Concordia Shanghai Jan 4 2023

Former Concordia Teacher Is Keeping History Alive

Celebrating National History Day China has been a tradition at Concordia Shanghai since 2009, and we have Mr. Mark T. Johnson to thank for this. Mr. Johnson brought NHD to Concordia and was instrumental in leading the expansion of the program in China. As a former teacher at Concordia from 2007 to 2015, his legacy lives on at the school as a celebrated contribution to Concordia’s 25-year history. 

Mr. Johnson, who is is currently serving as associate professor at the University of Notre Dame,  will be joining us virtually in January 2023 to discuss with our current high schoolers his latest book , “The Middle Kingdom Under the Big Sky,” which pieces together the lesser known history of Montana’s Chinese population.  

Read on to learn more about Mr. Johnson’s time at Concordia and his experiences studying and teaching history.


A Historian’s Dream 

Mr. Johnson’s connection with Concordia Shanghai started in 2007. For the following eight years, he taught history, English, and world religions at the school. 

“I loved every minute of my time there!” says Mr. Johnson. “The students were amazing! They were creative, diligent, caring, and eager for interesting challenges.”   

He enjoyed exploring Shanghai’s history with students and friends, getting to know the fascinating history of the city and the region. He remembers trips with students to study cultural diffusion along the Silk Road, meeting with Chinese historians to discuss the tumultuous history of the 1940s, and talking with locals who lived through these fascinating moments in Chinese history. 

As he puts it, it was during these years in Shanghai that he immersed himself in the study of Chinese history, an occupation that he continues to find endlessly fascinating. “The opportunities available to explore China, to learn about local cultures and important histories were a dream come true for a history teacher like me,” says Mr. Johnson. 


Fulfillment of a Long-held Ambition   

Though “The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky” was published this year, the idea for the project, as Mr. Johnson says, started when he was teaching at Concordia and spending his summer break in his home state of Montana.   

Montana, and all states in the American West, had large communities of Chinese settlers who came from the 1850s through the 1890s. They were mostly from southern China and the money they earned from work in America helped support their families back home. “I discovered several large collections of letters from family members in southern China to men working in Montana,” recalls Mr. Johnson. Fascinated by these cultural artifacts, he sought assistance from members of the Concordia community to translate the letters. Excitedly, his students at the time became crucial researchers in his project, helping to unearth new insights into the lives of these Chinese emigrants. 

He adds, “Enough community members at Concordia had the necessary language abilities to translate these letters, providing for the first time a view into these histories from the perspectives and experiences of the migrants and their families.”   

To find more about Mr. Johnson’s book.


Imparting Transferable Skills to Students 

During his tenure at Concordia Shanghai, Mr. Johnson established National History Day in China and trained hundreds of teachers across Asia to implement a project-based learning approach.   

In his eyes, the wonderful thing about history is it allows the exploration of any topic of interest to students and the skills developed in that exploration are transferable to many other academic areas and to almost all future professions for students. 

“We had students who were interested in going into the medical profession study the history of inoculation and changes in beliefs about transmission of disease. We had students interested in design and fashion study innovations in the clothing industry. We had students who had a passion for filmmaking use the NHD process to hone their skills in that format, eventually helping lead to a career in the film industry,” shares Mr. Johnson with much pride. 


Concordia, as the first school in China to join NHD, blazed a trail for other international schools to follow, thanks largely to Mr. Johnson’s passion and pioneering spirit. Over the years, NHD at Concordia has carried on, with several high school students earning their way into the finals in Washington D.C., and recently, Concordia high school history teacher Mr. Nicolas Perez was nominated for the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award through the NHD program.