Planning for an ELA Substitute Teacher

Teaching is the one profession where it is actually MORE work to say at home sick than it is to drag yourself into school.   Planning for a substitute teacher for day off requires some pre-planning, and if you don’t do it ahead of time, I can guarantee that you’ll find yourself miserably sick writing sub plans in the middle of the night cursing your former self.  Below are some tips to help you prepare for these unexpected absences as an English teacher, so you can take a day off without the stress.


Trying to gather up all of the important documents for a substitute last-minute can be a real headache, so it’s a good idea to create a substitute binder with all the important forms and handouts that a substitute may need. Below are a list of things you may consider including in your substitute binder. 

- Attendance sheets
- Important safety documents  (evacuation, fire etc.) 
- Daily schedule 
- Supervision schedule 
- Seating charts 
- Basic rules
- Information on students on individualized plans 
- Name of a teacher nearby they can turn to
- Your contact information (if you want them to have it)
- Name of a few trustworthy students in each class  

It’s also important to remember that your substitute teacher will probably not have a lot of time to look through this binder, so it might be a good idea to also make a one-pager with the most important information they will need to access.  I created a free template you can use to make your own.  There are two print versions and a digital, editable version that you can edit to suit your needs.


If you know you will be out, it is a good idea to continue with the content you are already covering in class. But, we all know that unexpected absences in teaching are far more frequent.  I can’t tell you how many times in my first few years of teaching that I have been shivering with a fever, downing cold medicine, tissue everywhere, attempting to pull together the easiest lesson plan I could muster.  Don’t find yourself in the situation. 

Do yourself a favor and plan at least three emergency lessons that could be used at any point. Keep those emergency lessons somewhere near your desk so you can send a quick email to say where they are if you need a day off.   It’s also a good idea to make copies for each of your classes.  I typically would leave four lesson plans, each one covering a different genre/topic (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and writing).  I have compiled some of my favorite lessons to leave as emergency plans in middle and early high English that you can peek at by clicking the image below.


Don't be scared to leave a project or assignment with a creative element that will hook even your most reluctant students and make life easier for the substitute. One of my favorite assignments to leave was a missing teacher police report and poster for why I am out.  The assignment is about your inexplicable absence and puts the students in charge (by the principal) of investigating the reason you are not at school.  Students will create a Missing Teacher poster and an investigative police case file that has them examine evidence and witness testimonies. The responses from this assignment are often hilarious! 


There is nothing worse than taking a day off and coming back to a list of behaviour issues that the substitute had while you were out.  Whenever possible, let students know when you are going to be out and do a refresher on appropriate behaviour.  It also doesn’t hurt to remind them of the consequences as well!  When planning for a substitute, it’s in inevitable that you will have students who finish work early. It’s a good idea to have some resources available with activities for early finishers. This will keep students occupied and lead to less disruption and behavior issues.  I like to  include ELA puzzles, games, or thought-provoking discussion or debate topics. 


Leaving a form for your substitute teacher to fill out at the end of the day can be an excellent way for you to improve your substitute planning practice, know what concepts students struggled with, follow up on any issues, and celebrate students who were kind or helpful to the guest teacher.  The Classroom Sparrow created a free form that you can download here. 


If something comes up without notice and you haven't prepped ahead of time, there is nothing wrong with leaving a work day or leaving a simple plan that allows students time to work on something.  Here are a few simple work-day activities.

- Host a Wonder Day where students research and write about something they are curious about.
- Spend half of the class reading a novel and the other half writing a journal entry from the perspective of one of the characters.
- Show a short 30 minute video and have students do a written response with their thoughts.

I hope these suggestions will allow you to take a sick or emergency day off without any stress or worry.   If you are looking for a no-prep lesson to leave for a substitute teacher or more tips, the ladies of The Coffee Shop have you covered!  

TV Episode Emergency Lesson by Nouvelle ELA
8 Tips for Secondary ELA Sub Plans by Secondary Sara

Adding a Global Perspective: Diverse Short Stories to Teach

I truly believe in the transformative power of narratives. I believe that through stories we challenge assumptions, expand our understanding, and make connections with others. It is why I became an English teacher. As idealistic as it sounds, I hold tightly onto my belief that literature has the power to make us more empathetic, more compassionate, more human.

