On Substitutes in a RWWorkshop Classroom

We’ve all been there:

tweet by Mr Minor

If you don’t follow @MisterMinor, you’re missing out. He’s a master teacher, and a master at gifs. No justice in this screenshot.

We carefully craft lesson plans, sometimes with step-by-step instructions, and descriptions of each students’ temperament scrawled in the margins of our rosters; sometimes leaving flow charts to indicate transitions from activity to activity, hoping if are meticulous in our details, and we leave a timer, and sternly warn our students: “Be on your best behavior,” even just a bit of reading and writing will happen when we need a substitute.

When I first started teaching, it rarely did.

I’d never thought to write about a workshop classroom in the hands of a substitute until I got an email from a 2nd year teacher who is newly implementing workshop in her sophomore English classes. Just so happens I got her email the same day I saw Mr. Minor’s tweet.

My new friend wrote:  “How do you approach substitute plans? Do you chalk it up as a loss? Do you leave detailed plans with the idea that once students have developed routines, they should still be able to follow them with another adult in the room?”

If you know me, you know I never chalk anything up to a loss — even in the days when my precise plans didn’t work, I tried to save the day.

Sometimes it depends on the substitute. Just like pretty much everything, some are better than others. Sometimes we are just grateful someone picked up the call. Sometimes our substitutes are used to being left with crowd control, so they think that’s the job.

I speak from several years experience. When I returned to college to finish my degree, I substituted at my children’s high school. I loved the teachers who left me detailed plans, the teachers who held their students accountable for being on task when they were not physically in the classroom. I could always tell the teachers who had established rapport with their students, built relationships of trust, practiced routines, and set expectations for completing work while they were out. I substituted for five years –about half of the teachers I subbed for fit this category of awesome.

Effective workshop teachers are these teachers. Of course, I didn’t know what a workshop pedagogy was back then, and I never subbed in a readers-writers workshop classroom, but the culture in the classroom is the same.

When our students “buy-in” to the community we create around reading and writing everyday, they are more likely to be on task when we leave them in the care of a substitute teacher. Some classes can even facilitate the workshop themselves.

Here’s my tips for leaving instructions for your substitute teachers:

1.Encourage substitutes to stick to your routines. For example, my students read for 15 minutes at the beginning of every class period. I ask my substitute to monitor this sacred reading time by walking the room and when necessary waking up the sleepers, and asking the phone-addicted to put away their devices. (I have to do this everyday myself. Some teens can be so slippery.) And depending on my students’ stamina, sometimes I ask my sub to double the reading time. Many students thank me for it.

  1. Invite substitute teachers to share their reading lives. This is a good fill in for a planned book talk. Ask them to take five minutes and share their favorite books. If they don’t have favorites (sad but sometimes true), ask them to instruct your students to turn and talk about their books, maybe with focused ideas like “Describe the main character,” or “Imagine your book was being made into a new movie, who would be cast as the characters?” I’ve had substitutes borrow books from my classroom library. They’ve left me notes  — and usually bring the books back, eventually.

  2. Invite substitutes to write with your students. Leave a favorite poem or short passage, or if the substitute has access to technology, a video clip that students can read or watch and write a response to. Of course, this ties back to routines. My students and I write almost every day. Sometimes our quickwrites spark ideas for further writing. Sometimes they spark thinking about a topic we’ll explore in a longer reading task. I’ve had some substitutes love writing what my students write. These are the ones I want again.

  3. Trust substitute teachers to facilitate your workshop. Maybe they cannot teach a mini-lesson, but they can give students a reading passage to read and discuss in small groups. They can give students a handout with a short writing task and prompt a discussion around topics students may choose to write about. If we’ve taught our students how workshop works, they will know what to do, even if the substitute is unsure.

  4. Follow up with your students when you get back. This has made the biggest difference in my students staying on task when I am out. If they know I will hold them accountable for the workshop the day before, they are more apt to not take a vacation day when I am gone.

Having a successful substitute experience all comes back to our community. If we’ve built a culture of readers and writers working together to reach individual goals, we can trust our students will keep on learning without us for a day or two.

Go ahead. Take a break if you need it.

How do you ensure learning in your workshop classroom when you leave your students with a substitute? Please share in the comments.

Like every teacher she knows, Amy Rasmussen lives tired. Leaving feedback for student writers, and reading books to share with teen readers, keeps her up way too late. Add in her 5:30 am workout, and no wonder she’s beat. Amy teaches senior English and AP Language at the home of the Fighting Farmers in North Texas. When she’s not yawning, she’s attending her grandson’s baseball games, trying to quit her online shopping addiction, and writing on this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass & @3TeachersTalk; and please join the conversation over on Facebook at Three Teachers Talk.




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One thought on “On Substitutes in a RWWorkshop Classroom

  1. Ruth September 26, 2017 at 7:17 am Reply

    hi Amy, I havedn’t responded in a bit; however, I HAVE been reading this. A self-contained classroom is vastly different and yet the underlying premise of classroom atmosphere is the same. I left such detailed plans and of course had the requisite “emergency plans” in the main office. When I was going to be out for several days, I even put each day’s work/books/papers/instruction list/expectation chart in a separate tray! Some of my favorite substitutes would drop in the day before to review with me what was happening and where we were in a lesson. Those are the ones I requested well ahead of time for a planned absence. For unplanned “I cann’t even get out of bed” days, I faxed or e-mailed work!!!
    To be fair to subs, we do need to leave everything, even backup information. No sub knows your subject as you do, so it is simply unfair to expect that person to just punt! You are so correct in talking about students buying into the classroom culture. Even a class that is unruly for everyone in the building BUT you, CAN continue as expected. When I taught in a subject-specific setting, the same holds true.


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