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Steal an Idea from a Fishman Winner

Here's the latest from the TNTP Blog.

September 29, 2015

By Chris Arnold

What goes on in the classrooms of the best teachers in the country? Wouldn’t you like to know?

We did. So we spent the summer asking the 2015 winners of the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice endless questions and helping them write about what they do and how they do it. Today, you can read all about their classroom strategies and insights in Students Center Stage: Focusing Classrooms on Challenging Work, the fourth annual collection of Fishman Prize essays.

In Students Center Stage, the teachers reflect on a fundamental challenge that they are each tackling in different ways: how to step back in their classrooms in order to allow their students to lead the learning. The essays offer a unique window into the daily instructional practices of four of America’s most skilled educators.

More than that, though, they are touching, humane, and often funny portraits of these teachers and their students, written in their own voices. If you’re a teacher or a school leader, you might find a strategy in these teachers’ classrooms that you want to steal and start using tomorrow. In fact, everyone who cares about teaching should read these essays and learn from these teachers. They’re that good at what they do.

The Fishman Prize is, of course, a way to celebrate some of our best educators. This year’s winners—Erin Dukeshire, Erica Mariola, Zeke Phillips, and Stephanie Sun—are changing lives every day in their classrooms. They are making scientists, poets, and self-reflective writers out of middle schoolers. They’re empowering kindergartners to help each other learn to read. They’re creating joyful classrooms that foster curiosity and let students lead their own learning.

But the Prize is more than a celebration: It’s also a way for all of us to learn from these teachers—and for them to learn from each other. Every year, the winners come together for a summer residency with TNTP. In addition to collaborating on their essays, the winners spend the summer connecting in person and virtually to share ideas with leaders in education policy and research. Last week, we sat down with them to hear about the residency experience.

What did you take away from the Fishman Prize residency? Anything especially important that you’re thinking about as you return to the classroom this fall?

Erica Mariola: Everywhere we went, people were excited to talk to us because they “never get to talk to teachers.” That’s pretty telling about our education system.

Stephanie Sun: Yes. I’ve been thinking about how the people making decisions about what happens in our schools don’t always know what the day to day is like for teachers—what really happens at the ground level. For example, I don’t have time to go to the bathroom during the school day. Literally, I don’t have time. No one who hasn’t experienced being in a classroom all day really understands that. This summer, I started to understand my purpose beyond my classroom: helping those decision makers understand how policies and systems that are developed outside the classroom affect those of us who are in it.

Zeke Phillips: Like Stephanie said, we sat down with a lot of policy leaders who don’t have that first-hand experience of what it’s like to be in a classroom every day. Teaching is a really hard job. A lot of the things currently in place to improve student learning or teacher quality don’t support either of those things, and they don’t support the sustainability of the profession. The residency helped make my own thinking as an educator visible to myself. It’s easy to get caught in the weeds when you’re teaching every day. You’re not thinking about your own voice as an educator, and you don’t necessarily have a platform to share that voice. The residency helped me think more deeply about what I believe as a teacher, and how I can share those beliefs more widely. I also came out of the residency thinking about how these big questions in education so often get cast as oppositional—charter versus district, Common Core versus anti-Common Core. The truth is, all of us—on all “sides” of the education debate—are really just trying to figure out what makes a good school work.

Erin Dukeshire: As teachers, we have so many competing priorities. We’re thinking about so many things on any given day. Talking with the other winners about what they think is most important about their teaching practice helped me think through what I want to do with my classroom this year.

On that note, is there anything you’ll be doing differently this year, anything you’ll borrow from your fellow winners?

Erin: Erica has reminded me that joy matters in the classroom. It’s worth the time to sing and dance in your classroom. I’m going to remember that this year and make sure we’re committing enough time to the extra things that foster a joyful learning environment.

Erica: Erin talked a lot about how she has her students draw their thinking. I work with kindergartners and first graders, so my students draw a lot, but I never paid a huge amount of attention to what their drawings were actually telling me. I’m going to start looking at those drawings to better understand their thinking.

Zeke: I asked Stephanie to share her resources on how she uses Google docs in her lessons. She emailed me all these details about how to use them to provide real-time feedback to your students as they’re writing. So starting next week, I’m going to be using Google docs in my classroom. Thanks, Stephanie.

Stephanie: And I’ll be stealing Zeke’s entire poetry unit. Seriously, the way he integrates reading, writing, thinking, and speaking is just incredible. I’m not the best teacher I know. Meeting these three other amazing teachers has helped me grow. This is how you develop teachers—using the great teachers we already have as models.

Want to steal an idea from a Fishman Prize winner? Go inside their classrooms—and learn just how they take their students to such incredible heights—in Students Center Stage. And stay tuned for the launch of the 2016 Fishman Prize application season in late October, when we’ll begin searching for the next group of phenomenal, life-changing educators. 

Chris Arnold is Director of Communications at TNTP. 

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