Mike Ruskovich didn’t hide his disgust when Lake City High officials asked him to teach a new humanities class for gifted and talented freshmen.
“I was afraid I’d get a bunch of grade-mongering little brats not really into learning, just into grades,” he says with a chuckle.
Instead, the class was full of kids ready - even eager - to learn. They jumped at tackling mysteries that have baffled human beings since the beginning of time.
“I love researching topics and getting up there and feeling like I’m an expert,” says Brooke Sprague, a studious-looking 14-year-old. She spent two weeks in this semester’s humanities class building a case for disease as the greatest threat to humanity.
“In regular classes, some of the kids waste your time. In this class, people want to learn.”
The Coeur d’Alene School District began the humanities class to satisfy parents. They wanted some sort of enrichment for the bright students in the middle grades.
What they got thrilled teachers as well as kids. The district offered teachers a think tank for themselves and students, a chance to reach beyond textbooks and worksheets, the opportunity to ponder, argue, feel and experience.
Buck Fitzpatrick, a district administrator, found the teachers - two passionate men aching for their own educational enrichment.
“The administration asked me if I could challenge and stimulate kids who weren’t being challenged now,” Ruskovich says, his eyes gleaming. “Hell yes. I thought I would really like that class.”
Eric Gala, Fitzpatrick’s choice at Coeur d’Alene High, also jumped at the opportunity.
“It was like waving a red flag before a bull,” he says.
Fitzpatrick gave the teachers free rein to create their own courses. Gala and Ruskovich took approaches as varied as their backgrounds.
Gala, a lifelong humanities student, used his first year to find grant money. He bought stereo equipment. He bought videos and slides of the art and music masterpieces of Western civilization.
He wants his students to understand how art, music, literature and philosophy shaped Western civilization. To that end, Gala decided to teach this year’s freshmen world history as a prerequisite to the humanities he will cover next year with them.
“I don’t want to just teach,” he says, closing his eyes as Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” fills his classroom.
“I want to develop appreciation.”
Gala was a brainchild himself in the 1950s in New York. He wore Coke-bottle glasses. Kids called him professor. He graduated at 16.
He wanted to be an architect, then a psychologist, but interrupted college for a stint in the U.S. Marines. Later in college, he reveled in international relations, Russian history, foreign languages. He finally earned his teaching degree in his mid-40s.
“I’m not looking to change the world, just add something to their lives,” he says with a touch of urgency.
He knows many of his students won’t go to college or ever study the world’s great works again. “I want to open their heads.”
Ruskovich took a philosophical and immediate approach.
“I saw the opportunity to ask the questions I still ponder,” he says. “If they fascinate me, then why wouldn’t they fascinate youngsters?”
He lined up no books and asked for no money. He just wrote out questions. What is true happiness? Who is the most influential human in history? What is the perfect government? What is humanity’s biggest problem?
“Do we in education only deal with things we have answers for?” he says.
He directed his students to the library and was staggered at the intelligent theories they later presented in class.
“I respected those kids to the point my palms were sweaty,” he says.
In Ruskovich’s class, there were no right answers, only well-developed opinions. Fitzpatrick had no problems with that.
“You see this type of teaching going on in a lot of places,” he says. “I’m sure they hit some ideas people don’t want to deal with. But the class is a choice.”
Ruskovich’s approach pleased parents.
“It’s exactly what we wanted: a forum for motivated kids to challenge one another, stir thought processes, not be bored, get a taste of being with others who think as much as they do,” says Robin Chisholm, a parent who lobbied for the class.
“My daughter worked harder in that class than any other and she loved it.”
A child of the 1960s, Ruskovich clung to education as his lifeline out of a violent family and Southern California’s white ghetto.
Earthy and intense, he now writes poems and novels and wants his students to care about something. So he makes them think.
Katie Roberge thought a lot about the greatest problem facing humanity before she faced her classmates last week.
“My first answer was man himself,” she began, her face solemn under her pink ballcap.
“He’s destroying himself in so many ways.”
Her research led her to choose AIDS as humanity’s biggest threat. She confidently laid out a convincing case before yielding the floor to Laura Dodge.
Dodge fidgeted as if she wasn’t prepared, then blamed humanity’s problems on the breakdown of the family. She threw out heart-stopping statistics on single-parent families, domestic violence and incest.
She handily traced prejudice, violence, even disease, back to the family, where proper nurturing and education should have prevented such problems.
Other students made cases for poverty, disrespect, prejudice, disease and the ozone layer.
They backed up their findings with the standard reams of research, but also with interviews and poetry.
“I just want them to know the difference between an opinion and an informed opinion,” Ruskovich says.
His meaty topics and open-ended approach have gone over well with students.
“I get to think on a different level in here,” says Sprague, who chilled her classmates with a report on antibiotic-resistant viruses. “You use part of the brain that you don’t use when you answer questions on worksheets.”
Fitzpatrick likes Gala’s formal approach to the class as much as Ruskovich’s Socratic one.
“My wish is that we had the space and time to do this with more and more students,” he says. “That’s my biggest disappointment with this.”
It’s taken a year or so for the course to get rolling, but parents say it was worth the wait.
“I think now it’s coming to the point where it’s beginning to work,” says parent Gloria Waggoner.
“We wanted teachers who guide, who provide the questions and opportunities for research and for conflict.”
And that’s what they got.
“I know they’re only freshmen, but someone has to solve the world’s problems,” Ruskovich says. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
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