The Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice recognizes 100 outstanding public school teachers each award year, celebrating four winners who are making a profound difference for their students and schools by leading challenging and engaging classrooms. Winners participate in a thought-provoking summer residency with their peers, reflecting and writing about the issues facing their students and their profession—and how they’re tackling those challenges in their classrooms. Each winner also receives a $25,000 award.
This year the Fishman Prize residency focused on a question that educators at all levels are discussing: How can more school experiences be academically rigorous and relevant to students’ lives and aspirations? For many, this feels like a choice teachers have to make. Do we focus on building essential academic skills or on creating classroom experiences that feel relevant to today’s students’ lives? It’s a question that digs at the root of the school experience. Is the purpose of public education to develop academic skills and knowledge, or to reach beyond academic skills to teach social, emotional, and civic lessons?
In the essays that follow, four incredible teachers show that the choice between rigor and relevance is a false dilemma. It is not only possible to help students learn essential academic content and apply it to their own lives, it is essential to a meaningful school experience. As you’ll see, there are multiple ways to do so that are authentic for both students and teachers in classrooms across the country.
At a time when student experiences inside and outside of the classroom are increasingly complex, these teachers are united in their belief that no two students are the same, but that all students have the right to demand a challenging and inspiring day at school each and every day.
Read the Essays
After studying Comparative Religion at Lake Forest College in Illinois, Matthew Patterson returned to his home city of Atlanta to teach English. He came to Banneker High School, a historically struggling school.
Alongside his colleagues, Matthew, who also has a Master’s degree from Agnes Scott College, has been working to change the school's reputation: For 6 of his 10 years at Banneker, his students have been the only students in the school to pass any A.P. exam. Matthew believes that a trusting and thriving classroom culture is key to academic success. Under his leadership, his students see a drastically lower occurrence of discipline referrals than before entering his class.
If you ask Matthew about these accomplishments, he will give all credit to his students. “I'm the only thing that keeps us back,” he says. “The students are ready to rock.”
A big reason for Matthew’s success is his unwavering belief in his students’ abilities to exceed expectations, and his ability to give them access to challenging content framed in an engaging context. On any given day in his class, students might discuss the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast and German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in the same lesson. A classroom Twitter feed allows students to correspond with journalists and novelists and serves as a real-time window for parents to check in on their children's progress.
At Banneker, Matthew is co-chair of the English Language Arts department, whose students have scored higher than any other department in the building for years. His wide taste in literature is responsible for transforming the school’s English Language Arts curriculum from one that wasn’t very diverse to one that includes books specifically chosen for both academic rigor and relevance to his students’ experiences. “He works hard to be a transformative teacher, and our students truly love him,” says his assistant principal.