“Krak.” Walk by room 1033, and you may hear Spanish teacher Milton Diaz casually utter what has become his trademark mantra. The phrase was invented by Diaz and an old friend. “There’s no real definition to the word. It’s kind of an onomatopoeia,” Diaz said. Despite its shortcomings in semantics, “Krak” is one of Diaz’s tricks to lighten up the class’ mood.
Making Spanish class interesting and fun is another one of Diaz’s trademarks. He has been teaching at Stuyvesant for over 13 years, and his interactive teaching methods have captured the attention of students and teachers alike. Diaz hopes his teaching style will help students not only learn Spanish but also help them to appreciate the culture of Spain. He believes that learning a language should be an experience, not simply memorizing verb conjugations. To this end, he employs a variety of techniques to liven up the classroom.
Diaz emphasizes to his students that it is equally important to learn inside and outside the classroom. “We need to encourage our kids to go out there, and learning doesn’t necessarily always happen in a classroom or because a kid opens a book and reads page 55 and does the exercises,” Diaz said. He often takes his students on trips that can give them a greater understanding of Spanish culture. Last year, he took his students to see a play called Himmelweg (Camino del cielo), which was performed at the Repertorio Español theater. Diaz noted that the production “wasn’t exactly what the students expected in terms of a Spanish play. It wasn’t a flamenco show, a tango show, it wasn’t a typical thing that most people, not only Stuyvesant students, would think to see [from] a Spanish writer.” From Diaz’s perspective, the most important aspect of the trip was the substantial in-class discussion among the students afterward.
If the class can’t go on these trips, Diaz tries to bring culture to the classroom. “We did a tribute to a Chilean writer, Pablo Naruda, and we dedicated a full week to him here in Stuyvesant. The America’s Society was extremely supportive and they also brought in people from Chile to talk to students who were writers and it was a rich experience,” he said. In another effort to make the class more interactive, Diaz organized a memorial called the Madrid Memorial which focused on the Madrid terrorist bombings of 2004.
Diaz’s students appreciate the holistic approach he has for teaching Spanish. His class is an experience that many Stuyvesant students treasure. “He made the classroom into such an intimate setting,” junior Sam McKay said on his experience with Diaz.
Sophomore Risham Dhillon extolled how Diaz supplemented the Spanish textbook curriculum with short stories and plays. “He tries different ways to get the information across to us,” Dhillon said. “I’d never had a Spanish teacher that went to those lengths.” Risham also liked the general atmosphere of the classroom. “That class was always a nice, relaxing treat during the school day,” he said.
Diaz followed a circuitous path before becoming a teacher at Stuyvesant. He grew up in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science. In his senior year he was accepted in early admissions to Sarah Lawrence College. Initially he pursued a double major, which was pre-medicine and drama, but during his second year of college, Diaz changed directions after having the opportunity to study abroad in Spain.
“[Going to Spain] was something I always wanted to do since I was a little kid because I played the classic and flamenco guitar and I danced flamenco, so Spain was a place connected to being Spanish and speaking Spanish,” Diaz said. His love of Spanish language and culture was deep rooted and he owes much of this to his time abroad. Although his familial roots were in Puerto Rico, even as a young child he was fascinated by Spain and Spanish culture.
In fact, he enjoyed Spain so much that he ended up living there for twelve years. However, his Spain he lived in was not characteristic of modern Spain. His time there was during a period of great turbulence and political tension. “While I lived in Spain, Spain was going through its own cultural revolution. It was going through a social, political, philosophical change. It was just after the death of Francisco Franco. And the country was coming out of 40 years of dictatorship, so there was an exuberance of energy and vitality and need to do things to really become a different country,” he said. During this period, he pursued theater and worked with a group of professional actors.
Eventually, he returned to the United States. Though he had originally majored in premed and drama and spent many years working in theater, Diaz decided to pursue a career as a teacher. Before working here at Stuyvesant, he taught at another specialized school, Brooklyn Technical High School. Naturally, having gone to the Bronx High School of Science, Diaz has always known about Stuyvesant, and jumped at the opportunity to teach here. “I saw that there was an opening here at Stuyvesant and I thought I would like to go to another school, in that case being Stuyvesant,” Diaz said. He currently teaches Spanish 3 and Spanish Conversation and Composition. During his first nine years Mr. Diaz taught Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish Literature. In this period, he also taught the second through fourth year courses of Spanish. “I particularly like teaching the AP Spanish Literature course because my background is in literature and I feel that it’s one of my strengths,” Diaz said.
Diaz is constantly trying to extend his own education. Outside of Stuyvesant, he switches roles to become a student in the several college courses he attends. Last year, he took a course in creative writing. “Writing is an important aspect of my life, so I try to cultivate that outside of school,” Diaz said. “I feel that no matter how old you are, if it’s something you’re passionate about, do it.” For example, his fascination with drama and the arts led him to take flamenco and ballet lessons.
Traveling has become another one of Diaz’s many passions. During the summer, he frequently visits places like Spain and France. This year he will go to Morocco to conduct a theater workshop in a Moroccan village. “It’ll be a workshop that incorporates voice and a voice technique called the link letter technique. It’s a vocal acting technique that I’ve been learning for a number of years,” Diaz said.
Don’t be surprised if this eventually gets incorporated in Mr. Diaz’s curriculum here at Stuyvesant. A man who is always thinking of his students, Diaz will go to any length to make his classroom into a hotbed of culture, creative lessons, and of course, learning Spanish.