Fancy name for internship

Job shadowing at a language school in Rome / Italy – which is much more than that. Alisa J. from weltgewandt trained for four weeks in methods of language learning at the Associazione di promozione sociale Asinitas Aps (“Association for the Social Advancement of Asinitas”). Your impressions.

Founded in 2005, the work of the non-profit organization is primarily aimed at migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who want to learn the Italian language. Every year, about 150 men and women between the ages of 16 and 60 are admitted, mainly from West and East Africa, North Africa, Afghanistan, Turkish Kurdistan, Bangladesh and South America. However, it is much more than a mere language school, because the aim of Asinitas is to combine education and social work, thus promoting activities in the field of social care and training. Ultimately, the aim is to initiate and intensify integration processes for people who are often perceived as not equal by the Italian majority society. The Asinitas team strives to strengthen the social presence of the people in the new country by stimulating the learners’ desire to express themselves with the new language. The encounter with the individual and his or her history is always in the foreground.

Asinitas not only offers language courses, but also theatre workshops, handicraft courses, socio-medical and legal advice as well as training and career advice. Training courses are also organised for teachers, educators and mediators dealing with these particularly vulnerable migrant groups. Since the organization was born from the conviction that there is a great need in cities today to create common contexts of encounter with people from other countries, the school is seen as a territory to be shared. And so the person-centred support of learners is an important core point of Asinitas’ work in order to reach people who have usually received little or no education in the classical sense.

During my time at Asinitas, I was able to get to know many of the activities better and not only observe the approach, but also assist and apply what I have learned myself. The language courses start daily in the morning at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 12:30 p.m. There are different groups, separated according to language level and composition. For example, most of the participants can be found in the A1 level courses and a handful of learners each in the A2 and B1 courses. The mixed A1 course takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the A1 course exclusively for women on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The day begins with a joint arrival and a breakfast table waiting for the participants in front of the actual classrooms. Over tea, biscuits and fruit, everyone has the opportunity to chat a little, joined by the respective team of teachers, consisting of permanent teachers and young volunteers who are doing their social year there. The atmosphere is friendly and the teachers meet their students at eye level. Since the attendance of the language courses is voluntary, there is no possibility to force participation in the lessons,1 rather the team members always try to bind the learners to the school through encouragement and praise and also through intensive personal contact. This usually works quite well, even if there are usually some exceptions, but you still try to get them.

You quickly notice that the school also adapts to the learners, for example during Ramadan. The first week of my stay there fell in the last week of Ramadan and so all language courses started with a considerable delay, as the majority of the learners arrived too late due to the lack of sleep due to the prayer at dawn. Thus, the joint breakfast was rather short and only those who did not observe the ritual fasting participated. However, what was immediately noticeable was the polite restraint in the consumption of food and drinks on the part of all other students as well as the teachers. And topics on this topic were also largely avoided in the classroom.

This caring permeates all areas of Asinitas. Even though the learners are very different and everyone went trough a different life story, everyone is given the same space to develop. While in the mixed A1 course as well as in the women’s course everyone starts from scratch with the Italian language, there are also those who are not or hardly able to read and write in their mother tongue. Special consideration is given to them and often a teacher or volunteer works one-to-one with this participant. The respective courses are also divided into sub-groups based on the level of performance of the learners. This means that those who learn faster are among themselves on some group tasks and those who need more time for their work also get it.

There are no textbooks in the classroom, everything is planned week by week specifically for the respective course, with the teachers always holding a follow-up meeting immediately after the lesson, where everything is discussed in detail: i.e. what went well and what didn’t go so well, as well as whether the learning plan is on track or whether something needs to be changed. All team members can express their opinion and sometimes there is a longer discussion until the optimal further course of action is found. I was also able to actively participate during this preparation and follow-up of the lessons, be it with my observations of the learning progress of certain students, criticism of individual tasks or with ideas for the next lessons. It was always followed with attention and dealt with constructively. At the same time, I was also shown how my active part in job shadowing is and how I can proceed even better to support the learning practice.

Since the lessons at Asinitas are always based on a living language that must have something to do with the reality of the learners’ lives, the focus is also on the life and migration experiences of the participants in the search for the learning content to be imparted. In this way, social isolation is also to be prevented or at least countered somewhat by the program taking into account the personal paths of each individual, whereby the group quickly notices how similar their often lonely migration paths are and thus gives each other support.

