Thursday, December 31, 2009

Battle for Fiction

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to the Airborne and Marine forces before D Day (According to my son)

When you have two children, invariably one child is “easier” and the other is “more challenging”. It’s tempting to label children, but I try my best to fight against it since I was (what I deem) unjustly labeled. I wrote a previous post* about my mother’s attempt to neatly categorize my sister and me.

The truth is that my son is quicker to challenge me and quicker to raise the vocal volume in comparison with my daughter, but he’s a thoughtful, kind, and intelligent child. Over the years, there have been a few issues in which we’ve struggled. One is over reading. When my son was in kindergarten, he had an excellent teacher and was blossoming, but she retired, and her replacement was someone who should not have been a kindergarten teacher. My son went from happy, blissfully unaware that he was learning in spades to sullen and unsure of himself.

The teacher avoided setting up reading groups for months, so I tried to have him practice at home, but he was burned out by the time his school day ended, and it just became a battle that nobody won. I dropped the attempt, and soon he lost nearly all he’d learned. When the groups were finally formed, he believed he’d never learn to read. This was (of course) preposterous, but try explaining that to a six-year-old? His lack of confidence culminated in a showdown between him and the teacher, and she sent him to the principal’s office. The assistant principal handled the situation like a pro, calming my distraught son, who prided himself on being a good kid in school. When I came to school later, I spilled my misgivings about the teacher. She was the worst type of instructor, who dealt with the surface behavior instead of the underlying reason for that behavior, and my child was not the only victim.

First grade was spent with a teacher who patiently undid all the damage that the kindergarten teacher inflicted. By the time my son got to second-grade, he was an enthusiastic learner again. By fourth-grade, his reading level was years beyond his actual age.

I knew that the reason for his take off in literacy was that he devoured nonfiction books. World War II, in particular was a subject of endless fascination for him, with its larger theme of good versus evil. He’d amassed such a collection that he started a library for students to borrow in his fourth-grade classroom. My son was tackling adult books in his thirst for information. I had an inkling that my son’s reading comprehension had increased when he was taken by the above quote enough to copy it in marker on construction paper when reading in the summer between third and fourth-grade. It’s still displayed on our refrigerator.

But from time to time, we still butted heads over reading. He was resistant to read fiction, except when he was required during a reading group in his classroom. If he wasn’t inhaling an encyclopedia-sized book, he was "reading" cartoons. Since I was a writer, this drove me nuts. I’d force him to read a novel, buying and borrowing books on any subject he liked, as long as they were fiction or historical fiction. This strategy was implemented with limited success.

Worse was when we were on road trips. He’d want to play on his handheld game system the entire five-hour ride between Cambridge and New York, but I’d try to break it up with reading. I’d give a thirty-minute block devoted to reading, but every five minutes I’d hear, “How much more time do I have to read?” Yes, I was force-feeding fiction to my son.

In my defense, I write fiction, so how could my own son avoid fiction like the plague? This summer was the worst because he didn’t read anything but nonfiction all summer. By the end of August I made him read, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Though he’s a fast reader (when he wants to be) he took w e e k s to complete it.

But then something changed. In fifth-grade, his friends began recommending novels, and he began reading them. When someone suggested, The Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan he loved the books because they married mythology (sort of nonfiction) with fiction. I found him just picking up the books and reading in the car, on the couch in the morning, and past his bedtime. He also enthusiastically wanted to tell me about what he was reading, and enjoyed our drive through Manhattan, where some scenes in the books take place. He’s made me promise I’ll read the series so we can discuss the books in more detail.

My son is on the last book now. What will happen after he’s done? I don’t know, but I think I’ve learned my lesson, and I’ll let him choose his own books from now on.

Happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Poems of Appreciation

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

- Robert Frost

I was cleaning the bathroom this morning, when I happened to check on my daughter, who was busy writing in the dining room. I peeked over and saw “A Pome for Shaggy”, which didn’t surprise me. At school in Writing Workshop, she’d already written several stories about our cat. I went back to scrubbing the toilet.

Periodically, she’d dash across house, paper in hand. When she was done, there was a paper for each family member on our pillows and on the cat’s snuggle blanket “bed”. I went from place to place and read each poem, which she gave me permission to share. I’ve done so, in order with all misspellings and confusion included:

A Pome for Shaggy

Ah Shaggy I Love

Your glitring

eyes. I Love

The when someone

Is sad you try

to cher them up. I Loved when

tock care of the

giny pigs you licked one over.

