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Teaching for the Future, Fourth-Grade Teacher Amanda Christensen of Mitchell, South Dakota, Earns $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Empowerment and Connection Are Key Pillars in Longfellow Elementary Teacher’s Classroom

January 04, 2017

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Preparing today's students for tomorrow's workplace is the cornerstone of Amanda Christensen's fourth-grade classroom where engaging lessons highlight communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. A proponent of Socratic Seminars, Christensen plans lessons with open-ended discussions that encourage children to lead with questions and listen to fellow classmates. Respectful of multiple perspectives, Christensen's students problem-solve together, and easily navigate the digital world with technology and apps to present their work.

This morning, Christensen was presented with the prestigious Milken Educator Award for her forward-thinking teaching methods rooted in the development of 21st-century skills. The honor comes with a $25,000 cash prize for her to use as she chooses. Longfellow's "lions" roared with congratulations during an all-school assembly secretly planned in her honor.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard joined Milken Educator Awards Senior Program Administrator Greg Gallagher at Longfellow Elementary School to bestow the Award upon Christensen, surrounded by South Dakota Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp and Mitchell School District 17-2 Superintendent Dr. Joseph Graves.

Christensen is the only Milken Educator Award winner from South Dakota this year, and the first from Mitchell School District 17-2 since 2003. Christensen is one of up to 35 honorees who will receive this national recognition for 2016-17.

This season marks the 30th year of the Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching."

Christensen connects her classroom activities with everyday applications, and takes initiative in leadership positions on campus and in her school district. These teachable moments exhibit to students the impact education will play throughout their lives.

"Amanda Christensen is a lifelong learner, regularly researching the 'next big thing' that she can bring into her classroom to pique the interest of her students," said Dr. Jane Foley, Milken Educator Awards senior vice president and a Milken Educator (IN '94). "It's that sense of wonder and curiosity that opens the minds of children to be proactive in their learning, whether leading class discussions to refine analytical thinking or steering group projects to promote teamwork. These life-building skills go beyond academic success toward character growth that will shape America's future."

"Teachers are the foundation of a quality education," said Gov. Daugaard. "It's an honor to be part of this special recognition for one of our state's educators. I commend Amanda for the great work she is doing in both her classroom and her community."

"There are so many great things happening in South Dakota classrooms," said Dr. Schopp. "Amanda Christensen's classroom is one such example. I feel deeply fortunate on days like this to get to celebrate the teaching profession. I'm excited for Amanda and proud of all of our state's teachers who make a difference in the lives of students every day."

Christensen finds creative ways to get students involved in their learning. She helped them enter a writing contest held by Mantis Digital Arts, an educational video game developer in Brookings, South Dakota. When the class produced the first-place winner and several runners-up, the company's founder visited to hand out the awards.

Realizing that the class needed to hit a number of content standards in science, Christensen presented the list to the class, grouped students by interest, and had each group research, plan, and execute an experiment related to one standard. At the end, each group presented its experiment and findings to the class, using programs like Prezi or PowerPoint as visual aids. Christensen also works hard to use best practices in teaching reading. Her diligence pays off: Christensen's students routinely exceed expectations on district STAR assessments, gaining at least 100 points over the year.

Walk by Christensen's classroom and you might hear a chorus of animal noises during a lesson on figurative language and onomatopoeia. When several students shared with her their passion for fantasy novels, Christensen dove into a popular series herself so they could compare their progress and discuss the characters. Christensen sets out daily objectives for their lessons to emphasize accountability and independence. Known for her ability to engage even the most reluctant learners, Christensen shows interest in her students' lives, makes sure they feel valued, and reminds them that they have a purpose in life.

To connect students with the community, Christensen partners with LifeQuest, a nearby facility for adults with developmental disabilities. Several times a year LifeQuest residents visit Christensen's class, where students read to them. The students make birthday cards for their LifeQuest friends, many of whom donate supplies to the classroom. At year-end, the class and LifeQuest residents replant the facility's flower beds together. The relationship with LifeQuest introduces the students to potential career paths and gives Christensen a rich foundation for conversations about tolerance and respecting people's differences.

Christensen serves on Longfellow's technology committee, co-advises the student council and sits on Mitchell's district English Language Arts curriculum review team. She tutors students after school and over the summer, and teaches in Longfellow's Lions Academy, a summer skill-building program. Christensen forges relationships with parents, inviting them into the classroom to volunteer and keeping in touch via phone, email and the ClassDojo app, which gives them immediate feedback and updates. A willing mentor whose positive attitude lifts up those around her, Christensen shares lessons, offers technology tips and helps others get new projects off the ground.

Christensen earned a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education in 2011 and a Master of Arts in reading in 2015 from Augustana University.

More information about Christensen, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, Christensen’s honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top principals, teachers and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2016-17 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum this spring in New Orleans. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about the importance of maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards program, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients’ careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children’s education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at,,, and

For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation, is in its 30th year. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.