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Maine South Instructor Cristina Modica

Cristina Modica

Cristina Modica

For those fortunate enough to grow up in America speaking Italian, it often becomes a mission to share the language with kids in your own backyard. Just ask Cristina Modica, who teaches Italian at Main South High School District 207 in Park Ridge.

“My parents were both born in Italy in a small town, Castel San Vincenzo in the region of Molise,” says Modica, whose maiden name is Marzullo. “My mother was 27 when she moved here and didn’t speak English; I learned Italian before English. I’ve always spoken Italian and was raised in the Italian culture. It’s an integral part of who I am: I’ve always been in love with the language and have a duty to share this love with others.”

That duty keeps Modica busy, as she leads about 120 Main South students in Italian 1, 3, 4, and 4 Accelerated, the equivalent of an honors class. “My teaching philosophy is that the students’ needs come first,” she says. “Each day brings some new challenge. You have to anticipate what students need and make them believe they can accomplish what you know they can accomplish.” To do this, Modica keeps her curriculum relevant to the world outside; “I keep updated with music, TV, fashion and news from Italy. I still travel there, so I bring this new information to my students, and I read online newspapers to keep up with economic and political happenings.”

Modica’s travel happens personally and professionally. Most of her parents’ immediate family members still reside in Italy, so her trips there have been frequent. But a few years ago, she joined Main South colleague Stella Weber (profiled in Fra Noi’s April 2013 issue) on an Italy trip that included students. On that sojourn, Modica saw her ancestral home through a new lens of wonder and curiosity.

“That trip changed me forever,” she says. “Being with a group of students experiencing Italy for the first time is life changing. I loved seeing the looks on their faces when they spotted la Fontana di Trevi for the first time, or held an entire conversation with a ‘real Italian.’ It’s simply priceless, and that’s why I do what I do each and every day. … I try to bring as much of Italy to them as possible with the assaggi [tastes] of gelato, Nutella, formaggio.” She also favors field trips and walking tours that encompass Little Italy, the Art Institute, or anywhere the Impact of Italian future can be seen, witnessed or tasted.

Modica also co-sponsors the Italian Club at Maine South: “We have cultural celebrations that include a holiday dinner, a ‘Natale breakfast’ complete with a visit from Babbo Natale, Carnevale celebrations, and soccer tournaments.” The club is student-led, so events vary depending on the leaders.

A teacher in District 207 since 2001, Modica always works hard to bring new Italian speakers out of their shells. “They’re always hesitant to speak,” she notes. “They’re intimidated by their pronunciation, so I would say this is my greatest challenge: encouraging students to go beyond their comfort zone to converse with me and their peers in Italian.”

About Lou Carlozo

A former longtime staff writer, editor and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor to Reuters and the proud writer of Fra Noi's Lou&A column, which spotlights important Italian Americans. He is currently studying for his master's degree at National-Louis University, where he teaches journalism and writing on the graduate school level. He also writes for the Tribune Content Agency and a variety of other freelance outlets including DealNews, Money Under 30 and Yesware. He lives in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago with his wife of more than 17 years, Amy (a hospice chaplain), and two children.