Akash Patel, a nationally-recognized middle school teacher in Texas, has brought his students to over 150 countries around the globe—all without boarding a single airplane. Patel is a polyglot who teaches Spanish at Dallas ISD’s Ignite Middle School, a Title 1 school that serves economically disadvantaged students—many of whom have never traveled outside the U.S.
He’s traveled to over 60 countries, so he has first-hand knowledge of the potency of immersive language learning. That’s why he uses the power of the internet to bring foreign language speakers from around the world inside the four walls of his classroom. Patel, through his Happy World Foundation connects students all over the country to a network that includes more than 1,200 native language speakers from around the world via video calling, many of them even from places he has never visited.
“They may not be able to afford a trip to Italy,” Patel says, “but through the internet that we have in the public school system, we’re able to talk to people in Italy instantly.”
Akash Patel brings international experiences to his class with his innovative approach to teaching foreign languages.
Patel was raised in India where he spent 18 years. He then moved to the United States to get a degree as a nuclear engineer. Patel discovered his passion for travel and communication, so he decided to leave behind a highly regarded scholarship and pursue a teaching career.
He initially preferred math instruction but eventually became a focus on language. “There’s incredible power in what language can do for a human. Through language and dialogue we dispel stereotypes and cultivate collaboration,” he says.
The power of community was evident even in Patel’s darkest days. After his twin brother, Anand “Happy” Patel, died tragically in a plane crash in 2018, his students and their families collectively raised over $1,500 for their teacher in response. Patel, although grateful for their generosity, was unwilling to accept it personally. The money went towards humanitarian projects led by his students.
The students’ generosity inspired him to create The Happy World Foundation (HWF), a global education nonprofit, in honor of his late brother. Global Connect allows educators in every 50 state and Puerto Rico to make connections with other volunteers to help them have meaningful educational conversations. HWF hosted over 33,000 calls last year.
“I’m passionately advocating for expanding access for all teachers,” says Patel, “so that they and their scholars have the same access to these global experiences no matter what ZIP code they’re in.”
One of Patel’s seventh graders, Gabriel Fernandez, is wrapping up his first year in Spanish. “Normal tests and packets can be boring,” he admits, “but Mr. Patel’s lessons and Zoom calls make it funner to actually learn.” Gabriel adds that he feels more confident in his speaking abilities and plans on continuing his Spanish studies moving forward.
Children are also showing a marked improvement in behavior from their parents. “There are very few teachers that are able to connect with the students the way that Mr. Patel does,” says Daniel Fernandez, Gabriel’s father. “Not everybody learns the same way, so his interactive lesson plans are able to reach students where they are.”
After the pandemic drove schools online, the days of teachers fearing they’re not tech-savvy are over, Patel says. He’s determined to inspire other foreign language educators to join his innovative teaching approach that he believes any teacher can adapt to their own classroom.
“I saw the gap and did something about it,” says Patel. “When you see gaps, you should go fill that gap and then don’t just stop there. Go and fill the next one.”
Read More From Time