Love (Daughter’s name)

A Pome for (Husband’s name)

I love I way

Yous to Prat my har.

I Love your

Silly nis and you

Joks. I ice skateig and

Bicking with you. Love (Daughter’s name)



A Pome for Tharesa

I Love when I

have bad drems you

give me nightmer

bear. I am sow

locky to have a mom

like you. xoxox

xo Love (Daughter’s name) xo


Then she saved the last poem for the one she idolizes:

A Pome for (Brother’s name)

I love your funnyns.

I love when play

with me. I love

when you start

to be silly when

we play. When

we made that

apple dish. Love (Daughter’s name)


I loved that she had this burst of spontaneous appreciation. Did she know how much I appreciated her? I decided to write a quick poem because, shouldn’t EVERY family member have one? Warning: she’s a better poet than me.

A Poem for (Daughter’s name)

I love your enthusiasm

Which spreads to all of us.

And your quiet

And not so quiet


Thank you for appreciating

Kindnesses big and small.

I’ll carry your spirit

With me always.

I learn from my children every day. Without her, how would I remember to stop once in a while and remember what’s and who’s important? Who would remind me never to say I can’t do something? She leads by example.

And who doesn’t want to go over to their pillow and read why someone loves them? I’m lucky to have a daughter like her.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Laundry and Other Responsibilities

“Do you know what you call those who use towels and never wash them, eat meals and never do the dishes, sit in rooms they never clean, and are entertained till they drop? If you have just answered, ‘A house guest,’ you're wrong because I have just described my kids."

- Erma Bombeck

About once each month I’m in charge of packing the family to take a trip, usually to visit family in New York or my father in Maine. After eight years, I’ve become an expert packer – I bring enough clothing for a family of four so I only have to do laundry every two days. If I bring more clothes to do less laundry, the bag becomes too full for a small Mazda 3 hatchback, along with the other odds and ends that need to fit in the trunk.

My husband usually packs his own clothes, but this is not a time-saver for me nor does it ease my responsibility. I must report temperature highs and lows and chances of precipitation for the days we will be away. Since he runs and he’s taller than the rest of us, he gets to bring the most clothes and footwear, and he takes up the most space inside the suitcase.

If we are traveling for a holiday, I often must bring a fancier set of clothing for all of us, which will not be a part of the clothing rotation for the other days. Especially for the Hanukkah/Christmas visit, this becomes a challenge since gifts also must cram inside the trunk.

It’s difficult not to forget something with all of the items I need to remember. Besides clothing, I must remember the cord and charger for camera and hand-held video game systems, and my cell phone and laptop. We also need snacks and water for the ride. And the toiletry bag, with everyone’s various practical and beauty products (plus three or four medicines, just in case). Now that I straighten my hair, a blow dryer and flat iron are also required.

If this is not the most exciting post so far, it’s by design, for it’s tedious to be in charge of packing and coordinating everyone’s STUFF. Invariably, something is forgotten, and when it is, it’s my fault. Once, I forgot my husband’s pajama pants, and another time, his socks. Last visit, my son began repeatedly clearing his throat. “Did you bring his allergy medicine?” my husband asked. I hadn’t, since his allergy season usually ended by October, and he hadn’t had problems for weeks. My responsibility. My fault.

I am the family coordinator, which means that every day, everywhere it’s my responsibility to make sure that every one has what they need, whenever they need it. I’m not the best family coordinator, since I screw up a lot. I’ll collect my children from school and ask, “How was your day?” “You forgot to pack me lunch. You know I hate (fill in the blank).” Am I subbing without time to stop home before I pick up the kids? I’d better make sure I bring my son’s piano books, my daughter’s ballet bag, or their Taekwondo bags. Who has gym which day? Schedule doctor appointments? Visits with friends? I’m in charge to know who does what when where and why (and sometimes, how).

At this point, I know I sound like a self-proclaimed martyr. I don’t do it alone and my husband certainly offers help. But I still need to know it all, and then I can delegate from there.

Today I hit my responsibility breaking point – a tantrum of sorts. It wasn’t a proud moment. I was feeling good because this trip I remembered every single thing. We all had socks, underwear, pajamas, cords, toiletries, snacks, medicines, books, and bits. I did not forget one single Hanukkah, Christmas, or birthday present. When did the trouble begin? Yesterday, I was helping my daughter get ready for bed, as I’ve done just about each night for seven years.

“Where are my pajamas?” she asked.

