Fate guides Pezzella-Bonasera toward Italian

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If not for a pair of fateful coincidences, Mariangela Pezzella-Bonasera might be working in the corporate world rather than pursuing a flourishing career teaching Italian 1, 2, 3 and AP at Wheeling High School.

During her undergraduate years at Dominican University, she was studying international business and Italian when she took part in a marketing internship at the Sorrento Lingue (a language institute) in Italy. She finished her project ahead of schedule and got an assignment she wasn’t expecting — to teach English to Italian teens.

“I actually fell in love with it and had a great time,” she says. “I love that age group.”

She returned from Italy and began studying for a master’s degree in education at Dominican, thinking she’d become an English or business teacher. That’s when the second coincidence occurred.

“I got a phone call from my counselor at Dominican, and he said, ‘Can you teach Italian?’ she recalls. “I said I could try.”

As a child growing up in Harwood Heights, Pezzella-Bonasera spoke Italian to her mother, who is from Bari, and her father, who is from Naples, as well as her grandparents.

“I grew up in a bilingual home,” she says. She entered school speaking Italian, but the school administration encouraged her mother to stop talking to her in their native tongue. (Her parents speak excellent English, she notes.) Educators’ thinking on language learning has changed quite a bit since then, she says.

“So, I lost the spoken Italian for some time, but I’ve always understood it,” she explains. “I had to re-learn Italian at university, though I had taken it at Maine South (High School in Park Ridge). But I always had this fundamental love for the Italian language, culture and customs.”

She also studied to pay homage to her parents and grandparents.

In her undergraduate years, Dominican University professor Tonia Triggiano inspired her to keep studying Italian.

“I imagine paradise is like Professor Triggiano talking about Dante. She was such an amazing educator. And she inspired me to teach,” Pezzella-Bonasera acknowledges.

Pezzella-Bonasera finished her first master’s degree in education from Dominican University in 2012, then earned about 30 credits, called endorsements, from National Louis University in other educational topics such as special education and English learning.

She also earned a second master’s degree in educational leadership from North Park University.

Many of her students at Wheeling High School are LatinX students, and their interest in Italian varies. These include the language’s relationship to the rock band Maneskin, the football club Juventus, Formula Uno auto racing and pizza, among other things.

In her 10 years at the school, she has taken students on trips to Italy and gotten the students engaged in activities like sales of mini-panettone at Christmas Time, though these activities had to stop during the pandemic.

Asked what Italian learners struggle with the most, she replies, “Speaking. It’s the hardest thing to practice in class. And I would argue it’s the hardest to teach, and to prep kids for the AP test. The hardest portions of the AP are when they listen to a prompt and then they have to respond. It’s brutal.”

Pezzella-Bonasera lives in Mount Prospect with her two small children, Sofia and Domenico, and her husband, Joseph, who hails from Sicily. She acknowledges that when she first met him and his family, she struggled mightily to understand their dialect.

Asked why students should study Italian, she responds, “Because it is not only a beautiful language but because the Italian culture is so rich in art, music, history, fashion, food, architecture. If students are struggling with the language, they hold on because they fall in love with the culture, the customs, the traditions. My students are enamored with the fact there’s a certain special tomato, San Marzano, that comes from volcanic ground that makes it the perfect combination of sweet and acidic, and that is a main component of why Neapolitan pizza is so good. So in learning Italian, you always find something you fall in love with.”

About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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