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ACTFL TOY Hall of Fame

View past winners and finalists:

2018 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year

Ying Jin

Cupertino High School
Cupertino, CA

Nine years ago, I started my teaching career fresh out of graduate school. In my first year of teaching high school, I was assigned to Cupertino High School (63% Asian, 11% Latino, and 2% African American) and Fremont High School (32% Asian, 44% Latino, and 3% African American) in Cupertino, California. Most of my students were native speakers of English. Although I had been informed that I was about to experience a harsher reality than anything I had previously known, I still believed that teaching was a conventional profession and that I could leave my work at school and keep my personal and professional lives totally separate. I believed that I could instill the love of learning in my students and that they would somehow be able to forget all the societal challenges they faced in their lives. While most of the above did not materialized as envisioned prior to onset of my teaching career, I have persevered and still find teaching today as refreshing and energizing as the first day that I stepped into my first classroom.

Although I am convinced I received the best possible teacher preparation program, I have come to learn that teaching in itself is a constant evolutionary process. I clearly remember my first year of teaching being overwhelming, lacking direction and dealing with a surmountable level of stress. I desperately began to seek for any assistance I could find in my local area. Months later I stumbled upon the Stanford World Language Project (SWLP), a professional learning program especially designed to support teachers of world languages and cultures. Since discovering SWLP, I have become a committed member of this professional learning community and it has become the bedrock of my professional growth as both a teacher of Chinese language and culture as well as a member of the teaching profession. I have successfully completed all six professional learning strands offered by SWLP. The program tiers included Lesson Design, Unit Design, Technology, Assessment, Differentiated Instruction and Leadership Development.

A major challenge that I and believe many new teachers face is how to design and deliver effective, meaningful and relevant lessons on a daily basis that systematically move students into higher levels of linguistic proficiency and cultural competence. The SWLP Lesson Design program strand modeled the concept of Understanding by Design (backward planning), by showing how it functioned in world language teaching and how to plan lessons using this concept by setting the learning target and then by planning instructional strategies that support students through different stages in their learning and lead them to attain the desirable learning goal. This program provided me with a magic “toolbox” that was full of instructional strategies which I could apply in my next day teaching. In addition, the SWLP “Teachers Teaching Teachers” program design immediately put me in contact with a group of educators that had experienced every single one of the challenges that I was experiencing and as such motivated me to implement all of the instructional strategies that they were recommending. Now as I reflect on my experience in SWLP, I believe that I have learned as much from my colleagues who do not teach Chinese as I have from those who do. For example, when taking into consideration the special characters and features of the Chinese language, I have observed that, while some activities from Roman languages did not directly apply to my own Chinese language teaching context, they provided me with the opportunity to think deeply of how I could make them applicable; it was through this reflective thinking process that I feel I have grown the most as a professional educator and member of the world language teaching profession.

Another professional learning opportunity that has shaped me as a language educator was serving in the role of Cooperating Teacher for the Stanford Teacher Education Program since 2011. I have benefited greatly from the unique experience of mentoring a Teacher Candidate and reflecting jointly on instructional practices and learner performance that results from a specific instructional strategy. While sharing and modeling teaching practices, I have been reminded how important it is for the Teacher Candidates to be given the space to offer their ideas, have the opportunity to implement them, and then reflect on how impactful they were in supporting student learning. New ideas may not work in the first try; but by reflecting on what worked and what did not, we all benefit from the process and often a newly refined strategy emerges that works the next time and much professional learning has been accomplished in the process of generating new knowledge. The outcome of being a Cooperating Teacher provides me with a sense of renewal and professional growth that directly influences my future practices and impacts student learning.

The summer break is always the time I enjoy most in terms of professional growth and development. For the past nine years, I have had the opportunity to teach in several STARTALK programs. My biggest take-away is that STARTALK always challenges me to engage in high-leverage instructional practices that provide for maximum student performance. The practices range from using the target language almost exclusively, checking for understanding throughout the lesson, designing thematic units and lessons, and assessing for student performance in all three modes of communication - interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. The process of learning and implementing these instructional practices can be challenging; yet, it provides me with the opportunity to strengthen my pedagogical repertoire, and ensures that my practices translate into positive messages to all of my students that they all can learn the language and culture and to achieve real world purposes. Even though, I may feel physically tired after an intensive four week of program, I am mentally reinvigorated with new ideas and instructional approaches that I can employ in my regular academic-year professional assignment.

