In Italy, Rider students gain class credit, check items off bucket list

Robert Leitner ’17

Sixteen Rider students, accompanied by two Rider faculty members, traveled to Italy from May 13-24 as part of a College of Education’s spring course focused on how special education is taught and classified in the U.S. and Italy.

After their course work ended in the spring semester, students were ready to take their studies beyond theory and academia, with Italy as their destination.

“Students completed a lot of their work before we went to Italy, allowing them to focus more on observation and interaction when they were there,” says Assistant Professor Mark Pearcy, who was one of the faculty members on the trip. “Placing students in foreign classrooms gives them first-hand experience and helps them connect their education to the action of teaching. You don’t really know why you do certain things as a teacher until you see how other teachers operate.”

The students spent a majority of their hands-on experience in Rome visiting elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Seeing both public and private schools helped students identify the similarities and differences between the U.S. education system and Italy’s.

“In the U.S., we have many different types of placement options for students with special needs, regardless of the classification. Whether it’s mainstreaming the students into inclusive classrooms, taking them out for specialized attention or having special classes or schools for them,” says Andrea Agnone, a sophomore elementary education and multidisciplinary studies major with a minor in special education. “In Italy, however, none of this applies. There are no special classes; there are no special schools; there are barely any signs of pull-out resources. It is strictly inclusion.”

Although the placement options differed, there were similarities between current practices in the U.S. and Italy when it came to special education.

“Particularly, the U.S. has sensory rooms with obstacles, swings and activities to help make them (special education students) feel good,” says Agnone. “Sometimes they cannot sit still in the classroom, so they may be sent here to take out some of their energy and then come back completely fine. In Italy, they have a toy library that is used in the same way.”

Another difference was the Italian students’ exceptional command of the English language. They start learning English alongside Italian in kindergarten, and they become comfortable enough in speaking English that by middle school they are able to stage a musical entirely in English.

“When we visited the middle school, the students performed a few songs from the musical they were preparing for their school, which was 'Grease,'” says Samantha Sanders, a senior elementary education and psychology major with a minor in special education. “They sang 'Beauty School Drop Out' and 'You're the One That I Want.' The students’ performance was in English, which was difficult for them, but they did very well.”

While in Italy, students had time to absorb the foreign culture outside of the classroom setting. Pasta, gelato and Italian customs all became familiar to the group as they began to notice the differences in Italian culture.

“I found that at restaurants, they encouraged the idea of putting down the cell phone when enjoying a meal, to really enforce the idea of bonding and communication,” says Agnone, who was previously aware of certain traditions thanks to her Italian family. “Some of my friends couldn’t finish their food and asked for a bag to bring the food back to the hotel, and the waitress refused. She, like everyone else, encouraged her to finish everything on her plate.”

There was even time for the students to get out of the city. Collectively, the faculty and students went on an excursion to Cinque Terre, “The Five Lands,” a collection of beach-mountain-side towns. They also went on an excursion to Siena, Italy, visiting Vineyards in Tuscany. During the last few days in Italy, students took full advantage of their open itineraries, visiting places such as Venice and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“Taking the notorious picture leaning against the wall (of the Leaning Tower of Pisa) has always been something I wanted to do and I was able to accomplish it,” says Sanders.

Additionally, students were able to check off the Colosseum, the Forum, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museum, the Duomo in Florence and Michelangelo's David from their site-seeing bucket list.

“The architecture was absolutely exquisite,” says Agnone. “Their buildings are so antiquated and have so much character and meaning, it is truly a sight to see.”

For education majors, this study abroad program offered, for some, their first trip abroad, and for all, an introspective look into their career field in a foreign country and a unique cultural experience, which resulted in a personal growth and learning that many consider invaluable.

“I could honestly say that I loved every aspect of the trip,” says Agnone. “I have never traveled abroad prior to this trip, and Dr. Giannola and Dr. Pearcy were an incredible team in ensuring that my group got the absolute most out of our experience. Not only were they comforting, kind, helpful and down to earth, but they also were extremely knowledgeable in their content areas and strived to learn more throughout the entirety of the trip. I felt safe, had fun and emerged from this trip having learned a plethora of information.”