont PTA and SCS principal Mrs. Maria Llanes, respectively. Other mothers have expressed an interest in having the after school program at Watchung Elementary School in September 2019. And, at St. Cassian School, from November 2019 to February 2020, a MIAD in Italian language and culture will be offered, thanks in part to a grant from IACE, the Italian American Committee on Education, the educational arm of the Italian Consulate in NY.
In a state as linguistically diverse as New Jersey, one of Italy’s major trading partners, and with 18% of the population that self-identifies as Italian, and a place in history so key to the development of an early Italian American identity, offering more Italian language instruction should be a priority and a factor in keeping Italian in demand from the elementary through to the middle school level, on to high school and further on to college. Deep knowledge of world languages and cultures is a major component in the formation of well-educated, well-rounded, culturally-sensitive and -competent critical-thinkers, professionals and human beings. Importantly, too, embracing world languages and cultures is largely what distinguishes our state of New Jersey, and should continue to distinguish our country.
A unique aspect to La Freccia Azzurra’s after-school program is its close ties to the Montclair State University Italian Program. An interesting model has been the pre-AP course for rising high school juniors and seniors offered by the Inserra Chair and the Italian Program, co-created in 2017 by Teresa Fiore, Inserra Chair of Italian and Italian American Culture, Patti Grunther, Italian teacher at Watchung Regional High School, and Marisa Trubiano, Associate Professor of Italian at MSU. Its blend of instruction, hands-on workshops, and field trips and the support it has garnered across the K-16 systems, cultural associations, government agencies, and the larger community offered LFA many ideas. Importantly, the teachers hired by La Freccia Azzurra are and will be (in the fall) MSU Italian Teacher Education candidates or Italian majors, as well as adjunct professors in the Italian program. The Director of Italian Teacher Education, Enza Antenos, has been on hand for advice about teaching materials and for conversations about formalizing an LFA internship linked to teacher preparation courses.
Another interesting component to the course has been the collaboration with Montclair Art Museum artists, thanks to Benedetta’s position as Manager of MAM’s Education Programs.
La Freccia Azzurra Usa has worked with MAM artists Claudia Sabino, Peg Kenselaar and Nanci Iovino to offer students Carnevale mask workshops and frame gold leafing workshops, well-known Italian artistic traditions. Federica Grigioni, LFA’s financial expert, has engaged members of the community to participate as well, via the invitation to Federica Heiman of Dolce Federica to lead a workshop on the art of chocolate decoration. These hands-on experiences infused with culture and language learning will be expanded in the future to include music, papermaking, and storytelling, for example.
Besides the students’ and families’ enthusiasm for the Italian after-school program, one of the most heartening aspects of the project for La Freccia Azzurra’s founders has been the way the instructors have expressed their new experiences teaching young children, putting into practice what they have learned in theory.
Ashly Espinoza, MSU Teacher Education major in Spanish and Italian, stated “La Freccia Azzurra has been an amazing opportunity to develop and master diverse teaching skills . . . As a new teacher, it is challenging to create lesson plans that include creative activities . . . and fulfill the different requirements for teaching a world language. This distinctive program has shown me that being a teacher means also helping your students to understand the importance of the subject and value the knowledge that they are obtaining from it. One perfect example that demonstrates this are the various projects we did, such as the pasta portrait and Carnevale lesson.”
Italian major Federica Piccitto added: “Motivating each student to learn Italian, and finding ways to teach while entertaining the children, has been very challenging, but rewarding . . . I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to teach and share my knowledge about my culture to this young generation. I hope their interest and appreciation for il bel paese grows even more as my fellow Italian Americans.”
Italian Teacher Education major Domenica Russo commented: “My experience with La Freccia Azzurra was wonderful and truly everything I hoped it would be. . . ”
Developing lesson plans and making them interesting enough for my students to want to engage was my favorite part. I created cultural projects that were both entertaining and educational. We provided treats at the end of certain lessons such as pizza, chocolate, Italian desserts, etc. It was a pleasure working with Marisa, Federica, and Benedetta to spread the culture! Domenica has been teaching high school Italian and will return to La Freccia Azzurra in the fall