Archive for March, 2011

March 31, 2011

Reading Resource for Vocabulary

by stryson

So, my fifth graders are in the middle of taking a test right now, so I’m taking a moment to tell you about a great resource that this class is obsessed with: Wordgirl.

Wordgirl is a PBS cartoon.  She is a superhero that hails from the planet “Lexicon,” and she uses her advanced vocabulary skills to solve crimes. It’s really good for the kids; they use two key words each episode, so the word is stressed and repeated.  The definition comes up in multiple contexts, so the kids see the flexibility of our language.  To top it all off, it’s very funny.

You can access Wordgirl here.

March 28, 2011

Quotes from homework help

by stryson

Me: “Mrs. Tryson is going to lose her mind…”

Student: “Can I have it?” Pause. “I’ll make someone eat it. Smarticles!”

March 28, 2011

Resource: WebRangers

by stryson

One of the resources I use regularly for my Social Studies class is WebRangers. It’s a site designed and maintained by the National Park service to educate children about history, geography, natural resources, the environment, and, of course, the national parks. The only time I run into a problem using this site is when my kids get a little impulsive and want to skip through the activity as quickly as possible, just to earn the badge without making any effort. In general, it’s a great independent learning experience for the kids, and it’s fun, too.

March 27, 2011

Process, process, process.

by stryson

We’re in the midst of parent-teacher conferences, and one conference that I had on Friday really got me thinking.  For this child, the theme of the conference definitely kept coming back to “process, process process…. routine, routine, routine.”  This child totally needs support to approach assignments deliberately and walk through the process of completing them, and he needs a lot of repetition of this so that he can learn to do so on his own, eventually.  I got to thinking about how many of us, even if we don’t have major organizational and attention difficulties, can relate to this.

Have you ever walked purposefully into a room, only to stop in your tracks, because you cannot remember why you’re there?  How about that feeling when you’re certain you’ve forgotten to do something, but you just cannot put your finger on what it is?  We’ve probably all experienced moments where we’re not paying 100% attention to someone speaking, only to find suddenly that they’ve got an expectation of you – a reply, following through on instructions, etc., and you have no idea what it is.

Every assignment and every set of directions can be like that for this kid. It’s not a memory thing; it’s definitely a matter of being deliberate, paying attention, and  methodically addressing pieces of directions. He’s working without the internal sorting system and scheduler that we take for granted most of the time.

Most of the time. There are some days I could definitely use, to quote phrases I find myself using often in PLEPs, “directions repeated and rephrased,” and “slow, sequential, chunked directions.”

March 24, 2011

Inferencing Skills

by stryson

Inferencing and drawing conclusions are incredibly difficult to teach, but I’m trying to make them fun for my students.  Here are two ideas I’ve been working with:

Guess The Holiday

I passed out an index card with  a holiday name written on it to each of the students. (I stretched for some “holidays.” It’d be more accurate to call them “special days,” since I included first & last day of school, birthday, etc.)  One by one, they took turns coming up to tell the class about their day, without mentioning the holiday.  The rest of the class had to guess what holiday they had.  Some were easy; Christmas was guessed almost immediately.  Last day of school and April Fool’s were middling in difficulty, and the kids really struggled with Easter – though that had more to do with the “it” student’s expressive language abilities more than anything.  All in all, the kids had fun with this, and it made them think.

Describe the Person

Next week (once standardized testing is done), I am doing this activity with my students.  First, I am going to bring in several bags – a backpack, a duffel bag, a grocery bag.  Each is going to have several objects inside.  The kids will have to describe the fictional owner of the bag based on what they know from those objects.  I’ve never tried this activity before; I’ll report on how it goes.

Anyone have other good ideas for inferencing activities?  The more game-like they are or seem, the better.

March 23, 2011

Turning Regret into Inspiration

by stryson

It’s natural to look back and feel some measure of regret for certain instances in one’s life. At least, if it isn’t natural, it’s certainly common. We often learn difficult lessons in ways that are uncomfortable in hindsight, and we cringe and long to tell our former selves how to handle the situation better, how to get more out of our lives. I don’t know if these hindsight visions are particularly tailored for other people, but I find myself, as an educator, focusing more on school-related regrets.

