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ACTFL TOY Hall of Fame

View past winners and finalists:

2019 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year

Rebecca E. Aubrey

Ashford School
Ashford, CT

Effective language learning and cultural competence are inextricably connected and are of value to all learners to develop into citizens who are self-aware and respectful of the diversity in our communities. When students develop cultural competence, they are able to respect and interact with people from diverse cultures, whether they be from a different country, a different part of the United States, or do things differently to adapt for a disability. While this functional purpose is important, language learning is also simply personally enriching for students and can ignite a lifetime of curiosity and exploration. 

First, all learners, regardless of emotional or academic challenges, should have the opportunity to study a language. In many schools, students who are not on a college-track, or receive Special Education or other intervention services, aren’t offered the opportunity to study languages. This is a serious disservice to them. It does not adequately prepare students for careers or citizenship in diverse communities, and it denies them the personal enrichment that language learning provides. Just as we plan for the multiple intelligences of our students, we must also be prepared to effectively teach the learning needs of all of our students and give them the breadth of education that they deserve. 

Secondly, cultures should be at the core of what we teach. Culture hooks students with an engaging and meaningful context for language learning; language is the tool for learning about cultures. When my students talk about Spanish class, it is never a grammatical nuance or new vocabulary word that excites them, it is the culture: saving the monarch butterfly, wondering what cuy tastes like, or examining the feats of the Incas. Cultural learning engages students to ask questions, research something a little more, and empowers them to travel. 

Language learning helps students to become more aware of who they are both linguistically and culturally. They make comparisons to English, developing a deeper understanding of how English works. As students study cultures, they notice things that appear “weird”, but with thoughtful scaffolding, they can become more aware of their own traditions. As they question other cultures, they begin to question their own. This is personally enriching because it helps students develop a stronger sense of their personal identity. 

Finally, developing cultural competence is of value for helping all learners become respectful of the diversity in our communities, and supports good citizenship skills. When our students get their tongue tied as they struggle through the language, they develop empathy with the English language learners in our communities. When they examine a culture, students are not only learning about that culture, but also increasing their comfort level with the fact that diverse cultures exist. When equipped with tools for respectful inquiry about diverse cultures, students are empowered to apply these independently when confronting new cultures in their future education, careers, and lives. In this way, language learning experiences support good citizenship towards their neighbors and the world and inform opinions in voting and other institutions of our democracy.

Jennifer Melgar

Westwood High School
Austin, TX
2019 Finalist from SWCOLT

In a recent TED Talk by Lera Boroditsky she expresses how the language we speak shapes the way we think.  One example used was about a broken vase.  Some languages, such as English, one would say, “I broke the vase”, but in another language, such as Spanish, one would say, “The vase broke.”  The same activity, with differing ideas of what happened - one remembers who to blame and one remembers an accident.  The students in our classes have the ability to cognitively think differently, and we as language teachers must mold that ability by exposing them to at least one of the 7000 different perspectives / languages out there.  Having taught both Spanish and German, and also learned Latin, I know this is no small task, but a challenge I happily accept.  In helping students think differently, we are also creating global citizens, who will be our diplomats through the connections they make.   In language classes it is our duty as language teachers to ensure our students are exposed to the language and culture in such a way, that they are able to connect with other humans. 

I am a firm believer in the students having multiple opportunities to individually process the learned material, collaborate with one another, and to practice with one another before being assessed for a grade, although they are being assessed throughout the entire process.  I also believe and recognize the need for all modes of communication being used in the classroom. I strive to make sure all of my lessons include all three modes of communication, whether a speaking or a writing, a listening or reading, all modes - interpretive, interpersonal and presentational should be used by the students.  The usage of the language is where the new thinking truly begins.

This cultural understanding can also be conveyed to the students through exchanges.  It is so meaningful when my students connect with their partner from Gersthofen, and realize how similar they are as human beings.  Through these exchanges, although expensive, we forge our diplomats of the next generation.

It is clear in today’s global society whether for business deals, political diplomacy or simply accepting our neighbor, students must be exposed to these positive and negative attitudes / perspectives of cultures. Global citizens is what we are striving for in the classroom so that they can be the one making the million dollar deal with an international company, being the diplomat conversing in German with the Chancellor or simply being a friend to a new immigrant who just moved in next door.  Through language and cultural connections, one grows in his/her international mindedness, empathy, life perspective, and moreover his/her thought process.  I strive to develop cultural and linguistic competence for all learners to facilitate opportunities for connections to other humans. 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  - Nelson Mandela

Janet Rowe

Hortonville High School
Hortonville, WI
2019 Finalist from CSCTFL

Seventeen years ago, I proposed to my district school board a Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) program for all our students because I believe that all students can and should learn another language and understand other cultures. According to Eurostat Statistics it has been mandatory for several decades for most European children to learn at least one foreign language and the Barcelona European Council recommended in 2002 that a minimum of two foreign languages should be taught to all pupils from a very early age. All students should have this opportunity, unfortunately, world language in the United States is generally an elective course primarily available only to older students.  This must change.

The benefits of language learning go far beyond the well-known cognitive, academic and economic benefits. Learning another language requires students to take risks, accept mistakes, reexamine their own cultural viewpoint and begin to see the world from diverse perspectives.  Through culturally rich language study my students are exposed to art, music, history, geography, and literature that they might otherwise never experience and certainly could not appreciate in the same way as they can under the guidance of a skillful language teacher who draws the students’ attention to the underlying cultural practices and beliefs held within these elements.

