PROVINCETOWN — When Provincetown International Baccalaureate Schools students enter the classroom of their new Italian instructor, Tiziana Murray, they’re faced with an immediate challenge: a sentence on the board in need of translation.
The classroom erupts in a flurry of activity as students check their notebooks to identify nouns, verbs, adjectives, and articles they’ve learned. One brave student, encouraged by peers, raises a hand and takes a stab at translation. Murray offers immediate feedback, praising what the student gets right. Then the class settles in to take attendance. Here, the students say “Presente.”
“I’ve explained to my students that every time you use the word presente, you are telling me that you are physically and mentally present in my class,” says Murray.
Murray started teaching Italian in Provincetown in September.
She rings a bell each time she switches between English and Italian in the classroom. This, she says, helps to alert students to reset and make the transition. As the immersion deepens, she rings it less often.
After just four months, the emphasis on presence is leading to progress, Murray says. The students in grades 6, 7, and 8, who study the language for 50 minutes per day, five days per week, can understand about 60 percent of the Italian she speaks to them in the class.
Principal Beth Francis says that the language lessons seem to counter inattentiveness among students. “The melodic nature of Italian sort of lulls you in,” says Francis. “I see students really sitting up and taking notice.”
Even younger students, who have one 50-minute Italian lesson per week, are picking up the language. On a late December morning, Murray was in the classroom with four-year-old preschoolers. The lesson focused on colors. She asked them, “Che colore è?” (“What color is it?”).
At first, the students didn’t realize what Murray had said was a question. “Che colore è, che colore è,” they parroted back to her. When Murray presented them with three different color options, repeating the question each time, the students started to reply with the names of the colors she pointed to.
During the next lesson, one of the children approached her with an object and asked Murray the same question. The four-year-old had not only remembered the question but was using it in a new way.
The school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum places special emphasis on language as the foundation of meaning and intercultural perspective, and it requires that students learn a second language beginning at age five. Students in Provincetown begin foreign language instruction when they’re three.
In the school’s initial years as an IB institution, Spanish was the language they were learning. But Francis says a teacher’s departure during the pandemic disrupted that program and finding another language instructor was not easy.
Then Murray, who now lives in Eastham but grew up in Italy and raised two daughters in a bilingual household in Bryn Mawr, Pa., came to Francis with an interest in teaching Italian. Murray had taught Italian to students at Villanova University and Cabrini University.
Murray and Francis both recognize that some of their students come from homes in which English is not the first language. This year, the Provincetown IB Schools have 21 students classified as English language learners, says Superintendent Gerry Goyette. The majority of those students speak Jamaican Patois at home, but there are several who speak Spanish and one who speaks Gujarati, a language native to the state of Gujarat in India.
Murray and Francis believe there is a distinct advantage in the fact that Italian is completely unfamiliar to the students: they are all starting at the same place. There is no sense that one student has more information, or power, than another, says Francis.
Francis acknowledges that Nauset Regional High School, where many students enroll after finishing eighth grade in Provincetown, does not offer Italian instruction — the choices there are French and Spanish. But she says that Nauset High foreign language teachers have told her, “As long as your students understand the mechanics of a Romance language, they should be able to take a test in Spanish and understand 75 percent of it.”
Murray says her immersive approach is not what students usually encounter in school-based language classes. “I’m doing the exact opposite of everybody else,” she says.
Usually, Murray says, writing is prioritized first. But she approaches her instruction with a focus on what she calls natural and organic progression. Students are encouraged to take notes and develop their own familiarity with written Italian expressions, but official instruction in writing only begins now, in the winter-spring term.
By the end of this school year, every student in the upper grade levels will be able to read, write, and conduct a PowerPoint presentation on an assigned topic entirely in Italian, Murray says. She also predicts that the current group of fifth graders will be fluent in Italian by the time they finish eighth grade.
“They have all the pieces to really start making sense of the language,” says Murray.