Classroom Innovator: Bryan Johnson ’96, M.A.T.'97

Instead of asking students what they want to be when they grow up, fifth-grade teacher Bryan Johnson has them consider the problems they want to solve. Johnson ’96, M.A.T.’97 teaches at the Grant Center for the Expressive Arts, part of Tacoma Public Schools, and emphasizes “geo-literacy” in his classroom; he uses Google Earth, for example, to help students understand concepts like the Earth’s movement around the sun. “Students can see a satellite image of the Eiffel Tower and tell me when it was taken based on the length and direction of the shadow,” says Johnson. In 2017, he was named a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow—along with Kacy Lebby ’11 in Seattle—and made a 10-day expedition to the Galapagos. His students later used his iPad footage to create a mini documentary about the islands. 

Bryan Johnson ’96, M.A.T.'97
Bryan Johnson ’96, M.A.T.'97

“I realized early on how much film excites and engages kids,” says Johnson, who earned a $5,000 grant to help his school purchase filmmaking equipment. With a few iPads, plus lighting and accessories, students can draft scripts, shoot and edit video, and publish on YouTube. Each year, his class submits shorts that retell award-winning children’s books for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. 

During the pandemic, his students have used the online platform Flipgrid to share their at-home videos, and Johnson has given lessons in storyboarding and cinematography. He also stepped in front of a green screen and filmed a space science unit with special effects. “Engagement is a real challenge when students are at home with siblings and distractions,” he says. “We’re constantly adjusting, but you’ve got to keep the fun going.” Last fall, he had students research a U.S. president—and he taught portrait techniques so they could draw their subjects and submit the pictures to a natuional drawing contest. 

Each summer, Johnson and his wife, Betsy Kreager Johnson ’94, M.P.T.’98, travel with their children on monthlong road trips to Alaska, the Yukon, and western states. Now, he’s just waiting for it to be safe to explore again, both out in the world—and in the classroom.


By Amy Downey
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Feb. 7, 2021