Instructor Named FLENJ Teacher of the Year

By Tom McLaughlin

Dana Pilla, a part-time lecturer of Spanish at Rutgers University–Camden and a Spanish teacher at Haddonfield Middle School, has been named 2015 Teacher of the Year by the Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey (FLENJ). In addition to recognizing outstanding teachers, the award honors tireless advocates for world languages who share their content-area knowledge and expertise beyond the walls of their classrooms.

“This award is a validation of the 16 years I have spent in the classroom, and the amount of time I have dedicated to studying pedagogy and striving to implement best practice,” says Pilla, a lifelong resident of Cherry Hill, who was officially given the award at FLENJ’s annual conference, held in late February in New Brunswick.

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Dana Pilla

Pilla’s dynamic teaching approach has benefited students markedly at Rutgers–Camden, where she has taught elementary Spanish and Spanish for the health professions for the past four years. She recently co-developed and implemented an asynchronous, online elementary Spanish course, utilizing a variety of methods, such as video tutorials, VoiceThread, Sakai software, and audio recordings, in order to provide unfettered access to lessons and the instructor. Pilla explains the course, co-developed with Christie DeCarolis, an instructional designer at Rutgers–Camden, in this informative video.

According to Pilla, the classes are structured so that students are accountable 100 percent of the time. Unlike in a traditional classroom setting, she can easily assess reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills on a daily basis, and is able to provide each student personalized feedback several times per week. Furthermore, she can easily observe which students are struggling and immediately make adjustments. In turn, the students have the benefit of progressing linguistically and feeling like they are being heard.

“I feel a connection to every single student in my course when I teach online, and I believe that they feel a connection to me and to their classmates, with whom they interact frequently,” she says.

Kris Lindenmeyer, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–Camden, lauds Pilla as a model for the Rutgers–Camden commitment to college access, digital teaching, and student success. “Dana is an exemplary instructor, and an expert at using technology to connect to students online and enhance their learning,” says Lindenmeyer. “I am thrilled that Dana won the FLENJ Teacher of the Year award.”

Pilla explains that she has gained considerable insight into how students progress from novice to advanced language proficiency by having the opportunity to teach such vast grades, ages, and skill levels. The experience has enabled her to be a more effective teacher in her delivery of the material. “I can see where each student is coming from, and what they need to do to advance,” she says. “I know what types of lessons I have to create in order to propel my students forward linguistically, and how far to push students without them becoming frustrated.”

She adds that she relishes the moment that a student puts together language spontaneously in order to communicate an original thought. “There always comes a point where a light bulb goes off, and I really cherish those moments,” she says. “When students can use their Spanish to express a want or a need, in their own words, and can make that utterance intelligible, I feel so proud.”

Outside the classroom, Pilla has participated in a multiyear Foreign Language Assistance Program grant, assisting in the creation of model assessments and rubrics for the FLENJ’s Consortium for Assessing Performance Standards. She also worked on the New Jersey Department of Education’s model curriculum writing team, creating curriculum framework and assessments at the novice level. In addition, she frequently presents on a variety of topics related to curriculum, assessment, and collaboration through technology in world languages at local, state, and regional conferences.

Pilla earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, a master of education degree, and a master’s degree in Spanish specializing in translation, all from Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She is a K-12 certified teacher of Spanish and English as a Second Language, and holds a medical interpreter training certificate, having completing the Nationalities Service Center’s “Bridging the Gap” course.

She will now go on to compete at the regional level against Teachers of the Year from 13 states and Washington, D.C., at the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, to be held from April 21 to 23 in Baltimore. If she advances, she will compete for the national title at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages annual convention in November.

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