Sherrie Nunn loves teaching languages. She loved teaching elementary-school children, even fifth-graders who were “too cool for school,” but she thinks she is better at teaching college students. She loved teaching Spanish, right from her first opportunity to do so back in the days when teacher training consisted at most of “what to do the first day,” but now she loves teaching Italian. She took her first course in Italian when she was 24 years old, but it is the language where she feels “at home”—in the culture and therefore in the language.
Sherrie was born and lived in the Northeast until she was about 10, when the family moved to Fort Pierce, Florida. Her mother is Italian-American, but there were no opportunities to study Italian: in high school, “You took Spanish or French.” Her older sister took Spanish and Sherrie was fascinated by her exams; she looked forward to initiation into these mysteries. The Italian was something that she picked up as a grad student and later as a lecturer at UF. She traveled to Italy beginning in 1995 and lived in Rome for the 2000-2001 school year, when UF gave her a half-pay professional development leave. That year, she discovered an authentic love for the language and the city. Since then, she has been teaching at least one Italian course a semester, and she has spent every summer with UF’s Rome program.
She majored in Spanish in college, and (after a few miserable months in the “real world” as a telephone travel agent) went on to get an MA at the University of Florida. As a grad student, she not only took Italian (which was being offered for the first time at UF), but also French and Portuguese. Grad school also meant teaching elementary Spanish, and she found this came naturally. She was enjoying grad school so much that she took more than three years to finish her MA.
For five years after getting her degree, Sherrie taught Spanish to all grades in an elementary school in a small town in the Florida Keys. She enjoyed life there, and it was “great fun” teaching children, who are “little sponges” for language. Since her TA experience didn’t apply to this new situation, she undertook to observe each group in their other classes to understand their expectations and how to get them to respond. She stayed in the Keys for five years, and left mostly because friends advised her to be more ambitious.
In 1994 Sherrie was asked to join the UF faculty, and returned as a lecturer in Spanish, with responsibility for co-ordinating one of the elementary courses. But, especially after her first visit to Italy, her commitment to Spanish began to lose out to her love of Italian. When the language departments were split and realigned in 2006, she had to choose between the Spanish and the Italian sections; she chose Italian.
Why was this? Sherrie had spent time in Mexico and in Spain, and of course was familiar with Florida’s Cuban culture. And her college teachers had come from many different countries. She did not have the cultural and verbal fluency that comes from involvement with one Hispanic country in particular. “If someone had told me … to align myself with one particular Spanish-speaking country,” she thinks, she would have been able to move towards the native-speaker mentality. During her year in Rome, living with an Italian family, she made that connection to the life behind the language.
Sherrie has seen language teaching methods come and go. She learned by memorizing dialogues in high school, survived the “audio-lingual” method, and taught “grammar and vocabulary” to students who did not necessarily expect to actually speak the language. Then came the “communicative approach” with new tools and goals for both students and teachers. Now grammar is the homework, and class time is spent demystifying it by speaking, so that the dreaded passato prossimo becomes familiar before students realize it. The student’s movement from confusion to understanding is one of the pleasures of language learning.
In the interests of fostering that movement among her summer Rome Program students, Sherrie initiated a wiki, UF a Roma, where students can post materials documenting their “culture shock” in Italy. The next step will be to design a site looking at the culture shock a Roman might experience on moving to Gainesville.
She is also looking at applications like Voki and Lingq, which allow conversations between teacher and student without the face-to-face element. Sometimes it’s easier to give feedback through an avatar or other intermediary. Sherrie will be spending time in the coming year developing a distance-learning course for reading Italian, so she will have plenty of opportunity to explore options for online teaching.