The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

High School

ITI 2011: There and Back Again

[Note: This was originally posted on the blog that my wife and I share.]

As much as I would enjoy writing a post about The Hobbit, this is actually my annual post on my experiences at the Illinois Teen Institute just a couple of weeks ago. While some who read this blog are surely familiar with it, I am going to assume that there are at least a few visitors who may not know. So before I get into ITI 2011, let me give a brief recap:

The Illinois Teen Institute is a week-long leadership camp during the summer, sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (it has taken me many years, but I think I’ve finally gotten the name down pat). ITI was started in 1974 and has been going strong ever since, making it the longest-running Teen Institute in the nation.

As a Teen Institute, it is aimed at, well, teens. Students are able to attend as participants from the summer before their freshmen year of high school until the summer after they graduate. As a participant, teens are placed into two groups: First is a small discussion group of 8-12 teens and two staff members (depending on attendance numbers). The members of the discussion groups generally do not know one another before hand, and the purpose of the groups is to discuss the general sessions and workshops offered each day. The second group is a Community Action Team, and it is the heart and soul of the Illinois Teen Institute. Teens from the same area/school/community/etc work together to come up with a plan to improve their community, utilising the skills and information they have gained at the Institute. The CAT plan is conceived, planned, and carried out by teens, with adult sponsors or volunteer staff members present as resources. (As an aside, Operation Snowball, Inc. was the result of a community action plan from 1978, or thereabouts, that has become an international drug prevention program.)

As a leadership camp, ITI focuses on helping teens become better leaders in the schools, their communities, and in the state. It is also a “prevention first” program, meaning that students learn about ways to prevent risky behaviours, most notably alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) abuse, unhealthy relationships, bullying, etc. It is not a treatment, rehabilitation, or recovery program. The entire week is focused on the teens. The speakers and workshops are selected to provide meaningful information and useful skills.

I first attended ITI in 1999 as a participant. In 2000 and 2001 I was back again as a member of the Administrative Team (A-Team), which allowed me to attend free of charge as a teen staff member. As a member of the A-Team I did not have a discussion group, although I did participate with my Community Action Team. From 2002-2004 I was absent due to serving a mission in California, but I returned in 2005 as a member of the volunteer staff, working as a co-facilitator. This placed me with a discussion group and a CAT. I did this for two years before being selected as a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2007.

The PALS 1 program is designed for Peers with Advanced Leadership Skills who are coming back a second or third year to really focus on specific leadership skills. The program has changed somewhat over the years, but the main focus has always been to help those teens who are in positions of leadership be more effective leaders and to train to be leaders at ITI. (The PALS 2 program has been renamed Youth Staff and is just that: teens who have been through the program and are ready to practice what they’ve learned. They work with a volunteer staff member in leading discussion groups, working with action teams, and making sure the participants feel welcome and have a great week.)

I applied to be a PALS 1 Coordinator in 2008 but, due to a mix-up in contact information, I didn’t learn that I had been selected until the Friday evening after staff training had started. Gretch and I had just gotten married about 3-4 weeks earlier and I was scheduled to work that entire week. Whoops. I was disappointed, but it was probably for the best, since we were still trying to get settled and all.

After bringing Gretch to my high school’s Operation Snowball weekend in 2008 and 2009, I encouraged her to come to ITI, despite her complete lack of experience with the program. She applied as a volunteer staff member and was accepted as a co-facilitator. I returned as a PALS 1 Advisor (new name, same job) and we had a wonderful week together. We came back in 2010, volunteering for the same roles. During the 2010 camp, Gretch and I helped the girls in Headquarters (formerly known as the A-Team) with scheduling of workshops and other things, and I was encouraged to volunteer for HQ staff for the following year, which I did.

