Faculty Innovator: Cathy Johnson

6th October 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–For Cathy Johnson, associate professor of education, social studies is all about connection.

It’s about the connection of person to person, person to the world, past to present–and to future.

The teaching of social studies is the art of opening minds and hearts to these connections. It’s about translating material into something of real relevance to the lives of students. With that connection comes empathy, transforming teaching into a process of understanding and empowerment.

Innovating in communities of practice

For Johnson, innovation is necessary to establish and maintain a connection between the material and the learner.

In her social studies methods classes, she employs a strategy called visual inquiry, in which learners are engaged in evidence-based discussions using historical paintings or photographs that relate to the topic they will be teaching in their clinical experience. A story is mapped out based on the images—this story is known only to the teacher candidates; the elementary school students do now know, but will participate in the discovery of the historical event through the images.

“This can be challenging because although we see images daily selecting an image that will engage and young learner is new for teacher candidates,” Johnson said.

This is where cultural literacy and generational sensitivity come into play.

Since Johnson never wants her candidates to walk into an elementary classroom cold, she creates a “community of practice” that allows them to grow into the role through many hours of simulations involving their peers. This not only helps them overcome stage fright, it gives them greater confidence to manage learning experiences in different settings.

Teacher candidates choose readings to help the learners understand the topic illustrated by the images. In one of the most engaging exercises, learners choose a character from an image, and the learner “becomes” that character, and is then interviewed by the teacher candidate about the events taking place in the image. Teacher candidates are careful to base responses on the questions, not on a prearranged curriculum goal, though that is always in sight as the ultimate destination.

Johnson observes and films each lesson to offer feedback to the teacher candidates.

“Video technology and analytic reflection provide opportunities for teacher candidates to stop and review the instructional practices, and reflect on those practices in a community of teacher educators who are interested in improving those classroom practices.” Johnson said.

The classroom as lab

“I use my classroom as a laboratory of teaching,” Johnson said. “We are learning together as teacher candidates see me modeling the instruction.”

Applying aspects of situated cognition, Johnson enables students to walk before they are required to run.

This point is important. As Johnson innovates in order to remain connected and meet students where they are, so will they, when they enter a classroom, be trained in the fine art of accommodation to the realities around them.

Johnson models at a higher level, too. She visits schools in the service region, to maintain the connection between the university and the school, and hence the community.

Packed with digital natives, growing more diverse by the day, the elementary classroom is one of the most rapidly changing environments in our society. It’s vitally important for teachers to relate, to find common ground. That can mean proficiency with technology. But it’s not just about technical skills and keeping up with the latest information modality.

It’s also about finding ways to become culturally literate, to build bridges across languages and origins, to foster the trust that is the foundation for shared citizenship.

Lessons from a magical place

Johnson comes from a long line of educators. Her great great aunt was a teacher in the 19th century, and there were teachers on both sides of her mother’s family. Johnson herself never really doubted that she, too, would take this path in life. For her, rooted as she was in a family tradition that valued learning, teaching is more than a job. It’s more than a career. It’s even more than a calling.

Teaching, for Johnson, is the fullest development of the self and the most significant relationship between an individual and the community. To teach is to express what it means to be human.

She spent her own early years in an “innovative, independent school” in Michigan that fostered connections between people, justice, and nature.

“We were taught to think, discuss, read, and care about and for humanity,” Johnson said. “It was social justice-focused and equity-oriented before such phrases were coined.”

So it came as a surprise to Johnson that this awareness of the connections, and the importance of learning, was not all that common. That did not hold her back. If anything, it only reinforced her sense of commitment to her fundamental values.

“I had such a rich educational experience that I was shocked and hurt to find out that school can be the source of anguish and miseducation for students and that education is not perceived as valuable by some community stakeholders,” Johnson said. “School had been such a wonderful, magical place for me that when I found the space to design engaging and effective instruction, incorporate my love for history and social studies, art, equity, and teacher preparation I found my place in this complex field.”

It is this same understanding of education as the recognition of connections that she seeks to nurture in those she teaches, regardless of the context. She has worked as a classroom teacher, museum teacher and curriculum supervisor, where she engaged in professional development for practicing and struggling teachers, finding avenues that appealed to her both academically and ethically.

“I enjoyed teaching the teachers, so it made sense that I pursued my doctorate in Educational Studies,” Johnson said. “I also saw many frustrated teachers who hadn’t been supported with quality teacher education from their educator preparations programs and wanted to help the next generations of well started beginners, who are equipped with a toolkit of resources they can use to influence the academic achievement young learners.”

Fostering citizenship

To teach social studies is to present humanity at its best and worst, and everything in between. It is to help students see themselves in the universal human condition, and to appreciate the context of the anomaly. For Johnson, to educate teacher candidates in this field is to model an arc of history that bends toward justice, and to help them develop empathy, compassion and an interest in equity.

“I hope that a student will be transformed by seeing the power of motivating texts and visual images to support their teaching,” Johnson said. “[I hope] that they embrace their agency to include this marginalized content in their classrooms, and accept the challenge of preparing young learners to become responsible citizens who use evidence to reach reasoned conclusions.”

For Johnson, being a teacher also means continuous reflection on the process and purpose of teaching, and the ability to articulate the bigger picture. In an age of burnout, when a high number of teachers quit after their first two years, this approach to the profession gives teacher candidates a way to continually access their reservoirs of purpose.

“When my students can describe factors that impact education beyond the curriculum and develop methods to support their students from varied socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, then I have been successful,” Johnson said. “When my students are able to acknowledge the role of social studies in furthering responsible citizenship by teaching learners to use evidence to reach reasoned conclusions, that is success for the classroom, the community and the society.”

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