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

Archive for May, 2011

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.

Hulk Rage

Today I was a first grade teacher at Dr. Howard Elementary in Champaign. I actually worked with this class several months ago, and I’d had a fairly decent experience. I have a general belief that classes improve over time, but this was not true for today.

In fact, the class was considerably worse than they had been at the beginning of the year. Instead of having one or two students challenging limits and pushing buttons, I had nine out of seventeen. It was chaotic and nearly unmanageable.

Their teacher uses the lights in the classroom as a signal for the students to reset (stop, think about what they are doing, and start making better choices). Every teacher has a different management plan, and I try to follow each plan as best as I can. At first, the class responded well to the lights being turned off: they all got back in their seats, stopped what they were doing, and put their heads down. But then they would go right back to misbehaving after the lights were turned back on.

I tried to demonstrate that I was serious about the need for them to reset, and so I stopped everything again by turning off the lights. Of course, as soon as the lights went back on, so did the misbehaviour. And I can’t exactly have a class work all day in the dark. So the day was stop, go, stop, go, stop, go.

All. Day. Long.

After lunch, things were even worse. All of a sudden I had pencils, pens, markers, erasers, toys, and tissue boxes flying across the room. I tried some of my other methods of management: I simply sat down and refused to respond to any students until everyone stopped what they were doing. This works really well with most classes.

Not so much with this one. Things got worse. And worse. And worse.

And then the name calling started. Followed by the profanities.

Did I mention that these kids are in first grade? They are all about seven years old. And yet they were swearing at each other. It completely blew my mind.

And so I blew up at them. Actually, I just made it sound like I blew up. I was in complete control and knew exactly what I was saying and how I was saying it. They stopped then. Hoo boy, did they stop. But I hate when I have to raise my voice, and I hate it even more when I have to actually yell. But when everything else fails and I start to fear for the safety of the students in my classroom, I don’t have time to clap my hands, turn off the lights, or talk sweetly. And so I have to turn on the Hulk Rage:


Well, it worked for a couple of minutes. Then, just before the class went all crazy again, the assistant principal came in.

Because she could hear me.

From her office.

Across the building.

She talked to the class, threatened to haul some of them off to her office, and then left. About a minute later, I had to call for her to come back and take one of the boys. I was tempted to ask her to take four more, but I wanted to see what would happen with the biggest instigator gone.

It seemed to work. I finally had the class working for the last 45 minutes of the day.

I don’t say it often, but today is definitely a TGIF day. Also, we have a nice three-day weekend ahead of us. I’m ready for a long break!

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.

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.


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!


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!

Saying Goodbye

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. This was possibly the last of a long, long, long series of assignments for my mother-in-law over the past three years. It has been really awesome seeing the students in her class grow and mature over the years. I taught many of them when they were in third grade, then again last year, and then this year. As I told them at the end of the day, “Despite the headaches, the near-aneurysms, the frustrations, and the frequent desire to beat my head against a brick wall, I’ve really enjoyed working with you boys and girls. You’re awesome! I may not be substituting next year, but even if I am, I don’t seem to make it to Jefferson much, so I may not see you again. So thanks. Now go outside and enjoy your recess!”

Some of them gave me hugs. One girl made a fist-pump and shouted, “YES!!!” to which I responded, “I feel the same way about you!” (We were both joking, of course.) In reality, I would be delighted to have a classroom full of students like her: eager, bright, open-minded, quick to question, quick to answer, and willing to verbally spar in a battle of wits.

There is a slim chance that my mother-in-law will be sick (or maybe her son), but, honestly, with just six and a half days of school remaining in the year, the probability of working with these particular students again this year are not especially high. Combine this with my strong desire to gain full-time employment for this coming school year, and I feel like my time as a substitute may be drawing to an end.

Of course, if I don’t get offered a full-time job, my adventures in substituting will continue. And I will continue to blog about the remaining adventures I have this year. But today, being a Friday, was definitely a day to say goodbye.

Oh, and the whole “beginning of the end of the world” that is supposed to happen at 6 pm tomorrow. If I am still here and a small portion of the world population mysteriously disappears, though, I’ll probably spend my weekend looting. (I am kidding, of course. I am actually going to be garage saling tomorrow.)

