Monday, January 25, 2016

On reading, making it through and Downton Abbey

Our days are a flurry of repetitious, usually wonderful, sometimes stressful, almost always loud and busy series of events.

He has been in Texas all this time: first to San Antonio, then to Austin, back to San Antonio.  He was supposed to be home for all of 22 hours - which I was really, REALLY looking forward to! - but, because DC was in the path of the great snowpocalypse 2016, his flight was rerouted and he bypassed Colorado.  Presumably to make it there before DC became entombed and Andrew Lincoln commenced riding a horse down the deserted streets of the Capitol.

It was a little ridiculous how very disappointed I was, considering it was only 22 hours at home.  Still, that would have been my husband's first hours at home in 2016.

The kids and I have fallen back into our usual routine:
5:30 - Mom wakes up
5:30-6:15 - Exercise and Bible study
6:30 - kids wake up
7:00 - breakfast
7:30 - get dressed and make beds
8:00-11:30 - School 
12:00 - lunch and play time
1:00-3:00 Nap (aka mom's chore time) 
3:00-5:00 - afternoon activities
5:00 - Make dinner and helper jobs
5:30 - Eat dinner
6:30 - baths and get ready for bed
7:00 - Livvy to bed, kids read or watch a show
7-7:30 - big kid night time routine and to bed
8:00 until quarter past forever - Mom cleans up, folds laundry, tidies, finishes jobs, preps for tomorrow and maybe gets some quiet TV or reading time.  Maybe.  (But probably not.)

The two big ones are doing swim lessons twice a week, and Leah is getting ready to start piano lessons at the beginning of February.  We also have CC every Monday from 9-12, and when you add in play dates, field trips, library visits, church, grocery shopping, doctor's visits and errand running, it's more than enough to keep us hopping.  

I have decided that 2:30 is tea time in our house.  Possibly because I've been watching too much Downton Abbey, but also because I desperately wanted a dedicated, relaxing, set apart time each and every day for me to rest.  

{See?  I'm really trying to make sure I schedule that in!}

Each day, I prepare my tea and a scone and settle in for thirty solid minutes of quiet reading.  It's heaven in the middle of my busy day.  If there are dirty dishes, they stay dirty.  If there are piles of half-folded laundry, it remains half-folded.  

That thirty minutes is my gift to myself.  

I'm also trying (hard.  And most often unsuccessfully) to get myself in bed at 9:00 to read, pray and wind down from the day.  I have such a difficult time sleeping when Casey is gone; I'm on extra-heightened alert all the time.  I hear each tiny whimper the kids make through the night.  I interpret every perfectly normal middle of the night noise as cause for serious alarm.  So going to bed is a legitimate challenge for me, but also incredibly necessary for sanity and patience and not losing my every loving mind purposes.  

Back in December, Casey and I made up our minds to quit Facebook and social media.  It has been such a blessing!  And frankly, I'm amazed at how much time it allows me to reclaim.  It's embarrassing, really.  

I've made it through five of the books on my 2016 list (and it's still January!  Score!): The Martian, Educating the Whole Hearted Child, Things You Won't Say, The Daily Five and One Thousand Gifts.  

The Martian was my favorite by a long shot.  And Matt Damon was adorable in the movie adaptation, which I watched one night having ordered myself Chinese take-out after the kids went to bed.  To eat All. By. Myself. {which, in case it was in question, is a ridiculous luxury.}

See?  Look at that awesome self care I'm practicing!

Sundays are my favorite, though.  I've given myself permission to let go of my usual evening routine - which, more often than not consists of chores, meal planning or prep, school planning or prep and a basket of laundry - and actually be in bed at 9 with the added bonus of Ben and Jerry's so that I can watch Downton Abbey.  It's my very favorite, the only show I consistently want to watch every single week, and it's the very last season.  