Which finally brings us up to ITI 2011. Due to Gretch’s work schedule, she was not able to attend ITI this year. So I went alone. This marked the longest period of time we have been separated since we started dating on 16 August 2007. However, frequent telephone calls during free time and occasional chats on Google helped us make it through the week. Besides, many of our ITI friends are married and also spend the week apart. So we knew we’d be okay. Everyone asked how Gretch was doing and where she was. It was great to know that so many people care.

In fact, this is the very reason that I find myself going there and back again year after year. I love the community of caring that exists at the Illinois Teen Institute. My first CAT advisor was Brian Weidner. He had been going to school at Bradley University in Peoria back in 1999. Today he and his wife live and work in Minnesota, but he comes back each year as a workshop presenter, and we also catch up. I consider my friends at ITI to be like a family, and I hope that they think the same of me (and Gretch). Two experiences from this year really capture this sense of family.

The first was a girl who was attending as a first-year participant. She arrived with her mom, but nobody else. She was alone, and she was scared. She wanted to leave. A few of us helped her through the first few hours and encouraged her to stay, sharing our own experiences. After listening to our first speaker, the Amazing Tei Street, she decided to stick around. I later learned that she called her mom that night and said how glad she was to be there. I saw her off and on during the week, and each time she had a big smile and was laughing with her peers. She came alone; she left with a network of friends and supporters.

The other is also about a girl, here for the first time. She came from another state. She is kind of quiet and seems the kind who keeps to herself. I don’t think anyone would look at her and think of her as someone who would be popular, or even someone who would hang out with the popular kids. On Tuesday evening, the teens participated in a talent show. This girl walked onto the stage and, without saying a word, put on her guitar and began to play the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. When she finished, 300 people rose to their feet, cheering, clapping, and calling for an encore. Later on, she and one of the teen staff members, a young man who is a semi-professional musician, were jamming in a lounge area.

That, my friends, is why I keep coming back. It is because the world is not as bad as we are led to believe. There are good people doing good things. They say that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. The young men and women and the Illinois Teen Institute prove that wrong. The youth of today are the leaders of today. I am blessed to work with them and I know that I am a better person because of it.

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The Late-Blooming Reader

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. This was my last assignment subbing for this particular teacher. I’ve been there quite a few times over the past several weeks, and I am glad that each experience was better than the one before.

Today was no different, although it was unusual because the Seniors at MSHS are done. So the teacher who has been teaching Reading I for Freshmen in the mornings at AP English for Seniors in the afternoons now just has morning classes. It would have been awesome to get paid for the full day, but I was happy to get paid for a half-day, even though I was only there for two periods.

The students today were working on an in-class assignment that was an assessment of biographies/memoirs they had just finished reading. My job was to monitor them in the library and make sure that they were actually working on the assignment, and now playing around.

I am glad to say that everyone was on task and everyone finished the assignment. I glanced through a handful of the assignments to see what had been written. The assignment had three parts: first, summarize the ending of the book; second, share two or three traits of the featured individual that made the successful in what they did; third, share what you thought about the book itself. One student’s comment at the very end of his paper made me shout for joy on the inside. He wrote, “This is the first book I have read in many year that I actually enjoyed reading… so far. I would really like to finish it.”

I asked him why he couldn’t finish, and he said that he couldn’t check out any books from the library because of his fines. I hope that he now has the motivation to pay the fines so that he can get his hands on the book. The boys and girls in the Reading I classes are there because they are not quite at the reading level they should be. But that doesn’t mean they have to stay there; I would not be at all surprised if this particular student made some progress in his reading and moved up to more difficult classes in the future. He has many years ahead of him. Maybe this assignment will be the catalyst that helps him become a life-long reader.

I certainly hope it does.


Maintaining Dignity

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I was just there a week ago with these classes and had a most wonderful experience. I was looking forward to returning, and not just because the high school was observing Teacher Appreciation Week this week instead of last, so I was able to participate in a delicious luncheon provided by the PTA.

