Passions and Wonder after Goddard: A Conversation with IMA alum Kelly Johnson (‘12)

Kelly Johnson doing some nature journaling

Kelly Johnson doing some nature journaling

I met Kelly Johnson on my first day at Goddard in February 2012. It was her last semester in the Individualized MA program and we were in Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s advising group together. We immediately became friends after figuring out that we both came from DIY punk backgrounds and even shared some mutual friends. Kelly graduated that August after simultaneously writing a masters thesis and publishing a book called Wings, Worms, and Wonder: A Guide for Creatively Integrating Gardening and Outdoor Learning. Since Goddard, Kelly quit her day job and has transformed Wings, Worms, and Wonder into an independent business fusing education, nature, art, and gardening through a number of exciting projects. As a more recent Goddard grad struggling to figure out what I’m doing with my life now, I thought it would be interesting to talk with Kelly about the challenges and joys of going this autonomous route; of truly following her passions and trying to make the world a better place in the process.  —  Matthew Dineen, IMA ’14

Matthew Dineen: Hi Kelly, can you talk about your post-Goddard journey? How have your experiences pursuing this independent project over the past couple years compared to your original vision of life after grad school? Tell me about the challenges and rewards you’ve encountered along the way.

Kelly Johnson: When I began the IMA Environmental Studies program, I honestly had no vision of what life after grad school would be like. I knew I wanted to write a book on gardening with children, but at the start I didn’t know I wouldn’t want to go back to classroom teaching full time. Like I do most things, I jumped into grad school head first with no idea what it would entail. I didn’t even know you had to write papers! I went to art school for undergrad and we never wrote papers. As long as you could talk about your work and give presentations you were set. So the whole paper writing thing threw me for a loop at that first residency–which seems so funny to me now that I have written a thesis, 4 books, bunches of articles, and countless blog posts.

Post-Goddard has been a fantastic and challenging (in a good way) journey. I was so incredibly prepared for my first year out as far as the launch, tour, and speaking events for my book Wings, Worms, and Wonder because, as an appendix to my thesis, I was advised to create a clear plan of what I was going to do with the book. In true Deweian fashion I was asked something to the effect of: “Anyone can write a book, but how is it going to help the world?”

In between teaching workshops, prepping for speaking events and tours, writing articles, and learning how to run a website and blog, over the past two years I’ve spent a large amount of time learning about running a creative business and marketing my talents. That endeavor has been both fun and frustrating because it is so far from my knowledge base. Goddard’s independent learning style gave me a perfect understanding of how to take on this new field of study! I reflected on the models set up by my friends who run indie record labels and art businesses and read books on “right brained business” and modified my approach from those models.

At the risk of boasting, when I think about all that I have achieved in the past two years it blows my mind and it never would have happened without Goddard. I went from being a Montessori elementary teacher in a tiny town to sustainably publishing my own book and winning a national book award! I have spoken at multiple international conferences; been on book tours; had articles published in international print and online magazines and journals; got a publisher for my children’s books; got distributors for Wings; taught university courses; developed, facilitated, and consulted on multiple children’s garden programs around the country. I own and run a socially and environmentally responsible business, and even had dinner with Richard Louv where he chatted me up about my book and self publishing experience. Crazy!

I am confident that being guided by my thesis advisor to create a clear year one action plan, combined with not really knowing what I was doing which prompted me to take unknown risks, following a punk rock DIY ethic, and drawing help from my community of creative friends is how I actualized these successes. BUT…capitalistic conditioning dies hard. There is still a nagging little problem that casts a sometimes subtle and sometimes dark shadow over all these amazing achievements: Financial success.

As incredibly rewarding as all these achievements are, I have not reached a level of financial success that allows me to simply meet my needs. I have learned that just because you work seven days a week and pour every ounce of creative soul into a project, it may not bring home the tofu and you may not be able to pinpoint why. When the bills pile up and your savings account is empty the day comes when you have to make the decision of how, or if, you can keep going. This day is now, and I was not prepared for it.

I pretty much ignored the financial health of my business for two years and only focused on the less tangible more glamorous successes, which made me feel great, until I was hungry and couldn’t pay my mortgage. I have had to take a careful look at my relationship with money and providing services. Money isn’t inherently evil as often touted. Charging enough for your work so that you make enough to buy food and pay your bills isn’t being greedy. The theme of creatives and radicals struggling with money relationships is so common it’s cliche, but it continues to happen. If you can’t meet your needs, you can’t do the work. Learn to embrace a healthy relationship with money and never devalue the work you are doing by feeling like you aren’t worth the price. You are and the work we Goddard grads do is important. This is the lesson I am currently working on learning.

So I’m getting creative, tuning out the business advice, tightening my belt, and drawing inspiration from my DIY community. I’m planting seeds in broader venues and trusting the process. I’m not giving up because in every workshop, consultation, and thank you from a book buyer, I see how my work helps and inspires people to build strong relationships with nature, grow fresh foods, and keep their senses of wonder sparked. It’s tough to survive while trailblazing, but in my experience that’s often where Goddard grads are found – making the world a better place for people and planet!

