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Teacher Spotlight: Sylvan Park’s early ed teacher Diego López on exposing preschoolers to technology without limits

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | September 25, 2019

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Diego López has been part of the Los Angeles Unified School District since he began his education in a Head Start program at age 3 when he emigrated from Mexico with his family and settled in LA.

He attended LAUSD schools as a special education student and is now a teacher at Sylvan Park Early Education Center in Van Nuys, where he led the creation of the district’s first early education STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math — program certified by L.A. Unified’s Division of Instruction.

López has been instrumental in making technology accessible to preschoolers. He uses robots, tablets, computers and other electronic devices on a daily basis in class. Students also have science, math and reading classes. His goal in the classroom is letting them explore their own way to learn because he believes that first and foremost, they should have fun while learning to use technology.

When López graduated from high school, he began working as a school volunteer and later as a parent committee coordinator and custodian for about a year at a school in the Valley. But he realized his goal was to become a school leader, so he decided it was time to enroll in community college. He graduated from Los Angeles Valley College with an associate degree in early education, landing his first job as a teacher’s assistant at Noble Early Ed Center. In 2017, he began teaching at Sylvan, where the majority of children are from immigrant families, growing up much like López did.

“We should not limit the kids, because when we limit them, we limit what they can do in that area. We don’t let them expand. It’s like with counting. We limit them to count to five and they will want to go just to five. If we don’t give them limits, they’ll go up to whatever number they can do,” he said.

LA School Report asked López about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as his goals for the 2019-20 school year. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are your preschool students expected to learn in your classroom?

My expectation of the kids is not to have everything memorized by the end of the year. My expectation (of the kids) is to be exposed. I feel that once they go into the future, go to other schools, once they hear the same content that I exposed them to, it will be much easier for them to understand it and much easier to pick it up. For example, I’m teaching them about the words coding, code and program, and when I talk to other teachers there in elementary school they are like, ‘Oh, you’re using those words.’ Another expectation is that they’re reading, coloring, knowing their shapes and numbers. We always read to the kids because that’s very important.

Their names, we read to them, we show them their names, we have them write it, sign in every single morning. And even if it’s just one line or scribble scrabble to them, that means a signature, that’s their name. What I’ve come to understand is that kids learn on their own and sometimes they learn better at their own pace. And when you give them the opportunity to write their name as they go on, they will eventually understand it and they’ll take more pride that they did it on their own. It wasn’t something that they were forced to do or something that they were guided every single step from beginning to end. We teach them methods when we’re coloring or drawing, but it’s not something we’re forcing them to do, so that it’s something passive.

What things are you doing in your classroom that you consider innovating?

The innovative part comes from me looking up just random things on YouTube about incorporating technology, robots in our classroom, how do I get coding for the kids? So I give them steps. I try to figure out how to make the kids be able to use it. Right now I have them play, make goals. Just make a goal with a ball. That (idea) came because I wanted them to know about their spacial awareness.

The next step will be blocking. I’m teaching them a little bit about some words, some code words, and getting them to understand either by color or code. Some of the computers that we have, we have them accessible (to them) at all times. So some of the kids already know how to turn them on. And there are some people, some adults that don’t know. Like my mom, she doesn’t know how to turn on a computer, but she knows how to use it. But these kids already know this press here, this press here, this press here. They figure it out. Sometimes with some of the teachers right here, (the students are) able to teach adults, they’re able to figure it out because they like to play and that’s all you do. You pretty much play around the things and that’s how you learn.

As adults, we kind of don’t really look into playing around with toys or materials as much. We tend to look more at how do we do this task and what do I need to learn to make this task work and we just want those simple steps. We don’t want to figure out everything else. For the kids, they just want to learn everything.

What has been your best moment or day as a teacher or one of your proudest accomplishments? And what keeps you motivated?

Trying to figure out more about coding. I don’t know, I like having fun in the classroom. I feel if I’m having fun, the kids are having fun. I’m not comfortable in a classroom and they’re probably not comfortable. Because some kids are — they will still be playing even though they’re having a hard time. But for me is — if I’m having fun and I’m learning — they’re doing the same thing. What keeps me motivated is … just having fun pretty much. Just having fun in the classroom.

What do you think either your school or the school district or even the state could do differently to better support teachers? 

Teaching the importance of technology. I think more of a personal training as to how to use the devices more often. Because what we got was the Chromebooks (from the district) I never used a Chromebook before, so I had to learn and figure out how to do certain things. Some teachers didn’t want to use them at the beginning, for an entire month. They had them and they didn’t even touch them. So I was just doing little workshops with them during lunchtime on ‘This is how you copy, this is how you print, this is how you make a new page, this is how you type it in, this is how you open it up, turn it on.’ Those basic skills and now they’re all using them. So I think when they give out new technology or new material they need to provide a little bit more training on it. And it’s not more of just like the standards, because they do teach us about the standards and the reasoning for why we’re using these materials. But the thing is also a little bit more of hands-on (training). I know once we get into those little steps of beginning and interacting over them (devices) and using them, the teachers are more willing to accept the technology.

