By Sujata Dand
Thereâ€™s no way to avoid learning some Spanish in Akash Patelâ€™s class at Rusk Middle School in Dallas.
â€śIn my school, I want to inspire my kids on a daily basis and be like â€” hey look, Iâ€™m not Hispanic. My family is from India and I moved to the United States and I can speak six languages and I think you can too.â€ť
Patel is one of 50 finalists for a global teacher prize sponsored by the Varkey Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for underprivileged children around the world.
â€śWhat are you going to cook?â€ť Patel asks his class. The lesson today is food and the students have to write recipes. â€śSaludable â€” what is saludable? Healthy.â€ť
His message resonates with some of his seventh and eighth grade students. They work in small groups. Flags from different countries dangle over their heads.
â€śWe have unique issues and challenges at this school. I have a lot of students with criminal backgrounds,â€ť Patel explains. â€śSo here itâ€™s mostly motivation â€” how to motivate these kids to see beyond the classroom.â€ť
Today, Hector Rojas, a nutritionist from Columbia, skypes in to talk to Patel and his students. This is part of Patelâ€™s daily curriculum. He connects his students to children, educators and experts from other Spanish-speaking countries using technology.
â€śFor me, Spanish is a way to show them thereâ€™s a world that exists outside this classroom.â€ť
More than three quarters of the students here are Hispanic. The rest are mostly African American. Almost all of them are poor. The historically low-performing school went through a massive transformation last fall when DallasISD officials poured additional resources into the turn-around school and hired a new principal and a new staff.
â€śI have to interview this guy!â€ť remembers Principal Juan Cordoba. â€śMr. Patel is atypical for a teacher because of the energy he brings and how he is always thinking outside of the box on how to present the information to his students.â€ť
Patel was born in Nashik, India, just outside of Mumbai. He came to the United States to study engineering at Iowa State University, but quickly decided that wasnâ€™t for him. He moved to Oklahoma and eventually got his degree in elementary education.
â€śI taught children in rural communities where people had never seen someone like me. So, I think that sparked my passion for teaching global citizenship. What can I do to help these children dispel some of their stereotypes while at the same time learn about the world?â€ť
Patel started a non-profit called the World Experiences Foundation. The non-profit connects schools from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas with speakers and schools from around the world.
The grant-funded organization has been recognized by Former President Bill Clinton and is utilized by thousands of teachers.
â€śIâ€™ve seen incredible empathy from the children when they are able to connect with people from around the world,â€ť Patel says. â€śThey turn that empathy into action by writing letters or by creating awareness for issues they find meaningful.â€ť
Patel has been at Rusk for five months. After the first semester, students took a benchmark test administered by the district.
In Patelâ€™s Spanish I class, the kids scored 10 points higher than the districtâ€™s overall average. Patel says the outcomes show whatâ€™s possible when students develop strong relationships with teachers.
â€śOur children come from very difficult backgrounds and it is important to me to be able to know these backgrounds to form a relationship with them,â€ť Patel explains. â€śIf I donâ€™t acknowledge whatâ€™s happening at home â€” whether the family is going through a divorce or the family is going through someone being deported, I canâ€™t connect with my child. For me, itâ€™s being able to establish a positive relationship with the students. Without that relationship, I canâ€™t get students to move their pencils.â€ť
As one of the 50 finalists, Patel will travel to Dubai during spring break for a week-long conference and celebration for the teachers. The grand prize winner will be announced at the event.