The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for November, 2010

Discovering New Books

Today I was a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Jr. High. This job assignment came rather late–or early, really. Due to some unexpected events in the wee hours of the morning, I found myself awake at 1:30 am. I checked for an assignment, and there was nothing. So I went back to bed, then found myself awake again at 3:30 am. Thinking that there wasn’t anything, but deciding to check anyway, I was shocked to find this assignment available. So I took it, even though I knew I’d be waking up again in three hours in order to go to work.

I had a great day with the students in Mahomet. I knew several of the kids in each class as a result of my work as a Sunday school teacher with my wife for a couple of years. We moved and, as a result, moved congregations, but our former students all remember us. (It hasn’t been that long, anyway). The Language Arts program is a two-period combined block. The beginning of each block was spent in the library, where the students were expected to do silent reading and/or work on their nonfiction book reports. The second period was spent in the classroom reading a short story called The Dog of Pompeii and then discussing the theme of the story.

While in the library, I browsed through some reference books, read what a vocational guide had to say about being an elementary school teacher (it was kind of funny, really), and wandered about making sure all of the students were actually reading. I also browsed the fiction shelves, to see what the school had. I found it odd that they had the last volume in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, but not the first five. They had a smattering of John Grisham novels. The had the first book of Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence, but not the rest.

And I discovered that Ms. Cooper had written other books. I don’t know why this has never even occurred to me before. I have always known her for the five books that I have read and loved and read again and again and again. Yet I have never once thought of seeing if she wrote anything else. Which is kind of ridiculous, since I can’t think of any author who wrote one book/series and then quit. I happened to pick up a copy of King of Shadows and read the first part of the first chapter but I didn’t finish. I should probably get a copy and read it, except that I am also reading John Grisham’s Ford County right now, and I kind of started reading Jean Craighead George’s Newberry Honor book, My Side of the Mountain. In addition, I have decided to finally tackle the entire Dune series. I just don’t know how many books I can submerse myself in before getting lost and confused.

However, I do love discovering new books, and I love helping my students discover them, too. Which is why I always look to see what they are reading and will always gladly offer advice if they are looking for something new. I am an openly avowed bibliophile and I believe that everyone else should be one, too. And we should all be discovering new books, whether fiction, nonfiction, or something in-between!



I didn’t work on Thursday or Friday of last week as a result of the Thanksgiving holiday. My wife and I went to visit my parents and had a wonderful time with them and many other members of our family. We ate lots of tasty food, especially in the pie category. We also went to see the new Harry Potter movie, went shopping on Black Friday, and generally had a great time.

Until Saturday morning.

That is when we both woke up feeling very ill. Nausea, vomiting, and other nastiness afflicted us non-stop. We managed to gain mobility and loaded ourselves into our car and made the drive home in an hour and a half with only one stop. Needless to say, our diet became suddenly restricted to saltine crackers and ginger ale, lovingly provided by Gretchen’s family.

On Sunday the illness began to abate, but it was not gone. By Sunday evening it occurred to me that I had not really eaten anything in almost 48 hours. And so work today was out of the question, despite there being opportunities.

Instead, I spent today taking care of personal business, running errands, returning a huge pile of movies and one book to the library and paying my overdue charges, and finally getting my hands of John Grisham’s currently-penultimate publication, Ford County, which is a collection of short stories. I also got my hands on Dune, with the intention of finally reading Frank Herbert’s epic masterpiece.

I fully expect to be at work tomorrow, though. In the meantime, let me share this video with you, which is an example of one of the many things in this world for which I am grateful: the ability to laugh.

Student Writing

Today I was a floater sub at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I was assigned to three different classrooms, for about two hours each. Unfortunately, the first part of the day when awry when I arrived about five minutes later than I was assigned, and found out that I really should have been assigned to be there at 7:40 am, not 8:00. Fortunately, the secretary assigning us was able to quickly adjust my schedule and things well fine. I was a first grade teacher, then a fifth grade teacher, and, after lunch, finished up the day teaching third graders in the gifted/talented classroom.

Surprisingly, all of the teachers had real work for the students to do. In fact, you never would have realised that it was the day before Thanksgiving if you didn’t know in advance. I had relatively few behavioural issues, which was a nice break from what I have often experienced at Stratton. During the last class of the day, the students were working on writing expository essays. Each one had come up with a thesis sentence three supporting statements. Many of them had selected issues relating to health or the environment. I read over some of their writings, and I was impressed by the structure and order they used. Of course, some of them had statements that repeated themselves or didn’t make any sense. Some were kind of funny in the voice used. I snapped a picture of one of these last examples of writing.

