Faced with a classroom of students who were determined not to learn anything, a Maple Ridge teacher created a now popular French grammar game.
Emmanuel Escueta has been recognized for that, and for the spirit of innovation that inspired it.
He is one of only two teachers in B.C., and just 10 across the country, to receive the Prime Minister’s Certificate of Excellence.
Escueta teaches second grade French immersion at Ecole Irvine Elementary School in Port Coquitlam, and is best known as the inventor of Verbathon, which teaches French grammar.
His career began in 1989, in front of a completely uninspired group of students in northern Manitoba.
Escueta was astounded at their negative attitudes toward education. He had been born in the Philippines, moved to Canada at the age of 16, and threw himself into his studies. He spoke Tagalog and a very formal brand of English learned at an all-boys Catholic school. French was exotic to him, and to learn it for free was a great opportunity. But a teacher essentially told him he would never be able to master it.
“I worked my tail off to learn it – I challenged myself,” he said.
He went on to do a double major in English and French at the University of Manitoba. To practise conversational French, he went to work as a waiter at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre, with a French-English dictionary in his pocket.
So in his first year teaching middle school, he was stunned to meet with intransigence in the classroom.
“I had students who didn’t want to learn,” Escueta said. “I was so taken aback by the negative attitude these kids had about learning – and most of all French,” he added. “How do I engage them – how do I turn them around?”
Verbathon was the answer. It took the driest and most tedious part of learning French, and turned it into a game – one where kids are timed on how fast they can conjugate verbs.
It was a huge hit, and still is. Kids play in teams, and they practise on their own, and even get team T-shirts made up.
It is so popular that even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had taught it when he was a teacher in Vancouver. The two men passed a few words about Verbathon when Trudeau was giving Escueta his certificate of excellence in Ottawa earlier this month.
Trudeau even signed a Verbathon T-shirt for him after the ceremony.
“I couldn’t believe how approachable he was,” said Escueta.
He developed a kit so schools across the country can have Verbathons of their own. He runs a country-wide Verbathon tournament, and the Canadian Parents for French run a tournament in his school district. He speaks at national conferences about the game, and it has been expanded to Spanish and German.
“It has grown to a point where it’s beyond what I would dream it to be.”
His nominators also noted that Escueta takes advantage of cross-cultural opportunities for learning, such as teaching children to sing a Christmas song in three languages, to play a traditional Filipino bamboo instrument and to dance a traditional Filipino dance.
He also mentors fellow teachers on second-language instruction and the use of technology to enhance learning.
In his presentation speech, Trudeau joked that he became prime minister so he could hand out the awards to teachers. He said great teachers understand that they are not answerable to the board that hired them, or the parents and community that support them.
“Great teachers are ultimately accountable to the society that will be peopled by the citizens they create every day in their classroom,” he said, calling it an “awesome responsibility and humbling opportunity.”
Escueta said Trudeau made receiving the award an even greater honour.
“It was very special, in that we are the first batch of teachers to receive the awards under the Trudeau government, and he shares a common bond.”