“On the floor, in front of your door,” I answered.

Those?! I already wore them two days.”

Sigh. “I know, but if you wear them one more day, I just have to do laundry tomorrow and I’ll be done for the trip.”

Yes, I did explain that to my seven-year-old.

After I showered, I placed my pajamas in the basket, and then ordered my children to brush, wash, and get dressed as I pulled my husband’s clothes from the bathroom while he was taking a shower.

“MOM! Where are my socks?!” my son demanded.

Oh no. Did I forget to wash a pair? Sometimes* my son kicks them off in the middle of the night and forgets to put them in the laundry. At home, I periodically check the bed for lost socks. “Did you check?”


I opened the drawer to see: underwear, pants, two shirts, and (drum roll) socks! “They’re right here.”

“Oh, I didn’t see them.”

Then my sister-in-law and her children came over, and my son was packing to sleep at his cousins’ house. Reminding my son to get a toothbrush, I then went to the basement to retrieve his clothes out of the dryer. I folded a change of clothes for tomorrow and rifled through the dryer for his pajamas. I found the Pants. But. No. Shirt. Then I had a meltdown, calling my son down, explaining how hard leaving his dirty pajama shirt on the bed had made my life.

I felt bad that I made a big deal about it. Sure, I did ask him to make sure that his pajamas were in the basket this morning, but it was really a pain for me rather than a travesty. First he was annoyed that I was enraged, but he apologized. It wasn’t my best moment as a mother or as a human being, but sometimes it feels thankless. Don’t they see how much I do? Can’t they make the effort to blah blah blah?

Then I decided to post about it to get it off my chest. Now I feel better.

Oh, my husband came up with a great idea. When my son comes back tomorrow, he's doing a load of laundry.


Saturday, December 26, 2009


“Behavior is a mirror in which every one displays his own image.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Little Montessori students must touch my arm to get attention, which is my favorite Montessori rule, and I’ve even gotten my daughter to do it, rather than interrupting every time I’m having a conversation. So, four, five, six, and seven-year-olds have placed their chubby little hands on my arm for these three days I subbed Spanish this week. Sometimes it was because they wanted to get a drink, but more often it because they want to tell on someone.

“She said, ‘poop’.”

“She laughed at my picture.”

“He’s not sitting where he’s supposed to.”

“He keeps grabbing the crayon container.”

One child told me, “He said a potty word.”

“What word did he say?”

“He said, ‘Santa sponge.’” As I mentioned in a previous post, these children rarely identify a proper potty word. I wanted to point that out, along with the fact that those were actually two words.

“Are you Santa’s representative?” I asked.


“Unless you’re Santa’s rep, I wouldn’t be worried about that. I’m sure Santa isn’t offended.”

That settled that.

All in all, the three days were pretty relaxed. The middle school students watched a documentary, while the upper-elementary students viewed a Spanish cartoon. This cartoon concerned me since the children’s level of Spanish didn’t match the movie dialogue, but the visuals were humorous.

The youngest children required more work on my part. I had to read them a book in English, then the accompanying book in Spanish, each of which came with a CD to play along. I put on my preschool teacher personality, which meant doing voices for the animals in the book, along with my very best animal sounds and hand moves (Crocodile “snap” by clapping my hands vertically). After the readings and songs, I played the CD one more time to let the children dance, reminding them not to spin to minimize crashing. The last thing I wanted was to send a child to the nurse’s office from Spanish class*.

After they listened to books and music, I handed out the controversial “Feliz Navidad” packets. Except for the class with Miss Christmas, all of the other groups colored without incident. The biggest problem was crayon container hogging and the fact that there were no pink crayons. After the first child complained, I became proactive with each group, telling them to use the red crayons light in order to make “pink”. No pink with a classroom full of little girls?

In each class (just as in almost all classes) there were always one or two boys that needed more attention and reminding to stay on task. I don’t know why, but little boys are more likely to wander, touch items they’re not supposed to, name-call, and hog crayon containers. Over three days, three boys (and one girl) needed to be told to go into the “Take a Break” chair. After a minute I’d remind them of the behavior I expected and all would be well. The classes were easy enough that I could periodically check my e-mail and look for those two illusive blue folders that were supposed to have all of these packets for the students when they completed the “Feliz Navidad” packet. Instead, I just gave them blank paper. As they happily colored away, I walked around and had fun talking with them.

When the teachers arrived, I let them know how their classes behaved.

