EL Student Profile: Wren Ballou
Friday, September 21, 2018
Senior education major Wren Ballou had an experience of a lifetime this past May when she traveled to Modena, Italy with UGA’s College of Education. Students gained a new perspective on education through student teaching in an Italian school, where Wren uncovered a genuine passion for education in herself that she hopes to one day channel in her own teaching career.
Immersion came quickly for Wren and her fellow classmates, teaching elementary school students in Italian classrooms by day, and staying with host families by night. Arriving in Italy knowing only rudimentary Italian, Wren was apprehensive about living with a family of strangers who didn’t speak her language. While the father of the host family was nearly fluent in English, the language barrier made Wren’s first dinner with the family awkwardly quiet. To her relief, the family’s warm welcome and caring nature quickly eased the awkwardness.
“I was welcomed for four weeks into the home of the kindest, most generous host family that made me feel like part of their family,” she said. “It was just cool to see how welcoming you can be to someone that doesn’t speak your language, doesn’t know your culture.”
Even though the experience came with challenges, Wren stepped out of her comfort zone and welcomed each challenge with an open mind. She quickly accustomed to being the only English speaker in a room, especially when teaching a class of 25 five-year-olds who couldn’t say more than “hello” and “goodbye” in English.
“I discovered that relationships could be built even when little words were said,” she explained. “Which was amazing to experience.”
Studying in Modena gave her the unique opportunity to study Italy’s famed Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Thanks to the relationship-driven environment emphasized by the approach, Wren was able to effectively communicate with her students with hands-on activities and simple gestures.
Created in Italy by Loris Malaguzzi during the post-WWII era, the Reggio Emilia philosophy represents a student-centered, self-directed creative approach to teaching; a far cry from the rigid standardization of American school systems. Similar to the philosophies of the Montessori School, Reggio Emilia schools emphasize the belief that children are capable and should be permitted to guide their own learning through their individual interests. The classrooms are designed as open, kid-friendly spaces where children can engage in play that promotes their own inquiry and exploration. This not only simplified Wren’s communication with the children, but also fostered an environment where students were excited to learn.
“One day, [the students] were playing with magnetic letters and using their imagination to pretend it was food…serving me soup, pasta, pizza,” she explained. “Ten minutes later, the students were sorting the letters by colors, and then spelling simple words with them. What was incredible to me was that the students were not asked to do this, but rather, they were given the time and space to be kids and play, which led to them discovering and directing their own learning.”
At UGA, Wren’s professors taught students the importance of committing themselves to improving the world through teaching. The College of Education makes use of immersive experiences where UGA students can learn by doing, in turn teaching their future students in a similar way. Wren’s courses at UGA made her eager to embark on her teaching career and experience the “intertwined transfer of knowledge” between teacher and student that her professors often emphasized.
However, as she began student teaching and observing classes in the U.S., she experienced a disconnect between what she had learned in the classroom and what she was seeing in the public school systems.
“In the United States, our public education system has become so standardized and there is such a pressure of high-stakes testing that I often think we are stepping too far away from this beauty of education, the space where children can learn and teach each other the most,” said Wren.
“However,” she continued. “Through my study abroad experience in Italy, I was able to see the passion in education again and was able to strengthen my own passion for the profession.”
The Reggio Emilia approach stresses that children aren’t just empty vessels that you can pour information into, but rather, complex human beings who communicate and learn in hundreds of different ways. Instead of making five-year-olds sit still in desks all day with the teacher as the center, teachers in Reggio Emilia schools teach on the child’s level to convey mutual respect and understanding. Wren hopes to take aspects of what she learned in the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy and apply it to her own classroom one day.
“It is my goal to find time, even if it might be limited by the structure of the school day and meeting all the requirements, to make sure I let my students guide their own learning,” she said. “Whether that is that we take an extra five minutes to look at a bug that flew in the room, or at the end of every day, we take 15 minutes to research something new, I want to give my students opportunities for discovery.”
Beyond the priceless knowledge and skillset she gained in the Reggio Emilia classroom, Wren developed valuable life skills and a newfound worldliness in Italy as she traveled from Venice, to Florence, to Cinque Terre. She learned to travel without judgments or preconceptions, and to step out of her comfort zone and realize the good in everyone. With this mindset, strangers quickly became best friends.
Thanks in part to an Experiential Learning Scholarship, Wren was able to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity that combined her passions for travel and education. She was exposed to a world of knowledge and culture that she wouldn’t have been able to experience in a classroom. Learning to embrace the unknown and show the same love and acceptance to others that her students and host family showed to her, she left Modena with not only a revived passion for teaching, but also with a fresh appreciation and love for herself.
The University of Georgia is the largest public university in the nation to require each of its approximately 28,0000 undergraduate students to engage in experiential learning prior to graduation. The Experiential Learning scholarship is open to undergraduate students, including transfer students with at least one semester of UGA coursework who are pursuing experiential learning courses or non-credit activities aligned with the UGA Experiential Learning Requirement. These include UGA-approved study abroad and domestic field schools; service-learning courses; internships for academic credit; faculty-mentored research through CURO; and other hands-on learning opportunities.
More info about the scholarship and how to apply:el.uga.edu/resources