Even if outwardly it is only about learning the Italian possessive pronouns and their correct use in sentences, for example, this is practiced on the basis of contexts, which certainly builds a bridge for all participants to their home country, namely their own family members. In this lesson, the students should first draw their family tree on a DIN A3 sheet, explain it with colorful paper snippets and illustrate it. After that, the work began in groups of two, where the participants told each other about their families in Italian, and finally everyone had to tell the whole class about the family of their group partner in a circle of chairs.

So what was outwardly a pure grammar exercise also served the group cohesion, the remembrance of one’s own stories and the vocalization of any painful experiences, such as the fact that all the learners had large parts of their families in their home countries and sometimes did not see them for years.

The pace of the lessons is slow and fast at the same time. Actually, you want to put so much into one lesson in order to give the students as much as possible, but it often happens that the stories of the people in this big learning experiment slow down the work. In this way, the class always participates in the teaching and this experiential working method brings mindfulness above all and gives everyone who wants to express themselves the time and space to do so – regardless of the language level and the direct reference to the subject matter.

The way Asinitas works is to create bonds among the students, but also with the teachers. At the same time, everyone is encouraged to speak and express themselves, because this is exactly what most learners lack in everyday life in an environment that is sometimes very new to them, sometimes simply unfamiliar. Accordingly, the learning methods are never limited to mere frontal teaching. According to Montessori pedagogy 2, the basic idea of which is expressed in the statement “Aiutami a fare da solo.” (English: “Help me to do it myself.”), there are varied lessons and numerous materials designed to stimulate learning, arouse curiosity and promote attention. Manual and creative work is used as well as physical exercises, games or dance and singing.

Not only the lessons themselves, but also the creative interruptions are used to work with the learners. Each lesson is always divided by a break, during which the students first gather in a circle and then do movement exercises together to promote awareness of their own bodies. For example, you move around the room to the music and the teacher sets the pace by shouting numbers into the room, which are supposed to simulate the numbers of the gears of a car, with the players themselves being the car that slows down or accelerates. Singing a song together in a foreign language that is unknown to everyone can also be a break activity, which is intended to promote the students’ ability to concentrate and at the same time show them that you can have fun even without a supposed meaning.

Or the participants are divided into two groups, with each individual facing one from the other group in a circle, with those in the outer circle being “sculptors” and those in the inner circle “jamming”, who are “shaped” by the sculptors according to their wishes: The body of the respective “statue” is moved, arms are bent and heads are tilted and feet are brought into position. Then the “sculptor” switches to the next “statue” and the game starts all over again. What can be considered a fun children’s game actually helps many participants to let go and engage in something that is outside of their comfort zone.

Especially the participants of the women-only course, who have done this last exercise, are often very shy and do not dare to express themselves about the “appropriate measure” or even to raise their voices. Physical activities in which they can also touch each other are almost a rarity, which are initially received with skepticism, but soon turn into general joy and laughter. Because, above all, what could be observed is that the students trust their teachers. The participants of this course are women mainly from the Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan) and North Africa. They have often come to Italy as part of family reunification. But this course also includes refugee women and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East who live in reception centres, as well as women who have travelled alone from Eastern Europe, the Philippines and South America, often working as domestic workers or caregivers.

The remarkable thing is that this women-only course is not only a safe space for them, they can also bring their young children to school up to the age of six. There they deal with them, play with them or paint with them while the mothers have their Italian course next door. Even if one should not make generalizations, it is precisely these young mothers who are often vulnerable women, at risk of social isolation and who not only want to learn the Italian language, but also have the need for conviviality and integration. That’s why the main goal of Asinitas is not only to learn the language, but also to build meaningful bonds and create contexts in which these women – but also all other learners – can actively participate.

Above all, in a district where people of different cultures are at home, the isolation of migrants is to be counteracted. Women in particular are the direct focus of the language school as a particularly vulnerable migrant group with often a low level of education. Thus, Asinitas sees itself as a place of encounter, exchange and intercultural education, as a support network and as a place where the marginalization of migrants is taken seriously and where they themselves act as actors in the representation of their migration and life paths and can vocalize them.