I always said, “They were a good class,” because they were.

Really?” was the response I got from more than one teacher. “The Spanish teacher always tells me how bad they are.”

That reaction always surprised me. “Really? They were fine for me.”

As a teacher, I can't expect a group of children to be statues. The younger they are, the shorter their attention span and the older they are, the more likely they’ll try to test me. This school is a stone’s throw from three giant low-income housing buildings. Virtually every religion and ethnicity is represented in these classes, yet even the middle school is one of the best for behavior. Although teaching preschool is not my ideal way to spend the day, for four and five-year-olds, they were fine.

I remember when I was a teaching assistant I hated picking up the kids from specialists, only to have those teachers complain to me for every little transgression. One group was difficult for everyone, everywhere, and those teachers never failed to report the problem kids. The music teacher started off trying to be a cool friend, and when that didn't work, he went so far as to ask the lead teacher and me to punish the students for him. He wanted the regular teacher to lose her lunch break by keeping the badly behaved students during lunch and recess. She told him (and I told him when I was the extended term sub at the end of the year), “I can punish the students, but if you want them to respect you, then you need to provide the consequences.” The music teacher lasted about two years.

The handwriting was on the wall when he busted his knee, needing surgery, and he stayed out of school for weeks. This was in contrast to one of the other teachers who broke her pelvis around the same time, but didn’t miss a day. The music teacher returned a week before school ended, and when I picked up the students he was screaming, “I don’t have to be here, you know!” (Yeah, that works). The extended term sub was still in the room, looking on with surprise. It was another contrast because the students had loved and behaved for the sub. In September, there was a new music teacher because the old one left teaching.

I believe classroom teachers deserve feedback, and if someone has hurt another child or has been excessively problematic, I’ll report it. But my feeling is that when they’re in my room, even if it’s only for a day, they’re my responsibility.

One year, when I was an assistant I worked for a teacher who butted heads with a particular student who was as good as gold for me. When I’d arrive for the second half of the day, the lead teacher would tell on the student. I felt like a husband coming home from work to hear how terrible one of my children had behaved in my absence.

I’d say, “Did you give Ms. ***** a hard time?”

She’d bow her head with the slightest smirk, “Yes.”

“I expect better behavior from you,” I’d admonish.

“Yes, Ms. Milstein.”

As teachers, sometimes our classroom can feel out of control, and we’d appreciate a rescue, but I find it a sign of personal weakness to send students to the principal’s office. As a sub since March, I’ve sent one student for biting another child during gym, and two middle school students for misbehaving one too many times, when I felt that removing them would change the tenor of the class for the better. But each time makes me feel like a failure, and I wrack my brain to avoid needing to resort to passing the buck in the future.

*I should mention that one girl got a paper cut, so I did send her to the nurse’s office for a bandage. Should substitute teachers also carry a first aid kit?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Not the Same

“Fame is rot; daughters are the thing.” - James Matthew Barrie

The call came yesterday afternoon from the gatekeeper for three days of Spanish. I had already prepared myself to miss my daughter’s choral concert tomorrow, but I doubted she’d be as accepting as me when we had the discussion later. On the bright side, it would be steady work at a place to which I was familiar and it meant no more sub calls until 2010 (Hooray!). The downside (I always have one), is that I’m not sure when I’m going to pack to visit the middle-states on Christmas Eve. (Beware: I have an attack-cat, plus attack-friend feeding said cat, so my house won’t be vacant).

I arrived at the school at least fifteen minutes before my first class, expecting all would be ready for me since the teacher had made a big deal to me, the gatekeeper, and the Spanish teacher at the school I subbed at last week (and who knows who else) that she was going to be out. The plans were typed and clear, with accompanying folders, which housed a plethora of handouts she wanted me photocopy in groups of 100, most for her to use upon return.

What was the plan for the day? Except for one class, I would be showing one of two DVDs, and there was already a television and DVD player in the room, though she warned me it didn’t always work, so I decided to set it up before the students arrived. Good thing because… go ahead and guess. No, it’s not that it didn’t work exactly. ALL of the instructions on the screen were in Spanish.

Reading the plans again, she gave me the librarian and media specialist’s information in case I couldn’t get the DVD to work. The librarian immediately gave me a television and player on a cart, and I pushed it to the class just before the seventh-grade students came in. I set it up with no problem, introduced myself and the DVD, and sat down as the documentary showed various Hispanic neighborhoods, exciting me when they showed and spoke about Jackson Heights in Queens, NY, where I lived until I was nine-years-old. I don’t think the students were as thrilled about that information as I was to relay it. I even recommended a Columbian restaurant, La Pequena Columbia there, and the Jackson Diner in Queen’s Little India, should the thirteen-year-olds happen to visit.