I was asked to come in early to sub for another teacher for a class period before starting my scheduled assignment, which I gladly agreed to do. It was for one of the resource teachers (equivalent to cross-categorical special education). Her class consisted of five boys and, for unfathomable reasons, it was determined that they would watch Confessions of a Shopaholic during class. The boys ignored the movie while I read my book on balanced literacy.

During my freshmen reading classes, I was once again successful in getting the entire class to actually do what was assigned: read for 30 minutes then fill out a simple reading summary log. The first class entertained themselves by asking questions about me, including what my wife does, my first name (I told them when they accurately guessed it), and the types of music I enjoy listening to. One of them tracked me down on Facebook and requested me as a friend. I told him that I do not accept friend requests from current students, but I’d be glad to leave the request there until either he graduates or I am no longer teaching there.

It was during the second class that I was challenged to maintain my dignity, which I am glad to say that I did. I had one boy who decided to hide behind a cabinet and make weird noises. I ignored him and he eventually gave up. Three students (a boy and two girls) kept making noises with their bodies (I won’t elaborate further) and giggling. I looked up a few times, made eye contact, and they apologised and stopped. One boy, though, wanted to go to the office to get ibuprofen for a headache. There were only 10 minutes remaining in the class period, so I told him to wait. He decided to go anyway. He walked out the door, went around the corner, and then poked his head back. Apparently he thought I was going to chase after him.

I decided that it was beneath my dignity to chase a 15-year-old boy through the halls of the high school while I had a class working, so I let him go and reported it to his teacher, who happened to be in the building today. I am quite certain that there will be disciplinary action taken against him. He probably doesn’t care, but there are times when I have to pick my battles, and this was definitely one I chose to leave alone.

Despite the silliness of a few, though, I had a great day, and enjoyed getting to know the students better. I may not teach them again, but I am learning from them what I should and should not share with my students, which is always a valuable bit of knowledge.

Have a great weekend!


Kickin’ It, Old-School

Today I was a Earth Science & Biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time at MSHS lately, each time because I was requested either by a teacher or the administration. That’s pretty awesome–especially when taking into account the fact that I just started subbing in the district just a hair over six months ago!

Several of the students noticed that I got my hair cut and commented on how nice it looks. I am still continuing my campaign to convince students that I did not, have never, and do not now have an Afro. It is a losing battle, I am sure, but, seriously folks: curly hair does not an Afro make!

So my day went something like this:

  • 1st period: Watch a 40-minute movie about the deadliest planets in the Solar System. [Spoiler: They’re all deadly, except for Earth.]
  • 2nd period: Attempt to watch the same movie, but spend 20 minutes getting the VHS tape cued back to the right spot. (It hadn’t been zeroed when I started, apparently.) Spend the remainder of the period watching what we could.
  • 3rd period: Watch the movie again.
  • 4th period: Plan/Prep/Lunch
  • 5th period: Watch the movie yet again. Fourth time for me, first time for the students.
  • 6th period: Biology! Students are reviewing for a quiz tomorrow. I think they are freshmen, although they are all approximately 10 feet taller than me (even the girls). Okay, maybe not that tall, but, seriously, what’s up with 14-15-year-olds being so tall???
  • 7th period: Plan/Prep, I guess. There actually wasn’t anything in the plans about it.

Now, I am all for using multimedia presentations to complement lesson plans. On the other hand, I dread when they are used as supplements. There was a time in our nation’s history, not too long ago either, when the role of a substitute teacher was simply to push play on the VCR after the first bell rang, push stop before lunch, then push play and push stop again during the afternoon. Thankfully, this is generally no longer the case. I love my job as substitute teacher because it allows me to be a teacher! But days like today are hard for me; they drag on and on and on as I get ever so much more bored watching the same thing over and over and over again!

But I have to be honest: the movie was new for the students in each class. And it worked as a great introduction to the final project of the year, which is a planet study to learn more about what makes the Earth so darned special when compared to the other planets in our star system. But for me, it was dreadfully dull, and I couldn’t even get on the computer or read my book–the former because I had no access and the latter because I left it in a different classroom.

