The Art of Living

Stopping by someone’s blog, I always read the “About” page first. Here is what I read about Cameron:

"Cameron Brooks has a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education and is a third-grade teacher. When he is not practicing tai chi or chi gong with his students, you may find him planting succulents in unlikely planters such as old skateboard decks, helmets, or broken seashells. In addition to writing essays and reviews for Literacyhead, Cameron is also a surfer, a skateboarder, a vegan chef, and a photographer."

I was pleased to find a lot in common. I did not only meet a colleague but also noticed some of the things Cameron is interested in attract me as well.  But there is a huge difference between us: we belong to different cultures. I decided to ask Cameron a number of questions and he kindly agreed to answer them. 

Olga: Cameron, I know that teaching children is a very demanding job. As a colleague I'm very much interested in your experience. Do you enjoy working with children? What subject do you teach? What ages are the children you've you been teaching?

Cameron: Teaching offers the opportunity to learn from some of the most honest, passionate, and diverse folks on earth. 2010-2011 marks my fourth year teaching, and as it happens, my fourth year as a third grade collaborative homeroom teacher.A large percentage of my students are second generation Mexican immigrants, for whom English is a second language. So during reading/language arts, I co-teach with our school's ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher. They're eight and nine years old.

Olga: Well, thank you, Cameron but I'm afraid your system is not quite clear to me. Could you explain in a bit more detail what stands behind "reading/language arts"? Does it mean you teach your students to read and speak English? As for co-teaching, it is something I haven't come across either. What does the ESOL teacher do?

Cameron: I should have offered more explanation...

Chase Street is one of 14 elementary schools in the Clarke County School District, which include grades K-5, or ages 4-11. We are a standards-based school, which means we adhere to the Georgia Performance Standards, established by the Georgia Department of Education.Soon, the majority of states will adopt a set of (homogenized) national standards.

Two hours are allotted each day to reading/language arts, and writing.Four times a year, I administer reading assessments called "running records," to determine each student's reading level, which is based on fluency and comprehension. Our media center has a book room organized by reading levels A (Kindergarten/age 4), through V (sixth grade/age 11). It consists of bags filled with multiple copies of the same book. Every two weeks, the students get a new bagful of books on their reading level. This year, I have adopted a reading program called The Daily 5, and I conference with a few individuals each day to establish and assess skill-specific goals in comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expression.

This year's class has the widest range of readers I've ever taught. I have 19 students, and they range over a year below grade level, up to four years above grade level. The lower readers get extra reading support through our "Early Intervention Program", and those considered "gifted," get advanced support in our "Spectrum" program.  Both include a “pull-out model,” where the students are taken out of my classroom for differentiated, hour-long small-group instruction. "Language Arts" includes conventions such as punctuation, spelling, and grammar.

Throughout the year, Writing Workshop (which lasts for 45 minutes each day) is broken up into 4 units: Narrative, Informational, Persuasive, and Response to Literature.  All lessons include an opening, mini lesson, work period, and closing.

A large percentage of my students are second-generation Mexican immigrants, for whom Spanish is their first language. During reading/language arts, I co-teach with our school's ESOL teacher. Co-teaching means I collaborate on certain lessons with the ESOL teacher, and she joins my class for an hour each day while we meet with respective groups or individuals during the work period. Supplemental funds are available for schools to hire additional teachers if they have a certain percentage of students living below the poverty line, which includes the majority of our school’s ESOL students.


Olga: Now I’ve got an in-depth insight into your job. I visited all the links and it was very interesting. Cameron, you mentioned in a comment that you travel a lot. Is it connected with your work?

Cameron: "Diversity assures resilience." This quote is by reknown ecologist Fritjof Capra, who founded The Center for Ecoliteracy.His ethos applies to everything in life, and in terms of travel, removing myself from the familiar cleanses the soul, and spurs creativity.

As for the amount of travel, it's relative. After school and on the weekends, I enjoy riding my bike around town, or to and from adjacent towns.It's always nice to bump into current and former students outside of school. As I write this, I'm waiting for it to warm up a bit so I can ride to the Botanical Gardens. Click here to see photoblog posts taken along cycle hikes.

I have family on the Georgia coast, so a few times a year, I drive down to visit and take in the ocean. The town is on the Georgia/Florida border, so cities like St Augustine and Savannah are only a few hours away. My sister is the artistic director of Brooks and Company Dance, based in Atlanta, so occasionally I'll visit the city and catch a show.

In general, travel is not directly connected to teaching, however, it provides new ways of approaching specific lessons, while informing my pedagogy. For example, habitats are part of the third grade curriculum, and ecologically, Georgia is wonderfully diverse. By traveling, I'm able to bring first hand experience (and images) of the flora and fauna we discuss in class. I recently traveled to the Okefenokee Swamp and took some photos of alligators and golden club plants, which my students love.

International travel takes place during the summer. In the last five years, I’ve traveled to Peru and Chile. In Peru, I volunteered at a small orphanage. The purpose of my trip to Chile last summer was to visit locales inspired by one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda. I also spent some time in Elqui Valley, a spiritual Mecca and the geomagnetic center of the earth. Click here to see photoblog posts from that trip. Immersing myself in South American culture helps me connect with Latino students and families.

