Sub Plan Do's and Don'ts for the Busy Middle School Choir Teacher
Digital sub activities and days off - two choir teacher truths we have to face. What I mean is, digital activities are here to stay and are becoming the standard when you take days off (another inevitable thing). But the time it takes to design, develop, and upload digital activities for your choir kids is usually not time well spent. As a choir teacher, you know your time is BEST spent on: score study, communicating with parents, planning rehearsals and class activities that meet your choir kids’ needs, and so much more. Where do sub plans possibly fit in your packed schedule?
I know, I know. It feels like more work to take a day off because you have to think of what your choir kids will do without you. If you’re a high school choir teacher, then maybe your choir kids are self-sufficient and you have a solid system of section leaders who can continue to work on parts while you’re out.
But maybe you’re a middle school choir teacher who’s adorable 6th graders are not ready for anything remotely independent like that. (Shrug)
I’m a huge proponent of building independence in your middle school choir kids to start rehearsing, detecting errors, and applying fixes in sectionals or small groups. But we’re not here to talk about that (today). No, today we’re talking about the need for sub plans NOW for those unexpected life days or for your choir classes that don’t have enough independent skills to rehearse without you yet. (Really though, it’s a good skill to build and then pair that with a rehearsal reflection log in that same class. Just throwing that out there.)
So, what’s a busy choir teacher to do? Here are some do’s and don’ts when you’re creating your sub plans.
DON’T: Show a movie.
I am not kidding you. Don’t show a movie. Especially if you’re only out one day because they won’t finish it. This sends a message that when you’re out, whatever they do is meaningless and a waste of time. Come on, 1/3 of a movie?
I can hear some of you thinking, “No, I don’t waste their time. They do a worksheet!”
Oh, sweet summer child. Please don’t tell me you’re going to grade sub work like a movie worksheet? ☹️☹️☹️☹️
Maybe I’m a picky person, but unless this worksheet truly assess a musical skill or is crafted well for cross-curricular learning goals, it is a WASTE of their time and your time. Look at the questions on that worksheet and follow the flow chat below:
I have (many) feelings towards movie worksheet activities for sub days. Unless you have a sub for more than two days, they won’t finish the movie or worksheet. Then they don’t finish they work which you will reassure them that it won’t count or don’t worry about not finishing.
Huh, thinks your brain-still-developing kiddos. Guess sub stuff doesn’t matter and it’s a free period. If you EVER want to build your kids up to independently working on music, then it starts with the very first time you are out and building that value from the start. Don’t teach your kids that sub days are free days. You’re just making your life harder when you come back (getting kids back in the routine = not fun) AND your poor sub stands no chance when the kids know you’ll just say it doesn’t matter (fun fact, they will literally tell the sub that).
Have I used movies in the past? Yes, I have sinned too and I feel guilty about it. That was time wasted. No way around it. If you’re in survival mode, then I get it of course, but challenge yourself to NOT rely on movies or movie worksheets.
Side note about movies... Now that I’m working as an ESE teacher supporting students in their general education classrooms, movie worksheets are a NIGHTMARE. Some of these poor kiddos can barely process class as is and now you throw a movie AND expect them to split their focus to answer questions and watch a movie that they can’t readily rewind? You do know what happens next, right? They give up. That is the last feeling we want our choir kids to experience (and promise me, they don’t need to feel failure in choir when they’re struggling to keep up with grade-level content the rest of the day).
DO: Leave an independent activity (individual or small group)
Does this sound overly simple? Maybe, but it is worlds above movie worksheets. 🤢
A good independent activity is chosen based on the current level of your choir kids. What have you worked on? Next level strategy: What are your choir kids still missing? Use your sub time to have them work on weaker skills and then briefly review them when you return. This builds value in the sub days because they know you will expect them to finish.
It can be done individually or in a small group. Use your discretion because you know your class best. The sub will not.
Now let’s evaluate the quality of your activity. It needs to be simple enough that the kids are able to do it without a teacher present (we love, love, love subs but we can’t ask them to be a content master). Fight the urge, choir teachers, to write super detailed instructions thinking that they are fool-proof. All you’re doing is overwhelming your kids and they won’t read it. (Sorry, but it’s the hard truth.)
My favorite activity framework for sub activities is error detection. This is easy enough for students to do independently, but requires the application of musical knowledge they accumulate in class. Instead of asking them to label solfege, ask students to find the WRONG solfege. This works their brain differently and starts building the bridge to error detection when sight-reading.
Error detection can be applied to any relevant skill you want your kids to improve. Do your choir kiddos struggle reading rhythms? Have them not just label the rhythmic syllables (shout out to takadimi, by the way), but find errors in examples. Take it one step further and add another question that asks why it was wrong and what the syllable should be.
The key to effectively designing an error detection activity is to control the variables. Don’t make random errors and instruct students to find all errors. Big oof, as the kids say. This is overwhelming and doesn’t gather useful data for you as the teacher.
Let’s stick with our rhythmic syllable example to further demonstrate what variables you should consider. The first few exercises should be one variable and you explicitly state what error to look for. “Circle the quarter notes in #1. Are they correct or incorrect?” Make the first exercise correct to model for students who need the review. Next, throw in errors on select quarter notes in #2. Ultimately, you are scaffolding the skill of identifying rhythmic syllables and reinforcing the vocabulary. In subsequent activities, add two types of errors and explicitly ask students to find errors on quarter notes and eighth notes. Finally, end the activity with finding ALL errors and do not explicitly say what is wrong. By breaking down this skill, you will quickly and easily determine which kids “got it” and if they didn’t, you have a good picture where the gap in knowledge is.
