Thursday, December 24, 2015

a thrill of hope

I'm a few days into Christmas break and already feeling well rested now that the 4:51 am alarm clock has been turned off.  In fact, we have already experienced a Christmas miracle: both darlings received their Christmas vacation memos and have slept until past seven every morning thus far. 

After a couple mornings of sleeping in, I decided to crawl out of bed early this morning to spend some quiet time by the Christmas tree.  Getting up early is drastically easier when a Christmas tree is waiting for you in the other room.  As I sat in stillness, I started talking to the Lord about these beautiful words.

A thrill of hope
the weary world rejoices

I kept whispering them, over and over, and found myself stuck on that word thrill. I want to experience the thrill of hope.  I want to truly rejoice knowing this weary world has been given salvation and knowing this world is not my home.

The past few weeks have brought lots of thrills, each of them great gifts from the Lord.

I have been thrilled by Andrew's round face crouched low to the ground as he watches the toy train come around the tree.  I have been thrilled watching him start walking around the house, particularly when he's rocking his elf pajamas (see below-you won't be disappointed).

I've been thrilled by Charlotte's excitement to open each advent envelope and her persistence in memorizing her first Scripture.  I've been thrilled by her dramatization of the Nativity with baby Jesus up on the roof and the three wise men who "don't start in the stable.  They have to start in the kitchen and make a long trip."

I've been thrilled by the excitement and teamwork of our staff who turned our school into the North Pole for a Family Night that packed the house and even included a live reindeer.

I've been thrilled by Secret Santa surprises. (I love surprises!)

I've been thrilled by a night of talking and laughing with friends as we lugged our children around the Holiday Light Festival at the zoo.

Spectacular dinners never cease to thrill me, and to my fortune, there have been a number of those too.

I've even been thrilled by our ten-year wedding anniversary last week and a sparkly gift from Stephen that most certainly cost far more than I want to know about, but I willingly accepted. 

I imagine Jesus loves seeing me get excited about these because each is a gift from Him, and I am grateful.

But I am also weary.

My own little life wears me out sometimes.  Kids exhaust me, teaching is hard work, and managing a home never ends.  Satan is constantly throwing lies in my face, and I keep fighting to believe God's grace really is sufficient.

I also get weary from the terror and heartache of the world. I feel weighed down, scared and sometimes paralyzed by tragedies like the church shooting in South Carolina and the bombing in Paris.  In just the past few months, I've ached with a friend who lost her unborn baby and prayed alongside a friend whose mother was diagnosed with cancer.  I attended the funeral of a former student and watched two young boys pulled from a home filled with abuse.  

Oh Jesus, we are a weary world, looking desperately for a real reason to rejoice.

 The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the work of the devil. 
1 John 3:8

Oh man Lord, every bit of me that loves a victory for the underdog wants to jump up and down when I read this verse.  I know You're not the underdog, but sometimes I feel like it. Sometimes I feel like our team is losing.  The weariness gets to me. 

Today Jesus, I want to be thrilled by hope - thrilled by the brilliant truth that God has come to earth to destroy the work of the devil - thrilled to know that victory is here.

I love the Christmas season for the same reasons everyone does.  I love the music, the movies, the food, the gatherings, the traditions, the beauty of it all.  But Jesus, I pray all of these fade into the background, taking their place as secondary thrills in comparison to what You have done for me.

You are my reason for joy, for peace, for endurance. 

Be my one true thrill.

Shout out to Kate from August and Elm, the Etsy shop where I got this beautiful print!  I love it!

And because I don't want to disappoint you...
 You smiled, right?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

speaking of pancakes....

In my last blog post, I mentioned pancakes.

This made me want to eat pancakes.

So I made these.

You should make them, too.

I was originally just going for pumpkin pancakes.  Major props to three-year-old Charlotte for suggesting we add chocolate chips. Granted, she suggests adding chocolate chips to just about everything - granola, cupcakes, soup, pizza, tacos,  but this time she was right on.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Pancakes with Vanilla Maple Syrup
  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 TB. brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
  • good pinch of salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 egg
  • 2 TB melted butter, plus extra for the skillet
  • A good handful of chocolate chips

Vanilla Maple Syrup
  • About 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, spice, and salt.

Mix together the milk, pumpkin puree, egg and melted butter in another bowl or liquid measuring cup.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk together just until combined. Use a rubber spatula to fold in chocolate chips.  Do not over mix.  A lumpy pancake batter is a yummy pancake batter.

