Sharing stories and having fun

Reading: An award-winning media specialist thrives on helping children make connections between literature and life.

September 01, 2004|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An unusual visitor calling himself Farmer B, his straw hat topping a wild, curly wig, came to the Clemens Crossing Elementary School library yesterday to read about Johnny Appleseed.

The farmer with the Southern accent is no stranger here - he is an alter ego of school media specialist Tom Brzezinski.

"In sharing stories, there is a lot of ham in me that can't be cured," Brzezinski said. "It's another way of exciting kids about literature."

"Mr. B," as he is known around the Columbia school, thrives on helping children make connections between literature and life. The award-winning educator is beginning his 40th year with Howard County public schools.

Arlene Mindus is a longtime friend who taught with Brzezinski and was his principal at Clemens Crossing until her recent retirement. "I would say he's Mr. Media," Mindus said. "He has a passion for media, for films, for books. He is able to convey that. ... He truly does bring it to life for the children."

Brzezinski, 63, lives in West Friendship. He and wife, Carol, a gifted-and-talented teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary, have one daughter in college and another at River Hill High.

After receiving an associate's degree from Catonsville Community College, Brzezinski studied elementary education at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

His teaching career began in 1965 with three years at Waterloo Elementary. Brzezinski often showed films, led field trips to the public library and traveled to see plays with pupils.

His use of audiovisual aids in the classroom caught the eye of the county schools' library supervisor, who approached Brzezinski about becoming a media specialist.

"I said, `What is a media specialist?' So she told me basically a little bit," he said. "They wanted it to be not just books, but to be a wide variety of resources." That fit Brzezinski's teaching philosophy. "Learning should be a rich, rewarding experience," he said.

When Bryant Woods Elementary opened in 1968, Brzezinski became the first school media specialist in the county.

"Those years [at Bryant Woods] were just incredible," Mindus said. "There was a boa. He had a tarantula. All kinds of snakes."

Brzezinski has used a bevy of library pets as motivators for reading. Perhaps the most memorable was Delilah, a boa constrictor that lived at Bryant Woods through the early 1970s. She inspired kids to read Crictor, a book about a boa by Tomi Ungerer.

"The children absolutely enjoyed it," said Mindus. "While they were looking for books ... there would be Delilah with her head sticking out." She also remembers Brzezinski dressing up when reading to students. "Tom was part of making it a very lively school," she said.

Farmer B often shows up when Brzezinski's pupils are learning about folktales. He also dresses as a vampire for Halloween, and he claims to have a leprechaun living behind the picture book section.

Fourth-grader Jeremy Kass, 9, said, "He has a great accent for different characters and he's really funny. He also has a great imagination."

Several years ago, Brzezinski instituted an annual school visit by a nationally known children's book author, calling it "one of the things I'm proud of the most at school." A group of parents known as Patrons of the Arts funds the event.

By the time Patricia Polacco, author of the autobiographical book The Keeping Quilt, made the first visit, Brzezinski had read almost all of her books to pupils.

"When she came, she brought the keeping quilt with her. That's probably the finest day I've had in education," he said.

Knowing he will find something funny or special going on in the library, said Jeremy, "Makes me feel excited when I walk through the doors."

An active member of the community, Brzezinski has long played Santa Claus at many Columbia village centers, coordinates the Columbia Association Lakefront Film Festival and has served on the boards of several area foundations and arts groups.

Keeping involved also led to an award for Brzezinski. In May, he was named Educator of the Year by the Cable Telecommunications Association of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia. His nomination grew out of his role on a Maryland Public Television advisory panel.

If students here don't know their librarian is an award-winning educator, Brzezinski doesn't mind. "I want their lives to be full of special things. I'd rather them remember a special book than me," he said.

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