LOS LUNAS — Sundance Elementary School teacher Lacy Rivera says she is honored to be recently named a 2023 National Lowell Milken Center Fellow, and grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow with great minds.

Rivera, who’s been working in the Los Lunas Schools district since 2011, was also awarded the prestigious Milken Educator Award in 2019. She most recently taught sixth grade, but will begin teaching fourth grade in the upcoming school year.

Lacy Rivera was named a 2023 National Lowell Milken Center Fellow.

The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kan., is an international educational non-profit. Rivera was among 12 exemplary teachers selected from across the globe for this year’s fellowship.

The LMC Fellowship is a merit-based award for educators of all disciplines who value the importance of teaching respect and understanding through project-based learning, according to a press release.

“Project-based learning is about independent and productive struggle. It’s a journey, and I think that it’s empowering for students to know that it’s OK to struggle, to make a mistake, even fail, but then you’ve got to pick yourself back up,” said Rivera. “The journey is really this kind of messy and wonderful space for all of that growth to happen.”

Through the fellowship, Rivera was invited to the LMC for a week of collaboration with other fellows to share knowledge, educational resources and support in helping students cultivate a passion for learning.

Upon completion, educators are then equipped with knowledge to develop unsung heroes projects with their students. The goal is to discover, develop and communicate the stories of unsung heroes of history in her classroom during the upcoming school year.

“Students appreciate biographies and the real story of people who lived throughout history, and I think projects like this help them conceptualize these abstract events that occurred,” she said. “It’s not about a timeline of events, it’s about people’s experiences during those time periods. That’s what humanizes history and helps us see how our own daily actions can make a change today.”

Rivera began teaching in 2009. She initially wanted to pursue a career in law, as she has always had a desire to make a difference.

“Laws shape the human experience, but after getting my undergrad (degree) at Notre Dame, I did a two-year teaching program called the Alliance for Catholic education dedicated to service in education,” she said. “I learned in those first two years of teaching that being in a classroom creates an opportunity for students to start to see themselves as the change-makers.”

After that, she taught for a year in Pascagoula, Miss., which she said had a big influence in the development of her core values in teaching.

“I was teaching after Hurricane Katrina, so we didn’t have a lot of textbooks and that really forced me to get creative with curriculum to meet standards,” said Rivera.

After spending a year teaching in San Antonio, Texas, Rivera moved back to New Mexico. For a couple years, she worked at the University of New Mexico with the Ronald McNair Scholars Program and the Research Opportunity Program.

“I realized that I missed being in the classroom, so in 2011 I found a job at Los Lunas High School and I’ve been working with LLS ever since,” she said.

Rivera felt humbled to be among those selected for this year’s fellowship, and said their cohort was invigorating and full of energy and exciting ideas. She is currently brainstorming ideas for how she plans to implement the unsung heroes project in her classroom.

“There’s already a list of little-known stories in history, so maybe we’ll have a hero of the week and at the end ask students to write about them and do some creative writing and also some artwork,” she said.

“But we also have heroes in our community, so at any given time students can ask themselves where am I seeing heroism today? They can interview family and ask them not just about their lived experiences, but also about moments in history that continue to resonate with the elders in our community that students need to tap into.”

Rivera said giving student’s the tools to find these great stories, not only helps them develop college and career-ready thinking skills, but they’re also elevating the stories of people who are heroes in our community.

“Then there’s the social and emotional side of this type of project that encourages students to think about themselves as citizens of the world,” she said. “It also starts to get students to see themselves as writers, thinkers, speakers and artists and I think that’s an invaluable lesson.”

Rivera said she hopes the unsung heroes project expands beyond her classroom, and by gathering up and curating the stories of unsung heroes, students can find and strengthen their voice as they tell their stories.

“I think it’s really important for students to know that we often have one idea of the hero but it’s typically many and that change happens within the collective,” she said. “It reminds us that in our everyday life, we can show courage, we can help one another. Heroes don’t just have a magic wand that makes them a hero. It’s the daily decisions that people make that become heroic over time.”

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Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.