A Student Volunteer’s Lesson During the Pandemic

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Connecting through a screen with curious high school students from the Italy Reads program.

Student commentary

By Matilde Pozzato / Matthew staff

JCU offers many different volunteer possibilities, and one of these is the Italy Reads Program, a project that brings JCU students together with high school students of Rome and nearby cities to help them  practice their English. 

The volunteer and the high school students read a book every year: the volunteers help the students discuss the book, answer their questions, and prepare for the final project they do for their high school English class. This year’s selected book is Beetlecreek by William Demby, and the meetings are currently held online. 

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, I met the students and my partner Mackenzie Fuller, who is study abroad at JCU from Northeastern University. We worked with seven students who are seniors in high school. I have to admit that it was a tougher session than I thought it could possibly be. Since the high school students take part in this project voluntarily, I thought the conversation would have gone by easily and naturally. But this wasn’t so much the case. 

They were  very respectful of course, but also incredibly shy, and getting them engaged in conversation was not an easiest task, we tried to ask if there was anything they wanted to share about the novel: some of them spoke and then mute again. Most of them turned their cameras off. 

This was the most challenging part for me because at that point I wasn’t even sure if they were still actually there or not. That moment reminded me of when COVID-19 broke out and school got moved fully remote. It was like being in the shoes of my high school teachers in March 2020, when they would speak for hours, and my classmates and I would stay muted and with the camera off.  

Not speaking and not turning on the camera doesn’t necessarily mean that one is not listening but the person on the other side can only measure that based on the engagement. 

At that point, we had to get creative, as 10 minutes  of the 60 minutes we had planned for the meeting  had already gone by.  

Mackenzie and I decided to simply encourage them to speak in English, which is a skill Italian students tend to lack for the way lessons are structured (trust me, I have been there). We asked them about how it is like to be fully back in the classroom, what are their plans after graduation, what they like doing in their free time. 

Suddenly, they were ready not  only to answer but also to ask questions. They were curious about the United States, and they asked Mackenzie questions about her high school experience and  how it was like to grow up in the US. 

Towards the end of the meeting, even the students who never turned their camera on nor said a word were ready to talk and engage in the conversation. 

After this first meeting, I am happy to say that it was a great experience for me. For the first time, I was on the other side: the one of the teachers, in a way, and it showed me how hard it is to convey feelings and materials through a screen. 

I had to get creative and think outside the box to find an appealing way to make students participate in the meeting, and I think these are always good skills to master. 

And of course, it is a great opportunity to meet new people that love to read, just like me, and are part of the team of volunteers. 

But most important, being a volunteer made me feel good and useful, and I am so glad I took this opportunity to help students  learn something that will be extremely useful for them, like speaking in English. 

To volunteer, contact: italyreads@johncabot.edu or spinelli@johncabot.edu