Fifth graders in José Iván Sabau Torrelo’s Spanish immersion class at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland put together clues as part of Operación Museo, a weeks-long project to solve six fictitious cases of stolen Spanish art. Contributed / José Iván Sabau Torrelo

José Iván Sabau Torrelo, a fifth-grade teacher in Lyseth Elementary School’s Spanish Immersion program, has a simple philosophy of education: Make learning fun.

“My theory is, if you don’t have fun, the kids won’t. If they get bored, it is impossible to showcase your passion,” Sabau Torrelo said. “I am always asking myself, ‘What would be a fun way for them to get engaged with what they are learning?'”

Sabau Torrelo Contributed / Portland Public Schools

It was that philosophy and a project he designed in which his students played detectives working to break up an international ring of art thieves that caught the attention of the Ministry of Education, Embassy of Spain. The ministry recently named Sabau Torrelo the 2021 Teacher of the Year. An elementary school teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, and a middle school teacher in Miami, Florida, were also finalists.

“Using a dynamic, cross-curricular and student-centered approach, students used their artistic and language skills and explored information about Spanish painters, like Miró and others, as well as geography, mathematics, physical education and culture to solve the case,” said the Ministry of Education, Embassy of Spain in announcing the award.

The ministry is in charge of promoting Spanish language and culture in school systems across the United States and Canada, training Spanish teachers in both countries and managing the English-Spanish bilingual program in Spain.

The two-month detective project, Operación Museo, came on the heels of another Sabau Torrelo project in which his 16 students, studying Spanish artists, created their own art museum. The premise of Operación Museo, he said, was that Spanish police needed help from his 16 students because of their expertise in Spanish art. After training for “detective licenses,” the students used sleuthing skills to decipher secret messages and clues to solve six cases of stolen art from Spanish museums. Along the way, they also had to use their skills in math, geography, writing, art and language.

“We aren’t just teaching Spanish, we are using Spanish to teach something else,” said Sabau Torrelo, a native of the Canary Islands in Spain, who came to the United States from Madrid to teach in the Lyseth program three years ago.

Carlos Gomez, the district’s director of language development, said Sabau Torrelo’s “creativity and energy help students to learn language while they learn content and culture, making for a rich, memorable and life-changing experience for his students and colleagues at Lyseth.”

Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams said Sabau Torrelo is committed to finding ways to connect real-life experiences to the classroom.

“Operación Museo embodies Iván’s approach and beliefs about what and how students should experience learning,” Williams said.

Last year, Lyseth Elementary School, home to the state’s only Spanish immersion program, won the Ministry of Education, Embassy of Spain’s School of the Year 2020 Award in the elementary school category for its “enthusiasm and dedication to the Spanish language and culture.”

Through the immersion program, which is taught by educators from Spain and Mexico, students in kindergarten and first and second grades receive Spanish instruction throughout their lessons, but classes like art, music and physical education are taught in English only. By fifth grade, half of the students’ school day is in Spanish.

The program was started in 2014 with one kindergarten class and now includes more than 100 kids and recently expanded to sixth grade at Lyman Moore Middle School.

José Iván Sabau Torrelo, center, was named Ministry of Education, Embassy of Spain’s 2021 Teacher of the Year for a project he did with his students in which they were detectives solving an international art heist. Contributed / José Iván Sabau Torrelo

Comments are not available on this story.