Preheat the oven to 200° F.  Have an oven safe plate or serving dish ready.

Heat skillet or griddle over medium heat.  Melt some small pads of butter right on the skillet. 

Once the skillet it hot and the butter is melted, add a 1/3 cup scoop of batter to the pan.

Cook until bubbles begin to form on the top surface.  Carefully flip with a spatula, and cook the second side until golden brown, a couple minutes more.

Transfer the cooked pancake to the oven safe dish, and place in the oven to keep warm. 

To make the vanilla maple syrup, just add vanilla to warm syrup.

So simple.  So yummy.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

rebuilding our village

Today I enter a new public writing territory -- motherhood.  It is a territory I have thoroughly explored in my private writing, but not one I have ventured out to publicly.

Motherhood is a tricky topic, and this is certainly not due to lack of material.  Moms are a wealth of stories to suit any crowd and any mood.  We're ready at any moment with the tear-jerkers, the tender moments, the terrifying, the hilarious, the disgusting, the melt-your-heart, the weird, the confusing, and the "so-cute-I-could-just-scream" stories.

But writing about mama life is very different than living mama life.  

A couple months ago, I wrote about surviving in our landominium that had long exceeded maximum capacity.  In this post, I explained that my perspective about overflowing out of our home gains much clarity when I'm writing in the early morning hours and all the darlings are still sleeping.  In those calm moments, I can find humor in the cozy chaos, but there are many moments I find no humor. The struggle is real and ugly.

The same goes for motherhood.

Days after our nine hour road trip with minimal napping, dozens of "I have to go potty" claims, whining, seat kicking, and no less than 247 requests for a snack, the rough edges have softened.  I can chuckle, turning that nightmare into an amusing story that would prompt any parent to nod along and feel my pain.  But there is no chuckling in that car; there is frustration, crabbiness, self doubt, and even tears, wondering how to pull myself up from the current exhausting moment and move into the next.

This is the balance of writing about motherhood.

It is my hope to bring out the humor, absurdity, and joy in it all, while carefully giving full weight to the struggles, questions, fears, and doubts.

And it is for that reason I have steered cleared.  But Andrew turned one a couple weeks ago, so my maternal walk down memory lane is in full stride as I recall exactly what we were doing one year ago today.  The transition to two children was much more difficult than either Stephen or myself expected.  This wasn't due to lack of sleep or an extra needy big sister (well, not entirely), but because welcoming our second child were some of my loneliest days.

Our first child, Charlotte, had been born two years earlier, and within hours of her arrival, our hospital room was filled with at least a dozen friends, all of whom were bubbling over with love and excitement for our new daughter.  During our two-day stay in that room, there was a steady stream of visitors with lattes, cupcakes, Jimmy John's, and pink onesies in hand.  We arrived home to pink balloons decorating the porch and meals lined up for weeks.  There was hardly a day someone didn't stop by to just chat, check in, and keep us company.

I recognize that for many new moms, I have just described your worst nightmare. But for Stephen and me, this village of people celebrating with us was a showing of love that we will always treasure.

Two years later, nearly every detail surrounding Andrew's arrival differed from his sister's, but the most impactful difference was the absence of that village.  It was a harsh reminder that so many of our dear friends, as if almost on cue, moved away from Oxford over that past year.  This mass exiting from Oxford spread our closest friends all over the country from California to New York to Florida to Hawaii.  But this is the nature of a college town.  Very few people, particularly those in their twenties and early thirties, expect to stay more than five or six years, ourselves included. 

I remember sitting on the couch nursing Andrew and thinking about how I'd possibly survive the upcoming cold months of maternity leave with limited friends.  Who would I talk to?  Who would Charlotte play with?  Where would we go?  What if we didn't leave the house for weeks?  Would anyone check in on us?  My tremendous joy was being overshadowed with an intense state of loneliness.

I wasn't looking for someone to watch Charlotte or hold Andrew or fold my laundry.  I didn't need someone to relieve me so I could nap or shower or spring for a latte.  I was just looking for friends.  Friends to patiently listen to every boring detail of how my new baby spent the past twenty-four hours. Friends to scold me for trying on regular jeans far too soon.  Friends to remind me that the outside world was still in motion, and I would rejoin it again someday.

