Stepping into the forest of my mind

Stepping into the forest of my mind
Just as every journey begins with a first step, every story begins with the first word.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kindergarten Sub

Kindergarten class. You would think it would be easier, right? Twenty-five six year olds...all with new boots and sneakers. How do I know? Because each child told me so as he or she showed me shoes. Okay, so I made the mistake of saying how cute one little girl's boots were. Suddenly everyone had on new shoes and boots. The problem? I had only been there ten minutes. 3:15 was a long way off, and I had much to do before then. We have full day kindergarten at the school where I substitute, a full day of teaching and keeping the peace in class.

You need to re-think your substitute practices when substituting for kindergarten. To keep students focused on the lesson, I usually engage them in conversation. However, when I engage young children in conversation or simply ask a question about the story I am reading, I get the answer I'm looking for and then; "Guess what?"

Now this is where I should realize that it is time to move on with the lesson. But I'm a softie for the angelic face of a child. I say, "What?" This is my mistake. Once you allow one student to tell you "what" the others want to also. The really funny thing is that all children seem to have the same "what" story about an aunt, neighbor, or mom who fell while shampooing the dog in the bathtub when the phone rang and the baby cried, and the mailman came with a package requiring a signature.

That was in the morning. After lunch, I tackled social studies. Thanksgiving is coming. What are the students thankful for, the teacher wrote in her lesson plans. Ask students and write their answers on the easel page after reading two Thanksgiving books. Twenty-five children, whose names I did not know, fidgeted on the carpet during and after the stories. I attempted to keep their attention by asking questions about the drawings in the book, but each time I asked a question, the child added a codicil about someone shampooing a dog.

I also didn't realize that some children do not know how to spell their names. And that these names are creatively spelled. I couldn't spell them either. Nor could I understand the pronunciation. So I asked the students to return to their tables and get their name tags and then come back to the carpet. Now I could spell the Ra'shons and Ny'Urias, the Maliks and Seamuses.

What am I thankful for? I'm thankful that I do not have to try and accomplish lesson plans with these students every day, although I'm sure I would get better at it as I went along. At least I would learn not to fall into the "what" trap. And never compliment a child's clothing. God bless all teachers and substitutes everywhere. Enjoy Thanksgiving with your families.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Readers Rejoice!

My camping blog "Camping with Kids" will be featured on The Motherboard Facebook website on Friday, November 5, 2010. Please pass the word.

You readers make the sun shine and the heart sing. Thank you so much for reading my blog.

You can access the webpages here: and

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Art Class

I revel in the artistic talents of others. Artists. Even their penmanship is beautiful. What I like to place into words, they can create in images. It is a God-given talent that I do not possess. That's why I get so excited to substitute for an art class. I get to appreciate the artistic talents of the teachers through their classrooms. In both high school and elementary school, the classrooms are full of color and information. I learn about artists and art periods and get a chance to admire budding artists-in-the-making.

My job is to keep the students moving forward in their art projects. These projects can be as complicated as three-dimensional clay figures with structural supports or acrylics on canvas that students have enlarged from smaller charcoal drawings. Or they can be colored pastels or pencils on heavy paper. Whatever the project, it is an interesting vehicle for me to engage each student in conversation. And I do.

Engaging students in conversation about their art projects allows them to understand fully what they are doing and helps them to place into words any frustrations or complications they've experienced and questions they might have as to how to perform a specific component of the artwork. I encourage them to question their fellow artists in class. The students experience self-confidence as they explain to me how they have created their pieces and how they made a particular detail.

I give specific comments. "I like the shading you've given to the palm trees; the effervescence of the sea is striking; the flattened pebble-like scales on your clay fish are distinctive; the combing of the clay makes the bust really look like fur." In elementary school, I like to watch the smile pop out on the budding artist's face as I point out a particular feature of the artwork I notice, something that makes his or her drawing unique. These conversations allow students to be artists.

Art permits students to explore their imaginations and offers them an outlet to produce the images floating around in their minds. I truly believe that the arts are important in elementary and high school education. Just look at the annual art fairs at schools and the crowds who enjoy them. Art allows for interpretation of the general into the unique. Do you think art is necessary to education? Why?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

English Class

Grammar. Literature. Essays. Writing devices. Story plots. I am in my own personal Heaven. English class, whether I am diagramming sentences with grade school students or reading complex text with high school students, I am having fun. I told you I'm a grammar geek.