My original degree was not in education; I came to find my profession of choice after graduating and experiencing the “real world,” which was, of course, vastly different than high school or college me had supposed.  Don’t be misled; I don’t regret my choice in college or degree in the slightest. I learned a staggering amount in college, both in life lessons and in book lessons. My college of choice, a tiny liberal arts college, was  the perfect environment for all of the self-discoveries I managed during those four years. I had safety nets and an effective support system. Still, I cringe at how ineffectively I spent huge swaths of time at school. I had poor planning skills and often finished papers and projects at the last minute, rushing through them and compromising their quality. I often took the maximum number of absences a class would allow, and I totally manipulated extensions where they were available. I had so many opportunities to delve deeply into my subject matter, yet I often skimmed the surface, content with just what was enough. Why?

The first, and most obvious, reason was a lack of maturity. Of course, I would’ve argued against that assertion tooth and nail at the time – I swore I was more mature than most of my peers. In some ways, I had more worldly experience than some of my cohorts, but maturity in the sense of  being ready to buckle down and tackle academia? Not particularly. I spent hours upon hours in the library, and I was terribly proud of that. However, I could’ve cut those hours in half had I not spent so much time on coffee breaks, checking my email, and chatting on AIM. I hesitate to label this my big downfall, though; I grew a lot in an emotional sense during that period, and much of the socialization that went on either in the coffee shop or out on the library stoop was a huge contributor to that growth.

The second underlying cause of my slackerdom during college was an excessive amount of emotional tumult in my life, stemming from several sources. I’m not talking about romantic entanglements budding and imploding, which they did with some regularity, because that’s a factor in most college students’ lives.  I had an unfortunate mixture of sometimes debilitating panic attacks (I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder at ten years old) and strife from the home front. My parents later divorced, but much of the discord that led to the divorce was at a rolling boil during this period in my life. I’ve always swung drastically between defending my younger self in regard to this situation (“No one could handle that sort of stress!”) and chastising myself for not handling it better (“You were 120 miles away from that, you should have been able to ignore it and focus on your work.”). In truth, the “right” answer is somewhere between the two, if there is an answer at all for the situation.

Lastly, and least correctable, as far as I can tell, among my missteps on my educational path is a personality quirk of mine. This “quirk,” (I specifically hesitate to call it a flaw) was rampant among my cohorts; it’s a large part of the personality type attracted to my alma mater. I consistently, almost systematically, bite off way more than I can chew. I enter every situation with disproportionately high hopes. I took near the credit maximum every semester of college and participated in countless organizations. To top it off, I worked throughout college. During one semester of my senior year, I specifically remember my Tuesday schedules being 22 hours long. I always want to do everything. I juggle things deftly for a period of time, but inevitably, I’ll slip in one area, and everything starts to unravel. I continue to do this, to an extent, even though I should know better. I cling to phrases like “well rounded” and “multi-talented” and  run them to their extremes.

All that said, meditations on one’s missteps have their place, but what positive can I pull out of shamefacedly looking back at the past?  I may not be able to change my former self, but I can try to apply those insights to the students I try to reach in the current moment. My own mistakes can help me recognize patterns and warning signs in my own students.  At least, that is what I aspire to do with these lessons.  On the whole, I think I succeed, primarily in Underlying Cause Two, the massive anxiety.  In the population I teach, anxieties run rampant, and I try to add a measure of patience specifically for that consideration. In a broader sense, I think the biggest lesson that educators can take from individual struggles is that of having compassion for their charges.  There are many teachers out there who are already doing this; I can think of many in my own history.  If their praises are not unsung, they’re at least sadly under-sung.  Without caring teachers and professors whom I could trust, my list of regrets could have been much, much longer.

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March 20, 2011

It’s Sunday Afternoon

by stryson

… the time when I usually find myself thinking a lot about the week to come. Moreover, it’s a Sunday afternoon in March, wherein I’m usually stressing about the week to come. I find myself here, the Sunday immediately before parent-teacher conferences begin, and I don’t feel stressed. I may change my stance by tomorrow afternoon, but for now, I’m content with the way the week is shaping up.

I’m looking forward to working on a Social Studies project in earnest. I’ve started working on a play with the kids – we combine both third grade classes on Thursdays and Fridays, and I’ve written a play for them to perform about the Statue of Liberty. If it goes well, I’m considering expanding the play (which is currently about 4 pages long) into a longer piece about U.S. Landmarks. It’s heavily inspired by a play I was in when I was in fourth grade, which was called, “Look at New Jersey.”

