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


A Day for Shorts

Today I was an 8th grade science teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. I had been requested by the teacher, which is kind of odd, since I have only been in her room once, and then it was just to collect a couple of students who were being pulled out for supportive services. Somehow I managed to leave a positive enough impression to be listed as one of her preferred subs.

I was only there for the afternoon today, and all of the classes were doing the same thing: watching the Pixar Animation Studios Shorts. I’m not sure how this video really fit in with an 8th grade science class, but it is the end of the year, and I think the teachers just wanted to do something fun. Of my four classes, three of them watched the oldest shorts first, making it about as far as For The Birds (2000). It was fun to watch the progression of quality by the Pixar crew. We also noticed that most of John Lasseter’s story ideas are surprisingly depressing. I have no idea why this is the case, though. The last period, which does not have class tomorrow afternoon for some reason, opted to watch the more recent shorts, starting with For the Birds and going through to Lifted (2006).

There was only one down-side to the day: the room I was in was incredibly hot. I think the temperature was somewhere around 80ºF, with doors and windows open and fans on. It was one of the few days of this entire academic year that I found myself wishing that I was not wearing slacks, dress shirt, and tie. However, I was wearing them, and I survived. But the slacks, dress shirt, and tie were replaced with shorts and lighter shirt as soon as I got home!

Tomorrow is the last day of school in Champaign, with students reporting to school for roughly an hour or two. Mahomet-Seymour will continue on until Thursday, but it is highly unlikely that I will receive any assignments for the last two days of school. And so it is that today was (most likely) my last day subbing for the academic year. I will be giving a lot of thought to what I want to do with this blog over the summer, and will be posting a poll tomorrow to see if any of you faithful readers have a preference.


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.

Brilliance on the Fly

Today I was a first grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign during the afternoon. I was certain I’d blogged about this class before but when I couldn’t find anything, I had to go back and look at my calendar. It turns out the last time I taught in this class was six months ago (October 8). I didn’t start writing this blog until the 14th, which is why they haven’t made it into here yet. This was my second time subbing for this particular teacher, but my third time in the class, because the two Reading Recovery teachers split their duties–one teaches the class in the morning and does RR in the afternoon, the other does RR in the morning and teaches the afternoon.

The class has a lot of wonderful, intelligent, sweet kids in it, and I would have loved to go back sooner, but my schedule was such that when the teachers needed a sub, I was already assigned elsewhere. I was excited to be back with them and was shocked to realise I still knew most of their names. It only took me a few minutes to recall all of them. Go me, right?!

So one of the things I have noticed as a substitute is that some teachers have a habit of giving extremely detailed lesson plans that outline the entire day down to the minute. These plans often expect far more content to be taught than is possible, but it makes sure that the subs don’t run into awkward periods of not knowing what to do. Other teachers provide extremely bare-bones plans that assume that a five-minute activity will take the entire class period. (A high school student I know in Elgin, Illinois, regularly experiences this and complains to me all the time that her teachers don’t leave better plans.) The plans today were fairly well balanced in the middle, but some of the activities leaned toward the over-estimated the time required side.

Of course, I didn’t let this bother me. If nothing else, this entire week has been one of me acting quickly on my feet and keeping things moving. This is why I get paid the big bucks, right? (I wish!) The first assignment for the day was for the students to do a handwriting worksheet (remember, these are first graders). Some of them got done right away and wanted to know what to do next. I wasn’t about to have them start on the next assignment and quickly find myself with 20 boys and girls each doing something different, so I thought quickly and said, “All right, here’s what I want you to do: turn the paper to the backside and write a note to [your teacher] telling her what you did today. You can also draw her a picture.” Soon I had everyone doing this (the plans had expected the handwriting to take 15 minutes, and just everyone was done in under 10). I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Instead of writing a few words about lunch or recess, the students wrote about reading independently, reading to a partner, writing stories, and learning about outer space. Several also asked their teacher if she was feeling well and told her how much they love having her teach first grade. I should have snapped a picture of some of them but that didn’t occur to me until I got home.

Still, it was a great way to not just fill the time, but to fill it with a worthwhile activity. The students were able to practice handwriting, spelling, letter-writing, and communication rather than just colouring or, worse, having nothing to do and wandering around the room bugging other students. Instead, the students were busily engaged in meaningful work as they applied things they have been learning all year long. It was both awesome and a great way to wrap up the week!

Playing It by Ear

Today I was a 5th grade teacher. Again. At Robeson Elementary in Champaign. Again. For my mother-in-law. Again. You see, I wasn’t supposed to be subbing for her for the third consecutive working day because her flight from Salt Lake City was supposed to be in last night. Unfortunately, it was delayed several hours and she didn’t get home until nearly 4 am. Fortunately, though, she knew about the delay with a considerable amount of notice, so I knew last night that I was going to be there. Equally fortunate, she has a student teacher who was planning on starting a science unit on chemistry today, on top of the math lessons that she’s been in charge of teaching for a few weeks now, and there was a reading group or two in the afternoon that she’d be meeting with. So all I really had to worry about was following up on the social studies unit on propaganda that we started yesterday.