With the elementary grades, I assist the students with creating vivid, exciting sentences for their spelling words or stories. To keep their minds dynamic, I suggest the students think in specifics rather than generals. In a third grade class I substituted for, we did a few spelling words together.

I wrote a general sentence on the board using the spelling word "swoop":

A bird swoops down to the river to catch a fish.

Then I engaged the students to give me particulars, to paint a vivid image of what they were thinking about.

What kind of bird? Was it an eagle, a falcon , or a terradactyl?

Did it have talons? [This gives me a chance to increase their vocabulary, if they don't know this word.]

Where was the bird before it took off? Was it on the top of a cliff, a mountain, or a dead tree?

What's the name of the river? Was the water wild, turbulent, or tranquil? [Possibly new vocabulary here again.]

What kind of fish did it catch? Picture it in your mind, I tell them. Was it a largemouth bass, a trout, maybe a salmon?

Our final sentence for the spelling word "swoop" was:

The eagle swoops down from its nest on the bare cliff ledge to rake its talons through the tranquil water of the Colorado River and snatch a rainbow trout.

At the high school level, I get to expand my mind a little more. There is so much great literature out there that I haven't read. I've learned to look for deeper meaning in literature, be it a novel, poem, or play. And I do so enjoy a story with a profound plot, something to contemplate. No, I don't find everything. I make discoveries in the text right along with the students most times. I can place the story or poem in its historical context for students, explaining--when the teacher leaves me notes or when I know--the culture and timeframe of the story or poem. I clarify plots and character actions that I notice for the students.

Even in English class, I learn something new, be it a new story or new vocabulary or a new way to present a concept. This is what makes substitute teaching exciting and challenging. I just need to make sure that my insight and information are grade appropriate.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Grade School "Brain"

Have you ever encountered the grade school "brain"? Each class usually has one, and this time it is usually a boy. You know the type. The boy who doesn't need to do the assignment left you by the teacher like the rest of the class because he already has more work accomplished than the teacher requires. I was substituting for a fourth grade New Jersey history class and the students were in the midst of finding ten facts about their particular city or town in New Jersey. Luckily, I knew some information about most of the places the students had chosen because the class couldn't use the library or computers that day, like the teacher had planned, as there was a "Battle of the Books" debate.

The students' desks were arranged in clusters of six desks each. As I walked around the room checking each student's list of facts, or lack thereof, I found "Frankie" playing with his Silly Bands, chattering away, instead of working on the project. The other students in his cluster of desks had their lists out, but they couldn't help noticing the goofy shapes and colors of Frankie's Bands spread out all over his desk. So I approached Frankie's desk first and asked him to please put away the Bands and pull out his project.

"I'm finished," he declared while still rearranging his Silly Bands on the desk. "I have 18 facts--more than anyone else."

As I walked around the desks in his cluster, I asked him to show me his facts. Without disturbing a Band, he pulled out his cryptic page of notes. His town was Haddonfield, a historic luxury town located in South Jersey. I asked him if he had any further information about the Indian King Tavern Museum, and he promptly pulled out a small stack of computer-printed information about Haddonfield. Looking for something constructive he could do so as not to distract those around him, I suggested that he write a few facts about the Museum in sentences. He sighed, replaced the Silly Bands on his wrist, and began writing.

I continued to roam the classroom, filling in some details about Lucy the Elephant in Margate and Victorian Cape May for students at one cluster of desks, and historic Campbell Soup Company in Camden and Frank Sinatra of Hoboken at another. I instructed all students to write in complete sentences, using specific details that they had discovered in some of their research.

When I next noticed the "brain," he was back to manipulating his Silly Bands on his desk. I checked his sentences, and we added some detail about the architecture of some mansions in Haddonfield using his computer notes. We still had about twenty minutes left of class, and that's when I remembered the "silent reading book." This is a personal choice book each student carries around from class to class. If a student finishes work early, he or she is to read a book, quietly. If a student is silently reading a book, he or she is not distracting others in the class who need to finish an assignment. This comes in very handy when you have a grade school "brain" in your class.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Teaching Foreign Languages

As poor as my Spanish and French speaking abilities are, I forget how much more I know than those I am substitute teaching in middle school or high school, so that when I conjugate a verb on the board in a foreign language, the students always ask me what the words mean. You see, I am still an English Grammar Geek, no matter what language I am teaching. I conjugate verbs in the same fashion:

I speak --------------------- we speak
you [informal] speak ---- you [formal plural] speak
he, she, or it speaks ------ they speak

In the plural first and third person, in foreign languages, you need a male and a female "we" and "they." It is nosotros [plural male "we"] or nosotras [plural female "we"] hablamos, "speak" in Spanish, or ils [plural male "they"] or elles [plural female "they"] parlent, "speak" in French. There doesn't seem to be a subject pronoun "it" in some foreign languages because objects as well as people have a gender. La voiture is female "car" in French and el coche, male "car" in Spanish.

