Holy #QRBreakIN, Batman!

Student-centered sub planning with a religious twist!

A few weeks back, I had the chance to step in as a week-long substitute for a colleague of mine. She had just picked up a new semester religion class, and was less than a month into the course when she learned that she would have to miss some time for a minor procedure that would put her out of commission for about five meetings of the class. As a classroom teacher, there’s an old joke that it’s actually harder to be *out* of the building than it is to be in it. And so extended absences are definitely not an ideal scenario under any circumstances — but so early in a semester (with a brand new roster of students, no less)? A five day sabbatical is a guaranteed momentum killer. So rather than leave the students with a snoozer of a “watch a movie” assignment (or worse, sacrifice a full week of learning), the teacher and I worked together before she the went out on leave to develop a modified #QRBreakIN for her brand-new unit on morality.

(Full disclosure: since we had already used re-skinned variants of this exact same pedagogy for our back to school teacher training AND for all of our school’s summer reading exams this year, we were able to hit the ground running pretty quickly).

The idea was to treat these five days without the regularly scheduled teacher as a sort of “religious retreat,” where student teams could work together at their own pace, trekking around a series of self-guided station activities in an effort to pre-teach all of the material that we otherwise would have had to cover in a typical week’s worth it teacher-directed lecture. The idea was to create a series of asynchronous activities with corresponding bite-sized deliverables to make sure that every student had mastered the assigned course content (without creating massive piles of work for the teacher to grade once she returned) — and thus our “Camp Wojtyla” #QRBreakIN was born.

As an added bonus, we themed the entire weeklong activity around this idea of “following in the footsteps” of the late Pope Saint John Paul II, drawing the storyline for our game directly from the real-life biography of this iconic world leader. What better way to tackle difficult moral questions and teach empathy than by asking students to walk through the very same scenario that a real-life young adult was forced to make sense of when he was barely a year older than their same age? The goal was to shatter the myth that saints are born into some sort of special and unattainable club for the ultra religious, and so we sought to humanize the Holy Father by scattering candid photographs and snippets of his authentic life experiences throughout each station.

In the end, we cooked up ten unique stations worth of asynchronous activity — blending traditional classroom practices like timed note-taking and good old fashioned face to face conversation with a smattering of interactive classroom technologies like Quizizz, Google Forms, Padlet, and Flipgrid. And as the resident substitute teacher (aka “Park Ranger”) in charge of keeping the “game” on the rails? The lesson plan was simple: check in with student groups as they move at their own pace to complete as many centers as they could before the end of Friday’s class. Any centers that a team didn’t complete would automatically become individual student homework over the weekend — thereby ensuring that every student had completed every single activity when their teacher returned and the class resumed its regularly scheduled program the following Monday. And since each activity station was either:

a) Automatically graded on the spot (like Quizizz and EdPuzzle)

b) Quickly spot-checked by even a half competent substitute teacher (like me!) — including the Web Quest, the YouTube station, and the Sketchnote activity. Or…

c) Neatly collected into a central hub for all submissions that the full time teacher could literally grade from home in real time or at her leisure (Flipgrid, Google Forms, and Padlet)…

The week of “sub duty” turned into little else besides a quick “hi! I’m Mr. Meehan” intro followed by a brief rundown of the tasks that the teacher had left for the group to complete in her absence. Other than that? The class time was the students’ to use as they wished.

On your marks, get set, go.

And so, when the first day of my sub assignment finally arrived, I smiled and greeted this new group of students at the door as they made their way into the classroom where the activity landing page slide was already projected there on the overhead board and waiting for them to find their seats. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard one student take note of the board and say:

“Oh man. It’s one of these?!

He wasn’t angry, mind you. Rather, his exasperation simply made it clear that realized the class wouldn’t just be a wasted week of study hall, because there was plenty of real work in store. Move at your own pace? No problem.

But the only way through it is to do it.

Best sub plan ever.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Laura, a high school music teacher and fellow graduate of The Catholic University of America, and a giant-sized Maine Coon cat named Jack.

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