Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2006
Lieber Memorial Teaching Associate Award
Master's Student in Spanish and Portuguese
Indiana University Bloomington
B.A., Rutgers College, 2003
Nicholas Henriksen's Spanish students have never met Nacho Gil Traver, Henriksen's former roommate at the Universidad de Valencia, Spain. But he's a frequent topic of their Spanish conversations. His students have seen photographs of him scaling mountains and hamming for the camera. In class, they discuss what Nacho does in the evenings, on Saturdays, during the summer. And at the end of the semester, they chat online with Nacho, solely in Spanish, sharing their cultural perspectives and life goals.
In one sense, exploring the "Life of Nacho in Spanish" is how Henriksen mines "meaning-bearing context from which to develop vocabulary and grammar exercises" or, also in Henriksen's words, a way to "take on Spanish culture and the Spanish language one Spaniard at a time."
In another sense, "Life with Nacho" reveals how Henriksen creates a classroom where Spanish is a living language.
"[If] I want Spanish to be viewed as more than a requirement, a minor, a major, or even a career, then the language needs to be given life," says Henriksen. "This implies that the course material has to transcend the lines of the textbook and enter into vibrant discourse with the students."
Working toward his master's in Hispanic linguistics with a focus on phonology and morphology, Henriksen fuses practice with pedagogy in a teaching philosophy that he describes a prospective, rather than retrospective. This allows him to plan for, rather than react to, what may challenge students, according him the "special insight into how I feel that foreign languages should be taught and approached so that my class can soar well beyond the fulfillment of the four language skills."
In his classroom, students are surrounded by Spanish. When they enter, Henriksen already has the lesson outlined on the chalkboard, desks organized in a conversation-conducive semicircle, and transparencies and images at the ready to tantalize students with Spanish games and culture. He color-codes grammar lessons so students don't limit themselves to "static memorization of structure." Instead, they begin to learn that Spanish grammar "is alive and rich in meaning."
With his classroom tools—cultural explorations, small group activities, whole-class discussions, and artfully rendered grammar lessons—students begin to negotiate and create meaning, even in first-year Spanish classes. And where they may expect Henriksen to be the only key to Spanish language, they quickly gain a confidence and enthusiasm that allow them to be accountable for each other's learning.
That enthusiasm, dedication, and appreciation — from teacher and student alike — are palpable in Henriksen's courses. "Nick is absolute dynamite in the classroom," says Catherine Ratcliff, assistant director of language instruction and a supervisor for second-year Spanish courses. "A more animated, comic, entertaining, but demanding instructor would be hard to find. He is energy personified and it is contagious."
As a result, students move beyond textbook requirements "to see Spanish as a communication tool within a web of social and cultural relationships," says Emily A. Maguire, assistant professor of Spanish; Silvana Falconi, director of language instruction; and Consuelo López-Morillas, chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, in their nomination letter. Even those students, as one writes in a course evaluation, who "hate and dread taking foreign languages" succumb to Henriksen's magic, finding his courses "fun and enjoyable."
The learning hasn't been limited to Henriksen's students. Even his supervisors have found something to take away from his lessons.
"Working primarily with first-year instructors, I rarely have the opportunity to learn from observing from their classes. However, that was not the case with Nicholas," says Jennifer D. S. Feldman, course supervisor for introductory Spanish. "Not only was I inspired by the energy and enthusiasm in his classroom, but I also learned a number of different ways to introduce complicated grammar concepts. His passion for teaching was evident, and reflected in the motivation of his students."
Ratfliff, too, witnessed Henriksen's passion for teaching. On her observation report for his first-year Spanish course, she wrote in the section reserved for suggestions for improvement: "None! Sorry." Then added, "Let colleagues know they are welcome to attend your classes; spread the fire!"