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A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer Murphy's fifth-grade class got a fresh perspective on education. They came to class at Sayre Elementary in South Lyon, Mich., crawled under their desks, lay on their backs, and looked up.

It sounds like a child's dream class. In this case, the students were reading "From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankwiler," in which two children run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the process learn about Michelangelo. The Sayre kids were also studying the artist, and Murphy announced that since he painted the Sistine Chapel's ceiling from a challenging angle, her students should get a taste of the experience. And since he depicted scenes from a book – the Bible – they could illustrate the undersides of their desks with events from either "The Mixed Up Files" or "The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles."

It's lessons like that one that likely tipped the Milken Family Foundation's decision to give a stunned Murphy a $25,000 National Educator Award at a surprise all-school assembly last week.

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Murphy says she got the painting-lesson tip from another teacher a few years ago. But it fits her creative approach to learning: "I try to find something fun: games, movement, something that will stick with them that's related to a topic."

In her seventh year on the job, Murphy says she teaches because "kids appreciate everything you do, and when you do your job, they learn." Her goal is to "emphasize how people have the right to learn, but also the responsibility to help each other, and to come to school prepared." She says she'll use the award in part to pay off school loans. Her students are arguing for pizza every day. But they may know they already have a prize in a year's worth of memorable teaching.

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