BOSTON — It's a Thursday night and I'm correcting papers at my kitchen table. The phone rings.
"Hey, Miss Bonsey, you know when you're in outer space?"
"And you know how you can float around and you don't weigh anything?"
"What's that called?"
"That's it! Thanks, Miss B!"
It's school vacation. The phone rings.
"Miss Bonsey, I left my book packet at my foster parents' house and they're gone this week, so I'm at respite care and I was wondering: Would you mind meeting me at school so I can get a new packet?"
"Bobby, I'll see you in an hour."
It's Sunday morning. I'm headed to church. The phone rings.
"Miss B, this is Nick. I'm trying to do my notecards and I don't get it."
"Don't worry. Tomorrow I'll meet with you and go through this step-by-step."
I teach language arts to sixth- and seventh-graders in a rural Maine school. One moment these adolescents are restless, disorganized, and moody; the next they're insightful, creative, and wonderful. Always, they are a joy to teach and a challenge to reach. A few of them are learning-disabled; some are gifted; and most fall somewhere in the middle of the academic spectrum.
In the whir of a busy day, I don't always have time to give individual attention to my students. And in the whir of a busy evening, many of their working-class parents lack the know-how, time, or energy to help their kids stay focused, organized, and on top of their homework.
So how do I maintain high expectations and standards for all my students, regardless of their academic and social disparities? I "reach out and touch" them through a phone line. Or rather they reach out and touch me.
My guidelines are simple: If you have a problem with an assignment, you must call me.
And students do, although not as often as you might think. On average, I field maybe seven calls a week, which is not even half the class.
Besides receiving immediate feedback on assignments, students learn that by taking the initiative to solve their problems, they gain personal power, plus they learn the art of communicating and negotiating with an adult.
I once had a student track me down at my vacation home, a toll call. He'd misplaced his essay guidelines. "Jared," I asked, "does your mother know you're calling me long distance?"
"No, but she won't be as mad about that as she will if I get a bad grade on my essay!" He was right. In fact, another plus of my phone policy is that I rarely hear from concerned parents.
Last winter, after two consecutive storm days, I was besieged by calls from kids who wanted to know if their book report would still be due the next school day. Because I was leaving for a weekend trip, I changed my incoming telephone message to read: "If this is one of my students, don't worry. Your book report isn't due until Tuesday."
The following Monday, Kimmy, tugged at my arm. "Miss B, I called you this weekend. That was a funny message you left."
"Hey, I called you, too," Bobby added.
"Me, too," several others chimed in.
"Wait a minute," I asked. "Exactly how many of you called me this weekend?"
Thirteen hands shot up. I smiled and said, "Those book reports better be good."
"Don't worry, Miss B," Kimmy said. "They will be."
*Lynn Bonsey teaches at Surry (Maine) Elementary School.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society