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2021-22 Above & Beyond Award winner: Matt Van Zee

award winner Matt Van Zee“Nothing helps a student learn and open up quite like a great book.”


In Matt Van Zee’s 8th grade English class at Roosevelt Middle School, this simple idea stands as the foundation for a successful classroom experience. He has applied for - and received - four grants from the Anoka-Hennepin Educational Foundation (AHEF) to build a dynamic classroom library that has something to get every one of his students excited about reading. He uses comic books as one way to engage English language learners and struggling readers, and he’s found so much success with this genre that he’s helped four libraries within Anoka-Hennepin Schools to build comic libraries of their own. He’s also used an AHEF grant to purchase graphic novels for school book clubs and arranged a Q&A session with a notable comic book author as a culminating activity for the clubs. 

Daily, I confer with students about their reading, and I will go to great lengths to find that perfect book for them,” he said. “My late night trips to the library or comic shop provide powerful reading fuel for kids.” 

Caitlin Marfiz, one of Van Zee’s students and his nominator for the Above & Beyond Awards, agreed. 

“Mr. Van Zee always makes sure we have some amazing piece of literature to read in class,” she said, adding that he does everything in his power to make sure students understand what they’re reading and can be successful in his class. 

Marfiz said she started out the school year as a quiet member of the class, but she said Mr. Van Zee helped coax her out of her shell by making it clear that it’s ok to make mistakes and that his classroom would always be a place where students can feel safe and free from judgment. 

“Since the beginning of the year, Mr. Van Zee has always been a caring teacher,” she said. “He helps out with making sure everybody in his class can express themselves and be the person they want to be.”

“The personal connections I’ve made with students over the years are the essence of what I do,” Van Zee said. “I take very seriously my responsibility to my students, that they feel supported and honored and cared for in my class. Each day, I hold a small piece of the future, and I want that future to be one of empathy, progress, and hope.”

The 2022 Above & Beyond Awards ceremony to honor Van Zee and 13 other exceptional employees will take place April 13 at the Educational Service Center (ESC).