Get real, people!

If you click on the picture, you can see the full-size image. But here’s what it says (to the best of my ability to transcribe, and without any changes in spelling, capitalisation, or punctuation):

Go ahead! litter! I’m not going to be the one who dies because of liter. Bad air, dirtey water. Death because of littering? Get real, people. Pick up trash [missing] throw away! recycle! It’s not hard. Take a few secends to find a trash can! Wait, would you rather drop stuff and be comfertable and die or hold your trash and not die?

I would rather litter [  ]1   2[  ]Im not a litterer.

check a box if you chose box 1 Stop reading. (or change). If you chose box 2, read on.

great! You can help by picking trash up, throwing away, recycle – even make crafts with garbege.

[Last line got cut off]

I don’t know if I have any samples of my writing from when I was in third grade, but I can only wish that I was as creative in my writing as this girl was. I love her tone of voice and the way she makes her point by making the choice be between life and death. It was definitely a fun way to end the week!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American friends. I’m not sure if I’ll be updating on Thursday or Friday.

Light Days

Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet. The Mahomet-Seymour district does not have classes on the day before, the day of, or the day after Thanksgiving. So the students have a wonderful five-day vacation. As a result, there wasn’t much classwork going on today, either.

I’m not sure why this is the case, but it is definitely a common one. Teachers tend to treat the day before a vacation as a vacation day as well. There is school work going on, for sure, and the students wrap up any units they may have been working on, but it is a very light day. My students spent the morning preparing and then presenting a series of three short plays that focused on the crossing of the Atlantic by the Mayflower, the befriending of Samoset and Squanto, and the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. The afternoon was spent in Art, watching a movie, having recess, and going to P.E. Then the students finished the day eating cookies and pumpkin bars as I read a children’s book about Thanksgivings past and present.

There are some substitutes who enjoy having light days like these. I am not one of those subs. I like to have a day that has too much planned, rather than too little. I hate to have down time when the students could just as easily be at home watching “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” as being at school. I understand why the teachers planned the day like this. But it isn’t how I would have chosen to plan it. If it had been up to me to make the plans for the day, I would have had the students research different Thanksgiving festival traditions around the world, and even around the nation. What are the traditional foods? Do their families have any special Thanksgiving traditions? Are traditions important? Why or why not? This would have kept the day light without feeling like it was just a time filler.

But, alas, my job is not to make the plans. It is simply to follow the plans made by the regular classroom teacher. I am not being critical of this teacher, or any of the other teachers in the building. I am merely contemplating what I would have done differently. However, there is one thing I did today that I would not have done differently: Had the students watch “This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers”


Today I was an earth science & biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I think my students were juniors, but I’m not actually sure and it somehow never came up. I spent most of the day watching a video about America’s Ice Age with earth science students, then wrapped up the day helping the biology students go through a study guide on a chapter about cells.

The morning started with fun adventures in malfunctioning equipment, which had the potential of ruining the entire day. Fortunately, the teacher across the hall happened to have a DVD player connected to a projector, and so we were able to move forward with our adventures in learning about the ice age. The video last about 40 minutes, and included a wonderful segment on coprolite, which is a fossilised mineral formed from excrement. In this particular case, it was human coprolite.


Fossilised human poop

This was, obviously, a hit with the students. None of them seemed to be nearly as impressed with the fact that the largest sheet of ice that covered North America weighed 132,000,000,000,000 pounds. Nor were they impressed with the idea that the south tip of Florida is mostly likely going to be completely underwater in about 20 years. They weren’t even impressed when they learned that camels originated in North America and came to Asia via the land bridge near Siberia.

Nope, they were most impressed with the idea that poop can be fossilised. I can’t say I blame them, though. I’d love to have a piece of human coprolite to keep on my desk at school, just because it is a funny concept, and I’m sure it’d be a great conversation starter.

It's True, I Am the Coolest

Today I was an 8th grade supportive services teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. Supportive services is a part of special education, so I worked with a small group of 8th grade students over the course of the day. I also helped out in a couple of classrooms and discovered an interesting fact:

All the students at MSJHS know who I am, and they love my hair. They also all seem to agree that I am the coolest substitute teacher ever. This worries me, in a way, because I have only been at the junior high school twice now. At least half of these students drew this conclusion after spending all of 48 minutes with me. But as I walked through the halls, I heard students all around me comment about how awesome I was. So I have to believe that it is true. I felt bad for the other substitutes who were there today, and I tried to point out to the students that many of their subs are awesome, but they insist that I am still the best.

