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ACTFL TOY Hall of Fame

View past winners and finalists:

2020 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year

Rebecca Blouwolff

Wellesley Middle School
Wellesley, MA

Although typically a competent and confident ninth-grader, I was stymied upon arrival chez les Bertrand for a month-long homestay in Nantes. Years of A+ work in junior high school French had not prepared me to answer my family’s frequent questions. Remembering to use vous at the bank and arrive to breakfast fully dressed exhausted me. I was fascinated and horrified by my linguistic and cultural failures, and motivated to crack the seemingly invisible codes to forge new relationships. Today I lead a bilingual life, not only professionally but also personally. I am raising my children in non-native French, tutoring a Cameroonian asylum-seeker, and welcoming French- and Hebrew-speaking families to our area. We must challenge our students to travel a similar path of curiosity and exploration in order ultimately to expand their perspectives.

Like that first French homestay, honing my craft as a teacher has involved struggle and growth: leaving behind the certainty of a textbook-oriented curriculum to explore uncharted territory by teaching for proficiency via thematic units. When I began teaching, I remember thinking I had total command of my subject simply because I knew every word in Discovering French. As far as I knew, I had this teaching thing figured out just fine.

Fast-forward to a career-changing workshop with Laura Terrill, who issued a direct challenge to my traditional teaching approach: I was neither reaching nor engaging all students. Laura’s wake-up call unsettled me. I knew I needed to leave behind my too-familiar textbook and wholly transform my practice. So I spent a summer rewriting my French 8 curriculum for proficiency, then another, and a third. This required extended searches for authentic resources, reaching out to experts in the field, and the discovery of ACTFL books and blogs like Madame’s Musings and Creative Language Class. Summers at MaFLA’s Proficiency Academy provided intensive training to make big assessment and grading changes successfully, adding layers to my practice.

In my new proficiency-based classroom, I saw tremendous growth in even my weakest students. No longer shut down by being unable to memorize spellings or conjugations, some students turned out to be gifted interpreters of YouTube videos while others were fearless participants in interpersonal speaking tasks. Each messy, thrilling, exhausting day in class, I was back chez les Bertrand. Yet, today all students can shine in my reimagined classroom. Their success reflects linguistic and cultural skill: getting the gist of fast food commercials, holding unrehearsed conversations about Swiss fashion, and pitching crowdfunded education projects in the French-speaking world.

I have yet to meet the learner whose curiosity is not piqued by observing the size of a French coffee cup next to a Starbucks venti, or les toilettes à la turque. Developing cultural competence through investigation and interaction is a complex task but a transformative one. While not every student will become a language major, we all can increase our capacity to engage with others from a place of curiosity rather than judgement, and humility rather than hubris, which is essential for global citizenship.

Lynn Johnston

Alderwood Middle School
Lynnwood, WA
2020 Finalist from PNCFL

Little did I know that signing up for French in seventh grade would steer the course of my life.  Learning languages has influenced my intelligence, pastimes, relationships, career, and life goals.

I believe learning languages makes me smarter. Managing two or more languages is a mental workout.  The muscles of the working memory grow stronger, boosting retention and recall speed.  Because this mental juggling requires concentration and coordination, multilingual students steadily improve their ability to focus.

Language learning develops literacy. Students are practicing communication strategies, learning how to exchange ideas, to comprehend and interpret, and to create effective oral and written messages. 

Not only did learning a second language improve my communication skills and multiply vocabulary in my first language, it made learning additional languages much easier.  Learning a second language develops new brain networks that are primed and ready when you embark on learning a third language.  In addition to French, I took three years of Swedish in high school and then studied Spanish in college.

Language learning strengthens college and career readiness. These improved literacy skills help prepare learners for college entrance exams. People who are competent in more than one language outscore those who are speakers of only one language on tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence.

