By William Weber
A former Marine who traded his fatigues for a teacher’s shirt-and-tie seven years ago, Johnson is on the lookout for first-hand experiences and projects that can help his students translate classroom study into action. A big fan of Cable in the Classroom and its partner networks, such as History, Discovery and CNN, Johnson uses their programs and online resources as a bridge.
And that’s a bridge he’s crossed several times.
A year ago, on the January day a massive earthquake hit Haiti, Johnson and his students at Hudson High School, in a community north of Tampa, Florida, were watching the news on TV, a practice they follow weekly both to keep up on current events and to observe how different media sources report on the same events.
“We had just finished tectonic plates and tectonic movements and we happened to have been watching the news,” he recalls. “It was lots of images right away, lots of chaos, and the kids really drilled in on it. The images that Cable in the Classroom brought us were like a portal to what was happening. It just drew the kids in.
“So they immediately asked ‘what can we do?’, because that’s what we do in my classroom – problem solving. So I said, ‘research and get back to me’. That’s my standard answer – I put it on the kids. And you’d be surprised what they bring back.
“The next day, a group of students had taken the Red Cross emergency needs list and cross-referenced it with the school’s authorized list—what you’re allowed to bring to school—and they came to me with a list and said, ‘we’re going to do a drive.’
“Some of the kids wanted to do a drive for clothing. And some wanted to do food. Another group wanted to drive for medical supplies. So we discussed what the immediate need was, and it was clearly medical. And for the weight—because we studied distribution and transportation in geography—we figured medical supplies was what they needed. So, I went to the principal and got permission, and we started to give out the information that day.”
Within three days, the students’ drive had grown from packages of Band-Aids and antiseptic ointments his students bought at local drugstores to significant contributions from the community. Morton Plant Mease, a major medical equipment company, the Eye Institute, and other companies heard about the drive and contacted the school to help.
“We were expecting boxes, and we were getting trucks!” says Johnson, still sounding amazed at the response. “So the kids looked at me—this was on the fourth day, after they heard on the news that a UN vehicle with supplies had gotten hijacked—and the kids said, ‘Mr. Johnson, how are you going to make sure our stuff gets to the people?’ So I told the kids if they brought the supplies, I’d deliver them to Haiti.
“That probably wasn’t the most thought-out statement I’ve ever made in my life,” he laughs, “but when I was in the Marine Corps, we did extractions and I did private security work in the Middle East after I got out, so I told them, ‘if they bring it, I’ll deliver it. And sure enough, by the end of that first week we had truckloads of stuff.”
An active member of his local Christian community, Johnson figured that a mission group might be the best route to deliver supplies in a disaster. That led him to Agape Flights, a mission in Venice, Florida, that has been working in Haiti since the 1960s.
“I called them, and they said they didn’t have room for Band-Aids. And I said, ‘you don’t understand, we have scalpels, hypodermic needles, bone immobilizers, and other stuff I had to keep at my house because we couldn’t bring it to school. So when they heard of the supplies we had, they said, ‘if you can get it down here by Saturday, we have a plane going out. So I said, “you might need a bigger plane.” Agape said their plane could easily carry 800 pounds of materials. “I said, ‘no, I’m carrying a couple tons!’”
In the end, Agape chartered a World War II-vintage cargo plane in Fort Lauderdale—250 miles from Tampa. Johnson made the drive that weekend, and true to his word to his students, he went along to deliver the goods—five pallets carrying 4,000 pounds of much-needed supplies that his school kids had collected in that first week.
“It was amazing how fast it came together,” he says. “When I landed, it was exactly seven days after the earthquake.”
With a school video camera in hand, Johnson paired up with University of Miami medical teams to deliver supplies and food to their clinics in the remote hills outside Port Au Prince.
“They were performing surgeries on doors wrapped in plastic, and other people could hear the screams,” he described. “It was incredible. I’ve done rescue work and emergency work—landslides in China; I’ve been in Peru. This was another level what they had to deal with.
“At one place we stopped, we were there about 9 o’clock in the morning, and before we left, they introduced me to one of the young ladies who they had given one of the immobilizers we brought. When we got there, they started her surgery, and before we left she was lying on the bed and they had used it for her leg because it had gotten shattered.”
Johnson was in Haiti for four days. The video he shot showed striking scenes of the destruction and of the rescue efforts. When he returned home, he immediately turned it over to his students. Working with Lynn Turner, the school’s media specialist, the kids edited the footage, added in images of their collection drive, clips from an interview Johnson did with Bright House’s Bay News 9 news team, and the students’ own narratives.
