UNIONTOWN, PA—Most educators view multiple-choice exams as an opportunity to couch the correct answer amidst three or four other plausible alternatives. Not so for Uniontown High School teacher Tom Campbell. Campbell, 47, who has taught freshman history at the school for the past 11 years, uses the popular test format not only to instruct but also to delight his students with his quirky sense of humor.
"What was the Great Awakening?" a question from one of Campbell's most recent tests reads. "(a) Coffee and a bagel, (b) The name given to FDR's evening radio addresses, (c) 'C'mon, Mom! Let me sleep five more minutes!' or (d) A dramatic religious revival in Anglo-American history."
"The answer is D," said Campbell, holding back a wry smile. "Giving them the option of 'Coffee and a bagel.' Get it?"
It's hard to imagine, but this life-of-the-classroom didn't always write his exams in such an amusing fashion. Campbell says that it wasn't until 2001—the year he turned 40—that he began to feel stifled by the standard, school-sanctioned exams and decided his tests would go in a more unorthodox direction.
"I'll never forget that first joke answer," Campbell said. "The question was 'Reconstruction can best be described as,' and I decided to make one of the choices—I think it was C—'What will never happen to the school's broken-down auditorium.' All day long I was nervous the kids would think it was inappropriate, but when I heard a few giggles in the back of the classroom, I knew I had a gift for this kind of thing."
With humorous answers such as these, one might naturally assume that Mr. Campbell is also witty in his daily interactions with others, that he is perhaps considered to be a real jokester in his non-test-giving life. But according to his friends, fellow teachers, and members of his weekend choir group, that couldn't be further from the truth.
"Tom's a quiet guy," Uniontown algebra teacher Gale Halfhill says. "He keeps to himself mostly. He sometimes talks to the other teachers in the teacher's lounge, but I don't remember him ever saying anything comedic."
Campbell readily admits that his quiet demeanor and extreme shyness have changed little since he was a child. That timidity, however, is momentarily abandoned when Campbell sits down at night to write his multiple-choice exams—a process Campbell describes as freeing, and the only time in his life he has felt the self-confidence to allow his true personality to shine through.
"You definitely have to take my tests to understand my sense of humor," said Campbell, who, during his time as an educator, figures he has made more than 5,000 jokes, all of which were part of his exams. "About four years ago, I made the mistake of telling one of the other teachers I used 'Billy Crystal' as an answer choice. He didn't quite get it, I think mainly because people just don't realize I can be a pretty wild and crazy guy, so to speak."
"To even consider Billy Crystal as one of the men who rode with Paul Revere is really, really funny," Campbell continued. "See, he wasn't even born until the 20th century, so unless he can time-travel, it's utterly impossible for him to have even met Paul Revere, much less accompanied him on his epic ride."
According to Campbell, "The kids in my class have come to expect not only to learn, but to laugh."
Another test answer that Campbell wrote is equally outrageous: Between what years did the Civil War take place? (a) 1861-1865, (b) 1862-1867, (c) 1863-1868, or (d) Put your pencils down and sing "Happy Birthday" to Jimmy.
"There's nothing wrong with having a little fun sometimes," Campbell said.
But just because his tests usually consist of approximately 45 joke answers, that doesn't mean it takes Campbell less time to write the exams. Quite the contrary. Campbell explains that he can spend anywhere between two to five hours writing, rewriting, and punching-up his tests—taking care to relate every joke answer in some way to the question. It's a sacrifice the seasoned educator says he is willing to make.
"I could easily just relax and give an exam with eight to 10 essay questions," Campbell said. "But I think that would be doing a disservice to my students."
Added Campbell: "Also, with a multiple-choice test I get to make more jokes."
Thus far, it's clear his students appreciate the effort.
"Everyone loves Mr. Campbell's class," says 14-year-old Tara Stern, who has consistently received high marks in history this year despite her calling herself "not much of a studier." "His silly answers make it a lot easier to figure out the right ones."