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Grading gig is the ultimate refresher

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

Pasco High School students hoping to earn college credit in U.S. history will have a leg up this year, thanks to their teacher, Dee Boles.

While many of her students were lounging poolside or working to save for a car, the 50-year-old history expert was in San Antonio, Texas, poring over this year's Advanced Placement exams. She and a group of college professors and high school teachers graded the tests.

And they were tough.

"We looked for facts, facts and more facts," she said. But simply reciting facts was not enough to qualify for college credit. "They can't just say this happened and that happened. They need to know the whys and wherefores."

This was Boles' first time as a grader for the College Board. To be chosen, she had to go through an application process as rigorous as the exam. She had to send in her own college transcripts, prepare a resume and supply proof that she had been teaching Advanced Placement courses for at least three years. And, yes, she also had to answer essay questions.

When she learned in the spring that she had made the cut, her students jokingly started coming up with little ways to ensure good grades.

"They all began devising things to put on their exams," she said with a grin. "Like little ducks on their tests." But Boles quickly pointed out that there's no way to tell whose test you're reading. And besides, the College Board pretty much ensures that teachers don't get to read their own students' exams.

During the summer, Boles flew to Trinity University, where she spent eight hours a day for six days doing nothing but reading essay questions.

"It was grueling," said Boles. "I flew in on a Sunday and just threw my clothes in a closet."

Seven graders sat at a table and graded stacks of handwritten essays. As soon as a grader finished one, an aide handed over another one. "You just never look up," Boles said.

And how were the essays?

Boles said she had seen maybe one exam out of the hundreds she graded that she would call outstanding, though she saw quite a few examples of excellent work.

A few made her smile. One student wrote about James Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. Another made reference to Mahatmama Ghandi. Still another student who knew there was no hope wrote a note saying he or she hoped the grader wasn't too tired and wrote, "I'm watching the other kids because they must know the answers."

A day or two into the grading, she phoned her husband, Stan, an AP government teacher at Pasco High.

"I said, "I want to come home,' " Boles said.

First-year graders sometimes don't last through the week. Veterans even have a name for newbies.

"They call us acorns, because we haven't grown to be oak trees yet," Boles said.

Boles, however, toughed it out. Besides making some friends, earning a $1,300 stipend and getting a nice T-shirt and a clock, she's a better teacher for the experience, she said.

Not that she ever was a slouch.

After moving from South Bend, Ind., she taught at the old junior high in Dade City for six years. In 1986, she and Stan both won Fulbright Scholarships for yearlong teaching stints in England. Boles taught at an all-girls academy nestled in the tennis mecca of Wimbledon; her husband taught at a comprehensive high school on London's east side.

In 1987, they came to Pasco High School.

During the school year, Boles' focus is to ready her students for the all-important AP exam. Those who score a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 can qualify for college credit, though some of the tougher schools require minimum scores of 4. Regardless of whether students qualify, many universities require that they take AP classes just to get accepted.

Boles starts preparing her kids before they even walk through her classroom door by requiring them to write essays based on summer reading that includes biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and John F. Kennedy's Profiles In Courage. Once school starts, Boles drills them by having them answer sample questions and those used in previous exams. She teaches them the best way of answering multiple choice questions by first eliminating what they know is wrong.

The material she has to cover encompasses information from the explorers in 1492 all the way to Richard Nixon in 1968. And students even have to spend their two-week winter break reading from historic books such as Main Street or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

Fortunately, some of the work seems like play. For several weeks, Boles' Dade City home, with its four cats and a German shepherd named Bucky, becomes a theater, showing such films as Dances With Wolves, Far and Away, The Patriot and Truman. She also hosts a day in which students take a mock exam and are treated to lunch.

Last year, her class was able to see history unfold on Sept. 11 as they watched television.

"We were all hugging and crying," she said.

Boles compares it to her favorite historic period, World War II.

"Fortunately there was a period where America was so strong," she said. "They saved the world from evil."

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com.

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