Even though I had insights into the many different courses at the school, the work in the women’s course probably left an extraordinary impression, be it because of the individual participants 1 themselves, be it because of the good learning atmosphere and the functioning learning groups, or be it because I had the insight that the commitment of the team, to which I was allowed to belong, is meaningful and fruitful.

In this women’s course, I was able to help the participants not only conjugate verb forms or learn the shopping list for the supermarket, but also listen to their stories when they talked about their home countries. As always with Asinitas, all topics were tailored to the life experiences of the participants: For example, you could read an illustrated story that had two parallel storylines, one set somewhere in the West and one in an Arab country. Both stories depicted a family going about their daily errands and were finally connected by an object – a carpet woven by one family and brought to market and purchased from the Western family. Some of the learners recognized pieces of their old and new reality, they spoke of their homeland and were happy to have found it again as teaching material in the language school. At other times, the women were asked to talk about objects that were particularly close to their hearts and that they might have brought back to Italy. At the same time, this was a workshop with clay, from which the learners were supposed to form these objects. The combination of practical handiwork, biographically based storytelling and practising Italian, which happened almost incidentally, as the women named, explained and placed the objects in their biographical context with the help of the teaching team, is exactly the kind of holistic language and cultural work that is part of everyday life at Asinitas.

So, while I helped the women writing down the stories about their clay-shaped objects in Italian, it fostered the exchange between the learners and the team members across the course content. Experiential learning, linking manual activities with language acquisition and the experience of being listened to are the bridges that are built in the classroom to bring learners together and, in the best case, motivate them to find their way in the new country.

The classroom itself and the entire floor, which is occupied by Asinitas, also reflect the stories and paths of the learners: there are numerous posters on which family members have been painted and provided with the appropriate Italian terms; colorful faces made of colorful pieces of paper, which are supposed to depict the course participants; photos of joint celebrations and activities outside of school; Words in all kinds of languages that mean something to the learners or even sound works by students that are supposed to represent their favorite objects.

The environment is vibrantly designed and invites learners to do their part. The walls, the painted and built objects, the photos and the words of the previous and current students are the visible evidence of the unfolding of a process of growth that takes place in the rooms – the learning of the new language, the shared experiences, the newly established relationships. Each new group fills the rooms according to its own image and leaves traces of its own learning path, the time spent together in the classrooms and outside. This very personal design of the rooms and corridors of the language school is also a means of promoting the climate of relationships and the will to express oneself of the learners, the invention of a creative space out of oneself, so to speak.

The many practical exercises that I got to know and put into practice during my time at Asinitas were accordingly all of a double nature: On the one hand, of course, they primarily served the pure acquisition of language, on the other hand, they were rather techniques for mindful interaction with people from different cultures. In this way, theory and practice come together and always have the biographies and life stories of the learners as their starting point in order to contribute to the individual and collective empowerment and development of the participants. Whether it’s a story about a lonely and nostalgic lion in Paris who misses his old home in Africa and still finds his place in the new city in the end, to talk about adjectives that describe emotional states or the names of the shops and the goods and services offered in them are to be learned, which people encounter in their daily journeys in the neighbourhood, there is a continuous search for learning methods that have as their basic idea the approach to the group and the individual.

Although there is not enough space here to list all the activities in detail, some of them will still be mentioned. On the one hand, Asinitas offers a series of courses and workshops in the social and health field, for example, guidance and accompaniment to social and health services, meetings with specialists such as paediatricians and gynaecologists, or a prenatal course for pregnant migrant women, in which not only the Italian terms related to pregnancy, childbirth and hospital are learned, but also the actual biological processes during this special time are explained. In cooperation with the medical staff from the nearby hospital, the women’s fear of the doubly foreign environment of the hospital is taken away in a language that is new to them and a social network is spun to like-minded people who are experiencing similar things.

On the other hand, individual and group psychological counselling and support as well as legal advice are organised in the region or contacts with local social services are established. It was not uncommon for me to see Asinitas team members approached by the learners to solve a specific problem with the local authorities or to seek advice on it. The language barriers were sometimes overcome by a chain of translators from our own ranks (for example, from Arabic to French and from French to Italian) and at the same time communicated with a great deal of sensitivity and sometimes also with “hands and feet”.