The study of language and culture builds my students’ awareness and sensitivity to the diversity of cultural perspectives and linguistic contexts and thereby fosters greater understanding and empathy when they interact with people of a different background than their own.  As I ask my students to analyze their own cultural perspectives and compare them to that of another culture, I am preparing them to see the world from the eyes of another and to be accepting of “different”. This empathy and acceptance is sorely needed in our country today.

The collaborative nature of the world language classroom prepares my students to work successfully with people of differing viewpoints and backgrounds. The focus I place on the three modes of communication goes well beyond developing their linguistic proficiency. My students learn how to listen, take turns and ask for clarification when they do not understand.  Communicating in a second language requires patience, analysis and persistence when the going gets tough.  My students dedicate themselves to a goal that takes years to achieve and learn to carry-on when challenges arise, or miscommunication occurs. This perseverance and ability to set and achieve long term goals will be vital in seeking solutions to the complex issues facing our global society.

Learning environments that engage students in the target language for real communication prepare them well for their future.

All students in my district begin to learn another language and develop cultural competence in elementary school.  At a time of such tremendous global interaction, this should not be an exception, this should be the norm. The benefits to them as individuals as well as to our society are immeasurable. 

Heidi Trude

Skyline High School
Front Royal, VA
2019 Finalist from SCOLT

In today’s global society, it is essential that our students are not only learning a language, but are also developing cultural competence. Within my classroom, I feel that all students can learn a language and can develop an understanding of the world around them. Teaching in a small rural county in Virginia where many of my students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, I find that it is my job to open my students eyes to the world through French class. In my classroom, I do whatever is necessary to not only help my students to learn the language, but also to help them understand the French culture. When my students walk into the classroom, they are immediately immersed in the language and culture through all my classroom decor and live streaming French radio. My students also become connected with our partner school and as a result, they form friendships with students in France that will continue to develop over the years. 

Knowing that many of my students have never had the chance to study another language, I do everything that I can to make language learning engaging and relevant for my students. I firmly believe that all students should have the chance to learn a language and that students should not be discouraged from studying a language. I had the opportunity to teach a student with Autism who was told he would not be successful in a language class. I immediately formed a connection with this student and saw the potential in him. This student not only passed my classes, he excelled and became the top French student in his grade level, and eventually became my French tutor. It was only because I believed in this student and continued to encourage him when others did not, that he was able to succeed. Learning a language can unlock a whole new world for our students.

As language teachers we need to see the potential in all of our students and focus on teaching the whole child every day. Language learning is for all students no matter their background. The skills that students learn in the language classroom prepares them for life.  My students are learning so much more than French grammar and culture. They are learning to be creators, collaborators, critical thinkers, and communicators. They are also learning to be good listeners and decision-makers, as well as being understanding and empathetic to others. By working with our partner school, my students are developing intercultural competence and now have a better understanding of the world. 

As a language teacher, I want to open my students eyes to the global world and provide them with the tools they need to be successful in the global society in which we live. By believing in all my students and doing whatever it takes to help them succeed, I am creating a classroom in which students are free to be themselves without the fear of being judged and are able to successfully learn a language. 

Yan Wang

Bartlett High School, Anchorage School District
Anchorage, AK
2010 Finalist from PNCFL

Language is what makes us human. Language is like air, water and food, that we cannot live without. Language brought me from a remote mountain town in southwestern China to a university in Beijing. Then, thirty years ago, language paved the way for me to cross the Pacific Ocean to the great state of Alaska. Language gave me the opportunity to find my passion for teaching and the privilege to work with the young people of Alaska.

I was lucky that when I was presented with the opportunity to learn the English language, I took it. I hopped on the train of learning another language. I have been on this thrilling ride ever since. It has never stopped and it will never stop. Now it is my turn to pass the luck on to others.

Everyday I am grateful when I walk into my classroom. I feel privileged to have the students sitting in front of me. I am happy to report that language has helped send a few young students across the Pacific Ocean to China, to explore, and to learn. When they used their language with the locals, and received positive responses, they knew they were on the right track. This is extremely near and dear to my heart, because now I have opened the eyes for a few and hopefully many more will come. As more and more of the young students strive to be the best they can be, language has given them a head start when they are tested into higher level college classes.

Learning another language is an equity issue for my students. It levels the playing field for all students who decide to take a world language class, especially for the ELL students. Now we are all starting this new experience. All of a sudden, many students who have been lagging behind their peers in other classes find themselves becoming the stars in our classrooms, because their work ethic put them ahead of others.  They have this newly found success and newly found confidence.

Language, its people and culture are all part of our learning.  As the students learn and acquire the new knowledge, they start sharing with others what they know. They volunteer at different events in our community. They present to others what they have learned. The students are involved in their learning. The parents are supportive and proud that their children are part of our community. Language learning has brought the students and their family pride and ownership of their learning. The students’ presentations and activities bridge the community and our schools. Language gives them a great opportunity to be engaged as they grow and develop into contributing members of our society. They have become great ambassadors for our school and for all young people.

Language empowers young people. Language builds bridges to create understanding among all people. I am privileged to be part of my students’ growth.