But this also means that we, as teachers, have a responsibility to introduce our students to a diverse range of stories, of authors, of content. The most convenient place to do this is often in a short story unit, as we can wind our way through multiple continents and differing perspectives, all within a couple of weeks.

While all types of diversity and representation matter, for this post I want to take a moment to focus on including global perspectives in our curriculum: including voices and stories from around the world to broaden students’ horizons, while also helping them find commonality with those seemingly different: thus exploring our common humanity.

So here are some of my recommendations for short stories to include in your classroom. [*Note: Most of these would be most appropriate for grades 8-12; though some content might be mature for some classes. Do use your professional discretion; you know your classes best!]

“The American Embassy” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [found in The Thing Around Your Neck]
Adichie’s powerful TEDtalk “The Danger of a Single Story” is how I always open my short story unit. In this talk she explores the problems of only reading stories from a homogenous group (often white, western, male). As a Nigerian female writer herself, she knows this well. As she eloquently explains in her talk: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” While I use many of her stories and essays in my classroom, I love reading “The American Embassy” with students, as it speaks to universal themes of fear, loss and grief. As the protagonist queues outside the American Embassy in Lago, Nigeria, waiting to make an application for asylum, she is confronted with recent tragedy and heartache. The narrative includes flashbacks as the painful death of the protagonist’s son is conveyed; thus it is an engaging story for teaching narrative perspective and plot structure.  

“Borders” by Thomas King [found in One Good Story, That One]
In this compelling first-person narrative, King - himself of Cherokee and Greek descent - explores the concept of identity in a changing world: particularly as it relates to indigenous peoples. Set on the border between the US and Canada, a proudly First Nations woman asserts her own idea of identity and belonging, refusing to conform to imposed concepts of citizenship. Told through the perspective of a young boy, I have found that students connect with this complex topic in a way which is accessible, opening up fruitful, engaging conversations about nationhood, identify, and belonging. The story is constructive for teaching the importance of setting, as the problem of crossing the physical border clearly parallels the deeper theme as it relates to the restrictions often placed on others’ identities. You can access all my teaching materials for this story here.  

“The Kettle on the Boat” by Vanessa Gebbie [found in One World]
In this brief-but-powerful narrative, Welsh author, Vanessa Gebbie, tells the painful story of Qissunguaq, a six-year-old Inuit girl, who is separated from her family as a result of climate change impacting the food chain and their means of survival. The narrative voice is clearly defined as the simplistic language reflects the young child’s confusion about her situation, building suspense and evoking sadness in the reader. While the underlying theme is important in this story, I often find it is a compelling piece to use in the classroom as a means of exploring the language and craft of the short story form.  

“Spilled Water” by Djamila Ibrahim [found in Things Are Good Now]
Born in Ethiopia, Ibrahim immigrated to Canada in the 1990s, and the short stories in her debut collection examine the weight of the migrant experience on the human psyche. What I find extremely powerful about these stories is Ibrahim’s portrayal of the complexities of being an immigrant in a foreign land: the often daily humiliations and hidden struggles. In “Spilled Water” the narrator is a young Ethiopian orphan who is adopted by a Canadian family. As she tries to navigate the daily cultural shocks, the reader sees the familiar through a new and surprising lens: everything from simply shopping at the mall to the more unique tradition of celebrating Halloween. This opens up great opportunities for discussing what might be usual in our own cultures, but seem strange to others.

“A Contract Overseas” by Mia Alvar [from In the Country - read the full story here]
As explained in the cover blurb, Mia Alvar “gives voice to the women and men of the Philippines and its diaspora… [her] stories explore the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined.” To me, her short story, “A Contract Overseas,” epitomises these crucial themes. The young female narrator, living in Manila, wrestles with her own identity as budding writer, feelings of isolation in her own family and surroundings, and her relationship with her brother who - like many Filipinos - moves to Saudi Arabia to work and send money home. The characters in this enthralling story are bold and beautifully-defined, which opens opportunities for teaching characterization. That said, the protagonist herself grapples with fleshing out conflicts in her own stories, which is intriguing to explore in the classroom.    

