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Article updated: 9/9/2013 8:28 AM

For Lyn Scolaro's students, the classroom is only the beginning

By Melissa Silverberg

In Lyn Scolaro's classroom, learning a new language is about more than vocabulary words and conjugating verbs. It's a doorway to a new culture, a way to open minds and help students gain tolerance and understanding of the world around them.

Students in her Advanced Placement class at Prospect High School sit under Christmas lights arranged in the color of the Italian flag and a sign that reads "La Dolce Vita," or "the sweet life."

For the 31 years that Scolaro has been teaching high school Italian, she has never considered it a job, just a sweet life filled with students, club advising positions and professional development on a local and national level.

Her classroom walls are decorated with pictures of the Italian countryside, places she's seen many, many times in her more than 30 visits to the country with students.

The AP students work on iPads in what is one of the district's many tablet pilot programs. Scolaro leads students through class on the new technology, annotating an Italian song on the screen in front of them and later watching the video to put together what they learned.

"Italian is a beautiful, musical language," Scolaro tells the class. "They put their passion and personality into it. The language, like everything there, is a way of life."

For Scolaro, the passion for education started at a young age.

Growing up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago, Scolaro always wanted to be an elementary schoolteacher.

"I never played anything but school. Chalk was all over the house, even my Barbies were teachers," she says.

As a child, she took several trips to visit family in Italy, but never considered making the language her life's work until she got to Mother Guerin High School and discovered she could take an Italian class.

"I had the most fabulous teacher and the language just captured me," she said.

Ines Turus was "fun and exciting, she made us laugh," Scolaro said. The two remain in touch today.

"I learned my theory of teaching from her: You don't want to let them know you're teaching. If the teaching is not fun, the learning is not fun," she said.

While in college Scolaro spent six months in Rome, graduated and came home to a job as an Italian teacher at her alma mater.

Scolaro said she had no intention of ever leaving Mother Guerin (now coed and called Guerin Prep). She applied to Prospect High School on a "whim," but then she was hired.

In 1991, the Prospect Italian program had 60 students and few extracurriculars. Today the program boasts more than 220 students, exchange programs and an Italian Honors Society. Scolaro teaches Italian 1, Italian 4 and AP Italian, preparing students for an Advanced Placement exam she helped originate in Illinois several years ago.

"It's all because I'm teaching from my heart. It's about family and how I grew up," Scolaro said. "My thrill and excitement is seeing them excited about the language."

Students said her excitement transfers over to them in the classroom.

"I like that it's a conversation and she interacts with us instead of just writing on the board," said senior Meghan Doyle. "She has all these crazy, creative ideas, and that makes it fun."

Scolaro started one unit about travel by handing out freeze pops, decorating the classroom like a beach and then talking with her class (in Italian) about their favorite vacation destinations.

Another idea, for an exchange program with a high school in Verona, Italy, is under way right now. Twenty students and their teachers arrived from Italy on Thursday for a one-week stay.

The American and Italian students have been Skyping and talking on Facebook since June, and presently they are staying with the Prospect students' families. Over spring break, the courtesies will be reversed, as Scolaro will take a group of students to Italy for a week.

When Scolaro introduced the exchange program to Prospect in 2006, she was honestly surprised the administration gave it the OK. She has been delighted with the results.

"It's amazing. It changes everybody's lives: the kids, the parents, the teachers," she said. "It's just very eye-opening for them culturally."

While core subjects like science or math have gained new emphasis at many schools, Scolaro said the importance of foreign languages cannot be overlooked.

"I want them to know what other cultures are like and to be tolerant of everyone," she said. "And I want them to know they can do anything they set their minds to."

Scolaro, who doesn't have children of her own, considers her classes to be part of her family.

"These kids, they're all I've got," she says.

"I care about each and every one of them like they're my own -- although I'm glad I don't have to put them all through college."

She keeps in touch with graduates by Facebook and gets emails from them in Italian. She has even gotten notes from college professors, who can tell which of their students came from her classroom.

Some of her students have gone on to be Italian teachers. Others teach the language to their own children.

"It's wonderful to see the men and women they've become and where Italian has taken them," she said.

Scolaro has been recognized locally and nationally for her work, but it's her relationships with students that matter most to her.

Alison Preissing, a former student who is now a freshman at Miami University of Ohio, nominated Scolaro for her most recent award -- the 2013 Arlington Heights Educator Heart of Gold.

"She's honestly been one of the best teachers I've ever had," Preissing said. "If I had one word to describe her it would be 'dedicated'. She sacrifices so much of her time and her own resources to make sure her students are happy, safe and doing well."

Preissing keeps in touch with Scolaro several times a week.

"She is more of a second mom to me than a teacher, she's like family," she said. "She's given me the path for my life. I could never be grateful enough to her."

Preissing is double majoring in Italian Studies and International Studies, and said she hopes to work as a diplomat, maybe even in Italy.

Scolaro is also the student council adviser, helping students plan events and fundraisers all year.

"I love taking that leadership spark in kids and creating really good leaders," she said.

Student council co-sponsor and Prospect librarian Christie Sylvester said Scolaro's love for students is visible every day.

"During student council meetings it's obvious. She laughs alongside them, she gets excited with them and her enthusiasm is very infectious," Sylvester said. "She genuinely cares and wants the students to have the best four years of their lives here."

At 52, Scolaro isn't thinking about retirement yet. If she were to leave the classroom one day, she'd like to be an administrator at an elementary or middle school somewhere, she says, not just relaxing on an Italian beach.

"I can't imagine not doing this," she said.

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