Local teacher earns NEH summer scholar spot

Veronica Dye Johnson is taking her background in painting, art history and liberal arts and translating it to a stint as a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar in New York City.

Johnson, who is a humanities teacher at Montessori Mastery School of Odessa, was chosen from a national pool of applicants to attend one of 32 seminars and institutes supported by NEH, a federal agency that each summer supports enrichment opportunities like this at colleges, universities and cultural institutions so teachers can study with experts in the humanities disciplines, an NEH news release said.

The institute Johnson will take part in is called “Scholarship and Performance: Teaching Shakespeare’s Plays.” The two-week summer program will be held at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center and directed by Theatre for a New Audience.

The 25 teachers chosen to participate in the program receive a stipend of $2,100 to cover their travel, study and living expenses, the release said.

Johnson said she had previously applied to the program, but only had a year of teaching to her name at the time. This year, with three and a half years of teaching experience, she applied again and got in.

Before she started teaching, Johnson, a 1999 Odessa High School salutatorian, said she was a museum grant writer, a communications specialist and wrote for advertising companies.

At Montessori Mastery, the Odessa native teaches ninth through 12th graders and students learn a combination of subjects all at once at their ability level.

That way the students can participate in group activities, communicate about the things they’re learning and do projects based on what they’re most interested in about a certain subject, Johnson said.

Next year, she’ll be teaching U.S. government and economics.

“I’m really going to make it more U.S. government and worldwide politics — the bigger systems of government — because the New York program is about three plays, the Merry Wives of Windsor, King Lear and Macbeth. The theme that they’re teaching is national identity and politics. What I’m excited about is this gives me the opportunity to integrate Shakespeare into our study of government because all of these are about governmental issues,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she fell into teaching at Montessori Mastery School of Odessa through directors Randy and Gloria McGuire. The school needed a substitute high school teacher because their initial high school teacher left mid-year.

“I came in as an emergency substitute three and a half years ago, and within a few weeks, it was apparent this was going to be a good fit because I started making my own curriculum and projects and was innovating and doing all these things,” Johnson said.

“They said they’d be happy to train me in Montessori ways if I wanted to continue on as a full time and just get my credentials as I worked. I have a master’s degree in art history that was the credential that allowed me to jump in and start teaching here. I’m also getting my teaching certification through UTPB, so that we have that extra certification. We’re an accredited high school now,” Johnson said.

In May 2017, the school received accreditation from AdvancED, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that conducts rigorous, on-site external reviews of prekindergarten through 12th grade schools and school systems to ensure that all learners realize their full potential, their website said.

McGuire said Johnson has an “absolute passion” to teach and has found her calling.

Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in painting from the University of Dallas in Irving. She said the university is a core curriculum school that is “very heavy in the classics.”

“Everyone has to take really intensive humanities courses before they start their major,” she added.

She took a master’s in art history from Texas Christian University.

She is getting her teaching certification in English for grades seven through 12.

The program in New York will be taught by professional Shakespeare educators, actors and directors. The homework will include reading critical essays by many of the people who will teach a course the next day, so it will be like being in graduate school again, Johnson said.

After taking the seminars, Johnson said she hopes to apply for a grant from local arts organizations and the following summer offer a free workshop to teenagers on one of the plays she learns about so she can share her knowledge with students outside of Montessori Mastery.

Many of her students enjoy Johnson’s teaching methods and are looking forward to what she brings back from the workshops. They say she can take boring subjects and make them engaging.

Bronson Sanders, a 15-year-old freshman, came from Permian High School to attend Montessori Mastery.

“She makes things fun. She doesn’t just give you a packet,” 15-year-old freshman Bronson Sanders said.

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