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 Brooks, third-grade teacher extraordinaire at Chase Street Elementary School in Athens, believes play is an integral part of his children's day and joins them on the playground.

Cameron Brooks, third-grade teacher extraordinaire at Chase Street Elementary School in Athens, believes play is an integral part of his children’s day and joins them on the playground.

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.

 

Reader Comments 0

39 comments
eulb
eulb

Wow! I'm familiar with "mindfulness" and the funky-sounding "raisin meditation", but have never heard of them being taught to 8 year old students in a public school.  Some hospitals teach these techniques to adults, especially adults facing very stressful health problem (hospitalized, facing terminal illness, etc.) These exercise appear to be beneficial, not detrimental.  I hope Mr. Brooks' students remember these techniques and continue to practice them long after they are out of elementary school.

BertisEDowns
BertisEDowns


Wonderful story on an exemplary and truly gifted teacher— and every word true!  Our daughter was fortunate to have Mr Brooks for 3rd grade, one of her best teachers ever and it should be also noted that mindfulness practices are not exclusive to Mr Brooks or to Chase Street and that programs like enrichment clusters and morning meeting are a time and place where teachers are encouraged as part of the community-building intentions in all of our local Athens community schools. Filing under "hope despite the times"

Batgirl2
Batgirl2

Good for Mr. Brooks.  I hope he can keep up his enthusiasm and stay with teaching for another twenty  years or more.   I agree with him about playing when his students do.  We are in the middle of testing but took Wednesday off to give the kids a break.  When my classes came to the library, I decided to take them outside to let them run and play.  When I took my first graders outside, some kid made a comment about me being a zombie, so I got up and started chasing him around the playground like a zombie.  Soon other kids wanted me to chase them.  It was fun and got my endorphins moving in a way that sitting on the bench watching them never would have.  And I do hope that someday they will remember their fat, 56-year-old librarian chasing them around the playground like a zombie and have a good laugh.


TheDeal2
TheDeal2

What a wonderful example of a teacher.  I know we have thousands more with his spirit and enthusiasm here in Georgia.  What we don't have for all of those teachers, though, is solid leadership that will support this type of "bucking the system".  That's right, Mr. Brooks is bucking the system by using instructional time to be outside with his children, teaching them things that cannot be found on the numbered list of standards.  Unfortunately, much of our school leadership does not have the creativity or leadership ability to follow those standards while respecting many of our teachers' abilities to teach and inspire outside of a script.  If Mr. Brooks were stuck in a school without good leadership, he would quickly find that he would be bullied and pressured into getting those kids back into the classroom and back "on task".  I am happy for his students, for him, and for the leadership of that school.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Great for Mr. Brooks. I wonder about people stretching this too far, with comments like:


"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."


The schools had better be teaching kids how to [ethically] compete and deal and cope with competition, evaluation, and grading, otherwise they are going to be at a serious disadvantage as they move up in grades and into adulthood. If you try to create a utopian society where there is little to none of this, I wonder who is going to support the effort and provide for the people? Are you going to be able to market poor skills, poor art, poor quality/insufficient food, technology that does not conform to standards, accounting/investment services that don't measure up, pilots who may not be fully qualified? Teachers who can swing and sing but can't teach multiplication tables?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@DawgDadII 


An analogy:  Do you tell your 8 year old the graphic facts of sexual intercourse?  Do you tell your 10 year old to go out to get a job to pay for his food? 


Those knowledgeable of child development know when to offer what to given children at differing ages.  Neither children, nor adolescents, are adults yet.  As adults, we should be wise enough to see the gradients in which we nurture them, over time, to be capable, wise, and loving adults.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@DawgDadII


I am not against competition.  Where did I state that?  I did not.  It is a matter of balance and judgment of degree of competition at what ages.  The present testing policies in Georgia's public schools are out of balance to healthy child development, imo, and this degree of testing is unnecessarily hurtful to many students and to their teachers, as a result.  Btw, much of these testing policies are politicially generated and politics has no place in the educational development of children.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

@popacorn @MaryElizabethSings  No, but I put my kids through T-Ball, Baseball, Hockey, Basketball, Cub Scouts, Dance, Brownies/Girl Scouts, etc., activities where there are standards of development and accomplishment (inclusive of outright grading/tracking/categorization by skill level) and competition, among the other benefits of the programs. And YES, we provided age-appropriate sex education/predator awareness.


