Thursday, February 23, 2017

Subbing in Mrs. Dontje's Class!

Reflections on Subbing with Mrs. Dontje’s class
Note- this post is mostly for "myself", so it's super long!

On Friday, February 3rd, I ventured back into a strange, wonderful, almost forgotten part of my life- the classroom!  While I started my career in this exact spot, for the past ten years I have worked as a computer lab teacher, a technology / digital integration facilitator, and assistant director of technology.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with amazing teachers and students along the way, but each year that I’ve been out of the classroom I’ve felt more and more removed from the daily realities teachers face.  I’ve ALWAYS known and said that the hardest job in any school system is clearly classroom teaching and lately I’ve felt I needed to reconnect with my classroom roots in order to best serve teachers, students, and DIFs I work with.

So, I reached out to my daughter’s school principal, Mrs.Ciccone, and asked if she knew of any 2nd grade teachers I could sub a day for.  Having taught kindergarten for 2 years and 2nd grade for 4 years, I thought it would be best for me (and the kids!) to be as comfortable as possible.  I was shortly connected with an amazing 2nd grade teacher at Pinehurst Elementary- Mrs. Kelly Dontje.  Mrs. Dontje is a 3rd year teacher and clearly is on her way to becoming a master!  Her kids clearly love her and are excelling because of the relationships she has built.   Mrs. Dontje rocks!

So….after finishing this post I decided since it ran super long to come back to the top and get a main takeaways together:

Main takeaways
This experience made me remember...

  • The best way to keep kids on task is to plan and prepare for them to be engaged throughout the day.
  • How much I love teaching
  • How exhausting teaching is.  Managing all the different personalities, learning styles, and aptitudes is hard work.
  • That the hardest job in the school system is classroom teacher.  Never forgetting that makes me a better service to teachers.
  • Kids rock!  They can do a lot of amazing things if you give them the time and opportunity to show you what they can do.

And, finally, I would urge any facilitator, district, or school admin who has been out of the classroom for 5+ years to go back and sub for a day- it will reconnect you with our most important pieces of the school system- the teachers and students!



And now for the rest of the novel/post….

For the past 10 years I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of different classrooms- doing model lessons, coteaching, simply “being there” when teachers try something new with technology, and lately, observing our awesome DIFs working with students.  But what I quickly remembered when I subbed is that all of these things are just fundamentally different than being the teacher.   Before getting started with my day I felt something I haven’t felt in quite awhile- anxiety!  Nervousness!  What had I forgotten?  Could I still handle all the different behaviors, opinions, and ideas that were about to fly at me at a hundred miles an hour?  Could I get kids to work together?  How did I used to do that every day?  All of these thoughts ran through me as the day got closer and closer.

But then I remembered something about myself as a teacher (and, something I learned while teaching that has carried me through the entire rest of my career)- I feel most comfortable and confident when I plan and prepare.  I find confidence through the planning process.  So I started going through the structure of the day Mrs. Dontje left me- the timing of kids coming in and putting stuff away, when the day “officially” began, when kids had to go to specials, when lunch/recess were, and how those instructional times meshed together.  Then I started in with my ideas.

I knew I wanted to test myself.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a “normal” school day for these 2nd graders.  And I knew that I wanted to try some things out that I’ve been asking my DIF teammates and teachers to give a whirl in their classrooms.  I wanted to enrich curriculum in the same way, with the same tools.  I wanted to experience this firsthand with a real group of kids and a real clock on the wall that doesn’t really care about how cool your lesson is….  So I started with a list:

1.     Read a fun story and do something with it (I love reading to kids and miss that so much, so this was a gimme).
2.     Do some writing and story creation with Lego Story Starter kits.  I’ve watched DIFs and teachers develop incredible lessons around these kits and I wanted to test drive them myself.
3.     Have students create something with the iPads in the room (wanted to see how the equipment held up in the creation process).
4.     Work through an engineering lesson of some sort.  This has been a big push for us this year in K-5.  I wanted to build an engineering lesson with a high probability of failure on the 1st try so I could see for myself how kids react when their prototype doesn’t work out and they have to work through the improvement piece of the design process.

As I planned out the day, I got more and more excited.  I really connected back to my first love as an educator- planning the activities, playing them out in my head, thinking about what the kids that finish early would do, considering how to break in and out of groups, how to make sure each and every kid was engaged and accountable, and how to keep things fun.  I remembered something else that I had to learn the hard way when I taught- 95% of the behavior problems I had in my room were rooted in poor lesson design or not thinking through all of these things.  The best way to keep kids on task is to design your day to keep them that way. 

So I got my ideas together and then went and purchased all the supplies (another memory….all the money spent out of pocket!!!) and prepped them all the day before.  Heading into the classroom that morning I felt  much better, totally excited, but still hanging on to that nervousness!

As the kids started filing in, I greeted them and tried to get a quick read on who was who.  It was Friday.  And it was Mrs. Dontje’s birthday.  She started the day with us so it was great to see all of her kids love on her and show her the cards they made.  After Mrs. Dontje left, the kids finished their morning work and I called them all to the rug (when I taught, I was a big “rug” guy….I liked bringing my kids together often for stories, instructions, etc.). 