During the academic year, I also feel grateful to be surrounded by a group of eight talented and hardworking Chinese language teachers working in five different high schools within our school district. Three years ago, our school district encouraged teachers teaching the same subject to more closely collaborate with each other and develop a common curriculum. Through these collaborative efforts, we learn from each other’s knowledge and expertize and the outcome has been yet another source of professional growth for me as well as my colleagues. We have developed a common project and assessment rubric for Chinese IV Honor students in all five schools. Collectively analysis of the data and students’ work samples provides us with an in-depth understanding of students’ performance as well as a platform to reflect on how we can better support student learning in the future.

All of the above professional growth opportunities have shaped me into the language teaching professional that I am today and have had a profound impact on my students’ learning and performance. I attribute the successes from my Level I students to those who have obtained scores of 4s and 5s on their Advanced Placement (AP) exams to the professional growth opportunities that I have had the good fortune to participate in over the years. However, I feel that I still have much to learn and that as I grow professionally, so will my students in terms of linguistic and cultural competency.

Brenna Byrd

University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY

2018 Finalist from SCOLT

The one constant in my teaching style is innovation. My colleagues actually tease me that my life would be much easier if I would only be content to teach something the same way twice. No matter how well a course goes, I am always seeking new ways to improve it, based on student input and pedagogical research. For this reason, I consider professional engagement not only a service, but a learning opportunity as well. I apply for numerous workshops and grants that will expand my knowledge of language teaching and pedagogy in general, and I enjoy attending as many conferences on a wide variety of language-related topics.

I was lucky to be chose to attend an AATG-sponsored three-day seminar at Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 2014. This seminar, Meeting Student Needs in College German Programs, changed the way I thought of our program articulation as well as how to advocate for language learning from inside the classroom. We specifically learned about the history of a literacy-based approach to teaching language through the lens of genre, and how we can use the promise of increasing student literacy overall (in their native language as well) as a marketing strategy for maintaining a language requirement at the college level. I now see that the best way to advocate for the relevance of language instruction is to include learning goals that mirror the undergraduate curriculum requirements and the desires of future employers. Global literacy, communication and presentational skills, intercultural competence, and the ability to design and complete projects that showcase these abilities are key components of our new curriculum expectations for the language classes. Whereas they may have been implied before, these goals are now explicitly stated and included in our syllabi as well as in discussions with administration on the efficacy of language instruction as a part of an undergraduate education.Every year I attend our Kentucky World Language Association conference and I usually present at least once every year. This past fall, I organized and then led a three-hour workshop at the Kentucky World Language Association conference with presentations from four of my colleagues from MCLLC. Our five presentations, each from a different language classroom, showed how each individual used authentic materials from the target culture to guide the curriculum to include intercultural competence goals in our language classes. In the second part, I led participants through an exercise in which we examined how social media, such as Instagram, could be used even at an introductory language level to inspire cultural comparisons that allow for a more multifaceted presentation of culture than any textbook could offer. For example, by searching through hashtags of vocabulary items, such as the month of October (#october), we were able to examine the visual associations the posters had with that month, and discuss how these associations might be specific to the country, the region, the gender, etc. of the poster. I specifically make sure to put together talks or workshops for the KWLA conference that communicate in an accessible format the information I have received through workshops or research, especially those funded by AATG. I make a point to present at least once, if not twice, per KWLA conference. I am trying to establish more of a personal connection with the local K-12 instructors and make a point to come to local events, such as the Professional Development Seminar on Authentic Resources, presented by die Zentrallstelle für das Auslandsschulwesen (ZfA) in April 2016. I was one of two university faculty members at this workshop, and the only one from the University of Kentucky, and I could tell immediately that the other instructors appreciated our presence at the meeting. I try to stay as involved as possible with the AATG and coordinate events with them as much as possible. I not only participate and organize the graduate student participation for the German part of events held at UK such as the MCLLC Open House and the KWLA World Language Day Festival, I specifically contact local German instructors ahead of time to listen to what they would prefer and to see how we can work together.