So a pretty easy day, right?

Not quite.

The student teacher was sick, and she had the math manual with her. The science lesson plan wasn’t prepared or, if it was, she hadn’t left plans for it. And the reading groups were up to me. On top of all that, the teacher hadn’t had time to prepare lesson plans by the time I arrived at 7:30 this morning, so I had to play it by ear.

For many substitutes, this would be cause to run out of the room screaming. In fact, I nearly had a moment like this a few months ago when I subbed in Urbana for the first time ever. This was not true for me, though, because of one very important fact: I have been in this classroom more than any other classroom in three districts. And, of course, I am married to this teacher’s daughter, so I have the benefit of being able to eat dinner with her on a weekly basis and talk about her class. All of this, along with the various reasons I mentioned yesterday, combine to mean that, of all the substitute teachers in the district, I am probably the only one who could have salvaged today.

I had to play it by ear, and I think I managed to do an adequate job. Even with the near-constant talking in the class and having to frequently stop and wait for the class to settle down, was able to make it through the materials for the day. Now, I know that a teacher shouldn’t just be concerned about “getting through” but, honestly, that is pretty much my job as a substitute. It is a wonderful thing when I can do more than just the minimum requirements of my job, and I quite often do much more. I am quite certain that is why I am so successful at my job. But there are days when I am truly grateful that I am able to get through some days.

So, what did I do today? I shot from the hip, I winged it, I begged my coworkers for access to their teacher’s manuals (okay, I didn’t really beg; I just walked in and asked if I could borrow it and then made a copy of the lesson), and I made sure the students had plenty of independent reading time. Things actually went pretty well, particularly since I don’t think anyone had any idea that I was actually playing it by ear today. And, at the end of the day, that is one of the most important things. Did the students learn and did they feel confident in my ability to teach? I believe the answer to both is yes. Hopefully both teacher and student teacher will be back tomorrow, though, because I’m already scheduled to be elsewhere!

Relevant Teaching

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign (but not for my mother-in-law). I was only there for half the day (really a lot more – about five hours instead of the typical seven), but it was a good day. The class is really used to me by now and were happy to have me as their sub (except for the few who are determined to be difficult for every teacher they encounter). We spent the morning doing science, math just before lunch, and Language Arts afterwards.

Whenever possible, I strive to make my teaching as relevant to the students’ lives as possible. So I was quite pleased when the science lesson was on the history of the development of the cellular phone. After all, these boys and girls are 11-12 years old, yet almost all of them own cell phones already. Those who don’t want them soon. I contrasted this with the fact that I didn’t get a cell phone until 2005 (which actually elicited laughter from the class). We talked about the different kinds of phones that exist and what model they would most like to get. Having piqued their interest in the matter, it was easy to get them to start working on the assignments.

The math lesson was on measuring the volume of rectangular prisms, which is was harder to make relevant, but I started off by having the students identify the various rectangular prisms in the classroom. An interesting discussion arose when someone suggested a piece of paper was a prism, but others disagreed. We established a rectangular prism has to have six rectangular faces with a measurable length, width, and base. Having determined that these were acceptable criteria, the class decided that a standard piece of paper does indeed constitute a rectangular prism. I then tried to help them understand the concept of volume. I used an example I had stumbled upon last year that seems to work really well: just about everyone knows what volumizing hair products are for. They understand the result of using such products, and from there they were able to understand the concept that volume is the measure of something taking up space. So that connection also worked.

Going for three-for-three, I spent the afternoon teaching about adjectives, and managed to get the students to provide several examples of adjectives before they even had a clear definition. I asked for someone to give me a noun, and he suggested the name of a girl in the class. I then asked the students to describe her. After we created a decent list, we discussed how adjectives are words that modify, or describe, nouns. Just as the students started to work on the assignment, their teacher arrived. It was a pretty good day all around.

In Which My Curly Locks Help Me Teach a Lesson

Today I was a biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. It should be no surprise that I had an excellent day. In fact, it seems that nearly every day has, in general, been excellent. My job is awesome, my students are great, and my colleagues are both awesome and great. Again and again, I find myself wishing that a full-time substitute teacher job existed in any of these school districts. Alas, ’tis not so. However, a full-time job teaching would be even better, and I am doing as much as I can to achieve that goal.

