Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Making Lightning

It seems like the only time I find time to write anything on my blog over the years is at times in my life when things are changing like crazy. Probably because this is the only time I get to sit down and actually process my thoughts into words. I have always hated change because I generally love my life as it so why change it? I know that changes produces growth and a reliance on Him. I guess me revisiting this blog is God's way of reminding me that He really does never change. And neither does His plan for me. Or for you. I can always find comfort in that.

I still haven't wrapped my head around actually leaving the classroom. I guess it is because I know I will still be there. I don't know what that role will look like, but I know I will be there. Not just for my students, but for myself. As one of my colleagues (better described as good friend) said: "as I watch my first homeroom students cross the stage in their caps and gowns in a few short days, many of who will be the first in their family to attend college, I will be shedding tears in the audience. I am content to be just a footnote on their amazing journeys, while they have written chapters in mine." And interesting, gut-wrenching, proud, challenging, exciting, epic, emotionally draining yet soulfully fulfilling chapters those are.

It makes me so pumped that there are teachers, administrators, coaches, mentors, and friends who are creating opportunities for students in Memphis and across the nation. These opportunities seemed much more sparse when I first moved here. It is ever so important for us to encourage students to seek these opportunities and take advantage of them. It is exactly like lightning. We must meet these opportunities with equal force in order to turn them into something great. I have to give full credit for the lightning analogy to my wife's cousin-Chloe. This analogy has rocked me every day for the last month. I have seen it shed some light on life for some of my students as well. Here is the letter that I wrote to my students. It expresses what I desire for them all. I will continue to find ways to help them make lightning (and seek it for myself) regardless of my job or life path.

To My Awesome Students,

It has been such a pleasure to teach you this semester. I have enjoyed almost every minute of it. Now that EOCs are over, I wanted to officially tell you that will not be returning to teach chemistry at PCA next year. I know it doesn’t affect you much considering you have now had me as your teacher whether you liked it or not J, but I wanted you to know that that does not mean I will not be around even if you don’t see my face and hear Lil’ Chem raps in a classroom on Blue Krew Hall or hear me yelling at you to get to class on time. Mrs. J will still be here so you know I will be up here almost daily. I will be checking in on you in your future classes and would love to keep in touch if you want.  PCAHS means the world to me. The reason it does is simple. It is because of you. Seriously.

If I could leave you with anything, it would be this: go out of your way to make lightning. Look towards the sky for opportunities. When heaven hurls an opportunity and energy down towards you (which it most definitely will if you have your eyes open for it), it is your responsibility to rise up from the ground and meet it half way. You see, in order for lightning to strike the ground, the energy in the clouds must be met with an equal energy from the ground (think charges). In the same way, you cannot expect grades, jobs, scholarships, college, inspiration, or anything really to just fall from the sky. You must go out of your way to seek these opportunities. The journey up will be twisted, full of dead ends, and at times completely in the wrong direction. Regardless, it will meet eventually in a victorious display of energy and light. Your successes will be heard like thunder for miles and such a spectacular light will overshadow your hardships.

Thank you for teaching me so much this semester and for the opportunity to get to know you better. I hope you keep in touch with me as you experience this crazy lightning bolt of life. Know I am here for you if you need help navigating it. I hope you would never feel as if I am leaving you because that is most definitely not the case. It gives me a knot in my chest to try something new next year, but I know it is a part of my own personal lightning bolt. I know God has placed this new job as an opportunity in my life and I must step out of my comfort zone in order to meet the potential energy in the sky from the ground. You have my number and my e-mail. Use it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Jahlyn to Mexico

It is that time of the year again: Isla Mujeres, Mexico. My brother and high school Spanish teacher have been leading a service and medical mission trip by offering free dental care to people on the island for almost a decade. They have started a non-profit organization known as the Smile Foundation. Each trip brings more joy and a richer understanding of what it looks like to lose your life for others. It is funny to think about how a couple of years ago being a dentist was the only thing in my foreseeable future. Now, I love what I do (I could ramble but if you want to know more, you should read my previous blog entry).  I am immensely thankful for the opportunities my family has provided over the years to travel. I know each journey has helped to make me who I am today. I teach several students who have not been able to travel for various reasons, and therefore, have not been able to see what riches the whole world and different cultures have to offer.
Let me re-introduce you to Jahlyn: the student who inspired my vision for high school Chemistry at PCA. 