I slowly lowered myself to the ground and asked Jesus for friends, and more specifically, mom friends.  Not just mom friends to make small talk with, but mom friends I could really connect with, laugh with and be real with during this season.  I prayed God would slowly rebuild that village we missed so dearly.

I have prayed dozens of prayers on that living room floor.  There are requests I have been laying before the Lord for years, pleading with Him and waiting to see how He will work. But there have also been times God fulfills an immediate need almost before I've picked myself up off the floor.

This was one of those times. 

Within days, I received an invite to come over to a friend's house for a pancake breakfast, yoga pants expected.

A few days later, a young mom from our church invited Charlotte to join her and her girls at the library story hour so I could have time with just Andrew.  Her kindness led to multiple doughnut dates and a few day trips to the children's museum.

A month later I connected with another mom during Charlotte's toddler gymnastics class. This friendship led to playdates, some great conversation, and of course, doughnut dates. (Should I be embarrassed about all the doughnut dates I schedule?)
Those winter months chugged along, and I soon found myself laying out those work clothes I hadn't seen in months. I sat with Stephen on the couch processing the jumbled mess of emotions every mom feels at the end of maternity leave. 

God had been so faithful.

Andrew's arrival didn't come with the crowds and balloons that his sister's had.  The enormous community we had surrounding us at that time was unique, a precious season of our lives.  A village would have been great.  I always prefer a house full of people,  but what I learned so deeply in those months after Andrew's birth was that I didn't need an entire community.  God didn't rebuild that village of friends we'd lost, but instead He taught me the simply beauty of someone who would just say "come eat pancakes at my house," or "let's meet for doughnuts."

After all, no one, especially a new mom, is saying no to pancakes or doughnuts.

And in honor of Andrew Boston...

"I'm one!"

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

creamy corn and veggie soup

In our home, soup is a year-round go-to.  I will unashamedly admit to simmering a pot of soup in the middle of July, and as soon as fall hits, my soup making really kicks into high gear. Three pots a week is not uncommon, and here's why.

Soup is the perfect way to load up on the veggies.  For the life of me,  I cannot get my three year old to like raw red peppers.  Dice 'em up, throw 'em in some soup, and she's on board.  Amen.

Most soups fall into the "chop and drop" category.  This means I can plop my children on the counter, and they're content to sample raw potatoes and gnaw on a onion (strange, but true) while I get chopping.  The measuring is minimal which means I don't have to think much.  Thank goodness.

Soup recipes are so easy to double (and even triple if only I had a pot big enough), and most recipes freeze well too.  This means an easy dinner down the road, and that makes mama happy. Win for everyone.

I pack four lunches a day, and one could argue that soup is almost always better the next day.  This means lunch packing just became super yummy and super simple.  Hallelujah.

Stephen posted this Creamy Corn and Veggie Soup last week on our Instagram account, @bakeitlikebecker (are you a follower?!?!).  There were requests for some recipes, and I'm happy to share this veggie-packed goodness. (Never fear, there's bacon and cream, too.)

Creamy Corn and Veggie Soup
  • 2 TB extra virgin olive oil
  • 3-4 slices of bacon, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 red pepper
  • 10 ounce bag of frozen corn
  • 2 small zucchinis
  • About a pound of potatoes (This time I used russet, but I have used red potatoes in the past.)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 TB flour
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream (I admit I used half and half this time because it's all I had.  Still yummy, but we all know cream would have been better.

Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. 

Add the bacon and cook until it is close to crispy. 

Toss in the onion, garlic, and pepper and cook until those soften up.

Add the corn, potatoes, bay leaf, paprika, chili powder and some S&P. Give it a good stir and let it cook for about five minutes.

Sprinkle the flour into the pot, stir, and cook for about a minute.

Slowly add the broth, milk, and cream. Let the soup simmer for about 10 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.

