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ACTFL TOY Hall of Fame

View past winners and finalists:

2017 National Language Teacher of the Year

Katrina Griffin

North County High School
Glen Burnie, MD

By providing the unique opportunity to combine a language and culture with other content, I have come to realize the immense impact that I have on education as a world language teacher. Teaching a language is a privilege, and my classroom is a sacrosanct space where students creating connections is the key to learning about new content, new cultures and new understandings. I am constantly in awe of how learning a language shifts my students’ perspective and fosters cultural understanding and acceptance as they learn to communicate, compare and make connections with other cultures.

I experienced my own paradigm shift when the high school where I teach became a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) magnet. I suddenly found myself wondering why I should teach STEM and how I could connect language and culture to seemingly unrelated content. I quickly came to realize that teaching STEM and teaching languages shared much in common, including critical thinking, collaboration, interpretation, and communication. Once I viewed my language teaching practice through a STEM lens, I was able to find connections to what I was already doing. By integrating soft skills and project-based learning in language-anchored STEM instruction, my lessons became more rigorous and student- centered, thereby improving my students’ proficiency. I created opportunities for students to take ownership of learning with them solving problems via Socratic seminars, giving impromptu presentations, and planning for events based on real-world parameters such as time and money. My students now vie for positions as workshop leaders for our annual German STEM Immersion Day, and event where they lead hands-on experiments, truly emphasizing the trifecta of language, culture, and content.

My many disadvantaged students have gone from asking why they should learn a language would likely never use to realizing that if they can reach understanding and solve problems with their fellow classmates, then it is possible for them to do the same with someone on the other side of the world. Through an immersion setting in the classroom and enrichment activities outside of it, my students have truly started to live the language. They now see the value of language with STEM to make themselves more marketable to employers, but just as important are the changes I see in their willingness to be open to different perspectives and ways of thinking. I view my own role as the one who facilitates the interconnectedness of content with language and culture, so that they can see value not only in what they are studying, but also in themselves.

Intercultural understanding begins with those who understand the power of speaking to someone in the language that is their home. Vulnerability, respect, and effort in using language are signs of increased tolerance and new ways of thinking, something that gives students the power to impact the world in a positive way. It is our job to ensure that all students study a language and culture so that everyone has the same opportunity.

Grant Boulanger

Skyview Middle School
St. Paul, MN
2017 Finalist from CSCTFL

Jason wasn’t sure language learning was "his thing." He never raised his hand and avoided eye contact at all costs. He was not confident communicating in English, much less a new language. Over time, I observed occasional covert smiles when class discussion centered on friends or high-interest topics. Gradually, his body language eased. He relaxed. He began to trust.

Weeks later, I dared to stand close-by with a gentle hand on his shoulder. The class and I discussed Jason’s favorite sport and the number on his jersey. He glowed with pride. He understood the Spanish. Then we contrasted the well-groomed grass and expensive cleats characteristic of his soccer experience with images of barefoot children playing on concrete in Argentina. His eyes widened. A barely audible, “¡No lo sabía!” escaped him. Jason had found something that touched him personally, so he began engaging, investing and trusting. Confidence grew. Steadily, nods became words; words, phrases; phrases, detailed sentences.

Acquiring language and cultural competency begins with trust in an engaging, equitable and joyful community. It has taken years of purposeful practice linking culturally-responsive teaching with delivering comprehensible input, coupled with intensive collaboration with innovative colleagues across the nation to be able to create such a community. Jason benefits, as he is one of countless students who grow into real proficiency at their own pace through authentic, personalized communication in my classroom. Trust helps me create an inclusive, multilingual America from the ground up.  

As Jason’s story shows, the path to proficiency begins with meaningful interaction in a social context. Students use Spanish to learn about one another. They develop competence by comparing, contrasting and connecting their own values, perspectives and practices with those of their classmates. I embed culturally authentic content in the context of our interactions. Together we sing folk songs, chant rhymes and learn culturally authentic gestures that bridge students to cultural literacy through interdependent thinking in the target language. Students become contributing members of a joyful, collaborative community, managed completely in the target language. They know, respect and like each other more so than in the traditional classroom I once led, setting the stage for them to appreciate, celebrate and contribute to the greater Spanish speaking community and the world.

Historically, in my district, students who matriculated into upper level language courses were predominantly college-bound females. Males and African Americans were disproportionately underrepresented. This story of inequity exists throughout the United States. We must acknowledge and address it. Since 2010, enrollment into level three for male students of color who began as Novice learners with me is 13% higher than the historical district average. When we deliberately craft an environment built on trust, equity, and joy that honors students’ cultural identities and adheres to sound principles of language acquisition, ALL students can feel confident and develop competence. They belong. We will disrupt this pattern of inequity by creating a nation of advocates who value language and culture one school year, one classroom, one student at a time.

Darcy Pippins

Norman High School
Norman, OK
2017 Finalist from SWCOLT

I tell my students that I became a Spanish teacher because I got a C in Organic Chemistry. I kind of stumbled into this profession not knowing what I was getting into and not really understanding its value. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was that student that could memorize vocabulary and conjugate verbs in my head. I understood the verb charts and pronouns, but I couldn’t spontaneously produce the language easily. That first year I literally stayed one page ahead of my students in the textbook. My Spanish to English dictionary was my best friend. I learned so much that first year and continue to acquire language and culture every day from my students (my teachers). It wasn’t until I pushed myself to focus on communicating with my students that I started to fully understand the value of learning and teaching another language. As I began to study language acquisition and learn the ACTFL proficiency levels I realized that I didn’t have to be perfect, nor did my students. We were learning together, each on our own path toward greater proficiency.