Now back to my grammar geekiness which makes me think of sentence construction regardless of the language I am speaking or substitute teaching. Nouns and adjectives need to agree in gender and number in foreign languages, whereas English usually has one form for most adjectives. One dress or five dresses, "red" remains the same form, no singular/plural, male/female forms. Additionally, you wear a "red dress" in English, but in Spanish or French it is a "dress red," as in une robe rouge [singular female "dress" and "red"] in French or des robes rouges [plural female "dress" and "red"].

Because of all this geekiness, the language teachers try to request me to substitute for them, especially the French teacher as French was the foreign language of my college years where I wrote French essays and research papers, but that's another story. To keep myself fresh, I do any grammar worksheets with the students. We work together many times, I explaining the grammar placement and rules of the foreign language and the students assisting with the vocabulary. Like any other task, I find that if people, or in this case students, see that you are willing to work right alongside of them, they are more willing to put their best effort into the assignment.

Now if only the students could understand things, or rather the words naming those things, as having a gender. In English our indefinite and definite articles "a," "an," and "the" have one form and negate gender. In English, our books are not male and our windows, not female. Windows, I tell the students, are just perceptual openings that sometimes allow a cool breeze to blow about the cobwebs of my mind.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Noise Level

Can I keep every class quiet? Notice that I used the adjective "every" in the preceding sentence. Therefore, the answer to that question is absolutely not. I am a substitute, not God. Besides, the mix of "outgoing" personalities negates a hundred percent score, even a 60/40 score. What I can do, with the more difficult classes, is to keep the volume down to "small party" level and not "mass hysteria" level. How do I do this? By walking around the classroom...constantly. And perhaps standing in a group of students' space. You see, they don't want me to be a part of their conversation. I do not wish to be a part of their conversation. In fact, I am trying to tell them, both in words and through actions, to have their conversation later, like after classes or at lunch.

This type of student conversation is different from the necessary student conversations of math classes when one student assists another with class work, but even those conversations need to be kept to a low conversational, or rather instructional, volume. And those students understand, although they may need to be reminded from time to time. No, the personal conversations are the ones that interrupt the flow of education in the classroom, for there are usually several personal conversations going on at once, and they all seem to compete for listeners. These conversations interfere with my relaying the educational instructions to the class and then my individual assistance to various students. I literally can't hear myself think.

However, administering tests is different. There I try for about a ninety to ninety-five percent control. How? Again, by walking around constantly, watching everyone's eyes, standing in a student's space, or if necessary, sending a student and test to the internal suspension room or principal's office for the test duration depending upon school rules. As a last resort, after quietly telling students in an area to keep their eyes on their own papers but meeting the student in question's eyes, after showing the good student how to cover his or her test paper, I may need to take the test from a student and inform the teacher of the situation and let that teacher decide the next step. Luckily, students learn to understand that I mean what I say, and cheating is almost non-existent. I bet you noticed that I said "almost." I told you I wasn't God.

Monday, May 3, 2010

High School P. E. Class

It never ceases to amaze me, when I substitute for a high school physical education class, that the students dressed in their gym uniforms, shorts and white tee-shirts, never want to play basketball, volleyball, or floor hockey. However, students not in the class who are walking in the hallway and noticing what I am trying to do with the P. E. students somehow get their friends to push open the locked hallway doors and come into the gym to engage in my sport. The funny thing is that these non-P. E. students can't understand 'how' I know that they are not part of my P. E. class because I am 'only' a substitute. I calmly explain to the male intruders, as they are usually male, that I did not need my college education to be able to see 'who' is wearing gym clothes and 'who' isn't. I quietly escort the intruder to the nearest gymnasium doorway to the hall, thank him for his visit, and promise to bake cookies next time, and then firmly snap the door shut behind him.

