When the nation’s top social justice educators were recognized in Montgomery, Ala., last summer, George Fox graduate Michelle Nicola (MAT09) was one of just five in America selected for the honor.
She received the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching, chosen and awarded through a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that specializes in civil rights and public interest cases.
Nicola spent three days prior to the award ceremony attending a teacher-leader summit and participating in workshops designed to capture the unique contributions of the awardees and share them through video. Even earlier, Nicola and the others welcomed Teaching Tolerance cameras into their classrooms in the spring to gather footage of the teachers in action. They are now available online.
In her first year as a Spanish and English language arts teacher at Bridger School in Portland, Nicola teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. That follows three years as a Spanish teacher at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland.
According to the organization, award winners are visionary educators who “use their talents to celebrate diversity, reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations and promote equity in their school communities all year long.” Specifically, Nicola “sees creating a more equitable world as the ultimate adventure of her life” and “teaches about the power of kindness and respect.” She also was praised for innovative learning techniques, being committed to making school fun for students, and for “always (being) ready to turn her classroom into a theater, dance club or soap opera to reach her students.”
Nicola earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature from the University of Oregon in 2003 and later taught English in Spain for a year before beginning her studies at George Fox.
She says her methodology is teaching language proficiency through reading and storytelling. Students act out stories, and personalized student input is allowed in her classes. “Learning can be enjoyable,” she says. But that doesn’t mean Nicola is afraid to address the hard questions. “I want to encourage all to educate themselves about race and how it affects education. We really need to listen to each other.”
“I’m exactly where I want to be,” says Nicola. But she does add that she is “passionate about making the system work better,” and the future may hold new “possibilities to effect change.”