This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
Amid the isolation of the pandemic, Dallas ISD Spanish teacher Akash Patel gave his middle school students something many desperately needed — a connection to the rest of the world.
Patel, who came to the U.S. from India as a college student and speaks six languages, has built the Global Connect network of speakers for virtual “mystery hangouts” where students ask the guests yes-or-no questions to determine where they are.
Global Connect is a program of the Happy World Foundation, which Patel founded and named after his late twin brother, Anand “Happy” Patel. The network boasts more than 1,200 people from 150 countries and is available for any teacher to access for free at www.happyworldfoundation.us.
Over the years, his virtual classroom guests have included professionals — Brazilian engineers, a Nepali actor, a Sri Lankan sea turtle expert, an Alaskan author. Participating students include children not only from the U.S., but from countries such as India, Bangladesh, Lesoto and Swaziland. It’s a standards-based lesson in the essential skills of problem-solving and critical thinking. But, equally important, it broadens the horizons for students beyond what they see every day and promotes positive role models of color.
Patel hopes to expand the reach of the program now that he has been elected president of the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) for a term beginning in 2023.
“What brings me joy on a daily basis is teaching languages, empowering our American students to be the global citizens of tomorrow,” Patel said in a 2021 video for Dallas ISD. “And that’s what drove me to create a nonprofit so I could bridge a gap in global education and bring the world to children during a time of a pandemic when folks are isolated from the globe.”
He also hopes to use the ACTFL platform to recruit and retain more foreign language teachers, in part by sharing how he’s found joy and positivity in the classroom and helping others find their own passion for education.
In an interview with The Classroom Teacher, Patel said the silver lining of the pandemic is that every teacher is now familiar with virtual platforms so they can easily connect to people around the world.
He’s found that helping students understand the shared experience of the global pandemic has eased some of their own anxiety and isolation.
It has also inspired empathy, he said, and empathy, in turn, has inspired action. The students in his Title I school have held a toy drive for Syrian children displaced by the war in their country. Recently, his students spoke to one of Patel’s Ukrainian friends who discussed the refugee situation there, spurring one of his students to offer up her own home to share with a Ukrainian child.
“It’s such a profound lesson in giving,” he said.
Seeing his students develop empathy for others far away has been an “a-ha” moment for him as he contemplated whether to leave teaching given the challenges of the past few years.
His message to others struggling with the same question: Don’t lose hope, and look to inspire happiness in the classroom every day.
The empathy Patel inspires was extended to his own family when his twin brother died in a plane crash in 2018. His students raised $1,500 for his family. He couldn’t accept their money for himself, he said, and they wouldn’t take it back. Instead, that money was used to start a Happy Meals for the Homeless program to feed people experiencing homelessness in Dallas. Patel’s foundation has continued that effort.
“I continue to believe in the power of connection.”