Anastasia Difino, an English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at PS 120 in Flushing, was recognized as one of the five grand prize winners of this year’s FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence on June 7.
The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence award, founded by Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, recognizes and celebrates extraordinary public school teachers who inspire learning through creativity, passion and commitment. This award is funded by The FLAG Foundation for Excellence in Education and by The Fuhrman Family Foundation.
Difino will receive a $25,000 cash prize, and her school will receive a $10,000 grant. The FLAG Foundation selected one grand prize winner per borough plus additional finalists and semifinalists.
For Difino, the work, time and energy she puts into her students and her school community comes naturally to her, and it never feels like a job, she said.
“It’s something I love with all my heart — to see their smiles, their growth, to see them shine, to see my school community thrive. Thank you for this recognition and for all you do for teachers that go that extra mile. This is definitely one of the best days of my life!” Difino said.
Difino has been a game-changing force at her school. She single-handedly altered the way fourth and fifth-grade English and Social Studies are taught at PS 120, a school with many immigrants and foreign language speaking students.
She introduced and wrote a curriculum that makes learning more fun for students, with units like “Christopher Columbus – Hero or Villain.” Her class is now used as a “lab classroom” by the city Department of Education (DOE) to instruct other teachers on successfully implementing this in their classrooms.
Difino is also one of the teachers asked to pilot the DOE’s “Civics for All” program in its first year of being incorporated at the school. She is helping design how each grade will approach various topics within the “Civics for All” umbrella as well as working with the student council on related school-wide initiatives.
Difino would like to use the grant money to expand the “Civics for All” program and create a Civics Art Club that would engage in projects across the school such as beautifying the school with murals.
The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence, which just completed its third year, received close to 1,000 nominations from students, parents, principals and fellow teachers.
An independent jury comprising education, community and philanthropic leaders, including Dr. Betty Rosa, commissioner of education and president of the University of the State of New York, selected the winners based on criteria that emphasize the student experience.
Additional jury members include last year’s winner, Dana Monteiro; Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem; Pam Haas, executive director of the New York region of Facing History & Ourselves; and Ashleigh Thompson, university dean for education of the City University of New York.
The $25,000 cash prizes for the winners are for teachers’ personal use. The additional school awards of $10,000 each are to be used for arts education initiatives with input from the winning teachers.
There are also 10 finalists who will receive $10,000 for their personal use and their schools will receive $2,000 each to use toward an arts-based initiative. 20 semi-finalists will receive $500 for their personal use and their schools will receive $500 each.
This year’s finalists of the FLAG Awards from Queens include Ariel Sacks from the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights and Cindy Wong from PS 41Q The Crocheron School in Bayside. The semi-finalists include Dr. Elechi Osueke from PS 136 Roy Wilkins School in St Albans and Jessica Siu from PS 41Q The Crocheron School.
According to Furhman, public school teachers are among the “most important pillars of our communities.”
“They make sacrifices year-round to educate and mold our children into the next generation of productive members of society,” Fuhrman said. “This year’s winners exemplify the best of the teaching profession. The teachers we got to know through this process all put forth a phenomenal effort to create environments where their students learn and grow and it is an honor to recognize these individuals.”
Risa Daniels, co-president of the FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence said this year’s winning educators “proved themselves to be outstanding individuals who had a tangible impact on the lives of their students.”
Laura Twersky, co-founder of The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence added, “It is truly a pleasure to recognize them for their tremendous work.”