Spotlight: Diana Lopez (TX '22)April 11, 2023
For Diana Lopez (TX ’22), the most meaningful part of her Milken Award notification was knowing her son Victor was watching: “There is something very special about looking at your child as they look back at you with pride in their eyes.” We surprised the third grade teacher at BASIS San Antonio Primary Medical Center Campus on February 10, 2023.
MFF: What do you like about working with third graders?
Diana: The absolute best part is how much they grow from the beginning of the year to the end. I love knowing that even though the topics we discuss will be challenging, the students will rise to meet that challenge. This is also the age when kids really start to catch on to humor. They laugh at my jokes and come back at me with their own clever humor.
MFF: How do you get students excited about reading?
Diana: My goal has always been to foster a love of reading in my students, as my teachers did for me. I like to boast that my classroom library is the biggest in the school! I believe that anyone can find a book to enjoy. Sometimes all that requires is giving lots of different genres a try. The “book tasting” I do each year has been the best way to do this.
First, I put tablecloths on the desks, along with plates, silverware, a vase with a flower, and an LED candle. This really sets the mood, like a formal restaurant. My favorite part is hearing the students “ooh” and “ahh” as they enter the room.
During the “appetizer” course, I introduce each of the genres. My co-teacher and I then place a variety of books on a silver tray and deliver each “main course” to the students, the way a waiter would. The students spend about five minutes “tasting” the book. They can start at the beginning, middle or end.
The students then record in their “menu” the title, genre, and their overall feeling about the book. They rate their “meal” on a scale of zero to five, indicating their interest in reading the book. Then they get another book and the process repeats. At the end, I create a list of all the books that students felt they must read immediately — the ultimate collection of recommendations for the class.
Towards the end of the school year, we begin “Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan. I absolutely love this book, and students look forward to reading it in third grade. At the end of the novel we celebrate Percy Jackson Day, when students dress up as their favorite characters. Most wear the well-known orange Camp Half-Blood shirt, but we also have our Ares, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. We play games tied to the novel, such as “guess the number of Cyclops eyes in the jar” and “pin the tail on Cerberus.” We also play a trivia game where the final reward is a laurel wreath.
I love nothing more than seeing my former students in the halls, clutching the next book in the Percy Jackson series. I once had a teacher ask me, “How does it feel to introduce students to a series that they continue to read even into fifth grade?” I told him it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Diana: I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. My mom was a teacher so I would spend time in her classroom or even help her with the students. I loved being at the school in the summertime when my mom worked. I always felt comfortable and safe.
MFF: Why is mentoring new teachers important to you?
Diana: I began the mentoring role at the start of the pandemic. Teachers were leading classes from home, so I worked to create curriculum and videos for remote learning for the BASIS Charter network. This allowed teachers to focus on their students’ specific needs without having to spend additional time making lessons that would work for remote instruction. Those lessons then served as guides for new teachers coming into the schools, giving them an idea of what lessons could look like. I was excited to be the point of contact for new teachers who were overwhelmed with the prospect of teaching humanities to third graders. I knew the burden I was taking off their shoulders, and it motivated me to continue.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Diana: I was opening a brand-new elementary school with a group of strangers. This was new for just about all of us. We were trying to figure out our curriculum, the students and the building layout all at the same time. I was so nervous that I would not know if what I was doing was right. Speaking with parents was terrifying! My administration was amazing. They offered any and all support I could have needed. They acknowledged the successes and helped solve problems when they arose.
I was also unbelievably lucky to work with one of the best teachers I know. She quickly established that third grade was a team and we would look out for one another. I have the privilege of working with her to this day. We have one of the strongest friendships I have known in my life. Every educator will say that there are no friendships like the ones you make with other teachers. She has had my back from day one, encouraging me when I am down or just laughing between classes. My team has anchored me to the teaching profession and shown me the true benefits of the co-teaching model.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Diana: My mom has always been a role model for me. I watched as she began teaching in kindergarten, moved up to elementary principal, and launched her school’s Montessori program. I saw how much she enjoyed her job and never heard her complain about the long days.
My English teachers were always my favorites. They introduced me to books that I never would have imagined I would have loved. I still remember reading “Where the Red Fern Grows,” the first time a book made me cry. I remember the rage I felt as I read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I remember discussing “Brave New World” and disagreeing with the rest of my class about the ending. I remember reading Dante’s “Inferno” during college and arguing that we had to read the next book to see our main character reach heaven. Those teachers made the biggest difference in my life and shaped my desire to find the perfect book for each student.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Diana: I was in total shock when I heard my name. It felt truly surreal. I felt as if I was outside my body and was just going through the motions. I remember hearing the students chant my name and hugging my friends with tears in my eyes.
The best part was that my son Victor [Cashen, a fourth grader at the school] was there in the room. He saw me accept my Award and joined me on stage. I know this will have a lasting impact on him, just as I was impacted seeing my own mother work hard as an educator. There is something very special about looking at your child as they look back at you with pride in their eyes. The Milken Award gave that to me, and I will be forever grateful.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Diana: Students still stop me in the halls and ask, “Did you really win $25,000?” They made me cards and showered me with hugs for at least a week after my notification. They told me how exciting it was for them to watch it all happen. I’m hopeful that at least one of my former students will be motivated to pursue teaching after watching my Milken Award surprise.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?
Diana: I plan to use part of the money to go to Hawaii for my friends’ wedding. Hawaii has always been on my bucket list and I thought it would never come true. I am a single mom and never imagined that I could actually take my son on a proper vacation to the one place I wanted to go. I also have a list of bills that will be taken care of immediately. I look forward to the financial burden being lifted off my shoulders. Teachers are painfully underpaid and I am no exception. This money changes my life and reduces the stress of paying bills.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Diana: “Progress, not perfection” is one of my favorite sayings. This is always how I measure success — we just need to be a little better than we were before. I never want to stay stagnant. I know I can always improve. The curriculum at my school is particularly rigorous and I tell my students all the time that we just need to make progress. I don’t expect perfection, and my students shouldn’t either. I emphasize that sometimes progress is slow, but the most important thing is that we keep striving to be better.
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Diana: That reading can take you anywhere you want to go. If they want to escape from life for a bit, all they need to do is read a book. I hope they remember my passion for issues like civil rights and women’s rights, and that learning about these topics at such a young age piques their interest. I hope they remember me for introducing them to Percy Jackson, the best book series. But most of all, I hope they remember that hard work can pay off and will be recognized in one way or another.
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