By the way, still no word on the job I interviewed for on Wednesday. I’ll post an update as soon as I hear. In the meantime, have a great weekend!


Today I was a 2nd grade (gifted/talented) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. With just 7 1/2 school days remaining before the end of the year, it is also quite possible that today was last day this year that I will have been with this class. In case you are new to the blog (hahaha – yes, I like to think that I have new people coming by), you can read my previous adventures with this class here, here, and here. I went to this assignment with an expectation that we would have another great day. Alas, I forgot to factor in the fact that the school year is almost over.

To be totally honest, the day wasn’t that bad. Compared to some of my other experiences at Stratton, the class was quite well behaved. But I have come to have higher expectations for them because I know what they are capable of doing. Still, I was somewhat disappointed that so many members of the class were constantly getting off task, talking when they were supposed to be working independently, and the petty arguments.

Oy vey, the arguments!

“He stole my pencil!”
“She took something from my desk!”
“He won’t work with me!”
“She’s making me do all the work!”
“She hid my shoes under the cubbies two weeks ago, and now I found them, and she was going to write on them, but she didn’t!”
“She kicked me in the gut! Well, okay, actually, my back, but she kicked me!”

Sure, the complaints were legitimate. Nobody was making things up. And yes, these boys and girls are only in the second grade. But they have spent a lot of time this year on conflict resolution. I mediated each complaint as it came to me. The boy who stole a pencil? He had already given it back. The girl who took something from a boy’s desk? All she had done was look at it; she didn’t actually take anything. The boy who wasn’t working? Well, okay, this was actually a legitimate problem, and the final solution was to just have his partner work on her own, with the promise that his mother was going to be getting a phone call later. The girl who was making her partner do all the work? They needed to come up with a division of labour. The girl who hid the shoes? It was two weeks ago; nothing I can do about it now. Nothing had happened to them, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. The boy who got kicked in the gut (actually the back)? It was an accident, and the girl had already apologised.

By the end of the day, I had most of the class working on their projects the way they should have been all day. I was thoroughly exhausted, but it was a good day. Who knows… maybe I will be there again before the end of the year. If I do, I fully expect to have a great day. And, knowing now that the class is becoming somewhat more whiny, I will address it from the beginning of the day. You live, you learn, you move on.

I find out about my job interview tomorrow afternoon! Wish me luck!


Today I was a candidate for a teaching position at Lincoln Grade School in Washington, Illinois. As such, I did not accept any assignments for today, so that I could focus on preparing for the interview. Regarding the interview, I will only say at this point that it went very well, and that I was given many opportunities to share some of my fundamentals beliefs about education. Ironically, though, I was not asked the standard “tell us about yourself” question that I have been stressing out about for weeks. Maybe next time!

I had been preparing for this interview for several weeks now, and was very excited about the opportunity. For those who don’t know, I grew up in Washington, and it was at this very school, when I was in fourth grade, that I first knew that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. My fourth grade teacher is still at Lincoln Grade School, although she has been teaching third grade for several years now. The open positions at the school are first, second, and fourth grade (one of each). I officially applied for the second and fourth grade positions, but I may be considered for the first grade one, as well.

The interview was very brief; only about fifteen minutes. The purpose was to allow the superintendent and his two principals to screen roughly 10% of the over 530 applicants for the positions, so the fact that I was selected at all says much. I will find out on Friday if they would like me to come back for a second, longer, interview. Needless to say, I would be delighted to do so. It has been a childhood dream to teach in the very building that first started me on the path I am on now. I love the school, I love the district, and I love the community. There is much I have to offer, and much I can learn.

Thanks to everyone who has kept me and wife in your prayers and thoughts! I’ll be sure to let you know what happens next!

Walking Home

Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Kenwood Elementary in Champaign. I haven’t been to Kenwood very much this year, either because the teachers aren’t gone much, or they just have their own preferred subs. This is one of the few “balanced calendar” schools in the district, which means that the students have shorter summer breaks but longer winter breaks. This is about as close to a year-round school as you are going to find in the area.