My work with the video game Far Cry: Primal has been a unique source for advocacy and public relations. The talks we have given have generated a significant amount of interest in languages and linguistics for local students especially. Many students from high school and universities have attended our talks and come up to us to thank us for making the study of languages seem practical, as our work has inadvertently convinced parents in small-town Kentucky of the usefulness of languages in the new job market.

Melissa Dalton

Scripps Middle School
Lake Orion, MI
2018 Finalist from CSCTFL

My personal policy has been to improve every year. On the last day at Scripps we file out, forming a big line, and wave to our kids. Most years we are quite emotional, contemplating what role we had on all those faces we see hanging out windows, cheering from the bus. I start school each year with this fresh image of myself as I wave goodbye in June, hoping for the best year ever. Then the busy life of teaching begins…

Professional Growth

There is no denying the fatigue, stress and concern we feel throughout the day. Perfection is elusive. The only recourse we have is to fortify ourselves with professional involvement to grow our skill base. Every time I attend a workshop, a conference, a meeting with colleagues or even wander upstairs to eat lunch with fellow teacher friends, I am inspired. Gaining insight from others is the primary reason I stay involved professionally. I love to teach. There is no other career that would offer me so much emotional or intellectual satisfaction. I’m a relatively serious and analytical person, therefore I like to do things by the book. I truly enjoy reading the ACTFL publications, and sometimes incur a slight amount of teasing from my colleagues when I know on which page a diagram, rubric or quote is found. The more prepared we are with ideas and strategies, the better we articulate ideas to forge policy. Finally, by being an active learner I model desired attributes for my students. I constantly tell them they are about to be guinea pigs for a new idea and they love it.

With policies handed down from government, I try to turn lemons into lemonade, working through the things I can’t control. For example, when I moved back to America in 2002, I was hired at Scripps where they needed Spanish and French certification. I was certified in Spanish and was proficient in Japanese, but had no university course work. Under NCLB I needed a major in Japanese and there was no existing comp-out test at the time. I was hired on the condition I fulfilled my certification. After taking all classes offered at Oakland University, I spent the summer at Middlebury in Level Four, and was taken under the wing of Endo-sensei at Michigan State University. I would say my Japanese, after working at a kindergarten in Japan was fluid, but I gladly jumped through the hoops. Seven years later my successful program was eliminated due to the lack of analogous course at the high school. Inadvertently, the two-year language requirement hurt my Japanese program. My outcome was positive after learning techniques from ESL training in Japan, attending Middlebury and through Endo-sensei encouraging me to attend the ICJLT Conference at Columbia University, where I heard first-hand presentations by Merrill Swain and Paul Sandrock. Through synthesizing these strategies my students benefitted, such as Abby Leskiv, winning the NCJLT New Year’s Postcard design competition.

The OPI I volunteered to take at Middlebury prompted my MOPI training! Ironically, every time I ventured off the beaten path, I was lead closer to teaching for proficiency in the long run. The summer Japanese was discontinued I spent a day sulkily, navigating TripAdvisor. As the sun set, I scheduled a two-week vacation to Northern Spain, stays in mountain shepherd huts and rental car! I had to regain inspiration. I took pictures of store fronts, fruit at the markets and sampled every flavor of ice cream. My daughter romped on beaches with the children of my now grown, Spanish friends. When I went back to school that fall I was a new person.

