Spilotro enjoys ‘second career’ at Casa camp

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Spilotro with her family in Puglia

Defining her identity and pinpointing where she feels most at home — in Italy or the United States — has never been easy for Raffaella Spilotro, the director of the children’s summer camp at Casa Italia in Stone Park.

That’s because, for the first nine years of her life, Spilotro grew up in Capurso, a small town in the province of Bari, Puglia, with her parents speaking only Italian.

Her mother and father came with their families to America in the 1960s, met and married here, and decided to move back to Italy when she was 2 months hold. When they returned to America nine years later, they first settling in Schiller Park, where she enrolled in the fourth grade, and two years later in Addison, where her parents still live. To this day, they speak a mix of Italian, English and the Pugliese dialect at home, sometimes in the same conversation.

“When I’m in Italy I can fit right in seamlessly, because my first life experiences are from there. However, my adult self is American, so I see things from a different lens,” Spilotro explains. “This also applies to my day-to-day life here in the U.S., and even with motherhood, because I know the tradition and cultures of my ‘Italian-ness.’ but I also have to immerse myself to fit in with American society. I like to think I inherited the best of both worlds, but sometimes it makes it a little hard to be understood. Nonetheless, I am proud of both in the same way.”

Out of that dichotomy, Spilotro has emerged as a passionate teacher who has dedicated a great portion of her life to sharing her love for Italy’s language and culture with hundreds of students, always championing fun and innovative ways to spark their interest.

“Since I was little, I was very eager to become a teacher,” she explains.

Spilotro graduated from Addison Trail High School in 2000 and has a bachelor’s degree in education with majors in English literature and Italian from DePaul University, and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Concordia University.

She taught Italian at Oak Park and River Forest High School for 15 years, where she led students on a biannual exchange program with a high school in Florence. She also taught part-time for a year at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream.

Spilotro believes in a hands-on approach to teaching and having students speak the language as much as possible, no matter how many mistakes they may make. It’s also essential to bring the language to life through engaging activities, says Spilotro, who spent a year in Florence to collaborate with the Istituto Alessandro Volta to create Italian vocabulary building instructional videos.

She presented her video project at the Italian Language Symposium at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and in 2015 was the recipient of the National Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Teaching of Italian from the Coccia-Inserra Foundation at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Spilotro also was an active member of the American Association of Teachers of Italian, presenting at various symposiums and webinars. In 2011, she won a grant through the National Endowment of the Humanities to take a month long course titled “The Art of Teaching Italian Through Italian Art.”

After living in Chicago for nearly two decades, Spilotro moved to Bloomingdale four years ago. She has two daughters, ages 5 and 8, and took a break from teaching when her youngest was born.

Nowadays, she continues to educate young minds through Casa Italia’s summer camp, which is open to children ages 5 to 12 and has been running for more than 25 years. This year’s camp took place in June with two weeks of immersion in Italy’s language and culture through games, songs, sports, skits, cooking, and formal and informal lessons.

Spilotro says she was thrilled to take on the camp’s lead role when she was asked by Ron Onesti, board chairman for Casa Italia and also president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans. “It was a way to challenge myself with a new role, while also bringing forth my teaching expertise,” she explains.

The camp has been a great experience, Spilotro says. “I absolutely loved watching the camp unfold with fun each day, the teachers bringing the lessons to life, the students engaging in activities and learning new songs. Most of all, bringing a whole community together that shares a love for our language, culture, and traditions.”

The chance to expose her daughters to a community of children that share their heritage also was a major reason for her decision to lead the camp, Spilotro adds. “Being Italian-American, we need to embrace this new identity, and it was incredible to see my kids interact with others whose families value the Italian language and culture as we do.”

Spilotro has been involved with the Italian and Italian-American community in Chicago since she joined FIERI in the early 2000s. In 2008, she was chosen by Chicago’s consul general to represent the city’s young Italian community at the Conferenza dei Giovani Italiani nel Mondo in Rome, Italy. She also was a board member of Italidea Midwest for five years.

Spilotro says she would love to see Casa Italia’s summer camp expand, especially in the suburbs, where there is a high demand for Italian learning opportunities. She’d also like to see more events geared towards kids and more overall funds allocated to language and culture classes, she says.

“As a community of Italians and Italian-Americans, we need to put education first. Creating opportunities for our young children to stay connected to the language, culture and each other is an integral part of our future.”



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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