NEWPORT -- The Vermont Humanities Council has named Newport's North Country Union High School teacher Gary Johnson as its 2012 humanities educator of the year. Johnson, a teacher of humanities courses for 20 years, will be presented the 10th annual Victor R. Swenson Humanities Educator Award at VHC's annual fall conference on Nov. 10 at the Stoweflake Mountain Resort in Stowe. The conference topic this year is "Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places: Religious Architecture and Sites."
VHC Board chair James Wilbur will present the award at 8:30 a.m. in the Pinnacle Room, along with a $1,000 check to Johnson.
"Most of us, when we were in school, had one or more special teachers who made their subject come alive, challenged, encouraged, and inspired us, and helped us learn and grow in myriad ways," said VHC executive director Peter Gilbert. "These are the teachers we recall decades later with admiration and gratitude. It is such teachers in the humanities that the Vermont Humanities Council is proud to honor. In honoring one such Vermont teacher, we pay tribute to all the fine teachers in the profession and the important work they do."
Johnson, a teacher of Language Arts, has earned praise from colleagues for his multi-faceted approach to teaching, centered on forging relationships between students and the greater community.
"[Gary] is constantly bringing the world into his classroom, and constantly sending the students out into their communities," said North Country Union principal William Rivard. "He wants his students to understand that 'literature is not an academic pursuit, but the expression of the real lives of real people.'"
Johnson's course activities have included roundtable discussions with people such as Civil War historians, World War II veterans, and ministers of different religions; research of genealogies and land histories in the students' own towns; participation in the national poetry recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud; scriptwriting workshops with the QNEK Stage Company, which performs student-written plays at Haskell Opera House; Mining for Stories, in which students write stories based on interviews of people in their lives; mock trials in the classroom; and other projects.
"It is fair to say that many teachers are recognized for developing one of these classroom experiences," said Rivard. "[Gary] does them all, almost every year. His classroom reaches all levels of students." Johnson's students have earned a number of state awards.
In observing Johnson's classes, North Country Union's director of curriculum Jennifer Kennison noted that "[Gary's] connections to the community are exemplary ... He strongly believes that the high school must prepare the students for the ways in which they will interact in their communities."
A hallmark of Johnson's teaching is an emphasis on student-directed learning, which includes independent study, group projects, and assignments that address students' issues and interests beyond the high school.
"[Gary] utilizes many lessons and projects that give students ownership of their own learning," Kennison said. "One of the things he said in our discussions ... is that 'if a lesson is designed well, then there are 20 teachers in the classroom, instead of one.'"
VHC created the Swenson award in 2003 to recognize a Vermont educator on an annual basis and to honor Victor R. Swenson, the Council's first executive director. The award is given to a Vermont educator in grades 6 through 12 who exemplifies excellence in the teaching of the humanities.