Groton Teacher of the Year helps students become lifelong readers

Groton — The West Side STEM Magnet Middle School library media center features bright boards encouraging students to read, as well as inspirational messages and posters on digital citizenship and media literacy, while shelves feature books on an array of subjects and characters.

Middle school students during the year frequent the library space, described as a hub of school culture, to ask for book recommendations, build their research skills, learn how to code, or use virtual reality goggles to take a virtual tour exploring the Industrial Revolution.

Library media specialist Lizanne Johnson, who was named last month as Groton Public Schools' 2018-19 teacher of the year, makes students and staff feel welcome, teachers said.

"She's always positive and always willing to help any time," said eighth-grade language arts teacher Michelle Mokrzewski. She said Johnson has made the library a "second home" for her and her students.  

As library media specialist, Johnson said she sees her role as building a reading culture where students go on to be readers for life.

"I'm excited about books," she said in a recent interview. "I'm excited about where books can take you."

Johnson, who has created a shelf dedicated to books featuring diversity, said she wants students to have books they can see themselves in. She recalls how after recommending a book to a boy, he came back, his face lit up, to tell her that it was the first time he ever saw people like himself in a book.

On the other hand, she also wants students to be exposed to books with kids who are different from them.

"Reading builds empathy and I don’t think we ever should stop building empathy," she said of the importance of students becoming lifelong readers. "We have a very wide, varied world that needs our understanding, that needs our compassion. To just be able to say, 'OK, I don’t understand that but I read a book and now I see what you’re talking about.'"

Johnson also sees her role as helping students learn about digital citizenship and how to research, cite and evaluate sources.

At the STEM school, she's excited about embracing technology, whether by teaching a coding class or collaborating with teachers when they bring students to the library to use the virtual reality goggles the school administration obtained through a grant.

Johnson comes to school early to run the daily morning announcements with students from the morning news crew, who share information on everything from the start of a new club, upcoming assemblies, sports games scores, birthdays and books.

Mokrzewski said Johnson celebrates diversity and the arts, makes the library fun for students, dresses up in costumes and loves Harry Potter.

"On Halloween she dressed up as Mary Poppins and you had to do a double take," said Anna Stout, eighth grade math teacher. "Everyone said that Mary Poppins was her in a nutshell because she is practically perfect. Everybody loves her: students, teachers. No one has a bad thing to say against her. She just comes to work every day, and she's just so happy and the kids love her."

Johnson began her career in education as an English language tutor in elementary schools in Groton, according to her speech to the Board of Education last month. She later went on to earn her master's degree in education and became a teacher.

As a fourth-grade teacher, Johnson, who loves to read, enjoyed teaching reading more than anything, so she seized an opportunity to pursue certification and become a library media specialist, she said.

Stout said Johnson — who is in her second year at West Side — takes the time to get to know the students one on one and has connections to them, as she remembers many of them from when they were younger and she was an elementary school media specialist, or taught their older siblings.

Mokrzewski said she inspires the students and remembers what they liked to read when they were younger, so she can suggest new books to them.

Principal Jeffrey Kotecki highlighted before the Board of Education Johnson's contributions to the school community, including working with student volunteers on the morning news program, hosting weekly book clubs with parent volunteers and Groton Public Library and Bill Memorial Library teen librarians "to help match readers with great books while supplying them with limitless cookies and snacks," and supporting faculty, staff and students, from supporting STEM to covering classes when a substitute is needed.

"Lizanne's dedication and commitment to the community, staff and students of West Side is unmeasurable," Kotecki said.


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