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

Seventh Grade

Another Farewell

Today was the third day of my three-day assignment as the band teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. It was pretty close to being exactly what I expected, with a few exceptions.

With the DVD actually working this time (huzzah!), the day went quickly. I watched the same four scenes of Mary Poppins over and over and over again. Some of the classes went very well, with the students being polite and respectful not just to me, but to each other. One class was absolutely terrible, to the point that I told them that they were the worst class of my week. They were much better behaved after that, probably because it dawned on them that I report to their teacher how they were for me, and their teachers do not take kindly to students abusing the subs, even if there are just a couple of days left to the school year.

The worst, though, was when I had a group of four students talking throughout the movie in one period. I repeatedly asked them to stop talking, and eventually three of them did. But one boy kept it up. So when I told him again, he responded by accusing me of being racist.

*sigh*

I stopped the movie, turned on the lights, and explained to the class the difference between racism and having a white teacher tell an African-American student to stop being disrespectful. I don’t know that the message got through at all, but I wasn’t going to let a student get by with making such a ridiculous claim without any response from me.

Fortunately, the rest of my day went very well. The 8th graders, especially, were great. I told them that they could talk and sign yearbooks as long as they cleaned up the room and put all of the furniture back where it belonged at the end of class. They did. One boy asked me to sign his yearbook, and another promised to find me on Facebook. (I have a policy of not accepting friend requests from current students, but insofar as I do not sub at the high schools in Champaign, and he is done with school on Friday, I said he could friend me if he could find me.)

And then it was a quick farewell to the students I have come to know so well over the past several months. Some of them are probably glad to not have to see me again. Others expressed sadness but, at the same time, they are done with middle school, so the farewell was overshadowed with the jubilation that they survived. I’m glad they did, and I wish them all the very best in high school. I’m sure I’ll see some of them around, most likely at Wal-Mart, where I seem to run into a bunch of students.


Technical Difficulties

Today was my second day as a band teacher at Edison Middle School. Yesterday we watched short podcasts because it was a half day and the students didn’t have much time in the room. We were back to the regular schedule today, though, so the plans allowed for starting a much longer video.

We were to watch the Walt Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins, because the bands had just featured several of the songs in their recent concert. The teacher had the DVD ready to go, the computer set up, and everything should have been hunky dory.

Despite my apparent anti-technology aura whenever I get near an LCD projector, everything was working fine. The first class of the day (7th grade woodwinds) got started on Mary Poppins and everything seemed to be okay. Until we got about 10 minutes into the movie and it froze up. Completely.

Okay, no problem. Take the disc out, make sure that it doesn’t have any smudges, put it back in, and away we go, right?

Not quite. We made it a few more minutes and it froze up again. So I took the disc out again and examined it more closely. It was scored and scratched and marred so thoroughly that I was surprised it was working at all. Then I noticed what I had failed to take into account: it was from the public library. I love the Champaign Public Library. It has an awesome collection of everything you could want from a public library. But the patrons don’t take very good care of the DVDs. So we had to stop.

This was quite problematic, as I still had four other classes for the day. I had no clue what to do. There were no back-up plans and, since this was a band class, it wasn’t like I could just have the students take out some other work–most of them didn’t bring anything with them, anyway. So they had free time for the rest of the period, as did the second class of the day (6th grade woodwinds).

During this class, though, I did a check and found out the library had at least one other copy of the movie on DVD. The CPL just happens to be across the street from Edison. Except there was no way I could leave the building. So I texted my wife, but she was far too busy at work. So I texted her dad, who is done with his classes for the year (he is a college professor). He was able to get to the library, check out the DVD, and navigate his way through Edison Middle School to find the band room and deliver the movie just in time for my third class of the day!

Victory!

The last three classes (7th grade brass, 6th grade brass, and 8th grade band–or maybe it is 7th, 6th, 6th, 7th… whatever), were able to watch the movie.

Well, kind of.

This disc was also scratched. But, fortunately, I only had to skip two  chapters and everything was back on track. Thank goodness! We will watch more of the movie tomorrow. Hopefully nothing else will go awry! But I may bring a musical DVD of my own. You know, just in case.


The Music Man

Today I was the band teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am also going to be there tomorrow and Wednesday, which is incredibly awesome for me, as the days remaining in the school year and ticking by faster and faster (or so it would seem).

Now, I’ve been in bands for a long time. I first started band when I was in 5th grade (about 19 years ago), and I’ve been in them in one way or another ever since: In middle school, I was in concert band and marching band. In high school I was in concert band, jazz band, marching band, symphonic winds, and a smattering of small ensembles for state music competitions. Upon enrolling at the University of Illinois, I was a member of the university’s Concert Band II-A, which was pretty much the lowest-level band available, but I was neither a music major nor an incredibly skilled musician, so I was just happy to be in band. I stayed with II-A until the end of my junior year, when I had to leave due to student teaching and then graduating. After finishing my university studies I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Parkland College Wind Ensemble, which is a smaller group composed primarily of community members and a few college students with a high school student or two rounding things out. In addition, I have occasionally helped with smaller ensembles at church when needed, although the need for trumpet players is not as great as, say, pianists, organists, and various string-ists. Added to all of this is my shorter history with vocal ensembles, such as my high school prep chorus, concert choir, and various church choirs, not to mention all of the musicals I’ve helped with as a spotlight technician. All of which is a very long way of saying that I’ve been around music ensembles of one sort or another for a long time.