Because of my traditional language-learning experience, I felt obligated to teach it differently, finding ways to instill passion for language and developing cultural competence for all students. I want my students to appreciate its value, to be tolerant of other cultures, and to better their lives with the ability to communicate and develop relationships with people worldwide. I want them to become advocates for language-learning. Maybe someday when they’re in a leadership role, they will remember their experience and be a supporter of world languages. I hope that my enthusiasm and passion is contagious among my students.  

According to one of my students, “Learning a language is kind of an art, it humbles you. You can’t understand the majority of the world because you’re ignorant to everyone else. Languages open up the opportunity to defeat ignorance, the opportunity to embrace the world.” In a casual conversation in the teacher’s lounge a monolingual colleague said this about the value of learning another language, “I feel like a part of me is incomplete or void. When I walk down the hall and hear other languages I think the people speaking are part of my greater community and yet I don’t understand what they’re saying. They’re required to speak my language but I can’t speak theirs. When a person views themselves as part of the greater global society, you feel inadequate when you only speak one language.”

Eighteen years later, I’ve achieved National Board Certification, presented at the state, regional and national levels, but most importantly I’ve realized that accomplished teachers do not work in isolation. I see how humbling yet energizing it is to be a language teacher. Perhaps in teaching languages, just like learning languages, absolute perfection isn’t possible, nor should it be the goal. The goal or greatest value is the journey itself: the relationships, the cultures explored, the joys shared both in learning and teaching.

Laura Roché Youngworth

Beaumont Middle School
Lexington, KY
2017 Finalist from SCOLT

The importance of developing language and cultural competence is evolving and, for me, nothing exemplifies this better than the changes in conversation that follow the question, “So, what do you do?” Twenty-four years ago, my response- “I teach French”, inevitably evoked, “French? I studied French in high school!” followed by a short recital of memorized phrases and an apologetic “That’s all I remember”. Today, however, responses are different and the conversation is more meaningful and abstract. Replacing the litany of memorized phrases are a barrage of questions such as, “What are the advantages to learning French?”, “How can my child learn a language at home?”, and my favorite, “Why are languages not offered in elementary schools?”

Such an evolution in thinking has been gradual. It did not happen overnight and is not the result of one particular global event. Rather, like a spider weaving its web, the continual compilation of real-world needs has created the realization that learning another language and of other cultures is foundational for our future. At the base of this language web, developing a language competency allows us to communicate and connect with others in a manner that is more meaningful and complete. It challenges the egocentric assumption that others should learn our language and provides an avenue for personal fulfillment, economic growth, and social advancement. Language learning makes us human; it identifies who we are and connects us to our heritage. Developing a language competency challenges our brain and encourages us to think analytically; it makes us question our own language and become better guardians of our language usage. Perhaps most importantly, language learning provides a depth to our daily lives, a means for understanding the “bigger” picture and insight into the person who said them.

Within the language web, finer threads of cultural competence run throughout connecting and supporting language learning. Understanding the cultures associated with language makes language proficiency complete. It allows us to show respect, be appropriate, and understand the why to what is said and done. Through exploring another culture, we are challenged to think and see things in new ways, to embrace differences and acknowledge similarities. We are given chances to show empathy and compassion while stretching our own web a little wider. This  knowledge encourages us to visit the world, soak up what others have to share, and bring those beliefs and ways of life back home.

My own web of language and cultural learning began in the seventh grade when I entered French class for the first time. It created a perspective in which to understand the world and ultimately shaped who I am today. As a world language educator, it is my goal to share this perspective with others and I cherish the moment when someone asks, “What do you do?” The ensuing conversation is my way to keep the web spinning and to advocate for the studying of languages and cultures!

Michele Whaley

West High School
Anchorage, AK
2017 Finalist from PNCFL

What is the value of language? One might as well ask, “What is the value of breathing?” “Language is a people’s greatest treasure,” says Sholokhov. Language, as Russians say about their poet Pushkin, is our “all.”

Our Nigerian custodian shocked my students when he told them that he spoke nine languages, and was less fluent in five others. He needed these languages for basic, daily transactions at home. My Dutch relatives always suggest we speak in a language that is a second one for both parties. They claim that while the person speaking her first language feels confident, the person speaking a second language is actually more powerful in a conversation. A second language for both levels the playing field. While these relatives won’t let my husband speak the Dutch he has mastered, they respect him for keeping up with them in French.

Language gives us power. The ability to communicate feelings, philosophy and beliefs is what makes us human. Being able to do so across age, gender, cultural and national boundaries is what connects us to other humans. Nelson Mandela said, “When you speak to a man in his language, you go to his heart.”

When we realize that the new sounds coming from our mouths hold meaning, there is a sense of power. I felt this power for the first time in 1987 when a woman approached me for directions to a Moscow address that I had requested moments before. I was able to direct her in Russian and watch, then follow, as she turned and bolted in the direction I needed to go. I felt I had the keys to a new kingdom! One of my students recently reported that she was asked to “translate” for a Russian man at church until his real interpreter arrived. Since she had just two months of Russian under her belt, she felt hesitant until she realized that she knew enough to give him a lifeline. She felt joyous power being able to effectively communicate.

As we acquire a language, we gain more and more of a people’s treasure. We discover a fresh perspective on everything from gestures and food to history, from art and music to politics. Experiencing the products of a culture opens our eyes and sharpens our brains. True language acquisition changes our lives while changing our hearts and minds, even as it enhances the effect we have on others.

Like breathing, language acquisition can be shallow or deep. True second-language acquisition and strong lungs both require time and dedication, but the rewards are great. I am blessed to guide students toward the miraculous power of a second language and culture.