We are delighted to share this interview with Akash Patel, finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. Originally from India, Akash grew up in Oklahoma. He speaks six languages and is currently a Spanish teacher in Dallas, Texas. Exuding energy, enthusiasm, and kindness, Akash travels and speaks around the world to promote education, limit stereotyping, and build more compassionate societies.
IHE: Greetings Akash. First, congratulations on being selected as a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize and thank you for all you do as an educator. Can you share with our readers how you feel education can lead to a more compassionate and equitable world?
Akash: My work predominantly focuses on multicultural, multilingual, and global citizenship education. I believe, and have witnessed first-hand as an educator, how this type of education helps students preview their misconceptions about other cultures, dispel any stereotypes, and treat everyone the same. This is a powerful way of promoting love, empathy, and tolerance in the hearts and minds of children to foster world peace and collaboration.
IHE: That’s beautiful! In doing this work, you’ve brought the world to your students. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in your students resulting from your efforts?
Akash: The greatest change I have seen in my students after introducing them to people and professionals worldwide is a rise in empathy. They tend to be more appreciative and respectful when they witness the problems of people in other countries. They’re more caring and compassionate and grateful for everything they have in America when they connect with students from other countries, especially from humble backgrounds.
In one instance, when introduced to a rural classroom in Bangladesh, where students had to walk an hour to come to school and had limited educational resources, my students started to use their pencils and school supplies more frugally. In another instance, when students participated in a virtual hangout with the CEO of an international recycling nonprofit, one of my students, who comes from a high poverty Title 1 school, asked for ways to get involved. The CEO of the company sent us a box with paid shipping and urged my students to put their old clothes and shoes inside to help children in other countries.
My students learned that they don’t need to be rich to make a difference in someone’s life. A memorable Skype call by a journalist from the Kiribati islands, which are being flooded because of global climate change, made my students reflect upon their many blessings. They then raised an awareness campaign about ways to mitigate climate change. When I introduced my students to my own work with elephants, and to the process of making elephant “poopoo” paper, they researched ways they could protect the elephants.
They found a news story about how scientists are using DNA mapping to study poaching trends, which is in turn helping law enforcement to protect these endangered animals. While it was not possible for us to extract elephant DNA in Oklahoma City, my fourth graders extracted strawberry DNA and compared the process to DNA extraction from elephant tusks and rhino horns. Though students in most of my classrooms had never traveled abroad, nor had the resources to travel, they were engaging meaningfully with the world and participating as active global citizens through our classroom.
IHE: What led you to become a teacher, and what have been the most rewarding moments?
Akash: I began teaching in rural Oklahoma schools, where people had never seen or met someone like me, a brown Indian man who spoke six languages and had traveled to over 40 countries. When I shared with the students my experiences of working with elephants and
sea turtles and my travels around the world, I saw a spark in their eyes, and I realized my job as an educator was not only to teach them the disciplines required by law, but also to expose them to a world outside the four walls of their classroom and a world outside their communities. I saw a gap in global education, and I joined the teaching profession to fill that gap.
IHE: Can you tell us about the Happy World Foundation?
Akash: The Happy World Foundation Inc. (HWF) is an international global education nonprofit based in Dallas, Texas. I founded it after the passing of my twin brother Anand Happy Patel. Happy and I envisioned a happy world free of prejudice, hatred, and bigotry. To put this vision into action, we believed we needed to bring global experiences to K-12 school students. When we give our students the opportunities to learn about and engage with the world, we give them the tools to eliminate prejudice and bigotry, and to fight for a more just, compassionate, and happy world. We accomplish our goals for an inclusive world through our different programs at HWF. Our Global Connect program allows educators to use Skype, Google Hangout, and other virtual platforms to connect their students with classrooms and professionals worldwide.
Our International Day program allows international students from Oklahoma and Texas colleges and universities to participate in meaningful service-learning, educating children and citizens about different cultures and countries. Our Global Ambassadors Leadership Institute selects 50 high school and college students annually and trains them to become global citizens. HWF’s international service-learning trips take high school and college students and professionals to countries worldwide. The multicultural resource center allows Pre K-12 and university educators to access hundreds of standards-based multicultural and global lessons. The Foundation’s Annual Global Citizen Awards Gala celebrates individuals and organizations who have made a significant impact on global citizenship and giving. For more information about our programs, please visit www.happyworldfoundation.us.
IHE: As you know, we are dedicated to educating a generation of solutionaries. You’re a Spanish teacher. What are some of the ways that language teachers can help their students to solve real-world issues while they are learning a new language?
Akash: Language is a critical 21st century skill that promotes global peace, tolerance, and cross-cultural understanding. Some of the world’s greatest challenges such as bigotry, racism, prejudice, and war arise from people not understanding each other. When students learn a foreign language, they understand people who don’t look like them or speak the same language as them a lot better. Through my Spanish classroom, students have opportunities to have conversations via live video calling with people around the world. My classes offer students meaningful and authentic access to world experiences. These conversations enable them to learn about global challenges, brainstorm ideas to bring awareness to problems, and often engage in action. There are many great programs that connect classrooms around the world, such as Global Connect at our Foundation, Skype in the Classroom with Microsoft, and empatico.org. Educators, regardless of the discipline they teach, can use them to spark empathy and a generation of solutionaries.
Please forward this to at least ONE person who would benefit from this resource.