Then the DVD player stopped. And. Would. Not. Start. Again. I called the librarian, who attempted to get it going with no success, then carted it out, and brought back another. After it was up and running (with little class time left at this point), I asked if I should return it at the end of the day or keep it for all three days. I was advised that I could’ve kept the other one, but another teacher reserved this one for tomorrow. “Which classes do you need it for?” she asked. “Just about every one for the next two days,” I replied.

The groups went as expected, until the second-to-last one. A young girl who has a name related to Christmas (this is important) began to explain to another girl that she didn’t understand “Christmas spirit”. I went over to soothe feathers, and found out that the Muslim girl was (understandably) offended. Though I tried to explain to Miss Christmas that every person has the freedom to believe in his or her own religions or even no religion. Of course, it didn’t help that the students were coloring “Feliz Navidad” packets. Every time I walked away from the little preacher, she began again, and near the end, when a classmate said, “Oh my God,” she reprimanded, “Every time you say, ‘Oh my God,’ it hurts God’s ears.”

I would’ve liked to give the students an alternative to the Christmas packet, but though I was given many pages to copy, only the X-Mas packet was clearly marked to give to the students this week. For alternatives, I was told to look in the “light blue” and “dark blue” folders. Let me tell you, this room has more folders and binders than I’ve ever seen in one classroom. I looked everywhere (well, probably not everywhere, or I would’ve found them), but couldn’t find anything in a blue-hued folder that had coloring pages, so I decided Feliz Navidad packet was the safest bet.

I finished the day, and was told by the librarian I could keep the cart, and per her instructions, on my way out I asked the secretary to have my room locked. Then I picked up my children from school, and brought them home.

After I baked a frittata for my daughter’s breakfast, she began to bubble about her read aloud of her published piece tomorrow. I reminded her that I couldn’t come because of work, but that Daddy would be there. “Why did you take the job?” she asked. How to explain that to a seven-year-old-girl? “I had to. They don’t call me enough as it is.” She, predictably, burst into tears. As she huddled into me, I reminded her of all the things I am able to do at her school, and prepared her that when I work full-time I’ll be able to do even less.

All of her sentences started with, “I really want you to go because…” I was going to miss this and that tomorrow morning. I said that if her father couldn’t go that I would’ve gone, and that he’d record her during the reading and concert, so I wouldn’t miss anything. “I really want you to go because it’s not the same.” She got to the heart of it, wrenching mine.

There was nothing for me to say. I had just run two fundraisers for the Art Committee, but had also missed my son’s breakfast this year, plus his performance last year because of subbing. I was participating, but not in the things that really mattered. It wasn’t the same.

I’m not a briber, but I wanted to offer something special. When my children were little, if they were having a hard time separating from me, I’d kiss one of my small stuffed animals and stuff it in their backpacks to take to school, and sometimes they’d give me a little one of theirs to put in my handbag, also plying it with kisses and squeezes. She was now too big to carry plush pet in class, but I wanted her to have an item she could hold all day. “Would you like to wear one of my necklaces tomorrow?” I asked. The tears finally ceased. I pulled the ones I wear most often, and clasped one at a time around her neck until she chose which necklace she liked best. Then I spread them on my blanket, and placed her dress before her, and she tried each necklace on it to see which one looked best.

I promised to style her hair before I leave, and told her that she can call me from her father’s phone during the breakfast. I know it’s not the same, but I hope it’s enough.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


“All our lives we search for someone who makes us complete. We choose partners and change partners. We dance the song of heartbreak and hope all the while,wondering if somewhere,somehow there is someone searching for us.”

- Author Unknown

I decided to see what came up if I typed “Substitute Teacher” in google search. 2,000,000 results were found, but like most searchers, I only examined the first page. For the second choice, this site came up:, which had a lot of good advice for new subs, but I disagreed with some of it.

One, I’m not going to skip coffee just because it may make need to use the bathroom in the middle of a three-hour class. Most classrooms have adjoining doors, and a neighboring teacher can always help out in that department (It’s like a sisterhood and brotherhood of toilet breaks). I’d rather need to pee than need to sleep.

