Inspiring Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds

by Evan R. Cain ’18

What if the key to learning is not memorizing and repeating concepts, but developing self-awareness and critical thinking? Winner of the 2017 New Teacher Project Fishman Prize, Joshua Martinez ’04 puts this model to the test in his East Los Angeles fourth-grade classroom. Among other practices, he encourages students to move freely around the room, develop stress-relieving habits, and ponder concepts beyond the curriculum.

The results of Martinez’s efforts prove that incorporating innovative practices can bear exceptional results. Martinez’s students outperform their peers in the Smarter Balanced Assessment —about 82 percent of his students received advanced and proficient scores in math, and 92 percent received advanced and proficient scores in English, far exceeding the Los Angeles Unified School District’s averages of 31 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

In developing his pedagogy, Martinez stretches beyond “what” and “how” students should learn and instead asks, “Why should they learn?” His answer: To lead. “The education system in America is designed to effectively prepare our children for the workforce, yet career success alone does not ensure thriving,” said Martinez. “Our children must learn to cultivate a love of knowledge and form their own answers—to become scholars as well as learners.”

Martinez’s knack for exploring life’s biggest questions began at Azusa Pacific University. The 2004 Philosophy Student of the Year, Martinez says his time at APU encouraged the exploration of a fundamental question: What is a life well lived? “Curiosity, grit, and social intelligence are instrumental characteristics that define our ability to lead happy, thoughtful, and meaningful lives,” said Martinez. “I want my students to become incredible leaders who love books and ideas.”

Reading 1 million words per year, Martinez’s students more than triple the 300,000-word-per-year average of a typical fourth grader. “I want these children to outsmart the current generation of leaders and thinkers; to pursue challenging discussions without resorting to soundbites; to carefully evaluate news sources, engage in thoughtful reflection, and form educated responses—these are my hopes for them.”

The Fishman Prize recognizes Martinez as one of the country’s four most-inspiring public school teachers. Fishman Prize winners receive $25,000 and collaborate with the other recipients in a six-week summer residency program. Martinez visited various locations throughout the U.S., including Washington, DC, to discuss public policy related to education and meet with national education leaders. For the program’s capstone, Martinez produced an essay published by The New Teacher Project outlining his strategies on promoting students’ self-awareness and independence, including controlled-breathing activities and conversations about how to process emotions.

Through the residency program, Martinez’s contact with forward thinkers in education and policy-makers on Capitol Hill clarified the need for bright, young minds in the teaching profession. “We need inventive thinkers to become caring and invested teachers in underserved communities,” said Martinez.

For all of Martinez’s creative efforts, he insists that his successes are largely due to his students’ drive and passion. “My fourth graders are my inspiration. Ultimately, they have taught me far more than I could ever teach them.”

Evan R. Cain ’18 is a senior public relations intern in the Office of University Relations.