Gianfranco Balestriere grew up on an island, dreaming (to the tune of American pop songs) about exploring the wide world. He knew he loved languages, and imagined perhaps a diplomatic career. In the end, however, teaching Italian turned out to be the key to “heaven”—which is what he calls his job at UF.
The island was Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. There he received a classical education, studying Latin and Greek, and English as if it too were a “dead” language; he mastered English grammar well enough, but could not speak. When he moved to Naples to attend college, though, he learned to communicate not only in English classes—he majored in English—but also with fellow students from the U.S. and U.K.
He studied Romanian in college as well, with his eye on a scholarship to study in Bucharest, then a Soviet bloc capital. He was successful in winning the scholarship, and took advantage of it to explore Eastern Europe; he caught a glimpse of the workers’ actions in Poland, led by Lech Walesa. It was exciting, as a young Westerner, to discover the world “behind the curtain,” forbidden territory to most non-party members.
Gianfranco was even more interested in the West, though, thanks to American music and culture. He had already visited the U.S., when he was fifteen; his father was living in Norwalk, Connecticut, and Gianfranco’s visit included a trip to New York City, a different sort of island paradise from Ischia. Knowing, on graduation from the university, that he probably wanted to teach languages, he won a graduate scholarship to Indiana University. He studied Medieval Literature there under Mark Musa, and earned a Master’s degree. Despite the cold and snow, Gianfranco enjoyed his years there.
Indiana also provided his first opportunity to teach Italian. He took a brief training for TAs and a course in pedagogy. He had long since outgrown the very passive style of his first language classes, with their emphasis on grammar and translation. The Romanian class he had taken in college was quite different—a small class with a lively professor and a commitment to equipping students with a full range of skills. When Gianfranco talks about his own preferred classroom method, he says that “a lot of fantasy” feeds the environment for learning Italian.
When Gianfranco received his Master’s degree, he immediately found a job at UF, and has been here ever since—25 years now—with one break when he worked for the Foreign Service Institute for three years, working intensively with diplomats competing for posts in Italy. He had thought this might be a good career move, but in the end he missed the college classroom and returned to UF. He has taught various levels of language and culture classes, and also medieval literature. An absorbing experiment in the past few years has been his Pirandello class, which culminates every year in a student performance, with costumes, props, and supertitles, of a play in Italian.
In the summers, Gianfranco has taught yet another kind of language class—for students from a variety of countries and native languages, who come to the school in Southern Italy. The only common language in the classroom is the Italian they are learning, and instruction requires a gift for expressing ideas without words, as well as with them. For the past ten years or so, however, Gianfranco has instead worked fwith UF students in our own summer programs for study abroad in Italy.
Currently, though, Gianfranco is looking all the way back to his experiences learning English grammar in high school; he has been teaching a class for graduate students who want to learn to read Italian, with a minimal time commitment, and he is planning to put that class online. The trick, it seems, will be to find a way, through video, audio, and Skype sessions, to convey that personal touch that sparks his students in person. He is looking at Web options for supporting materials, and is excited by Italian reading sites like Loescher’s “Italian for Foreigners.”