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Unique classroom, cultural experiences highlight study abroad program in Italy

Students in a pair of School of Education courses enjoyed a spring break to remember last semester, traveling to Florence, Italy, for an up-close (and often, hands-on) look at instruction in another country.

Part of the curriculum for Dr. Joan Rhodes’ Diagnosis and Remediation in Reading class and Dr. Sharon Zumbrunn’s Advanced Educational Psychology for Elementary Teachers course, the annual trip offers students interested in studying early and elementary education a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in a foreign classroom. Some participants even led classroom instruction during the trip – despite the language barrier.

“Having an experience where the students are language learners themselves is really beneficial,” Rhodes said. “It puts them in a role where they have to think about, ‘How do I manage when I don’t have this language?’ and helps them think about what it feels like and what the challenges are.”

“We didn’t really know what to expect,” Alex Harrell, an M.T. student who participated in this year’s trip, said. “We had to plan lessons around children and classroom we had never been in, and then adapt on our feet when new things were thrown our way.”

While many study abroad program locations may seem somewhat arbitrary, Rhodes and Zumbrunn selected their destination strategically: Italy is the birthplace of both the Reggio Emilia and Montessori learning approaches.

“In this trip, the students get to see the history of and get a better understanding of these approaches,” Zumbrunn said. “We connect a lot of what we observe to educational psychology theory: thinking about barriers to implementation, how to overcome these obstacles, and best practices in both private and public school settings.”

"We had to plan lessons around children and classroom we had never been in, and then adapt on our feet when new things were thrown our way.” – Alex Harrell

The timing of the trip is also unique. Holding the program over an extended spring break period in March gives students part of the semester to prepare for the trip ahead of time, as well as to reflect on and discuss their experiences once they return.

Part of that preparation includes spending time at Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia-inspired schools here in Richmond, allowing students to compare and contrast these environments with the ones they experience in Italy.

“One thing I noticed was that, in Italy, kids and teachers had a deep relationship,” Harrell said. “Teachers really try to figure out what’s going on with their students and find the deep root of any problems. They also use culture as part of the classroom, using all the students’ differences as a plus to come together as one community.”

Of course, culture plays a big role in the study abroad program as well. Trips to a bookmaking factory, art museums where students created their own frescos, and an agrotourism excursion to a sustainable farm in Tuscany all provided plenty of opportunity to soak in the Italian way of life.

“[Visiting the farm] was really interesting, because we learned about the ways the farm manages production and how everyone collaborates to keep it running,” Zumbrunn said. “There were so many overlaps between the farm and the community approaches to schooling.”

In addition to learning about educational theory, pedagogical approaches and language learning, the Italy trip also has another, intangible objective: to get students out of their comfort zones.

“In a way, we want them to feel a little uncomfortable at the beginning,” Rhodes said.

“It was good to have a group who were all willing to try new things,” Harrell said. “We were all out of our element: the classrooms, the culture, everything was so different from what we are used to. But that’s what made so much of the trip memorable.”

For more information about the Italian study abroad program, and to read first-hand accounts of the trip from previous participants, visit the program’s blog.