Five Questions With: Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson is a third-grade English language-learner teacher at Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School in Providence and winner of the 2018-19 Milken Family Foundation Educator Award.

With at least eight languages spoken in her classroom, Johnson is an advocate for the use of classroom technology and led Fogarty’s journey into blended learning, incorporating online media with traditional classroom methods.

A teacher who gets results, Johnson’s math students showed an average growth of 67 percent on their math assessment – the highest in the school. She always makes time for “Coffee by the Curb” on Wednesday mornings, when teachers greet parents at drop-off with hot coffee and conversation.

Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2006 and a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language in 2014 from Rhode Island College and is the only 2018-19 recipient of the Milken Educator Award in the state of Rhode Island.

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PBN: Were you surprised by the award and how did the recognition make you feel?

JOHNSON: I was shocked. None of the teachers in my school knew the assembly was to recognize one of us – we were told it was to recognize the school and all of our efforts. When my name was called, I was stunned. I’m glad there has been so much footage of when I won because I honestly don’t remember everything.

This recognition is such an honor and it solidifies the hard work I have done throughout my career.

PBN: You’re a graduate of Rhode Island College, how did your education in the Ocean State inspire you to concentrate on English as a second language education?

JOHNSON: It wasn’t until I volunteered at the West Warwick Public Library literacy program that I realized how much I loved working with English language learners. Before that, I hadn’t had much experience working with ELLs, [but] after completing my volunteer work I knew I wanted to go to back to RIC to become ESL-certified. Once I found a program that fit and was immersed in my coursework, I knew I found my calling.

PBN: Your classroom is a multicultural one, why is it important to you to ensure your students’ cultures and languages are reflected in their learning environment?

JOHNSON: It is important to ensure my students’ cultures and languages are reflected in our learning environment because it is so important for students to share from where they come. By providing them these opportunities, I want them to be able to learn from and celebrate each other. I always find ways to encourage this in my teaching – and often, they are teaching me things.

We recently had a discussion about Thanksgiving and it led to a deep conversation about how they celebrate. They were excited to share, and I feel it empowers them. It teaches them to not only embrace where they come from but also embrace and be respectful of others.

PBN: What advice do you have for teachers whose careers are just starting and looking to incorporate ELL practices in their classrooms?

JOHNSON: My advice to any teachers looking to incorporate ELL practices is to always find ways to get kids talking. The more discussions and opportunities to collaborate you can provide, the better. There are so many wonderful strategies and tools that can be implemented. Don’t be afraid to try and take risks. Not all may work for your particular group of students; you have to find what works, [but] always remember the only one who knows it didn’t work is you.

Make sure you take time to reflect but don’t be hard on yourself. Every day is a learning opportunity not only for students but for you as well!

PBN: On what will you spend the $25,000 cash prize?

JOHNSON: I am using the cash prize to pay off some bills and get a new car. This money is going to help me in many ways, and I am very thankful!

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email,