Over the last three years, I have seen Jahlyn mature into an intelligent, hard-working, and articulate young man. To meet and talk to him, you would not guess that he sometimes walks 3 hours to get home from school or practice because he rarely has transportation (he hates to burden people by asking for rides, but don’t worry he is getting much better at calling me for rides when he needs them), does his homework on the floor of a closet to get away from the noise of his overcrowded apartment, or has not ventured far from the limits of Memphis city. He has the highest average in my Chemistry course and takes advantage of every opportunity to give back to his community including picking up trash, tutoring refugees, fundraising, growing a community garden, playing rugby, running track, serving on student council, and more.  The thing is Jahlyn wants experience, learn, and travel. When Jahlyn is in college, he wants to study abroad to experience other cultures and ways of life. This is why I am bringing him along this summer. I think Jahlyn says it best: “The opportunity to go to a wonderful place like Mexico is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Some of the benefits include being able to interact with other cultures that I rarely have chances to encounter in the city of Memphis. This will not only fulfill my goal of helping the world not only by local means but globally, but it will also give me the chance to go abroad, which is where I want to study when I am ready to attend college. In addition, this chance to go on a trip to Mexico lends me a great opportunity to brighten hundreds, maybe even thousands, of lives that need someone to come and help them. The changing of a person’s mood based on the few actions that I take will cause me to become extremely happy; likewise, I want to know that in my life I had the opportunity to do something for my global community, and I took advantage, supplying for those less fortunate than me in the most efficient way that I could. In the end, I want to go to Mexico because in order to know that I have helped not only myself in life, I need to do everything in my power to show people that they are loved and cared for.”

This summer is going to be such a beautiful collision of cultures. I am excited about having the Lord continue to teach me about Him through others. I would love some help in getting Jahlyn to Mexico. The overall cost of his trip is $1,500. I’ve already gotten his plane ticket and passport. He will be going to matter what, but it would be helpful to minimize expenses. If you can support, Jahlyn and I would be very grateful. Whether or not you are able to support financially, please and more importantly be praying for our preparations and time in Mexico. Pray specifically for Jahlyn’s heart, that he might know the Lord and His grace; for the people we will be serving, all those we interact with; for the safety and health of the team; and for me, that I may love Jahlyn and others well as I also learn what the Lord has in store for me.

If you would like to help support Jahlyn, you can make a check payable to: The Smile Foundation.  Put Jahlyn in the memo line.
Checks can be sent to:
Cullen Johnson
1879 Felix Ave.
Memphis, TN 38114

It is because of your continued love and support of me, I have been able to live life with people like Jahlyn.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why I Am STILL Teaching

After my second year of teaching, I sat down to re-create my vision; two years of teaching had taught me a few things, and while the reason why I taught had not so much changed, it certainly had evolved. The evolution had been gradual, and it grew every single day as I interacted, educated, and learned from each and every one of my students. As I transitioned from being a middle school science teacher to a high school chemistry teacher, I thought about the unique opportunity I was given to teach several of my previous students again. I thought about how much I wanted to teach them Chemistry so that they would be prepared for their other high school and college science classes. But even more than preparing them academically for their future, I thought about how much I wanted to shape these young men and young women into people of strong character. I teach because of my students. I teach to push them to their ultimate potential, not just as learners, but also as contributors to society. With an excellent teacher, there is no doubt that all of my students will achieve great things. They need to be pushed to reach their ultimate potential. I am confident that this will have them on a successful life path.
When I think about why I teach, hundreds of faces rush through my head, each face with its own unique story. Statistics were the reason that I decided to teach in inner-city Memphis; now those statistics have names, faces and stories. I have over 300 reasons to continue teaching, and that number will grow until all students have access to the education they deserve. I know that each one of my scholars is as capable of succeeding as those students who are statistically advantaged because of their zip codes. I have seen it in their determination and drive, and I have seen their mindsets transform from “I can’t do this,” to “I can.” All it takes is someone who believes in them and never gives up on them. I teach because my students are the future, and they deserve an educator who is going to fight against the statistics by pushing them to reach their ultimate potential, not someone who is going to sit back and allow one of the greatest social injustices of our time to occur.

I teach so that Marcellus can understand the importance of homework and that responsibility at school translates to responsibility as an adult thriving in the real world.
I teach so that Darnell will not have to wait until the beginning of the month to have food in his fridge for the rest of his life.
I teach so that Taliya knows and believes that she is capable.
I teach so that B.J. and Terrence will understand that discipline and self-control help them accomplish their goals.
I teach because Jeremiah gave me hope when he began to not use his unfortunate childhood as an excuse, but as a motivator.
I teach so that Calvin will have someone who believes in him and will show him how to channel his energy towards something positive.
I teach so that Courtney will do scientific research at Yale University to prepare her for a future in the science field, as the first person in her family to go to college.
I teach so that DonTerrius knows that his mistakes can make him stronger and that those mistakes do not have to be repeated.
I teach so that Kupcake can understand that, even if she doesn’t like a class, it is still important for her to work hard.
I teach so that Dezmon can better understand what it means to be respectful, so he can achieve the “greatness” he believes he is destined for.
I teach because Jahlyn does his homework in a closet to get away from the noise of his overcrowded apartment, and I know he deserves better than that.
I teach so that Kyre can overcome arrogance and realize his true intellectual talent.
I teach because my students at Power Center Academy are proving those who believe in statistics wrong. They give me the realization that statistics do not determine futures; individuals do.
I teach because this list could go on and on and on, as I share a portion of each of my student’s unique stories.
I teach because all of my students are capable. I teach because I am confident that my students will be successful. I do not teach because I possess any extraordinary talent that makes me exceptionally qualified to teach; I teach because of them. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Seeing Change

