Building a Culture of Family

by | 08.30.17

Anthony Johnson teaches fourth- and fifth-grade math in Salisbury, North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @a_p_johnson and click here to check out more about Johnsonville.

When I was younger, I never had dreams of becoming a teacher. As a matter of fact – and I know this sounds awful – I didn’t really like teachers. When I was a kid, my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t learn. It was the environment. My teacher sat at her desk, and I sat at my desk and did worksheets. I couldn’t connect, and I failed four grades before I left school altogether.

Life got harder, and I dealt with my fair share of struggles before moving to a new state. Living in a new place, not knowing anybody, I had time to sit and think. I looked at my struggles and asked myself, Where did I go wrong? My life went wrong when I was in the fourth grade, when I was messing around in school. When that revelation hit, I couldn’t ignore it. It led me to go back to school and become a teacher.

I just finished year 14 as an educator.

Giving students something better than what I had.

Remembering where I got lost, I’ve prioritized engaging and exciting my students and leaving spaces for their voices to fill in. I want them to know that we’re a community and all need to play our part. Johnsonville came out of that.

Johnsonville is a community where my students have the real-world experience of earning “money” by doing projects, and they use their money to buy things they want – and everyday necessities in class. They come to work (you know, the classroom), and have the opportunity to earn $100 a day. They use it to “rent” their seat at a table, on a stool or on the couch. When I bring donuts to class, they use their money to buy their treat if they want one. Through this experience in project-based learning, students learn math and science alongside life skills.

And sometimes, like in life, students experience hard lessons. Kids will mess around, and when I bring in snacks like donuts or something they really want, they regret not doing the work. They’re saying, “I’m sorry. I’ll do better.” But life doesn’t go that way – I know it firsthand. On the first day of school, I always tell students, “If you don’t pay attention to your education, I know what kind of life you’re going to live. I’m going to give you 110%, and you need to give me the same effort.”

It’s all paying off, too. My students are developing a sense of responsibility and ability to think critically that will serve them their whole lives. But it’s showing up in test scores as well. At the end of the 2016 school year, my students scored an average of 85 percent on the state science exam, almost 30 points higher than the rest of the school.

Sharing Johnsonville with others.

If I’m giving this my all, it also means I’ve got to give it something new. My #OneSmallThing for this year is to share Johnsonville, both with other educators and for my students. Word gets around in the building about Johnsonville, and sharing with my colleagues how it’s engaging kids and building this family in our class makes them want to learn more. They start thinking about what they can do to go outside the box and make room for students’ voices. It means a lot to be surrounded by that kind of willingness and openness.

And sharing Johnsonville for my students means we’re going to do weekly broadcasts from our community this year. I believe when we engage students on their terms, we’ll bring out their best. Think about this: You have a lot of students with social media accounts. I have a kid on YouTube with 100,000 follows. When you give students a regular school assignment, they know they have an audience of one – their teacher. What’s going to engage them more: Creating something just for you, or something for a real audience? What if you had them post their project online, to a class YouTube or Instagram account?

When you give kids a platform, they find their voice. They’re more into it. That’s what these Johnsonville broadcasts will do.

Kids deserve this.

I have people ask me sometimes, “Why do you do this? Why do extra?” But here’s the thing: The kids deserve it. We can’t afford to not give these kids all we can. Look at the problems in the world right now. When I see adults having a hard time in my city, I always think, “That kid was in fifth grade at one point. He was a fifth grader. What was his experience like?”

I want more for my students. I want my kids to solve problems – and they do. They’re active. They’re excited. That’s what Johnsonville is about. It’s about making sure all my students have a real future ahead of them.

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