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Sub plans for challenging classes

October 23, 2018

I have seen many plans over the years that give students an opportunity to show their work ethic and social skills by completing creative tasks together.

My sub plans were not like this. I spent most of my years in a middle school with large classes of 35 squirrely, defiant pre-teens and teens, and sub planning for me meant finding ways to fill the class period with tasks that removed opportunities and reasons for students to act out. Sub days were a kind of a treatise between me and my students, in which there was an unspoken agreement that if I left plans that weren’t pure torture, my students would work independently and quietly to complete them.

Sub planning for challenging classroom dynamics

This is a post for my readers that, like me, need sub plans that will keep the kids and the sub emotionally and physically safe in your absence. And remember—what works in the most challenging classrooms will work in most classrooms.

Plans with technology

If you have the luxury of being in a 1:1 school or otherwise guaranteeing good access to devices for your students in your absence, great! There are loads of websites that they can work on independently for the duration of the class period (Señor Wooly, Textivate, and Fluency Matters E-courses are some of my faves!).

I, however, was not allowed to leave any materials that involved technology for subs. ZERO TECHNOLOGY. No videos, no chrome books, no songs...nothing. So here's what I did:

Here are four tips for creating technology-free sub plans for challenging classes:

  1. Assign tasks that will be completed independently and silently
  2. Allow opportunities for creative expression
  3. Make room for student choice
  4. Leave low-stakes assignments
  5. Over plan

Low-stakes assignments

By low-stakes, I mean assignments that will not count toward the students' grade in the course in a significant way. I never left summative assessments, and I never left assignments that absolutely had to be completed in order to me to move forward with the course material upon my return. I rarely left assignments that students would have to finish later if they didn't in class. A low stakes assignment to me means:

  • Not an assessment
  • Graded for completion (When compared with what classmates completed... A/100 - It is obvious that you were working diligently the whole period. C/75 - It is obvious that you were not working for a majority of the period. F/55 - It is obvious that you did nothing.) This goes in the Work Habits category of my gradebook.
  • Doesn't have to be made up If you missed the class, you don't have to make up the work. If you didn't finish the assignment, you don't have to finish it.

There are many reasons for this--often, subs do not follow instructions correctly (sometimes because the teacher leaving the instructions is not clear and sometimes due to user error--no judgement! I subbed for a half year when I first moved to AK and screwed up lesson plans more than a few times!). Things don't always go as you expect when you create the plans--the copier might break, the office might not get plans to the sub on time, the school might not find a sub, the students might deceive the sub ("Señora Bex always lets us work together on tests!")....the list could go on forever!

Leave low stakes plans so that you can pick up right where you left off before you had to miss class.

Over plan

"Idle hands are the devil's playthings" -- this could not be more true than in classrooms, especially when there is a substitute teacher.

If you have 45 minute class periods, leave enough independent tasks to fill 120 minutes. When you are confident that no student will be able to finish what you have put together, make a list of Fast Finisher tasks just in case.

A wasted day?

You might be thinking that this sounds like a total wasted day. It sounds like busy work.'d mostly be right. I would never put a video of my sub day plans in action on my NBCT application. I would never earn a Teacher of the Year prize based on a classroom observation on those days. I hated missing class, and I didn't do it often. But when I did, I knew that I was setting my students up for success--which quite frankly meant not getting a referral. If I could find ways to expose my students to comprehensible input that was even moderately compelling, all the better.

And so...adding to the portfolio of sub plans that I have shared over the years, here are some adaptable sequences that you can modify with original content to meet your students where they're at when you have to miss class:


  1. Read three-four stories (enough to fill the front and back of a page, double sided).
  2. Illustrate all stories.
  3. Translate one story.
  4. Write five quiz questions about one story (in Spanish).
  5. Write a personal reaction to one story (what you liked or didn’t like and why, what it made you think of, etc.).
  6. Simplify one story.

See this example here (PDF or Doc).


  1. Read a fictional text (possibly a class story or character description)
  2. Illustrate a storyboard or write a summary in English.
  3. Read an informational text.
  4. Highlight the main idea of each paragraph. Write one follow-up “want to know” question about each paragraph. “Quiero saber…"
  5. Imagine a story or situation that brings the two texts together.
  6. Illustrate the story or situation.
  7. Describe what’s happening in Spanish.

Leave sub plans for your students that incorporate informational and narrative texts and allow for creative expression

See this example here (PDF or Doc).


  1. Complete a 1-3-10 free write.
  2. Draw a picture of your free write (five minutes)
  3. Do a Wordoku or Logic Puzzle (your choice!)

Need more materials?

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