Oh well. I still got paid for today, and I still got to make some use of my teaching skills: The biology students were complaining about having to pay $1.25 for a bottle of soda from the school vending machines when the same beverage is only $0.99 at the nearby gas station. I told them it was all about supply-and-demand, and since they are providing the demand, the suppliers will charge whatever they want. I then suggested that if they convinced everyone in the school to boycott the soda machines until the prices went down, maybe they could see a change. I doubt that would happen but hey, why not start them on the path of social change now?

I’ll just file this under “Things to Avoid” in my “Things to Remember as a Full-Time Teacher” files.


Victorious Victory of Victories

Today I was once again an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I was there for the whole day, so I was able to work with both of my morning classes (Reading I) as well as my two afternoon classes (AP English). When I was last there for the whole day, the first two classes of the day were pretty intense. (And by intense I mean out of control, disrespectful, and downright unpleasant.)

The more I have applied the principles, the more I am coming to appreciate the classroom management system proposed by Doug Mackenzie. While I continue to maintain a philosophy that looks forward to an ideal classroom environment in which students manage themselves, I am enough of a realist to acknowledge that, as a substitute teacher, I simply don’t have enough time to establish such a community. But, gosh darn it, I sure can try!

My first experience with the Reading I classes was essentially a day of constantly telling the boys and girls to stop talking, do their work, stay in their seats, etc., etc., etc. Yesterday was better: it only took about 15 minutes for the students to get settled. I set limits, show the class that I am serious about them, and I praise and encourage to show them that I am not the enemy. In fact, I don’t think of the teacher-student relationship as an us-versus-them relationship; but I do know that there are students who do think this way. So I strive to be personable, open, honest, and respectful at all times. It seems to work.

Today was awesome! The students came in, took their seats, and started on the assigned work for the day. When they finished, they worked quietly on other things. There was no yelling, no running around, no pushing limits; just young men and women who knew what was expected and showed a willingness to do it. I definitely consider this a great victory! Not a personal victory, and certainly not a victory over the students, but a victory of the self.

In other news, I learned today that I am officially considered the “go-to substitute” for the high school. Which is why I was given three more assignments today over the coming weeks. I am really glad to know that my efforts are appreciated and worthwhile. It makes the hard days that much easier to bear.


Recovering from Tests

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. This was a return assignment, specifically requested by not only the teacher, but also the secretary to the principal. For those who don’t know, I recently subbed for this teacher and reportedly managed to teach in one day what two other subs had been unable to do–as the teacher herself told me a week ago, “[I] did three days’ worth of teaching in one day!” I am going to be with these classes again tomorrow, as the teacher is away on an overnight student council retreat (I didn’t really catch what was going on).

If you know any students or teachers within the public education system, you are surely aware that standardised testing has been underway throughout the nation. Many teachers with blogs have been writing about this. For example, there is this teacher in New Jersey or this teacher in Texas. As a general rule, I have avoided the stress of high-stakes testing, mostly because few teachers are out of school when the tests are being administered. However, today was the day that the Advanced Placement English exam was administered, so the students in two of my four periods were busy all morning sweating bullets while hoping and praying they will score high enough to get credit for a university-level course. They have been working hard all year in preparation for this test, so their teacher promised them that there would be no work for them this afternoon.

As a result of this, my afternoon went something like this: After taking attendance (and noting that half the class had left school after the test), I told them that they could watch a movie, vent about the test, or just talk. I further suggested that they could really do anything they wanted, provided they didn’t: a) set the room on fire, b) throw anything or anyone out the window, or c) go all Lord of the Flies on me. Both classes readily agreed to this plan.

The first class looked at the movie selections left by their teacher, and decided none were satisfactory. (Their choices were Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, a different Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God.) So they took the pass, went to the library, and found a copy of Pride and Prejudice (the new version, starring Keira Knightley).