Two, I’m not going to leave a change of gym clothes in car, just in case. That happened once, and I just told the students, “I was supposed to teach fifth-grade today, but they changed my assignment.” Also, I find that some of the least amount of exercise I get is subbing gym, which often requires a lot of intent watching. If gym teachers are in shape, it’s because of what they do when they’re not working (And many do not exercise this option). The only time I’ve needed yoga pants and sneakers has been when I’ve decided to do the warm-ups with the young ones. Though I like his advice about always bringing a whistle.

Three, I’m not going to ask the first student who walks in what the class is like because that’s a sign of weakness, and when they tell me (unsolicited) the other kids are bad, they’re usually wrong. Besides, I can size the problem students and classes up by their behavior in the hallway. In fact, just pay attention to the students getting reprimanded by other teachers before they enter your room, and you’ll have a name and a face, even if that students lies about his or her identity.

Four, I don’t believe telling a student, “I don’t know” is a sign of weakness. If I say, “Look it up,” it’s because I admit I don’t know the answer. I always bring my laptop, and most schools have Internet access. Why not look it up instead of pretending to know something I don’t?

I did like that he called the person in charge of the sub line The Gatekeeper. Sounds ominous.

We all come up with what works for us, but getting advice about where to begin is great because those first few jobs are daunting. I recently got a comment on an earlier post from someone who was about to sub for gym for the first time the next day*. She did a search on substituting gym, and found my blog. After reading it, she ran out and bought a whistle. I was amazed that my blog actually helped someone.

I’ve also noticed that some districts use Guest Teacher instead of substitute teacher. Check out a fellow substitute blogger:

Four choices down on google, and I came across a section called “Image results for substitute teacher” One was of a man who was bandaged with electrical tape and had a bloody lip. I clicked to find out more and found this site: He makes a good point:

If you are going to be a Great Substitute Teacher you must imagine your greatest mental and or social weaknesses. You need to realize the students are going to expose most of those weaknesses before the end of the first class of the day!

Another photo showed an old man teaching in front of a board, which I thought was going to be a parody, but he turned out to be the oldest (and maybe, the most respected) substitute teacher out there:

Apparently under images, there were also some cartoons:

It goes on with 1,550,000 images, from a disparate as a big-busted blonde and a prissy looking woman. I think I fit somewhere in the middle.

You know you’ve arrived when Wikipedia has a page about you (unless you, a friend, or a relative set it up) or at least, your occupation. Subs have gotten their due: I learned exciting information like, besides Guest Teachers, have more names in more places:

Relief Teacher (Australia and New Zealand)

Supply Teacher (United Kingdom and Australia) Make up your mind, Australia.

T.O.C or Teacher on Call (Canadian province of British Columbia)

All of these sound slightly subversive.

I also found out there is a Substitute Educator’s Day according to the NEA (National Education Association, which was mentioned on Wikipedia). I looked up NEA, and found this: that told me that the day is celebrated at the end of American Education Week. When is that? I did more research: to find out it was 11/15-11/21/09, so I missed the big day, and didn’t even get a card. Hopefully I won’t be eligible to celebrate the day next year.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Surprise and Appreciation

“We could fly so high,

Let our spirits never die…

Create a world with no fear,

Together we’ll cry happy tears….”

-Song “Heal the World” Michael Jackson, lyrics inside a school winter concert booklet

It was my second day subbing Science, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Before I left yesterday, the Social Studies teacher asked how the class went. I told her about the problems with too few textbooks, so she offered to get the extras from the sixth-grade homerooms while I ran the seventh-grade homeroom. Today, she came back with a pile, and I thanked her, more hopeful that things would go well later. I had a plan.

I knew this morning was going to be a choral performance, and I probably wouldn’t have first period. I also knew that I’d be ending my day with the two most difficult groups on a Friday afternoon, the last Friday before Christmas, and they probably wouldn’t have recess because it was nine degrees in the morning - potentially a legal combination.

Attending the concert was strange since I knew I’d probably be missing my daughter’s performance next week. But being a substitute has given me opportunities to see some unique assemblies, all three at this school. Last year, I happened to be there when the illustrator and excellent speaker, E.B Lewis gave a presentation to the third and fourth-graders. Another time, they had an anti-bullying assembly, but I had doubts as to its effectiveness (As middle schoolers pushed one another on the way out of the auditorium). And today was the concert, which had a smattering of middle school students, plus the third and fourth-graders performing. I’d seen and participated in plenty of concerts, so I thought I knew what to expect (Boredom).

