A DAY IN THE LIFE

Charles Kruger, 
Kitchener



By
Wendy Harris

It’s 8:15 a.m. Electric guitar chords blast through the airy auditorium as Charles Kruger rehearses some Nashville-style hymns. A couple of students are singing the words, reminding him what the music sounds like so he won’t be totally lost at chapel later this morning. Within a minute or two, he declares it a wrap, packs up his guitar and heads off to his portable classroom where he teaches Grade 11 and
OAC English.
Chuck, as he’s known to everybody including his students, has just arrived at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate in Kitchener from his modest home in St. Jacobs. He kissed his wife Linda and his youngest son Matthew good-bye and drove the 20 minutes to school with his two older sons, Nathan and Daniel, both of whom are students at Rockway.
Just before 8:20, when classes begin, Kruger parks his guitar in a corner of his "private domain" portable and greets the students who are trickling in from the main building. His Grade 11 class looks like a group of typical 16 and 17-year-old kids — lots of gelled hair, piercings in unlikely spots, a jean jacket with "Rock for Life" plastered on the back of it. Their parents have sent them to this independent, semestered school for a faith-based education that not only actively promotes some of the central tenets of the religion like pacifism but is also intellectually progressive and focused on the arts, particularly music.
About 60 per cent of the 477 students at Rockway are Mennonites. Another 15 per cent are international students — many from mainland China — who have no faith or are Christian. The rest come from a variety of backgrounds: a few Muslims, a Jewish girl and other denominations of Christians.
Kruger himself went to Rockway when his father was principal in the 1970s and there were 76 students. Now the one-storey concrete school has grown considerably, with many additional classrooms, a new gym and a round meeting room (decorated with a collection of dazzling quilts and boasting a 15-foot round oak table), all built in the early 1990s. Now, the school is again "bursting at the seams," says Kruger, and so he teaches all his classes in Portable 6.
This morning, the Grade 11s are studying Macbeth. They start with an informal quiz in which Kruger reads a line from the first couple of scenes and the students have to paraphrase it and figure out which character is speaking and to whom and the context for the line. "Chuck, do we get prizes?" asks one student, who knows her teacher is always up for some banter.
The quiz leads easily into a discussion of some of the major themes of Macbeth and the kids are totally absorbed by the text now. They talk about the reversal of the natural order, the nature of fate and the nature of evil. "We like to explore the darker side," Kruger tells his class. "How can you possibly understand people if you don’t understand all their sides?"
When class ends, the entire school meets for chapel, which takes place twice a week. Today Kruger gets to do his "rock-star thing" with the electric guitar. The students sing and hear a report from some who went to a summer youth meeting.
Kruger says the most important thing he can do as a teacher is to really engage his students so that they bring their hearts, minds and spirits to the task of learning. Teaching for him is always an exploration of techniques that will allow him to make that kind of contact. Humour is one of his most powerful tools.
During his next class he gives his OAC students three choices for how to go about studying King Lear: traditional teacher-led, student-read, or student-acted. Kruger says, "The first is kind of ‘Chuck-based’. I personally cannot imagine anything better. Next is ‘student-read, Chuck-interrupted.’ The third is to act it out, again ‘Chuck-interrupted.’ I get to be intrusive wherever we go."
After some laughter and noisy debate, the students opt to try all three methods and choose what they like best tomorrow.
As he leads his class, Kruger is constantly encouraging, calling one student’s observations "brilliant" and another comment "awesome." In response to a question about Shakespeare’s use of Greek gods in his plays, Kruger says he doesn’t know much about the subject, but he’ll research it and report back to the class if they’re interested. He nudges his kids towards discussing the ideas of the play, even if they can’t fully appreciate the writing. He drags in themes, characters, language and prods everyone towards a deeper appreciation of Shakespeare. There are rarely "right" answers in Kruger’s class, just more enquiry and more discovery.
"I go with how I’m feeling and how they’re feeling. To go with the flow means I have to always be alert as opposed to following a script I made up yesterday or last year. It’s people first and curriculum second," he says later.

Over a lightning-fast lunch of leftover pasta, Kruger says that even though teaching runs in his family (his mother also taught at Rockway), he went to the Canadian Mennonite Bible College to study music and theology. Although he had no intention of becoming a minister, he did want to "play music and think. I was a real classical music snob."
But after spending a few years practising the clarinet in isolation for six hours a day, he realized he needed to be with people. He never abandoned music, though. He taught it and now he plays electric guitar with a 60s-style country rock band. Kruger got his Master’s in English at the University of Waterloo and then earned a teacher’s certificate. After four years as a music teacher in Saskatchewan, he came back to Ontario where he’s been teaching for the last 15, first at Woodland Christian School and for the past decade, at Rockway. "I always wanted to teach here," he says. "It just seemed like coming home."
After 19 years of standing or conducting in front of a class, Kruger says what’s central to his teaching is self-knowledge, a "real understanding of who I am. I am discovering more and more that if I’m reading a lot and thinking a lot, I’m going to be a much better teacher."
When he first started, his lessons were largely teacher-centred. Over the years, that style has loosened to allow for more interaction with his students, the kind of interaction that leads to the intellectual engagement he seeks. But he does retain some old-fashioned teaching notions. Memory work, for example, is extremely important. He says, "They will memorize the ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech." Also important is a solid framework of learning so that students always have a structure they can rely on. Each day what was covered in the classroom, as well as their work, is posted on a homework web site so that even if students are uncertain about what all the freewheeling discussion meant in class, they can figure it out after, online.
During the last period, Kruger teaches Macbeth to another Grade 11 class. These students are really keen to do some acting. But before they do, Kruger delivers a couple of the quick "impassioned speeches" that he sprinkles throughout all his lessons. One speech is about how a "rough draft is a rough draft because it’s a rough draft," meaning that it’s paramount that students initially allow free rein to their ideas. The refinement will come later.
Another is about his pet peeves in essay writing, like never saying "in this essay," or "in conclusion" or "firstly" and "secondly" and "thirdly." "Can you tell I have some serious issues here?" he jokes. He also does a "little writing speech" where he tells his students how moved he was by the essays they wrote in response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. "You guys are really amazing writers," he tells the class.
Kruger is clearly adored by his students, not only because they have a lot of fun in his class but because they are always challenged there. "He really talks to you, person to person," says one German exchange student.
Other comments revolve around how funny, how interesting, how enjoyable his class is, so much so that the students barely recognize just how much they are learning.
It’s 4:30 p.m. when Kruger pulls out of the parking lot after rounding up his sons. Waiting at home is Linda, a part-time social worker, a cup of coffee, and a chance to sit and relax. Two hours of marking wait until after dinner.
Now he reflects on his day and teaching in general. What makes a good teacher? Kruger answers that question with two of his own. "Do you love kids? Do you love learning?"

Charles Kruger
Rockway Mennonite Collegiate
English
Certified in 1982
Faculty of Education,
University of Western Ontario




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