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Eighth Grade Social Studies Teacher Jamie Karaffa Surprised with Milken Educator Award

In a surprise assembly today, Jamie Karaffa, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for her service as a classroom and community leader, innovative approach to creating classroom-to-life connections that make history come alive for her students, and ability to challenge and inspire students to think critically about important historical issues and current events.

Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop and Maine Deputy Commissioner of Education Dan Chuhta surprised Karaffa with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Karaffa is one of only two educators in Maine and among more than 60 nationwide to be recognized with the Award during the 2021-2022 school year. She is the first recipient awarded in the RSU 16 School District. Earlier today, third grade teacher Hillary Hoyt received the Award at a surprise assembly at Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport.

Hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it.

“Jamie makes ancient history feel just as relevant to her students as today’s current affairs, and both come alive in her classroom,” said Bishop, who herself is a 2001 Milken Educator from Virginia. “She challenges her students to think critically and become engaged citizens of their community – and that is a learning outcome that can truly last a lifetime. For her excellent work in and out of the classroom, we are thrilled to present her with this Award today.”

The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award.

“Jamie Karaffa makes history come alive for her students by creating immersive, project-based opportunities that build connections between the past and present day while also fostering the critical thinking and leadership skills needed to be engaged and empowered citizens,” said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin. “Her passion, creativity, and leadership extend to her role as soccer coach and as a curriculum leader in her district and beyond. The Maine Department of Education is so proud to join the Milken Family Foundation and the entire RSU 16 community in honoring Jamie with this well-deserved recognition.”

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year’s winners in a video message shared earlier this year thanking “the most incredible educators around the country” and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the “tireless work” they do.

Following the surprise announcement, Karaffa said she was shocked and stunned and she told the school audience, “This isn’t my award alone–this is because all of you as well.”

More about Jamie Karaffa:

Making Classroom Connections to Life: Karaffa helps students understand the connections between history and their own lives. She and her colleagues at Whittier Middle School organize Whittier History Day, when the entire school comes together to share long-term research projects for National History Day. Students learn the essentials of research, including locating sources and evaluating their reliability, forming thesis statements, finding evidence to support their ideas, and structuring their arguments in a clear, compelling way. Pupils learn to write with purpose, format citations, edit their work, and formally present their projects. Many of Karaffa’s eighth-graders have been recognized for their work at the state level, and one student’s project was displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Challenges Students’ Critical Thinking: Throughout the year, Karaffa engages students in units that encourage them to examine the past and think about how it relates to current events. Her curriculum integrates essential reading, writing and research skills into foundational elements of U.S. and world history, including Reconstruction, segregation, the civil rights movement, World War II and the Holocaust. Karaffa emphasizes working with primary documents as students learn through document-based questions, gallery walks, talk shows, historical sing-alongs and mock elections. She challenges students to become engaged citizens. During election seasons, the class debates local and state legislation, analyzes propaganda tools and candidates’ speeches, and writes essays supporting their chosen candidates, always providing evidence to support their choices. Students understand what is expected of them and regularly exceed those expectations, finding their own voices along the way.

Classroom and Community Leader: A leader in the building, district and beyond, Karaffa has helped develop district and state social studies curriculum, including remote learning units that proved essential during the pandemic. She is a James Madison Fellow, has led professional development at the district level, and has presented at the Maine Council for the Social Studies conference. In addition to her academic work, Karaffa coaches Whittier’s eight-grade girls’ soccer team.

Education: Karaffa earned a bachelor’s in elementary education from Elizabethtown College in 2005 and a master’s in American history and government from Ashland University in 2021.

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

More about the Milken Educator Awards: “The future belongs to the educated.” Along with the financial prize, Milken Educator Award recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education.

  • In June, the honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFFs) mentoring program, in which freshman Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.
  • Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients’ careers.
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to serve in leadership roles at state, national and international levels.
  • “We find you. You don’t find us!” Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation.
  • The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children’s or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children.

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