Reasons for me being so awesomely cool include, but are not limited to, the following: I am funny, I am super smart, I am nice, I have awesome hair, and I give high-fives. I love that my Naturally Curly Hair (TM) is listed as an attribute toward my coolness. I appreciate that the students recognise that I am nice and that I have a wickedly awesome sense of humour, and I am glad to know that they know that I know what I am talking about. (Usually.) So, I guess there are good reasons for thinking I am so cool.

I think about my days in grade school, middle school, and high school, and I can only think of a half-dozen subs I had over the 13 years I was in the public education system. One sub was a mean woman named Mrs. Haight, who told us that students hate her and she hates them. One was a middle aged woman who was over-weight and had atrocious body odour. I recall an elderly woman who was still a “Miss” who seemed to hate her life. We had a guy in high school who frequently subbed, even though he didn’t know how to teach. He just told stories about his days as the chief surgeon in the trauma room of a Texas ER, and also told dirty jokes. So that is four. Not even a half-dozen. But all of my students seem to know who I am, recognise me (even outside of school), and tell their teachers that they should have me sub for them. I’ve also had students suggest that I become their regular classroom teacher, and let their current teacher sub for me.

So, what can I say? It must be true: I am the coolest substitute teacher ever.

On Why I Try to Ignore Well-Meaning People

Today I was a 4th grade teacher at Lincoln Trails Elementary School in Mahomet. This marked my first adventure in one of Mahomet’s two grade schools. Unlike many school districts, Mahomet is one of the districts in the area that uses “Learning Centers” as their schools. This means that the Middletown Early Education Center houses all of the kindergarten students in the district. Sangamon Elementary School houses all the students in first and second grade. Lincoln Trails has all the third, fourth, and fifth grade students. This is a similar set-up to what the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district, where I did my student teaching, uses. So I kind of knew what I was getting myself into, and, at the same time, I had never been to this school before, so I had no idea what their curriculum was.

I am glad to say that I did not get totally lost. Well, except for making an extra loop around the hallways of the building when trying to locate the Teachers’ Workroom. But that wasn’t really “getting lost” as it was “taking the scenic route”. The curriculum was pretty straightforward, and I even learned a new game to play to help students practice spelling words. I will have to try it out in another class one of these days.

So, I arrived at the building on time and began to read through the plans for the day. The other 4th grade teachers across the hall from me came in and introduced themselves, and offered to help in any way possible. (Every teacher does this, but I’ve rarely had to go to another teacher to actually get help with anything. Go me, I guess.) After the usual pleasantries, I was given the hushed advice that I always get: “Be careful with this class. They are a really noisy bunch, and you have to keep your thumb on them pretty tight. Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile and then keep on going. Oh, and be careful of this girl. She’ll try to avoid doing work, and when you push it, she’ll probably start crying. Don’t be surprised if you have to send her to the office.” And on and on.

I appreciate what these teachers are trying to do. Really, I do. They don’t want me to get blind-sided by crazy students. They want me to be prepared for the worst-case scenario so that I won’t have a complete break-down and run out of the room screaming in the middle of the day. I am grateful for the offers of help and the advice about the school. But I still try to ignore them when they start giving me the “dirt” on the class. And I have a very good reason for doing so.

The students came in this morning and immediately went through their usual morning routine. They made lunch choices, they unpacked their bags and hung up their coats, they sharpened their pencils, and they got their morning work, which they started working on right way. There were the usual greetings to classmates, but nothing unusual. In fact, it kind of threw me for a loop. I am used to the Champaign schools, where students go berserk when they see a substitute. And then I had been prepped by my well-meaning colleagues-for-the-day. None of their dire warnings came true. The students were well-behaved, they all worked diligently throughout the day (including the girl I had been thrice warned about!) and they were very fun. We talked, we joked, we discussed, we learned. We explored new concepts and discussed things that we kind of already knew. I got a girl who was terrified of answering a math question about what 6 multiplied by 6 is to confidently give the answer to what 3 multiplied by 2 with 5 more added equaled. It was awesome!

And so it was that I remembered that those well-meaning people really do mean well, but it doesn’t hurt to mentally disregard their warnings. Sometimes they are right: sometimes the class really is full of little hellions bent on my destruction. But most of the time? Most of the time they will rise to the level of expectation which I have for them. And who knows… Maybe the class is really noisy. I just didn’t see it today. Oh, I should also add that I also saved the day when I captured an enormous centipede alive and let it loose outside. Yeah, I am definitely the coolest substitute teacher ever.