Alhough he is 39 years old, Eric Freeman looks comfortable sitting in the small chair at the low table, the surface of which is littered with partially finished paper projects. The classroom is covered in children’s artwork. Everywhere there are cans of pens and pencils, bottles of glue, and on one wall hangs a small red model of a guitar painted with the words “Eric Rocks.”
Freeman is a third grade teacher at Camas Ridge Elementary School in Eugene. Teaching is in his blood. His father was a college professor, and his mother was an English teacher in the small farm town where he grew up. He loves the outdoors, the fields and orchards, and as a child, he believed he would become a farmer. However, he followed his love for working with kids through a series of experiences – at day camps, little league, and preschools – and fell naturally into his role as a teacher.
Eric Freeman, teacher at Camas Ridge, photo copyright Jonathan Lange
Throughout his teaching career, Freeman has held to the philosophy that school should be fun. “I had such a miserable experience in my own schooling,” he says, but one second grade teacher stood out to him. While other teachers smacked rulers on desks, demanding fearful attention, Mr. Sheehy had designated the book area with a picket fence and decorated the walls with hand-drawn pictures. He went beyond the required material, teaching his students about other interesting subjects, like opera. Just as his teacher Mr. Sheehy created an environment where learning was enjoyable, Freeman strives to bring life and color into his classroom. He likes to listen to live music, particularly Widespread Panic, and plays a little guitar himself, so he performs for his students.
Because of these efforts Freeman won the 2010 Eugene School District 4J ACE award for “Eugene Teacher Champion.” There are 20 elementary schools in the Eugene School District and only one winner per year. When Freeman won, it was said, “In his second-grade classroom at Camas Ridge Community School, Eric makes school magical and learning fun.”
Freeman became an elementary school teacher specifically because he wanted to help students who don’t learn effectively by filling out a worksheet. “It’s about being a learner yourself and sort of modeling the excitement of learning as you have kids around you,” says Freeman. He describes one evening, sitting in a restaurant and looking at a menu. Realizing that he had an example of good writing in front of him, Freeman decided to turn it into a lesson. He collected several menu samples and brought them to class, thinking he would have each student write an example of one menu item. However, as the students demonstrated interest, it turned into a project with each student designing their own menu. While students like what they are doing, Freeman can teach them about adjectives and word choice. The students don’t feel intimidated by the writing or bored by complex explanations.
It is important for students to get a diverse educational experience, says Freeman. Rather than each classroom experience lining up perfectly with the next, he says, “I want to be a patchwork quilt, not a uni-colored quilt. They both keep you warm, but one of them is a whole lot more interesting to be near, and to touch, and to look at, and to feel, and to smell, et cetera.” He is worried standardization will lead to the idea that students are a uniform body. To Freeman, these students are individuals. “Sure you have to use some data, some scientific approach to teaching. You’re dealing with human beings.”
Of course in the current economic recession Freeman has seen classrooms affected not only by standardization but also by a lack of funding. In the past Freeman has had to spend hundreds of dollars each year of his own money to buy classroom supplies the school was unable to purchase. He needed these supplies to give his students the classroom experience he thought they deserved. Partly to address this need and partly to offer more communication to the parents of his students, Freeman participated in the pilot project for Metroleta, and the online tools became an efficient way for him to communicate. “Just to be able to have it centralized, just to be able to put in graphics, links to things that we are studying,” says Freeman. It was easier than using the old paper newsletter approach.
His passion for helping children to an effective education early in life is great enough that Freeman wishes he could teach children from birth to three years old, but the work would not provide enough money to support his wife, two sons, and baby daughter. However, in elementary school the students are still young enough that he can teach them how to learn. “I believe that you build a model correctly versus having to fix it later on.”
Freeman makes the effort to know his students so he will know how to help them learn. For one assignment he might have some students turn in writing, while some do drawings, and some present projects they built. He encourages them to use whatever method will actually help them to understand what he is teaching, and refuses to define his students by a grade, a percentage on a test. “Learning is messy,” says Freeman.