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A teacher who understands third graders need play, joy and calm to learn

The APS cheating trial has sparked a lot of blog comments on educators who have not honored the profession. Here is a piece about a teacher who does the hard work of education with verve and enthusiasm and a realization school does not have to be joyless.

This is another entry in our ongoing Great Georgia Teacher series by University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky .

By Peter Smagorinsky

I was a bit shocked when recently anointed $1 million Global Teacher Prize winner Nancie Atwell, who runs her own private elementary school in Maine,  was quoted as saying , “If you're a creative, smart young person, I don't think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

Ms. Atwell, meet Mr. Brooks.

If you’re looking for a creative, smart person who teaches effectively in a neighborhood public school, Cameron Brooks, third-grade teacher extraordinaire at Chase Street Elementary School in Athens, provides as good an exemplar as I could imagine. Here’s how one appreciative parent expressed her gratitude for his teaching on Facebook: “Best teacher EVER! [My son] has been so lucky to have him this year. He inspires his students.”

Cameron has been teaching at Chase for eight years now, and in just his fourth year was named Chase Street’s Teacher of the Year in 2011. To the long list of grateful parents and kids, add Cameron’s administrators and colleagues to the collection of admirers he’s gathered in the first leg of what I hope will be a long career as a public school teacher.

Cameron faces the challenges presented by schools to teachers and kids these days with remarkable joy and enthusiasm. Chase Street is subject to the same testing mandates that every other Georgia public school teacher faces. Cameron wryly acknowledges that the emphasis on test after test produces “P.T.T.D. (post-traumatic test disorder)” that shakes a school to its emotional core. How does he manage to keep his own spirits up and, as the admiring parent said, inspire his students in an era when even award-winning teachers discourage the young and creative from undertaking careers in the public school classroom?

Let’s start with his personality. Here’s how he’s described by Dr. Jan Burkins, co-founder along with Cameron of  Literacyhead and mother of current and past Athens-Clarke County school students: “Cameron has a blog called  Pedagogy of the Plants . He is a surfer, a skateboarder, a vegan chef, and a photographer. He's just an all-around great guy and a real model of how to focus on what is really important.”

Another Chase Street parent wrote when I asked her about Cameron:

  • He plays on the playground with his third grade students every day. One day recently, he was sighted swinging with a couple of girls and simultaneously playing ball with another group of students! He PLAYS with them and I have seen no other teacher do that.
  • I know that in the mornings after the announcements, Cameron and his students do  Qigong.
  • His classroom is calm, safe, and obviously a community of caring individuals.
  • He dedicates a lot of time and thought to his preparation — long after the expected school hours.
  • He makes the day fun, productive and meaningful for all of his students.

Cameron’s colleague Krista Dean reinforces this perspective, saying, “One of the many awesome things about Mr. Brooks is that he plays with his students every day at recess. He teaches them skills and new games, enjoys their games, and models cooperative play. He can often be found on the soccer field with students after school on Fridays. He serves as a positive role model all throughout the day — practicing character qualities that we want in our students.”

Cameron walks or bikes to Chase Street every day, an example of his commitment to exercise and generally being in tune with his environment. Concerned about the stress that kids are under to be tested routinely and forced into  college and career readiness  before they know what either really is, Cameron explicitly draws attention to stress management.

He describes his stress reduction pedagogy in his  blog:

In an effort to assuage year-end stress, last year I decided to introduce some mindfulness exercises into our morning routine. The first is called the “Raisin Meditation.” The children hold a raisin between their thumb and index fingers, focusing their attention on the texture while sharing the experience with the group. Once the tactile adjectives have been exhausted, they close their eyes and place it in their mouths to chew for one minute. While everyone shares his or her sensations once more, the dialogue brings a present awareness to an act generally taken for granted three times a day.

Through mindful reflection, kids take time to slow down and appreciate the mundane in their worlds. That’s quite a shift from the production-line mentality of policymakers who regard kids as miniature grownups who should eschew frivolities like play and meditation and put their noses to the grindstone to keep the economic wheels turning. In elementary school.

Cameron stresses the value of kindness to his students, a concept that seems out of place in schools that focus on competition between teachers and students for the highest individual scores. He models for his students his belief in committing “acts of kindness, exploration, inquiry, engagement,” each difficult to strive toward when learning is competitive.

Mind you, I think that competition can be a good thing, and am considered to be a competitive person myself. But not in everything or in all situations. And surely not as the sole driver of an elementary school education.

Demonstrating his public spirit, in his personal life Cameron has volunteered for  Mad Housers , a group that builds homes for people like military veteran Radar, who had been living in Athens’s Tent City, a beneath-the-overpass community of homeless residents. He’s also volunteered serving food to families in need on Thanksgiving, and at an orphanage in Trujillo, Peru. He in turn encourages his students to treat others kindly, not just the humans in their environment but the plants and animals as well.

As he tells his kids, “Kindness comes in all shapes and sizes. Helping a turtle across a busy street, sharing a simple ‘Hello,’ or giving directions to a new student makes life a little better.” He then builds this value into his instruction: “I challenge the class to 100 acts of kindness. When you do something kind, compose a personal narrative, then place it in the Box of Kindness.  Once revised and edited, post it here for the world to see.” Kindness then is not simply a virtue, but a means through which his students generate materials for narrative writing.

Cameron’s teaching emphasizes education’s affective dimension. He has written, “The start of the school year is the ideal time to proactively bring attention to, and nurture qualities that promote a classroom culture of respect, openness, introspection, and empathy.” These human values are often lost in the current policy world in which 8-year-olds are measured according to their test score productivity and told they must compete with others and win at all costs.

If you think that competition among kids and teachers does not breed such crass and selfish values, then please pay greater attention to the Atlanta Public Schools  cheating scandal  that is tearing the heart out of kids, teachers, administrators, and parents in our capital city. For those hoping that a better alternative must be available, then Cameron Brooks appears to have found a way.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.