The focus of my lessons today was on genetic pedigree charts. The students are learning the basics of human genetics, and were identifying how dominant and recessive traits can be identified through family pedigrees. In the process of things, I managed to once again have several class periods where the students were fascinated by my naturally curly hair. I even had a co-teacher who was curious to know how I came about such lovely locks (not that anyone actually called them lovely, or locks). So I did a quick Google search and discovered that curly hair is a dominant trait. A quick pedigree chart established that my dad is not a carrier for curly hair (because his hair is straight), but my mom is (since she has curly hair). My wife’s hair is straight, which means that any curly hair that our children may have will come through me.

Curly hair is also most likely a trait linked to multiple genes, so it isn’t a straight forward AA/Aa/aa genome, but it is still pretty cool. So I used my hair as an introduction to the lesson. I was also able to point out how different genetic traits can lead to health problems, which is why doctors’ offices ask about family medical background. Having established a point of interest, I had classroom after classroom of students who were interested in the subject matter and keen to know more about the extra credit opportunity they will have tomorrow to map out their own genetic traits. It was definitely an excellent example of taking advantage of unplanned moments to teach and make lessons relevant.

Book Review I: Setting Limits in the Classroom

Today I was a science technology teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I worked with students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I had a wonderful day working with these students and was very impressed by how well-behaved and respectful they were. The most interesting thing about it was that the notes from the teacher, and comments from the other teachers in the building, indicated that there were many difficult students in the classes. However, I did not have any difficulties with any of them.

I am not trying to say that the teachers at the school are deficient in any way. In fact, I have been incredibly impressed by how well the teachers work with their students, manage their classrooms, and how amazingly they help each student do his very best. I have been delighted to work with these teachers and would be thrilled to be a part of their team. Of course, I don’t have middle grade endorsements, so I am not fully qualified to teach full-time at the middle school level, but if I was, and there was a job available, I would definitely take the opportunity.

So, why did I have such a great time working with these students when others have not? Well, for one, I do not believe that the so-called “difficult students” are always difficult. For another, I have been working very hard at developing a strong, positive relationship with the students at this school. While some substitutes have a reputation for being boring, others are known for being ineffective, and others are considered to be tyrannical, I am known for being none 0f those. Students, teachers, administrators, and other staff know me to be engaging, effective, and fair.

Having finished reading The Dreamkeepers, I decided that I actually enjoy reading the books I acquired during my college courses, so I started reading Setting Limits in the Classroom by Dr. Doug J. Mackenzie, Ed.D. I read a few chapters of this book during my class, but I never read the entire thing. I am not done yet, but I am close to the end, and I wanted to write up my first (of probably several) book review.

Setting Limits in the Classroom has a lot of good, should-be-common sense suggestions; for example: don’t be wishy-washy. He focuses on the need to set firm limits with students while being respectful and provide students opportunities to learn what is and is not acceptable. The most important lesson I have taken from the book is the idea of providing simple, clear directions for students. To draw from an application I used today, I had a young man who was horsing around in the computer lab. I approached him and said, “Jacob, you need to be respectful and responsible in the computer lab. If you can’t behave responsibly, I am going to have to send you back to your teacher.” He tried to test me by arguing, but I cut him off by simply restating the expectation: responsibility in the computer lab or no computer. He did not test me further, and was well-behaved the remainder of the period. Dr. Mackenzie uses many examples from his experiences as an educator, a therapist, and while presenting workshops.

Another excellent point he makes is that expectations need to be established on the first day of school, reviewed and rehearsed during the first week, reviewed regularly during the first month, and revisited throughout the year. Of course, this is not particularly useful advice for a substitute teacher, who typically has between 45 minutes and 7 hours to work with students before he or she leaves. He also discusses that expectations and limits allow freedom in the classroom. One of my favourite quotes is this: “Freedom without limits is not democracy. It’s anarchy…” That is so very true!

I do have a few quibbles with his methods. For one, Dr. Mackenzie seems to identify the classroom teacher as the absolute monarch of the classroom. The teacher sets the rules, expectations, and consequences. The teacher dispenses punishment or rewards. The teacher is in charge. The students are merely there to hear and obey. This rubs against my more democratic egalitarian approach to education that includes the students in the process of establishing expectations and consequences. Of course, there will be expectations that I will ensure are included because, as a member of the classroom community, I am also a part of the process. I also believe that I am as accountable for my actions as the students are for theirs. I am not above the law. My other quibble is that Dr. Mackenzie presents his methods as not just the best method, but the only effective method of classroom management. I have observed many different methods and have seen that different methods work for different teachers. Setting Limits in the Classroom would settle better if he pointed out that his is but one of many effective strategies.

I have already started applying the principles of this book with my students and have seen that it has improved my classroom management. Admittedly, I have also worked with a large number of incredibly compliant students, but I am excited to continue to apply these methods with the students in other schools. I’ll be sure to share whether or not it continues to be successful. At this point, I’ll gladly recommend Setting Limits in the Classroom to any teacher looking to find another strategy to improve classroom management.