Happy Soup Season!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

the trenches of writing workshop

Earlier this year, I co-taught in Mrs. Ary’s room and gathered 28 sixth graders onto the carpet for a mini-lesson about how authors gather ideas in order to find a story that matters.
There is this terrifying moment as a teacher when you wrap up the mini-lesson and are about to send your students off to actually try what you’ve just taught.  Oh, how I wish one of them would just shout out,
“We are ready, Mrs. Becker!  You’ve presented this information so clearly, and I’ve been so engaged for the past fifteen minutes, not at all distracted by the smelly classmates I’m smooshed up against on this tiny carpet.  I totally understand what I am to do independently, and I can’t wait to get started!”
Instead, I get 3 smiles, 1 head nod and a handful of kids who are already standing up.  
I’ll take it.  Let’s go write.
The assignment was to brainstorm a list of seven story titles that tell your life. These could be life altering days or seemingly insignificant moments that have somehow been permanently planted in your memory. What seven stories best reflect who you are today?
I had never taught this lesson before, and although my heart knew it had potential to be awesome, I’ve been teaching long enough to know that sometimes the lesson you’re most excited about has to flop two or three times before you get it right.
Unfortunately, I had to skip out halfway through independent writing time to get to a meeting, so I wasn’t able to see the final lists or hear the sharing session.  When I got back to my office that afternoon, my table was filled with post-it notes.  Each student had written down his or her favorite or most significant story title and left it for me to see.  
I wasn’t sure if sixth graders would be able to define who they were in story titles.  I didn’t know if they’d be willing to get past their day at King’s Island or a play-by-play of their tenth birthday party.  I really wondered if they’d be brave enough to tell the painful stories.  
I sat at my table, reading though post it notes feeling so proud of these writers who took me up on this challenging assignment.  It was a glorious moment that the teacher in me will hold onto for awhile.  And right in the midst of my tender-teacher moment, Mrs. Ary popped her head in my office to jolt me back to reality.
“Ok, so now what? How do we get them to actually write those stories?”  she asked.
I laughed. “We enter the trenches of writing workshop.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

apple chips

We're all a bit sad when the pool closes for the summer and the flip flops get thrown to the back of the closet, but come mid-September, I think we can all agree, it is a happy day when fall officially takes over.

But you've got to grab it up because that pumpkin, apple, boots-and-scarves glory is always gone too quickly.  I for one am wasting no time jumping into the season.  The kitchen has been calling out for fall food, and I am happily obliging to its request.

Let's start simply.  This is one I can easily manage every weekend, maybe even a weeknight if I'm feeling really crazy. 

Apple chips. 

3 ingredients. 

Minimal hands on time. 

Cinnamon-apple smell filling the house.

Toddler approved. 

Total win. 

Warning: there is one minor downside to these beauties.  (Aw, rats.) You will have the greatest success if you slice the apples with a mandoline.  (Seriously?)  It's true.  This doesn't mean you cannot use a knife, but the thinner the slice, the better the crisp and crunch of the chip.

I have seen mandolines run upward of $200. Yikes.  We bought ours from HSN for $20 (and Amazon has many options for all sorts of kitchen tool budgets), and it has been totally worth it, if for nothing else than these apple chips.  We also use it for onions, potatoes, cucumbers, etc. because there is something oh-so-satisfying about perfectly uniformed slices of fruits and vegetables.  It's something to consider.

  • 2 apples (I've used all kinds and have never been disappointed.  I lean toward tart, such as Granny Smith or Braeburn)
  • 2 TB brown sugar
  • 1 TB cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.  And yes, you really do need the parchment paper.  Learn from my mistakes.

Slice the apples as thinly and uniformly as possible.

Mix the cinnamon and brown sugar together, and dip each apple slice into the cinnamon/sugar mixture.

Spread the apples on the parchment paper, and cook for 1 hour.

Flip the chips and cook for another hour.

Let them cool for about 15 minutes.  They will crisp up even more as they cool.

You are welcome.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

saturday morning

Uptown Oxford on a Saturday morning is my favorite time of the week.  Oxford is a small town in the middle of nowhere, but it oozes with small town charm and has created a perfect uptown for bringing the community together. 
I love the bumpin’ farmers’ market that sells everything from local fruits, vegetables, and meats to breakfast sandwiches, smoothies, fresh cut flowers and our personal favorite, goat cheese lemon puffs. 

I love the certainty of seeing someone I know and the freedom to chat for as long as I’d like because even the little darlings can stay happily occupied when we’re uptown. 

I love the surprise of what festival or special event we just might find on any given weekend - yoga in the park, car shows, local bands, Taste of Oxford, you just never know. 

I love all the children running through the fountains.  Prepared parents come with bathing suits, but most of the time you’ll see fully clothed toddlers screaming with glee as they're splashed in the face.

