Fermente intercultural (“Intercultural Fermentation”)


So what was I doing in Padova, Italy (known to some English speakers as Padua) this summer?

Six years ago I learned about the Fulbright Specialist Roster, a program supporting short (2-6 week) project-based exchanges to build connections around the world. This is part of the Fulbright Program’s mission of “building mutual understanding between nations, advancing knowledge across communities, and improving lives around the world.”  

My youngest child was in college, and I had the freedom of an empty nest. I wanted to spread my wings and see more of the world. I thought I could offer my skills and experiences in some kind of international exchange. I applied and was accepted.

For the next few years, I scoured lists of Fulbright projects, looking for a match for my professional skills. Universities around the world sought experts on agriculture, business, finance, engineering and more. My academic skills seemed so impractical, even within my own field of Education.  For example, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission sought someone to help with their “Functional and Technical Competency Development Program.”  The Jordan Ministry of Higher Education wanted help with university president selection. I doubted these institutes would see my work with children as helpful for such tasks.  

And then the pandemic hit and travel came to a screeching halt.

But shortly before life closed in on itself and international contact got confined to little boxes on Zoom, I met a young scholar from Italy. Lisa Bugno had read my book, Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love. She wanted to know more about B-club, the afterschool program featured in this book, and the university-community partnership that had spawned it. 

Perhaps this is an answer to the question I posed in a previous post: Why write? And why share our writing?  Here was an answer: because it connects us with other like-minded people. Because someone – even just one person! – may find inspiration in what we share. 

When the heavy veil of pandemic lockdowns lifted, the Fulbright Specialist Roster seemed to offer an opportunity to deepen my collaboration with Lisa, and for me to support the University of Padova’s efforts to forge a community partnership inspired by UCLinks.

So Lisa submitted a proposal to Italy’s Fulbright Commission, and it was approved, and I was cleared for six weeks of living and working in Padova.  I would work with Lisa and her colleague Luca Agostinetti – a two-person program on Intercultural Education within the Department of Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Applied Psychology – and support them in their ongoing work of forging a university-community partnership to advance education for students from migrant and refugee backgrounds in Padova’s public schools. 

Poster depicting intercultural education, from Lisa and Luca’s office wall.

I would also get to experience intercultural education as I learned about schools in Italy, adapted to a new local environment, struggled to communicate in Italian, and engaged in new everyday cultural practices for six weeks.  

The University of Padova

And so to stay true to the commitments to socially conscious travel that I named in my last blogpost, next up I’ll share a little of what I did while I was there, in words and photos.

But first, a little about the University of Padova, which is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. Learning about the University of Padova and its fascinating history was one of the many highlights of this trip. 

The University of Padova was formed in 1222 (take that in!), by a group of students and faculty who broke away from the University of Bologna because they wanted more academic freedom.

This was stenciled on sidewalks all around the town, celebrating the university’s 800 years.

“This is the place where one and all can share ideas to build a future of justice, equality and opportunity. Liberate your future!” (translation mine, with assistance from Google)

Sidewalk stenciled with university insignias, leading to the “Porto Portello,” one of the old entrances to this formerly-walled city.

In its early years, students elected their own teachers and rectors; the directors were chosen from their own ranks, and their names are inscribed on plaques on the wall in Palazzo Bo, one of the oldest halls in the university (formerly an inn).

Plaques honoring the early directors of the university

The university boasts of having awarded the first university degree (“lauriate”) to a woman, ever: to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopea in 1678. Elena was actually schooled at home – the only option for women of her time. Elena was the daughter of a poor peasant woman and a noble father (yes, her mother was his mistress).  She was a child prodigy who mastered multiple languages (Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Hebrew and Arabic).  She also studied math, philosophy, theology, music and more.  Her father negotiated with the University of Padova to grant her a degree in Philosophy based on her independent studies.

Statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornario Piscopia
“First female lauriate in the world”
Galileo’s podium, in Palazzo Bo, at the University of Padova

Other interesting facts: Galileo taught at the University of Padova. Both his podium and his rib (the 5th vertebra) are on display in Palazzo Bo, the former-inn-turned-university-hall where many PhD students today are awarded their degrees. 