Leadership and Professional Involvement

One of the best PD opportunities occurred when my daughter was younger. I realized that MSU CeLTA held language camps for children the same weeks as CLEAR scheduled workshops. My lucky daughter attended Chinese and Spanish camps for two summers. A great outcome of that experience was that I witnessed first-hand the fabulous communicative strategies that were imparted by the MSU language staff. I attended my workshops, then heard the play by play from my daughter, as she encountered good ideas at camps. I applied skills learned at the CLEAR Workshops when I was contracted to create three Spanish 1 Moodle Units for Oakland Schools. Many of the activities on Moodle have CLEAR Rich Internet Applications embedded in them. Through taking on development work I improved my Moodle pages because I was guided by the hands-on technological assistance from Oakland Schools consultants, Irma Torres and Judy Nichols. Although it has been a ten-year process, I am able to spend more time in the target language in my classroom and relegate the practice for students outside the school day.

My classroom was dramatically improved by differentiated instruction and standards-based grading. I boldly recommended a Ken O’Connor book for our School Improvement Team. My principal generously ordered copies for everyone and we attended many workshops. I was invited to join these PD opportunities and found myself eventually sitting on a district committee to develop policies for a SBG conversion at the middle level. At these meetings, I encountered ideas from the best teachers. I then shared those ideas with the World Language teachers while contributing on the Oakland Schools SBG team. By testing ideas from Standards- based grading, my relationship with my students has been enriched because I alleviated the negative underpinnings of my grading practices. I work with many educators when presenting Oakland Schools workshops on SBG with a team of colleagues, also in my role as moderator on the Michigan 5Cs Network Forum and the OS World Language Leadership Team planning Saturday Café Workshops. Frequently, I also bounce my ACTFL inspired ideas off my mentee, Emily Robinson, prior to planning these workshops. The gratification I feel from helping fellow educators is abundant. Teaching is a challenging career because our success, and that of our students, is nearly exclusively derived from a deep sense of self-worth requiring extreme confidence, preparation and balanced mental fortitude. This fall I’m moving beyond the four sessions I’ve presented at MIWLA, to propose a target language workshop for Spanish teachers. I will be working with my 5th student teacher, to design this workshop promoting the 90/10 classroom. I also submitted a proposal for a session on SBG for CSCTFL in 2018.


In Michigan, I am working hard to advocate that our World Language Requirement stay intact. After receiving a disappointing response to my letter regarding HB 4315/16 from Representative Reilly, I doubled-up and joined my district’s recently formed Legislative Advocacy Committee. At our meeting, I could approach him personally and reiterate my CSCTFL policy speech on coding, stretching it into a ten-minute audience, at the end of which I gave him my card and invited him to my classroom. Many seniors are against supporting taxes for schools. I have organized my AATSP Sociedad Hispánica de Amistad students to visit the Spanish class at the Orion Senior Center to bring good PR to my language program, get the students thinking about Spanish beyond the school and encourage a multigenerational interest in World Language education. There are many creative ways to advocate. Proficient students are our best ammunition.

Additionally, I supported Viviana Bonafede and the Detroit Public Schools Immersion Program as a guest speaker at parent workshop in April. I spoke on the topic of language proficiency and the importance of language study at a young age. I compiled research and documentation to provide a thirty-minute speech for parents and Detroit language educators. I look forward to more opportunities to speak on a public level and project my passion for languages in the future!

Caleb Howard

Dr. William Mennies Elementary School
Vineland, NJ
2018 Finalist from NECTFL

I was a completely different teacher after I came back from my first ACTFL convention.

The students all stared at me as I started apologizing:

Boys and girls, I’m sorry. I think I’ve been getting it all wrong! I just spent the weekend at this place where Spanish teachers learn how to teach Spanish better. It was GREAT -- but guess what. People taught me that Spanish class works best when the teacher speaks Spanish to the students almost the WHOLE class time. They said I should try for 90%! How do you think I’ve been doing at that?! Not so good, right?

We used a timer for a few days to find out exactly how much of the target language I was speaking (or WASN’T speaking) in class. I couldn’t believe that I never got past 15%!

We decided to take the “90+% TL” plunge. At first, my knee-jerk reaction was to speak in English to make sure that students would get a tricky point, but I kept to the plan and I was flabbergasted that the students responded so well. My students come from an underserved district (≈70% Free and Reduced Lunch) so they live and study in a context of many challenges. However, this ACTFL endorsed strategy helped me to engage students who had never been able to show me what they were capable of doing. Instead of the stale and routine classes I had been earnestly imposing on my students, one by one, they began to excel. I created an authentic space where Spanish came alive because my students needed it for everyday interactions and to participate in standards-based activities. I finally had what I needed to give ALL my students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, a culturally-rich, proficiency-based language learning experience.