It is also the only school in the district where I have had more negative experiences than positive ones. I did my early field experience as a university student there, where I observed in a kindergarten class. Suffice it to say that it was not a particularly great experience, culminating in my supervising teacher kicking me out of her classroom after I didn’t have an evaluation form for her to fill out that she was supposed to have. Early in my subbing experience, I was in a class that was absolutely horrific, and holds the distinction of being one of four classes in three years that I have requested NOT to be assigned to again.

Of course, I also had a great experience there this year, despite having to wing it. Today was a fairly good day, as well, and was, coincidentally, also a day in which I found myself improvising. The teacher had not planned on being absent, but she had fairly detailed lesson plans, so I was able to follow what she wanted done. The improvisation came when the class wasn’t able to handle a couple of the activities, so I had them do other things (mostly silent reading, which they actually did quite well).

By the end of the day I was exhausted and ready to head home. Because Kenwood is fairly close to where I live, I decided to walk home, rather than have my wife leave work to pick me up. This turned out to be very fortuitous, because some friends of ours who live just the down the street were moving today. I learned that they have been packing for the past three days without any help from others and had been spending the day loading the U-Haul. I insisted on helping, so I went home (I seriously live about two blocks away), and then came back and spent the next five hours helping them pack, load, and clean. In exchange, they let us have first dibs on the items they weren’t able to take. (But, just to be clear, I would have helped them anyway).

It was a nice end to a nice day. It gave me an opportunity to put into practice the principles that I find myself teaching in one way or another every day. Now I am going to spend the rest of the day fretting about the job interview I have tomorrow, and trying to figure out how to answer the most difficult question any interviewer asks: “Tell me about yourself.” I never know what to say. Hopefully I’ll figure it out by tomorrow afternoon!

Wish me luck!

A Chorus of Huzzahs

Today I was a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. I have subbed for both of the 6th grade Language Arts teachers recently, although this time I was there for the teacher that has only used me once before. It was a good experience, and I fully expected today to be another great afternoon as MSJH.

I was slightly delayed leaving for work, though, so I made it to class with about a minute to spare before the bell rang. Having only been there once before, I don’t really know these classes all that well. They have seen me in the halls, and I’ve been there for a couple of their other teachers but, by and large, I just don’t know them very well. Certainly not as well as I know the other 6th graders who have Language Arts across the hall.

So I was quite unprepared for the reception I received when I walked into the room. Most of the class was already there, sitting quietly in their seats while waiting for their teacher to arrive. There was a sudden spontaneous chorus of huzzahs (possibly hurrahs or even hoorays), clapping, and yells like, “YES! Mr. V! Woo hoo!” and “Awesome! It’s my favourite sub!” As I walked the halls of MSJH, students said hello, asked how I was doing, and welcomed me. Once again, I am reminded of how well-regarded I am as a teacher, and particularly as a substitute teacher.

After I got home, I checked on the various education-related blogs that I have started following recently, and I saw this interesting post about whether or not substituting is, in some ways, a popularity contest. This was my response:

Subbing is absolutely a popularity contest! But it is a popularity based on willingness to follow a teacher’s plans, demonstrating excellent classroom management, and makes the best of the time. Quality subs are also able to connect with the students, so that the class will ask the teacher to have him or her return.

I have been fortunate enough to sub nearly every single working day this entire school year, primarily in two districts. The reason? I am popular with teachers, students, and the administration. Quality subs rise to the top.

I had been warned that some of the classes might be difficult. My two Language Arts classes were great, though. They were reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders while listening to an audiobook recording of it. The last period study hall has been quite crazy as of late. I told them that their teacher left a note that anyone whose name was written down would receive an automatic detention. Then one of the administrators came in and told them that if I had to send anyone up to her office, it would be an automatic Saturday detention. There was not a peep out of anyone the rest of the period. Yet, even before the warnings were made, the class was already working quietly. Popularity certainly has its benefits!

The year is quickly coming to a close, and I expect the number of assignments to dwindle as a result. I have no idea what I’ll be doing next year, or even this summer, but I am looking forward to these last weeks of working with my many thousands of students in two districts!

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!

Food Fight!

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. It was quite the day, to say the least. The temperature in the classroom was probably somewhere around 80ºF, it was humid, and the students were tired. A few of them seem to have already mentally checked out of school for the year, but most are determined to slog their way through to the end. The student teacher was not there today, but tomorrow is her last day. I have one more assignment with this class, a week from tomorrow.

