- Forest School
- Marshall Faculty
- Outdoor Learning
THE APPLE DOESN'T FALL FAR
BY TONY LOCKHART
Few milestones are more significant than starting a new dream job, unless of course you are retiring from that same job after a long and impactful career.
This June, both scenarios played out in the Johnson family as Marshall middle school teacher Dave “DJ” Johnson retired after twenty-five years teaching science and social studies in our middle school. That same month, his daughter Sarah Chapple ’09 was hired to be one of the founding teachers in the new Marshall Forest School.
In a tender “passing of the torch” conversation, Sarah and DJ interviewed each other to describe their interconnected and converging journeys with a beloved Marshall School, showing that the family apple of education and outdoor appreciation truly doesn’t fall far from the tree.
DJ: Sarah, tell us a little bit about your Marshall journey.
Sarah: I am a Marshall graduate; I came to Marshall starting in sixth grade. I remember being so excited when I got to go to Marshall because we didn’t have to walk in lines, and all of the independence we had. We were trusted by the adults around us and given a lot of autonomy, which I felt like I hadn’t had before. Things that I loved about Marshall were the nordic ski and cross country running teams, the really great friendships that I made, and all the amazing teachers I had. It was special to have the ski trail right on campus, and I remember during some study halls I would go and put my skis on and go ski during study hall!
Sarah: Dad, how did you start your Marshall journey?
DJ: I first came here to watch a Topper Tunnel when I was coaching at another school—the Topper Tunnel was for a nordic skier from Marshall who was going to go to state, and also for students who had competed in math league and were going to their state competition. I thought it was really cool that they were celebrating the math kids along with the athletic kids. Then, I walked around the hallways on a little tour and saw that all the lockers were open, and I thought, “Oh, why are the lockers open?” My guide explained that it was because people trusted each other and it was a way of showing that trust. I thought, “Wow, I want to teach here, and I want my kids to go to school here.” When I was hired, Mr. KJ [Scott Kylander-Johnson ’90] was part of the hiring committee. We worked closely together for twenty-five years, doing all sorts of fun stuff.
DJ: Sarah, what brought you to Marshall as a teacher? What are some of the high points on your journey as an educator?
Sarah: I started going to Saint Scholastica for a year and discovered that I wanted to work with younger students, and that I really liked being outside; I thought it’d be cool to be able to work at a school that had an outdoor focus. I transferred to Wyoming, and after graduation was offered a job at a school in Colorado with a huge outdoor focus. We took kids outside every day, and on Fridays we spent all day outside going on adventures like hiking, biking, and skiing. I love Colorado but knew that I would want to be back in Duluth one day and that I would love to teach at Marshall. I hoped that Marshall would open a third grade—then I heard about the Forest School and knew it was my dream. Our goal is to be outside all day teaching our curriculum. We have such a close-knit teaching team, something that I was really looking for professionally, and it is special that I get to teach in, and about, the place where I grew up.
The vision of a forest school at Marshall arose from a growing desire in our local community for nature-based learning to continue into the elementary years. Marshall has a strong history of providing middle school and upper school educational opportunities that focus on cultivating students' gifts and a passion for lifelong learning, and now the Forest School extends this to all grades.
The Forest School utilizes students' curiosity and playfulness to develop student agency, critical thinking, and a growth mindset that puts students on the path to continued academic success. It harnesses nature as a backdrop to build foundational academic skills with an average of 50% of time spent outside. Students learn on 40+ acres of extensive trails, fields, and creeks, as well as in innovative classrooms designed for our youngest learners.
DJ: That reminds me, you also were a big part of building the ski trail. I used a lot of volunteer labor—you and your brother Cody had to do a lot of afternoons hauling trash and wood chips and stuff like that. Now, you’re getting to use the things that you built as a middle-schooler and high-schooler!
Sarah: Yes! And, my senior project was making all of the trail signs, and I wrote a history slide show about different parts of the trail.
DJ: How do you see me as being an influence in your career path? Did you become a teacher because of me, or were there other reasons?
Sarah: Just because of you!
DJ: (laughing) Yes, yes, that’s the right answer!
Sarah: No, it’s the truth. I definitely have thought you’re one of my role models. I always thought it was so cool how your students looked up to you; there were so many kids that were like, “Oh, Mr. DJ is the best!” You were able to influence so many kids, and that was a catalyst for why I wanted to become a teacher. However, I wanted to do something different, more of a general elementary educator. But yes, I think it’s a family business.
Sarah: What are your thoughts regarding me teaching at Marshall, and what do you believe my strengths will be?
DJ: That’s such a good question. I’ve always thought that Marshall should have an elementary school and actually envisioned that there would be the “Larry Weber Elementary School of Outdoor Learning.” It would be a building on the hillside just below the tennis court with solar power and lots of natural light; kids would come in there and learn all about the natural world. I never envisioned a forest school because I didn’t know such a thing existed until this year. When our school leaders started getting serious about wanting to do a forest school, I thought, “Oh, this is a perfect fit for you!” and you had all the skills they were looking for.
DJ: Would you sum up the Forest School in twenty seconds? Tell me why it is unique and special.
Sarah: The Forest School is especially unique for kindergarten through fourth grade. We are spending as much time as possible outside with our kids, and each teacher has a small crew of fifteen students. We’re outside in any weather, and although we’re not just playing, play is fundamental to our philosophy and sets the groundwork for the day. We play first, and then from that we’re able to move into our academics of math, reading, social studies, and science—but we’re doing all that outside. My blue tarp is one of my favorite tools; it is in the cart of teaching materials that we pull around all day, and with it I have a mobile carpet to spread out to become our “container” that we sit on to read or write a journal entry. It is my little classroom that can be moved from place to place.
Sarah: What are your reflections on your time here at Marshall, starting with that Topper Tunnel to ending with your retirement party?
DJ: I have absolutely loved working at Marshall School. I’ve loved the people foremost—I have worked with Mr. KJ closely, and all the other teachers on my teams. I’m very proud of the things that we’ve done here, especially building the ski trail. We started that in 2003 and now it’s a 2.5K trail. I think the trail was one of the things that needed to be in place before the Forest School; the trail exposed parts of campus where they could find cool places like the upstream bridge and Snake Hollow, and I love hearing the children in the woods, hearing the kids playing and happy and active, and seeing the grass all trampled down where they’ve been. I feel good about the work we did with water testing and keeping a close eye on Brewery Creek, and I am really proud of how I taught science and projects that engaged kids. I also feel good about my career here because if this were a movie, and we were at the end credits, it would say, “No children were harmed during the filming of this movie.” I was able to treat every child with respect and care and give them my best.
Sarah: Do you want to talk about how you like retirement?
DJ: Retirement is great, too! I loved retiring and this first retirement year is awesome—people are really nice to you, you don’t have to go to as many meetings, and you don’t have as many worries about the next year. It’s great, I would retire every year if I could! I enjoy the freedom to do what I like every day, to volunteer with organizations I care about, and being able to go for a bike ride in the middle of the day.
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