“The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve [in Grandpa Was a Cowboy and an Indian and Other Stories]
Written in 1975, this may be one of the older stories in the list, and more commonly taught in middle/high schools already. Yet it is well-known for good reason. The young protagonist struggles with his own sense of cultural identity as he is confronted with his conflicting feelings surrounding his Native American heritage. When his worlds collide and his Sioux grandfather comes to visit their Iowa home - far from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota - the protagonist wrestles with his own adolescent feelings of pride, shame, and confusion. Raised on an Indian Reservation herself, much of Sneve’s writing is concerned with dispelling stereotypes and negative images of Native Americans. Due to its dealing with issues of personal struggle, “The Medicine Bag” provides engaging opportunities for exploring characterization, conflict, and shifts in perspective.
“War Years” by Viet Thanh Nguyen [in The Refugees]
Viet Thanh Nguyen - Pulitzer prize winning author of The Sympathizer - has written a timely and weighty short story collection called The Refugees, and aptly dedicated to ‘all refugees, everywhere.’ In the story "War Years" Nguyen conveys the fictional account of a Vietnamese family who fled to the US because of the war in their home; yet when they are confronted with a fellow immigrant - a zealous anti-communist woman trying to raise money for an uprising back in Vietnam - they find that they cannot leave the past behind them. The story explores how these different characters have been afflicted by the horrifying impacts of war: both directly and indirectly. Thus conflict is central to this story, and serves as a helpful lens for analyzing the narrative’s deeper themes of loss, grief, and the lasting impact of war.

A Ride Out of Pharo” by Dina Nayeri  [read it here: LitHub]
Nayeri, an author of Iranian descent, won the prestigious O. Henry prize for this captivating short story. In it, Shirin, a once-prominent doctor in Iran, moves her life to Thailand to work as an English teacher, having already spent many years as in the US. While the story clearly explores cultural identities across continents, it also deals with more personal, universal issues of motherly love, aging, the complexities of building relationships, and one’s sense of purpose. In this way, it can be an absorbing story for teaching theme. As the protagonist battles with her own adult-daughter - who was brought up in America - the author presents the differences in culture and the impact of society on one's preferences; it is thus an interesting story for exploring unspoken cultural practices, and the influence of place on one’s identity.
*Please note that there are a few profanities in this story.

“Ishwari’s Children” by Shabnam Nadiya [read it here]
Nadiya is a writer and translator from Bangladesh, whose story, "Ishwari's Children" explores the culture and social practices of a rural Bangladeshi village. The protagonist is a 6 year-old boy who journeys with his grandfather to visit of group of isolated, vulnerable people. The complexities of power, privilege and societal status are explored in this story, and done so with vivid imagery and delicious descriptions. Interestingly, the author has written about her underlying motivations here, which makes for a great class conversation: so often we discuss the author’s underlying message, yet rarely do we actually get hear their thoughts about their craft directly.
While I believe that all these authors’ works would be valuable additions to any classroom library, if you are looking to buy just one book, I would highly recommend One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. Plus, all the authors’ royalties for the book are donated to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctor’s Without Borders).

If you are looking to read more about diverse literature, please check out this great post from Danielle about YA novel suggestions, and this helpful post about building a diverse classroom library from Brittany, The SuperHERO Teacher.  

6 Creative Ideas for Teaching Romeo and Juliet

One of my favorite units to teach is Romeo & Juliet - it's an easy introduction to Shakespeare for my 10th graders and it's so much fun to tease out the absurdity of it all. Really... who meets and decides to get married almost immediately?  My students lose their minds over their ages, their rush and their mis-steps.
When I tell my students that we are going to study the play, I am usually met with a series of loud groans, disgruntled sighs and complaints of "but I hate love stories and mushy stuff...".  My students seem to have a preconceived idea that it's a mushy love story and I love nothing more than to dispel their ideas.

