Spanish ministry appreciates the work of Portland teacher

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José Ivan Sabau Torrelo, a fifth-grade teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, has never preferred students to sit at their desks all day while he teaches.

So while the coronavirus pandemic and Lyseth’s resulting hybrid schedule made coming up with interactive lessons a bit more difficult than usual this school year, one of Torrelo’s ideas was so successful that it recently earned him the title of Teacher of the Year 2021 from the Spanish embassy’s Ministry of Education.

Lyseth is home to Maine’s only Spanish immersion program, where Torrelo has taught for the past three years. Last spring it was named School of the Year 2020 by the Spanish ministry.

José Ivan Sabau Torrelo, fifth-grade teacher in the Lyseth Elementary School Spanish immersion program, was recently named Teacher of the Year 2021 by the Embassy of Spain’s Ministry of Education.

The program began with the school’s first kindergarten class in 2014. It was spearheaded by Grace Valenzuela, now executive director of communications and community partnerships for the Portland Public Schools, and former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, with the support of Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams. 

Each year a new class was added as the initial cohort progressed through elementary school, and a new kindergarten class was admitted. The program’s inaugural class of students is now finishing sixth grade.

There was uncertainty about the program’s funding last spring after questions were raised about whether it met the district’s goal of promoting equity and shrinking the learning gap for disadvantaged students. Superintendent Xavier Botana ultimately opted to continue the program, which he estimated costs the district $60,000 annually.

Torrelo’s winning project, titled “Operacion Museo,” spanned two months and required his students to help solve a fictitious crime that involved robbers stealing paintings from museums. Several steps were involved in the project, and Torrelo incorporated digital components, including videos he made, to make the lesson compatible with social distancing.

The Ministry of Education commended Torrelo and the project for engaging the students’ language and artistic skills, and for being cross-curricular, since it required them to use math and geography skills in addition to language, and also got them moving around. Torrelo also submitted a video to the organization explaining the project as part of the application process.

In an interview last week, he said creating similar lessons was the norm for him pre-pandemic, but this year he was forced to create a project that could be done half at school and half at home. 

“I was trying to figure out a way to do something engaging but at the same time trying to be safe,” Torrelo said. “It was a challenge because we had the groups split in two: some kids were coming two days a week, and the others the other two days. You had to put all the pieces together.”

Although the hybrid schedule came with difficulties, Torrelo said the second half of last year, when his students were learning entirely over Zoom for five months, was more difficult.

But since he teaches fifth-graders who have now been immersed in Spanish through six years of classes, Torrelo said his students struggled less than students in the lower grades who were just beginning to learn Spanish when the pandemic began.

All of his students are fluent in Spanish, he added, and the most developed skill they have is understanding the language, which is less complex than speaking and writing.

The level of proficiency of students in the program, he said, is high, and was demonstrated in his early years at Lyseth teaching first-graders, when he took the students to do activities with students at Casco Bay High School. 

“My kids were proud and said, ‘we speak better Spanish than the high schoolers,” he recalled.

Torrelo is originally from Madrid, Spain, and like other teachers in the immersion program, was brought to Lyseth on a cultural exchange visa coordinated by the Ministry of Education.

He has always wanted to teach in an English-speaking country, he said, especially because he wants his two daughters to be able to speak the language fluently. The United States was more appealing to him than English-speaking European countries closer to Spain.

It feels good to be recognized as Teacher of the Year, Torrelo said, especially because he did not often feel valued by the administration at schools where he taught in Spain.

“I’m proud of having won this award,” he said.