This brings me to the next point in substituting for a P. E. class. It is a scary thing turning your back on a P. E. class of 40 students to escort an intruder to the door. Forty students in a single gymnasium are deafening, and sometimes there are two P. E. classes in one gym. Yes. There are two P. E. teachers, but we are vastly outnumbered. This is where a whistle comes in handy. There is no way to get everyone's attention to take attendance, check who's prepared for class, and set up the games without the use of a sound ten times my own personal volume.

Participation is an important part of P. E. class. A class of this size negates 100 percent participation at all times, especially when we have half a gym [when we share the gym with another class]. This is understood; however, there are always a few who simply do not wish to participate in P. E. class. They are easy to spot. I choose a few students to lead the warm-up session as they know the teacher's rountine better than I. I can observe all the students participating in this, and sometimes I join in. But when I set up the equipment and teams to begin play, I find students slipping behind the bleachers and folding doors of the gymnasium to become invisible. So I've discovered a way to get even the most sluggish individuals to 'participate' somewhat in P. E. As the teams play the sport, those who refuse to play walk around the outskirts of the playing field--continuously during a particular session of team play. True, they seem like exhausted bison trudging through the tall prairie grasses, but at least they are moving during physical education class.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Elementary Class Informant

Grade school is not what it was like when my children went through it about eight years ago. Presently, when I'm called in to substitute for kindergarten through fourth grade, I get dizzy in the compartmentalized classrooms. Gone are the chalkboards. Gone are the desks in a line facing that chalkboard. Gone is a place to write things on any board. The present teachers use the whiteboards as huge refrigerator fronts, covered top to bottom with magnetized notes, appointments, and artwork. Yes, there's a fancy little scalloped section for "homework" and a small space used to show images from the overhead when needed.

But aside from that, there's barely enough room for the little girls to write my name on the board. It's always a little girl who asks to write my name on the board. And it's usually a girl who is the "elementary class informant." This is the student who doesn't need a college degree to know everything the teacher does. Now this student, girl or boy, can be a huge help to the substitute who has but minimal notes from the teacher as to what tasks to perform in elementary school. But sometimes, the informant can go too far.

Case in point. Don't follow me around. Wait for me to ask how Mrs. Jones does calendar, or where the bundle of popsicle sticks goes as we count the days and weeks we are in school or where the analog clocks are. What's an analog clock? In my day it used to be called face clock. I learned this term from the first grade students, but back to the informant. The informant's favorite words are, and I quote, "That's not how Mrs. Jones does it," regardless of what "it" is, math, spelling, maps. My response? I stare at her. "Right," I say. "That's because I am not Mrs. Jones."

Just recently, I was attempting to get a first grade math lesson started, and a student asked to sharpen his pencil. I looked around but couldn't find any sharpener; of course, I'm old school, so I looked on the wall, mostly by the doorway. The student knew where the sharpener was, by the windows; great place for a first grader to sharpen a new pencil to a nub while gazing outside. Then the informant, whom I had just gotten seated for the fiftieth time that morning, jumped up and told me that Mrs. Jones always sharpens the pencils for the students. Ahh, I thought, Mrs. Jones must be a tree hugger like me, for she is attempting to save trees. Fine, I'll sharpen the pencil. Then three more students came up to me to have their pencils sharpened, then ten students. I was surrounded. All of a sudden, I decided that math was better understood with dull pencils, no matter what the informant had to say about it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finding Assistance with Certain Subjects

Don't be afraid to ask department heads questions about the material you are asked to present to students either to refresh your own memory or to garner examples on how to perform certain math problems in case you, like me, need clarification of the regular teacher's plans at the high school level. You are showing your intelligence rather than any weakness. I am not pretending to teach a subject that I do not know. I am only checking my memory or looking for examples completed by those who know how to perform such mathematical operations so as to assist the high school level students in the subject matter where I am not the expert. The substitute service knows where I am qualified, English, literature, and writing; however, sometimes they really need any substitute to assist the students on a particular day.

