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Teaching Golden Age Italians English in Bologna
Written by: Daniela Sarnacchiaro
Last Updated: March 22, 2021
They say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but learning doesn’t stop because of one’s age, and I can attest to my Golden Age Italian students making great strides in learning English as a new language from my close experience of teaching them over the last six years. There is an inspiring international movement called “University of the Third Age” and they have been spreading around the world since the 1970s. In Italy alone there are over one thousand of these institutions that offer learning opportunities for primarily retirement-age adults, though any adult is welcome to take part in a wide array of courses. The school offers all subjects from philosophy and photography to art history, language, and more. I am humbled to teach six English courses of all levels at the University Primo Levi (UPL), one of the highly acclaimed Italian "Universities of the Third Age" found in Bologna, Italy.
While I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in Visual Arts at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) seven years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to get TEFL certified before moving to Bologna so I could start working right away. In my last semester at UCSD, I followed the 11-week online TEFL class offered by International TEFL Academy and once certified, I started looking for jobs in my new city. Indeed, I found several teaching opportunities and over time created a network of private students, many of whom have become life-long friends. Truth be told, I thought I was only going to be teaching English in the short-term, but I fell in love with the human connection and seeing the progress of my students, helping them achieve their goals in finding work that requires English or just conversation skills for traveling or passing tests like IELTS or TOEFL.
As fate would have it, UPL was urgently looking for an English lecturer to substitute a teacher who could no longer work for them, and I immediately and happily went in for the job interview not even knowing that institutions dedicated to senior age citizens existed. Accepting this job was one of my best life decisions. It has opened my eyes to a new reality of education and I am incredibly inspired by my work and direct collaboration with adult students of all backgrounds. They are retired doctors, engineers, bankers, fashion designers, chefs, librarians, teachers and some are still working. They attend this university to stimulate their minds, make social connections, and actively participate in a community with endless possibilities.
There is nothing more humbling than watching my motivated retired-age students eager to learn a new language. Sometimes they are frustrated because they can’t remember all the vocabulary or some new grammar rules, but both I and their fellow classmates are very encouraging - what a wonderful experience to see them push through and not give up! Some are learning English because they love traveling, while others know that there are benefits in learning a new language in order to keep their brains active and their memories sharp. With my more advanced-level students we go deep into conversation about current events, history, philosophy and psychology usually using an article or TEDtalk that I assign them for homework. We have a symbiotic relationship where the age difference both enriches our work in the classroom as we bring different perspectives to our discussions as well as stimulates the entire group as they grow and move forward on this language journey together.
I am the youngest teacher at the association, but funnily enough, my students are both like rowdy children (because I have to keep order in the classroom) and caring grandparents (I have one student who is almost 90 years old!). The age difference does not affect us negatively, but enhances the diversity in exchanging ideas and points of view. It also helps that the majority are excellent in the kitchen so during our break time each week one student brings something sweet or savory to snack on! My golden age students are all so much fun to work with. One of my classes has a true Santa Claus that dresses up every year for the last lesson before Christmas and brings us all gifts. Other fun has included taking my students on field trips where I organize photography treasure hunts in English.
Last year the Covid-19 pandemic hit Italy hard - especially my students' age group, as they are the most vulnerable. We were forced to turn to online learning, but they adapted very well and with much patience on both ends, we are able to continue our lessons online and keep them engaging and fun. We are constantly laughing and having a good time, while also listening to each other attentively and openly.
I am honored to walk on this journey with them as they tackle phrasal verbs, idioms, grammar and vocabulary. I especially admire one of my classes which has decided autonomously to meet an extra hour on their own to read a book in English together, one chapter each week, and individually create a question from the reading for another classmate to answer. This class started with me as complete beginners 4 years ago, never having studied English before because the second language that was taught in Italy used to be French. To see them using complex sentences and eager to learn and study beyond the classroom walls moves me very deeply.
Their unwavering determination has inspired me to continue on to my own higher learning. I will be starting a Masters Program at Teachers College, Columbia University in Psychology in Education this spring which is thanks to the human relations and empathy that has grown and cultivated throughout my English teaching work with the Golden Age.
Daniela, 29, was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. She got her BA in Visual Arts from the University of California, San Diego in 2014, and in her last semester, she received her TEFL certificate to teach English in Italy which she has been doing ever since. She plans to continue teaching English online while doing her Master of Arts in Psychology in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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