As substitute teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to sub for grade school music teachers a handful of times. They have generally been fun, albeit pretty simple, experiences. (Such as this, this, and this.) Added to this is my ongoing pursuit of subbing for as many teachers at Edison as possible this year. (I’m now up to 18 out of 51–not going to reach the 50% goal I’d set, but oh well; I got close!) So I grabbed at the chance to sub for three consecutive days for one teacher, leaving me with just Friday left to fill. (I’ve been scheduled for this Thursday for several weeks now.)

What I didn’t seem to take into account was the realisation that bands are big. I mean, really big. Grade music classes always consist of just one class at a time, so I am used to those numbers. The strings program at Edison is a small division of the music program, so it was small. But band… Oh, did I mention that Edison Middle School happens to have one of the highest rated middle school band programs in the nation? Many of the students at Edison are there for the band program.

I’ve had big classes before. But today was quite a shock. I had five classes total: two 6th grade groups, two 7th grade groups, and the entire 8th grade band. In each of the first four classes, there were between 32 and 35 students. Okay, that’s a lot, but it is manageable. I’ve had big classes before at Edison. The 8th grade band, though, consists of 52 students. Fifty-two! They have more students in the program then there are regular teachers in the building! The class roster was two and half pages long! Yegads!

Fortunately for me, the students at Edison love me. I mean, they really love me. Remember the picture they made for me? So even though I suddenly found myself in the midst of two score and a dozen eighth grade boys and girls at the end of the day, things went pretty well. Or, rather, things went pretty well after they all got settled. It took about ten minutes to do so. Oh, and today was a half-day, so that means class periods were only 30 minutes long. Of course, following the long-standing tradition of band teachers the world over, the students were not doing anything band-ish. In fact, they were barred from touching the instruments. Instead, we spent the period watching a Yamaha podcast about the making of either the saxophone or the trumpet, depending on the class.

Tomorrow and Wednesday we will be watching Mary Poppins, because they just had their last concert and much of the music from the Disney film had been featured. Hey, it is the end of the year, anyway. Fun times ahead!


Like a Gummi Bear

Today I was a floating substitute teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School. In Champaign, the floating substitute usually goes to three or four classes over the the course of the day. In Mahomet, though, the floating sub is usually assigned one classroom for the duration of the day, depending upon the need. What will happen is the school knows that several teachers will be out on a particular day, but they may not know which teachers will be gone, so they schedule me as a floater and give me the assignment when I arrive.

Today was definitely different, though! (more…)


A New Milestone

Today I was the art teacher at Edison Middle School. The students had some handouts they were doing (essentially glorified colouring book pages) and so it was a pretty easy day, albeit a somewhat boring one, too. I suppose I should count myself lucky, though, since I don’t actually know enough about art education to really be able to teach. I don’t know, though… maybe I could fake my way through it. I’d hate to teach something incorrect, though.

Anyway, despite being a bit bored, I had a great day. The best part was at the end of the day when I realised I have achieved a new milestone. Or maybe I should use the more modern term and say that I have unlocked an achievement.

You see, for years I have struggled to convince students that my last name (Valencic) is not that hard to say. It is three syllables, pronounced, in our anglicised way, as vuh-len-sik. I am honestly not sure where the stressed syllable is located–count that as one of my failings as a native English speaker who never learned grammar and rules for the language. Regardless, I usually give some spiel about my name being Mr. Valencic, and that student may call me Mr. Valencic, Mr. V, or “sir”–not Mr. Valencia, Valencio, Valensis, Vlassic, Valansky, Mr. Dude, Bro, Fro Guy, Shaggy, Mr. Substitute Guy, Curly-Hair Man, or, my favourite, Ryznard Szyndlar (something that showed up in the mail for me once). Most students (and teachers) are satisfied to call me Mr. V, which I am totally down with. (As a side note, I recently learned that my dad has regularly been called Mr. V for quite some time. I did not know this. Odd.) And a few brave souls are willing to give my actual name a shot.

These are the few, the proud, the Marines of the spoken language. They work on it, they learn it, and they are super excited when they say my name correctly. And now they correct their classmates. Achievement unlocked: students inform others of the proper way to say my name. I don’t even have to introduce myself at Edison now. Heck, some of the students, I’m pretty sure, think I am a teacher there; they just don’t know what class. I have suggested that the school hire me as a full-time substitute but, alas, it isn’t my decision, nor is it the decision of the teachers with whom I have suggested this.

Still, it is a good day to know that the students respect me enough to make sure their classmates call me by my name and not by some horribly twisted variation. Now to reach the next milestone, which is for everyone to know my name and say it correctly!


