Larry Johnson 2023 Alumni Award of Excellence Recipient

Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson (he/him/his) is a storyteller, educator, and business owner who has managed outdoor education programs, directed CCTV and community cable operations, and produced numerous radio and TV shows, mainly around issues and local storytellers. He started the "teller-friendly" participatory patient TV channel at Mpls.Children’s Hospital in the mid 70s and then taught storytelling and video in the Mpls. schools for over 20 years. Much of his work engages themes of environmental awareness, social justice, and conflict resolution.

Current Job

Coordinator at Plymouth Church Drop-in Center

CEHD Degrees

BS, Elementary Education and MA, Education Curriculum Systems

What is your favorite memory from the University of Minnesota?

I was working full time with a full class load every time I was there, so memories feel compressed. I started telling stories at camps before I was drafted. When I got into CEHD, I wanted to take a storytelling course, but was told it was only in the Library Science Master's Program. I think my favorite memory is deciding I knew how to tell stories, so exploring the many ways to absorb everything ever written for children. The Kerlan Collection, Children's Lit courses, and more. I was working nights, so my sister tells me I looked good sleeping with a book on that great commons by Northrop and Walter Library.

What professor(s) or course(s) were most influential during your time in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)?

Harlan Hansen. When I came back from being an Army Medic, I just wanted to go to work on my broadcast idea of a local TV show with children sharing their talents. Every avenue became a dead end, so I reluctantly decided to use the GI bill to add a teaching certificate to my broadcast. I'd get a classroom as a teacher and use storytelling and video making as teaching tools. Harlan saved me and kept me going every time I got frustrated and just wanted to get out, drive an MTC bus and write.

What was the impact and benefit of your educational experience in CEHD?

Harlan Hansen always said when I was fed up, "Just think of your teaching certificate as your Union Card. It gets you in." I did a lot of things I believe are important to education, but not necessarily part of the mainstream. The certificate got me in. I did storytelling school assemblies for a while in the early 1970s, but decided it would be better to be in schools for the long term, teaching students to tell their own stories, and, in my case, to make videos so they had some inherent tools to think more critically about the media they watched. My degree from CEHD got me in for the long haul, not as a flashy guest who came in for a day, then was on his way.

When you have 30 minutes of free time, what do you do?

Sit with my arm around Elaine and talk. Preferably by the fire inside, or in some magnificent place outdoors. Or sometimes, when we're too tired, even to sleep, we watch meaningful, meaningless TV, like Hallmark movies. Of course, I also love to read outdoors in the hammock.

What's a good book you'd recommend to others?

THE GRAMMAR OF FANTASY by innovative Italian educator, Gianni Rodari. Translated by my good friend Jack Zipes.

If you could have coffee with anyone from history, who would it be?

George Washington Carver; Will Rogers; Astrid Lindgren (actually we almost did, one time when we were teaching storytelling in Scandinavia). No, I think I'd like to make a long list and have coffee with someone from history every week. When I went to CEHD, I got an elementary certificate because of the perception that storytelling was for young children. I wanted to work to build it into the system as crucial for teaching. It is for young children, but I knew even then it is for everyone. If I had it to do over, I would get a secondary certificate and use storytelling to teach history, social studies, etc. Talking with primary sources, even if they had to come back from the dead would be good.

What gets you excited about work?

No matter what work title I've had, storytelling for education has been a prime work tool. I believe children/people learn best when they discover what they care about most and decide they want to find out everything there is to know about whatever that is. Hearing great stories helps people get to that place.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

This is a hard one for me. I grew up in a rigid, judgmental form of Christianity. I was serious about it, so I thought I wanted to be some kind of evangelist. I don't know if I really wanted that, or if it was just programmed in. On the side, even in junior high, I organized a regular neighborhood track meet with as many as 50 kids participating and getting awards we made. I also played every Little League sport there was, and did the JFK 50 Mile Hike when I was 15. Maybe I just wanted to be some kind of an Olympic athlete.