Anthony Johnson Brings 'Johnsonville' to Life

North Carolina elementary teacher combines STEM with innovative, real-world systems.


Great things can come from humble beginnings.

Anthony Johnson, a former high school dropout, is a teacher of the year winner in his school district and the southwest region of North Carolina. He is also a finalist for state teacher of the year.

At Isenberg Elementary School in Salisbury, NC, he has transformed his science and social studies classrooms into “Johnsonville,” a world where each student must find a job, pay the bills, pay mortgage and taxes, and learn by doing projects. Johnson uses Defined STEM as his source for curricula for the project-based learning taking place in his fourth and fifth grade classes.

Johnson combines technology with his lesson plans and Johnsonville to produce positive, concrete results. His school district, the Rowan-Salisbury School System, is 1-to-1, so all of his students have iPads they can use for homework, class assignments and tests.

THE Journal: Describe your high school experience.


Anthony Johnson

Anthony Johnson: You could say I was a high school dropout. The school counselor made that decision for me. She said I needed to get a GED and learn a trade. That basically I was just wasting my time in high school. They didn’t tell me getting a job with just a high school diploma (equivalency) and without a college degree is hard.

I started working minimum wage when I lost my mom. Then lost my dad six months later. I thought, “Where did my life go wrong?”

I decided to go back to school and to become an educator. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make sure kids don’t have same experience that I have. So now, I’m in year 14 of teaching.

THE Journal: What was your first job out of college?

Johnson: When I first got out of college, I was a technology facilitator at Isenberg Elementary. I was actually working with teachers to make sure they were using technology thoughtfully and constructively in the classroom.

But I missed working with students, and decided to go back to the classroom.

THE Journal: Describe Johnsonville. Where did you get the idea?

Johnson: My whole thing is, when I decided to become a teacher, I decided I was going to do everything the opposite of when I was a student. I was going to have a classroom that’s engaging, with real-world experience. I wanted to make it interesting. I decided, “I’m the mayor. I make the rules.”

Working in my classroom, you get paid. You have a responsibility to pay the bills, pay mortgage, find a job. They have to pay taxes —10 percent of income goes back to the mayor. Kids can keep the room clean and start a janitorial business. They can start a transportation company. Instead of directly giving them a treat, I have the students buy from me, then sell to classmates for a profit.

I’m still teaching the standards. The first job is not to become an entrepreneur. If you’re doing my work, then you get $100 a day. (It’s fake money.) I’m still teaching the standards, just adding the real-world component to them. Instead of teaching forces of motion, like the standard says, I explore how is it relevant to everyday life. I want to make it relevant, so students stay engaged. It’s called PBL — problem based learning. And they manage their finances on the iPad.

THE Journal: How do you use Defined STEM?

Johnson: That’s my resource for all my PBLs. It’s pretty much where I get 95 percent of my PBLs. I can customize the lessons. Everything is all created for you.
You don’t have to be that teacher standing up in front of the classroom (all the time).

It’s a great online resource. I can’t say enough about Defined STEM. If you really want to get a kid engaged, it’s a one-stop shop. The content is K–12, and if you really want to challenge them, you can give them middle school work, modify it a little.
Everything and anything you can think of is in there. And best of all — the school pays for it.

THE Journal: Do you use any other technologies in your instruction?

Johnson: We are a 1-to-1 school district. We use those iPads to keep track of inventory, if they have a business. We also use Discovery Education and their Techbooks. We use Schoology as our learning management system.

THE Journal: What are the advantages of being a 1-to-1 school district?

Johnson: A device for every kid — it’s an equalizer for those whose parents are not as fortunate. Kids whose parents have a little bit more income — they can afford it.
But even they are learning important lessons. We’re not using those devices to consume information. They are actually producing. They’re using iMovie to produce movies; Garage Band to make audio tracks, to mix songs and create original music. They can record their science experiments, play it back over and over. They can share it, and there’s green screen capability for videos.

THE Journal: Elaborate on your students and their activities on the iPad.

Johnson: The same way you manage your bank account, it’s the same way at Johnsonville. They come in in the morning, and they can see the daily agenda. They do all of they homework on the iPad. They do their tests via PDFs, on the iPad. We don’t use paper. We’re completely paperless. It’s still effective. It’s better for me. I can keep up electronically better than paper anyway. I don’t miss it at all.

The content is always updated. In textbooks, the information is already outdated by the time the books get published and distributed.

We talk about weather, forces in motion, ecosystems, energy, electricity. There are always updates in those topics.

In social studies, we’re discussing the Revolutionary War right now. You can look up different sources of content — you have multiple sources in your research.
You can do so much on an iPad — your representation of historic facts is richer.

THE Journal: Are there other achievements you’d like to mention?

Johnson: In 2011, I became an Apple Distinguished Educator. Last year, I became a TED Innovative Educator. I went to TED headquarters in New York City. They gathered 30 teachers from 11 nations.
I pitched an innovative idea to TED. It was the I was showing what my kids do in Johnsonville online — everything that we do. We attached a camera to a kid and captured a day in the life of a student at Johnsonville.  

For my innovative project, TED gave me $1,000.  They are supporting it. I’m also a finalist for state teacher of the year.  I find out April 6.

I’m working on a master’s degree from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I’m studying digital learning and leadership. I plan to get degree in December.

THE Journal: Are there any parents complaining about Johnsonville?

Johnson: No parents are complaining. Parents want to put their kids in my class.

It’s a lot of responsibility. The whole concept is based on collaboration, critical thinking and citizenship. There are no desks — it’s all tables. But I think the students and the parents are getting a lot out of it.