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Schools Last Updated: Apr 17, 2013 - 1:28:03 PM

DIS Teacher of the Year Griffith pokes holes in middle school mold
By Jennifer Johnston
Apr 17, 2013 - 9:58:17 AM

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Jonathan Griffith teaches eighth grade social studies at Daniel Island School, and was recently named the K-8 school's Teacher of the Year.

Mere mention of the words “middle school” are enough to raise the hair on the back of the necks of the bravest souls, while striking all-out fear in those more moxie-challenged. Anyone who’s been through those three years surely recalls the emotional fortitude they test, and any child who’s still facing them down has heard legend of their formidable social and lifestage trials.
But there lives among us a hardy soul who laughs in the face of this adolescent obstacle. And after he laughs in its face, he hogties it with some creative curriculum.
Jonathan Griffith teaches eighth grade social studies at Daniel Island School, and was recently named the K-8 school’s Teacher of the Year. It is an honor delivered by way of peer nomination and voting, which makes it that much sweeter. Mr. Griffith’s fellow nominees were seventh grade teacher Christy James and speech pathologist Caroline Smith, and he admits to both surprise and gratitude at being chosen among that admired company.
Mr. Griffith and his wife and three boys moved here from Delaware just three years ago. But having attended school in Myrtle Beach, he knew he had a love for the Lowcountry even before relocating his family. He has been in education for fifteen years, not only as a middle school teacher, but also a guidance counselor, teacher, and assistant principal at the high school level. He’s taught a variety of subjects, including Western and Eastern cultures, economics, geography, U.S. history, civics, and advanced placement American government.
We had the chance to visit the Teacher of the Year in the classroom last week to get to know more about him, observe the teaching style that’s earned him such high accolades and, of course, dish a little with his students.
Because he lives here on Daniel Island (“I can see the school from my kitchen table,” he remarks), Mr. Griffith’s students frequently spot him in that wow-I-can’t-believe-my-teacher-is-a-real-person context outside of school. One eighth-grader confessed to staging an off-the-cuff campaign against an upcoming quiz, while another told us he’s been to Mr. Griffith’s house because he’s a good friend of his son. “I see him around on the island because he’s involved in things,” another student chimed in. “He’s not one of those teachers who just keeps to themselves.”
Mr. Griffith had predicted his students would have something to say about his inventory of ties, and he was proven right as one student hollered: “He wears a different tie every day!” But clearly that’s not the only thing he strives to keep fresh. “He uses a lot of different methods of teaching,” an eighth grade boy volunteered. “He uses notes, we’ve had several activities, several movies.”
What’s the most memorable activity Mr. Griffith has employed to drive home a particular lesson? “We picked cotton!” several students shouted in unison. Indeed, the class demonstrated the “gang and task” system as they undertook the labor-intensive work of the slaves in the 1800s.
For those of us who remember a more textbook-driven approach to nineteenth-century history (i.e. snoozefest) and markedly less fondness for the abyss between grade school and high school, we had to know more about the great Mr. Griffith:
Jennifer Johnston: At what point in your life did you determine that you wanted to be a teacher? When did you hone in on your subject areas, and on middle school?
Jonathan Griffith: I graduated with a BA in History from Coastal Carolina University. I loved learning about it, reading about it, and especially visiting historical sites. I wanted to share this passion with others and teaching was the best avenue. American history was my favorite area of study, especially early American. When I found out that eighth grade social studies down here covered South Carolina history, I was thrilled. It is a dream to teach SC history in a region where most of its early history took place. We have been able to take the students to numerous historical places around town, something that schools in other parts of the state are unable to achieve. The students at DIS are also very well-traveled, so they bring in personal experiences that enrich the learning experience for everyone.
JJ: What is the most frequent reaction when you first tell folks you are a middle school teacher? Do you think any stigma attached to the middle school years is deserved and/or accurate?
JG: Most people respond with big eyes and a sense of admiration for middle school teachers. It is such an exciting time for students as they become young adults. They are still like sponges and are so eager to learn. I feel that at the high school level some of this is lost. Middle school students are not shy about throwing it all out there. It is as if they have not developed their sense of embarrassment. The stigma middle schools get is undeserved. It is a difficult but exciting time for students and to the outsider it can look like herding cats; but knowing the students, you know that is just how they operate.
JJ: What do you love about teaching social studies, and how have you adapted to teaching it in this historic city?
JG: Charleston has so much to offer from a historical perspective. With today’s technology it is much easier to bring history into the classroom, in the digital age, in the form of photographs, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. I bring a lot of these primary resources into the classroom in an effort to make the learning as real as possible. Social studies is so much more than dates and places. I attempt to bring in stories of people and events that students will remember- the backstory, per se.  That is when history gets fun. Taking the students for trips downtown, we get so many “ah ha” moments when they see places that we have discussed. It is a good feeling to see them make the connections. They sometimes come back from the weekend and tell me they went somewhere we discussed with their parents or a friend. Those are feel-good moments for a teacher.
JJ: Have you encountered a section of curriculum in any of the subjects you've taught that seems universally difficult to grasp? How have you overcome that with your students?
JG: Politics seem to be the biggest area of difficulty for my students. They are pretty dialed-in here at DIS, and some went to see the rallies we had on Daniel Island in the 2012 election. When we discuss the changes to the SC Constitution over the years, or the political fights between candidates throughout our history, they really struggle. It is hard to get a feeling for the mood of the time period and understand why tensions were so high. I try and relate it to modern day issues, and like I said the backstory sometimes helps bring them to a better understanding.
JJ: What do you think is unique about the DIS "family" as compared to other schools in which you've taught? Can you share your thoughts on the K-8 structure vs. separate elementary and middle schools?
JG: DIS is a truly wonderful place to live and work. In my previous district where I worked for twelve years I did not live in the community. We have such a talented group of students at our school and an equally strong parent community which, combined, make DIS a special place to work. I have always been interested in working in a K-8 environment. I have cousins in California that were in that system and I was always intrigued by it. I think it is great to have a smaller middle school population that can work with the younger grades. They are also accountable in their actions because they have hundreds of little ones looking up to them for examples of behavior and guidance. I speak to my students regularly about being the ambassadors of the school and, whether they like it or not, they are being looked up to and they must rise to the challenge. It makes them feel special to be the big kids. My former school had 850 sixth- through eighth-graders, and I always felt that was way too many hormones in one building.
JJ: When did you find out you'd been nominated for Teacher of the Year, and then that you'd received the top honor? How does this particular award put wind in your sails?
JG: I have been walking on a cloud ever since I found out I was nominated. I was very surprised to hear that I was in the top three, and then finding out I won I was even more blown away. It was not something that I was looking for or had set in my mind that I wanted. Having come from an administrative position, I was so excited to be back in the classroom and having so much fun. To be nominated by my peers was a very special recognition that I will never forget. I have an outstanding eighth grade team that pushes me every day to try harder. The bar is high at DIS with so many talented teachers.
JJ: How did you celebrate, both personally and among your colleagues? Where does the recognition go from here?
JG: One of the teachers called my wife and had her come in for lunch one day. I couldn’t figure out why because she has never done that before. I did not put two and two together until all the administrative team came in the cafeteria with balloons and cake. So I guess you could say I celebrated with the entire middle school. The (BCSD) Teachers of the Year have been recognized at the board meeting and a teacher forum induction where they announced the “top three” candidates (of which I am not one). The top candidate will be selected in the next few weeks and represent the county to compete for the state Teacher of the Year.
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