Book Review II: The Dreamkeepers

Today I was a 7th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am fairly certain I was working with a different group of 7th graders than I have been, because the students today were considerably different from those I have come to know extremely well. Some of the classes were incredibly rambunctious and even disrespectful, while the others were really awesome. Rather than write about my experiences today (which included a boy and girl making out right in front of me after school–like, right right in front of me), I’ve decided to share my second book review.

As mentioned earlier, I have decided to take time during my prep periods/plan time each day to read through the vocational literature I have acquired over the years. After completing these books, I will provide a review here. The reviews will mostly focus on my impressions of the overall text and how I feel it relates to my personal philosophy. In addition to wanting to share what I think about the books that I was required to read in my classes (as well as those books that have ended up in my hands through various means), I am also interested in seeing how my own ideas have changed over time.

The first book I selected to read was The Dreamkeepers by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D. (However, my review of Dr. Doug J. Mackenzie’s Setting Limits in the Classroom was posted first due to its coinciding with some experiences I had while teaching that day.) The subtitle of this book is Successful Teachers of African American Children. From the beginning, the book is set out to be an expanded writing based on Ladson-Billings research over the course of three years in a majority African American community school district in northern California. The purpose of the study was to identify what methodologies have been most successful in helping African American students to achieve academic success. The book was of interest to me because there is a sizable African American population the Champaign school district (about 40%). I am well aware of the challenges facing the African American community, particularly in terms of high poverty, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, low mortality, and low high school graduation rates, among many, many other challenges. So I decided to read Dr. Ladson-Billings book to see what methods would help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my students who are so often in difficult situations.

On the one hand, the book is full of amazing teaching strategies. The main focus is on what Ladson-Billings terms culturally relevant teaching. I love the principles of this pedagogy and find that it fits in quite well with my own philosophical leanings. To be brief, culturally relevant teaching “is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” The thing that struck me the most as I read through the book was that these teaching strategies are appropriate for every classroom setting, which led me to a key question that was never answered: What teaching strategies will specifically help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my African American students?” Throughout the book, Ladson-Billings focuses on African American students and their teachers, yet there is nothing in the book that is actually specific to teaching African American students. I could go through the entire book and remove every reference to race and still have an excellent resource for successful pedagogy. If the point of the research was to emphasise that minority students will best benefit from receiving high quality education, then I am at a loss as to why this was never explicitly stated. More importantly, there was nothing to indicate that high quality education for minority students is somehow different from high quality education for majority students. So what is the point of the book?

I really don’t know. It annoys me to have to say that, because I truly enjoyed reading about successful teaching strategies. I truly believe that all students will benefit from the application of culturally relevant teaching. In the end, I would recommend this book to all, but I with the warning that you may have to sift through a lot of chaff to find the kernels of wisdom.

(I have four pages of notes from the book and most of them are critical of Dr. Ladson-Billings approach to her own research. If you are not interested in reading all of them, you can probably stop here.)

(more…)


Facebook

Today I was the art teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. This was the first time I’ve subbed for an art teacher in over two years. It was a good day. The 8th graders were making “handscapes” (landscapes that featured hands in atypical locations, such as in the place of tree branches or clouds or ears of corn). The 7th graders were making balancing toys–paper images weighted with pennies and made to balance on the end of a pencil. The 6th graders were making pictures of their dream locker interiors, which included video game systems, secret rooms, soda machines, etc. With just one exception, everyone was working on the assigned project the entire class period.

I love how middle school students are so interested in knowing who I am beyond just the substitute teacher. They ask me questions about music, literature, movies, television, whether or not I’m married, where I went to school, how old I am, what my first name is, what my wife’s name is, how I get my hair to look so awesome, etc, etc. I also have the occasional student ask if he or she can add me as a friend on Facebook. This happened today. The conversation went something like this:

Student: Hey, Mr. Valencic, what’s your first name? I want to add you as a friend on Facebook!

Me: Sorry, I don’t accept friend requests from students.

Student: Oh, okay.

I have had surprisingly few students attempt to add me a friend. Two are high school students in Mahomet. I did not accept either friend request, though. Some may think I have some sort of double-standard, because I have many, many, many friends on Facebook who are in high school. These are young men and women who I have come to know through Operation Snowball, Inc. and the Illinois Teen Institute. In each case, I have a strict policy (which I shamelessly stole from my friend and drug prevention field colleague, Rob Grupe) regarding friend requests: I do not add teens, but teens may add me. However, the relationship I have with these teens is not the same as the professional relationship I have with students. While it is a professional relationship, the nature of these prevention programs leads to a greater degree of friendship and I am also a resource for these students to find support in building up their prevention programs at home.

Due to the incredibly public nature of Facebook, despite the numerous attempts to create security restrictions, I always make sure that I would never be ashamed to let my mother, my employer, or my ecclesiastical leaders see what I have posted online. (This is also true for my blogging.) I am always shocked when I hear or read about teachers who do not maintain these professional boundaries. I have heard of a high school discipline counselor who friends teens, has joined a group dedicated to her, and has had pictures of herself drinking alcohol posted in the same mobile uploads album with pictures of her students. To me, it just makes so much more sense to treat Facebook as a semi-professional outlet and to remember that just because you can make something available online, doesn’t mean that you should.

Have a great weekend!