Every classroom has its rhythm to it, the people its chord structure, and at The Friends School of Atlanta, the classes have some rich chords. Fifth grade language arts teacher Johnny Pride felt the vibe of those chords the first time he stepped into FSA, when he saw the art on the wall and heard about the philosophy, about the Light Within.
“It was me. I was in.”
Johnny felt the vibe since he interviewed and began teaching for the school six years ago—a bridge, if one were to map out his life in song form. He had been a classroom teacher and then a literacy specialist at The Howard School. Eventually, he wanted to be in front of the classroom again.
From one perspective, FSA seems like an unlikely destination for Johnny, a music industry veteran who once played with the drummer for REM, whose band once opened for The Police and other big acts, who ended up being featured in The Doors movie, and who even roomed with Val Kilmer for a few months during the filming of it.
But from another perspective, Johnny’s landing at FSA makes all the sense in the world. He majored in journalism at the University of Georgia (hence the connection with REM). He wrote for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution for a time and worked for PBS before jumping in the car and heading for California. He headed west to perform and write, songs instead of prose, before family commitments called him back to Georgia. He taught and coached his nephew, who attended Howard, which is how he ended up at that school and, ultimately, FSA.
It’s safe to say that Johnny wouldn’t feel at home at Friends if he taught in a traditional environment where students are tracked and separated by ability. Grouping students together in advanced and remedial classes doesn’t reflect real life, where different people with different strengths and weaknesses need to work together.
True, FSA pushes students as far as they can go. For instance, a few middle schoolers who’ve mastered certain concepts join math or language arts classes in higher grades. But students aren’t segmented into tracks. Teachers, Johnny included, practice what’s known as learning differentiation. They teach differently to different children, depending on their strengths and weaknesses. They also encourage students to teach each other.
“I probably do about four different lesson plans per class,” Johnny said. “All kids are different. They all work together, and what I love about it is the acceptance they have for each other.”
That acceptance builds the harmony and drives the rhythm of learning. “Here I can make learning joyful and fun,” Johnny said. “Students work very hard, but they don’t feel that they’re working hard because they have so much fun. This place allows me to do that.”
Visit Johnny’s class, and you’ll see students constantly in action. They write all the time and read each other’s stories allowed. They learn vocabulary through theater; they dream up and write scripts that use new words or imply them, and the students watching guess what those words are. Students teach students. Like those in the best bands playing the best music, everyone listens, everyone helps, and everyone plays their part.
By Tim Heston
Tim Heston has written for business magazines since 1996. He’s won some awards here and there, but his greatest achievement is being the proud parent of an FSA fifth grader.