I know I never blog.  I have no excuse.  I needed to share this today though.  After the passing of my incredible grandfather, I have made it a resolution to write down the things I learn from my students.  That is a lot because I learn from them daily.  I have also made it a resolution to "show up" and be present for people when they need it most.  This is what made Pop such an example and role model to others.  I created the vision of my Chemistry classroom this year after one of my students I had my first year teaching.  Here is a portion of the vision I wrote months ago: “Jahlyn” is the student that is in the forefront of my mind when it comes to developing a rigorous chemistry class. Why?  I know he (just like all students) deserves a teacher who will do everything in their power to prepare him for any future science classes he may face.  The sense of urgency to prepare him for his future does not end with preparing him for the science field.  He needs to be prepared to face any challenges that may come his way.  He needs to be prepared to exhibit behaviors that are going to result in him being successful in college and his future.  With an excellent teacher, there is no doubt that he will achieve great things. He needs to be pushed to reach his ultimate potential.  I am confident that this will have him on a successful life path.  The creation of this document, “Not Just for Jahlyn”, is an attempt of detailing the mindsets, habits, knowledge, and skills that I hope Jahlyn, and not just him but all of my students, leave my class with.
The real-life Jahlyn is one of those students who you don’t forget about.  He is determined, seeks out every opportunity to further his understanding of the world through experience, is an active participate of bringing change to the Hickory Hill community, and misbehaves when he knows he can get away with it.  He possesses a child-like joyful spirit, that when channeled towards accomplishing a meaningful goal, is unstoppable.  In my 8th grade science class, he was always among the top averages in the grade.  He has potential to be negatively influence by peer pressure, which is why he needs people in his life who are going to settle for nothing less than his best.  Teaching him Chemistry scares me in a good way. I have come to the frightening conclusion that I determine his (and the rest of scholars’) weather.  This weather has major repercussions.

It is amazing how much of my vision has become a reality already.  Not just for him, but for others.  Below is the personal statement he wrote for a summer program for which he was accepted:"Before my mother moved out of the house, everything was what you would call “normal”.  I was a young teenage boy who did everything that normal teenage boys would do. I was incredibly active in and outside of school, and I could possibly answer every question you asked before you would even ask it. In school, I was one with intellectual abilities of Albert Einstein, but the naive attitude of one who didn't care about anything. However, this all changed when my mother decided to move to Fort Worth, Texas my sophomore year of high school. When she first brought up the idea, I paid no attention to it for a few reasons. Mainly, I was too focused on trying to fit in at the prestigious school I attended to see that the most important person in my life would be leaving soon to supposedly make my life better. As she constantly brought up the idea of moving to another state, I consistently brushed it off in hopes of hiding the fear I was feeling inside of losing my mother. Some days I would just go into my room and cry my eyes out for no apparent reason, but as the days for my mother to leave got closer, I finally admitted my fears to her. I cried and told her how I loved her so much and how I would miss her greatly but still support her in whatever decision she made. That night before she left for the bus, she called my sister and me into her room and told us that she loved us. She explained that her leaving us should be motivation to do the best we could in school. She told us how she expected even greater things from us.  Even though she would be in a different state, she still cared deeply for us and wanted us to make her proud.  On that night, I fell asleep thinking about my mother and how I could ease the burden she had on her already by doing the best I could in school and contributing anyway I could at home. From previous school years, people knew me as Jahlyn, the boy who was smart but always getting into trouble; however, when I went back to school after my mother left, I changed my own expectations for myself. I promised myself that I would no longer allow myself to settle for anything but my best, behaviorally and academically. Not only did I make that promise to myself, but I made it to my mother.  I would rise to my true intellectual potential. I promised myself that I would be optimistic as much as possible for my mother. I set character goals for myself to show more initiative for my education and self-control when placed in difficult situations. From that night my mother left for Texas, I found a new life perspective, which was that life may throw bad situations at me, but it is up to me to make a positive outcome from the bad situation I am in. This is why I want to attend Philip Exeter this summer. I know that Exeter will offer me great opportunities to further improve my character as a young man and as a young learner. I am positive that Exeter will allow me to progress to meeting my academic goals as well as my character goals. In the end, I want to attend Exeter this summer because I want to make my mother proud of me while I reach to fulfill my goals that I set for myself on that night that the most encouraging person in my life left to make a better life for me."

I am hoping to make similar promises to myself and to Pop.