Geoff Schenker, Head of World Languages and Spanish Teacher, Puts an Accent on Learning

A lifelong fan of languages, Geoff Schenker brings passion and practicality to the classroom as a Spanish teacher and to Dwight’s World Languages curriculum as head of the department.

Dedicated to preparing students to be global leaders who can collaborate across countries and continents, Dwight begins instruction in Mandarin and Spanish in preschool and offers upwards of 14 languages to choose from in later years. With language learning as a central focus of a Dwight IB education, our students graduate well-positioned for success in the global workforce. 

We sat down with Mr. Schenker to find out how he teaches students to connect and gain independence through language skills.

What sparked your passion for languages at an early age?
My mom was actually Head of Languages at the school I went to in Bedford, NY, so I basically grew up in her office surrounded by languages! I also had language teachers in my family; many aunts and uncles taught Spanish or French. So both at home and at school, I grew up in a very multilingual space. It was so fascinating as a young kid to see people communicate in different languages. It sparked a lifelong love!

What languages do you speak?
I speak Spanish and a little French. I would really like to learn some German. I’m going to Germany this summer, so hopefully I’ll pick up a little bit while I’m there.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a teacher and then department head. 
When I first started teaching in Brookfield, CT,  I was a leave replacement and the school was unsure if the teacher would return after her maternity leave. She didn’t, so I stayed on, teaching Spanish in seventh and eighth grades for three and a half years, and then in ninth and twelfth grades for a year and a half before coming to Dwight.

When I began, I didn’t really think in terms of heading a team. However, I quickly found myself in a leadership position in my department as a young teacher. From there, leading developed naturally; in my second year, I was writing a curriculum for a new program and mentoring other teachers. I continued to teach for eight years, including three years here, before I became Head of World Languages. 

I’ve always been really lucky to work with people who saw leadership qualities in me, who were very collaborative, and wanted to offer me opportunities to lead, for which I’m very grateful. I try to do this now as Head — to find people with leadership qualities and give them the opportunity to shine.

What is your educational philosophy?
The biggest thing I want students to take away is that language is an important key to understanding and connecting with others in our own international community and in the world beyond. Language learning is a deeply practical tool they can use in life. I also believe in the power of languages to bring different people together. In 2019, with technology so readily available, especially when speaking a new language, it’s so important to get kids to understand that authentic connections to people and cultures are far more powerful than a device. Language learning and proficiency allow students to forge deeper connections with both peers and strangers.

I also think it’s important for students to understand that communicating on your own rather than using Google Translate grants real independence. Technology is great and has lots of advantages, but when you work to learn a new language, you develop your citizenship and your ability to interact with others around the world.

How do the faculty in your department personalize language learning?
One of the things we’ve worked on as a department is creating more “real-life” projects and making sure students have diverse options. For instance, we initiated a project this year in which students played the role of an AirBnB host in a Spanish-speaking location. They had to leave directions to various destinations for their tenants. The students chose a city or town, went on Google Earth, and screenshotted different places of interest like restaurants, museums, etc. This type of project gives students of all languages a chance to engage in personalized and practical learning. They’re able to choose how to express themselves, which simultaneously helps them develop their writing and speaking skills for both IB exams and real-world experiences.

Through our language lab computer program, students practice their listening and speaking skills while working at their own speed. Students can take their time so as to not be overwhelmed by too much content or they can take on more content if they’re advancing quickly.
We have used this program for the past four years to personalize listening recordings for students, as well as to expedite oral assessments through student recordings. Multiple students can use the program to test simultaneously. 

How is teaching language at an IB school different than at a non-IB school?
It’s both more challenging and easier — in non-IB schools, curricula are very prescriptive and rigid. The IB gives teachers such a broad range of flexibility in designing curricula. We have amazing freedom to make our classes engaging and tailored to our students. By the same token, it can become a challenge for teachers who constantly change their curriculum to fit different groups of students, and especially so for less experienced teachers. Teaching at an IB school is itself a learning experience; faculty become more creative, innovative, and flexible. 

One thing we’ve really done well as a department over the past five years is working together to create standards — or learning expectations — for each grade level, so teachers have something to hold onto as they dive into the ocean, so to speak. With a department as large as ours, we really have to coordinate and map out the language-learning journeys of our youngest students through our most advanced learners. This work has enabled great advancements for our students: Ninth grade honors students today are doing what honors tenth graders were doing two years ago!

Are there any cross-campus collaborations in language learning?
Last year, I reached out to a Spanish teacher at Dwight School London to collaborate and we created a video pen pal project. Our students made a video in Spanish and sent it to their pen pals. New York students answered questions from their London partners and gave presentations to introduce their English pen pal to our class. Many students had participated in Dwight’s fifth grade London exchange, so they had familiarity with some of their pen pals. The collaboration was lots of fun and it’s something I’d like to continue to pursue. 

What are some exciting innovations in World Languages this year? 
For World Languages Day, April 29, I’m working with an agency called Follow Me NYC Adventures to plan exploratory activities. My hope is that students will sign up to learn about the history and cultural traditions in various parts of New York City through walking tours and eating authentic cuisine; for example, Greek culture in Astoria or Korean culture in Flushing. It’s an ambitious project I began in September, so I’m excited to see how it pans out! 

I’ve also been working with Fiona Imboden and Meredith Nuber, who coordinate our trips and exchanges, on a summer Spanish language immersion program in Seville, Spain. This will be a great experience for students who will gain a lot in a short period of time. As a teenager, I spent a summer studying at El Instituto Hispano in Spain, during which I learned so much, and was inspired to return to study at La Universidad de Sevilla during college. For students who don’t regularly practice language, immersion trips are invaluable learning experiences.

How did you bring learning from a PD grant back to the classroom?
I’m very grateful to The Dwight School Foundation for the grant I received in December to go to an IB conference. It was an extremely valuable experience in which I met IB teachers from other schools and got a glimpse of what’s going on in their language departments.

In taking this learning back to the classroom, I’ve been working with all faculty to align our K-12 curriculum with new IB language standards. These include the addition of a listening section to the IB exam in 2020, and changes to the format of the writing section. Our department has been working together to implement more listening activities to both line up with standards and diversify students’ learning even more. We’ll also focus on teaching text types at earlier ages both implicitly and explicitly.

What is your personal spark of genius?
I have a huge passion for fitness and nutrition. For over ten years, I’ve been very invested in learning all I can about health and what’s good for us. Recently, I took a seminar to become a Crossfit level 1 trainer to help others achieve their fitness goals and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

What is a little-known fact about you?
I played college volleyball and I can walk on my hands!

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