Encouraged by my students’ response and performance, I decided to submit a proposal to present at the next ACTFL conference. My approved session was entitled, “Towards 90+% Target Language Use: An Elementary Teacher’s Journey.” The session was a great success because language teachers were hungry for the practical advice and support I shared about how to keep in the target language. So many of them wanted to achieve the 90+% target language use goal, but they just didn’t know how. After the workshop, many attendees signed up to receive more information so I decided to share with them regularly. I created “Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language” and, without missing a single week, I wrote blog posts for the next two years. My writings included scripts for exactly what teachers can do and say in order to achieve 90+% target language use. Many found the information useful so the ideas spread and I even began receiving correspondence from educators worldwide. I was really moved when an Italian teacher in Australia said that my example had inspired her and that she managed to influence her entire 7-member department to switch to a proficiency-based instructional model. Teachers and students in my local community, and far beyond it, were succeeding at communicating in the target language and it all started by being open about my own journey.

My blogging experience, and participation at the ACTFL conventions, energized me and gave me a thirst for further collaboration and professional growth. I started exploring best practices for assessment using NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements. I reflected on language acquisition theory and its pedagogical implications. I started tapping into the wealth of professional development resources on social media, including the #langchat hashtag. I invented #TL90plus to develop an ongoing conversation regarding target language use. I collaborated with teachers from other states to develop resources and wrote for a journal in Switzerland. As my personal learning network grew, my own practice developed.

Opportunities to learn and share were everywhere: regional events, Ed Camps for world language teachers, the chance to support teachers as they implement technology in their classrooms. Outside of the language department, I have addressed my entire school staff and trained them on cultural politeness and on strategies to show appreciation for diversity. I have flung open the doors of my classroom to receive educators not only from New Jersey, but from other regions and countries. During such visits, we use every second to share and grow, keeping the conversation going through lunch and prep. The question that drives us all is “How can we implement effective strategies within our diverse academic contexts?” Soon, the invitations started to arrive to present at nearby districts, the state organization, and in Canada.

When world language professionals work together, we can elevate our profession and the importance of language learning in the eyes of community members, district administrators, and the public. Beyond our classroom walls, I believe that we have an obligation to teach multiple stakeholders about the important work we are doing. My own district, for example, has a large Hispanic population, but many non-Hispanics oppose bilingual education. To help the public understand its importance, I have contributed to the promotion of the benefits of foreign languages and biliteracy, I have taught Spanish to community members, and I have hosted lessons at local Starbucks stores for adults and children of all ages. School events such as “Back To School Orientation,” and “5th Grade Moving Up Ceremonies” provide me with an opportunity to advocate for language learning and to speak publicly to the community members in both English and Spanish to create an environment of cross-cultural appreciation and collaboration.

Professional involvement has transformed me because I realize that I am not alone on my professional journey and that there is a network of excellent language teachers everywhere. From the moment I walked up to the registration booths at ACTFL, I began an exciting journey of collaboration and learning that has had a great impact on me, my students’ second language acquisition process, and educators worldwide. Together, we can increase multicultural sensitivity and can offer our students the gift of linguistic ability. With that gift, they too will be able to reach out across the walls of their homes and local experiences just like I did when the walls of my classroom opened to the world.