What do you think is the biggest way parents could help you and other teachers in helping your students succeed? 

Well, I would say our parents help out a lot because already they are involved in the classroom. The parents don’t need to come and be in the classroom all eight hours or an entire day. It’s just them asking questions in the classroom like ‘Hey, tell me about this picture you drew’ and the kids just go and show them a picture. So the parents being in the classroom and showing interest in the student’s work allows the students to enjoy what they’re doing and like what they’re doing and makes the kids feel they’re appreciated for what they’re doing.

And at home, just read to them, talk to them, how’s their life going? How’s school life going? Parents if they have questions or concerns, they could come and talk to us. Some parents don’t know who to ask. The best person to go ask is a teacher. Sometimes the teacher has all these services, all of these opportunities, all these resources. It’s just that we don’t know what they want unless they come and ask us.

What are the major challenges faced by your students in their community?

We serve a low-income community, they don’t have access (to technology), not every parent has iPads. Not every parent has robots. They can’t afford $100 or $150 robots. And so we’re giving them those things that the kids need. We are exposing them to that at an early age, (things) that otherwise, they might not be able to get at home.

You were a special ed student. How does that help you in paying attention to the special needs of your students?

I think for me it’s more just not trying to get (students) on straight into special ed. It’s getting to understand the child and what they need. Because some kids they could function normal if they have what they need. There are some kids, they just need one little toy to hold onto the entire day or one little pillow or just this one certain person, and they can function normally. It’s just finding out what they need … I’m always trying to see how can we work with (those) kids, provide them with the services before we even try to push them into special ed. I was in special ed, but I didn’t need all the full services. I just needed a little bit more time to work on my English. I needed a little bit more time to catch up. For us teachers, if a child needs more time, then we give them more time. And that’s the way we run our classrooms, we run them on what the kids need. If they need bigger crayons, we give them bigger crayons and if they need different puzzles, we find the puzzles they need. If they need their own time-space, then we give them their own time. It’s by finding out what they need and how can we help them out.

What do you think is the most misunderstood part about your job?

Yeah, they (people) think I’m just here babysitting or just playing around with the kids. And the thing is that we’re not just playing around with them. We’re teaching them at the same time because our curriculum is set and we go by the curriculum, but it’s not just also following the curriculum exactly the way it’s written in the book. It’s adding to the curriculum, finding out what works in the break room and what works with my students. To me, to make up my lesson plan, it takes me up to an hour or two hours and we already have the lesson plans written, but I know that that lesson plan is not set to my students because we have 3-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds … We have all four different ages and each child’s at a different level. The books that are set for preschool to cover all of the ages. The thing is we have to take our time, figure out what our students need and how can we incorporate the lesson plan to their needs and to their level. And that’s what takes a bit of time, just making it, understanding our kids. First understanding the kids and then incorporate it onto their level.

What is the biggest thing that you think needs attention or needs to change in the education system? 

One thing I know is that we tend to work through materials a lot faster. Yes, we may use technology a lot more, but that doesn’t mean that we stop the kids from writing and coloring because those are consumable materials that they can just love to write and color on. They’ll go get paper and color it in and they’ll draw something and then they want another one to go and color it in and each one may look different, the papers, they all mean different things. They draw different stories, different things, different pictures. And if you ask a child, ‘What is that?’ they’ll tell you an entire different story.

We should not limit the kids, because when we limit them, we limit what they can do in that area. We don’t let them expand. It’s like with counting, we limit them to count to five they will want to go to five. We don’t give them limits and they’ll go up to whatever number they can do.

It’s always about how I’m making the materials work for the kids, (the materials) are not going to work for the kids themselves. So even if we bring it to the kids, let’s say if I bring them a computer, they’re eventually going to figure out how to make it work, but we can not give them something that’s directed for an adult. We could get them those materials, at the same time making it work for them, making it accessible to them.

What’s your goal for the next school year?

I do want to continue teaching early ed grades because I want to be able to teach them about technology and see how far, how much I could teach them about technology. And now I want to see if I could teach them (software) coding. I want to get some kids into and start being able to do block coding. Since I have the 5-year-olds this year, I want to see if I could get them to do block coding already. So I want to, these kids already, the ones in my classroom, they already come with a basic knowledge of the robots, so it will be one step closer to the coding now. For me personally, I think I just want to go back to Valley College and take some classes on coding. Maybe get a certification outside of school about security script certification.

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