I love piling the kids into the stroller and just walking around town. Although truth be told, Charlotte is feeling a little too grown up for the stroller these days, so we are usually just pushing Andrew and the Raggedy Ann doll. 
I love that we can wander uptown with no certain plans for the day and somehow plans will just evolve as we bump into friends or see yummy looking food that is begging to be grilled or mixed with sugar and baked in a pie. 

When the day comes that we no longer live in Oxford, my heart will deeply miss uptown Saturday mornings with my family.  

I will also miss those goat cheese lemon puffs, so I should probably eat two today. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

landominium life

Six years ago, Stephen and I bought out first house.  Correction: our first (and oh Lord, let it be our only) landominium.  Yes, that is a real thing…supposedly.  It differs from the more well-known condominium in that we actually own both the home and the land on which the home is built.  Think single-story retirement community, not modern high-rise looking over the city.  We don’t own the land around it – that belongs to the homeowners’ association – just the land on which our home is built.  The only benefit we’ve concluded is that we have the freedom to install a basement should we so choose.  Start digging, Stephen.
After living the apartment life for a number of years, Stephen and I were thrilled with our new, spacious abode.  I remember sitting in our living room soon after we’d moved in listing all the “amenities” I loved about this new home.  Vaulted ceilings.  Walk-in closets.  A washer and dryer!  2 bathrooms.  White kitchen. Fireplace.  Walk-in pantry.  Beautifully painted walls.  Cars right outside our front door rather than 3 flights down and across the parking lot.  Kitchen big enough for a full out Zumba class (and there have been many of those!).
At the end of my list, I foolishly declared, 
“This house is perfect.  I could raise four kids here!” 
(And no, this is not a baby announcement.)
I still adore this home and all those items on my original list.  It really is a lovely little place, and at this very moment, the laminate kitchen flooring is being replaced with gorgeous tile, making me love it even more.  We have hosted countless parties in this tiny place, joyfully cramming 15 people around card tables.  We have moved the couches into the kitchen to make room for a dozen grad students to spread out sleeping bags for a Saved By the Bell marathon sleepover.  Our second bedroom housed an international student for a semester and has also welcomed many Air BnB guests for overnight stays.  Three years ago that same room was turned into a nursery, preparing this home for our growing family.  We are not short on precious memories in this home.
However, since baby #2 arrived last year, we have reached exceeded maximum capacity, and I fear we could burst out of this place at any moment. All too often I feel the walls of this tiny home falling in on me, and I imagine myself buried under a pile of blocks, random puzzle pieces, boxes of baby clothes, cookbooks and shoes.  Why do we have so many shoes?  Every so often, this claustrophobic feeling will display itself in the form of an outburst. Stephen is wise enough to sense the tone of my tirade, and if I’m on the verge of hysteria, he’ll just listen, hug me, and retreat back to our bedroom to start cleaning up his piles of clothes, most likely just looking for any excuse to get away from the crazy lady on a warpath regarding where to fit all the Christmas wrapping paper. If he senses even the slightest bit of humor in my meltdown, he’ll remind me of that fateful statement.  “You still think we can raise four kids in this house?  The second bedroom can definitely fit double bunk beds.”   
Oh, how I rue the day.
But even in the midst of my ranting and raving, God is gently reminding me of His truth.  Lord willing, there will come a day when we don’t live in this landominium.  We will have a garage for storing Christmas decorations, a yard for enjoying summer nights, and perhaps even a basement for stashing baby items so my parents can stop driving Jump-a-roos and baby swings baby and forth from Chicago.   
But I have a feeling that when that day comes, I will look around that house, exhausted by all the rooms to clean and longing for the simple days of landominum life.  I will miss the extra sleep I got on snowy mornings because someone shoveled my walkway, and I’ll wish I could still plug my vacuum cleaner into one outlet and clean the entire house.
Reality check.
As I type this, my children are still sleeping, the house is quiet, and a beautiful sunrise is creeping up out my window while I drink hot coffee from a cute green mug.
In this moment, it is easy to laugh about the fact that my son’s pack ‘n play was set up in the bathroom for the first 9 months of his life or that visting family has to stay in a hotel because we have no room to host them. 
In this moment, I am amused by the fact that we have boxes of babies clothes stored in a friend’s basement while bikes and a baby pool are in another friend’s garage.
In this moment, I can make jokes about how Stephen is addicted to Amazon Subscribe and Save which has resulted in no less than 28 rolls of paper towels stashed in every nook of the house.
In this moment, I can easily be thankful God has given me a good sense of humor about it all. 
But there are many days I am a hot mess.  I see no humor in the situation, only chaos. My frustration is real, my complaining is ugly, and I am in desperate need of a good dose of God’s truth. 
The truth is that none of this is mine anyways.  My inner toddler wants to scream mine, mine, mine, and cry out for more, more, more.  God is so patient with me.  Gently reminding me that I cannot insist on ownership when it comes to stuff, but I can freely claim mine, all mine, when it comes to my Jesus. 
He is all mine, and he loves me enough to discourage a death grip on what can never satisfy.  
I know this, but many days I forget and let the scrunched up chaos get the best of me.  It might just be one of those lessons I have to keep learning over and over.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

