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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Day 78: Subbing for Math at the STEM School

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Day 78/180: math classes at the local STEM school

I’ve worked in large public high schools and in a one-on-one environment, but not a magnet-type “choice” school. I see the benefit of taking kids of a particular academic-persuasion and putting them in one building: they encourage each other because of automatic similarities. A whole school of techy-nerdy kids was interesting for me.

I sat in on geometry and algebra classes, mostly freshmen. There was far less brand-name clothing, and far more brand-name technology and gadgets. Even though it was Friday before the Super Bowl, and this was their fifth day in a row of substitutes, the kids were basically on-task. One group of boys was bored with the worksheets, and broke out a game of chess instead of texting friends or web-surfing. This “academic maturity” was also apparent in the demeanor of the kids: They were all very polite and focused on the assignments, and they went straight to work. It’s something I usually only seen in honors/advanced classes. It makes me wonder about the standards that these kids are accustomed to, and whether they’re used to it because of this school, or because of something at home, or something else. A chicken-and-egg issue, perhaps? Not that other kids are rude and/or unfocused, necessarily, but every kid in the building had this same all-school-business attitude and work ethic.

That being said, the emotional maturity of those freshmen was… well, sophomoric. And age-appropriate (or age-expected?)

Day 77: Subbing for Math

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Day 77/180: subbing for calculus, algebra II, and extra-help algebra II

It’s the first day of the new semester. Seeing calculus always makes me want to re-take calc so that I could remember what my college notes actually mean. It’s been too long. The algebra II class was fun and active, although they didn’t appreciate a pre-test before their homework. The extra-help algebra class was team-taught with the next-door teacher.

For the most part, the kids were basically the same age: mostly juniors. What I found interesting was how they treated each other. All day, the kids were mostly focused on their respective work. The calc students worked with each other to explain how new concepts worked. The algebra students asked each other whether they had similar answers.

There was also a good reminder for me regarding classroom management. In the two extra-help classes, the cooperating teacher ran them slightly differently, in terms of whom he called on, how much he required from each kid, and how he asked for corrections. I know you can treat individuals differently, but it’s helpful to remember that each class may also need slightly different unspoken rules and procedures.

Day 76: POTUS and Marzano

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Day 76/180: Odds and ends, but lots of edu-thinking

As I tried to convince myself to not binge-watch TV and knit, I instead turned to YouTube to catch up on Hank and John Green. I really appreciate their honesty and dedication to better society with nerdfighteria and Project for Awesome, among other things. Friday’s video from Hank talked about education, and while the title of “Is School Broken?” is pretty provocative, he also doesn’t really give his opinion on the matter. He does, however, mention that he (and a couple other people I’m not familiar with) will be talking with President Obama on Thursday, and to tag any questions with #YouTubeAsksObama for him to get some ideas. I kinda went nuts, and Hank will probably stop reading before getting through all 23 things I tweeted, but there’s my morning.

And then… text time. I’m finally reading “Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work” by Marzano. I’ve bookmarked and skimmed and/or read a lot of webpages and blogs, but I’ve needed to start at the beginning to create an SBG-based curriculum. Not super-riveting, and I’ll admit to skipping a lot of the justification-stuff at the beginning (I already agree!), but this needs to happen. If nothing else, I’ll get practice with actually writing a curriculum again.

Day 75: One Day vs. Three Months

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Day 75/180: Back to school

I filled in for the teacher across the hallway from my old classroom today. I had to pop into all of my old classes and wave at them. I got hugs from two students.

Today’s students were occupied with a nuclear chemistry worksheet (general chemistry) or a kinetics test (AP chemistry), so my day was pretty low-key. The students were pretty good, but I realized that I just didn’t know them. I mean, I could look up their names on the seating chart, and see the start by the ones who had particular notes, but I don’t know them. I just wanted to stay across the hall to “my” kids and help them out. I also didn’t get to teach today, which I missed. It’s gonna be nice when that teacher’s out again and I get “my” kids back for a day or two.

Day 74: A Whole New Thing

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Day 74/180: Constructing a new low-level and a high-level chemistry course


I’m not sure how other people create courses to teach. I kinda think of things and throw them together. Someone asked me what I’d do if I had to teach a low-level chemistry course, for kids who couldn’t make it in the regular course… ya know, the not-math-heavy version. And two things flashed through my head:

  1. Why only for those who couldn’t cut it? and…
  2. Who says they’d learn the same things?

When I was in college, I had a fantastic chemistry professor (actually, Dr. Harpp is a geo-chemist and would kill me for not calling her Karen), who taught the chemistry equivalent of “Rocks for Jocks”. I was lucky enough to TA for that course. I still have the lab syllabus for the 10-week course. The first seven weeks were on foods and nutrition, separating fats and Olestra from potato chips, what a nutrition label really means, yeasts, and so on. The rest was on plastics and other stuff in the world that people actually encounter. She proved (with several of us) that chemistry majors flunk this course’s final, as we’re not taught anything useful.

So, when asked what a low-level course should contain, I started brainstorming stuff, and started with stuff in the news and things that regularly appear on websites and annoying emails that are full of bad, wrong, or dangerous advice. And then I switched into how stuff works and I thought about McGill’s Office for Science and Society (it’s not a big coincidence that Karen’s father works there), and all of the things they regularly debunk.

So maybe this course could be “Rocks for Jocks” for chemistry, but I think I’d rather it be “Things You Should Know as a Scientifically-Literate Person”. I need a better/shorter tag than that.

What kinds of things would you want to know?

Day 73: 11 Things Long-Term Subs Should Do

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Day 73/180: Things that a long-term sub should do

To go with my list of information for long-term subs, here’s some advice for people starting a long-term assignment, as long as you’re lucky enough to be in contact with the teacher you’re replacing.

  1. When hired, know when your start and end dates are. Seriously, this was an issue for me.
  2. Meet the principal and vice principals within the first week. Yes, it’s your prep period, but it’ll serve you well later.
  3. If the teacher will be returning during the school year, find out what kinds of classroom procedures they want you to maintain. Keeping procedures is actually probably a good thing for the students, who won’t have to get used to another set of standards and grading schemes, and have to switch back when the teacher returns. Although possibly a pain for you, it also lets you try on something new and see how you like it.
  4. If you don’t want to keep the teacher’s policies, ask if it’s okay before you change things. They’ll have to deal with aftermath later (whether good or bad), and they’d probably like a heads-up first.
  5. While you’ll probably have to ask where things are located, also don’t be afraid to ask how other classrooms run, or departmental policies.
  6. Know procedural stuff, like whether to call or email counselors or parents when kids need some encouragement.
  7. Get to know the person who knows things, usually the head secretary or the squeaky wheel in the department. They’ll be able to tell you who to talk to for anything, and put you in touch with the right people for purchases, who to call when sick, what kind of paperwork you do (and don’t) have to file, and so on.
  8. At the end of your assignment, bring cookies to your coworkers, the amazing office secretary, and the custodial staff (actually, teachers should do this anyway… custodians do a lot of icky work).
  9. Write a wrap-up file, including notes on kids who are succeeding and slipping, kids who’ve recently dropped the class (and why), any recent emails regarding kids, class behaviors and moods and habits, any deals struck with kids. Basically, all the stuff you’ve learned about individuals in the room during your tenure.
  10. During the last week or so, ask a few people to write recommendation letters for you, especially if you intend on applying for full-time employment later.
  11. Finally, write everyone thank you notes. This includes your coworkers, the principal, close work partners (like IA/EAs, any counselors you had extensive work with), and the department chair. Also include your contact info and/or business card so they can contact you again.

Day 72: Summative subbing

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Day 72/180: More thoughts on long-term subbing

While working that 12-week maternity substitute teaching job, I was told by my close co-workers that I was one of the few effective and functional long-term subs they’ve ever had. While flattering, it’s also terrifying. While not the norm, long-term subs aren’t at all uncommon, and the idea that they’re ineffective says something about societal values of education, as well as how tied districts’ arms are when it comes to the word “substitute.”

As a classroom teacher, I’d originally scheduled a short density lab for my students, but when I got sick, my sub plans were my usual critique of Mythbusters episodes. When I got back, the sub notes said that she was a chemistry teacher looking for a job, and had gone ahead and done the lab with my students. But she told my students that more dense objects float because of the word “more.” I was floored. And with various field trips and excused absences, the damage control of that one incident took more than two weeks.