I’ve been trying ever since I became a teacher to find a full copy of this play.  It was a brilliantly written overview of New Jersey for children. (The 4th grade Social Studies curriculum in New Jersey is all about the state.) To this day, I can recite New Jersey’s 21 counties in alphabetical order and locate them on a blank map thanks to this play. (I was the narrator – I had to point them out on an overhead projection.) There were appearances by Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, Bruce Springsteen…. and adorable songs about immigrants and tomatoes. A friend’s response via facebook at least gave me a name to search for, though a search at the time turned up fruitless. However, I decided to try searching again while writing this post, and I have a lead! I sent an email to the man who may or may not have been the author of that play. (He is billed as “Mr.” on the program, which my friend still had, so I’m not certain if I emailed the right guy!)

I digress. In any case, I’m excited to face the week when there are fun things on the horizon, like putting together a third grade play. Now’s the time to enjoy it; standardized testing is going to take up the second half of the week, and that is usually draining. No! I refuse to think about anything except the sunshine outside and the fun prospects for the week.

March 17, 2011

Kids can be so sweet…

by stryson

… as evidenced by one of my third graders today. This young man has a very hard time staying positive, but he and I have a very good rapport. Today, he slips me this note. I’m going to type it first as he wrote it, and then afterward with the spelling interpreted by me.

to ms. tyson

You are a coll preson guess ho I am you help me get sluchon’s I go buind your Desk I’m in This class rigth now ho am I


To Mrs. Tryson,

You are a cool person. Guess who I am. You help me get solutions. I go behind your desk. I’m in this class right now. Who am I?


It was cute. I love the “You help me get solutions” line.


It’s moments like this that make all the stress worth it.

March 16, 2011

Singing Bowl

by stryson

One of the big changes I’ve made in my life over the past year is beginning to meditate. I attend a class weekly at the local YMCA, and I occasionally attend retreats, book studies, and other sessions at my teacher’s studio. This has done all sorts of wonderful things for my own psyche, patience, and blood pressure, but it’s also crept into my teaching. I’ve realized its influence in the classroom several times, but this week, it has been blatantly apparent, with good reason. I’ve brought my Tibetan singing bowl into class.

This bowl is hand-made by Tibetan Buddhist monks in Nepal. Its primary purpose is to mark beginnings and endings ceremonially and to support one’s relaxation and return to the present moment during meditation. The bowl produces a beautiful, multi-tonal sound when it rings or “sings” – a sound produced by running the mallet around the rim, causing sound to well up from within the bowl. This sound actually works on your brain in some way that is not entirely clear to me. If my memory serves, it’s the alpha waves that the sound works on, which contributes to its ability to soothe and calm.

In any case, my sixth graders were reading a story on Monday about hieroglyphics. After a great conversation about alphabets other than our own, I brought in my singing bowl, which has a mantra engraved on the side.

Singing Bowl

I, of course, expected the kids to have a lot of questions about the bowl. I wasn’t expecting them to be as completely and utterly fascinated by it as they are, though! I’ve had multiple requests from each of my classes to bring it in each day moving forward. Today, my benchmark class was having a test, and I began the class by explaining what we were going to do and ringing the bowl to signal the beginning of class. I have never seen that group so composed; children that are normally off the walls took the entire test without incident. Across the board, I found that the kids were calmer and more collected with beginnings and endings ritually marked by a ringing of the bowl. It’s been an interesting experiment in adding an alternative structure to my class, and I’m going to continue it going forward.

The aide I have in with my third graders said that she once wanted to bring in a singing bowl to class at the school where she was formerly employed, but they wouldn’t allow it. I suppose they shied away from it because of the possible religious overtones associated with the bowl, or maybe for the politically uncomfortable situation with Tibet. I’d be interested to hear their reasoning, but unfortunately, I’ll just have to wonder. Regardless, I’m excited for the new element added to my classroom.

March 12, 2011


by stryson

I don’t get much time to stay up on current events “real time” during the day. I get the news when I head to school and when I head home. It’s amazing how much can change in that short period of time. Yesterday morning, I knew about the quake in Japan, but the news was still saying, “Wow, they were ridiculously well-prepared for this. It’s above everything they’ve ever experienced, but, you know, they’re handling it okay.” Satisfied, I went about my business. I knew of the tsunami warnings, so I checked on some relatives in Hawaii, and then I dove into teaching for the day.

I came home to a different world. The devastation in the aftermath of the quake – the flooding, the fires, the nuclear plant leaks – is overwhelming. All eyes will be on Japan in the coming days, weeks, and months as they pick themselves up from this disaster. The beautiful thing is, however, you don’t just have to watch. In this interconnected age, it’s easy to lend a hand from far away. A Japanese friend of mine from my days in California, Riku, has a blog post outlining your best info and aid sources here:

Japan, we are with you, in thoughts, hearts, prayers, and action.

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