“By lunch, they had the video up on the big screen in our commons,” Johnson says. “They all started crying. They got to see the faces of the kids they’d helped, and the lives they saved. And you don’t get a more jaded group than a bunch of high school kids; they just started crying. They learned that we can change the world. We can actually save lives. They probably saved hundreds of lives.”
In the end, Johnson’s students collected enough medical supplies for two more plane loads. “We tried to do a third drive, to send down tools,” he adds. “But when a lot of the media coverage slowed down, so did a lot of the energy to help. It’s a horrible thing to say, but that was the reality.”
The video the students created—titled “Hope to Haiti”—garnered a lot of local attention. Johnson was invited to show it and to tell his story at several schools in the district. He, Turner, and the students shared how they researched and carried out the project—including lesson plans, cable programming resources, and learning objectives—with other teachers. And Bright House honored their effort with a 2009-2010 Star Teacher Award.
History in Action
This past school year, Johnson transferred his action plans to Fivay High School, a new facility in the district, and this time his students found a bridge in their learning from the history of Ellis Island and immigration to the tragic events of 9/11.
“We were discussing nationalism – what it feels like to be an American, what makes you an American – and the question ‘is America the best country in the world, and if we are, then why?’” he recounts. “Everyone always says, ‘Yeah!’ So I looked at the kids and said, ‘yes, it’s great to be proud to be an American. Just know why. Because you can’t be proud to be an American until you know American history.”
With that introduction, Johnson teed up the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. “I asked them, ‘did you feel like they were attacking you?’ And the kids said, ‘Absolutely.’
“Now, there were two kids in our class who had family members who were there. And so I said, ‘for you, I understand why it’s personal. But for the rest of us, why do you feel they were attacking you?’ And the answer came back, ‘because they were attacking America.’ And I said, ‘you’re right, they were. Now, how did we get to a place where Americans feel this sense of nationalism, where we feel we’re all one people?’ And that’s how I start US history.”
Johnson’s history unit begins with the Reconstruction after the Civil War and segues into a discussion of immigrants, which quickly leads to the story of Ellis Island. Johnson incorporates a lot of cable resources into this unit, particularly material from cable’s History.com website, including videos about the Statue of Liberty, an multimedia activity on Ellis Island, and the rich content from the TV series “American: The Story of Us.”
“We looked at push-pull factors – what pushes an immigrant out of his homeland and what pulls them to our country,” he explains. “We discussed the opportunities that were available in the United States – land grants, prosperity, jobs. We discussed job creation and innovation, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the immigrants. We looked at Angel Island in California as well, but a lot of our studies were focusing on New York. And the kids said, ‘wouldn’t it be awesome to go to New York?’ But this isn’t a wealthy community, and going to New York is expensive.”
Researching the history of New York, Johnson’s students learned about how New York became a hub of the free market system and a center of the global economy. “And that led us back to 9/11,” he says, “because we discussed why the World Trade Center was located in New York City, why people around the world associate New York with the United States, and so, why the terrorists targeted the World Trade Center.
“We watched ‘America: The Story of Us,’ and the part about Mr. Pulitzer and how the American people sent in pennies to help erect the Statue of Liberty. France might have given it to us, but kids helped erect it through their donations. And that got my students pretty stoked. They were so excited. So I tried to take that excitement and push it into other aspects of our studies.
“We started talking about New York and, since this year is the 10th anniversary, wouldn’t it be great if there was one thing we could do to commemorate the heroes, not just remember the event. So we discussed a bunch of ideas, and it was my daughter who came up with it.”
Johnson and his family had visited New York City the previous summer, where he took them to see Ground Zero. When his elementary school-age daughter said “can we go now” it occurred to Johnson that she didn’t understand what Ground Zero represented. “It was just part of the vernacular to me,” he says, “but to this generation, they don’t know. And the high school kids, they were five when it happened!”
So when he brought the question of how to mark the 9/11 anniversary home one day, his daughter had an idea. “Her middle school borders the Pasco Waterworks, and near the fence are all these old, beat-up fire hydrants. So my daughter said, ‘Daddy, why not use the fire hydrants. We can decorate those.’”
Johnson contacted the country commissioners’ office and asked for 13 discarded hydrants, which they were happy to part with. He applied for a grant for $300 from the county’s education foundation to have the hydrants stripped of their old paint and powder coated. He then took the refurbished hydrants to several schools for the kids to work on.
