Erik J. Johnson ’04 considers James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and “the father of the Constitution,” one of his heroes, so it is only fitting that the Sacred Heart University alumnus has been named a James Madison Fellow.
Johnson, a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Park City Science and Technology Magnet School in Bridgeport, Conn., tells his students that Madison is his favorite of the men who crafted the U.S. Constitution. “He has a little bit of controversy in his life, which is interesting, but at the same time he always stuck to his guns. And you got to respect a guy like that – the smallest guy in the room, quietest speaker, kind of sickly, although we’re not sure he was faking the sickness or not. But he became arguably the most important character in the early republic, except maybe George Washington.”
He wants to bolster Madison in his lessons. “He was sort of left in the shadows. He was a thinker. He was a reader. And he could be a pretty good role model.” Those are qualities that he would like to instill in his students.
And Johnson is going to get his chance. As the 2011 James Madison Fellow from Connecticut, Johnson is given the opportunity to return to college and earn a second master’s degree. The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, founded by an act of Congress in 1986, awards up to $24,000 for each Fellow’s course of study toward a master’s degree. The study program must include a concentration of courses on the history and principles of the U.S. Constitution. “The award is intended to recognize promising and distinguished teachers, to strengthen their knowledge of the origins and development of American constitutional government, and thus to expose the nation's secondary school students to accurate knowledge of the nation's constitutional heritage,” according to www.jamesmadison.com.
At SHU, Johnson earned a Bachelor of Arts in History in 2004 and a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2005. With the fellowship award, he will attend Fordham University starting in the fall and will work toward a master’s degree in History. His concentration will be on American history, with emphasis on Constitutional development and interpretation.
“We remember that Erik was a serious student who was very focused on his goal of becoming a high school history teacher,” said Charlotte Gradie, Ph.D., professor of History at SHU. “His particular interest was American history, and he took several courses in this area with Professor Emeritus of History Paul Siff, Ph.D. Erik wrote his senior thesis on the War of 1812, during which time James Madison was president. We are delighted to learn that he has maintained the interest in this period that he developed during his time at SHU, and that he has won a Madison Fellowship to continue his study of this president and his era.”
When Erik started researching a return to college and how to pay for it, he had no idea about the fellowship or its prestige. “I wanted to get back into school to further my content knowledge, but affordability was an issue. I knew that there had to be a way to help pay for it. I also knew that the longer I taught, the more interested I’d become in constitutional theory and application.” After reading about the fellowship, he said, “I almost jumped because it was perfect. This is the program that I need. This is going to mesh everything I am trying to do together.”
As he contemplated the opportunity that he is being given, he said, “I am humbled. When I look at the list and I see the 60 fellows that were named this year and I am the only name under Connecticut, it is definitely humbling.”
As part of the program, the 2011 fellows will attend the James Madison Foundation’s Summer Institute on the Constitution at Georgetown University next summer. The four-week focus is “The Foundations of American Constitutionalism” and will be taught by constitutional scholars with field trips to sites in and around Washington that are related to the Constitution.
Originally from South Glastonbury and now living in Milford, Johnson is enthusiastic about his career as a history teacher. He always was interested in history, even as a youngster, but he credits his eighth-grade teacher, Neil Somberg, with having a big influence. “He was the deciding factor. He did activities with the class that teachers just didn’t do. He just made history relevant and apparent to us.”
Some of those activities included a mock trial – Johnson was the defense attorney – and a paper airplane fight, which was a lesson to show the countries that had the most power during World War I. Johnson stole the latter idea when he taught geography. “It was that sort of outside-the-box thinking. And on top of that, he loved his job and he was very knowledgeable and he showed that history is alive.”
Johnson, who previously taught at Dunbar School in Bridgeport, didn’t really think about being a teacher early on, but “sort of fell into it.” “When I saw the opportunity to be an eighth-teacher in the city, I jumped at it. I said, ‘This is definitely what I should be doing.’”
Johnson is entering his fifth year at Park City and hopes that he too can influence future history teachers. “History is storytelling. It is the storytelling that is captivating. Maybe it is my experience being a camp counselor, but kids love stories. If you can grip them, they will live on your every word to tell a good story. Whenever I say, ‘OK, students, close your notebooks, it’s story time,’ they love it. They want to listen, and they remember.”
Getting the students to focus on their history lessons can be a challenge, he said. “Kids live in the now - that’s what’s important to them because that’s who they are. I think kids are defined by society at the moment. And as they grow and mature, they want to know more about how we got here.” He believes he has the students at the time they are “molding into who they are going to become” and sees it as part of his job to get them to start asking questions about their pasts ethnically, culturally, politically and socially.
Johnson is a little apprehensive about working full time and returning to the college grind and juggling all of it. “I want to make sure I balance my time.” One of two teachers who is the last to leave school at the end of the day, he is looking forward to the “train time” he will have traveling from Milford to the Bronx. With three hours on the train, including transfers, he believes he will benefit from having those extra hours. “I don’t have much ‘sit still’ time right now,” he said, thinking maybe he could use it to correct students’ papers.
Right now, when he leaves school for the day, he puts work behind him so he can relax and spend time with his wife, Suzanne Haar, who he met when they both attended SHU and married in September 2010. “You have to separate the two. You have to find the balance. I am the kind of person who will keep doing and keep doing, so I have to shut myself down.”
This summer, he combined work and pleasure when he attended the highly-competitive Gilder-Lehrman Institute Research Seminar at the University of York in the United Kingdom for the one-week conference “Middle Passages: Exploring the Global History of the Slave Trade.” Later, he and his wife toured England and Ireland.
Both the James Madison Fellowship and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute Research Seminar are working nicely into Johnson’s goals. “I am trying to grow now, not just as a teacher, but as an historian as well.”