figs for dinner

Stephen has been yapping about figs for weeks.
As much as we love where we live, sometimes there are limitations regarding certain foods being readily accessible.  Over the last week, he has been calling stores to see if they have fresh figs. Eight stores to be precise. Responses included:
“No, but we have Fig Newtons.”
“No, but we have dates.”
“No, but we have smoothies. “
Smoothies?!?!  WHAT?!
He called our local grocery store 2 days later to see if any figs had arrived.  The man hung up on him.
Apparently, figs are hard to come by in Ohio.
But as luck should have it, the ninth store was a success, and Stephen only had to leave work 2 hours early to beat traffic and plow over all the other crazy fig lovers who had traveled from far and wide. In true Stephen fashion, he thought it necessary to buy 3 ½ pounds of figs.  He’s notorious for overestimating the amount of food we’ll eat, often leaving us with an absurd amount of leftovers; but in his defense, he ate at least one pound of figs on the drive home.
We then proceeded to feed the darlings mac-and-cheese and shuffle them to bed by 7, so we could feast. 
The Menu:
Crostini with goat cheese, prosciutto, grilled figs, and topped with a drizzle of honey.  And because we’re just wild like that – champagne. 
What?  Bubbly on a weeknight? Oh yes.
You won’t be surprised to know that Stephen doesn’t really let me near the figs, particularly if they are going on the grill.  But he was kind enough to let me watch, and here is what I learned. 

Trim the stems off the figs.  The rest is edible, skin and all.  Cut them in half, brush with olive oil and grill flesh side down for about 3 minutes – but watch carefully.
We layered each crostini with goat cheese and a small slice of prosciutto. After the figs cooled, we cut each piece in half again and added the quarter fig on top.  A drizzle of honey and black pepper completed these little beauties.
I am a devout goat cheese lover, so to me, it was the obvious choice.  Stephen remains loyal to bleu cheese (although he’s never met a cheese he didn’t like).  When he came in from grilling and saw I had smothered goat cheese on every crostini, he was a bit disappointed and decided to make his own – apparently a double.

Both options were delicious. 

His persistence paid off. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

teach it

After eight years in a classroom full of first grade darlings, an opportunity presented itself that I simply couldn’t pass up.   I said good-bye to my classroom to move around the corner and became a “literacy coach/interventionist”.  I loved the idea of working with small groups of students and was eager to be a supportive resource for teachers when needed. 
Two weeks into the school year, the minutes from an administrators’ meeting landed on my desk.  To my surprise, the “/interventionist” title of my job was dropped, and I was now a full time literacy coach.  Huh. Full time coach.  What in the world does a full time literacy coach do?  Guess I’d find out.
As with most new jobs, I spent the first year fumbling around and learning furiously  from other coaches, books, blogs, and of course a large handful of my own mistakes.  Three years later, I absolutely adore the job.  I’m still devouring books and blogs and making mistakes on a daily basis, but this job has pushed me to define my teaching beliefs and fight for them.   I work with amazing teachers who eagerly engage in professional discussions and work tirelessly to make school a safe place where students will love to learn.   
This past month  (yes, month – we’ve been in school since August 3) I’ve had the totally awesome privilege of being in Mrs. Ary’s 6th grade class.  I intentionally say “totally awesome” because it pretty much sums up Mrs. Ary’s attitude toward life, teaching, and her 6th graders.   She (who, from now on I’ll just refer to as Christina) has been teaching at our school for 2 years, and I clearly remember my first visit into her room.  I wanted to plop myself down in a chair and be a 6th grader all over again.  Christina has willingly opened her chevron-covered classroom to me as I’ve transitioned out of first grade and explored literacy through the eyes of a twelve year old.  
We have been launching writing workshop by introducing each of the six traits of writing, beginning with the trait ideas.  By sixth grade, these writers have heard about each trait ad nauseum, and they have most certainly brainstormed a list of writing topics every year of their little schooling lives.  We wanted to do something different.  We wanted to start pushing them to find a story that really mattered.  

