Denver East High School, located in the heart of the Capital of Colorado, has 2,555 students, many of whom are learning Spanish as a second language thanks to Jennifer Wetzig. Though she is young, she has already mastered the art of engaging students and making her class impactful for all. She has taught Spanish at East High to all ages and levels of students during the past seven years, giving them opportunities and changing their lives, teaching them to open up their minds and hearts in order to learn about a culture other than their own.
As the clock turns to 6:45 am, Jennifer Wetzig pulls into the vast parking lot of Denver East High school. Every day is the same yet also inherently different. Her days all start at 6:45; creating lesson plans for 5 different classes, deciding drills for the girls’ soccer team she coaches after school, preparing for the mood swings and attention spans of high schoolers, but throughout the hours, and classes; motivation, skills, lessons, and conversations impact each day, making the job of being a high school teacher interesting and ever changing. “The second that bell rings at 7:30 I just sort of go,” she says. The monumental red and white brick stone building looms over, giving off a sense of power and countless memories that have been created there since 1876. The big red E is the distinct marker of historical value for not only the city of Denver Colorado, but multiple other neighborhoods that feed all sorts of varying students into it. For many of them, high school, and specifically East High school, is one of the only opportunities they have to dive into learning a language other than English and about another culture other than their own.
Wetzig has always had a knack for adventure. Growing up in Minnesota, she became used to the cool humid weather, but when her family moved back to her birthplace of Colorado, Wetzig decided to pack up her things and move to Chile. She was around 22 at the time, and after studying Spanish and Sociology/Anthropology in Minnesota, a teaching program in Chile grabbed her attention. Living with a host family, and traveling when possible, she spent about a year there teaching college students, something she claims “really solidified” her Spanish, and her ideas of teaching. She jokes about how it was funny culturally, “To be a tall blonde woman, teaching these folks who were similar in age to her, though, many times they wanted to be friends.” She has always been a mentor. Although, Chile was not the first Spanish speaking country she had lived in. During her junior year in college, she lived in Costa Rica, doing an ethnography on women in rural tourism, staying with two different host families. Getting a taste of the culture in the city of San Jose as well as in a smaller community. “It was crazy, I think about it now, I only had a bicycle, and I just rode around with a tape recorder…I still have my project,” she says laughing, her blue eyes sparkling as she reminisces. Her eyes turn to focus, speaking passionately about a problem that is still so important in today’s world, that she was studying in Costa Rica; women leaving the home to work on community projects with other women, and having the projects not last for very long because of the typical ideas of gender roles. After teaching in Chile, Wetzig decided to venture back to Denver, Colorado, realizing that she wanted to teach children, and specifically that she wanted to teach language to children. “Everything I had led on my path was really education based, and I absolutely loved it,” she says. After this revelation, she went back to school and got her teaching license, working as a role model and educator in the Denver Public School system, which she has done for the past seven years.
For many students in the United States, having a couple years of language is needed to be admitted into college. Some students complete this requirement in high school, although they will forget most that they’ve learnt once entering college. For many others, however, the skills, interest and love for a new language and culture stick. It is this that Jennifer Wetzig wants students to acquire, a new relationship with Spanish speaking cultures, and a way to connect with the culture as well.
After receiving her teaching license, she began her path in working with high schoolers, some of the greatest and most stubborn people on the planet. East High school is urban, huge, extremely diverse, and the school spirit is contagious. “Teachers go to East and they don’t leave, they love the school. It is a challenge, but also such a great community of both faculty and, even more importantly, students,” she says. She then laughs, pauses and fondly states, “this sounds kind of cliché; but it was East that chose me…well I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but I just knew that I couldn’t teach in one of those square jail like buildings, and I play and coach soccer. I knew the soccer community at East was big, so that also helped add to my decision.”