“One boy did decoupage and covered it with thousands of newspaper articles, different stories and peoples’ accounts of loss. We took two of them and did metal working; one is like a fireman, with a helmet and his shield, the other is a police officer. On the firefighter, you can see the reflection of the World Trade Center on his shield, which reinforces that the firefighters knew the danger and they still ran in.
“Those kids put so much thought and imagery into the hydrants. We took one to an elementary school. Theirs may be the most popular. They put drops of water on them. I thought they were rain. So I asked one little girl, ‘why did you put the rain on that. Is that to help put out the fire?’ I was trying to be insightful. And she looked at me and said, ‘Those are tear drops.’ What do you say to a seven-year-old who looks at you like, ‘You don’t understand!’” he laughs.
With the hydrants decorated, Johnson scouted around for a venue to display them. He contacted the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, which was interested but not ready to host exhibits. He then connected with the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, which agreed to show them for a week.
While they were setting up their display, Johnson met the vice president of the museum, who was struck by the creativity and the students’ heartfelt message. He offered to extend the stay to a month, and then threw in special lighting for the display. Then, after learning that the school couldn’t afford busses for a field trip for students to visit the museum, meaning the kids and their families would only be able to visit the exhibit after school hours, he upped the ante and offered to host a gala opening for the kids, their families, and the community at large.
“There were hundreds of people there that night,” Johnson recalls, still awestruck by the event, which the students recorded for a video titled “3 Hours, 2 Towers, 1 Lifetime to Remember.”
“We’d contacted the Tampa Fire Department and Police, and they brought a fire engine, a fire truck, and one of their rescue vehicles to front of the museum, with the ladder up and lights on. And there were firefighters in uniform. And these kids were describing their appreciation for firefighters – you should have seen them!
“I found out that one of our kids’ dad had been a paramedic in Manhattan – he was there when the first building came down. Another one of our students’ uncle was a lieutenant who helped the rescue operations – I think he lost seven members from his house that day. He came and spoke to our kids about what it was like. They were there that night. There were tears shed.
“The students really got an understanding,” Johnson says. “Those kids now know the tragedy of 9/11 and they got to share that with their family members and their friends. We had people from the county comedown, other principals came down. It was a beautiful evening.”
Following local media coverage of the exhibit in Tampa, Johnson heard again from the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which now offered to accept one of the hydrants for its collection if Johnson could deliver it to New York. Johnson’s students leapt into action, doing fund raising to pay for a class trip to New York. They chartered a 58-passenger bus and spent a week on a history-filled road trip.
“We stopped at Washington, D.C. and our senator got us into the White House. We spent the day at the Smithsonian. We did the night illumination tour of all the war memorials. We went to the National Archives and the kids saw the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. We saw the Florida Memorial at the World War II Memorial. And we went to the Vietnam Memorial and one of the kids looked up her great uncle. D.C. was powerful.”
From there, they headed to New York – and made a beeline for the Statue of Liberty. “We took the ferry and they got to see the mask, which they learned about on ‘The Story of Us,’” Johnson says. “For the kids, that was great.
“Then we took the ferry over to Ellis Island. They got to see the Great Room, which is part of the interactive tour they’d seen online.”
After that, the students walked to Ground Zero. “It wasn’t what they expected,” Johnson says, “because it’s still such a raw construction site. That really surprised them.”
From there, the class split up – some went to Broadway to see “Phantom of the Opera,” some just poked around Times Square, and a hearty few walked all the way to Central Park and back. “That’s a good half-hour walk. I thought that was commendable on their part,” Johnson laughs.
The next day, the class drove to Gettysburg. “We visited the battlefield, but we also toured the Shriver House,” Johnson says. “There’s a big trend in history now to include not just the military history and the political, but to incorporate more of the social history as well. What were the women and children doing? How many women were active in history? Everybody talks about the battlefield, but this gives the kids a chance to think about, while thousands of soldiers were dying on the battlefield, what were the people in the city doing? They were hiding in basements, hoping not to get killed!”
From Gettysburg, they drove to Mount Vernon and spent the day there. Then it was on to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. “It’s amazing to have all those people in costumes and visit all the buildings,” Johnson says.
When the travelers returned to Florida, the kids, who had been recording their trip on camera, put together another video.
“Just like the video of Haiti helped other kids understand what happened,” Johnson says, “now whenever we do something, we make a video and we share that with other students and other high schools.”
Agape Flights – Haiti Earthquake Relief 2010 (video)
America: The Story of Us
Bright House Networks 21st Century Star Teachers Awards
Ellis Island: Then and Now
Fivay High School
3 Hours, 2 Towers, 1 Lifetime to Remember
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