On April 2, 2011, I traveled to Baltimore on a CLS Travel Grant to attend the 2011 Northeast Conference on Teaching of Foreign Languages (NECTFL) and to participate in a panel titled “Based on a True Story”: Real Content for Language Curricula”:
True stories and fictional stories based on or inspired by real facts and people present several advantages. They serve as springboards for a variety of language activities that can be more stimulating and rewarding than activities based on unknown or invented characters, and they help shed light on the society and culture explored in the language classroom in more meaningful ways than most pre-fabricated materials. They also serve as keystone experiences around which curricula developers can organize thematic units to provide culturally relevant content, rather than be used sporadically for a fun or special lesson. The panelists will present ideas that promote language learning from the beginning to the advanced levels through and with films, interviews, and a variety of texts based on true stories.
The panel was organized by Daniela Viale (Wesleyan) and Sabina Perrino (Michigan) and featured Viale, Perrino, my Yale colleague, Anna Iacovella, and me. Each speaker demonstrated the use of “true stories” in the Italian language classroom, although the insights and data presented were relevant to foreign language teachers, regardless of the specific L2.
My paper, titled “True Stories in the Italian Classroom,” first presented a rationale for using “true stories,” in addition to those presented above (validating learners’ burgeoning sense of mastery of the foreign language and of cultural content; keeping a syllabus au courant; and introducing the potential for wide-ranging texts in the upper levels of language study, as distinct from the common use of authored texts in the introductory levels).
I then focused on several uses of true stories at various levels of the Italian language curriculum.
A. My unit on immigration to Italy and integration of immigrants into contemporary Italian society features a 2005 news article from La Repubblica delle donne, “La Dottoressa Kindi [Talia] guarisce la legge,” or Doctor Kindi Heals the Law, the story of a young Congo-born Italian doctor who challenged and successfully overturned a ban against immigrants in higher education.
B. The same unit also reads excerpts from Beppe Severgnini’s Un italiano in America (An Italian in America), in which journalist Severgnini turns the tables on immigrant directionality by recounting his year as an “immigrant” (really, a foreign correspondent) to the U.S. and the facts and foibles Americans display.
C. Words and themes regarding immigration learned in A and B are repurposed in a third section of the unit, which is used at the elementary and advanced levels. Readings are taken from the first edition of the annual Italian literary contest for immigrants called Eks&Tra, from EXtracomunitari TRA di noi (Immigrants Among Us), and a 1995 volume called Le voci dell’arcobaleno (The Voices of the Rainbow). The anthologized poems and short stories represent the diversity of Italian immigration in the ‘90s: Ivory Coast, Argentina, Albania, Dominican Republic, Morocco, Syria, Brazil, Zaire, China, etc.
D. The last component of the immigration unit is also a “real story,” though an anonymous, highly redacted and highly condensed one: the ISTAT (National Institute of Statistics) annual report on “Foreign Population Residing in Italy.” Analysis of the ISTAT data serves to allay anxiety and play to the strengths of our many language-class enrollees who gravitate away from the humanities and toward the social or hard sciences.
The immigration unit seeks not to demystify Italian immigration so much as actually to complicate the issue, in the belief — as Dale Lange said — that “culture is complex and elusive.” The immigration unit has another goal as well, that ties in with ACTFL’s 1996 Standards for Foreign Language Learning, and that is, as Michael Paige states, that “Any discussion of cultural differences could cause language learners to change their own ways of thinking and behaving. In other words, culture takes the learning experience far beyond the realm of comfort, experience, and interest of both teacher and learner.”
Two other uses of “true stories” were presented:
E. Marcello D’Orta’s 1990 sensation, Io speriamo che me la cavo, in which D’Orta, a former elementary school teacher near Naples presents an anthology of sixty schoolchild compositions. Written in charmingly childish language, with abundant mistakes in spelling and grammar (deliberately left uncorrected), these short assignments revealed to the country that poverty, mafia, drugs, failing health care, non-collection of garbage, and political corruption were so rampant in southern Italy that children had become inured. Selling over a million copies, D’Orta’s J’accuse sparked a national debate and spawned a 1992 film of the same name.
F. Lastly, real stories, told live, by real people. Over the past four years, I have arranged for seven Italian nationals visiting on campus or Italian members of the faculty, to address Elementary or Intermediate Italian students in a Q & A format. Visiting speakers have included an opera director, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, the founder of Slow Food International, an award-winning director, an evolutionary biologist, an endocrinologist, and a food journalist and professor of food studies.
Approximately 30 people attended this session on “Based on a True Story”: Real Content for Language Curricula,” which was followed by a lively Q & A period.
 Dale L. Lange, L. Dale, R. Michael Paige, ed., Culture as the Core. Perspective on Culture in Second Language Learning (Greenwich: Information Age Publishing, 2003), Introduction, X, quoted in Romana Capek-Habekovic and Sandra Palaich, “Evaluating Cultural Proficiency in an Upper Level Italian Culture Course, in New Approaches to Teaching Italian Language and Culture: Case Studies from an International Perspective, Emanuele Occhipinti, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), 404.
 R. Michael Paige, ed., Education for the Intercultural Experience (Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1993), 1-19, quoted in Romana Capek-Habekovic and Sandra Palaich, “Evaluating Cultural Proficiency in an Upper Level Italian Culture Course, in New Approaches to Teaching Italian Language and Culture: Case Studies from an International Perspective, Emanuele Occhipinti, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), 404.