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The City Journals

World Language Teacher of the Year enriches language, culture at Taylorsville High

Mar 25, 2019 12:08PM ● By Jet Burnham

Spanish teacher Ryan Wells arranges trips for students to visit Spanish-speaking countries like this one to Peru in 2015. (Photo courtesy Ryan Wells)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Over the last seven years, Ryan Wells has reorganized and expanded Taylorsville High School’s Spanish Language department. It now enriches the learning of students taking classes for foreign language credit, students moving through the Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program and students from Spanish-speaking families.

The passion and dedication required for such an accomplishment inspired the Utah Foreign Language Association to name Wells the 2018–2019 Secondary Teacher of the Year.

“I wanted to create a path for students to enjoy their world language experience, be challenged academically and to have access to higher level language courses that could prepare them for college,” said Wells.

In addition to beginning Spanish classes 1-4, THS offers several sections of AP Spanish in which students maintain an impressive 90 percent pass rate. More than 120 students took AP Spanish last year, making it the biggest program in the school district. Many of those moved on this year to Bridge, a concurrent enrollment class in which students can earn 12–18 college Spanish credits by graduation, which is offered for dual language immersion (DLI) students looking to progress after passing their AP Spanish exam. This year’s seniors will be the first graduates of the Spanish DLI program that began 12 years ago.

“By revitalizing the Spanish department, a college-bound culture was created with new, empowering opportunities for our Latinx students that didn't previously exist,” said Wells.

Wells’ push is to recruit Hispanic and Latinx students, who make up 35 percent of the THS student body, to take AP Spanish has changed the demographics of language students. AP Spanish students are a mix of native Spanish speakers, heritage speakers (who were born in America but speak Spanish at home), DLI students and those who have taken Spanish 1-4 classes. This diversity provides a unique learning experience for everyone.

“It's not a regular old Spanish class,” said Wells. “It’s this rich cultural experience that benefits me and benefits everybody in the class. I feel like I can guide the conversation, but really their experiences and their cultural knowledge is what guides and takes us through the year.” 

The AP curriculum addresses global themes through the lens of Spanish language and culture. Wells aims to open students’ minds to think more internationally, understand the local international community and think critically about who they are.

“Now that the AP program is so fervent and strong, we can have these really strong conversations about culture,” said Wells. “We have deep conversations about the world, about politics, about engaging in your community, about why things are, about beauty and esthetics, about family, and about community and world challenges.”

Heriberto Sierras, a heritage speaker, enjoys the class discussions.

 “It’s almost like a philosophy class, just in Spanish,” he said.

Wells introduces topics that aren’t often addressed in other classes.

Marcus Newton said Wells encourages students to think.

“There’s been so many classes where he’ll say something at the end class that kind of makes you go “whoa!’” said Marcus. “You go into your next class totally thinking about these ideas. He always leaves something with you.”

Students from 12 different countries add perspective to the discussions—debating, comparing and contrasting their country’s views on social subjects. 

“It’s beautiful thing because every year I have kids from all over the Spanish-speaking world in my class,” said Wells.

These students are able to share first-hand experiences with the class, such as the student who, just one year ago, was actively protesting the government in his country.

Wells strives to empower students to feel proud of where they come from. His class provides a safe place for them to share personal experiences, struggles and perspectives.

“It’s nice sharing what I know from my country and then learning more,” said Valentina Miranda, who is from Columbia.

Wells said no matter how they learned the language—at home or from classes—every student has a something to contribute to the discussions.

“Because our program is really strong, the kids who come into AP after taking Spanish 3 and 4, come in really prepared to be able to really engage with the heritage speakers,” said Wells.

Marcus said he learns a lot from his classmates through their discussions.

“What makes him a good teacher is he’s kind of this catalyst to get other people to share their ideas,” he said.

Wells shares his personal experiences as well. Utilizing grants and other funding, Wells has spent 15 years of summers and school breaks travelling, often taking students on the trips abroad.

“I’ve traveled to most of the Spanish-speaking world except for just a few of the more dangerous countries,” he said. “I think my experience abroad and my experience in these different countries, my photos and my videos makes what I’m teaching real for my students.”