The second class spent the first half of the period watching videos of Man Cooking on YouTube–I didn’t quite figure out how they were accessing the Internet through the laptop, but I think one of them was using his phone as a wireless hotspot. Bright kids, the lot of them. (I should point out that it isn’t really a very appropriate video…) Eventually they got bored with that, and decided to watch Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff.

I should insert at this point that they had just recently finished reading the book, and so there was quite a bit of confusion during the movie, since it doesn’t really follow Mary Shelley’s book at all.

Still, they had a fun time and they definitely enjoyed having time to recover from the high-stakes testing they did. Tomorrow we will get started on their final project of the year but for today, it was a relaxing time for all.


You’re Supposed To Be Doing What, Now?

Today I was a Family & Consumer Sciences teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I have been very fortunate to have teaching assignments nearly every single working day for the past two months. In fact, so far I have had only one working day without an assignment. My schedule for this week is almost completely filled–I just have to find something for Wednesday. Why have I been so lucky? I’m not sure, really. It may be because the districts actually put a halt to hiring new subs for the year. (Interesting aside: one of my districts employs 200 substitute teachers, even though they only use, on average, 60 subs a day. Not sure why they have so many extras, unless it is just really that hard to find a sub some days.) But I think it may also be because I am willing to accept just about anything.

Which is why I accepted the aforementioned Family & Consumer Sciences assignment despite the very obvious fact that I had no clue what that entailed. I mentioned it at dinner last night, and learned that Family & Consumer Sciences is the modern name for what used to be known as Home Economics, or just Home-Ec.

Oh. Interesting.

Little known fact about myself (well, little known to those who don’t know me incredibly well): I never took any vocational education courses in high school. Even the one state-required course that falls under that category, Consumer Economics, was not taken, because I managed to test out of it my Freshman year. (I think that business classes are part of vocational education… Please correct me if I am wrong!) I had friends who took courses through the vocational ed program. I have a former classmate who is now teaching vocational ed at our high school. But I was very much the hard-core band/choir/drama geek who loaded his schedule each semester with math, science, language, social studies, and band/choir/drama. If I’d had an extra hour or two to the day, maybe I would have dipped my toes into the vocational pool, but probably not. It just wasn’t my area of interest.

So, armed with my complete lack of knowledge of this field, I went off to Mahomet-Seymour High School today wondering what on earth I’d be doing. The first class of the day was Food and Nutrition. I walked them through an introduction to a unit on eggs–Hey, I can handle that! I was an eggs-to-order cook for a few years while at the University of Illinois!–and that was that. The next class was Cooking & Culinary Arts. We watched a video clip of Good Eats starring Alton Brown. So far, so good.

Then we got to the Life Skills class. Um, okay… I think. We went to the computer lab and they spent the period finding articles online about positive peer pressure, negative peer pressure, and filling out a worksheet to compare/contrast the two. Oh, and they had to print out the articles. Except that the printer ran out of paper and instead of waiting for it to get refilled, they just kept hitting print. So several articles got printed about a dozen times. Oh, and someone tried to print an article but instead of highlighting the relevant portion, he or she just hit print and printed off a 34-page document, 32 pages of which were a list of the blog articles that had been published. Whoops.

And then we got to the area that left me completely baffled: Early Childhood Practicum. With two class periods at our disposal, we went into the bizarre basement computer lab so they could have a “work” day. (This is the computer lab that has film projectors and other antiquities lying around.) One boy seemed to be working on something that may or may not have been a  relevant project. The only other boy in the class spent the two periods on funnyjunk.com (he didn’t click on anything inappropriate, though). The girls all seemed to be shopping for prom dresses and checking out hairstyles that can do, despite the fact that prom is in five days.

It turns out that the girls were working on their projects, though. One of them is doing a wedding planning project, and, after browsing dresses, turned to cakes. Aha! I know about cakes! I suggested she check out the Sunday Sweets segment of Cake Wrecks. Victory!

Now if only I could figure out what the rest of them were supposed to be doing all day…