The Big Reboot: 15

Fourth period, AP Economics, the smallest of the classes. Thanks, scheduling mess-up.

Mr. Webb didn’t really blame any person – setting up a schedule for a high school as big as Teller wasn’t a job Mr. Webb was about to assume that he could do a better job of than those involved in the process. Each year had its own idiosyncracies. And, as small as 12 this semester and 9 the next seemed, it was nothing like the 5th period of 2008.

In 2008, Mr. Webb actually had an AP Economics class with only 2 students in it.

2 students, and both of them were pretty sharp, so covering the material for the day sometimes amounted to 10 minutes of discussion, 10 minutes of doing an exercise and grading it and then… 25 minutes of… huh… not anything in particular, really.

Both of those guys also left after 5th period, so the tempation for them to leave early was very strong. The temptation was even stronger once they’d both taken the AP exam in early May and had nothing to do for three weeks after that. Many was the day they asked to go see Mr. Whatshisname about a project and left after checking in. That was fine with Mr. Webb. Telling two people that were done with a class that they had to stay there just because they had to stay there was ridiculous. By rights, they should have been able to enjoy that time, and Mr. Webb was happy to have given them that gift.

And if it meant that Mr. Webb could take a nap in the middle of the day, so much the better. Naps were awesome things to have. Why was it that kindergarteners got to take naps and high school kids couldn’t? The kindergarteners didn’t want them and the high school kids did… it made no sense.

Then again, if something made sense, Mr. Webb knew it was a matter of time before someone in the state legislature or an administration somewhere would make a rule requiring that it be replaced with something that didn’t make sense. Watching the parade of nonsense was always a disenheartening experience, but if one focused more on the victims of the nonsense, one could always try and do something to keep it from ruining lives.

To a point, that is. The nonsense in ECISD in 1995 had gotten to the point where Mr. Webb couldn’t stand it anymore, what with the corruption, criminality, and general paranoia and all that. Mr. Webb did not want to go back to that again, ever. If things in Garson ISD ever got that bad, no, if they ever got close to being that bad, Mr. Webb had zero plans of sticking around to see a second time through that wringer.

But 12 kids… that wasn’t such a bad number. There were enough of them to where there could be a conversation and not just an echo chamber. That made the class fun. As long as they were all up to speed, or close to it, good class discussions made everyone’s day. And if there were kids that weren’t up to speed, discussions would reveal that lack of speed.

There were kids that liked to hang back and use other students to advance their fortunes. “Scholastic dishonesty” was the fancy, multi-syllable expression that was fashionable instead of “cheating.” Whatever it was, there were a million ways to do it, and only a few ways to expose it. Class discussion was one of those ways.

Homework could be copied – easily – so checking homework only revealed people that didn’t like doing homework, not cheaters. Tests… true, greenhorns would copy perfectly or copy weird stuff, making spelling mistakes that only people who had no clue about what was going on would make, like writing cleprcssiom instead of depression… but truly experienced test-cheaters would know enough to copy carefully, check for spelling mistakes, and then change a few answers so that their papers wouldn’t be the same as the ones they copied. Research papers were a joke: the same Internet that produced full research papers would betray them to any teacher that cared to run a Google search on sentences that simply rang far too scholastic-sounding for high school seniors. Assigning research papers would reveal cheaters, all right, but with a grade that was almost always too highly weighted to allow anyone with a zero on it to pass, and taken too late in the grading period to allow anyone with a zero on it to recover.

Class discussion, though, that was the ticket. People who knew the answers could not only give the answers, but talk about them, discuss them, ask about what they didn’t understand, the works. Those that didn’t know the answers, they’d hem, they’d haw, and they’d fall flat. The falling flat would be early enough in the game and with little enough of a penalty so that anyone who fell victim to a bad run of discussion could always recover in time to where they didn’t have such a bad run again – and to where they’d know things well enough that they wouldn’t need to cheat.

That, or they’d stay clueless enough to where they’d realize that they needed to get out of the AP class if they wanted a chance of passing the course and graduating high school on time.

Class discussion covered all kinds of things, not just correct answers. Good questions were just as good as good answers. Good attempts to answer problems were just as good as attempts that went awry. Didn’t want to talk in class? Then see Mr. Webb before or after school, or during his conference period, and he’d discuss things there. Some kids were so afraid of speaking in front of others that they would do just that… only to realize that they knew things well enough that they didn’t feel bad about speaking in front of others. If they knew that they weren’t going to sound like idiots, they had no fear about sounding like idiots. Funny how that worked out… but anyone could have 100% in class participation just for showing up sober and participating in some way.

And that participation made kids really understand the stuff. For the last four years, Mr. Webb had graded AP exams, and every year, the graders there said that getting kids to be able to discuss the material with knowledge and confidence was the way to go. They were right. The kids with the best class participation grades were the ones that came back with the best scores on the AP exam. So, Mr. Webb made class participation 50% of his grade, with 25% coming from tests and 25% from classroom quizzes.

He had the same grading system in his regular classes, but allowed for notes to cover a big chunk of class participation points. For AP, though, it was vital to stress the need for quality class participation. And so, on that first day, he’d show his AP students clips from “The Paper Chase”, scenes with John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield, grilling his students like cheese sandwiches.

“Loudly, Mr. Hart! Fill this room with your intelligence!”

Mr. Webb had those Houseman scenes memorized so well, one year he was able to reproduce them, word for word, on a student that had missed the first day. Her responses were practically identical to those of the hapless Mr. Hart, to the amazement and delight of her fellow students. They let her know that that’s what they had seen the day before, but she had lived through it.

“How long are you gentlemen planning to stay?”

“Three days.”

“THAT’s how you should study for the AP exam!” Mr. Webb basked at the dedication of the law students as they checked into a hotel, chucked out the teevee, and threatened blackmail on the manager if he threw them out in order to study for their exam. “With dedication like that, how can you fail?”

The students got the message, if such messages could reach them, and class participation went very well after seeing the clips from “The Paper Chase.” Better still, whenever Mr. Webb wanted to spur answers and give his students an adrenaline boost, all he had to do was say, “Fill the room with your intelligence!” and fill it, they would.

Nine of the twelve students in fourth period were talkative enough after the clips, but three of them just smiled like idiots. Smiling like an idiot was often a good sign that an idiot was involved in the smiling process. OK, idiot wasn’t a fair word… but smiles like that were nevertheless signs that the persons making those smiles were out of their league and that they didn’t even know that they were in over their heads.

These three even looked like that they would be at a loss in a regular class. Something about the emptiness in their expressions betrayed the blankness in their minds. They weren’t lazy, but no amount of hard work could compensate for a lack of sufficient neuronic connections necessary to put two and two together. Guys like that could make it out of high school alive, but not if the path took them through an honest class that demanded more of its participants than they were able to deliver.

Maybe Mr. Webb was wrong in his first impressions, but class discussion in the next few days would see whether or not he was right.

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