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Professors detail study abroad program dedicated to preparing better American teachers

Wed, 02/03/2016

LAWRENCE — Crossing the ocean can be an important step in the journey to creating American teachers who engage in culturally responsive teaching. University of Kansas educators have published writing detailing a program that takes future educators to Italy to participate in a full-immersion study abroad program that results in a better understanding of the challenges culturally and linguistically diverse students encounter in schools. 

Barbara Bradley, associate professor, and Diane Nielsen, professor of curriculum and teaching at KU, have authored a pair of chapters detailing a study abroad program that takes pre-service teachers to Carpi, Italy, to provide them with a cultural experience that prepares them to be effective teachers. The book, “Advancing Teacher Education and Curriculum Development Through Study Abroad Programs,” was published in late 2015.

The program, which is in its 16th year, takes future teachers to northern Italy. During the four-week program, each pre-service teacher lives with a host family and is placed in a school where they both observe and help with class activities and teach English.

“It’s truly a unique immersion program,” Bradley said. “Of all college students who study abroad, only about four percent are education majors. By participating in the program, pre-service teachers learn what it’s like to be an Italian language learner. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting for them. We do this to English language learners all the time. Pre-service teachers learn practical strategies that will help them teach English language learners even though there are language differences.”

The experience also is designed to illuminate the similarities and differences in education systems and inspire the pre-service teachers to think about how those differences can provide ideas to supplement and improve their own teaching styles.

One of the chapters details the process of establishing and maintaining such a program for educators. Bradley has been involved in the program from its beginning and evolution to its current state. She has taken more than 350 future preschool to high school teachers to Carpi, including some who are now taking high school students abroad following their experience in Italy, and others who have taken teaching positions outside of the United States.

The second chapter details the reflections of the program participants, what they learn during their time in Italy and their thoughts on how it will apply to their careers as educators. Participants are required to keep a blog throughout the program.

“Through blogging, pre-service teachers share their thoughts about being in the schools,” Bradley said. “For example, they have shared their surprise at how play-based Italian preschools are. In the U.S. we say we’re child-centered, but participants learn quickly that we’re really not, at least compared to Italian preschools.”

Pre-service teachers learn that Italian educators often stay with the same group of students through several grade levels, which creates a family-like atmosphere. This has also been a source of surprise for students who realize that behavior management is quite different between the two countries, with Italian teachers sometimes taking disciplinary approaches that are considered more similar to how parents discipline in the United States. The goal is to help pre-service teachers think about why each country does things the way they do and that not every style fits every culture, even within countries.

“They begin to understand education is a reflection of our culture,” Bradley said.

The program has taken students from Clemson University, the University of Missouri, Old Dominion University and the University of Georgia to Italy in addition to KU students. Bradley said she and KU colleagues are currently focusing research on what Italian schools and host families gain from the program.

“It’s really about developing empathy by living with people different from ourselves,” Bradley said of the program’s biggest benefit. “Participants learn about culture and that even little cultural differences can be stressful. As teachers we shouldn’t wait for students to learn English and come to us. We have to consider the challenges they face and be proactive to support them.”



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