Teaching Profession

RIP David Ruenzel, Teacher Magazine Contributing Writer

By Anthony Rebora — December 01, 2014 4 min read
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We are saddened to share the news that David Ruenzel, a much-admired teacher and education writer who was a standout contributor to Teacher Magazine, was shot and killed last week.

Ruenzel was hiking on Nov. 25 in the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve near his home in Oakland, Calif.—a favorite pastime—when he was fatally shot, possibly in connection with a robbery, according to media accounts. Police are seeking information in the case, including about two men who were reportedly seen near the site and are described as “persons of interest.” Ruenzel was 60 years old.

A native of Wisconsin, Ruenzel started out as an English teacher at University Lake School in Hartland, Wis. After moving to California with his family in 1996, he taught journalism and literature for more than a decade at the Athenian School, a private college-prep school in Danville, Calif.

From the early 1990s through 2007, Ruenzel was a key contributor to Teacher Magazine, the print predecessor of Education Week Teacher. Known for his well-written, sharp-edged feature articles on ideas and visionary personalities in K-12 schools, Ruenzel, as a senior writer and contributing writer, helped set the tone and mission of the magazine. Many of his articles also appeared in Education Week, Teacher‘s sister publication.

“Over the years, a lot of writers sent copy my way, but Ruenzel’s pieces stand out even now because he was so literate and slipped so deftly into the skin and minds of those he wrote about,” Ronald A. Wolk, the chair emeritus of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week and Teacher, said in an email. “I remember him so well because I truly enjoyed reading his stuff, which, as an editor, I knew others would too.”

Ruenzel covered a wide range of topics for Teacher, often focusing on alternative education approaches and instructional methods designed to foster independent thinking and intellectual depth. He wrote stories on Montessori and Waldorf schools, seminar-based instructional methods, student-run schools, efforts to de-regimentize middle schools, tough-love leadership in urban schools, and the (in his view) unwelcome intrusion of intensive academic instruction in kindergarten. He also profiled iconoclastic thinkers in education such as John Dewey, John Taylor Gatto, and technologist Roger Shank.

“He was an idea-generator,” said David Kidd, former art director for Teacher Magazine. “Just a super-thoughtful and articulate guy.”

In 1995, Ruenzel was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in public-affairs reporting. “That was huge for us,” said Blake Hume Rodman, the executive editor of Teacher during much of the 1990s. “He helped put Teacher Magazine on the map.”

In his stories, Ruenzel was sometimes critical of trends in education that he thought detracted from the mission of developing students’ intellectual curiosity. In one of his best-remembered pieces, from 1993, he took a highly skeptical look at an acclaimed school-business partnership in Rothsay, Minn., that had students working in a grocery store in the name of “real world” learning. In a 1994 article titled “No Place for Dreamers,” he wrote about returning to his own former high school and finding that the students there, beset by academic and testing pressures, had become less idealistic and inquisitive.

Ruenzel’s articles often sparked controversy and strong reactions from readers.

“His stories had judgment and attitude. That’s what distinguished his work,” said Rodman. “He wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out.”

Rodman said that he and Ruenzel liked to refer to Ruenzel’s approach to covering education as “crouching in the classroom.”

“He would go in and quietly observe and then expertly describe what he saw—both what he liked and didn’t like. He would just nail it,” Rodman said. “He really had a knack for capturing what was going on in a classroom.”

In recent years, Ruenzel worked as a writer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which issued a statement last week calling him “a beloved educator, talented writer, and valued partner in our work.”

He also tutored students and adults in writing through a local church-affiliated program, according to Brad Newsham, a writer and close family friend.

In a March 2014 Commentary for Education Week, Ruenzel argued that for the Common Core State Standards to succeed, schools must set out a new vision for teachers to become critical thinkers. “There is no other way,” he wrote. “Teachers cannot push students to think more deeply unless they do so themselves. All great coaches have to have played the game, and the teacher is first and foremost the students’ coach.”

Ruenzel is survived by, among other family members, his wife of 34 years, Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel, and two grown children, Stefan Ruenzel and Margaret Ruenzel.

The East Bay Regional police in Oakland are offering a $10,000 reward for information on Ruenzel’s shooting.

Image: David Ruenzel, on the far right, with Blake Hume Rodman (left), former executive editor of Teacher, and Ronald A. Wolk (center), chair emeritus of Editorial Projects in Education.—David Kidd.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.