1.  Provoke Discussion & Debate
One of the first activities I do is a Pre-Reading Graphic Organizer which is sure to get your students debating some of the topics and themes that come up in the play.  The questions on the organizer are thought-provoking and generate some fantastic discussions with my students.  I have students work on it individually and then discuss in small groups before sharing with the whole class.  The questions also start to hint at some of the conflicts and challenges that the characters will face in the play.  Grab a FREE copy HERE!

2. Use Memes
I get a kick out of memes and there are some fantastic ones out there for Romeo & Juliet.  A quick Google search will yield many results - I print them out and put them up around my classroom.  I introduce the memes as they relate to parts of the play as we are reading - we discuss their meaning, why the meme is effective and then I add it to my collection on my wall. My students really got into it this year and started looking for them online too! Why not have students create their own?

3. Creative Analysis
I hated doing endless analysis questions as a student reading the play in my grade 10 year.  I remember pages of questions for each scene in each act... and it made me hate reading Shakespeare.
As a teacher I am very away aware of this memory and needed to come up with a way for students to respond to the text, demonstrate their understanding and be able to provide some creativity.  My Romeo & Juliet - Graphic Organizers for ANY Act / Scene allow students to work in pairs, small groups or individually to respond to the text.  I don't use them for every scene but a few used for key scenes or moments in the play can be a helpful way to track student learning and student understanding. Using these organizers allows students to demonstrate their understanding multiple ways - by doodling, adding quotes, finding figurative language, looking at character traits and more!

4. Summarize Each Act
I ask my students to summarize or comment on each act on a large sticky note and we add it to a growing wall display.  I make each act a different type of summary - here's what I did with this year's students.  I made a header for each Act to post around the room with our sticky notes.
      Act 1 - Four Sentence Summary
      Act 2 - Five Hashtag Summary
      Act 3 - Character Obituary
      Act 4 - A tweet from Romeo and one from Juliet
      Act 5 - Two Newspaper Headlines

I post these around the room and my students love to read what others have written.  It's a fun visual reminder of our progress through the play as well.

Other ideas for scene or act summaries include having students "Tweet" three comments about a scene, create an Instagram post of a key event in an act or scene or to send out a "Snap" via a "Snapchat" template.   A quick search online will yield blank templates for social media platforms that can be used as exit slips, summaries and more!

5. Avoid Character Confusion
Keeping track of characters can be tricky for some students and I like to have a visual reminder on the wall of who everyone is and how they connect to each other.  I use a set of Romeo & Juliet Character Cards which color coded to help students differentiate between the Montagues, the Capulets and neutral characters.  I post large ones (word wall size) on one of my whiteboards so that we can add details like connections, character traits, and events are we're reading.  The kids love it when I add a gravestone to a character after the character's death!  I also use small sized character cards so that students can complete a character map (usually in a group). I give students chart paper, glue, felt pens and the character cards and let them figure out how they think all the characters should be organized.  It's a fun and hands on way for students to talk about connections, relationships, character traits and more!
6. Have fun - laugh -giggle!
I really try to have fun with it all - it's hard to take it all so seriously and I find if I have fun with it so do my students!  Act it out! Do a tableau! Wear costumes! Draw comic strips, send character text messages, take on roles and interview characters on a podcast, watch different versions of the movie, create their own movies of famous scenes... the point is to get up and out of their seats and get involved in the words, themes, ideas and fun of studying Shakespeare!

Click HERE to check out all of my resources for Romeo & Juliet!

My fellow Coffee Shop ladies are also fans of Romeo and Juliet and I was able to incorporate some of their resources into my lessons!

This was my students' first experience reading Shakespeare so Room 213's Introduction to Shakespeare Stations were a fantastic way to start off my unit!

I loved using Stacy's Lloyd's Romeo and Juliet Workbook - I picked the pages that worked best with my students and mixed and matched them with my own resources.

If your kids like Escape Rooms, be sure to check out Nouvelle ELA's Romeo and Juliet Escape Room - it was a huge hit and the perfect way to wrap up the novel.

The Daring English Teacher - Romeo & Juliet CLOZE summary passages
Presto Plans - Romeo & Juliet Unit Plan
Tracee Orman - Romeo & Juliet Coloring Pages

For more ideas and inspiration check out this previous Coffee Shop Blog post from Tracee Orman where she shares some general ideas for teaching Shakespeare.