Galileo’s fifth rib is encased in this display

So too are the skulls of professors who donated their bodies to science, which were dissected in the medical theatre while students looked on.

Professors’ skulls on display in Palazzo Bo

Lisa Bugno took us on a tour of this hall, and was moved to tears by the memory of her own PhD ceremony in this austere space. 

We also toured Padova’s Botanical Gardens – which is either the first or second university-associated Botanical Gardens in the world.  (The University of Pisa is generally viewed as the first, but Padovans contest this on technicalities).

Photo credits to Dr. Lisa Bugno, with thanks for a wonderful tour of this amazing garden!

Visiting the university in July was a special treat, because it was graduation time. Ceremonies for different departments and programs were spread out over the course of several weeks, and I would stumble upon informal celebrations all across town, as students gathered to toast (and roast) their friends, in all kinds of playful ways.

One of the many creative, fun ways of roasting/toasting graduating students that popped up around Padova in July.

I got to witness some masters’ theses defenses, attended by family and friends, held in this formidable hall.

Masters theses defenses, with family members of the candidates as audience

I got to work with smart, multi-lingual, international graduate and undergraduate students at this university on ethnography and interview data analysis, and learning about their work.

Conducting a workshop on interview data analysis for doctoral students at the University of Padova
Conversation about ethnographic methods with Dr. Francesca Gobbo, Professor of Education at the University of Turin, Italy, and author/editor of numerous books and articles on ethnographic methods

There’s so much more I could share about this fascinating university and town; I’ve only skimmed the surface here. I hope I’ve piqued your interest to learn more. Perhaps an international exchange is in your own future?

Forging University-Community Partnerships: La Mia Escola e Diferente

The real aim of my work was to support Lisa Bugno and Luca Agostinetti’s activities in a university-community-school partnership that is called “La Mia Scuola e Diferente.”  This involved getting out of the halls of the university and into the community.

Public elementary school in Padova

The project name plays with the multiple meanings of “different:” it reclaims the power of diversity in the face of a public that sees difference mostly as a problem. The school that is at the heart of this program is generally referred to as “different” in public discourse because it serves “foreign” students who live in a “ghetto.” And indeed, Italy does not grant birth-right citizenship to the children of migrants, so the children who attend this school, most of whom were born in Italy, are not viewed as Italian, and don’t have the rights of Italian citizenship. They are perpetual foreigners, and how  to “include” them in the larger society becomes a problem that schools are expected to solve.

One of the challenges we discussed together this summer was how to reframe difference in the Italian context: how to help students, teachers and other community members to see diversity not as a problem to solve but as a resource. How to see the richness of culture, language and life experiences that families in this marginalized community bring, and that could be honored, sustained, expanded and developed in school? This is at the heart of my own work across the decades.

This is particularly important in this political moment in Italy, where just last week Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter was just elected to presidency, on a mostly anti-immigrant platform.

At the same time, in Padova, as in most communities around the world, not everyone views migrants as problems. There are many who welcome these “foreigners” and who advocate actively for their needs and rights. I met with many, including:

—Maestro Fabio, a dynamic elementary school teacher who is spearheading many efforts to connect with parents and the local community: families who come from China, Serbia, Ghana, Ukraine, Syria, Colombia and more.  I visited the school during its summer sessions and spent some time with these smart, funny, energetic kids.

Meeting with Maestro Fabio and the research team at a local store/lunch space near the school

—The director and staff of Fenice Green Energy Park, a center dedicated to educating about green energy, the problems of pollution, and climate change. We toured their facilities and got a glimpse into projects they are bringing to the kids in La Mia Scuola e Diferente.

Display about reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering at Fenice Green Energy Park
Experimentation with different kinds of solar panels at Fenice Green Energy Park
Children’s playground structure that uses kids’ play energy to pump water from deep in the ground!
Displays of different kinds of sustainable construction materials at Fenice Green Energy Park

–The staff of Zalab, makers of documentary films about progressive issues, who run a film-making program with school aged youth.  

