2013 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year
Denver East High School, Denver, CO
Noah Geisel, a Spanish teacher at East High School in Denver, CO, was named the 2013 National Language Teacher of the Year by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) at the organization’s annual convention held in Philadelphia, PA.
In 1939, my grandfather was released from a concentration camp. His family secured passage out of their homeland, to America. When asked his last name by Immigration officials, Grandpa, who only spoke German, spelled G-e-i-s-e-l in English. The feat required unimaginable determination. He had to risk speaking a foreign language or the family name would have been phonetically transcribed.
Grandpa was so proud that “Geisel was not an Ellis Island name.” The phrase became a family mantra, standing for the opportunities of learning another language.
Adhering to the mantra, my parents decided it was important for us to grow up in a diverse, predominately Hispanic neighborhood and attend the feeder middle school. Although I took Spanish classes, “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?” wasn’t saving my life nor winning friends. For that, I owe Felipe Garcia.
Under Felipe’s protection, I was only moderately messed with and messed up. The Spanish he taught me was not in Señora Kyte’s lesson plan. Through invitations to his home, I first experienced Spanish: helping Mrs. Garcia make tortillas, listening to Mr. Garcia recount his own family’s immigration story, and meeting cousins who invited me to quinceañeras.
From my time spent with the Garcia’s, Spanish was no longer a bunch of words to memorize or conjugate—it was a gateway to music, cuisine, history, fashion, tradition, travel, and ultimately, a career.
My enthusiasm for teaching Spanish comes from my love for language and culture, and belief that language learning and understanding of other cultures are essential to my students’ futures. Imparting these beliefs is a daily classroom challenge. I hope to inspire students by sharing the benefits of my own learning. My travels that have been more adventurous because of connections I made by speaking Spanish. My work on a Hollywood film casting native-speaking extras. My summers spent in Costa Rican villages, building schools and community centers, connecting not just with my hosts’ minds, but –by speaking their language—their hearts as well.
Further, I delve to create connections relevant to their lives. We celebrate Dominican Republic’s Independence Day by chatting online with a Dominican poet; view a film set in a Puerto Rican high school and Skype with the directors to discuss issues such as school uniforms; study the Day of the Dead and then march with an actual parade. I seized any opportunity to help students use their learning to make connections and connect with others, because Geisel and Garcia are connected by more than a single letter G.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that be speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.” It is my job as a teacher to translate this into an idea that will inspire my students to begin their own journey of language learning and cultural understanding, for the betterment of their futures as well as the world’s.