Six Tips for Teaching Shakespeare

Teaching Shakespeare Tips

I have to admit, nothing scared me more my first year of teaching than Shakespeare. I kept wondering why hadn't I paid more attention in high school when my teachers taught it. Then I remembered: my experience with Shakespeare plays in high school consisted of students sitting in desks taking turns reading lines we didn't understand from a textbook. 

I wanted to make sure my students had a better experience with Shakespearean plays than I did. Now that I've taught the Bard for almost 20 years, I'm happy to pass along tips for generating excitement around Shakespeare and his works.

1. Introduce the Bard: For some of your students, this may be the first time they’ve studied Shakespeare, so it’s important to give them a brief introduction of the man and why, after hundreds of years, his work is still relevant today. Use posters, quotes, let them know how many words the man created and coined. Ask them if they knew Shakespeare was a favorite author of Tupac Shakur's

If you need help with this, check out my Shakespeare Introduction presentation. It can be used with ANY Shakespeare play or unit, is editable, and comes with an editable student handout: The Life & Times of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare freebie - use with any play

2. Be Prepared: This is the hard part, but it's essential. Know the play you are going to teach. Use graphic novels or the Manga editions if it will help you AND your students.  Read translations, study famous quotes from the play, and, most importantly, find ways it can connect to your students’ lives. The Folger Shakespeare Library website is an excellent place to start. You can also use the No Fear Shakespeare (SparkNotes) website for translations of the text.

Have your students watch the play then act it out.

3. Watch It/Act It: Plays are meant to be performed and watched, not to be read in silence or sitting in desks. Watch the play in class (there are plenty of great versions available), pausing to discuss lines more in-depth and the emotions within those lines, THEN have your students perform select scenes. Unless your class is a drama class, most students will feel uncomfortable acting in front of the class, at least right away. Allowing them to see the scene(s) first and study their lines before they perform will help ease their fears. I usually just select a few scenes from the play to be acted as it would take much too long to both watch AND act the entire play. Don’t forget to use props! They can be as simple as fake daggers, sheets that students can fashion into robes, and fake ivy students can use as headpiece or crown. To help with understanding the lines, here’s a FREE handout you can use with your students.

Free Shakespeare Download

4. Get Creative: Use a portion of your class period (10-15 minutes) for creative time during the unit. 

• While you are introducing Shakespeare, have students recreate a model of the Globe theater. 
• If your students are struggling with the lines, use memes to help them understand, then challenge them to create their own. 
• Make masquerade masks while watching Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and others. You can use the templates in my FREE handout.
• Decorate fake daggers to use as props while acting out certain scenes.
• Provide coloring pages for students. Coloring is a great way for students to decompress and it’s also been shown to boost creativity in teens.

5. Create a Parody: One of my students’ favorite activities all year is creating parodies for Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar. They hear about the assignment from previous students and look forward to it all year. This anticipation, of course, generates and builds excitement for studying Shakespeare. Plus, they tend to grasp the content better while practicing essential technical and communication skills. You can view some of my students’ past projects on my YouTube Playlist: Student Video Parodies and learn more about assigning a parody here.

6. Bring Food: A guaranteed way to get your students excited about Shakespeare is to bring food! When I teach Julius Caesar, I’ll often bring in grapes, cheese, mixed nuts, and sparkling grape juice and call it our Ancient Roman feast. In fact, that combination of food can be used for many of Shakespeare’s plays. You can also plan ahead and have students sign-up to bring in a snack so you don’t have to provide it all. It is amazing how motivating food can be in class.

Six tips for teaching Shakespeare

Make sure you check out these great Shakespeare resources and check out Addie William's post on Romeo & Juliet:

Six Creative Ideas for Teaching Romeo & Juliet by Addie Williams
Romeo and Juliet Unit Plan by Presto Plans
Shakespeare Interactive Notebook Flip Book by The Classroom Sparrow
Macbeth by Shakespeare Student Workbooks by Stacey Llyod
Introducing Shakespeare Learning Stations by Room 213
Introduction to Shakespeare Escape Room by Nouvelle ELA

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