-Members of the University of Padova’s Psychology Department, who are working at Fabio’s school to provide a safe “nido” for refugee youth to process the traumas they have experienced, and to support their social and emotional well-being.

Safe space for emotional well-being at a local school

I also met with other teachers and community members who are working to support im/migrants who have gotten to Italy against all odds, seeking better lives.  

This includes Luca Favorin, a renegade Catholic priest who has created a project called Percorso Vita, which provides housing and jobs for migrants.  We shared delicious meals at the restaurant he has created, staffed by migrants who bring culinary experiences from their home countries to create gourmet meals in an outdoor setting adorned with images of migrants and representations of their experiences.

Luca Favorin at the restaurant he has established to provide jobs to new migrants, and to educate Italians about the situation facing migrants
An information display about migrants at the restaurant
A meeting with students on a farm that provides housing and food for migrants, part of the Percorso Vita project.

I met with Sergio Giordani, the mayor of Padova, a down-to-earth man with a progressive vision for the city, in an austere, centuries-old hall.

Meeting with the mayor of Padova

I talked with the local newspaper and a local television station about La Mia Scuola e Diferente project.

Newspaper report on this intercultural encounter

My own intercultural education

I also got to see and experience a myriad of other things.  

I had a hands-on lesson on pasta-making (“oriquetas”) at Lisa’s kitchen table.

Making “oriqueta” (little ears) pasta
Oriqueta ready for boiling
Pasta in the pot!
The finished product!

I also went on a wine-tasting tour to a consortium of wineries (Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepo Pavese) that are working in ecologically sustainable ways. One of my hosts, Luca Agostinetti, in addition to being an expert on intercultural education, is also an expert sommelier.  He and Lisa organized a wine-tasting tour for students in a class they taught on wine and gastronomia. I got to join them.  We toured six wineries, with wine-tasting at each of them, and had some amazing meals in Italy’s best “slow food,” farm-to-table style in rural areas that are building agriturismo.

Grape growing region in Oltrepò Pavese
We were welcomed with personal placemats and glasses for six wine pours at the Quaquarini Franceso Winery
“Slow food” dinner at the Torrazzetta winery and restaurant.
Our multi-course menu
The owner of Castello di Luzzano winery, Giovanella Fugazza.
Packaging and labeling of wines at Castello di Luzzano

Experiencing daily life in Padova

One of the things I most enjoyed during my six weeks in Padova was the opportunity just to feel the rythms of daily life, to immerse myself in this local context, and to get to know the town. I purchased a used bicycle and virtually every day ventured out to bike and walk around the labyrinthian streets of this historical town.

At the Prato della Valle in Padova, ringed with 78 statues of famous Italian men, erected between 1775 and 1883. (Yes, only men.)

Of course, I ate amazing food. More importantly, I saw the deep valuing of food in the Italian culture: taking time to eat, to be together, to nurture the body and spirit and soul. Eating just enough, and slowly. Enjoying each bite. Not rushing through oversized meals in the American way. I saw that schools also value food as a way of nurturing young people, educating both body and mind.

This extended to coffee-drinking. Tiny shots of expresso, or small cups of cappuchino. Not the bloated and bloating, sugar-drenched, over-sized Starbucks versions. (“Venti” – what an ugly usurpation of an Italian word!)

These experiences formed my own intercultural education. I had to figure out all the things that newcomers deal with: identifying food in supermarkets, navigating the bus system, getting lost, struggling to communicate with a rudimentary knowledge of the language (more on that in a future blog), and so much more. All of this gave me more empathy for and understanding of what new im/migrants contend with – with far fewer supports and a whole lot more trauma.

I did indulge in some “tourist” experiences as well, through day trips to Venice, Florence, Bologna, the foothills of the Alps, and Bassano del Grappa. In the latter, I experienced the beauty of this land and learned more about its terrible history under Fascism.

Memorial to victims of the massacre of 48 young men, victims of Fascism in 1944.

Street dedicated to these young martyrs

Fermente intercultural

In all of this, I hope I fulfilled the Fulbright mission. My own understanding of the world expanded. I came away with a deep sense of appreciation for people all around the world who are doing work like the good-hearted people I met in Padova: facing similar challenges as they try to reframe “diversity” from a problem into possibilities, and address the very real inequities and injustices that abound in different-yet-similar forms around the world.