It is an odd realisation that that assignment may be my last assignment with the class this year. There will only be a couple of weeks left after that, and I know that my mother-in-law has hated missing as much classroom-time as she has. (The reason she’s been gone so much is that she is a member of the committee that is re-writing the social studies curriculum for the district, and they have been meeting during school hours.) Couple the fast-approaching end of the year with my growing desire to receive a full-time teaching position this coming school year, and it means that things are wrapping up far more quickly than I would like.

At the same time, I’ve worked with this particular class so much. Third grade, fourth grade, and then on to fifth. I know them better than I know any other of my thousands of students. I would like to think that we have a great working relationship. I know that, for the majority of the class, this is true. I worry about the few that I just don’t seem to have been able to connect with; is it something about me, something about them, or something completely unrelated to either? The student teacher, her university supervisor, and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about this, and the supervisor made a comment that, as much as we want to, there are some students that we just aren’t going to be able to reach. The realist in my says that this is probably true; the optimist in me says, “Stuff that! I’m going to prove that I can do it!”

Today I had an experience that, to me, says that I’ve reached some of them, at least. A few of the students were eating lunch in the classroom. Near the end of the lunch period, I told them that I was going to use the restroom, and that I was trusting that they would not set the room on fire while I was away.

Apparently, I needed to be more exhaustive in my list of things I trusted them not to do.

I came back to see six of my students lined up in the hall, backs to the wall, with two of the 5th grade teachers speaking to them. As I approached, I learned that they had had a food fight while I was out of the room.

I was gone for two, maybe three minutes total.

A food fight? Seriously? I didn’t think that such things actually happened. I’ve heard tales of them happening back in the day, but I’ve also heard of students putting thumbtacks on the teacher’s chair. Things like that just don’t happen in this day and age.

Alas, I was wrong.

The other teachers went back to their rooms and I looked at the six students. Two of them had just returned to the room from doing something or other with someone or other (possibly related to the enrichment program; I really don’t know, though). So I asked the other four what happened, and I did so in my super-quiet, super-disappointed voice that I have very rarely had to use.

One of the girls looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Valencic. It was me. I threw a carrot at [she named a student].” I looked at the named-student and said, “And then what happened?” He said, “I don’t know. I was just throwing my garbage away when she threw a carrot at me. But I didn’t do anything to her.” It turns out that one of the teachers happened to be passing the door just at that moment, and so the food fight quickly stopped.

I waited for about 15 seconds, which probably felt like an hour to these students, and said, “Okay. Go clean it up.”

It is amazing what happens when you don’t use many words. The few words and the soft voice seem to combine to say, “You know? I’m done. If you want to be a hooligan, go ahead.”

I was peppered with apologies for the rest of the day, and queries as to how this would affect their participation in Fun Day tomorrow (a school-wide event), and the class field trip to Chicago on Tuesday. I told her that I wasn’t able to to make a decision on that, but I’d let her teacher know what happened and let her decide.

Two things happened in connection to this that made me think that maybe I have reached them. One, the offender was honest about it, apologised, cleaned up the mess, and prepared herself to face the consequences of her actions. The other was that another girl, who had been in the room during lunch, approached me later and said, “Mr. Valencic… I’m sorry. I threw a carrot into the trash can from across the room just as [the other girl] threw a carrot at [the other boy]. I am so ashamed of myself.” I told her that I expect her to tell her teacher what she had done tomorrow morning, and that I was going to follow up to see if she did.

And you know what? I think she will.

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.

A Warm Welcome

Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet. I have only been to this building a handful of times this year, but each experience has been an incredibly positive one. I continue to be amazed at the intelligence and engagement of students who are as young as they are. I am also impressed with how well the faculty and staff have taught the students to treat guests in the classroom with the utmost respect.

This is, of course, something that most teachers pay lip-service to, at the very least. I’ve even been in classrooms where the students are asked to sign a contract to agree to act according to specific guidelines with a substitute is present. But, honestly, most students don’t think anything about these contracts. That isn’t to say that they are crazy hellions, or anything like that! Far from it, in fact. But it would be a lie to say that substitute teaching is often a matter of quickly establishing limits and then hoping and praying that the students will not set fire to the room, tie me up, or both.