If your rock stars finish before everyone else, have an early finisher in your sub plans. This can range from tutoring other students to help them finish, have them practice the rhythmic or melodic exercises and record them on their digital device, or compose their own 4 or 8 measure exercise and have another student try to label it.
Every minute and every activity counts, choir teachers. That’s why your sub plans can’t be a movie. How is that building the bridge from abstract musical knowledge to applicable skills in rehearsal?
DON’T: Make super detailed sub plans
I’m going against the advice that your mentor teacher (probably) told you. Or rather, I’m enhancing the advice to hopefully guide you, my busy choir teacher, to write short and sweet sub plans.
Imagine yourself walking into a 7th Language Arts class and covering their class. You look at the sub plans. Multiple pages. It starts with the bell schedule, rosters, and then seating charts. But then, you flip to the next page and it’s literally a step-by-step process of how each class should operate. Honestly, it’s way too long to read within 15 minutes before the first class walks in. So you look for the hand-out and pass it out when class starts and just tell the kids to do their best. Now your energy is focused on managing the kids for the class period. Rinse and repeat. Maybe you get the planning period to read through, but no. You’re probably getting pulled to sub for another class.
Does that scenario stress you out? I’ve talked with people who have worked as a sub or who have had to cover someone else’s class when there was no sub. If your plans are too detailed, then they will not be read which means they won’t be followed. Then you feel angry because you put in all that work just for the sub not to follow them. It’s a lose-lose for everyone.
Prioritize what the sub absolutely needs in order to effectively manage your classes by following this checklist:
Remember, you’re not present and there is a sub. Don’t try to replicate the class experience as if you’re there. You’re not and the students know too, so save everyone the heartache and plan with your sub in mind.
DO: Create a digital sub tub
My best suggestion is to develop a digital sub tub. I believe the days of having a filing cabinet ready with music theory worksheets are gone. With the digital shift away from paper (for sanitary and climate concerns), your sub tub needs to evolve too. That way you have the file to quickly copy and print OR share on your class page (Schoology, Canvas, Google Classroom, whatever your district mandates).
Use your school’s digital drive (OneDrive or Google Drive typically) to house digital files. Create folders to organize and quickly navigate to the activities you need. I suggest having a basics folder with the universal components of your sub plans: schedule, emergency plans, on campus contacts and how to reach them, class procedures on bathroom and clinic, and notes. Everything else should be organized by content type (concert reflections, solfege, rhythm, note reading, vocal technique, etc.) so you can quickly pull what you need.
The final question that’s bubbling in your mind now: How do I find the time to make those sub activities and make them digital? Let’s discuss the options.
Create it yourself. Ah, the DIY approach (honestly, my usual go-to). It doesn’t need to be the prettiest, Pinterest-ready activity. As long as it’s functional, it will work. Grab some staff paper, write up some rhythmic examples, take a picture of the exercises and put it in a Google Slides. Make slides with questions and boom, digital activity. Heck, make the early finisher for your rock star students a fun graphic design activity to add borders or backgrounds.
I like the DIY approach because it offers the most control. You know what your kids need and you can design exercises with them in mind. But obviously, it is the most time-consuming option when it comes to digital sub plans.
Teachers Pay Teachers. This option is definitely for those who try to solve problems with throwing money at it. This option will save you the most time because the activities you can find are ready-to-use. (Put in a side box. Remember to vet it out and look at the reviews and previews to see if it will work for your kids or not. I love saving time, but I don’t like losing the control and not knowing what it is until you purchase the product.)
I recognize my bias is showing (because I sell on Teachers Pay Teachers), but Teachers Pay Teachers is like buying from a small business at your local farmer’s market. Some products are AMAZING and perfect and others are pretty meh. I like the idea of supporting another teacher by purchasing an activity that they created. We all bemoan how little we make as teachers, so if someone can save me time with an awesome digital resource, then I’m happy to spend the $3 for something I can use for years to come. 🤷🏽♀️🤷🏽♀️🤷🏽♀️
Colleagues! Talk with the teachers in your district or other colleagues you know in the choral world for their digital sub activities. If they are willing to share it for free, then I hope you return the favor and give them something in return like another resource you use or made. Join active Facebook groups or other social media groups to reach out to more teachers for resources.
Side rant: Stop saying “Beg, Borrow, and Steal”. It’s devaluing your work and the work of other teachers. My husband works as an engineer and they just talk shop or share how they’ve done things. It’s not weirdly framed as this beggar mentality. That only plays into the poor teacher narrative. Plus, ae can’t be beggars AND martyrs, friends. That’s too much for teachers to shoulder.
Sub plans fall low on the totem pole of priorities. I get it. These do’s and don’ts are here to help shift your mindset towards sub plans for your middle school choir classroom so it doesn’t feel as overwhelming. I won’t say trash or treasure (another dreadful teacher adage), but I encourage you to evaluate your current sub plans and if you can optimize your approach. I didn’t discuss other variables like your choir kids not doing the work regardless of the value you build into it (sounds like some community building should be prioritized before content then) or if you get a sub that only scrolls their phone the whole class (tip: include contact information on your notes page to see if any good sub would be interested in coming back to your class). These variables are OUT OF YOUR CONTROL. That’s why they aren’t addressed because you can’t honestly account for them. You can only control what is in your control.
Good luck, choir friends. Take those days off without (many) worries and keep your program moving forward!