My aim in this blog is to share just a little of what I have learned with interested readers, and to preserve a summary of the experiences for myself.  I hope I have fairly, if only very briefly, represented all the people and organizations I got to know.  

Importantly, my collaboration with the people I met in Padova is not finished. In many ways, it’s just beginning. It takes a long time to  forge cross-cultural understandings, and I only scratched the surface in my six weeks there. Luca Agostinetti described this work as “fermente intercultural.”  Intercultural exchanges are like good wine: they take a long time to come to fruition. They require continuous attention (as in the “metodo clasico” of prosecco-production, in which wine bottles have to be turned twice a day for many years).

Wine cellar stacked with a million bottles of wine.

At the last winery we visited on our tour, the owners opened a 35-year-old bottle of prosecco for us. We toasted each other in a cellar surrounded by a million bottles of wine, all fermenting, awaiting their time to be savored and appreciated in the world.

Celebratory uncorking of a 1987 bottle of prosecco.

Minding the “word gap”


I’m re-posting my “word gap” essay that appeared on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marjorie-faulstich-orellana/a-different-kind-of-word-_b_10030876.html here, as part of an effort to get alternative perspectives on this “gap” out into the world.  Google the term “word gap” and you get a slew of websites that treat the concept unproblematically, assuming and reinforcing deficit views.

At the same time, there’s something problematic about challenging deficit perspectives just by flipping the script.  So I include an addendum below.

A different kind of word gap

The supposed “word gap” between children growing up in white middle class homes, and those growing up poor, immigrant or otherwise culturally “non-dominant” families has received a great deal of attention in recent months. Intervention programs in poor and immigrant communities aimed at increasing the number of words parents speak to their children have offered easy fixes to entrenched social problems. If parents would just feed their children more words, these children would grow cognitively, achieve in school, succeed in life and all would be well in the world.


I refer to this word gap as a “supposed” one, because claims that poor and immigrant parents do not adequately talk with their children have been soundly rebuked by anthropologists (See here.)
The study that initiated attention to this supposed gap (Hart and Risely, 2003) rests on uncertain foundations. Did Betty Hart and Todd Risley count all of the words in children’s environments? Or only those that were directed specifically to the child? By all parties (siblings, aunts, neighbors, friends) or just parents to children? Or just mothers?

Never mind the fact that these words were counted by researchers who had stepped into homes — without all the work that ethnographers do to build relations and rapport so that people are comfortable with our presence as we “study” them. If I were a poor, minority or immigrant parent, I would likely shut my mouth and count the time until the researcher left.


Contradictory evidence is emerging as researchers attempt to replicate Hart and Risely’s study. In short, there seems to be tremendous variation in the number of words that children in different households and communities are exposed to, as well as in their quality. These differences do not fall into a neat pattern that reveals a word gap between poor and middle class, white and non-white or any other binary.


But if we are going to focus on word gaps between groups, we might consider what gaps call our attention, and what ones escape our notice. Why are some the cause of great anxiety, and others not considered a problem at all? Why are words seen and heard — and treated as valuable resources — in some spaces, while other “word wealth” goes unnoticed and unappreciated?


Urban communities in globalized cities like Los Angeles are filled with words. There is an abundance of word wealth alive for the taking by children who walk through the streets of Los Angeles every day on their way to and from school. This is a much more print-rich environment than any suburban neighborhood I’ve seen.


Store windows are filled with product labels and announcements in multiple languages other languages. There are advertisements and announcements on buses, trucks and vans — large and small billboards selling a revolving global marketplace of items such as the new Volkswagon Jetta, Tequila from Jalisco, Samsung phone service and Direct TV. There are street and parking signs of different shapes, sizes and coloring. There is print on traffic signs, parking meters, gum ball machines, pavement and walls. Words and images referencing contemporary popular culture are stamped on the backpacks and T-shirts of the people walking by. The print is encoded in a huge array of styles, fonts, layouts and arrangements, conveying meaning in the words themselves as well as through their juxtaposition with other images, texts and signs.