Plus, every now and again it strikes me that in my own home, I perform every single function of the entire cast of characters in Downton Abbey.  Hopefully with at least one tenth of the witty repartee.  

So January has been swallowed up in a fast-moving haze of motion and activity.  I'm blessed beyond measure that we usually do just fine on our own, even though it can be difficult and exhausting.  My kids are awesome, so helpful, and typically easy to manage.  I truly enjoy being their momma.  

And, with a little more emphasis on taking care of myself, the on and on-ness of it all is pretty manageable.  Of course... we're only three and a half weeks in. 

There's still time!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Transformation Tuesday

There are few things quite so wonderful as starting off the year with a transformation.

Now, here's the thing: we didn't actually do this transformation this year.

Or... last year.

There are a number of things on the renovation front I've been meaning to share and simply haven't had the time to do it.  I'm excited to finally show you this room today, because it is probably my favorite.  It may even be the most dramatic transformation we've completed so far.

This particular transformation dates all the way back to 2014, when we were still a family of four. The soon-to-be middle child needed to come out of the nursery to make way for a new addition, and we were ready to have a real kids room.  But to really appreciate just how far this room has come, we have to take it all the way back to where we started in the fall of 2012:

Oooofta.  There it is.  The original "before" in all its glory.  We did some updating, painting and carpeting when we first moved in, eventually replacing and upgrading the windows.

Things got better, but it was never really the room I dreamed it could be.

Then, with Olivia taking over the nursery, we knew that we wanted Logan and Leah to move in together for the foreseeable future.  While we were at it, we knew that it was time to makeover the space that had always settled for just okay into a truly wonderful place to be.

Welcome to the new (yes, it still counts!) and improved kids' room:

Since we were combining our girl and boy, together in a shared space, there were a couple of things that were important in planning the design.

  1. It had to be gender neutral, with hints of boy and girl but not too heavy on either side.
  2. When they moved in, they were only 4.5 and 2 so we didn't want the room to be too grown up.
  3. At the same time, we also wanted to steer clear of anything that felt overly theme-y or would be outgrown by either one faster than a pair of shoes. 

I absolutely love way this space turned out.  I think we succeeded in hitting a sweet spot that addresses all three issues.

The walls have been unified and lightened so that everything feels bright and airy, and so much bigger!  We went with accents of pink and blue - the respective favorite colors of Leah and Logan - wood and metal tones, and a healthy dose of white.

Floating shelves on either side of the bay window house their vast collection of books and create two cozy little reading nooks.

The vintage, slightly industrial look I was going for was emphasized by the lighting, and my lovely husband had the brilliant idea to run it with metal piping across the window itself. It's a detail I was skeptical about at first but have come to really love.  I'm so glad he convinced me to take the plunge!

My very favorite part by far, though, has to be this amazing planked wall.

It makes such a lovely statement, but subtly so.  It's the kind of thing that you enjoy without really noticing why it is so pleasant.

We added the dual L's and an ampersand marquis in galvanized metal, and the arrow marquis below to tie in and lend a little vintage-inspired charm.

Trying to select art was a bit of a challenge.  I had already purchased a few more "girly" items before we decided to move the kids in together.  I loved them and hated to see them go to waste.  After we painted white picture frames to match the rest of the room, and added a few items that balance and bring in more of that "boy" presence, the display works perfectly for my two little ones.  

That big space in the middle used to house a piece of art they collaborated on... but the darn frame keeps falling down.  So for now, it remains a big empty gap.  Oh well.  Life. 

A few other vintage-y, industrial(ish) details include this absolutely adorable alarm clock in bright red (of course!), 

and these apple crates that serve as toy boxes.  

Yeah, those happen to be some of my favorites.  

Each of my children got to select their own bedding so that they both have a sweet, cozy space that is all their own. 

Of course, some guidance may have been offered from this end in the form of limiting their choices so that it worked with the grand plan...

But they don't seem to mind, in the end.  

