Adventures in Substitute Teaching
I love reading. I love words. I love the worlds created in my brain from images emanating out of words. That’s why I became an English teacher.
What a perfect job for me! I spent my career promoting books, themes, poetry, writing, thinking about literature—it’s such a complex and beautiful compulsion that I could, but won’t, go on and on and on.
Via Flickr Commons - A 1950s advertisement featuring the “ideal teacher.” Click through for image credits.
I retired three years ago and now revel in my free time to do all that I love: reading, writing, talking about literature, and gardening (which actually has nothing to do with reading). For me, this is fantastic, although I came to a point this fall where I decided I wanted to connect again with kids and young adults.
I began substituting. Once or twice a week, I get to spend time back in the classroom—and I’m loving it.
One evening the phone rang with a request to substitute for a middle school learning resource room teacher. Ummmm… I taught high school students for twenty-six years, no middle school kids were ever part of my classroom teaching experience. I almost declined the job offer but pulled back a bit and thought,
“Wait a minute! What a snob I’m being. I’ve worked with so many students with reading and writing difficulties, with second language students and students who flat out don’t like English class. I’ve taught college prep classes too. I can do this!”
When I came into the classroom the next day, I was surprised that there were only six sixth grade boys. The “regular” teacher was there to greet me. When she discovered my background and experience she told me what reading she wanted done and suggested that I come up with my own writing prompts for the boys.
To my surprise, I had a great time with these boys, especially when it came to writing.
I had a couple of good ideas—or what I thought were good ideas—for prompts. Six sets of eyes stared back at me, none with with an inkling of inspiration. One boy took pity on me and signaled to me. When I leaned down to talk to him, he whispered to me his idea for a prompt,
“Tell them they’re trapped in the desert, the sun’s sizzling and they look up and see a sand dune that’s made of ice cream.”
Okay then… This was one scenario I would never have thought of. When I stood up and said to the boys that I had another prompt for them, presented it with a bit of drama and waited, six sets of eyes smiled back at me, they all grinned and looked at one another. Pencils began moving across paper. Not only did they want to write, they wanted to share their writing with me and one another.
The same kind of thing occurred with the reading lesson. It wasn’t the most exciting selection I’ve ever come across—actually, it was pretty dull.
This time I struck gold on my own when I began asking them questions about the reading making it personal to them. They became excited and eager to share their thoughts on the story once they inserted themselves into it. They began proclaiming what they would do in the same situation, what advice they’d gave to the character and how they would change the story. Delving into the story with them as the centerpiece made all the difference. They now understand it because it had become a part of them.
I learned a lot that day. These boys could read and write well when it was something they had a stake in, when they felt they had a personal connection to the writing and the reading.
Kids are kids whether they’re sixth graders or twelfth graders. Reading and writing matters to them when it’s something they can relate to in a personal way. One boy had The Diary of a Wimpy Kid on his desk. When I asked him about it, his excitement to share not only that particular book but all the “Wimpy Kid” books he’d read made me wish I could spend more time with these boys.
I’ve learned to always bring a book with me when I substitute. I want to have something to read during the teacher’s preparation period, where I’m still assigned to the classroom, but don’t have any students. One day I brought When My Brother Was an Aztec to school.
An eleventh grade girl, whom I will call Ellen to give her privacy, paused at my desk with her eyes on my book.
“This is a book I plan to review but it’s not coming easily for me,” I said to her. “It’s about her brother and the pain that has come into the family as a result of his choices. I don’t understand the Aztec connection.”
“I’m Sioux,” Ellen said. “Can I look at your book?”
“Sure. The poem with the Aztec reference is the first one in the book.”
I saw her engrossed in reading my book and left her to her exploration as the rest of the class began another assignment. At the end of the class, she handed me the book.
“Aztec religion believed that sacrifice was an honor, one that was given in love. That’s what the comparison is to her brother. The family sacrificed itself for their love of him, to help her brother.”
When I arrived home at the end of the teaching day, I immediately went to my computer to do some research on Aztec religion and rituals—here was a gift of insight from a student. My reading about Aztec beliefs and life brought the book into sharper, clearer focus.
A few days later I was asked to return to the same classroom. When we spoke on the phone about the plans for the next day, the teacher told me she wanted the students to analyze a poem by an American writer. I volunteered to select a poem and prepare it for the next day, since I taught American literature for so long. This class was an Advanced Preparation class, one focused on SAT preparation and college readiness, so I was delighted to pull out my copy of The Complete Works of Langston Hughes. I selected one of my favorite poems, Let America Be America Again.
Remembering Ellen who had helped me with my understanding of the Aztec reference, I brought the Complete Works with me.
Reading the poem aloud, I saw the light of understanding shining in these students eyes, but none were brighter than Ellen’s. A fine discussion ensued. Several of the students proclaimed that they liked poetry so much more when they discussed meaning, how it affected them and what it made them think about. They said that getting at the essence of a poem’s message brought them pleasure, that looking at rhyme scheme and such didn’t.
After our reading and discussion, they were given time to free write on the topic. I handed Ellen my book of the poetry of Langston Hughes asking her if she would rather read through it than free write. I recommended the section on his dream poetry which deals with the American dream as well as personal dreams and aspirations.
It was a joy to see her immersed in the book. Again, at the end of the class she returned the book saying thank you and smiling.
“I love his writing,” Ellen said, touching the book lightly.
“The same book is in the library. I’ve seen it there.” I responded.
She again thanked me and left the room, planning to look for the book to read more of Langston Hughes’ work. I watched the students trickling out, some feeling in awe of their love of reading and literature. I wondered why these kinds of experiences, the sixth grade boys I’d so enjoyed, and the insightful Ellen weren’t better known. Stories abound about failing students, low test scores and teachers who are metaphorically slapped with insults about their inability to teach. Where are the stories about these wonderful students?
Sure, the boys in the sixth grade classroom may not test well. But how would they test if the tests were constructed in a way that evaluated what they do know, what they can do well, and what they can offer?
There’s a theory called Multiple Intelligences that claims that there’s not simply one kind of “smart.” There are many ways of being brilliant.
Reading, stories, poems, music—words are essential to communication. The college prep students and the sixth grade boys communicated beautifully. Their reading and analysis came from their unique insights and ways of understanding.
Give people books that matters to them, that speaks to the individual and let them soar with it. There’s not one right or wrong way of reading or writing. It’s as complex as the person who’s reading a text and what that individual brings to the reading experience.