MD: Well, this great work you have dedicated yourself to over the past two years has

Matthew Dineen

Matthew Dineen

definitely been an inspiration to me. But yeah, I know the realities of capitalist society complicate how sustainable it can be. In my thesis I studied the challenges that artists and activists face in balancing meaningful work and livelihood, of actualizing our dreams and affecting change. My conclusion argues that it is important to get together with others and work collectively–or at least remain connected to communities like the ones you mentioned–in order to make it happen. But now that I have graduated and am struggling to figure out what my next plan is, I’m still oriented toward traditional, solitary “job-hunting” to solve those personal financial issues you describe. I still want to do my own thing though, to enjoy the independence and creative control that you have been able to practice. Do you think you will be able to sustain your current path? Or do you see yourself returning to teaching, or other work, eventually?

KJ: It is so hard to not feel alone when it comes to “job-hunting” and money. I feel a guilt if I even talk about money issues with others, like that is my problem to deal with silently. Rugged individualism conditioning residue dies hard. It’s tough for sure to shake it. I agree with you that it is so important to get together and work collectively. It is an ideal situation when the group gels. I have lived and served in both established highly successful and disorganized communal/collective settings, They were great and I hope to again in the future. I have found in each instance, though, there came a time when individual money was necessary for something or other. In my experiences that is why people move on and get outside jobs. It really just depends on how the collective is set up. Aligned structure and foresight to future needs, and non-judgement are important lessons I learned for communal living.

I’ve been doing a bit of traditional “job hunting” myself this past week, looking to make some quick cash as a seasonal worker and it is weird. I haven’t done this in a decade. They drug test you before you know if you are hired. You fill out ridiculously long and silly employability tests. I never had to do this before. I think that it will be hilarious if I don’t pass the math on the tests. Smart enough for a master’s degree, but entirely not hireable! It might be a compliment! I may or may not be qualified to sell you poinsettias this holiday season, but I can teach your children and run my own business. We’ll see.

As far as the long term and a return to teaching, I love teaching and at times miss it, so maybe. It would have to be the right situation though – like to move out of the states. I don’t think I’d go back to full time teaching in my current location. I would however, definitely consider a position as a nature-study teacher or full-time school garden educator if that type of position was to become recognized, validated, and created down here. I have continued to substitute,  have some ideas for creative tutoring, and there is always painting murals I could fall back on – all of which allow me the time to continue the work I am doing now. I am even starting to look into PhD programs so I’m interested to see how this will all pan out myself! I just keep working, keep putting myself out there, and keep being the best I can be and serve the work of connecting humans to their natural world through the arts and gardening. If it’s meant to be I will know. Revolutions aren’t started on full stomachs!

MD: That’s true! I recently started researching PhD programs too, which was fun to fantasize about and to just take a break from researching job openings. When people ask me what kind of job I’m looking for I don’t know how to honestly respond. But sometimes, if I’m feeling sassy, I’ll say: I’m looking for a world without jobs. I want a world where everyone has access to meaningful and empowering work. And also, yes, a world where we are not alienated from each other because of money. People also have asked me if I want to teach. I don’t have any formal teaching experience, but I think that is something I would like to do eventually. Is there anything else you would like to add? Anything coming up with Wings, Worms, and Wonder that you’d like to share?

KJ: So true! Researching and fantasizing going deeper into the field you study and love is really fun and a nice break from researching where the next chunk of cash will come from. In the commencement speech Mumia said, “Your job isn’t how to get a job, it’s to make a difference…take what you know and apply it to the real world.” I love that validation. It goes perfectly with how I feel about purposeful work and what you sassily say about everyone having access to meaningful and empowering work. Maria Montessori also stresses the importance of this idea as well, and how through developmentally appropriate purposeful work at all stages of life we discover our roles in our world and we find fulfillment. That is the essence of it for me. I want to live a life of hard work that makes you happy, healthy, tired, and at the end of the day you leave the world and its inhabitants a little better than you found it that morning. How that is accomplished and the roles we discover may change everyday, and some days may not turn out the way we plan. But I will keep “trusting the process” and not giving in to a system that sets us up for financial failure if we want to follow our passions or compromise if we don’t.

Yes, there are some exciting things coming up with Wings, Worms, and Wonder! I have 2 non-fiction children’s books coming out through Star Bright Books, a few more garden education resource digital products on the horizon, and a self-paced course called “Let’s Build a Garden” where through videos and PDF Action Plans I walk you through every step and stage of building a 4×8 garden bed that I plan to release in January 2015. I’m about to release new themed teacher education workshops where I teach teachers how use a school garden to meet every K-12 writing standard and a couple new books for adults have been brewing in the back of my mind that I hope to get out this year. I’ve also been venturing into the world of art journaling by bringing nature journaling into that world through blog contributions and a few workshops, so I am excited to see how that sprouts. And of course there are my regular children’s garden workshops that are always the best!

Still the decision of when/if to go back to school is in the forefront of my mind for many reasons. It sure would be easy if Goddard opened up a PhD program, then we could go back together. You would be a great teacher! The best ones don’t have formal experience. Maria Montessori preferred her teachers not have teaching experience or traditional education degrees because she would have to untrain them!

Learn more about all of Kelly’s projects at: http://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/

Matthew Dineen is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, and a proud Goddard graduate. Contact him at: matthew.dineen [at] goddard.edu

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This entry was posted in Cultural & Cross-Cultural Studies, Environmental, Sustainability & Place Studies, Progressive Education, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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