This shared space has been such a blessing for our family.  I know that it isn't a permanent solution, but it has been so much fun to watch those two enjoying this room and making memories together.  It makes the whole thing worth it.  And, as an added bonus, we have a room that is bright and charming, fit for girl and boy... just the look we were hoping for!

{Here is the original design board, and a bit of our progress back in real time along the way!}

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015: Homeschool Under Review

One of the most challenging parts of being a new teacher is that, in everything you do, you're doing it for the first time.

You're dealing with that particular demographic and group of learners for the first time.  You're planning curriculum activities from scratch for the first time.  You're trying to modify said activities to fit your spectrum of learners for the first time.  You're learning how to assess on the go, and you're making the necessary changes when any given lesson either works or doesn't.

It's a lot to process all at once at any level, but that first year it is nearly overwhelming.  And you make a ton of mistakes.  It's a phase of most teachers' lives that is such a trial by fire that we simply repress it instead of spending a ton of money on therapy.  (And let's face it, if you're a teacher, spending tons of money isn't an option anyway.)

I always laugh when people try to tell me how easy teachers have it.  I mean, they get summers off and they just re-use all the activities they did they did the year before.  Easy peasy, right?!

To which I reply a very dignified, HA!!!!

Is it true?  Can a teacher just reuse all the same stuff in any given year?

Well... yes and no.

The reality is that you want teachers to be able to reuse their old lesson plans to a certain extent, and not have to start over from scratch every year.

The reason for this is, like a professional sports player, there are two things that make us better: repetition and review.  We get the feel of a certain set of activities and how they will be received by our demographic of students.  We learn to anticipate the questions, the problems, the modifications necessary to make it a success.  We learn to better support the places that are going to be difficult, which parts are a little dry and boring and require a joke or two to keep everyone's attention (or we learn that it's okay to cut those boring parts altogether).  We have the opportunity to edit, edit, edit so that each lesson becomes something wholly different than what we started with.

And trust me when I tell you: Different, in this case, equals better.

There is also the constant (and usually circuitous) flow of information.  If you ask a teacher what he or she does all day, they will tell you the following: 1) Teach.  2) Arm-chair therapy.  3) Plan/evaluate instruction.  And the beloved #4) Meetings, meetings, meetings.

It has been two and a half years since I have been in a classroom in a formal capacity.  When I left, I'd say I was near or at the top of my game.  My scores were strong.  My kids were learning.  There is always room for growth, but I felt good about the state of my classroom and confident in my own abilities as an educator.

In some ways, homeschooling sends me back to feeling like a first year teacher again.  I'm constantly planning, rearranging and honing my material without the benefit of having done - and improved upon - it last year.  And, I never thought I would say it in a million years, but: I miss my meetings, meetings, meetings!

All those hours of "professional development" where I used to think, If only they trusted us enough to do our jobs and teach!

Yeah, somebody take me back.  It turns out after all my silent protesting, professional development is well named and really does help you develop as a teacher.  It forces you to do something that is actually really tough to do when you're all by yourself, and review your performance.  It keeps you sharp and reminds you of things you knew, but forgot in the busyness and chaos of the moment.

There's a reason the sports industry spends so much time and energy on play-back.  Top athletes keep on top of their game by being brutally honest about how they performed, and why.

A desperate lack of all these things has conspired to make me a bit of a lazy teacher.  I'm not going to say homeschooler, because as a homeschooler - who has only two students but walks simultaneously in the shoes of maid, chef, mother, entertainer and overall keeper of the home - I've worked my tail off.  But as a teacher?  Yeah... I haven't exactly been on my game.