Learning a second language makes travel easier and more enjoyable.  It gives me the confidence to ask the locals where they like to eat, shop, and have fun. Travelers who know more than one language are more easily able to navigate outside the tourist bubble and to connect and interact with the place and its people in a way that is often inaccessible to those without the language.  Some of my favorite life experiences have been ordering tapas in Spain, scuba diving in Bora Bora, driving all over France, navigating the canals of Amsterdam, boating with locals in Tahiti, exploring the Vatican in Rome, and eating 12 grapes with a local family at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Mexico.  These experiences might not have happened if I had not been motivated by a middle school French teacher who inspired me want to see the world. 

Second language study has inspired many relationships in my life and made me part of different communities.   In particular being part of the board of the Washington Association for Language teaching has provided me with some awesome relationships and leadership opportunities. Multilinguals have the unique opportunity to communicate with a wider range of people in their personal and professional lives.

Learning a second language is a resume differentiator.  It’s the ability to communicate and collaborate in another language across cultures and interact in a global community.  Language learning became my career and passion.  I have been teaching languages to middle school kids for 35 years now and enjoy almost every minute of it.  My main goal is for students to love learning languages and to continue in their studies. The benefits that I have experienced are essential for and within reach of all learners.

Melanie Mello

Chandler High School
Chandler, AZ
2020 Finalist from SWCOLT

In an age in which we have access to online translation engines and advanced technology—the language-translating earpiece—that eases the obvious need for acquiring new languages, one might wonder why the hard work necessary to become truly fluent in another language remains as imperative now as it has been historically. The world is not shrinking, it has shrunk. We live in a globalized world. For an individual to thrive in this world, they cannot be small or parochial in their thinking. Learning new languages makes us capacious, protecting us from unconscious tribalism by empowering active negotiation of the linguistic possibilities of discourse.

Technology can empower communication, but it can never empower interpretation, understanding, recognition, or empathy. Indeed, technology places one under the sway of the implicit bias of the programmer. Overcoming this bias begins with true fluency, fluency defined as much by cultural knowledge as by linguistic mastery. Gaining this dynamic fluency can be thought of as achieving some level of cultural competence, and it is achieved through equal parts hard work and courage. As a teacher, it is my primary aim to create learning opportunities that raise intercultural understanding by organically situating students into contexts that require them to engage the less visible aspects of the target culture. Initially, the learner of a new language struggles with expressing themselves with confidence, because they assume that simple phonetic, morphologic, or linguistic mistakes undermine their credibility. Gaining fluency teaches humility and cultivates cross-cultural compassion. Eventually, I hope that all my students gain the confidence to speak freely in German no matter their competency. Once we step out of our comfort zone and once we are willing to interact with others without the certainty of our birth language to undergird our expression, we open ourselves to the possibility of overcoming our own assumed cultural superiority.

A recent study by psychologists from the University of Chicago of “a dozen students who grew up speaking one language and learned a second in junior high and high school” lead to the conclusion that “people who speak in a language other than their native tongue” are less susceptible to the pitfalls of “loss aversion” because they are more capable of making “choices that could profit [them] further down the road” (Mandi, 25 Apr. 2012). Knowing a second language, moreover, improves decision making by removing the constraints of mono-linguistic thinking. It is no surprise that businesses look to hire individuals who are fluent in as many languages as possible, along with individuals who have had the benefit of meaningful cross-cultural experiences, as such individuals are more likely to be dynamic problem-solvers.

Language learning prepares students for the demands of citizenship in a diverse and multi-lingual world. Cultural competence is predicated on recognizing the value of cultures outside of one’s own. To overcome the trappings of translation and assumption, the individual must commit themselves to the study of languages so that they can gain authentic knowledge of other cultures, knowledge grounded on experience and hard work.

Maureen Peltier

Saint Paul Central High School
Saint Paul, MN
2020 Finalist from CSCTFL

As a veteran teacher who dedicated her more than 30 years of professional life to language and culture acquisition, I identify three components that define the values of language and cultural competency: Academic training that prepares students for advanced work in many subject areas; cultural awareness training that goes beyond isolated stories and stereotypes; and the possibility of discovering new interests, even a passion.