The concert was called “Walking in the Air” because the students were asked to consider what it would be like to fly across the world to carry a message of hope and celebration. Each song began with a reading. There were singer soloists, but also a young pianist, a clarinetist, and even a self-taught drummer. The songs were all unusual, and surprisingly moving.

The third and fourth-grade songs were: “Walking on Air” by Howard Blake, interesting arrangements of five American folk songs, Do Di Li – An Israeli Folk Song translated by Joyce Merman, Thula Klizeo – A Zulu Chant by Joseoph Shabalala, and Thankful by David Foster.

No “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Drummer Boy” or “Frosty the Snowman” or “Dreidel, Dreidel” or “Oh Hanukkah” or even a Kwanzaa song.

As impressive as the elementary students were, it was the middle school students who blew me away. Participation in the middle school chorus was voluntary, so it wasn’t the entire sixth to eighth-grades. The soloists were excellent, but I was even more surprised by the song choices. Remember the songs you sang in chorus when you were young? I recall doing Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Rolling on a River” as the most modern song, especially in comparison with “Danny Boy” or “Fifty Nifty United States”.

These students started with “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” By M. Ure and B. Geldof. It brought me back to a time, when I was their age, and the song was brand new. Bob Geldof wanted to raise money for starving children in Ethiopia. Do you recall our concerns of the 1980s? Nuclear war and starvation in Africa. This was a year or two before most Americans became aware of the Aids crisis, which was soon to be an epidemic.

I remember that this Christmas song was a hit, with some of my favorite artists of the time singing lines: Bono, Sting, and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. This project led to Live Aid that summer – a giant concert to raise more money for Ethiopia. That led to Farm Aid and Hands Across America, and then I think the whole phenomenon petered out. From the list of singers from that original recording, I was sure that most of the students still knew about Bono from U2. I didn’t know if that made me feel old or young.

The next song the students performed was “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson. With Michael Jackson’s recent death, his songs have gained new relevance for a new generation.When they finished, the students received a long standing-ovation because the audience appreciated their effort and their performance exceeded expectations.

After the concert, I had a long break, and went into the photocopy room since the Social Studies teacher was teaching in my classroom. A Special Education instructor was taping papers that had math problems onto card stock for a math game. Since I had time, I offered to help him.We chatted about various things, including my challenging group from yesterday. When he had a meeting, I kept working, which he appreciated.

While we were talking, the Spanish teacher (who had tried to get me to apply for an extended term sub Spanish position) came in. She told me that the Spanish teacher at the other school wanted to know if I was subbing for those three days (How did they both know that they knew me? Do they talk about subs?). I told her what I told the other Spanish teacher, I’m available but only if that’s where they send me.

My next class was great – working on their posters with little problems other than some slacking. Last period, I was ready to read them the riot act when the Special Ed. teacher came in. “I came to help,” he said. As the students sat down, I gave them my spiel about my disappointment regarding their behavior the previous day, and my expectations for today. I also advised them that we had enough textbooks and they would work independently. Throughout the class, the other teacher went around, dealing with some potential discipline problems while I dealt with other ones. “It’s a tough class,” he said to me at one point.

I appreciated having all this support from the teachers in this middle school. They work as a cohesive unit; helping me because a member of their team was out because of a death in the family. They made sure I had plans, supplies, and even extra help. Perhaps that teacher came in last period just because I helped him and happened to mention the kids had been difficult. Who wouldn’t want a full-time job working with teachers like them?

The teacher left a little early, but the class remained focused, and soon the students left for the day. As I tidied the room, the Social Studies teacher came in. She asked if I’d be there again on Monday. “I don’t know. It depends on what the Sub Caller decides.” Apparently, I’m in demand. What are the chances I won't receive a job on Monday? Wouldn’t surprise me.

To see the original video of "Do they Know It's Christmas" (Bonus: There are A LOT of mullets):

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Roller Coaster


All day-to-day substitute assignments are made on as as-needed basis under specific contractual guidelines.

Only the Substitute Caller is authorized to arrange substitute assignments.

If you know in advance that you will not be available to substitute on a day or days you are normally available, please contact... .

If you have accepted an assignment, except in case of emergency, you should report to the school you have been assigned to."

- Excerpts from a letter I received in the mail from Human Resources today

From under the covers, I could feel the chill permeating the bedroom, and knew it was going to be a cold day ahead. When I entered the kitchen to flip on the coffeemaker switch, the heater was already kicking, sounding like a waterfall (Don’t ask). Instead of sporting my cap, I knew when I was outdoors I’d be wearing what I call my Russian Hat, which is lined with faux fur and has earflaps.

