By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Connie Johnson’s affinity for science fiction has served her well in four decades as a teacher.
The Claggett Creek Middle School teacher’s penchant for dystopian futures – as seen in the likes of books such as The Hunger Games – has provided a gateway for reaching the young minds she’s encountered as a middle school teacher. It doesn’t hurt that such books have paved the way for teaching one of her favorites, Elie Wiesel’s Night.
“It strikes them right between the eyes because it sounds like a science fiction novel, but it really happened,” Johnson, who’s retiring this year, said.
Night is Wiesel’s memoir of the time he spent in Nazi concentration camps with his father at the height of World War II. Johnson discovered quickly that the themes of the book and the age of the author at the time he was writing about, 16, dovetail nicely for eighth graders even when the inhumanities described are enough to turn the reader pale.
“My goal each year in teaching (Night) has been to send forth 120 to 150 students each year who will make certain it never happens again,” she said.
With enough time, water coagulates under any bridge, but Johnson is adamant that teaching is “the best profession in the world.” The students, she said, are the reasons she will miss the job. But, if someone had asked her 20 years ago if she would enjoy teaching eighth graders, the answer would have been just as firm.
“I never believed the words, ‘I like eighth graders,’ would come out of my mouth,” Johnson said. “I do very much like eighth graders. They have an interesting vibe to them they’re not quite children and not adults.”
To illustrate the point, she recalls an instance when both were on display at a time when she needed it most.
“I had kidney transplant and before that I was on dialysis, but I do not like needles very much,” she said. The day before she went to her first dialysis appointment, four of her students approached her in the parking lot.
“They came running to me saying ‘Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, we’ll give you one of our kidneys.’ That was a really adult thing for them to do, but I told them I couldn’t take theirs because they’re too young. And they said, ‘No, no, it’ll be okay, we’ll ask our moms,’” she said.
Her biggest frustrations with the job of teaching are the result of the way students are tested.
“The high stakes tests are silly. I’ve seen students get within one lousy point of passing, and they’re crying, and they have to take it again. It doesn’t teach them anything other than they are worthless and children are not worthless,” she said.
She advocates for testing that is more individualized to show progression of students compared to their prior scores rather than the scores of the students a year ahead of them.
The toughest years, and they spanned the better part of half her career, began in the 1980s when students’ creativity declined.
“I would tell them to write a story and they would have no idea how to do it,” she said. She’s seen a resurgence in recent years and credits the Harry Potter books and a throng of new young adult books with the change. “It’s helped them enjoy reading and having discussions about reading,” she said.
While much of her teaching career has revolved around language, her students’ creativity has helped bolster her own. One of her plans for retirement, which includes researching her genealogy, scrapbooking and “reading til her eyes bleed,” is working on a book of her own.
“I’ve always been able to write, but they’ve taught me that – when I write – to think about what other people are going to take from it. If they’re not going to take anything from it, there’s no point,” she said.