Language learning leads to a command of not only the language being studied, but also one’s native language. Traditionally, teachers begin with key functional phrases followed by a grammatical study of how words build sentences and thoughts. Syntax, verb conjugations and agreement, for example, become systems that, when built upon, form thoughts and ideas. When extrapolated, this academic process of building foundational structures to establish more complex notions is also found in mathematics, the sciences, economics and literature. Even at level I, language classrooms offer a crucial fundamental academic preparation to students.

While rigor plays an important role in language acquisition and academic training, cultural competency paves the way towards social capacity. The news suggests that our nation has become culturally divided; hatred and intolerance appear to be overriding acceptance and understanding. Our job, as educators, is to gently guide our students to think critically and to realize what our world could be if knowledge replaced ignorance and harmony replaced hostility.

Language classrooms offer students a safe setting to explore new worlds, and to ask questions about other belief systems. Conversation allows students to compare and contrast their new knowledge with their own personal cultural beliefs. The more we explore customs, traditions, and ways of life in our language studies, the more we prepare tolerant, understanding young adults who are able to function at a more compassionate and empathetic level in a multicultural, global society and who may help bring our nation back together again.

Lisa Worthington-Groce

Northwest Guilford High School
Greensboro, N.C.
2020 Finalist from SCOLT

The power of languages was revealed to me at a young age while watching the classic 1940’s film Miracle on 34th Street. In one memorable scene, an immigrant child speaks with Santa Claus at the flagship Macy’s store. She is bewildered by her unfamiliar surroundings and the unknown English language, but her face lights up when Santa addresses her in her native Dutch. This scene illuminates the human need for belonging and the power of languages to help us feel seen and heard. The impression this moment made was lasting and I decided to devote my life and career to sharing my passion for languages and cultures. After sixteen years in the field, this enthusiasm has spread to my students: Caitlin has been a nanny in Germany for almost a decade, Chris teaches English in Heilbronn to bilingual preschoolers, and Ryan got an engineering job at BMW thanks to his command of German, among many others.

The value of developing linguistic and cultural competence extends beyond the individual to benefit the entire community through creative problem-solving and the exchange of ideas. I’ll never forget a FLANC conference session in which the presenter elucidated how strategies used to hasten the demise of the Berlin Wall during the 1989 Peaceful Revolution might be applied by contemporary societies to peacefully resolve complicated issues or overthrow despotic governments. By studying how other cultures have handled societal challenges, we are better equipped to confront crises within our own communities, like dealing with climate change or reforming our educational system.

As globalization expands and humans gain the ability to communicate with ever-widening circles, language learning becomes even more essential to counteract misunderstandings and to build strong international relationships that will ensure peaceful co-existence. During our exchange program, one participant viewed the German penchant for keeping interior doors closed as a sign of rudeness, but deeper reflection revealed the perspectives behind this common practice: the elevated population density leads to a greater desire for privacy and closed doors help retain heat in Germany’s northern latitude. We language teachers give students a valuable gift: the ability to examine our preconceived notions and use this insight to advocate for social justice and empathy towards our fellow humans.

The communicative skills learned in the World Language classroom are at the foundation of a modern enlightened civilization and reinforce the democratic ideals of free speech. Language-learners are consistently exposed to the idea that by working together, we are stronger. Whether through cooperative tasks or interdisciplinary approaches to learning, our students regularly apply new skills in a way that improves their understanding of themselves and others. These capabilities are the cornerstone of a democratic society. My students experience how knowledge of other languages and cultures allows individuals to interact with each other respectfully and in a manner that leads to increased compassion for different worldviews. Every day in a North Carolina German classroom, my childhood aspiration to impart the excitement of language learning is realized as my students discover the world.