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Say 'Hola!' To A West Virginia Spanish Teacher Who Goes Above And Beyond

William Denham
Daniel Walker/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Mr. William Denham, a high school Spanish teacher from Riverside High School in Kanawha County, was chosen as November’s winner of WVPB’s Above and Beyond Award, which recognizes excellence and creativity in and out of the classroom.

“What an honor it is to be recognized as a teacher that goes ‘Above and Beyond’ for their students,” Denham said. “I’m humbled by the fact that a community member outside of my educational community recognized my efforts and nominated me. I’m further humbled by the knowledge that so many teachers go above and beyond for their students and any one of them would be deserving of this award. I will do all that I can to continue to be deserving of this recognition. Thank you.”

WVPB Education Director Kelly Griffith surprised Denham with a visit to his school Wednesday and awarded him with a monetary award, a signature Blenko Above and Beyond blue apple paperweight, a certificate of recognition and a bevy of other special gifts made possible by the generous sponsorship of Advantage Technology.

Griffith said Denham is a humble man despite his accomplishments and drive to help his students excel beyond high school. “Clearly, Mr. Denham’s students are among the luckiest in the state to have him as a teacher. He exceeded every standard we set for this award. His love of Spanish and student success is apparent both in and out of the classroom. I’m honored to present this award to such a passionate and tireless educator.”

Denham whiteboard

Daniel Walker/WVPB
Photo credit: Daniel Walker/WVPB
A little Denham wisdom is tucked away on the edge of a whiteboard in his classroom at Riverside High.

Denham has been a high school Spanish teacher in West Virginia for more than a decade. He learned to speak Spanish growing up in Arizona and then on a mission in Argentina.

Emma Pepper, a member of the community, nominated Denham for the award. She noted that he’s an early adopter of the flipped classroom, routinely integrates authentic learning activities, believes in the link between the arts and language, and has been awarded grants to display reproduced murals of famous Spanish artists at Riverside. “These are murals most of his students otherwise would not have had the opportunity to see. He taught them about what was happening in history at the point those murals were painted, and he spoke about it in Spanish,” Pepper wrote.

Denham's book

Daniel Walker/WVPB
Photo credit: Daniel Walker/WVPB
Denham writes his own children’s books and uses them in class as teaching tools.

Every year, Denham brings in a singing group from Argentina to put on a concert open to any public high school whose students and teachers want to participate. All music is in Spanish. He makes learning fun for his students, often taking to Twitter to chat with them in Spanish about a relevant topic. To get extra credit, they have to respond in Spanish. He’s even had students from other schools participate.

Pepper said Denham “agonizes” over his in-class activities, trying to make sure his students are engaged. “He is not a workbook teacher. He sets up learning stations throughout his classroom and has students participate in a variety of activities. He doesn’t teach to a book, he wants students to be able to use conversational Spanish — Spanish they can use for the rest of their lives.” Denham writes his own children’s books and uses them in class as teaching tools.

He sees results. Last year, all of Denham’s AP students passed their Spanish AP exam, and two students he mentored have gotten into Ivy League schools, a first in Riverside history.

Dancey Howes, an elementary school teacher from Webster County, is the first state teacher to earn West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s monthly Above and Beyond Award, which recognizes excellence and creativity in and out of the classroom.
Photo credit: Daniel Walker/WVPB

Outside of the classroom, Denham revitalized Riverside’s food pantry, and for years, was responsible for its fundraising and food distribution. Now the pantry is run by students. He is the president of the West Virginia Foreign Language Teachers Association (WVFLTA) and has brought nationally renowned speakers to provide professional development for high school and college foreign language teachers. In that role, he advocated for the creation of the Seal of Biliteracy, which is placed on the high school diploma of any West Virginia graduate who meets certain language literacy benchmarks. The seal identifies for colleges and employers that the state has outstanding foreign language graduates.

Denham also has lobbied to change a law that prohibited legal foreigners from becoming teachers. “After all, who better to teach a foreign language than a native speaker?” Pepper said.

ABOUT ABOVE AND BEYOND: The nascent program began during the early days of the pandemic lockdown when WVPB employees started seeing the creativity teachers were using to connect with their students at home. We wanted to call attention to that kind of ingenuity and reward their efforts. Advantage Technology came on as a sponsor and the program launched in October.

OUR PANELISTS: Dr. Melinda Backus from Marshall University, Dr. Stephanie Burdette from West Virginia State University and Mrs. Beverly Kingery, retired teacher, administrator and superintendent.