Brynn Johnson: Education Through Expedition
By: Darby Evans
Ask Brynn Johnson what she does for a living, and she may tell you that she is a teacher. Or maybe, she will tell you that she is a global curriculum designer, a multi-continental traveler, or an Arctic scientific researcher. She has, after all, worn each of these titles during her career as an educator.
Johnson, an ACE 14 Teaching Fellows graduate, recently earned The Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education for her commitment to instilling in her students a spirit for exploration and environmental responsibility. Johnson currently serves as a middle school math teacher at the all-female Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, but her teaching journey began in Birmingham, AL, where she taught fourth grade at Holy Family Elementary School.
Among other challenges Johnson faced during her first year of teaching, Johnson’s ACE community shrank from four teachers to two. Johnson says that, though difficult, the isolation she encountered during that year ultimately shaped her teaching philosophy. Johnson sought friendship beyond her ACE home in the greater Birmingham area and in the nearby Montgomery community.
Johnson says, "ACE taught me the importance of finding your niche even if it means going out of your comfort zone or driving the extra mile...Being a part of something bigger than yourself keeps you motivated."
Johnson’s exploratory attitude is evidenced in her teaching practice. Through the Fund for Teachers, Johnson earned fellowships that allowed her to travel to Southeast Asian and Spain in order to create global studies units for her students. The fellowships are self-designed so teachers can research a topic that they find meaningful or relevant to their own classrooms.
On one such expedition, Johnson walked El Camino de Santiago, a religious pilgrimage through parts of France and Spain. The trail ends at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where the remains of St James were discovered in the ninth century. Informed by her experience on the Camino, Johnson designed a unit in which her students lead their own pilgrimage through New Orleans. They researched historically significant sites, devised a path and plan for travel, and finished their journey at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis.
“I have pictures of me with my own backpacks and sticks from the Camino, and I have pictures of my students in different sites in New Orleans with their backpacks and supplies as well,” Johnson says. “This connection between local and global opened my eyes to this whole world of professional development opportunities...With each one, you become more empathetic and aware of the world around you.”
Through National Geographic’s Grosvenor Teacher Fellow 2017 cohort, Johnson visited the Arctic to study the effects of climate change, and thus shifted from traveler to active researcher. Here, she observed how climate change affected the physical landscape and polar bear and walrus populations. Already, Johnson has drawn up plans for conveying her newfound knowledge and research methodologies to her fifth grade math students. Students will use Google tools to chart and graph data collected on the changes in glaciers and ice over time, and they will brainstorm ways to combat climate change in their own community. Eventually, the middle school students will develop their own plans for prevent the rapid recession of New Orleans coastal lines.
“When I was up in the Arctic, each day, my curiosity was piqued, and I was excited. The whole time I was there, I was thinking, 'Okay, this is what we want to see in the classroom. We want kids to be this excited about what they are learning, and one way of doing that is exploring,” Johnson says. “Everyone wants to see and experience different things, so making the classroom come alive in that way for students is what's going to make them excited about learning.”
Johnson was also thrilled to travel back to Notre Dame to receive the Michael Pressley award from ACE this summer.
“To be able to come back and see all of [my professors and mentors], talk with them and thank them—that was wonderful,” Johnson says. “It was also so motivating because ACE is always moving in directions I want to see myself moving as well. So, it's encouraging to come back and see all the growth that ACE has had and that's it's still this loving, welcoming community, too.”
Whether is returning to Notre Dame to accept an award, driving from Birmingham to Montgomery to find fellowship, walking across Europe on a pilgrimage, or traversing the Arctic to gauge the effects of climate change, Johnson believes in the power of excursions. Each journey, she says, cultivates an “appreciation for interconnectedness of the world” in both her and her students.
“I think it's so important for everyone, especially teaching in an all-girls setting, to be open to new experiences and be bold, to be risk-takers,” Johnson says. “We need to make sure we are really instilling that in our students, so I try to model that also.”
Brynn Johnson served as an AmeriCorps member at Holy Family Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama.