Sub plans … ugh!

A couple of weeks ago I woke up feeling just a little more tired than usual. I attributed it to the many things I juggle, and the cold I was fighting off. I loaded up on some extra zinc, waved my daughter off on her bus, and raced out door. Arriving at school, I found that I just couldn’t get warm. Not a surprise – parts of my old school building are always cold. When the chills set in, however, I reluctantly headed to the nurse to get my temperature checked.

“100.8” she said, showing me the thermometer. She then walked me over to the sign on her door that read “cold or flu?” and showed me how I had all of the symptoms of the flu.

“You are going home, right?” She asked sternly, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah” I said, shoulders slumped, resigned. I sluggishly walked back to my classroom in my feverish stupor, collapsed down into my chair, and began to wrap my head around one of my most dreaded teacher tasks: writing sub plans. I keep 90-100% of my instruction in the target language, but few of the subs know any Spanish. My instructional time is so limited, so if I am going to miss a class, I want my students to be doing something meaningful.

I am sharing here my approach to easing the stress of writing sub plans and ensuring your students are engaged in meaningful learning activities, even when you’re out. In preparation for this blog post, I reached out to Gina Gallo, a high school Italian teacher, who presented “Arrivederci Boring Sub Plans!” at the CT COLT conference in 2016. Gallo emphasized the importance of keeping the activities authentic, engaging, and varied, and ensuring that they are infused with culture and focused around a unit theme. She also emphasized the importance of designing plans that don’t waste the students’ time, but also don’t waste your time by leaving you with piles of work to grade. I agree 100%, and aim to leave in my sub plans activities that are fairly on par with what the students would be doing if I was there.

To this end, what I have to say next probably won’t help you if you wake up sick tomorrow morning and are frantically looking for ideas. Ironically, I have found that the number 1 thing that makes writing sub plans for an unplanned absence easier is to plan ahead. For me, this means two critical things: 1) have clear and well-practiced routines; and 2) build a student-centered learning environment. Even if you aren’t planning to completely re-structure your classroom and language classes in the middle of the year, I think there are some things here you can take away and begin implementing tomorrow to ease writing plans for any future absences – as well as some ideas if you do wake up sick tomorrow!

Establish clear routines: Maybe I am a little OCD (ok a lot), but I really like structure and routines, and I believe students thrive with it. In a World Language classroom with 90-100% of instruction in the target language, having clear routines gives students a structure for processing the unfamiliar language and content they are presented with. If they know what’s coming next, it’s one less thing to worry about, and they can focus on the content. Then, if you do need to be out, the students know exactly what they are supposed to be doing, even if the sub doesn’t. My classes always begin with a warm-up, review of the warm-up, a mini-lesson, and then centers.

  • Warm-ups help to settle the students into class and switch gears to Spanish. I project it onto the SmartBoard, and they write the answers in composition books. I keep all of the warm-ups in one file on my desktop and add to it throughout the year. So, if I’m out I can specify a warm-up in my plans, the sub can pick one, or better yet, the students can pick one.
  • The mini-lesson takes around 10 minutes, which research shows is the limit to when people start tuning you out. The mini-lesson can be a video, a PowerPoint, reading a story or article, modeling a new activity, or simply introducing vocabulary with Quizlet. These can all be easily adapted for a sub to use.
  • Centers are hands-on, and practice interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational speaking around a cultural theme. I post the center activities by grade level in my room, and my students know to look to see what they are doing that day. I usually have 4 groups of students in each class, and because my classes are short, each group does 2 centers in one class, and 2 centers in the next class. The center activities posted below are laminated pieces of paper stuck to the white board with magnetic tape. So, the sub can see it, and students have a visual reminder of what they are doing.

Student-centered learning environment: If students can run the show for themselves, for the most part, then they can stick to a lot of the same activities that they would do if I was there, even if I’m not:

  • Show students where you have supplies and activities stored, and empower them to get them out and set them up. If you have different grade levels back-to-back, train them to also put them away. In the photo below, the signs (picture frames from the dollar store) that accompany each activity would align with the activities posted on my whiteboard for the day.

  • I empower my students to be “Maestra” or “Maestro” and lead the class through the warm-up. Students are encouraged to correct each other if someone gives the wrong answer. So, if my sub doesn’t know Spanish, it doesn’t matter, since they students work together to figure out the correct answers themselves.

  • Empower students to use resources in the room when they have questions. This may include signs and posters, dictionaries, their notes, or books, but most importantly, each other. You will often hear elementary teachers say “Ask three before me”; I tell my students to ask everyone in the room before asking me! So, when there is a sub, the students are already comfortable relying on each other when they need help.
  • Use a positive reinforcement system not just to reward students who are doing the right thing, but also for students who are re-directing others to what they are supposed to be doing. To be clear, I don’t encourage students to boss each other around, but I do encourage them to kindly help their peers figure out what they should be doing. So, even if the sub is pulled into your room from some other task at the last minute and barely has time to read your plans (as often happens with me) the students will generally know what they should be doing and are empowered to coach each other.

The bottom line is that the best feedback I can ever get from a sub is “I don’t know why I was even here. They didn’t even need me, they did everything themselves”.

Strategies for Introducing Content with a Sub:

  • Teacher-made videos/or pre-made videos: I have used different YouTube videos to introduce new cultural content, but it’s hard to find videos that are appropriate and at a proper input level for my elementary students. So, I just make my own! I post them to my class website to make them easy to access, and they can then also serve as an activity for an interpretive listening center.
  • Student videos: I recently knew ahead of time that I would miss some 3rd grade classes to attend some PD. I was planning to introduce some new content and thought about pushing it off. The day before, as I mulled it over, I taught a different 3rd grade class. One of my students really shined acting out different weather scenarios, so the idea popped into my head to film it. I was then able to leave that video for the sub to use to teach my other classes (with parent permission of course). Another way I use student videos is if I know I am going to be out, and plan to introduce a new activity, I will film students playing the activity so the sub can show my other classes how to do it. One of my goals is to create a library of student-led instructional videos.
  • PowerPoint with audio: I have also created my own PowerPoints or Google Slides and added audio recordings for the language input. I often use PowerPoint anyway. Sometimes I have a PowerPoint I am using, but then have to be out unexpectedly. It is so easy to add audio recordings and upload it to my webpage from home, so that the sub can then use them. This can also double as a center listening activity.
  • Books/Folktales: In an emergency, I have left non-fiction books or folktales for a sub to read to my class in English. While I realize that this is not the best option, it can at least introduce students to cultural content to build background knowledge when you have a sudden absence (like when the nurse told me to go home 20 minutes before I was supposed to teach a class).

Student Activities: I try to introduce to students some “go to” activities that can be modified for a variety of content right at the beginning of the year. For example, learning to play Go Fish, Memory, Bingo, Quizlet games, do writing activities, and having conversations with phones or puppets. Not only are these meaningful opportunities to practice interpersonal communication day-to-day, but once they know how to play the game or do the activity, it can be done with any content, and they know how to do it if I am out.

  • Go fish or memory games – Make cards with words in the target language and images on a matching card (they last longer if you laminate them). A set of cards can be used over and over again for different activities with increasing complexity: to introduce vocabulary and have students try to infer meaning, play matching games, Memory, or Go Fish.
  • My students LOVE to play Pictionary in small groups. All they need is a small whiteboard and marker, and it can be used over and over again for any content. It could also be played as a circumlocution game.
  • Old phones can be a great tool for speaking activities. Again, this can be adapted for any content, but I give my students sentence starters inside a sheet protector, and they use them to have conversations on the phone with a partner. I have a collection of old phones, including some rotary phones, that I got from my town landfill. The novelty of using the phone takes some of the stress out of having an oral conversation.
  • Technology games, like Quizlet or Quizlet Live, or Kahoot.

  • Writing activities – Unless my students really need the notes on something, I completely forgo massive photocopying. This saves you and the sub an extra step, not to mention trees! Instead, I put papers inside sheet protectors and leave them with a whiteboard marker. For example, my 3rd graders were recently comparing the weather in different cities. I stuck a paper with sentence starters inside a sheet protector, like “In Mexico City on Monday ____”. They had to refer to a printout of the weather in Mexico for a week and fill in the blank. Each student received a different city, so they were then able to read off their sentences to make comparisons with the people in their group.

  • Sorting/labelling activities – One I used recently, for example was labeling countries on a map of Central America that showed where the Mayans lived. I printed a blank outline map of the countries, and cut up little labels. I store each map and set of labels in a sheet protector. The students just slide the labels out and put them in the right place. I leave an answer sheet for them to check their answers. They can then ask a partner in the TL “Where is …” and partner points to it, or says “here”.
  • Twister – While this has a limited scope of vocabulary, it gets students moving, connecting different vocabulary, and they love it. I found a digital spinner for an iPad without words, so the students give the commands to each other in Spanish.

  • There is always the old standby of small-group Bingo. I find that Bingo is too high of an investment (either buying or making content-specific game boards), with little return (simple vocabulary recall). It is, however, something I use in a pinch, or combined with a variety of other activities.

Sub Plan Files

This may be obvious, but it took me a couple of years to realize: make sub plan templates that are easy to just fill in on moment’s notice. My school has a 4-day schedule, so I have a template prepared for each of the 4 days that includes my schedule for the day and student lists at the end. Each template is organized with headings that include:

  • Set-up – This is what the sub should try to do before the students come in. I include here where the supplies are, the computer password, and any files that need to be opened up.
  • Warm-up – Here I describe which warm-up the students should do, and what the procedure is.
  • Lesson – Whatever lesson the sub should access and how it should be run.
  • Activities – A description of the center activities the students will be doing.
  • Special Considerations – Here is where I identify students who can be the best helpers, as well as students who have behavioral or academic plans, and what accommodations they might need.

Many of my center activities are something that can be adapted for any content. So, once I have typed sub plans a couple of times, they are easy to edit for subsequent absences to reflect the new content and/or activities. This has made writing sub plans SO much easier! I also ask the sub to leave notes, not just about any behavior problems, but also students who really stood out positively. I make a point to call home for the positive and the negative. It is amazing how far making positive phone calls goes in building positive relationships and preempting future behavior problems.

So, what do you think?

A lot of what I have written here emphases planning ahead in terms of the routines and structures in your classroom, and empowering students to lead. I hope, however, that there are some suggestions you could use if you are out sick tomorrow or writing plans for a day in the near future. I am interested in hearing what other strategies you use to write meaningful, engaging sub plans for your students when you have to be out. Please leave a comment!

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Hitting the Restart Button

January always feels to me like a second chance at a fresh start. During the winter break, I try to find a good balance between spending time with family and relaxing, and reflecting on how my instruction has been going and what I need to shake up. To give some perspective, I have been teaching elementary Spanish in the same school for five years, and each year, grade levels have been added or removed from the Spanish schedule. As if that wasn’t challenging enough to create a well-articulated curriculum, instructional time has varied from once a week to twice every four days, to once every four days, and class periods have varied between 20 minutes and 42 minutes. So, I spend a good part of my summer coming up with ambitious plans for engaging content and activities for the year; by January, I realize some of the best-laid plans I made over the summer might be a little too ambitious, or I can see the holes that need to be filled, and the tweaks that need to be made. By now, I’ve gotten to know the chemistry of my class compositions and the dynamics of my schedule, and how these impact student learning this year in ways that are different from last year. As teacher mid-year conferences loom, it is a good opportunity to take a step back, and hit the restart button.

I spent part of my winter break with my finger on the restart button – in my kitchen, at my computer with a cup of coffee that kept going cold and asked myself:

What is it that my students need to know and what do they need to know how to do?

One of the core practices of World Language instruction is to plan with a backwards design model. A backwards design model has 3 steps: identify learning outcomes; decide what performance assessments you will use to determine if students have met those outcomes; and design learning activities to structure student learning towards those outcomes. So, the first step is deciding what it is we want our students to know and know how to do. Some World Language teachers might have more flexibility with this than others, and for some of us what they need to know might not be our choice. It could be determined by external factors, like a mandated textbook or curriculum, or by high school placements. Regardless of whether or not you have control over what students need to learn, you do have control over two bigger questions:

Why? How?

There should be a real-world, meaningful purpose for what students are learning; they should know it, and they should be able to tell others what it is, and it shouldn’t be “because its in the textbook”. A purpose students can connect with helps to engage and motivate them, and can turn rote tasks into something they are more invested in doing and being successful at.

For me, one of the most challenging and time consuming steps of backwards planning is the first one, and particularly identifying good essential questions. A good essential question should be open-ended, promote inquiry, and point towards transferable ideas. So, this winter break, I looked at my 4th grade themes for January and February that I had brainstormed over the summer and saw “All About Me” and “Puerto Rico”. My essential question for the “All About Me” unit was “How can I introduce myself to others?” My essential question for the unit on Puerto Rico was “How is Puerto Rico the same and different from Connecticut?”

What was I thinking?

Alright, so I had thought it would be a fun idea to have students write books about themselves in Spanish at a novice level, where they were applying some formulaic sentences about themselves, with some choice in what they were saying about themselves. Then, I thought my 4th graders usually study the cultures of the Caribbean, so we can start with Puerto Rico. So, back in August I had written some quick essential questions, but I now realized they didn’t really pass the muster of an essential question. The answers are fairly clear-cut; there aren’t any really transferable skills; and they don’t really promote any higher order thinking. More importantly, what is the purpose to all of this? Here is where I got stuck. Why should students be able to describe themselves? What should they be able to say? What is the purpose of it? Why should they learn about Puerto Rico? The standard answer is usually to increase their job prospects, in case they travel, and to build cultural competency. Yes, those are all very important, but what specifically is the purpose of learning specifically this content over other content, and how can I help my students make a personal connection to it?

