R-E-S-P-E-C-T, part I

Yeah About That:

It’s not often that Notta Louden loses her temper.

Not in my class.

While it’s true that doctors, politicians and what she calls the “willfully ignorant” frequently receive her abuse, she has a maternal patience with our students that amazes me.

There is, however, always the exception.

An FYI: the current crop of high school equivalency tests tend to cover four academic areas: Math, Language Arts, Science and Social Studies. The brand I’ve been teaching to for most of the last five years adds “Reasoning Through” to each subject area. I will agree that some lip service is given to teaching reading skills that will translate the questionable questions asked at the end of each lesson. However, I can only guess the assumption made here is that students will have stayed in school long enough to adopt a “reasoning,” close reading strategy towards education.

In short, these test-makers haven’t been in a classroom for a while. Not the classrooms my students once occupied, anyway. Or most of the rest of their lives.

Among our students, the correct answers are wanted. Paths and question rephrasing to lead them to guess the answers are acceptable, but not ideal. Further probing once the answer is – rightly or wrongly – determined is anathema. Translation: my students regularly cringe and whynge when they have declared the winner in the Answers Sweepstakes for Question #2 and I ask them, “Why? How did you decide that was the correct answer?” The test-makers would term that “providing evidence from the text.” My students hate that.

Imagine then how well the open-ended, short answer, or essay question on the Language Arts test goes over. Lead inflatables abound. However, I am patient…and not a little stubborn. I keep asking.

And sometimes a cherub will blurt out, “I don’t know! I just thought it was the right one.”

Believe it or not, I can and do accept that. Usually with a laugh. I admit it, I’ve mellowed over the years. And there’s a life lesson there: no one always knows the why or how.

There came a day, though, in a recent lesson on Civics, that one particularly insecure young man replied to my reasoning question with a snappish, “I’m not answering that! You won’t take my answer anyway!”

Yes, the rest of us, students, Notta, and I gasped. Audibly or mentally, we were all taken aback.

A female student hissed, “You can’t say that!”

And I know heard from someone else add, “What’s your problem, man?”

The young man flung his arm towards me. “She never takes any of my answers. She’s always got to ask why and s---t like that.” Then he crossed his arms over his chest and hunched down in his seat. I waited for his lower lip to stick out and complete the pout.

Notta got up from her chair at our table and slammed her fists down on the table top. Her cheeks had been rouged red when she came in that day, but the rest of her facial skin had joined them in redness. Her eyes flashed and her lips drew tight.

We braced ourselves for a previously unknown explosion.

But her voice was calm and smooth. As a scalpel cutting into flesh.

“How dare you say that to your teacher?” she said. “Do you have any idea how disrespectful you’re being?”

“Well, she disrespected me! She does it all the time.”

“Oh, so you live with her now?” The student made a hissing, dismissive sound. “So you can’t really say what Ms. Jody does all the time, can you?”

“You’re disrespecting me now!”

Coincidence that the cliché “if looks could kill” came to my mind as Notta and the student continued.

“Respect is a two-way street,” Notta said.

“Yeah, well, respect is earned,” the student said.

“Time out,” I said. “Notta, breathe. Everybody, breathe.” Notta sank back into her chair. Her face eased into a moderate pink. The student hunched lower, refusing to look at either of us.

I opened my laptop and tapped in the URL for the test site. Then I passed the laptop around the table. “Can anyone tell me what the name of each of the tests is? The full name?” Even my pouting cherub admitted to the “Reasoning” part of the titles. “So what’s reasoning?”

The students offered a few answers: figuring out how something works, why something is the way it is, and, my favorite, using your brain to solve a problem.

“And is that something we do all the time?”

“Well, not all of the time,” another young man said. We all laughed at that – even Notta, after I tapped her ankle with my foot.

“But it’s not a bad idea to ‘reason’ when you’re doing something important, like learning, is it?”

“Even if we don’t need to know all this stuff?” This from another one of my challenging cherubs. I’ve yet to convince her that knowing how to write a cohesive paragraph is a good thing. She’s among the many who hold the opinion that texting is all one ever needs to communicate.

“You want the high school equivalency paper, don’t you?” I asked. “Well, this is the stuff the folks who make these decisions have decided you need to know. At least, for as long as it takes you to take the tests.” I shrugged, in part to loosen the growing tightness in my neck. “Whether you’re doing this or applying for a job or getting a loan, folks, you’re going to have to follow procedures and rules.

“Life sometimes is jumping through those hoops, whether you want to or not. And it’s more a waste of time bitching – “ another gasp and a few giggles that Ms. Jody swore – “about it when you could be jumping and then figuring out how to get around it, if you have to know. You can’t get around what you don’t understand. Anymore than you can fix something you don’t understand.”

The hunched-up hisser made another dismissive noise.

“Really? If your cell phone dies, would you know how to fix it?”

“Sure, plug it in to charge the battery.”

“And if it’s dead because it’s been hacked?”

“People don’t hack phones!” he said.

“Right,” I said. “And people don’t hack bank accounts and credit cards, either. “

“Ever heard of identity theft?” Notta put in. “Now that’s disrespect!”

I held up a hand before the discourse went off, well, course further than it already had. “Look. You come to learn, I come to teach. The plain fact is, if we didn’t start from a place of even the least respect for that, we’d get nothing done here. Or anywhere. We have to understand that.

“The key word here is understanding, or at least starting from a position of wanting to understand. Or wanting to help someone understand. That’s called sharing ideas. . That’s called learning. And that’s called teaching so others can learn.

“That’s also called respect.”

I shrugged the pain in my neck loose again. “You say respect is earned. Well, you’re half right. Notta here said it’s a two-way street. That is also half right. We have to give respect to get it – another half-truth.”

“That’s one and a half truths,” my second challenger said.

There’s always one.

“I told you I’m not a math teacher,” I said. “Now, can we please respectfully get back to the government system of checks and balances?”

“That’s one and a half truths,” my second challenger said. There’s always one.

“I told you I’m not a math teacher,” I said. “Now, can we please respectfully get back to the government system of checks and balances?”


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