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Undergraduate Update

RLL Major Studies Portuguese and Italian, Participates in Teach for America

By Carissa Van Heest

Inspired by a passion for learning languages and an interest in helping others through teaching, recent graduate Justin Chaplin studied Portuguese and Italian within the Romance Languages and Literatures major (B.A., 2017) and is currently teaching language arts and social studies to eighth-grade students in New York City, through Teach for America.

“I found that language classes were always my favorite subject,” said Chaplin.  “I thought a major that focused on two languages was the coolest thing ever. When I decided to do the RLL major, a lot of RLL majors [were focusing on] French and Spanish, so I thought it was really cool to learn Portuguese.”

Chaplin originally began learning Italian to satisfy the LSA language requirement.  “It was something I always wanted to do.  I really came to love it,” he said.

He emphasized how important the support and encouragement he received from RLL faculty and from his family has been within his academic and career endeavors.

Chaplin said his favorite courses were those taught by Fernando Arenas, Professor of Lusophone African, Brazilian, and Portuguese Studies, and Vincenzo Binetti, Professor of Italian Studies.

He remarked that Prof. Binetti and Prof. Arenas “definitely pushed me the most in terms of my language abilities and cognitive abilities.  My Italian and Portuguese improved twenty-fold. They were always available to talk.  I knew they really cared about their students.”

In addition, Chaplin noted, “I really want to thank my mom for being so supportive of me. In choosing my major and not pushing me to do anything I didn’t want to do.  Being okay with me wanting to become a teacher and doing what I love.”

As a U-M student, Chaplin began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), through the Community-Engaged Learning in ESL Teaching Contexts course (ELI 390/EDUC 390/LING 390/RCSSCI 390).  

He decided to apply to Teach for America for several reasons. “I really liked teaching ESL and I figured I’d like teaching other things too.  I’ve always really loved working with kids.  I knew having a great teacher could change your life,” he said.    

Chaplin said that teachers within the Teach for America program “teach for a minimum of two years in areas which have a great need for teachers.”

This past summer, Chaplin participated in a six week Teach for America training course.  He learned strategies for teaching and classroom management, and taught an Algebra I course as part of his training.

In his current position, he teaches a class of nine eighth grade students at a “school within another school” on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a program designed to provide additional support for students, many of whom began eighth grade in other academic settings before joining Restart Academy.

Chaplin is part of a two-person teaching team, in which he teaches language arts and social studies.  However, depending on student attendance, there are days when Chaplin and his co-teacher team-teach all subjects together. Other days, depending on teaching coverage needs, Chaplin may teach math and science in addition to his usual language arts and social studies classes.   

He mentioned that his students have expressed interest in learning Portuguese, and he is considering exploring the possibility of incorporating Portuguese language teaching into the daily tutorial (homeroom) period.  

Chaplin said he has found that flexibility is critical in his approach to teaching.  

"It is very situational as we are such a small site,” he remarked.  “You’ve got to be adaptive.”

Following his Teach for America experience, Chaplin said he has three additional future goals on the horizon.

“I want to come back to U-M and do grad school,” he said, perhaps in public policy or urban planning.  “I also want to do AmeriCorps for a year, and I want to do Peace Corps, teaching English in Mozambique.”

“There are so many opportunities that open up for me, speaking other languages,” remarked Chaplin.

Photo courtesy of Justin Chaplin.

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