Catherine Ousselin

Mount Vernon High School
Mount Vernon, WA
2018 Finalist from PNCFL

As a graduate student and in my first teaching position, I knew very little about professional organizations for World Language teachers. My departments did not require or encourage membership, nor did they offer support to attend conferences. In 2003, however, my level of professional engagement changed dramatically when, due to the encouragement of an active member, I submitted my first conference proposal for the American Association of Teachers of French. My presentation was on Teaching Reading Proficiency through Storytelling (TPRS) with the medieval poem, Le Frêne. It was my second year of teaching at the high school level and my first presentation. My anxiety as high as there was only a weak projector sitting a chair that barely projected onto to the screen. However, the participants in the session put my fears to rest as we began acting out the story and discussing further options for the unit. I was one of the youngest teachers at this conference, but the veteran teachers treated me as an equal. They invited me to other sessions and small-group discussions, and for first time at the high school level, I felt connected to professionals in my content area. The fact that I had a network of teachers with whom I could discuss units, strategies, and concerns via email, newsletters, and in my region supported me through the initial five years of teaching. I repaid the encouragement of my colleague by inviting other teachers in my region to participate in the AATF and attend the conferences. It was my first form of advocacy.

In 2007, I took a position in a different school. The former teacher was highly active in the AATF and our local state organization, WAFLT. At this school, attending the state language conference was expected and paid for by the school. A major difference from my previous school as I had not even heard about WAFLT from the department chair or administration. It was an impressive conference that opened the doors to a wider variety of teaching practices and philosophies. At the 2009 spring regional, I presented my first “Thinking About Syncing?” workshop on using thoughtful technology tools in World Language. Since 2007, I have become a dedicated attendee and presenter at local and national conferences on technology for World Language, current methodologies, and unit design. I belong to seven professional organizations and serve as a mentor, curator, advocate, and leader. Each role that I have served for these organizations not only helps the members, but supports me as a professional who is able to communicate that level of professionalism to her students, administration, and community. Participation has taught me to consider and adapt to the realities of others who may not have my technological experience, access to the resources or academic freedom that I have. I use the social media platforms of which I am the manager and my own account to advocate for World Language education and professional involvement. The online community of educators has grown exponentially in the past few years, and I believe if harnessed correctly, can lead to more active members in our language organizations. My voice as a leader has strengthened, and I feel more confident in my pedagogical knowledge and practices. However, professional involvement is not only about presenting and leading, it is mainly about collaborating and learning from others in order to support student learning.

The teaching philosophies and practices that I have learned through interacting with a wide variety of World Language educators at the local and national level have directly impacted our French program’s growth and student success. When I began at Mount Vernon High School, there were 80 students in French 1 and 2. Within two years, we had 180 students and after the fourth year, we hired another French teacher. We now have over 350 students and two full-time French teachers. The message has spread around our district: French is a fun, but meaningful class where everyone can progress at a comfortable pace towards obtainable and personalized goals.

Each conference that I attended connects me with teacher leaders and role models who not only shared their practices and units, but also listened to new ideas from attendees. Using best practices such as World-Readiness Standards, Backward Unit Design, and IPAs support student growth in their speaking, writing, and listening, and reading skills. The students are engaged in meaningful activities that supported their path to proficiency through units that connect with their interests and future uses of the language. I have learned how to design a classroom environment and curriculum that accommodates as many learner types as possible using what others have shared and modeled. Tasks are authentic and purposeful for my students. I am a bit rebellious to the traditional topics in that I don’t teach the “Going to the doctor unit” or the “Eating a café” skit because the majority of my students will not experience these settings. We focus on using the language to express our opinions on the quality of our school lunch versus lunches around the world, the right for all children to receive a quality education, and the qualities of a thoughtful world explorer. These units focus on topics that encourage and empower the students to read, speak, and connect with the language in a variety of modes. I provide them with functional chunks that allow them to create with the language that they have and experiment with new ideas. Our units are not based on grammar, but is embedded within the chunks and the resources, both authentic and teacher-created. Thus, students are able to communicate in the language from year one. Assessments are not punitive – they offer a snapshot of each student’s progress towards the unit benchmarks and can be redone for demonstration of growth or mastery. Students may choose reading and listening tasks that best demonstrate their current proficiency level. French is used for instruction nearly 90% of the class period, and students use the language for interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational tasks.

My journey on the path of professional growth through participation in local and national organizations began with one colleague encouraging me to present an idea that I thought worked well in my classes. One connection to another educator will guide and support an educator through the highs and lows of teaching. It is my goal to connect with as many educators as possible so that we may enrich our professional experiences and the educational experiences of our students..