I will add: My son in an ex-Marine who risked his life for all of you, and my daughter works for the State of Georgia. Each of them has both benefitted from and suffered the consequences of competition and grading/evaluation, both in school and in their careers, as most of us do.

emkatz
emkatz

My son has Mr. Brooks this year for 3rd grade. He's a talented, creative teacher. What's especially great about Mr. Brooks, I think, is that he's as focused on the needs of the community as he is on the needs of the individual student; social equity is important to him, and he fosters it in the classroom. This is something that didn't quite come across in the article...

BCW1
BCW1

Great perspective and he is absolutely right regarding playtime. We as adults want to play ourselves don't we?

heyteacher
heyteacher

This is a great piece -- I took my students outside the other day and it was the best lesson ever. We are teaching kids, not widgets -- it sounds like Cameron works in a school that supports creativity because in some systems if you were caught swinging with your students they would find a way to mark something down on your TKES evaluation ("teacher swings with student and is not supervising").



Mirva
Mirva

This whole thing is a no- win situation.  If the kids do poorly on the test, critics say"schools are failing and the teachers are crappy".  If the kids do well on the tests, the critics say "the tests are too easy".  

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I've known, and tried to emulate, teachers like Mr. Brooks.  I had a few teachers like that, didn't you?  Those whose focus was on the whole child, and trying to leave the students better in ALL ways after the year is over.  Teachers about whom their students could say, "S/he CARED about us."

HollyJones
HollyJones

"High stakes" is hardly an excuse.  It is the reality that we are forcing on our children for no other reason than to be able to point and say, "Look!  Public schools are failing!  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!"  Time and again we are shown public schools and teachers who are not failing but rather succeeding in the face of constant criticism, yet the knee jerk response is "They're union shills and anti-reform."  Maybe, just MAYBE they are doing their jobs.  Maybe, just MAYBE they know more about teaching than the blowhards under the Gold Dome who pass laws and mandates that they don't have to live with (or fund).  Maybe, just MAYBE we should be looking to these schools and teachers for inspiration and incorporating their methods into other schools rather than taking junkets to NOLA to be sold snake oil in the guise of "school reform."  


My daughter finished her last day of Milestones testing yesterday, thanks be to God.  It was social studies (Georgia Studies), and she was not at all worried, since she has done very well in that class all year, likes her teacher, enjoys the subject.  When she got home, she was almost in tears.   The majority of their time in class has been spent in GA history, logically, with the last couple of weeks focusing on government.  Her test was almost all government questions, using words she was unfamiliar with.  Really??  In a course that primarily focuses on history, why would the test focus mostly on government?  Why would the test use words that are unfamiliar to the students?  So,  here is my child, who gets As and Bs, who does her homework, who pays attention in class and now is frantic that she failed this stupid test.  I know the teachers all follow the state standards, because they are posted in the classroom for each new topic.  My child should not have felt so totally blindsided by this test.  How does this do a single thing to improve student achievement?  THIS is the "high stakes excuse"  to which   Norning refers- a good student undermined by a state mandated, high stakes test.  No, it won't keep her from going to high school next year, but what has it done for her confidence in herself?  Those are the "stakes" that I, as a parent, am most concerned with.  

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@HollyJones


Very well expressed and true to the core.  Tell your daughter that sometimes the schools get the tests wrong and that many in education are trying to improve this situation.  Tell you daughter not to lose confidence in herself and that a teacher of 35 years, and a school leader, wanted her to know this truth.

PITTFAN
PITTFAN

@HollyJones 

Social Studies is an area that Georgia can't seem to get right on the standardized tests.  Someone seriously needs to look at that and fix it.  

Did you know that you are allowed to opt out of testing?  I didn't until recently.

HollyJones
HollyJones

@PITTFAN @HollyJones I am aware of the opt out movement.  To be honest, I paid it little mind since it seemed most of the "opt out" people were making a stand against Common Core. I don't have an axe to grind with CCSS. In retrospect, I almost wish I had opted my daughter out.  These  tests are still in beta phase, IMO.  I seriously question their validity.  (But then I also questioned the CRCT's validity when I saw that my daughter "exceeded" on the test in subjects that she did not "exceed" in the classroom).    The scores won't be back until at least October, so what use are they?  All this stress and anxiety is for naught.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

@HollyJones "

My daughter finished her last day of Milestones testing yesterday


== approximately the next 4 weeks of learning LOST to indifference & goofing off by teachers and students now that the almighty battery of high stakes standardized testing is finished.

HollyJones
HollyJones

@AlreadySheared @HollyJones Well,yeah.  Certainly there is more material to cover, but the pressure is off now.  In years past these last weeks were spent looking ahead to topics the kids would see the following year, without the added stress of "this will be on the test."    


