Why Mr. Johnson’s Classroom Is More Fun Than Yours
An elementary educator’s own academic struggles inspired him to use a project-based approach that simulates real life—and boosts test scores.
By Anthony Johnson
Some kids dream of becoming educators and go through school knowing they want to end up back in the classroom. I was not one of those kids. I was a terrible student, a teacher’s nightmare who was constantly in trouble. During my time in school, I failed 4th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades before dropping out of high school at the age of 16 and receiving my G.E.D. After losing both of my parents six months apart, I spent time reflecting on my life and decided to make a change. A year later, I enrolled in college to major in music.
To fulfill my college requirements for community service, I began visiting a local elementary school and noticed that not much had changed since my time in school. Students were given worksheets, the teacher sat at her desk, and students with behavior issues were allowed to sleep in class. I was disturbed by what I observed, and took a role in the classroom as a volunteer and mentor.
The next semester I changed my major to elementary education and sought other classrooms in which to volunteer my time. During my sophomore year, I received a full academic scholarship and graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in Elementary Education. My number one goal is to give my students a very different learning experience from my own—which is exactly what I am doing today.
Welcome to Johnsonville
Employees in today’s economy aren’t evaluated using formal assessments to prove they know the ins and outs of their job. They’re assessed based on overall performance, which is how I evaluate my students. Just like in the real world, in my classroom students show what they’ve learned through project-based learning (PBL) and application using real-world examples. Is it working? Well, according to state science exams, my students consistently score higher than other science classes in my district.
I adopted a project-based model in my first year of teaching. On the first day of school I issue my students a PASSPORT (which stands for Preparing All Students for Success by Participating in an Ongoing Real-world simulation using Technology) and explain that their yearlong adventure to “Johnsonville” starts today. The school year is a simulation of adulthood where students work, create, and learn about personal finance and entrepreneurial skills. They experience real-world situations and gain insights into global affairs. Students don’t view my classroom as a “classroom” but more of an interactive city where all projects intertwine to create an ecosystem of businesses and homes.
Each student has the opportunity to become an entrepreneur, politician, banker, and more. They are given $1,000 in Johnsonville cash to begin their lives. Students must buy a house or rent an apartment, earn wages, and manage their finances. As the children buy and sell items I donate, they learn math skills along with life lessons.
As they would in a real business, they manage a database of their clients or suppliers, create advertising plans, and track their income to ensure they are making a profit. Students even learn different levels of government and hold elections for positions of power including president and city council. Students can also earn extra money through academic achievements and good behavior.
Creating Your Own “Johnsonville”
Here are four of my top tips to help teachers get started creating a similar environment.
- Make project-based learning relevant to the students. In Johnsonville, students explore issues like buying a home, paying rent, starting a business, and managing finances. Students see adults face these same issues and can relate what happens in Johnsonville to the real world. Relevancy makes each lesson memorable, meaning students are more likely to remember the overall concept of a lesson as opposed to memorizing facts for a test.
- Encourage collaboration. Desks are designed for individual students—which is why I don’t have any. In my classroom you will only find tables, collaboration bars, and sofas that are perfect places for students to think creatively and problem-solve in It is important that students are a part of the process of their own learning and are able to solve problems using what they know and have learned. By using critical thinking skills to collaborate and complete performance-based lessons, my students are fully engaged throughout the entire school year.
- Other teachers trying PBL often tell me, “my kids can’t do it” or “it’s a lot of work.” I think the real issue here is teachers not wanting to give up control of their classroom. PBL allows students to take charge of their learning, which gives the educator the freedom to facilitate and encourage critical thinking. Additionally, I find students work better when the teacher isn’t hovering over them. PBL promotes students to think creatively and build the 21st-century skills they need to be successful in today’s job market.
- Use pre-built, credible, standards-aligned curriculum. I have discovered Defined STEM is a great tool to help me create relevant lessons I can incorporate into Johnsonville. The supplementary curriculum provides students with research resources, videos, and project prompts that encourage students to think outside the box and put them in real-world situations.
Johnsonville Works! Test Scores Prove it!
The state of North Carolina does not test students on collaboration and citizenship, but does consider critical thinking a key ability. I’ve discovered the best way to test student’s critical thinking skills is through project-based learning. In addition to working in the realm of Johnsonville, students complete at least one project a month to show what they’ve learned in a real-world situation.
North Carolina State testing proves that my PBL model improves student scores. At the end of the 2016 school year, my 5th-grade students scored an average of 85% on the state science exam, while my school as a whole scored 58%. I believe my focus on PBL and hands-on learning was the catalyst for this major boost in test scores.
It’s important to remember that every child is different and learns differently. Relating classroom lessons to real life helps students at any level connect with the content and interpret it in a way they are able to understand. When students become part of their own learning, they take pride in their education and become more engaged. PBL not only keeps students busy, but it allows each one to show what they’ve learned in a creative, supportive, and collaborative environment.
Anthony Johnson is a 5th-grade science and social studies teacher at Isenberg Elementary School in Salisbury, NC. He holds the title of Apple Distinguished Educator, TED-Ed Innovative Educator, and was just selected as Teacher of the Year for the Rowan-Salisbury School System. Follow him on Twitter @a_p_johnson.