We started off with a story- The Runaway Pancake, as told by John Lithgow.  This was a book I had read with my 3 girls a couple years ago and loved.  It’s a hilarious story about a pancake that jumps out of an oven, rolls along singing a song while various characters chase after it….to finally be eaten by a sly fox at the end.  After reading the story, I put a Google Doc up for some brainstorming of their own stories.  I asked them to think of what else we could write a story about (The Runaway _________ ).  So we brainstormed different main characters, different secondary characters that could chase our main character, different antagonists (a new word!), and what other ways the story could end. 

Well, the kids were totally creative with their ideas.  So I asked them in partners to fill out a story planning page with the 4 pieces to it above.  Then, after they had filled out their story plan, I showed them the Lego Story Starter kits so they could create a scene from their story.

Kids love Legos.  They just do.  And they can take a story starter kit and make it fit whatever is in their head.  That’s why I love these kits- they are so malleable because kids make it work for whatever they need.  After going over some “ground rules” as this was their first time with them, they got started with their partners. 


The kids worked really well on their story scenes!  Now, did we have a couple kids that meandered and needed redirection?  Absolutely!  Did we have one that completely scrapped the story he came up with and build a most righteous battle scene?  Without a doubt!  But that’s a part of teaching I had to remember as I went along- there will always be kids who need extra help, and there will always be kids that do better with a little extra leash for their individual ideas. 

After the kids had their stories fleshed out, I brought them back to the rug to show them how to create stop motion videos of their scenes using the Lego MovieMaker app on the iPad.  This app is really easy and the kids picked it up with almost no problems whatsoever.  Within minutes they were busily recording their videos.  One thing that really hit me was just how natural this was.  Back when I was a classroom teacher (WAAAAY back in 1998-2005) I bet you could figure I always incorporated any piece of technology I could into my lessons.  Well back then, I remember doing a LOT more modeling (and very explicit modeling).  While I had to model expectations and some things with these 2nd graders, I realized they were ready to rock in short fashion.  So I let them!

And did they ever!  Check out the videos below to see what they came up with!

The Runaway Bacon
The Runaway Cookie

From here it was off to drop the kids off at specials.  While they were at specials and recess I got my engineering thread materials together, cleaned up a bit, and took a brief breath (for those that don’t know, K-5 teachers have the shortest time to plan throughout the day- especially after you consider other duties, PLC meetings, contacting parents, going through email, and all the million other things they have to do in such a short time!). 

Lunch was up after recess.  I had a blast eating and chatting with some of the kids.  I miss just striking up a conversation at lunch with kids.  I’m going to do this more often when I go into schools from now on.  =)

After lunch we came back and finished up our movies.  We also had a viewing party, which was great!  I love how proud kids are when they create something from start to finish.   I think seeing my own students react with pride when they presented their  early digital creations to the class really carried through me in my entire career….Looking back on it I’m pretty sure those experiences molded me into the “digital tools must be used to create” mantra I’ve been spitting out for at least 10-12 years.

Next up was our engineering lesson!  The idea was pretty straightforward- the kids would be given traditional materials (pipe cleaners, construction paper, toothpicks, marshmallows, tape) and, in partners, needed to create an oven that their Runaway _______ could not escape from (they drew their object on a piece of paper, which I’d tape a piece of string to and see if I could pull it out of their prototype). 

As I started walking through the engineering process, we talked about what engineers do and proceeded to start brainstorming ideas and drawing out our plans.  Before we got started, though, I was smacked in the face with that one harsh reality you can never get past in the classroom….the clock!  When planning, I had a feeling I might not get through this lesson and here it was staring me in the face.

Luckily, we have an amazing DIF assigned to Pinehurst Elementary- Deanna Boesch!  Before I left I asked Deanna if she could tag team with Mrs. Dontje to finish up the create/test/improve phase of the engineering process.  



By the end of the day, I got the room put back together with the help of the kids and allowed Mrs. Dontje to come back and take them to dismissal.  As the kids filed out I gave them high fives and hugs and told them I couldn’t wait to come back and say hello! 

Of course, I was absolutely exhausted.  Even though the kids did most of the “work” of the day, I was just so tired….  Part of it is being “on” all day, with kids right there depending on you to be on your game.  Part of it was the ongoing balance of behaviors  and unique differences each kid brought to the table and managing them all, every minute.  I came out of the day with a renewed confirmation that there is NO harder job in a school system than classroom teacher.  The work our teachers do every day making their classroom a warm, exciting place to learn is flat out amazing.  I’m so fortunate that I spent 6 full years as a classroom teacher, getting the chance to work with some amazing kids (who are all now graduated…I am old!!!). 

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Thank you to Mrs. Dontje and her kids for allowing me to sub for a day!  Thank you to Ashlee Ciccone, the principal at PES, who allowed me to come in and spend the day.  Thank you to Mrs. Boesch for being such an amazing resource as a DIF.  I won’t wait another 10 years to come back to the classroom for a full day and I’d encourage any facilitator, school support, or school/district admin to consider subbing in a classroom for a day- I promise you will reconnect to your roots and the experience will affirm your dedication to serve teachers and students each and every day!