The idea of teaching in front of bright lights and a TV camera made Barbara Watson a bit nervous.
But after a few minutes, she realized it was a lot like standing in front of her 25 or 30 students at Arrington Middle School in Birmingham, Ala. The only difference was the lessons reached more than 77,000 Birmingham residents.
Watson and fellow teacher Della Morgan are the stars of “Homework Hotline,” a live telephone helpline seen on a local cable channel from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
The show, designed for third- through fifth-graders, is a partnership between the Birmingham city school system and Time Warner cable.
“It does feel like a classroom now, especially when I’m talking to the student one on one,” said Watson, a counselor.
Watson and Morgan, a counselor at Woodlawn High, have tutored students on a telephone hotline since 1988. But this is the first year for the TV show, said Carnella Jarmon, who works with a family literacy program in the school system.
“The plan was to help at-risk students who get home and need help with their homework and for when parents don’t know the answers, either,” Jarmon said.
For Watson and Morgan, preparing to go on the air doesn’t take long. At the studio, housed at Phillips High School, the teachers get no Hollywood treatment. They apply their own lipstick and fix their own hair.
On a side of the desk that doesn’t show up on television, classroom books are piled for the teachers’ reference during the on-air tutoring session.
Until calls come in, the women sit and chat while viewers see a screen with the hotline phone number. The sessions start out slow sometimes, with calls coming in every five minutes or so.
But after the first hour, calls begin coming in back to back. “Some days you can’t take time to breathe,” Watson said.
The teachers get about 20 calls daily, Watson said. Often, the same students call each day with questions about multiplication or division.
About 80 percent of the time, the questions are about math, Watson said.
On Tuesday, it was Morgan’s turn to host “Homework Hotline,” and Watson sat on the side ready to look up questions in textbooks.
Morgan answered the phone with “Welcome to ‘Homework Hotline,’ can I help you?” and subsequently wrote down the student’s name, school, grade and asked what problem he or she is working on.
When Morgan is ready to coach a student through the problem, she gives the control booth a signal to start broadcasting and turns to the chalkboard. Students’ voices can’t be heard on the television, so the teachers have to tell the audience what comments are being made.
Morgan starts each program with a motivational monologue. “Success is within your reach. You have to pay attention, ask questions, and do your work,” she says.
Watson said they don’t give out answers, but instead guide students through work on the studio’s green chalkboard.
The teachers get some calls that aren’t focused on homework. Some children call and talk about what they ate for lunch or what games the class did that day. Other students get cold feet and hang up.
“It’s about trial and error until we figure it out,” Morgan told one student as they went through a problem. “OK, precious?”
Morgan adjusted her head piece and reached down to hang up the phone. “You did a good job, you hear?”
Birmingham Public Schools
Time Warner Cable