Needless to say, I have never experienced either of those situations, and thus I continue to enjoy my work and my adventures. Each day is full of new surprises, even when it is a room I have been to several times in the same year. What is always fun is to see what happens when students recognise me, especially when  I’ve never been in their classroom. (more…)

Expectations II

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. For those who have been playing along, this marks my 13th assignment for my mother-in-law this academic year. But as I have mentioned more than once, I have known most of these students since I first started subbing back in 2008, so they have had plenty of time to get to know me and, more importantly, get to know what I expect of them.

I have also blogged more than once about my ideals for classroom management, my philosophy of education, and how my philosophy is actually applied in the classroom. I will be the first to admit that, as a substitute teacher, it is incredibly difficult to fully implement my beliefs about education, especially my egalitarian views on management, for the simple fact that I am not around often enough to guide the class toward such a community setting. But I try. I encourage the students to be responsible for their actions and to realise that they are a classroom community that must work together if they wish to succeed.

Some days are better than others. (more…)

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 Robert J. 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.

Scrabble and Being Awesome

Today I was a 4th grade teacher at Lincoln Trail Elementary in Mahomet. I had originally been assigned as a floating substitute for the day, with the plan that I would be teaching 4th grade in the morning and 5th grade in the afternoon. The teachers for both classes were going to be in the building, busily administering DIBELS tests to their students. I arrived in the morning, was shown where I needed to be, and got started.

The students at Lincoln Trail continue to astound me with their training and self-motivation. They entered the room and immediately went through the morning routine of selecting lunch choices, reciting the pledge, taking attendance and the lunch count, and running messages to the office. All I did was stand by and wait for them to notice that they had a substitute. (Okay, so they noticed right away, but it didn’t faze them.)

Lincoln Trail has a program called LEAP, which allows students to receive specialised instruction in different areas. I don’t know what the needs are of the students I had today, but they played Scrabble during the 30-minute period. It was really interesting walking around the room as the students played games of Scrabble in groups of three or four. Many students favoured short words (3-4 letters), but a few attempted longer words. They also played with 9 tiles at a time instead of the traditional 7. I was impressed by how well they played against each other and how intent they were on monitoring one another’s spelling. Of course, there were a few times that a misspelled word made it onto the board, such as tumb instead of tomb, sagga instead of saga, and neel instead of kneel. All of these are words that do not fit the typical phoneme-grapheme conventions that are taught in the early grades, though, so I wasn’t too surprised.

In the midst of this, I was informed that there had been a change of plans for the day. The teacher for whom I was subbing had to leave unexpectedly to travel to Peoria to visit her father in the hospital. I was asked to stay with the class for the day. No problem. After all, this is me. I wouldn’t say that I am the best substitute ever (although several students would), but I do not hesitate to say that I am the Grade A Top Choice of substitute teachers. Heck, I’m the guy who is known as being one of the few subs willing to return to certain buildings in Champaign that rarely have the same sub twice. I’m the guy who once subbed three times in the classroom of a teacher who had, quite honestly, the worst class I have ever seen in my life. The response of her colleagues when I came back: “Wait, haven’t you subbed for her before? And you came back?!” So yeah, over the past three years, I have come to acknowledge that I have a particular knack for this job.

So even though I had no lesson plans for the afternoon, and the teacher’s plans for the day were somewhat vague, as most teachers’ personal plans are, I managed to have an excellent day with my 26 young charges. I even had several of them give me a high five on the way out the door and ask if I was going to be back tomorrow. Alas, I am teaching at the high school tomorrow and, besides, the class is going on a field trip to Chicago and, rather than throw a sub to the wolves, the principal is going to go. Still, I’d be glad to return to this class again. I’d totally take the entire class on in an epic game of Scrabble. It would be awesome.

