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September 20, 2023 | Alumni

How U of T alum Jennifer Johnson helps children find their inner compass

Jennifer Johnson smiling

As a parent, a former educator, an entrepreneur and a passionate change-maker in K-12 education, alumna Jennifer Johnson (BEd 1995, MEd 2002) is on a mission to empower young people to be their best selves to help create a better world.

While watching her son’s identity evolve, parts of him began to withdraw. Jennifer set out to understand how we can best equip children to become self-aware, authentic and emotionally healthy versions of themselves. With a Master of Arts degree in Curriculum, Teaching and Learning from OISE, Jennifer has served as a curriculum writer and designed and implemented numerous transformational programs over her career. As a parent of two, her focus has been on nurturing self-leadership skills and an ability to navigate an increasingly dynamic world with compassion, resilience, and authenticity.

We spoke with Jennifer to find out how she’s leading our young generation through innovative social emotional learning practices in schools, communities and homes.

How did Captains & Poets come about?

In 2018, my son was turning eight and I could see how his sense of identity was starting to change in response to social cues. He is both a natural leader and a highly sensitive being, but the latter was starting to shut down. I reflected on the fact that we were raising this generation of children differently, encouraging what we might call authentic identity; for example, encouraging artistic as well as athletic abilities in both boys and girls in an effort to breakdown limiting stereotypes. As parents and educators, many of us are focusing on heightened emotional intelligence in our children, yet there aren’t always a lot of role models for this young generation to look to. Add to the fact that in recent years the world has become increasingly complex and dynamic, with social media compounding overwhelming experiences for kids. I realized this generation has been up against a lot.

Developing a healthy sense of identity is a complex process. When I met my co-founder Jan Frolic, who shared a similar lens with her own children, we decided to create the social emotional learning initiative Captains & Poets. We help young people develop an inner compass so that they can navigate and contribute to the world in their most authentic way. We believe young people have everything they need within them to thrive. Through the Captain and Poet metaphor, we hope to foster a sense of connection and belonging with others, all while kids navigate social pressures and any experiences that hinder their sense of self.

What’s your role and how does the Captains & Poets “recipe” work? 

As Co-Founder of Captains & Poets, I am involved in our programming from top to bottom – designing and delivering our curriculum and workshop programming; working with amazing educators around the world to gather input to constantly adapt and expand our programs; collaborating with educational institutions and youth organizations to streamline and optimize the impact of Social Emotional Learning (SEL); and speaking to educators and parents about SEL-related topics. The list goes on!

SEL is essentially Emotional Intelligence (EQ/EI) for kids. It covers everything from self-awareness to self-management to social awareness to relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Essentially, SEL is trying to get at the relational aspect of learning in the classroom to support student success. There are many different approaches to it: some focusing on emotional literacy, some on mental health, some on social skills. We focus on the intersection of well-being and identity to promote self-awareness, self-discovery and self-leadership – and then distill it into two words.

The Captain is the doer, the part of you that takes on challenges, makes decisions, goes out into the world to gain confidence and is bold and adventurous. The Poet is everything stirring inside of you: your emotions, your imagination, your values, your dreams and aspirations, your creativity, and more. And when they work together, you are your best self – and, importantly, you are able to appreciate those traits in others.

Using this simple language, kids get it right away.

How is your initiative offering the greatest impact in terms of social emotional learning? 

In K-12 classrooms, our programs help create safe spaces for expression and belonging. We’re helping teachers incorporate SEL strategies to engender their students’ agency. With the opportunity to explore who kids are as unique individuals, our programming can be applied in school and home environments.

For example, we delivered a workshop during the pandemic lockdowns to a group of teenage boys. It brought a new level of meaning to their service learning project where small gestures like shovelling an elderly neighbour’s driveway became an act of connection and a way of expressing who they are in line with their values. By the end, we had 18-year-old boys giving advice to younger boys about not being afraid to share who they are in their high school career – and to take care of their Poet side.

The feedback we get from young people is profound. Students are seeing that they’re innate leaders and have something important to offer.

In a video profile series we did with nine youth, one 15-year-old girl said that “if everyone was their best Captain and Poet, we would see true change in the world. We wouldn't just see a superficial change or performative action. It would be really true understanding of each other and the world.” Pretty insightful, right? One student performed a poetry slam capturing the similarities and differences we all have in our experiences and the points of connection that offers among peers.

Many of the practices and skills you’re teaching relate to OISE’s mission. What were the takeaways from your graduate studies?

I felt privileged to be part of an OISE program that was quite unusual at the time with a focus on holistic approaches to learning and exploring multiple dimensions of the learner including body, mind and spirit. Professor Jack Miller was a pioneer in this space – and is still there today!

One course that stood out for me was “The Body’s Ways of Knowing” where we had the opportunity to examine the intuitive mechanisms in our body that inform our ways of experiencing, interpreting and responding to the world around us. It was fascinating.

Overall, this lens enabled me to embrace the integration of different learning styles in teaching and to always view the child as a whole person with their own innate and unique ways of being and understanding. I spent four years running a large special education department, and I always saw students first for who they were as remarkable people before focusing on learning strategies.

I also had the opportunity to take courses related to pedagogies of space, place and consulting that illuminated the drivers and components of culture and organizational change. This definitely informed my approach as a leader and consultant aimed at driving systemic change in the years that followed.

When I reflect back now, I realize what an enriching experience it was for me and am so grateful for how it has all threaded through my professional journey.

do you have any advice for current students just starting their professional journey?

Self-awareness is a beautiful thing.

It propels our growth in life but with its emergence in our early years we are also faced with cues from others about who we’re supposed to be and which parts of us are acceptable. Many of us spend our lives on a journey back to self as a result of shutting down key parts of ourselves when we were young.

For graduate students and educators, a journey to self-awareness can be the difference-maker in your career. It can fuel your passion and your ability to make a difference in these challenging times.

I would encourage educators to always follow their inner compass. We have resources for educators and parents on our website. If you operate from what drives and energizes you most, the right opportunities will show up. The education system is going through some major shifts right now and there is an opportunity to seed change everywhere we go. I believe that we teach what we need to learn so it’s important to stay on the learning journey and embrace the challenges in front of us as they present beautiful opportunities to grow and evolve together.

Originally published by Ontario Institute for Studies in Education