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Beyond the textbooks

Posted 3:22 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Ryan Jennings is a 2023 Spanish Education alumnus. A high school Spanish/English teacher, Jennings spends his prep periods teaching younger students about Spanish language and culture. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Pierce, Trempealeau County Times.

How Ryan Jennings, '23, is bridging languages and cultures in Independence, Wisconsin schools

During his prep hour, he volunteers at the Elementary School, teaching Spanish to first graders.

During lunchtime, he leads students in a regular Dungeons & Dragons game .

After school, he is the Drama Club director. 

There isn’t a minute of the day when Ryan Jennings, ’23, isn’t thinking about how to engage kids, connect their cultures and teach them about a language and culture he loves.

A teacher in Wisconsin’s Independence School District, Jennings teaches Spanish and English to middle school and high school students. He found his calling after returning to college at UW-La Crosse to major in Spanish education after the pandemic.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher. I thought it would be a good time to finish what I had always wanted to do — earn my degree,” he says.

His start in Mexico

Jennings immersed himself in Spanish when he relocated to Mexico City after completing high school, spending five years living and working there. Despite having taken a couple of years of Spanish classes in high school, conversing in the language amidst the hustle and bustle of Mexico's capital proved to be an entirely different challenge. Reflecting on his experience, he humorously compares his language acquisition process to that of a baby learning their first words: "I learned Spanish the same way a baby learns English," he quips, "a lot of pointing and grunting." 

This experience not only equipped Jennings with the fundamentals of Spanish proficiency but also afforded him a firsthand understanding of navigating life as an outsider in a new cultural context. It fostered a deep sense of empathy within him, particularly towards newcomers to American culture — a sentiment he channels daily in the Independence School District. 

Over the past decade, the district has witnessed an influx of new residents from Spanish-speaking countries. With approximately 60 percent of its students classified as English language learners, Jennings encounters many grappling with both language acquisition and cultural assimilation.

“Some don’t feel like they are Americans or Latin Americans,” Jennings observes. “They are in this weird middle ground where they don’t feel they fit in at all."

It's this gap that Jennings strives to bridge, notably through his teaching. Hired to teach English classes in Spanish to native Spanish speakers, Jennings provides a pathway for students to engage deeply with literature in their native language while connecting to their cultural roots. 

“Not to say these students can't get exposed to language and culture from home life and family, but when you stop learning in your native country, you are not exposed to as much — things like folklore and the cultural aspects of your language,” he says. 

Jennings is also bridging gaps outside the classroom through the Dungeons and Dragons Club.

“When I was hired, I noticed that there weren't a lot of extra curriculars for Spanish speakers outside of sports,” he says. “For someone new to the English language, drama, debate or forensics can feel intimidating.”

Jennings contacted Coulee Gaming, which donated all the Dungeons & Dragons books in Spanish needed to begin a D & D Club at his school. The group meets at lunchtime, providing not only a hobby for Spanish speakers, but an avenue for students to meet peers across cultures.  

Jennings is also starting early with cross-cultural connections. His volunteering to teach Spanish to first graders is an effort to engage both Spanish and English speakers in the study of Spanish language and culture from a young age. He hopes it might lead to more cross-cultural interactions as these students get older, so they are less likely to self-isolate by language groups in high school. 

Jennings appreciates classes he had with UWL professors such as Kimberly Morris and Astrid Lorena Ochoa Campo, focused on educational strategies like using authentic texts produced for real communication in class like magazines or short stories to teach vs. strictly using a textbook. He also found J.C. Wagner-Romero lessons about teaching children how to become better global citizens to be useful in his school where different cultural interactions happen every day. 

Jennings says overall he loves his work, particularly sharing some of his biggest interests with young people from Dungeons & Dragons to Spanish literature.

“When I get students who really enjoy the books that I share — that can kind of geek out with me about parts of those books— I really love that,” he says. “I love sharing my love for literature.”


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