Though Matt Papino has traveled abroad and speaks three languages fluently, he is still a Cranston resident at heart. This year, he was named the Foreign Language Teacher of the Year in Rhode Island for his work teaching middle school students at Aldrich Junior High School in Warwick.
Papino teaches Italian and Spanish and has increased enrollment in Italian at the school dramatically since he first began teaching there in 2004. When Papino first started at the school, there were eight students enrolled in the Italian program. Now the school has 76 students studying the language, and Papino teaches them all.
John Livsey, the principal at Aldrich, noticed that the Italian program began to improve dramatically when Papino began teaching. He saw Papino’s passion for teaching and how his students liked learning Italian. So Livsey decided to nominate Papino as the Rhode Island Foreign Language Association’s Teacher of the Year.
Livsey nominated Papino last year when the flood hit and filled the Italian teacher’s Cranston home with three feet of water.
“They had to take me out on a boat,” laughed Papino, who looks back at the experience in a bit of disbelief.
Papino’s wooden desk was ruined by the waters and was swollen tightly shut. His father took an ax to it in an attempt to salvage the papers inside. Because of his difficulties last year, Papino was unable to get the paperwork to the Foreign Language Association in time and was ineligible for the award.
This year was a different story, and Papino happily took the title of Rhode Island Foreign Language Teacher of the Year.
“2011 is a much better year,” said Papino.
With his title came a traveling plaque, on which previous year’s winners’ names are inscribed. His name will be added to the distinguished list, which includes teachers from high schools and those from institutes of higher education. In addition, he will receive a $500 monetary award.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Papino. “It’s an honor, an absolute honor.”
Papino began his studies of Italian at Cranston West, where he attended high school. His heritage is a mix of Italian and Portuguese, and he wanted to learn the language of his ancestors.
Upon entering the University of Rhode Island, Papino broadened his language education, adding Spanish to his repertoire. He graduated from URI with a triple major in Italian, Spanish and secondary education, as well as a minor in international development. After student teaching for a year, he decided to further his education and went to Middlebury College in Vermont to get his Master of Arts in Italian. After spending six weeks in Vermont, he traveled to Florence, where he spent the remainder of the academic year. When he returned, he applied for and landed the job at Aldrich, and has never left.
“I have fun with the kids,” said Papino, who loves teaching seventh and eighth graders. “I like what I have here.”
Papino’s students are a testament to his creative and energetic teaching style.
“He’s different from most teachers,” said eighth grade Italian student Sara Veera. “He speaks Italian to us outside of school, too.”
Papino conducts 95 percent of his eighth grade classes in Italian and uses the language with his students outside of the classroom as well.
In seventh grade, Papino explains to his students that they have to think like young children learning a new language for the first time. He teaches them the alphabet and numbers and tells them to write using what they know, not what they want to know.
“He really goes through and explains everything,” said Brianna Travassos, who noted that he gives the students an entire elementary school education in Italian in their seventh grade year.
The students say they like taking Italian for many reasons, including the culture behind the language, its musical sound and its unique flair.
This year and the year before, Papino took his students on field trips to Boston’s North End to teach them about Italian culture and people. Papino applied for and was awarded a $6,000 grant from the Centro Attività Scolastiche Italiane, or CASIT, a non-profit educational and professional organization for the promotion of Italian language and culture. The grant allowed Papino to buy new materials for his class and to pay for the two field trips.
“I am grateful to CASIT because the grant really has helped our program continue to grow and flourish during these hard economic times,” he said.
Principal Livsey took the trip to Boston with the students this year and said it was a “fun day filled with learning.”
Livsey remembers one of his former students said that when she was in Papino’s class she forgot she was learning. Livsey likened his experience in Boston to the student’s experience in the classroom: he forgot he was learning because he was having so much fun.
“In that group the streets came alive. We went to five or six different shops…it was fantastic.”
Livsey said he has seen Papino in action in the classroom, where he exudes energy and passion.
“He’s constantly moving around his classroom and makes his classes enjoyable,” said Livsey.
The fun the students have in their Italian classes has helped them to learn the language, and their National Italian Exam scores are proof.
In division 1A of the exam, for students without exposure to another language, Aldrich eighth grader Sara Veera placed first in the state, Rebecca Pasquerelli placed second, and Julia Testa placed third. For those with prior exposure to another language, Briana Travassos placed second statewide (she also speaks Portuguese) and Destiny Nunez-Tolentino, who speaks Spanish fluently, placed third. The Italian scholars plan to stick with the language throughout high school.
“I wish I could follow them to high school,” said Papino. “It’s amazing to see that all the Italian they know so far is what I’ve taught them, and they’ve learned so much already.”
Papino encourages his students to consider traveling abroad to Italy to further their foreign language education.
“It’s an incentive to go to Italy and use the language.”
Papino visits feeder elementary schools to promote foreign language studies in middle school.
“I always tell the kids they should choose a language they’re most interested in. If you’re going to be in the class for years, you really need to take what you want and enjoy the language.”
Because Papino’s students studied a foreign language in junior high, they will skip level one Italian and enter level two when they begin at Pilgrim.
“It gives them that edge,” said Papino of their head start.
Papino is looking forward to continuing to teach the languages he loves under his new title of Rhode Island Foreign Language Teacher of the Year. He plans to use his prize money for a trip to Australia to meet with Italian-Australian relatives he has never met.
Livsey is proud of Papino’s work and his ability to grow and develop the Italian program in such a short time.
“His mission in life is to bring the language and life of Italy to our students.”