Just as words spoken in homes are not all directed at children, children walking these streets do not directly decode all the signs, of course. But as I learned when I conducted a community literacy walk with first graders in central Los Angeles (Orellana and Hernández, 1999) young children have a great deal to say about the print that is of interest to them. And even if they do not read every word, they are regularly exposed to the rich variety of ways that adults use texts to express ideas and make meaning in the world.


Shouldn’t we pity the poor suburban kids who have to rely on their parents to put magnetic alphabet letters on their refrigerators to get a little bit of exposure to environmental print? Shouldn’t we worry that that print they are exposed to is likely only in English? Perhaps we should stage an intervention, force-feeding multi-lingual signage into suburban communities as a quick fix for the multi-lingual word gap that middle-class parents don’t seem to see. Then we can count the number of times people look at the words when they are out walking in their community — if indeed they walk at all.

On gaps, deficits…and potentialities

In my “word gap” blog (above), I suggested that middle-class children living in monolingual English-speaking suburban communities are limited by their lack of exposure to the multi-lingual print-rich environments of urban immigrant communities. I named this gap between urban and suburban print environments as a way of countering dominant discourses about deficits, for rhetorical effect: to raise questions about why some presumed deficits call our attention while others escape notice. I also questioned the research surveillance that is brought to bear on certain communities and not on others.

There is much more that I could say about problems in privileged communities that go unseen. But really, I want to make the rhetorically-harder-but-ultimately-more-transformative move of challenging all deficit-oriented thinking. Flipping scripts may help us see in certain new ways, but it still keeps us locked in binaries that I seek to disrupt. As Lao Tzu expressed in the Tao te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.


(retrieved from http://genius.com/2139346)


Flipping scripts can be fun, and may help us to see things we take for granted in new ways. But it tends to keep us locked in binaries of good and bad, right and wrong, deficits and assets. This just perpetuates a much more entrenched problem in educational research and practice: the emphasis on naming problems, identifying gaps, circling errors, pointing out what’s missing or misguided or wrong….rather than seeing potential and possibility.

Do our efforts to counter deficit perspectives unwittingly reinforce their power, as George Lakoff suggests?  (See for example his analysis of the discourse around Donald Trump: https://georgelakoff.com/blog/.)

What if educators regularly and consistently simply asserted an assets-based perspective about all people, pointing to buds of development, and nurturing them, rather than focusing on what is missing, misguided, or wrong?

From deficit- to asset-based perspectives

In Teacher Education programs, including the one I work in at UCLA imgres-1(https://centerx.gseis.ucla.edu/teacher-education), much attention goes to countering “deficit discourses” about students from non-dominant cultural groups. We ask pre-service teachers to identify the cultural competencies that all children bring to school from their everyday lives. An assets-based perspective may help us to see the print that abounds in urban communities as a resource, as I noted in my last two blogs. It orients us to hear multi-lingualism as wealth, not a limitation. It points us to possibilities and potentialities, not problems.


This is very important as teachers work with families and communities from non-dominant cultural groups, whose skills and experiences are so often not seen, valued, or understood.

At the same time, a deficit orientation is not uniquely an issue for our work in underserved communities. Really, our entire educational system – and larger culture – tends toward critique. We are good at judging, evaluating, and circling errors – pointing out what’s missing, misguided, or wrong. We sometimes do all right at praising things that meet our pre-determined norms. But we are not very good at seeing potential in things that we don’t already agree with: seeing what is there, in nascent form, ready to be built upon. We are also not so good at seeing different kinds of competencies. Comparing to idealized, socially constructed, singular, and often impossible standards, we find most things and people (including ourselves) lacking.

Many of us have deeply internalized the critiques that abound in the larger culture and that were reinforced from our many days in school. We are more aware of our faults and weaknesses than we are of our strengths. A deep sense of “not being good enough” pervades our psyches, whether we know it or not. This may lead us to project our fears and insecurities onto others, bury them in food, drink, consumerism or other addictions, or avoid judgment by not taking risks, doing only what others tell us to do, and keeping ourselves small.