This summer, I hope to travel to Vancouver, Canada, to visit the unique Windsor House School, and The Purple Thistle Center.

Olga: You have great, I’d say professional-level photos, Cameron. And I’m already envying your wide travel experience, with “white” envy of course. Absolutely agree that travelling does provide a fresh view of things and a getaway from stagnation. You also mention on your blog practicing tai chi or chi gong. I’ve got some notion about and deep respect for the former but I haven’t even heard about the latter. Could you explain in a few words what it is and what it gives you?

Cameron: Thank you for the kind words.

A few months before moving to Los Angeles in 2003, I took a Tai Chi class at the University of Georgia with Master Chen Zhonghua. He began each session with Chi Gong and Silk Reeling exercises in preparation for the form. Chi Gong consists of a series of circular movements which increase oxygen levels, and the flow of blood, lymphatic fluid, and energy throughout pathways called "meridians." Deep breathing also plays a critical role.

The exercises I teach my students evolve each year as my understanding of the child's capacity for focus and meditation increases. The movements are an amalgamation of Tai Chi, Chi Gong, Silk Reeling, and Yoga. After the first couple months each year, the students nominate and vote for a "Classroom Tai Chi Master," who determines the sequence of movements each day before morning meeting. Throughout the year, multiple students have the opportunity to lead the class. Before the school year ends, I plan to introduce mindfulness into our routine. Amy Cameron, a Kripalu Yoga instructor and former ESOL teacher, recently shared some wonderful resources for introducing meditation to children, including a mindfulness exercise developed by Sumi Loundon, called the "Raisin Meditation".

Olga: It’s great when children begin their school day with some exercise, especially if it is based on Eastern techniques. In this way they acquire such useful habits as self-discipline and ability to concentrate on a task which will be a great help throughout their lives.

Now I think my overall picture of your art of living is nearly complete. But there is one more topic I can’t leave out. You call yourself a vegan chef. Not being a vegetarian myself, I don’t eat meat very often and as I grow older I feel less and less inclined to do so. I don’t use eggs in baking and eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. What about you? What are your principles of healthy eating and cooking?

Cameron: My father is from New Orleans, so I have fond childhood memories of sucking crawfish heads, and eating oysters on the half shell while in diapers. Around 2000, I stopped eating chicken. Barreling down a Georgia highway while stuck behind a rank poultry truck will turn anyone off to the idea of eating one of those poor avian souls. Beef was next. Then pork. I cut seafood last. The transition from vegetarianism to veganism followed a cathartic year in Los Angeles, and I've been vegan now for seven.The primary motivation is ethical. The incredible health benefits are an added bonus.

The choice not to consume animal products lends itself to creativity in the kitchen, so I consider myself more of a vegetable alchemist, than chef. There are a handful of concoctions I hone regularly, and most are remixes of seafood recipes I savored as a child. The most recent is a spicy low country boil with carrots, corn, veggie sausage, and purple Peruvian fingerling potatoes. If every family has one signature dish, ours is a Cajun recipe passed down through generations of the Brooks clan. The modern version includes tofu rather than shrimp, and a vegetable spread in lieu of butter. (My grandparents are rolling in their graves.) Tonight I'm cooking red beans and rice, with Italian "sausage."

Our class has a raised vegetable bed with an explosion of strawberries, and we're going to plant okra, banana peppers, cherry tomatoes, and Thai chili peppers next week. One of the classroom jobs is "Classroom Composter," who carries a small bin outside to a larger one used in the school gardens. Another is "Bug Rescuer." Nothing dies in our classroom. In an effort to promote sustainability and conservation, we will soon take a walking field trip to visit nearby community and backyard gardens. Experiential lessons that nurture ecoliteracy, paired with a taste of vegan cuisine, spark compassionate conversations.

Olga: It rejoices me to learn there are teachers who instill healthy habits in their students by setting a good example for them. I would be happy if my daughter had such a teacher when it’s time for her to go to school.

Cameron, thank you for the opportunity to see you not only as a professional but as an extremely multi-sided person. I enjoyed the interview.

Cameron: Thank you for the opportunity to share.

Pearl's twirl аватар

Great interview Olga. I really, really enjoyed it. It's been 20 year and no I am not and was not a child when I came here, but I still vividly remember my English teacher. In my class there were people from USSR, Iraq, Poland and we all had to thank our teacher for showing and explaining the basics to us. Thanks again!

admin Olga-ekb аватар

I think it’s crucial for a teacher to put his heart and soul into his work like Cameron does. For children it may be a decisive factor which determines whether they will like to study and be able to do it in.

Amy аватар

What an inspiration--I love teachers! Happy

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Yes, Amy, this interview inspired me too. Happy

Beverley аватар

what a great interview with a wonderful human being. I love reading about people who are living and doing great work - not only helping others grow and learn but also themselves Happy

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Thanks for dropping by, Beverley. Happy