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As discussed in "Help! I'm a Substitute Teacher with No Lesson Plans! Part 1," walking into a classroom and being expected to teach a group of students when you were not provided lesson plans or the proper supplies to carry the plans left to you can be a stressful situation. Below are some tried and true activities I have used that fill time and keep students engaged. The hardest part about being left to teach a class with no lesson plans is finding enough activities to keep the students from acting poorly. Even though some of these activities are not necessarily the most intellectually stimulating, they are educational and will keep most students busy depending on their age.
Give a practice spelling test.
If the students have spelling words, have them work in pairs and practice spelling their words. You can have them write or come up with sentences using their spelling words to share with a partner. Then, do a practice spelling test by saying each word and having the students write them down. The students can grade their work. This usually takes about 30 to 45 minutes.
Read a book aloud.
Young students, especially kindergartners, first graders, and second graders, love to be read to. Throughout the day you can read a few picture books to them out loud and ask questions along the way. You can have them write a sentence or paragraph about their favorite part of the book or answer another question that goes along with the story. They can draw a picture to go with it as well.
Teach a K-W-L Lesson.
A K-W-L is a very simple and effective activity to do before and after reading a book or teaching about a particular topic. A K-W-L chart is a three column chart and each letter goes on the top of each column. The “K” column is for the question, “What do you know?” Students can brainstorm everything they know about a particular topic and list them in the “K” column. The “W” column is for the question, “What do you want to learn?” Students think of questions they have about the topic so they can focus on finding the answers to those questions. The “L” column is for the question, “What did you learn?” This is where students answer some of the questions they came up with as well as record the information they learned about. More information about K-W-L charts can be found on The National Educational Association web page here.
At the elementary level, a good way to implement a K-W-L is to have the students work on the first column independently, then partner up to share what they know, then share out as a whole group. Repeat this process for the second column. Give the students the opportunity to learn about the topic by reading a book, giving them text to read, giving them time to research, or showing a video if possible. Finish filling out the chart by once again allowing the students to work independently, then with a partner, and then sharing with the whole group. I have used this lesson many times and the students are generally engaged. If you have access to the Magic School Bus episodes, they are perfect for this activity.
Teach a lesson using a Venn Diagram.
Teaching a lesson using a Venn Diagram is another useful activity. A Venn Diagram is a chart with two overlapping circles. Each circle is for information about two different topics or pieces of content. The overlapping portion in the middle is for what the two topics have in common. In order to use a Venn Diagram while teaching, you just need to find two things to compare. It could be two books you read aloud, or you can read a book and a show a video clip about the same topic to compare and contrast. Students can compare and contrast characters in a book or they work in pairs and compare and contrast one another. After they make the Venn Diagram you can have them write a sentence, paragraph, or three paragraphs describing each topic and how they are the same. More information about how to use a Venn Diagram can be found on the website Read Write Think here.
Assign a writing prompt.
Another simple but somewhat time consuming activity for students to do is to write a response to a writing prompt. Depending on the age of the students, you can decide how much you want them to write and you can go through some of the steps of the writing process. Give them a question to answer, for example, “If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?” Have them brainstorm about the topic independently. A good graphic organizer to use is a circle map. A circle map has two concentric circles where the topic is in the center circle and details are written in the outer circle. Have the students share ideas with a partner, and then have volunteers share what they came up with as a class. Next, have them write a rough draft answering the question. Then, they can edit their writing independently and also edit with a partner. The last step is to write a final draft. Remind them to use their best handwriting. They can add a picture to go with it depending on how much time you have. If you are teaching an elementary class, you can do some steps of this activity throughout the day instead of trying to do it all at once so the kids don’t get bored with it. Many writing prompts can be found online using a quick Google search. I suggest giving a specific prompt instead of having them write about whatever they want just to help keep the students focused.
Have the students write a letter.
Writing a letter is another activity that students enjoy. You can start by teaching or reviewing the parts of a friendly letter: heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature. Depending on the age of the students, you can have them take notes and write a sample friendly letter labeling each of the parts. If you have access to YouTube, I suggest playing “The Friendly Letter Song” by Beth Pergola. After describing each part, have them choose who they would like to write a letter to. Have them write their letters and draw a picture to go with them. You can assign students another student to write a letter to and later in the day have the students write back to the person who wrote to them. You can also have them write a letter as someone else, for example, as a pioneer writing to their family back home, to tie some social studies content into the activity.
Another way to spend the day is to play some games. It is a good idea to keep the games simple and short and sprinkle them in throughout the day. Here are a few of my favorite games to play while subbing:
What’s New?: Students take turns sharing what is new about their lives. It is very simple, but the kids love to share and hear other students share their stories.
Sparkle: Sparkle is a spelling game. Give the students a word and they take turns spelling each letter of the word. When the word is complete, the next student says, “Sparkle.” The next student in line is out. Students can also get out if they say the wrong letter while spelling. An easy way to determine who is out and who is in is to have students stand up and then sit down when they get out.
Quiet Mouse: Quiet Mouse is a game to students, but to teachers it is actually a way to keep them quiet for a few minutes. You simply choose a “Quiet Mouse,” aka the quietest student who is sitting up straight. That student then chooses the next quiet mouse and they continue on. Students between kindergarten and second grade surprisingly really like this activity, but it can only last for a few minutes. However, it is easy to play many times throughout the day, especially between transitions.
Around the World: Around the World is a math facts game. Two students stand to begin and the teacher holds a flash card. Whichever student wins moves on to race the next student. The game continues on. The object is to make it around the classroom, or around the world, but usually the students switch throughout the game many times.
Bring some worksheets with you that will keep students busy.
It is always a good idea to bring a few master copies of worksheets to make copies of when you get to school. A simple Google search will help you find a variety of worksheets in different subjects and grade levels. A great way to be prepared ahead of time is to create files for different grades you regularly sub for so you can grab the file you need each day before going to sub.
Have the students create a test.
If possible, give students content to create their own test with. You can give them a reading passage, a math topic, or allow them to research a topic using a computer if possible. Have them work with a partner to create a set of questions. Go over different types of questions like multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank, or essay questions. You can give them a set amount of different types of questions to create if you like. After they have time to make the test, have them trade tests with another partnership to complete the tests. You can also have students create story problems and do the same activity.
Create station rotation activities.
Kids always like doing station rotations. A “station” is simply an activity to be completed with a small group. Depending on the size of your class, you can create groups between four to six students and create about four to six stations as well. Explain each station before starting and then assign each group to a station to begin. Give the students a set amount of time to complete the activity. Eight to fifteen minutes is usually a good amount of time. You don’t want them to stay at one station for too long because then they are more likely to get distracted. Of course, you are limited by your materials in the class you are subbing for, but some good ideas for stations include a computer or iPad activity, a worksheet, a “catch up” station, math games, puzzles, buddy reading, or anything else that will keep them engaged.
As you continue teaching, you will learn about different types of activities that students enjoy and keep them engaged. Pay attention to how different age groups react to different activities. Although it may seem easier to give students “free time” or time to work on assignments from another class, I have found that giving them a specific task is a better way to keep the class under control and to keep me less stressed. I hope that your future subbing assignments come with great lesson plans and plenty of materials to work with, but in case they don’t, remember to refer back to this article for some helpful ways to get through your day.