Saturday, April 25, 2015

Russell Weaver Publishes Edited Collection

I am pleased to say three weeks ago my third book was published. Unlike my first two books, which were scholarly in nature, this was devoted to teaching. I had actually written a fourth book in the late 90s about teaching, but my current publisher, Peter Lang, did not elect to publish it. However, my current book Teaching Literature at Ridgeview was accepted by them for publication.

Ridgeview refers to Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins, CO. My connection with the school is that a former student of mine, Florian Hild, has been teaching there since its inception in 2001 and for a number of years was its principal. During that time he introduced an approach to teaching that was modeled on my own pedagogy. This method has been adopted by virtually all the disciplines at the school.

For the record Ridgeview, an open-enrollment school, is ranked by U. S. News and World Report as the top high school in Fort Collins, the #5 school in Colorado, and #58 charter school in the country. I had been discussing what was going on at Ridgeview with Florian for a number of years. He and I continued to cross paths because he was married to John Stratton’s younger daughter Elaine, and he regularly visited Ashland. As it happened, my wife’s middle son moved to Fort Collins in 2008, and I realized that I could drop in at Ridgeview while we were there and see my “grandchildren,” i.e., the students of my student. It was thrilling to see third-graders discuss Treasure Island at a high level as well as seeing the older students discussing the Aeneid and Heart of Darkness in ways that were familiar to me.

After my second visit there in 2009, the thought of writing a book about Ridgeview occurred to me. My previous book on teaching had rooted simply in my own teaching at AU, not a stage to galvanize attention, but Ridgeview was one of the top-rated charter schools in the country. I posed the idea to Florian, and he was very enthusiastic. They were frequently asked to consult with other schools who visited and saw high school students discussing Plato and Sophocles and wanted to be assisted in doing the same thing. Having a text of sorts would be useful in this regard. In addition, Florian had been trying to get his teachers to reflect on their teaching and articulate what they did, but this project had never gotten off the ground. Having a more specific task in view, especially one that involved publication, attracted ten or so teachers in the beginning, including two math teachers and the kindergarten teacher.

On my next visit, I discussed with those teachers who were interested in writing for the book my ideas for how the book should be approached. It gradually became apparent that not all of those who initially expressed interested were up for writing essays for our book. My idea was that they would begin their essays with an account of their journey to Ridgeview: how they had begun teaching, how they heard of Ridgeview and what their experience there had been like. After this I thought it would be useful for our audience—principally high school teachers—to describe one key aspect of their teaching so as to give a kind of starting place for anyone interested in experimenting with this approach in their own classroom. I also thought we could have appendices that would contain syllabi, study questions, and sample papers.

Most of those teachers who had expressed interest sent me a draft of their essays. I don’t think they were prepared for my critiquing what they had written, but it was absolutely necessary. I had never had to critique peers in quite this way before, even saying either you need to change your essay or yours will not be included in the book. We ended up with only three of the original ten sticking it out over a number of revisions, with one of them being Florian. Two of the other essayists were former students at Ridgeview. One was attending Carleton College and one was beginning her teaching career in an inner-city school in Denver that Ridgeview had been asked to consult with.

This teacher’s story is wonderful. After teaching for one year there, she decided that teaching classes that had many students who were non-native speakers or who were totally illiterate was going to be too hard. She decided to apprentice at Ridgeview, but the fall before she was going to begin, a teacher with whom she had actually worked as an aide suddenly quit right before classes began. Florian offered her the job, and she accepted. I have seen her teach a number of times, and she is a fantastic teacher.

When she came to Ridgeview in the ninth grade, she was totally uninterested in school. She had been suspended from an IB program school (International Baccalaureate) that had the reputation of being academically serious, but she said it meant nothing to her. When she walked into Florian’s class, they were discussing the difference between fate and destiny in Oepidus Rex. Even though she was intimidated by the discussion, she said it was impossible not to want to join in. She stayed and flourished.

The other essayists who taught at Ridgeview are the seventh-grade English teacher, a high-school classics teacher, and Florian. I was particularly interested in the classicist’s story because he came to the discussion of texts in a similar way that I do through translating Latin, asking what does this particular word should mean in this particular situation. I remember reading his essay for the first time in a twenty-four hour IHOP near the motel where my wife and I were staying. It was four in the morning, and I couldn’t sleep. When I read his essay, I started crying over his beautiful essay, seeing someone who was not my student but who felt exactly the same way about teaching and texts that I did.

The remaining three essayists were the Carleton graduate (now studying medicine in Dublin, Ireland), and two of my former students. One teaches in a small rural Ohio high school where he teaches his students Homer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Emerson. The other is a philosophy Ph.D. who was then teaching as a visiting professor at Stanford University. I thought it would be good to show that this way of approaching teaching was applicable to many different venues. I too contributed an essay to the volume, in addition to editing it, in which I describe how I came to approach teaching as I do.

When the book was finished, I explored a number of the traditional publishers of books on teaching English, but none were interested in what we had done. However, I happened to notice in grazing through teaching books on Amazon that Peter Lang, my publisher, had also published books in this field, so almost on a whim I asked my editor what she thought about this project. She was very encouraging, and within a month I was informed that they would publish our book.

I forgot to mention earlier that E. D. Hirsch, an internationally known educator, had mentioned Ridgeview in his book, The Making of Americans, as one of the top charter schools in the country. As a result of his interest in Ridgeview, he agreed to write a blurb for the book’s cover.

After all this I have no idea whether anyone else will be interested, but it is gratifying to see a project like this come to fruition after six years of work.