Her work with the Clemente Course at Harlan Academy High School began in the fall of 2011. She is part of a hand-selected team formed by Earl Shorris, the institution’s founder and author of The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor, before his death last May.
According to the Clemente Course website, “The aim of the course is to bring the clarity and beauty of the humanities to people who have been deprived of these riches through economic, social, or political forces. While the course is not intended as preparation for college, many students have gone on to two- and four-year colleges.”
Explaining how he successfully pitched the pilot to Harlan, Shorris writes in his book, “We promised faculty from some of the best colleges and universities in the Chicago area. The first person who said she would teach was Catherine Weidner, a professor of history at Lake Forest College…I was so impressed by her ease, her command of the material, and her decency…”
Harlan was selected because, for one, school officials were open to the trial, and for two, “Earl was determined that Clemente had to either succeed or fail in a regular public high school where the odds were stacked against the students,” Weidner said.
Students who are a part of the Clemente Course at Harlan are in the academic middle and have good chances of attending college. Even so, Weidner said she found that, at first, she “didn’t appreciate the academic deficiency of the students.” Additionally, developing a culture of learning was among the biggest challenges with the first group of freshman students.
Those students are now sophomores halfway through their four-year experience and Weidner says the team, which also includes art history, literature, and philosophy teachers, has witnessed significant growth.
“We have come so far with the sophomores,” she said. “It is nice to see them come in eager, prepared.”
The teachers and other stakeholders of the pilot have come a long way, too. They have made adjustments to the curriculum to better meet the needs and interests of their students in helping them to develop their critical thinking skills through the study of humanities.
“I’ve put my own pedagogy under the microscope. I look at my teaching more critically,” Weidner said.
This experience has allowed Weidner to put the theories that she teaches in her Civil Rights Seminar and History of Education courses at Lake Forest College to practice.
She and the other teachers will follow the Class of 2015 and the Class of 2016 throughout their four years. Classes might be added if more funding becomes available. Meanwhile, the success of the Chicago pilot has prompted other states, including Washington and Utah, to follow suit.