More recently, my coworkers told me about one of the last long-term subs. They’d hired a competent guy who was doing good work, but was called up for active-duty. Because he still had to be on payroll, the school couldn’t re-fill the position, so they had to fill the position in-house by the hour.

While I was working at the school covering for a chemistry teacher, the AP Spanish teacher also went on maternity leave. The baby came a couple of weeks early, so the sub wasn’t hired yet. And then the sub caught pneumonia. The bulk of the 12-week maternity leave was covered in-house by random teachers, the regular teacher sending slide decks for each day without knowing what had happened in class.

When I was in high school and one of the two physics teachers was put on leave, a sub was hired for the year from the sub-pool. She was normally a PE sub, and had never taken physics let alone taught it. She watched our teacher during first period and taught from her notes the rest of the day. Thankfully, a student teacher came during second semester, and he actually taught her classes the rest of the year.

My point is, there’s very little incentive for people to be substitutes (except as just-starting teachers looking for working interviews of a sort, or for retired teachers as a couple of extra bucks). There’s no faith in the subs to be competent, and no real belief that sub days will produce any real learning. There’s no administration support for subs, let alone full-time hired teachers.

The other day, Andrew Schauver posted some ideas on making teachers more effective, including some ideas about hiring some subs as staff. I have to say, based on what I’ve experienced as a classroom teacher, and the stories I heard while a sub, that’s a fantastic idea. I mean, there are schools lucky (read: funded) enough to have the occasional Educational Assistant to help do things like lab set up and clean up. Maybe the rest of their job is being a functional substitute teacher.

Teachers, like other normal people, wear so many hats. It’d be nice to have functional substitutes to count on when the classroom teacher is under the weather. Or on jury duty. Or on active duty. Or on maternity/paternity leave. Or in SPED meetings, PD, textbook committees, observations, or mentoring sessions.

Day 71: On Being a Long-Term Sub

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Day 70/180: How to love your Long-Term Sub

I’ve learned a lot from this experience.

I also hope that others can learn from me. In case you’re ever in need of a long-term sub, here’s a handy document I made. It consists of all of the questions I had to ask someone I order to do my job for those 12 weeks. Basically, I wish I had been given a New Staff Orientation (or something like that), plus a bunch of questions for the regular teacher, so that I could better fit into her classroom, including approximate curriculum, late work policies, whether kids can listen to music during class, and so on. The teacher I subbed for was super helpful, and just wanted to make sure her kids were taken care of while she was on maternity leave. As a classroom teacher, you don’t always know or have the capacity to do this in advance, but this list of stuff was very useful to me.

How to Love Your Long-Term Sub Doc

Tomorrow, I’ll have some more thoughts.

Day 70: My Last Day (and Lab Final Day 7)

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Day 70/180: Lab Day 7, and my last day in the long-term sub job

My students… last day with my students. I miss them already. I’ve worked with them for 12 weeks, which is a lot of the foundations for the course. I told them to do well on their final, so that the regular teacher requests me as a sub when her kids are sick.

A couple of kids wanted hugs on the way out the door (since I’m fighting a head cold, I only shook [washed] hands). I wrote an absent kid a note that I’ll be watching for her, when she gets her SPED degree. I finished a two-page list of thoughts on the classes, and on particular kids to watch and keep tabs on. I gave her extra files I used with the kids.

I also took a bunch of things with me. Most importantly, contacts. The other two chemistry teachers I worked with are amazing, and I would love to work with them again. And I started thinking about making new courses, and I have a lot to do for them but want to do it… badly. I started thinking about how I have taught in the past, how it coincides (or clashes) with this sub-job, and how I want to teach in the future. I got use the personal-skills I acquired in the one-on-one school in a large school setting and see how it all works.

I feel fortunate to have the luxury of being a substitute for a few months, and examining my own work and thought processes. I know not everyone can afford (time-wise or monetarily or otherwise) to take time off from full-time work and have a gap-year to re-jigger their heads.

I’m looking forward to seeing my kids (I guess I now have to say “my” kids) again sometime later this year, when I’m subbing for their sick teacher.