Brutal Honesty

Today I was a 2nd grade (gifted) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. I had known about this assignment for about a week, and I had been looking forward to it quite a bit. After all, my last experience there, back in February, was one of the best days I have ever had teaching at Stratton, and probably ranks pretty high on my list of over-all awesome days. Due to the nature of how the assignments are placed online, I only know about the teachers’ absences if I am available that day. And since I have been teaching nearly every day, it is possible that there has been another sub in the room since I was last there; I don’t know. Regardless, the students were all quite happy to see me again, which always serves to boost my ego a notch or two.

The day went really well, as expected. I told the class about how impressed I had been with their dedication to reading last time, and that I was looking forward to seeing if they could do it again. This time, though, they had no interest in reading for 45 minutes. No, sir, 45 minutes was simply not enough time! They begged me to give them a full hour to read! I told them that if they were all reading for 45 minutes then I would give them the extra 15 as a reward. I love being able to reward students with time to read! They all did it. Needless to say, it was awesome. (more…)

Living History

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. And, due to the student teacher having a rather nasty sinus infection, I was actually teaching today. It was rather nice, even though I had been planning on getting through a few more chapters of my balanced literacy book. The day went pretty well, with the one exception of a boy deciding it would be a good idea to take a spray bottle that once held cleaning chemicals and spray it at his classmates.


The highlight of the day was when we stopped our literacy block early so that we could discuss social studies. This was not part of the plans for the day, but it was something I felt was worthwhile and timely.

I have this philosophy about social studies. It is that social studies isn’t about learning historical data: people, places, events, dates, etc. That is history, which is an important element of social studies, but not all of it. Social studies is about learning why people did the things they did, not just what they did. I try to work this point into each lesson I teach. When we studied World War I and World War II, I asked the students to think about why we fight wars in the first place. And even those these young men and women are barely into the beginning of the second decade of their lives, they understand it. They understand the world around them. I know they do, and they know that I know that they do. I love telling them how awesome it is that they are smart, intelligent, capable people who can and do rule the world. I will set a fire beneath them by telling them that there are naysayers out there who think that 10-year-olds are too dumb, too young, too immature to understand what is going on. Hoo boy, if you ever want to see a class get fired up about what they can and cannot do, just tell them what people say they can’t do!

This whole discussion brought us to our main point: they are living in the midst of great historical moments. I asked them to tell me about some of the great moments in history that they learn about. They talked about things like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of the Treaty of Versailles, of Pearl Harbor, of 9/11. So then we talked about last night. Most of the class had heard about the death of Osama bin Laden, but some had not. Some had scene President Obama’s address to the nation, but most had not. They all realised that this was an important event. So I asked them: “Would you like to see and hear the President’s address?” The decision was unanimous. So I pulled up the video while two of the boys in the class set up the speakers, another boy turned on the digital projector, and one of the girls pulled down the screen. And this is what we watched:

We watched it on the CBS news site, since YouTube is blocked by the school’s filter. Then we talked about it. Having discussed the idea that they are mature enough to understand the impact of this event, I was interested to see what they really took note of. Surprisingly, at least to me, it was the recognition of the source of the final statement Pres. Obama made: that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” One boy asked why the President said that. So we talked about it. What does the Pledge of Allegiance mean? Do we think about the words when we say them, or are they just something we say each morning? Does it matter? Should it matter? Do we have to say the Pledge?

I don’t recall having any serious discussions like this when I was their age. Not in school, at least. I probably did at home, though. That comes from growing up with five older brothers, the oldest of which was in high school by the time I got to grade school. The majority of these boys and girls showed a remarkable level of understanding and depth of thought. There are some days that I worry about the future of our country. But then I see these young people and I really believe that we’re going to be all right.

Word Origins

Today is Sunday, but I felt like making a brief blog post about something I recently learned in one of my vocational texts. I am reading about balanced literacy, in terms of philosophy and practice, and one of the sections discusses the mechanics of teaching writing. In so doing, the author makes this point about spelling conventions:

Some words are phonetic. Several are not. And there are some words that used to be phonetic but, due to being truncated, they have acquired silent letters that are purely semantic, rather than having any syntactic relevance. For example:

  • The g in sign is silent for no other reason than sign is a truncated form of the word signature.
  • Likewise, the silent b in bomb exists simply because the word is derived from bombardment.

I don’t know why I didn’t know this before, or, rather, why I wasn’t aware of it. Ah, English, what a strange mistress you are.