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Response Ability

A high school teacher's favorite comebacks
by Nancy Clark

To the question, "What did you teach?" I usually reply, "English and responsibility."

On the first day of each course, with a new crew of teenagers, I made that same announcement: "This is a course in English and responsibility. Your performance in the responsibility part will in all probability take you farther in this course and in your life than the English part." Eyebrows would furrow.

Quickly establishing my expectations surely saved time and frustration later. Promptly, I would dash my essential message in large letters across the blackboard: Results--not Excuses! Now there's one to stretch for--a motto I had learned to live by from a memorable high school band director. "If you consider offering me excuses, be advised that I have heard them all by now. Further, I seem to have acquired a built-in antenna for detecting them even before you speak."

I talked about due dates. My philosophy was that an assignment one day late would be one letter grade reduced from the grade earned. After that, it would not be accepted. Of course, I discussed exceptions: "If you've got a reason or a special circumstance--which is different from an excuse--then talk to me. I am a reasonable and compassionate individual. But the ground rule here is that you work on my schedule. As a general guideline, just remember that in the real world, if you're late for the flight, the plane will be gone." All that was usually met with stone-faced silence. I, however, smiled all through my speech.

Another simple expectation was that kids bring materials to class daily. Don't use sarcasm, teachers are counseled. However, when kids are sitting in front of you bookless, some counseling has to occur.

"Kevin, where's your book?"

"In my locker."

"Well, good! You must have known that we were all considering having class in your locker today!" Chuckles all around.

"Sarah, where's your book"

"In my car--it's in the parking lot."

"Even better! There's probably more room to hold class in your car than in Kevin's locker." More chuckles. The next request from either of these two (hoping for an excuse to flee the classroom) might be "Can I go get it now?" My answer: "Nope!"

"How about you, Mike, no book either?"

"It's at home." Now on strike three and with the attention of the whole class, I would close in for the first and only application of the grand metaphor. I paused for effect.

"Mike, do you go to the dentist?"

Mike pauses, "Whadda ya mean?" I repeated the question.

"Yeah, I go to the dentist."

"Great. Now, when you go to the dentist, Mike--do you take your teeth?" I waited for the message to soak in and rested my case.

In the early days of each new course, I explained what I expected if work was to be made up because of excused absence. I always said, "Please don't ask me, 'Did I miss anything?'" If you were absent from my class, of course you missed something! Therefore, as promptly as possible you need to ask this way, 'What did I miss and how soon can I get it made up?' Further, if it is a planned and excused absence, you need to get the assignments ahead of time."

Despite that abundantly clear preview, there was always the question from someone--who was usually more than one day absent--"Did I miss anything?"

To which I would sometimes reply, "Actually, no, we just sat around and talked about you because you weren't here." Or "No, I just had everyone sit quietly all hour with their hands folded on the desks for the days you were gone, and now that you're here, we'll resume the course of study." But I smiled as I said it.

At the opening of a course, I also explained my philosophy on "extra credit." I was always incredulous that there were high school teachers who gave extra credit for such things as bringing in a box of Kleenex or guessing the winner of a sports tournament. My position was that if I offered extra credit, it would be academically related and offered to everyone in the class, with the condition that a student have no missing assignments. The student who is failing because of blanks in the grade book--or has not asked for help along the way to get the job done--is not eligible for extra credit. I would tell them, "I am not obligated to mop up after your procrastination." It was also useful to put all my expectations in writing and in their hands and in their parents' hands. (A signed acknowledgment from both was also useful.) Then the sudden and often last-minute plea for extra credit could be met with a reminder and reference to the printed page. "Remember? This is a course in English AND responsibility."

Then there were the terribly important questions in teenagers' minds, like . . . "Can we go early to lunch?"

My stock answer was, "If you ask, you won't get to go early. However, if you don't bother me with that question, there may be a time or two at my discretion when I'll let you go early." That usually eliminated the annoyance, and if someone forgot and blurted out the forbidden question, he was immediately "nailed" by his classmates.

Another annoying outburst was, "What time do we get outta here?" Now with regular schedule, B schedule, C schedule, club schedule, and special assembly schedules, it was a legitimate question. Even the teachers had trouble keeping track.

But my standard reply was, "I can't answer that until you ask the question the right way."

"How'm I supposed to ask?"

"You ask, 'How long do we get to stay?' That gives a positive spin to your time here, makes me feel better, and gets you your answer." It never failed. From that point on, someone would ask--with a grin, "How long do we get to stay?"

The question on test day was often, "Is the test hard?" For fun, I'd reply, "Well, you know, I wondered about that myself. So I sat down and took the test, and graded it, and I got an 86%." The gullible believed for a few moments ("Really?") until someone nudged them.

The very end of the spring term was toughest for kids, especially seniors, to concentrate. When the end was near, the whining began, "How come we hafta do . . . because Mr. X is letting us watch movies all week." Or, "Miss Y is letting us play games." Their questions were generated by methods (or lack of same) of colleagues I would have liked to strangle, and it was time to launch my end-of-year metaphor.

"Anybody here run track? Anybody watched a track meet? OK, when the runners approach the finish line, do they slow down? No, if anything, they give it a final burst of speed. And that's just how I intend to finish this course. I'm going to cross the finish line running, and you need to run right along with me. When we've crossed the line, we're done--and not before. Summer (or graduation) begins AFTER you cross the finish line."

"But that's not fair! We should vote on it." (How I hated this one!)

"First of all, nobody promised you 'fair.' And, secondly, my classroom is not a democracy; it's a benevolent dictatorship. End of conversation. Now tie your running shoes."

The course grades, of course, were always based on the English part of the course. But somehow, I hoped that echoes of my prompting would follow them, giving them "response ability" for crossing finish line after finish line.


Selection 33 of

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