Award-winning teacher motivates AP Spanish students to humanity-inspired climbs
Jul 01, 2020 02:11PM
By Kathryn Elizabeth Jones
Spanish teacher Ryan Wells arranges trips for students to visit Spanish-speaking countries like this one to Machu Picchu in 2015. (Photo courtesy Ryan Wells)
By Kathryn Elizabeth Jones | [email protected]
Ryan Wells, an avid bicycle rider and teacher at Taylorsville High, doesn’t believe in doing anything halfway.
He’d just returned home from a ride up Emigration Canyon.
“I burned some calories and enjoyed the silver lining that has come as part of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s nice that there’s a bit of leniency with the schedule.”
Wells, who typically spends his days teaching Advanced Placement Spanish, was surprised when, while on a bike excursion with his dad recently, blinking lights and a siren caused him to make a stop.
It was the police.
“I didn’t know what they wanted,” he said. “The cop from the car came up to me and asked if I’d seen any suspicious activities in the area.”
Which meant he hadn’t seen the surprise coming his way. A few minutes later, Wells was awarded the 2020 Granite School District Teacher of the Year.
Wells has been a Spanish teacher at Taylorsville High for eight years and teaches AP Spanish. In the beginning, there wasn’t such a program, but Wells has changed that.
“I love it,” he said. “I like teaching students who know Spanish at home, and those who have had Spanish 1-4, jump into high-level learning.”
What begins as a foreign language opportunity in the first few levels of Spanish, becomes a humanity-focused experience where all students learn about current events and culture and use their writing and debate skills to connect with what they are doing in their life.
“AP Spanish helps students to thrive,” Wells said. “Latino students who might not normally take a Spanish class can skip the beginning Spanish classes and jump right into AP Spanish where they can speak and write in their language.” And every student can be a part of the college career path while still in high school.
This is an “amazing and empowering” experience, Wells said. “AP Spanish is culturally enriching wherever the student comes from.”
When Wells began his career, and there wasn’t an AP Spanish program currently in the works, Wells had to work at “growing” one. The first year, he had only 10 students. In the second year, the numbers doubled. Today, there are approximately 140 students involved in the program.
“It’s my baby,” wells said. “Students are digging deep into cultural trends, and they are talking and writing about the challenges they are facing today. Many are using their native language to express what they’re going through.”
One such student, Joseph Louis Rivera De La Vega, is currently interning at the Utah Center for Legal Inclusion, hoping to “promote change with our legal system.”
“I’m trying to target students of color to pursue law,” he said in a letter to the Granite School District of the Year Committee on behalf of Ryan Wells.
De La Vega was a 16-year-old junior at Taylorsville High when he met Wells. He admitted that he was a “trouble-maker” and hung out with the “wrong crowd.” Spanish class pretty much ran the same way.
But this teacher’s teaching style was different than any other he’d previously experienced. And it “motivated and intrigued” him.
“When I misbehaved[d] in his class, he never punished me but checked up on me,” he said. “He one time told me to leave his classroom and wait outside for him. Two minutes went by and Wells asked, ‘What’s going on?’ He never assumed I was a bad student but asked me if I was OK. He constantly motivated me; he sought for my well-being, and he showed me a potential that I didn’t know I could achieve: success.”
Wells challenged the class in topics such as “philosophy, theory, morality and political discussions,” De La Vega continues in his letter. “Unlike other teachers that give you a lesson for 90 minutes, he taught and let us question the lesson. I looked forward to his class.”
De La Vega finished the class with an A, the only A received in his junior year. Though the class wasn’t easy, he liked it and passed the AP Spanish exam.
Wells, who believes in the success of each student as well as every district Spanish teacher, is currently recruiting them to AP Spanish.
“I am more than willing to share my material with those who want it,” he said. “Let’s collaborate and brainstorm together.”