From Capitol Hill to the Classroom

Political management graduate and D.C. public school teacher wins Milken Educator Award.

GW graduate and public school teacher Michelle Johnson leads a classroom lesson
GW graduate and D.C. public school teacher Michelle Johnson was recognized with a 2014-15 Milken Educator Award after her Seaton Elementary School students demonstrated vast improvements in reading comprehension. (William Atkins/GW Today)
January 26, 2015

By James Irwin

The students are excited. It’s the first thing you notice when you walk into Michelle Johnson’s second-grade classroom at Seaton Elementary School. The lesson during this particular block of time—Tuesday, 10 to 10:45 a.m.—revolves around vocabulary, writing and reading comprehension.

The excitement level of the students, sitting on the floor in a noisy but organized fashion, has as much to do with the method as the topic.

“Children are naturally inquisitive,” said Ms. Johnson, in her second year at Seaton in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. “They want to learn. They want to be in school. But they come with lots of other things that drag them down—they didn’t eat breakfast, or they have family issues at home. There’s a lot that causes that natural inquisitiveness to get pushed to the side.”

Her job, she said, is to bring that curiosity bubbling to the surface. Using a teaching technique called “whole-brain teaching,” in which hand gestures and cadenced repetition are paired with instruction, Ms. Johnson, M.P.S. ’08, transforms her classroom into a verbal, visual, motion-oriented learning environment. She was recognized with a Milken Educator Award (and the $25,000 cash prize that comes with it) earlier this month after her students demonstrated vast improvements in reading comprehension and academic growth during her first year at Seaton.

“Whole-brain teaching involves lots of kinesthetic learning for kids which keeps them engaged—it really helps our English-language learners because they can add a motion or visual for vocabulary words that are otherwise difficult for them,” said Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, M.A. ’06, who is in her second year as assistant principal for literacy at Seaton. “Michelle’s is a joyful and exciting classroom. That’s a mixture of whole-brain teaching and her positive and upbeat energy.”

Those are important characteristics at Seaton, where 45 percent of students are learning English as a second language. Ms. Johnson’s quick-hitting lessons are designed to stimulate—a review of new vocabulary words, a topical question leading to the day’s reading, a brainstorming session to kick-start a writing assignment. Hand motions are coupled with word definitions as mnemonic devices. Lessons are timed precisely. The whole thing is akin to an instructional workout routine.

“She is so meticulous and has such thoughtfully planned instruction,” Ms. Robinson-Rivers said. “What she’s outstanding at is planning and using data analysis to inform the decisions she makes in the classroom. A lot of what teachers do to make themselves successful happens when the kids aren’t even there.”

Johnson, a 2008 graduate of GW's Graduate School of Political Management, employs a method of "whole-brain teaching" in which kinesthetic learning tools—hand gestures and visual props—are used to guide students through lessons.  (William Atkins/GW Today)

The method of putting together a detailed strategy centered on motivation and data is one Ms. Johnson said she learned as a student, as first a political science major at the University of Tennessee and later at GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“In GSPM you get a lot of practice in building relationships, managing people and understanding what motivates them,” she said. “I use those skills every single day as part of my classroom management strategy.”

Ms. Johnson said she first became interested in education while working on Capitol Hill on military affairs and impact aid for school districts.

“The work I was doing sort of opened my eyes to all the need that existed within education,” she said. “I decided I would—as we say in politics—get into the trenches and become a teacher and see what the needs were for teachers, kids and administrators. Then, a few years later, I would go back [into politics] and work in education policy.”

A first post in Prince George’s County, Md., was followed by a two-year stint working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council in the United Arab Emirates. Ms. Johnson currently is helping some Seaton colleagues adapt the whole-brain teaching approach. It’s now been six years since she left Capitol Hill.

She admitted she might not return. The students, she said, have a way of pulling you in.

“I didn’t expect to really love it so much,” she said. “Teaching truly is a calling. I am incredibly proud that every single day I come to school, and the kids can’t wait to get into the classroom.”

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