This overcoming of language barriers and the focus on the individual behind them runs through all of Asinitas’ activities. In the annual theatre workshop for migrants and locals, this is also at the heart of the joint theatre work. All learners at school can participate, regardless of their language level. They are joined by Italians from young to old who have learned about this theatre workshop through various channels: some are direct neighbours of the school, others are friends with team members and still others became aware of it by chance via the Internet.

The workshop, which is led each time by a different theatre maker, is always under the sign of the respective motto of Asinitas for the current school year. This time it is “voce” (German: “voice”), so aptly chosen and so all-encompassing that the theatre workshop can integrate all the voices of its participants – according to the guiding principle of the language school, which focuses on the community, i.e. both the group and the individual. Every Thursday the theatre troupe met, which could hardly be more heterogeneous in terms of age, language, country of origin and culture: the Roman senior, who has spent her whole life in the same city; the Nigerian who set up an orphanage at home; the young Bangladeshi who wants to become an actor or the young Armenian woman who grew up in Ukraine and fled to Italy when the war began. Together, they all gradually develop scenes of a play, which will eventually be performed on the stage of a theater in the city.

After theatrical warm-up exercises, in which I was also allowed to participate, which were mainly aimed at promoting the perception of one’s own presence in the room and the creative potential when interacting with the other participants, exercises that were initially designed in the same way became parts of the future play. While the small intercultural community gave each other insights into their biographies, their cohesion among themselves was also increasingly strengthened. This meeting space, which was freed from relations of dependence and power, not only produced a play, but also gave each individual the opportunity to contribute as much as they wished, and immediately to experience the appreciation of the language and culture of origin by the other players. Biographical experiences and migration experiences were verbalized and interwoven with singing, dancing and projections of photographs of the participants.

Thus, in these relations of equality between non-equals, an extraordinarily personal and moving play, “La Voce Umana” (English: “The Human Voice”), was born, which tells the story of many voices that become one on stage. Following in the footsteps of their childhood, their roots, their joyful and sad moments, the participants discover their own personal development and take the viewer with them on this journey.

The theatre thus accompanies the social and pedagogical work of Asinitas, fits into it and also improves the quality of the learners’ experiences. The dialogue that arises between the individual Italian and foreign members of the group not only helps to promote their creative potential, but also to stimulate the personal development of the participants and to strengthen their self-esteem. Along the way, the language students’ Italian is also improving, but this is almost a minor matter in these moments of self-expression and cohesion at the same time.

Asinitas is therefore a caring school by conviction, where each individual – learners and teachers alike – contributes to the educational context that integrates those present into a community, prioritizing the encounter with the person in their body and with their history. This balance between individual and group usually succeeds with considerable friendship between the team and the students. In the event of any conflicts, such as those that have arisen occasionally, the situation has been resolved calmly and respectfully. Above all, this encounter with the learners at eye level is a leitmotif of this intercultural organization.

Certainly, despite all the exemplariness, there are also difficulties, such as the sometimes laborious placement of the diverse cultural expressions, opinions and ideas under the institutional care of the language school and their equal recognition. Especially in the theatre workshop, the different personalities of the participants provided some surprises. What has always been evident, however, is the non-verbal but ever-present request to learners not to negate or discard their previous life path and migration experience, but rather to draw inspiration and strength for their future learning path from it. With its experiential working methods, Asinitas acts as a meeting place for mutual exchange and mutual enrichment for all those who find themselves there – including me.

1 Also, Asinitas cannot issue a state-certified certificate of the language level achieved after completion of the language course, as they are not a state-recognized language school. For such recognition, the organization would have to make significant changes in the curriculum as well as in the teaching methods, but this is not desired by the management and the team. Rather, one would like to continue to have the freedom to choose the content and methods of teaching practice oneself. However, for those learners who would like to take an officially recognized language exam after the A2 and B1 course, there is still this possibility: Asinitas cooperates with state-certified institutions, whose employees then take the official exam.

2 The Italian Maria Montessori was a progressive pedagogue, doctor and philosopher. From 1907 she was in charge of the first Casa dei Bambini (German: “Children’s House”) in San Lorenzo, a former slum of Rome, and also implemented her pedagogical ideas there.

1 To give just one example, there is a woman who recorded every lesson with her mobile phone so that she could listen to it again at home, making enormous progress in a very short time. Above all, because she herself could hardly read and write in her mother tongue.

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