This past spring, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Fargo Public Schools and in the Fargo Catholic Schools Network. For those who don’t recall, substitute teachers don’t actually teach. Their job consists mostly of making sure none of the students (none of whom is paying any attention to anything going on in the classroom) gets injured. No sane educator would let a sub actually teach. Often, the sub will supervise a test or hand out a worksheet to be completed by the end of class. Just as often, the sub will show a video.
These videos might be educational, but are they entertaining? I’m going to look back at all of the videos I showed this spring (at least those I can remember) and rank them on a scale of 1 to 10. Now, of course none of these videos would be my first choice for Saturday night viewing, but it goes without saying that some are more tolerable than others. When you’re showing the same video as many as five times in a single school day, having one you can stand is better than gold. So here they are: the productions that pass for substitute education in Fargo, North Dakota.
Bill Nye: Energy (9th Physical Science, Fargo North High) – 1990s TV science man Bill Nye talks about various forms of energy and how they can be harnessed and used. Just like on the TV, Nye’s enthusiasm rubs off. The show is full of good information, presented in an off-beat way. It’s dry sometimes, of course, but it’s a video about energy. It could be so much worse. 7/10
Biography: Neiman Marcus (Marketing, Fargo North High) – Again, this is just an episode of the old A&E TV series Biography. This particular one is about the founders of Neiman-Marcus clothing stores. Did you know Neiman and Marcus were brothers-in-law? Did you know that Mrs. Neiman (sister of Mr. Marcus) worked on the floor of the original store? Did you know that heir Stanley Marcus lived to be 96 years old and worked almost until his death? Neither did I. Good program. 9/10
Parent/Child Communication: Making Things Better (9th Health, Fargo South Campus II) – Oh my sweet Nord. Amazing. We all saw videos like this as kids – ones with awkward conversation-inducing setup that doesn’t ring true in any way. They’re ever more bizarre and amusing in adulthood. In this case, it’s a group of students and a teacher meeting during lunch hour to discuss how to improve communication with their parents. You get students saying things to each other like “You need to act like the adult. You made a contract with your father and now you need to honor it,” as well as hilariously introspective voiceovers where one group member tries to reason out how to apply the lessons he’s learned to his negotiations with his father. It’s from about 1986, and the generic 80s music and fashion just add to the fun. I saw this video four times, and I awaited each new class period like I was going to Disneyland. 10/10
Planet Earth: Deep Oceans (7th Science, Sullivan Middle School) – This is part of the acclaimed Planet Earth series that aired on the Discovery Channel. Narrator Sigourney Weaver (sweet!) takes us underwater for a look at some fish and various other sea creatures. It’s tremendously well-done, if that’s your thing. It isn’t mine. I can’t fault the production, but I can only look at so many fish on a TV screen before my eyes start to glaze over. I did have a student mutter "I wish it was Oceanic flight 815," which led to a nice discussion of Lost, though. 5/10
Roofing (Tech Ed, Fargo North High) – Here, an astoundingly chipper man and woman tell us how to get started on our own roofing project at home. I kicked a kid out of class for being foul-mouthed during this video once. That was by far the most exciting part of my day. 3/10
Selling Parts IV & V (Marketing, Fargo South High) – Some guy who works for Ben & Jerry’s walks the audience through a typical sale, from initial meeting to final agreement. That’s what happened in part IV, I think. Part V was something else, about following up sales and making sure the customer is happy. I don’t know. I had mostly seniors in this class, and it was right at the end of the year, and I read Ultimate Spider-Man all day anyway. 4/10
Ser and Estar (8th Spanish, Carl Ben Eielson Middle School) I actually read during this day, too, (the first three A Series of Unfortunate Events novels) because the room had a student teacher and he did everything (in fact, we had a nice talk about our mutual disdain of student teaching). But I stopped reading for these fourteen minutes each period. A heavily accented narrator explains the proper usage of the Spanish verb forms ser and estar in rhymes such as:
“Do you know ser? And Estar, his brother?
When to use one, when to use the other?
It’s easy, man. Just like kissing your mother!”
Meanwhile, the cartoon images on the screen are completely hideous. They look like they were drawn by an eight-year-old using Microsoft Paint, and they aren’t actually animated. The camera just moves over the static image, in the style of a Random House Read-Along video. The whole thing is like an insane fever dream. I have no idea how to use ser or estar properly, but I won’t soon forget the experience of watching this amazing motion picture. 10/10
Sport Science: Reaction Time (9th Physical Science, Fargo South Campus II) – This is an episode of a series on FOX Sports Net which I hadn’t heard of. I’ve since noticed my brothers watching it, though. It looks as the science behind various things in sports. Here, as you may have guessed, the subject is reaction time. It looks at quarterbacks trying not to get hit, basketball players changing directions quickly, and a variety of other topics. I’m no sports fan, but I was fascinated. Also a plus: the announcer’s tendency to act like the sports guests are Amazing Humans (“One of the best quarterbacks of all time: Big Ben Roethlisberger!) 8/10
T3: Witness (8th Religion, Sullivan Middle School) – This is a pretty typical Christian “pastor talks to an audience of teenagers about some aspect of faith, and the camera frequently cuts to audience members who are clearly having a good time” video. I saw a bunch of these in confirmation. It’s a well-done example of the genre. A young pastor (who clearly thinks he’s a lot hipper than he really is, but seems like a nice fellow) talks about standing up for your faith when others mock you. It moved well, got its points across in an entertaining and occasionally genuinely amusing fashion, and wasn’t condescending, as these videos can often be. 7/10
Working with Acrylic (Tech Ed, Fargo North High) – I showed this the same day as Roofing. It’s a thousand times worse. Some guy who looks kind of Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds talks about acrylics and how his products are the best and you can use acrylics and your work will look just like this if you follow his step-by-step instructions that you can get if you call this number. It was only eleven minutes long, which was nice. I’ll give it one point for brevity. 1/10