 When I taught, and we had no such tests (I taught high school Spanish). Learning wasn't over until the final exam (which I wrote and which reflected what had been covered in class).   

straker
straker

"If you're a creative, smart young person, I don't think this is the time to go into teaching"


Georgia schools make this depressingly clear.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"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."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Much needed essay to counterbalance all of the negatives and mean-spiritedness in the visions of the posters in the last thread. God help this nation if its public schools ever embrace a business model, forced upon it through those business professionals and unaware parents who do not know what damage they will have done to the students, the teachers, and the society-at-large.

popacorn
popacorn

So who has done the damage we see today? Your bunch?

coj
coj

@popacorn Since Reagan, conservatives have been attacking the public school system and promoting private education for profit. But instead of doing this only with private money, they take from public coffers, too. Private for profit educational institutions can be as selective as they want to be and just admit who they want as long as the student and their parents can pay. They can exclude the disabled, the poor, the disruptive and are not accountable to the government for discriminatory practices because they are private and not public. They are also not accountable for how they spend those funds. They've siphoned public funds for private use with little accountability and their educational results are no better and sometimes worse than what is offered by public educational institutions. 


So, I'd say it was your bunch.

Norning
Norning

All stories by Peter Smagorinsky are primarily hit pieces on education reform, wrapped around whatever is convenient. 

Parents and taxpayers who quite reasonably expect results are always the bullies ruining the party. And high-stakes excuse making is the order of the day. It would be news to the legions of prospective teachers applying for available teaching positions that public school jobs are as undesirable as Smagorinski makes them sound. Nor, of course, are the pay and benefits. Or the job security. 

It’s just those pesky parents and taxpayers who expect measurable learning to occur.

AN0042
AN0042

I believe that people concerned with and want reform for our current system understand that we are short-changing our children, and subsequently our future, by placing outdated and ineffective constructs on one of the most important activities on our planet - passing our knowledge on to the next generation. Obviously, this knowledge extends beyond 2+2 and spelling F-O-X. And whether you think teachers are responsible for teaching it all, the reality is that they do. 


We cannot possibly characterize the success of a child, teacher, school, or community by a data point and linear algebra. Improved methods do exist. For example, check out "The Systems View of Life" by physicist Fritjof Capra. The measure of our future should include the best coherent framework we've got, and that means moving beyond one-dimensional measurements into something more complex. 


The results I expect, the results that shape the future of our world, should be better than a first order mathematical attempt on an excel spreadsheet. Lastly, the only high stakes here is for our future if we don't give our kids the absolute, very best. As the "bully ruining the party, " those are the results I expect. 

HollyJones
HollyJones

@AN0042 The teacher in this piece is actually reforming his class. Just because the reform doesn't have "charter" in it , or "choice" doesn't make it any less effective.  He is putting the emotional needs of his students on an equal footing with their intellectual needs, which will ultimately lead to those students doing better in school and, hopefully,  in life- if it could be carried throughout the educational experience.  Does that mean that every teacher has to play ball with his or her students?  No, that's not the point.  It's about recognizing that these are people, not data points.  

MD3
MD3

Seems like an incredible teacher. His students are lucky. I wish my son could have been in his class, although he's also had many amazing teachers over the years. Thank you Dr. Smagorinsky for sharing this ( and please ignore the 2-3 posters who will no doubt find something negative to say about it, because those same 2-3 posters are seemingly incapable of finding anything but negativity anywhere...) It's nice to see a story like this. Too often unless it has to do with test cheating or sex with students, the media seems completely apathetic regarding the topic of education. Wish we lived in a world where these types of stories were reported more often.

Astropig
Astropig

Mr.Brooks looks like he's enjoying that swing! I'm sure that his students will remember him fondly for the rest of their days.


It's just too bad that he's being used as a prop for Mr. Smagorinsky to get in a diatribe about testing,parent choice,accountability,etc...I'd enjoy these pieces a lot more if they weren't such clumsy propaganda.

redweather
redweather

I suspect there are many more teachers out there just like Mr. Brooks.  But the bad apples typically get more of the attention.

hssped
hssped

@redweather

You are right.  There are more teachers like him, than not like him.  I know of a high school math teachers who does a little tap dance for the kids before unveiling a new formula......an Eng teacher that raps to her kids.....and another one that plays her mandolin.......more good teachers than bad.  They just don't get noticed.

Norning
Norning

@hssped

Yes, there are plenty of good teachers out there. But too often it's the whiners who show up on this blog insisting they speak for the entire teaching profession.


popacorn
popacorn

@hssped

Hard to notice them because the big mouth self-deluded bunch does all the babbling.