Unable to immediately answer this question, I looked towards what I had mapped for the rest of the year and felt uninspired. What to study and when to study it is something else that can be pre-determined by something like a textbook or curriculum, or necessary skill sequencing, but we can also think creatively about how to move things around in a way that makes sense. This can be informed by a variety of factors. Following the thematic units in students’ other academic classes, for example, can help to set an authentic context for learning in the World Language. I know that in February and March, 4th graders are studying the geography and culture of U.S. states and why people choose to live in different parts of the U.S. Through that lens, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to study the geography and culture of Puerto Rico, as well as its complex status as a territory of the United States. Puerto Rico’s recent natural disaster and the on-going news coverage of the island’s trials make studies of Puerto Rico even more timely and relevant.

That is when my essential question kind of started to come to me. The news has been filled with stories of Puerto Rican students moving to the mainland to go to school. What if our school started to see some of these newcomers – what could we do to help them feel welcome and settle in more easily? Here is a real purpose for my students being able to tell a little bit about themselves in Spanish, and here is a real reason for understanding Puerto Rico a little better. There are many ways that students could answer this question, and there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. It also prompts them to empathize with the students of Puerto Rico and ask: if I had to move to another school with a different culture that spoke a different language, what would I want them to know about me? Not only did I now have what I think is a more compelling question and purpose, but I have connected two previously unrelated themes together in a meaningful way.

The second step to backwards planning is to determine how you are going to measure student progress towards the desired outcomes. Usually this will include some sort of performance task, as well as a variety of formative assessments. For my performance task, I decided to have students work in groups to make informational videos in Spanish comparing and contrasting Puerto Rico to their hometown. I can use the videos to teach younger grade levels, and they can also be shared with our local community. So, they will still be using formulaic, novice-level sentences, but with the purpose of comparing and contrasting two cultures. I was excited that this project has the potential to align with all 5Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.

I walked into this with some pretty clear ideas about the content I wanted to introduce students to through their learning activities. Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico with a FLES Fellowship from Dalton School and from that had a collection of resources about the geography, colonial buildings, African culture, and Taino hieroglyphs. I sampled foods, took photos, and found recipes.

Before plotting ahead, however, I invited a 4th grade student who is from Puerto Rico to my room for lunch, shared the essential question with her, and asked her what she thought people should know about Puerto Rico. Her answers blew me away.

The first thing she said was “I would want them to know that all Puerto Ricans are not bad people”. The second thing that she said was “Puerto Ricans can be white, too. My mother is very white and people always try to talk to her in English, even though she can only speak it a little bit, and they don’t believe her when she says she only speaks Spanish”.

My student’s answers speak to the critical importance of developing cultural competency among our students, and how this can be a compelling purpose for language instruction. This student, who is in just fourth grade and has only been on the mainland for about a year and a half, has already had experiences that lead her to conclude that many people have negative perceptions of Puerto Ricans. She was also keenly aware of racial stereotyping.

Cultural competency is not just about being able to describe or compare and contrast other cultures, it is also about developing a non-judgmental awareness of other cultures and tackle stereotypes; it is an ability to empathize with other cultures, be curious about them, and accepting of them. Her answers led me to incorporate in learning activities that examine the ancestry of Puerto Ricans to help students see how Puerto Rican identity is shaped by diverse influences, just like our own is. My students will also make on-going comparisons to other aspects of the Puerto Rican culture, like sports to see what they have in common with them, and foods and music. Thus, my students will still be learning to make statements about themselves and to compare and contrast our culture with Puerto Rico; however, I feel that the why and how is the bigger purpose of humanizing the culture of Puerto Rico and making connections to Puerto Ricans. This is a skill that they should then be able to transfer to the study other cultures, and ideally their interactions with people from diverse cultures as they go on with their education, careers, and lives.

I am glad I hit the restart button. I feel like I have a clearer, more rigorous vision of what I want students to be able to do, and why and how they will do it. I am excited to see how these videos turn out. I am interested in your comments, questions, and feedback on this post. Please leave comments by clicking on the comments link at the top of this post, or by following the “contact” link.


Of course, just when I think I have a good revised, flashy plan ready to go, students are getting back into the groove, and we have a nice new rhythm going … WHAM! We’re hit with a blizzard and several snow days scattered here and there. Once again, the kids are excited, take longer to settle, and their attention is elsewhere. Then flu season hits, you can’t keep enough tissues on hand, and someone seems to always be running to the waste basket to vomit. What strategies do you use to pull them back in?

Then, just when you think you might have that figured out, the flu hits YOU, and now, in a feverish stupor, you have to write sub plans. I would love to hear your strategies for re-engaging students after so many interruptions, as well as your ideas for sub plans in a World Language classroom. Please leave comments by clicking on the comments link at the top of this post, or by following the “contact” link, and I will share in a future blog post.