In rebelling against this system, is it enough to turn the critiques around? Should we just point to different problems, find other people lacking, and cast judgments in a new way? This is what I did when I “flipped the script” in my word gap blog. I stand by this for its rhetorical value, as a way of hearing the scripts that dominate our thinking.

In this same blog I made another common rhetorical move: I pointed my finger at a faceless, nameless, categorical “other” group. In this case, this “generalized other” were middle class people living in suburban communities, whom I presumed to be white, and monolingual.

Let me personalize this. I am or have been part of that categorical other for much of my life.

I grew up in a seemingly homogeneous, mostly monolingual, middle/working class suburb of Boston. In this safe and relatively privileged world, I was limited in my exposure to and understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity. At a time when the label “LEP” (Limited English Proficient) was being tagged on other children, I was, as Luis Moll once suggested, “LTEP:” “Limited TO English Proficiency.”

Even so, I did have experiences that became foundational to my later study of cultural diversity or “transculturality.” I was a middle child of eight. Being in the middle helped me to see the world from different perspectives and to recognize that there are different ways of seeing the world.

And the seemingly homogeneous suburban community I grew up in really wasn’t homogeneous at all, because there was much variation within the “white suburban” experience. I observed it, wondered about it, and tried to figure out my own values and beliefs in relation to the various ways I saw modeled all around me.

These were experiences that provided a foundation for the work I have done as an adult in trying to understand, appreciate, and cultivate transculturality.

This is true for all people, in all areas of learning and of life. We all have experiences that can be built upon. We all have wealth that goes unrecognized, undervalued, and untapped.

I am not saying we should close our eyes to inequities in resources. Problems in resource allocation are real and must be named and addressed. But let’s notice what problems we see and what ones escape notice.

And then, let’s not just name problems, not just flip scrips, not just perpetuate the same old problems in some new form.

Let’s find places of possibility that may help us build the world we want to live in.

My personal commitment

So more than just flipping scripts, I am trying to write new ones. I am doing this by:

  • Eliminating the “nots” and the “don’ts.” When I find myself noticing what anyone is not doing, or what she or he doesn’t seem to know, I ask myself, “What are they doing?” “What do they know?” And – what does the negative framing reveal about what I assumed they should know or do? What does it keep me from seeing?
  • Over-writing the grammar of my own thinking. The tiny words that connect our thoughts can the reveal what we think of as normative, correct, right, wrong or true. “I like what you wrote, but….” implies that I didn’t really like it that much at all, or at least, that I’m more focused on what I don’t like than what I do. Switching the “but” for “and” keeps me oriented to what is there, and could be built upon with whatever ideas I might have to offer.
  • Un-comparability: When I find myself comparing people (including myself), on any measure I ask myself, “Would I ever do this with a tree?” Would I ever expect all flowers to be the same size, shape and color? This doesn’t mean I forgo all criteria: some plants are healthier than others, because they have the benefits of soil and sun. But would I want a garden full of flowers that all looked just the same?
  • Embracing imperfection: This is the hardest one for me, as it for so many of us who have been trained in the Western world’s elusive quest for perfection (on impossible, socially constructed standards). In contrast, the Japanese aesthetic tradition of “Wabi-sabi” celeimagesbrates “flawed beauty.” (See http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi.aspx and http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm). Quirks and “errors” in construction ensure uniqueness in an object. Rust, cracks, and fading colors remind us that there is no impermeable standard of beauty that is not changed by the march of time.

I still have a lot of un-learning to do as I try to embrace and enact these new ways. I tend to focus on where I fall short. After all, I have 16 years of training in Western schooling that oriented me to do just that (plus thirty more years working in its machinations – ten as an elementary school teacher and twenty as a college professor). But then I just get to ask myself, “falling short by what measure?” and start all over again.


*Please note that there is a rather irrelevant photo attached to the word gap essay on the Huffington Post:  a multilingual “thank you” sign.  I certainly value multilingualism, and gratitude, but the image doesn’t fit with the piece. I tried to get the Huffington Post to remove it, but to no avail. So I just have to embrace this imperfection!