Understanding the Italian bilingual program embraced by Brunswick South Primary School
Brunswick South Primary School, Victoria’s first Italian bilingual school, is a fascinating example of the positive power of Italian language education. I spoke with teachers Ivana D’Aprano, Lucy Curatolo and Nancy Cozzo to better understand the reality, challenges and joys of facilitating an Italian bilingual program. (photo Wide Shut Photography)
Bilingual education is quite a complex concept to frame in the mind. How does your typical bilingual classroom operate? What would one expect to see, hear and experience?
“At BSPS we team teach, this means that we share the learning and wellbeing of 50 students between one Italian and one English colleague and this happens across our school and at each level. Students are taught curriculum through the two languages: 50% of every student’s learning is taught in English and the other 50% taught in Italian. For example, students learn Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Number, History, Civics, STEM and Physical Education in English. In Italian, they learn Lettura, Scrittura, Comunicazione Verbale, Misura e Geometria, Statistica e Probabilità, Scienze, Arte and Teatro. We integrate our learning to promote deeper thinking skills; this allows students to make connections between all the learning areas. At BSPS we have nine bilingual Italian classroom teachers and two language assistants. COASIT also supports our school by providing a language assistant from Italy for eight months. We do not teach Italian, just as we do not teach English, but we use those languages to deliver learning. Just as in English, when we learn about how to make our story writing more interesting by exploring the use of nouns, verbs and adjectives we do the same in Italian.”
What are the advantages, from your personal experiences, of bilingual education for young learners?
“Research suggests that there are many benefits and advantages to children being immersed in bilingual education.
Firstly, students who experience a bilingual education have better working memory and cognitive skills. Language structures and grammatical skills are reinforced as students make connections between their mother tongue and their second language. In addition, these students become biliterate. For languages with similar alphabets, research says that it can actually be beneficial learning to read and write in two languages simultaneously. There are many reading skills that transfer between languages and it can actually make kids stronger readers in both languages.
Furthermore, young learners who are educated in a bilingual setting are better problem solvers. They are able to think ‘out of the box’ when approaching challenging tasks and activities. They become more efficient at multitasking and making decisions.
Finally, students who have a bilingual education inevitably become bicultural. These learners become immersed in not only the language, but also the culture, traditions, history, music and cuisine of the second language. Fundamentally, these students become more aware of the diversity of other cultures.”
What expectations do you, as teachers and educators, have of your young learners in the bilingual classroom?
“Our expectations are identical to any school setting. We expect students to come to each lesson ready to learn, be challenged and use a growth-mindset to move forward. Our school motto ‘Imparare Insieme, Creare Insieme, Vivere Insieme’ reflects the school’s expectations.”
What is it about Italy and its language and culture that are so appealing in a bilingual context?
“Italian has an alphabet that is recognisable to young learners and the sounds are very similar to English. Reading texts is an area where our learners have great success because of Italian’s phonetic nature. Italian is also a very melodic and ‘catchy’ language. Given this, using music, chants, songs, and rhyme in class facilitate the learning of our bilingual learners.
Learning Italian at BSPS is a lovely cultural nod to the history of immigration our local area. Our students can go out and buy a gelato un cappuccino or to dinner and use the language with their families and friends.”
I assume that you have taught in other non-bilingual contexts before your time at BSPS. I’m curious to know if your planning and preparation for this classroom context is all that different from that of a ‘mainstream’ classroom?
“We are all very privileged to be working in the first Victorian Italian Bilingual Primary School. Planning and preparing for a bilingual classroom is completely different to a mainstream classroom. In addition to translating, adapting and creating resources we plan and deliver a comprehensive curriculum that engages our students in meaningful and experiential learning. It is very important to stress, unlike other language programs, we don’t use the Languages curriculum from Victorian Curriculum. Our rigorous planning, teaching and assessment are informed by the Standards in English, Numeracy, Science, Visual Arts and Drama. At Brunswick South Primary School, we believe that all students have the potential to achieve excellence in this unique educational setting.”
What challenges does the bilingual classroom face?
“Our biggest challenge is resourcing. Replacing Italian teachers when they are on leave with proficient Italian speakers has been difficult, not impossible, but it does test us. The other point of challenge is resourcing in terms of books and games and everything else that students need to support their learning. We are constantly creating ‘bespoke’ resources that fit our needs. Obtaining these items from Italy does not always work, as the context is different. Our students are not (usually) Italian, they do not come to us with a foundation in the language and they do not go home to be immersed in the language. This means that at school we have to immerse students in as much language as possible. This builds a framework for students to learn more complex issues in Italian. We are constantly adapting or creating our own resources. We would love to have native speakers read and record our books so that our students could then have take-home readers and read along with them.”
Tell us about last year’s Italy study tour with operator Vita Italian Tour.
“Our inaugural BSPS Italy Tour was an outstanding success. Mario, Viny and Gianni from Vita Italian Tours helped us plan a memorable trip. We travelled to Italy in late September for fourteen days with thirteen students, two parents and four teachers. Some of the highlights were learning how to fight like a gladiator, eating gelato, looking up and just being amazed at the statue of David, making pasta and then eating it all together, sampling all the Baci chocolates available and decorating a mask. Plans are underway for our next visit in 2020!”
Does BSPS have any upcoming future plans, events, and activities that draw directly on the bilingual nature of the school?
“At BSPS everything we do is related to our commitment to being bilingual. Each student receives instruction and learning in subjects that students in other schools don’t experience. All our stakeholders including our teachers, both English and Italian, our principal and leadership team, school council, our school community and our partnership with Melbourne University are committed to the delivery of an inclusive and diverse bilingual education for every child.
On June 2nd, La Festa della Repubblica will be hosted in our school grounds. In October, all of our students will be participating in our annual Bilingual School Production, which is performed solely in Italian.”
Thank you Ivana, Lucy and Nancy. Your work, and the work of your colleagues and the entire Brunswick South Primary School community, is very important in continuing to highlight the importance of the Italian language and culture in Victoria.
Viny Vitellone, one of the Directors of Vita Italian Tours, also shared some insights into the wonderful tour enjoyed by the students and teachers of Brunswick South Primary School.
“The group visited some of the major cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice and Pesaro in Le Marche Region. They visited and were guided through such icons as the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Ostia Antica, The Accademia and Uffizi Gallery, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, St Mark's Square, the Bridge of Sighs, and Urbino, to name a few.
Students and teachers were taken by Mario and myself on excursions to visit many wonderful historic towns and attend interesting workshops during the tour. One such highlight was a tour in Rome of the Gladiator School. Students were involved in an activity to learn some combat skills of the ancient Gladiators. In Venice they witnessed a demonstration of Murano glass making from a Master and had a demonstration of genuine mask-making, as well as decorating their own masks to take home.”