So.  A few things under review from 2015:

  • Literacy.  Instead of teaching a veritable feast of balanced literacy, I served mostly phonics.  Which is pretty much the equivalent of serving salmon on Thanksgiving: it's a great choice from a nutritional standpoint, but leaves a lot to be desired in all other regards.  
    • What's the fix?  It's simple, really.  Practice = progress.  90 minutes of reading everyday, per my favorite ever reading expert Richard Allington.  Not reading instruction.  Not phonics.  Good, old-fashioned, book open, page-turning reading.  Read alouds.  Guided reading.  Independent reading.  Book on tape.  Talking about reading for fun.  All these things I am working into our school schedule for 2016.  And I'm stoked!  Remember in my previous life when I was myself a reading teacher?  Yeah, it seems I forgot, too.  
  • Writing. We've been working largely on copy work, which is developmentally appropriate but boring.  And uninspired.  And it's showing in the quality of her work.
    • What's the fix?  Modeled writing.  Shared writing.  Guided writing.  Choice writing.  Diary entries.  Brainstorming.  List creation.  Story writing.  And OH SO MANY more!  In short: connected, personally meaningful writing.  (And again, the teacher in me says, DUH!!!)
    • I added this writing program to our arsenal to help me structure the day and give us a better routine than our current one consisting of here's some paper, write stuff.  
  • All the other stuff.  Yes, I'm trying to do preschool with Logan.  But he's three.  And all those cute and clever activities, while fun, are getting in the way of us using our time wisely.  Instead of going for one hour in the morning, we were often spending an hour and a half to two hours on those activities alone.  TOO MUCH.  
    • That's not to say we need more academics.  School is supposed to be fun, but that's where I need to work harder on making reading and writing pleasurable - because they are!  My plan is simply to streamline, bring meaningful literacy into our preschool activities and keep them time-bound so that we really can go on when it's time to go on.  Whatever doesn't get done in that one hour time frame, well, it can wait.  
  • Management.  One important thing I've discovered about Leah: She's a perfectionist.  To, like, the Nth degree.  Change one thing about the formatting of a math problem?  Yeah, it's going to completely freak her out.  Ask her to spell a word she doesn't already know how to spell?  Odds are good she'll melt - even though she could totally sound it out on her own.  She doesn't already know it, you see.  She'll cry and tell you that she might not get it perfect - her words, not mine - and will be unwilling to even try.
    • What's the fix?  I have always admired elementary school teachers for their bulletin boards and colorful charts and well-placed management systems.  And now it's time to recreate a few of those strategies in my own little elementary school.  So we're working on star charts for when she completes each subject without melting.  We're printing those colorful schedules.  I brought out some puff balls and a large glass vase to keep track of each book we've read, Book-It style.  We are starting off the new semester looking at how to be "Bucket Fillers," an awesome book series that helps kids simply conceptualize the complex idea that their emotions are affected by the behavior of others, and vice-versa.  I've also gone back to my roots and revisited strategies for building a responsive classroom.   The point of all of this effort is to remember that she's little.  And little ones need help regulating their sweet little social-emotional selves in order to do their best learning.  
  • Consistency, consistency, consistency.  I've got the schedule.  The one who needs to stick to it is me.  The better their routine, the easier this all gets.  That's just true.  Mom needs to batten down the hatches and make sure we're getting through what we need to do, every day. 
And me.  I'm recognizing the significance of how it all comes back to me. 

To be the best that I can be in all the areas that are required - when there's no back up teacher and frequently not so much as a husband around to take out the trash, - I need some sanity-savers.  I need time to quiet my soul, to rest and reflect and to grow myself.  I know, it sounds overly-ambitious, right?

I re-claimed time to read the first book on my list: 

It seems counter-intuitive to start off my "me time" with a book that focuses on how to help my kid.  But seriously?  It was SO MUCH FUN!  Teaching reading is one of my great passions because my super coolness is off the charts, only one step above those Dungeons and Dragons cats.  

In this place devoid of development meetings, deep conversations with knowledgeable colleagues or even annual repetition, it felt awesome to have a touchstone to help guide my decision-making process and remind me that, even though I'm at home, I am a professional.  