I've devised plans, though, on how to cope in such a situation, if there is no time to see the department head or a fellow math teacher before class. I always walk around the classroom checking that the students are actually doing the assignment. I inform the students that if they have a particular question, they should jot it down on their papers so that the teacher may address it when he or she returns. But I also find out who knows how to perform the operations and therefore the problems as most times I am presenting students with review work in the upper levels of education, and I ask those students to kindly assist their fellow students if necessary. Most students enjoy helping others, and I always learn something in the process. I keep notes so that if I am faced with the same subject matter again, I am prepared...somewhat.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Names, Names, Names

No. I'm not that good at remembering names, especially as I see hundreds of different students in three different schools. So I devised a way to make myself a unique substitute and cover my faulty memory with names. I call all students by the same name..."Chicken." It certainly gets everyone's attention, especially at the high school level. Now to change it up a bit, I include "Angelface" and "Sunshine." Believe it or not, they like it because it's different. They even call me "Chicken." I'll be walking in the hallway, or students will come into the classroom and say, "Hi, Chicken;" to which I respond, "Hi, Angelface." I can always tell who had me as a substitute before by this friendly banter.

There is quite a mixture of students in most classrooms, excepting the honors and AP classes in the high school. The types of student personalities I usually deal with are the good, the difficult, the indifferent to education, and the ones requiring special assistance. I try to even the classroom setting by calling everyone by the same name, as if to say, to me, you are all equal and I will assist you all in your endeavors today, if you'll permit me to. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Some students won't allow me to assist. They are simply too obstinate, and I usually find that even the regular teacher has difficulty in reaching them. But this doesn't make my particular day any easier. I need to focus and help those who wish and require my assistance.

However, sometimes, by calling everyone "Chicken," the tough guy can be cajoled into doing the assignment for that particular day. I try to keep the classroom and therefore the assignments light to keep the students moving forward in their work. And I collect all seatwork in the upper grades, say seventh grade and up, so that the students actually do something. I walk around constantly and ask questions and point out important facts needed in each assignment. I help students put into words what is dancing in their heads for essays, break down complicated questions or math problems into smaller parts so that the student is able to answer or perform the math little by little to gain that forward motion in education.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How I Became a Substitute Teacher

In New Jersey, you can substitute teach if you have 60 college credits or more. This permitted me to substitute at my children's schools while completing my bachelor's degree in English part time. Of course, there are differences in salaries between degreed and non-degreed substitutes just as there are differences in salaries between bachelor's and master's degrees for teachers. Substitute salaries are per diem based wages approved by the Board of Education for each district with no other benefites offered. It is a part-time job where you can choose how often you work.

I approached individual school district administrations to apply for each substitute teacher position. I applied to the elementary and high school districts. Each school district had its own packet to be completed and returned, with one school district taking a cashier's check from me in the required amount to mail to the State Department of Education for a Substitute Teaching Certificate. You only need one certificate for each particular county in which you desire to substitute, no matter how many schools in that particular county you substitute in or how many packets you complete. The Substitute Teaching Certificate needs to be renewed every three years, and of course there is a fee for this. Usually the schools where you substitute remind you to look at the expiration date when they ask each year if you still wish to substitute for their particular school district. Each school district you substitute in requires a copy of your up-to-date Substitute Teaching Certificate. You keep the original.

I also needed to be fingerprinted at my own expense for the Department of Education to check for any criminal record. The report is sent to you, and each school district requires a copy of this. Then I needed to see my physician to receive a TB-Montoux test, the PPD, purified protein derivative of tuberculosis, to see if I was a carrier or had the disease. Two days later, the doctor checks the inside forearm for any reaction; if none, the report is negative and you bring a copy of that report to the school districts you wish to substitute for.

Once all these details were complete, each school interviewed me and requested references. Then each School Board needed to approve me to be added to the substitute teacher list. This process can take months to complete, so factor in the waiting time if you wish to begin substituting.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What is a Substitute Teacher?

Teachers are the most important people, for the school system does not work without them. However, when a teacher is sick or cannot come in for various reasons, it is imperative that someone knowledgeable covers the classroom, teaching the students if possible. The forward motion of education must continue, even if only in review. But you need someone who is caring, understanding, and patient with children or teenagers. Someone who is not so much worried about being in command, as thinking of how best to assist the students on a particular day. This is the embodiment of a substitute teacher, and not all substitute teachers are of equal caliber.

Substitute teaching supplements the income, keeps the mind sharp, and the substitute on her toes. It presents a whole array of its own trials and tribulations. With a substitute teaching blog, perhaps we could open a dialogue, a venue to share laughter and frustration, knowledge and experience. Come. Let us share anecdotes and knowledge together through the blogosphere.