As usual, my son was in denial regarding the chill. When it was time to put on our coats to take my children to school, he argued that his fleece was perfectly suitable.

“It’s nineteen degrees,” I said.

“You always say it’s cold when it isn’t! My coat is too big!” he screamed. He thinks the louder he is, the more right he is.

I used the trump card. “If you don’t put on your coat, you can take the bus.”

On the way out, I got my usual apology, but I was already feeling too little, too late. And I was wrong about the temperature; the car thermometer read eighteen degrees. I decided to hide the fleece until spring.

After I dropped them off, I continued on to the school I’d be subbing at for today and tomorrow, and it was for the science teacher I’d subbed for when he was out a week for knee surgery in September. I was confident that I’d been personally requested, and thought that except for a group or two, the days should be relatively easy. I was also confident that there would be plans, since I’d been called the previous evening.

Then I reached the classroom and saw that there were no plans. Not only that, but another substitute teacher had subbed in the room the previous day. Knowing that I’d been home yesterday while another sub had taught the classes made me feel like someone had cheated on me. Looking at the sub’s* notes, I was amazed that she filled out both sides of a yellow legal paper – I never write that much. Then I was smug to note that she’d had some discipline problems (I’m petty). After that, I had to focus on the fact that I had no lesson plans. Should the sixth-graders continue on with the textbook they’d used yesterday and should the seventh-graders pursue their projects (Which didn’t seem to go too well)?

I looked for the other Science teacher, but another teacher said he’d spoken with the absent instructor the day before, and he helped me plan. It turned out that the seventh-graders would be on a field trip today so I wouldn’t have them first period (hooray!), but they’d return before last period, so I’d have the last group (boo!), though the teacher thought he’d just take them to review the outing (Hooray!). I told the teacher that I was happy to take them last period, but it seemed less about me, and more that there would be no point in doing a regular lesson after an exciting day. The students wound up reporting for class anyway (Boo!).

Repeating the sixth-grade lessons from yesterday: reading from the chapter, taking notes, and answering the questions at the end was going to be monotonous, but what choice did I have? The other science teacher also visited me, and gave me alternative plans for the seventh-graders for tomorrow (plate tectonics chapter) and suggested that for the sixth-grade, I could have them draw and compare plant and animals cells. That was better.

This is how the day went:

1st group: B+ (They’ve behaved better)

2nd group: A (As always)

3rd group: D – (Would've gone better if I had enough books for them to

each have their own. Did yesterday’s sub let some students take

textbooks home?)

4th group: B (Which for that group is like an A)

The real downside of this two-day gig was that I was going to miss my husband making potato pancakes in my daughter's class tomorrow. She was disappointed when I told her, but I can’t keep taking days off every time they have something because I don’t work enough as it is. And I was hoping that I could at least go to her class publication breakfast (yes, she’s published before me) and choral concert on Tuesday next week. But if I do get that three-day Spanish sub job I mentioned the other day, I’ll miss that too. At least my husband can go to both; if he couldn’t I would’ve taken those days off because at least one parent should be there.

Last spring, I missed my son’s Music class performance, and although my husband recorded it, the sound was poor due to the room’s acoustics. This fall, my husband went to a breakfast, and we both forgot to have him bring the camera, so I missed my son do a performance we weren’t notified about because the teacher wanted it to be a surprise. I was surprised that I missed something important.

Not only does being a substitute provide me with daily roller coaster rides, but it puts my children on a bit of a roller coaster ride as well. It disappoints them and pains me each time I miss out on an event. The nice part about being a teaching assistant was that I could shift my hours to be there for almost everything that my children did. And I know I’ll have little flexibility when I get a full-time teaching job. As a sub I don’t have the choice to move my hours and keep my pay, yet I don’t have the salary of a full-time teacher. It’s the reality, and I just have to roll with it.

Fifteen minutes after the dismissal bell, when I picked up my children from the office, my son (wearing a guilty face) handed me a gift he'd made at the clay place a block from their school. Inside was a coaster with a picture of a sad face and the word "glum", and on the back was the definition "unhappy". He explained that their assignment was to put a vocabulary word on the coaster, and he chose "glum" because he liked how it sounded. It was the perfect present. We bundled ourselves up and faced the brisk afternoon.

* mistress’s