It was a good feeling; one that I haven't had in a while.  One I'm looking forward to repeating more often in 2016.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Books to read in 2016

"Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established." Proverbs 16: 3

One of my most important reflections about the last year has been in the area of self care.

Which, if I'm being honest, is an area of my life that is not only lacking, but that I totally and completely suck at.  You know when you look at before and after photos of our Presidents?

Yeah.  Sometimes I feel a little like that when I see myself in recent years.  I'm looking and feeling much more on the after side of things than any person should - and I don't get to tap out after 8 years.

So, in the spirit of doing a better job of taking care of myself - since, let's be honest, retiring to Hawaii to make a million dollars per speaking engagement and enjoying lifetime salary and health care are not on the agenda - I have made a commitment that is absolutely huge for me: getting back to my once-upon-a-time English-major-roots by reading.

Not just a little, either.  I've decided to read 25 books this year - 25 books that are for me.  That I desire to read for one reason or another.  Because it's fun.  And because I matter!

If you are a seasoned reader, 25 books in a year probably doesn't seem like much to you.  For me, though, to actually commit and take the time to read a book - let alone 25 - is a huge, giant, gargantuan step.  Big.  Think King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.  There is a good chance that reading 25 books of my choosing for my pleasure may be more than I've read in the six and a half years since I got pregnant with Leah.

No joke.

So, mostly for the record, but also in case anyone else loves to read and is interested, here are the books I'm going to tackle. In absolutely no particular order, except that in which my library can get these holds in for me:

  1. Future Men by Doug Wilson
  2. God Rest Ye Merry by Doug Wilson
  3. My Life for Yours by Doug Wilson
  4. One Thousand Gifts by Anne Voskamp 
  5. Messy Church by Ross Parsley 
  6. Searching for Sanity by Lindsey Bell
  7. Strong and Kind by Korie Robertson
  8. The Life Giving Home by Sally Clarkson
  9. The Martian by Andy Weir 
  10. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison 
  11. Paper Towns by John Green 
  12. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 
  13. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn 
  14. Things You Won't Say by Sarah Pekkanen  
  15. Beautiful Womanhood by Sandy Ralya
  16. Be Still my Soul by Elisabeth Elliot 
  17. Busy Homeschool Mom's Guide to Daylight by Heidi St. John
  18. Educating the Whole Hearted Child by Clay and Sally Clarkson 
  19. Mom Needs Chocolate by Debora M. Coty
  20. Soundbites from Heaven by Rachel Carman
  21. The Daily Five by Gail Boushey
  22. Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman
  23. Learning to Read: Lessons from Exemplary 1st Grade Classrooms by Richard Allington
  24. Own Your Life by Sally Clarkson
  25. Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker 

John 10:10, My purpose is to give life in all its fullness.

Wish me luck... I'm going for it!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Starting the New Year off right

It is impossible not to love a room full of children.  Impossible, I tell you.

Why?  Well, I'm so glad you asked: 

I mean, really.  Look at those faces.  Lack of pants.  Only one shoe on.  Mad at the world while (appropriately) clinging to Darth Vader.  Looking uncertain and playing with a pink car.

Seriously.  How great are they?

We hosted our annual New Year's breakfast today, with all of these wonderful little people.  And one who, at 12, isn't exactly little anymore.

It's really no secret that Leah pretty much always loves anyone who is older than her.  I think it must be oldest child syndrome.  She's not just the oldest of our family, she is usually the oldest child of our entire friend group.  But when Marco comes to town... oh my word.  I don't think it is possible for her to be more excited.  She adores him!  Perhaps that comes through in this photo?

It was a wonderful morning, the only unfortunate part of which was the fact that Casey had to leave about five minutes after this photo was taken, and he won't be back for 8 weeks.

Yes, you read that right.  Eight. Weeks.  {Shudder}

But the gang was all here, and it is always such a blessing to start the new year off this way.

I changed my font at