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Tandem Exchange Program Brings Italy to UMN

December 15, 2017

Kathy Rider and Carlotta Dradi Posing for a picture

Kathy Rider and Carlotta Dradi Posing for a picture
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

“Tandem has given me many unexpected opportunities that I am very grateful for,” says Maddie Robinson, a sophomore majoring in retail merchandising, who is currently enrolled in third-semester Italian. “I gained a friend through this program who I wouldn't ever have met had I not signed up in class. When I study abroad next semester, I now have a friend who I have grown to know over the last year and a half.”

The Italian Tandem Exchange Program allows students to practice Italian by conversing with native Italian speakers through different technology platforms. As students expand their speaking and listening skills, they also gain insight into their own culture.

Connecting with Italy

Carlotta Dradi, coordinator for first-year Italian and the Director of Italian Language Instruction, piloted the Tandem Exchange Program for Italian classes in 2004 and sees the program as “the core of the curriculum” for Italian classes.

French and Italian students pose together for a photo
UMN student Ashley Kohorn (left) and Italian student Licia Rosetti (right) originally met through the Tandem program. They met in person in Rome during the summer of 2016

Dradi recalls how challenging it was to connect with instructors: different time zones, school schedules, and expectations were all hurdles. In the beginning, Italian instructors had to experiment and determine what worked and what didn’t. Dradi explains that UMN students would have to schedule a video chat with their conversation partner, participate in the video conversation over the weekend, and then discuss their experience in class the next week. It was a cumbersome process that sometimes created barriers to student success.

For an exchange like this to work, there needs to be a structure to the curriculum with strict deadlines. Dradi explains that they relied on instructors in Italy to implement these video conversations within their classroom. Because some of those instructors didn’t enforce this as a required assignment, some students in Italy didn’t participate; therefore, it affected their UMN partners who relied on these conversations and were graded on their participation in them. Having a clear understanding between the teachers was essential to the success of the partnership, but it left fewer Italian teachers interested in collaborating with their American counterparts.

Today, Italian classes work with instructors and students from cities in northern Italy, including Crema and Ravenna. Cristina Casagrande, an English teacher at a high school in Ravenna, Italy, is one of many instructors who contributes significantly to the program.

Her favorite part is seeing the students build their confidence and abilities. “This program is very important for my students who are usually not exposed to English,” she says. “Since every film is dubbed here, we hardly ever have the chance to hear anything in English. The first advantage consists in practicing the foreign language orally.”

Casagrande has nearly a hundred students who regularly converse with partners at UMN. Her commitment to the program is clear. She even traveled to Minnesota to meet with her American colleagues in person this past August. With a strong connection to collaborative instructors in Italy, Italian instructors work together to bring Italy to students in Folwell Hall.

Launching Tandem in Italian Classes

Kathleen Rider, who coordinates second-year Italian, helped Dradi organize and implement the Tandem Exchange Program into all Italian classes. According to Rider, Tandem “represents everything we would want out of any element of our language program.”

Tandem participation accounts for a significant portion of their final grade. Along with participation points and activities tied along to conversing with their Tandem partner, Dradi explains that Tandem also shows up on their written exams, in which students summarize cultural aspects that they learned from their Tandem partner, such as comparing and contrasting American and Italian families. Rider also adds that they ask students about their Tandem experience in oral exams.

UMN Italian classes introduce the Tandem Exchange Program in the first semester of language instruction. As Dradi puts it, “Why wait until the fourth or fifth semester?” If Italian instructors waited to implement the program into higher-level courses, students may have already traveled to or studied abroad in Italy. Dradi explains that even though a beginning student’s ability to converse in Italian is limited, “the heavy scaffolding they receive through the design of the [Tandem] activities enables them to have a rich exchange linguistically and culturally.” Dradi also adds that the assignments for students in Italy are in English and help UMN students with both cultural information and the development of their intercultural competency.

“The big takeaway from [Tandem] is that forming relationships can benefit your learning in all aspects,” says Mac Deisz, a sophomore currently enrolled in third-semester Italian. “I think that a program like this, where students are able to develop skills with peers, is an important aspect [of language study], as it tests [students’] knowledge and skills in language and culture.”

Bringing Italy to Folwell Hall

By utilizing text messages, social media, and video conferencing software, students learn about Italian culture at an in-depth level. They develop multicultural understanding, along with a new perspective on their own culture. “The ability to see things from another person’s perspective … that’s a huge life skill,” Rider explains. “Even [with] something so fundamental, like figuring out the time difference, you have to put yourself in the other person’s place.” She enjoys seeing her students develop their cultural awareness, such as when they compare American music or American films with their Tandem partner. “What is popular is not always popular over here, and they have an opportunity to ask why and talk about it.”

Although participating in an exchange program may sound like a daunting experience for students of a new language, Rider explains that it’s actually a safety net built to help them learn and build confidence. “You’re bringing Italy to them,” states Rider. “They don’t have to feel this way when they get off the plane in Rome, because they already felt this way here in a safe environment.” Rider also adds that students are talking to peers, which makes the conversation less intimidating and more relatable.

Expanding their Reach

In coming years, Italian instructors hope to expand their contacts to the southern part of Italy. “It’s almost a different country,” explains Rider. “A very different culture, very different history.” They also hope to coordinate with the Learning Abroad Center to set up a trip at the end of ITAL 1002: Beginning Italian II. This would give students the opportunity to visit their Tandem partner whom they have been conversing with for the past semester. Ideally, it would be a three-week trip at the end of the semester, with one week dedicated to working with their Tandem partner. “I hope, as an instructor, [that my students are] motivated to go [on this trip],” Rider adds. “Because I know once they go [to Italy], they’ll be hooked, they’ll never stop trying to get back.”