She has taught many different levels of Spanish at East, although now she’s mainly teaching juniors and a mixture of freshmen/sophomores. Her students are motivated to learn, and she claims that throughout the past couple of years, thanks to some middle schools now pushing their students to begin learning languages, students are becoming stronger in their skills. She has noticed there is less apathy in classes, meaning kids are more interested in learning, although that depends entirely on where students attended middle school. Unlike many schools in Europe, there is a direct inequality in the United States on having the opportunity of learning a second language based on many factors, your city, neighborhood, race, social class and the school district you are enrolled in. Although it is not mandatory until high school, Denver East works hard to make sure every student has the opportunity to succeed in their language classes. Learning a language is hard, no matter where you are, but throwing it in while learning six other high school classes, and being with 32 other classmates, makes it immensely challenging. Wetzig has tricks up her sleeves to help grab student’s attention and motivate them to continue learning and to realize the advantages that learning Spanish brings them. She’s found that songs, connections to her abroad world thanks to Chile and Costa Rica, and interactive activities like facetiming or skyping with her host families or friends abroad, all play an important role in the students’ learning. “It is huge for kids to sit in a classroom and try to interact with someone abroad, realizing that WOW this person lives in Spain,” she says. “It is important to bring culture into it. Having students watch shows, or music videos, makes it fun, yet also allows them to learn in a different manner. Because, let’s face it, just grammar charts will drive kids away, especially if it’s a kid that doesn’t even really want to be there in the first place. The best times are when you actually laugh,” Jennifer explains. She also emphasizes how important it is to make teaching about the kids, something she promotes not only in a school/learning setting. She makes a point out of having conversations with and about her students’ lives, simply chatting to help them with conversation, but also to get to know her students more. “Language is the way you communicate, but it’s also different, it’s a way of being and thinking and seeing the world. I try to bring those cultural elements in.”
Jennifer Wetzig has been working with East towards getting more students of color into higher language classes. She also hopes to help students open their minds. “Denver is a city that has so many Spanish speakers. Of 90,000 kids in DPS, there are probably 65,000 that have Spanish in their homes. I want them to recognize how common it is, or that their neighbors speak it. I love when students come up to me and tell me that they had to sell food for their sports team, and went to a house and the family only spoke Spanish and they were able to communicate with them. I love when kids realize that Spanish is in their own neighborhoods.” Her students learn to raise their tolerance, throw away their ignorance, and move away from the idea that this is the United States and we only speak English.
Wetzig genuinely enjoys her work. “I love laughing with the kids and having those moments where we really do get to know each other. I love the passion I have about not just teaching Spanish but what I teach about Spanish, putting my twist on it. And it’s fun to hear from alumni, like you. It’s amazing to see the growth and long-term impact my classes have had on you. Or when a student comes back who I remember never came to class but then say: ‘Ms. Wetzig, I studied abroad, or I watched a season of this show’, and it could be something so little, but I know I helped make an impact on them.”
She’s constantly taking notes about what worked for what class, what her students liked, what she liked, what she wants to improve and what she learns each day. “One day feels like, oh I can plan a day, but the interesting thing about teaching is that it just keeps going, every single day, and sometimes your clientele, doesn’t want to be there.”
This would have also been her seventh-year coaching soccer, but due to COVID-19 the season isn’t happening. She has been an avid soccer player her whole life, playing while she was in college. She doesn’t mind staying later at school some days, because it allows her to connect and meet with students in a different way, teaching them skills outside of the classroom.
Wetzig has also worked for many years with a small NGO called Global Works. Now they have a local organization in Colorado that offers scholarships to students who wouldn’t normally get the chance to go abroad, practice their language skills and do service learning. So far, she has given four of her female students the opportunity to go abroad and bring their experience and impact back home. She has a student who volunteers with writing letters and communicating with people who are awaiting trials at ICE facilities, or other students who volunteer at hospitals working to translate to patients. Through these experiences, Wetzig helps these students get a little taste of what you can do to help the world using your skills.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The amount of people in the world who speak Spanish is rapidly increasing, along with the desire and need to learn it. Jennifer Wetzig has devoted her life and career to giving students in Colorado’s biggest city, opportunities to connect themselves and their city to learning Spanish, hoping to not only teach them a beautiful language but also important aspects of the Spanish speaking culture, challenging them to go outside their previous knowledge of life, and explore a whole new world and way of life. •