In my school district, and I'm sure most others, every teacher needs to have a set of "emergency lesson plans", in case they are sick or need to be out for a day, so that the substitute can have something for the students to do. They usually are not something like "Go over last night's homework, then do section 10.3" because

  1. These emergency plans need to be in usually within the first few weeks of school so you have no idea where you will be at with students when you are sick.
  2. I don't really trust the sub to legitimately instruct my students.

What I am looking for is ideas for substitute/emergency lesson plans for stand-alone, cohesive, meaningful activities that can be completed in one day (say ~1 hour long period) and that are mostly student-driven, i.e. I don't want to rely on the sub to do the heavy lifting, they should really just be a facilitator. Any suggestions?

  • $\begingroup$ What grade levels in particular? $\endgroup$
    – Chris C
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ Currently, I teach 10th and 11th but next year I will also be taking on a 9th grade section $\endgroup$
    – celeriko
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Put on a movie. $\endgroup$
    – BobaFret
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 0:40

3 Answers 3


Here is a suggestion: take an interesting but related topic (or two or three), introduce it on one day, and save the rest for sick/free days. For example, in studying sequences and series in calculus, one could mention the Fibonacci sequence, and Lucas-Lehmer sequences, and note their connection to factorization and other number theoretical results. One could assign calculus problems to study rates of change and come up with estimates of how large the nth member is (or how large the difference is), as well as see the applications. The point is to give the students a chance to explore and see what they can do with the tools: the sub just needs to ask questions and follow up questions (on a sheet only the sub sees). You may end up visiting the class on the sick day just to see how much fun they may be having.

Gerhard "The Substitute Might Never Leave" Paseman, 2015.05.15

  • $\begingroup$ interesting idea! I like the strategy of introducing something intriguing early in the year but "leaving them hanging" until I am not there, might give them motivation to work hard on a day that is usually viewed as a "play day" $\endgroup$
    – celeriko
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 16:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It can work well. However, you should design it so that it breaks nicely into two halves, the latter of which requires a small review and appropriate light lifting. Also, be sure to test it so that the length is right, and that there is enough extra material to keep students busy. Gerhard "Good Luck With This Idea" Paseman, 2015.05.15 $\endgroup$ Commented May 15, 2015 at 17:44

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Tessellations -- hands on activity, using paper, scissors and tape. I did this as a 40-minute activity with fifth graders, and it worked.

  2. Short Eurogames. You can write to some of the publishers and ask for donations for your classroom. You'll want to focus on short games, for example Fluxx.

  3. Arithmetic in base 8, base 2, base 16.

  4. Arithmetic with abacuses.

  5. Students work in groups to measure the classroom and make a three-dimensional paper model to scale. Materials needed: Metal self-retracting measuring tapes -- the kind sold in hardware stores, paper, rulers, scissors, tape, glue. Perhaps it would help to have a prep lesson where they cut out some pre-printed models and glue them, so they get the hang of shaping and folding the little flaps. Or you could give them a flat illustration of something, with the measurements provided, and ask them to make a scale paper model. Give each team something different.

  6. Origami. Origami paper and xeroxed origami instructions. Make sure you choose models that are suitable for beginners. You could have a couple of more challenging models in reserve for the occasional student who's done a lot of origami on his own.

  7. Give an intro to some other branch of math that they haven't done much with yet.

  8. Have some biographical sketches of famous mathematicians ready, that can be read in 20 minutes; make sure to include women and people of color. Each student chooses one, reads it, and then shares with the class based on what they read. It's okay if more than one student chooses the same mathematician. Allow students to share with an alternative format -- for example, with an artistic impression rather than a summary of facts, or as a dialogue with a partner. I've seen the dialogue work well as a journalistic-type "interview" with the famous person, as though s/he were still alive. To get more women and people of color in your collection, it's okay to include scientists that had to use math in their work.

  9. Tangrams in groups of two students. One person creates a shape, outlines it, and gives the outline to the other student to try to reproduce. You can stand manila folders or pocket folders up on the table or desk so the other person can't see how you're arranging the pieces.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ RE: 3. I have found that base 4 arithmetic lends itself best to in-class activities. It is small enough that the block shapes can be illustrated and worked with (I've often used actual block manipulatives) but also big enough to see what is happening with ideas around regrouping and exchanging (which is tougher to see in base 2). $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2015 at 18:32

You might like the Magic Pancake problem, for students in Algebra II, and possibly in Algebra I. You might find many problems you'd like at the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival site, or at the National Association of Math Circles site.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I fixed them. (When you hit broken links, you might just try searching on the site name. That's what I did for the last link.) $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 15:41

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