Christian Miller didn't do substitute teaching because he needed the money. He did it because he enjoyed it. He was a former teacher, now retired, and he sincerely liked being around children. "Subbing is one of the ways I stay young," he told many of his friends.
Recently assigned to sub in a third grade classroom, Christian was moving uneventfully through the day. Thankfully, no behavior problems required his attention. He had followed the detailed lesson plans for math and language arts. Spelling appeared next on the agenda.
The directions for spelling were simple enough. Christian was instructed to announce a ten-minute study time and then give the students a trial test on their weekly list of words. Students spelling all words correctly on the trial test would be excused from the final test on Friday.
At the conclusion of the short study time, Christian asked students to clear off their desks and take out a piece of notebook paper. Immediately, seven students sprang from their chairs and headed towards a bookcase at the back of the room. "Whoa," announced Mr. Miller. "Where are you going?"
"We're going to get the blockers," two students answered simultaneously.
"Blockers? What are blockers?" asked the surprised substitute teacher.
"They're what we use to block our papers so that other kids can't see them," answered one eight-year old. "They block the other person's view," added another.
Constructed with two 8 by 10 sheets of cardboard and taped in the middle, blockers stand upright. They are designed to shield one student's paper from another's eyes.
"No, no, no," cautioned the substitute. "We don't need blockers."
"Yes we do," responded the third-graders.
"Why?" Christian asked aloud.
"Because we'll look on each other's papers," said one child. "Yeah," agreed several others.
"You look at each other's papers?" asked Christian.
"Several of us," reported one student.
"No," countered Christian, "no one will look today. We don't need the blockers."
"We need them because some kids cheat. They look," warned a well-intentioned girl in the back of the room.
"Let me see a show of hands," challenged Christian. "How many of you are going to look on another's paper?"
No hands were raised.
"See, we don't need blockers today," Christian explained to the class.
"They say they won't, but they will," a student informed the substitute teacher. Heads nodded in agreement.
Undaunted, Christian asked, "How many of you are just saying that you won't look, but you really will?"
Still no hands.
"See," he said again, "no one in this room is going to look."
"We always use blockers," shared one persistent student who wasn't buying into the we don't need blockers theme. "Mrs. Tattersall wants us to use them so we don't cheat. They block us from cheating," she explained, hoping to get this substitute teacher to finally appreciate the necessity of blockers.
"OK, we'll use blockers," announced Christian, appearing to finally cave in to the perceived need to use an external object to protect one child's paper from another's need to look.
"We'll use blockers," he continued, "only this time we'll use our inside blockers. Looking or not looking at another's paper is an internal decision that each of you make. It's something that happens on the inside of you. If each of you chooses to use your inside blocker, we won't need outside blockers. Things like honesty, integrity, respect, and caring are decisions that each of us make on the inside. When you make an inside decision, the outside takes care of itself. Outside blockers are only needed when the inside blockers have not been turned on."
"How about if we play with using our inside blockers today and see how that goes?" Christian challenged the room full of eight-year olds. "Let's see how well your inside blockers are working. Are you willing to turn them on and see what happens?"
"Yes," several students responded, finally conceding to the relentless challenge of their substitute teacher.
"O.K. Number your papers from one to fifteen. Put your name in the upper right hand corner. Turn on your internal blocker. Here we go."
The spelling test proceeded without incident. Students practiced spelling words and they practiced using their inside blockers.
Following the test, Christian allowed students to correct their own papers. Papers were then collected and left for the regular classroom teacher to peruse. Later, he assumed, scores would be added to a grade book so that the learning could be appropriately documented.
No record was made of the 23 eight-year olds who successfully used internal blockers that day. No note was left for the regular classroom teacher to explain why blockers weren't used. No documentation of the learning experience was necessary. Perhaps that type of learning is best recorded the way it is used, on the inside, in the hearts and minds of the students who experience it.