I gathered them on the carpet and posed the following question:
If you could tell your life in only seven stories, what would they be?

These could be life-altering days or seemingly insignificant moments that have somehow been permanently planted in your memory. What seven stories best reflect who you are today?
Twenty-eight sixth graders were dismissed back to their seats to brainstorm seven titles – titles only, no actual stories allowed (yet….). And just because she’s kinda awesome like that, Christina played One Direction’s Story of My Life in the background as the kids got started.  (Slightly embarrassing fact: I was singing along to all the words, arms fist pumping in the air.) Even though Christina and I knew this lesson was coming, we had resisted the urge to come up with our own seven titles ahead of time.
Instead, we sat down with our students and began our own lists. 

We wanted to think on the spot with our students.
We wanted to get stuck and struggle through it with our students.
We wanted our students to see us write, and not just some neat, tidy examples that make writing look easy.
We wanted them to see that real brainstorming is messy and often takes longer than twenty minutes of allotted independent writing time.

Christina wrote eight titles because she couldn’t narrow it down yet. I wrote five titles because I just got stuck. We both scratched a few options to attempt something better and even brainstormed more possibilities during our lunch break. 
I have not made any final decisions about my seven stories.  In fact, I imagine the thinking and revising will continue for days and weeks to come.  I find myself thinking about these seven stories as I lay in bed at night, walking through my life and pinpointing the moments and memories that can be pieced together to tell my story. 
And I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, at this very moment, there is a sixth grader at home doing the same.

I want to give full credit where credit is due.  The seven stories of my life prompt is not my original idea. Jennifer Allen described it in her book Becoming A Literacy Leader.  I took an online coarse with Jennifer this summer through Choice Literacy called Literacy Coach Jumpstart.  It is an excellent, thought-provoking book for literacy coaches – one I’ve highlighted, underlined, and dog-eared, and one I continue to open long after the course has ended.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

around the table

 “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, 
"what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. "It's the same thing," he said.

I hear about these people who glance up at the clock only to realize it’s three in the afternoon, and they haven’t eaten lunch.  I will never understand these people – people who eat purely for survival and view meal time as an obligatory task giving them fuel to tackle more important endeavors.
I know they exist – people who eat plain chicken, put skim milk in their coffee, and don’t plan weekends to revolve around new recipes, but these are not my people.  I love food, and not just the eating part.  I love everything that goes along with it.
I love reading through cookbooks, bookmarking recipes, and meal planning for the week.  I love pouring a glass of wine, turning on music, and chopping piles of veggies to be thrown into a hissing pot.  I love plopping my children up on the counter to help measure, mix, and taste test every step of the way.   And I love it all even more when I know friends will soon arrive to gather around the table.   It doesn’t have to be a meal fit for Top Chef; pizza and Three Buck Chuck will work just fine because ultimately, it’s not really about the food.  Food may be the starting point, the common ground, but when friends take time to sit around a table and eat, it will eventually lead to sharing life together.  That is the real reason I love to cook.  
Every so often God loves to blow me away by answering a prayer I never had the guts to actually pray.  I mean really, how ridiculous to ask the Lord for friends who love food as much as Stephen and I do.  And yet over the past ten years, God keeps surprising us with dear friends that can talk food and embrace a messy kitchen right alongside us.
These are friends who come into our kitchen and know right where to find the cutting board and bread knife.  They invite us over hours before dinner because it’s just expected that yes, of course we want to help stuff the perogies or roll out the tortillas.  We know their spices are in the corner cabinet, and they know our wine corkscrew is in the top left drawer.  We sample sauces simmering on their stove, and they help themselves to anything in our fridge without asking.  We know we are welcome to set up a pack 'n play in the back room if today’s meal overlaps with naptime or bedtime, and they know they are welcome to stay long after I’ve gone to bed.  I love this.  To me, it is friendship at its greatest.
And such was the case this weekend as Stephen and I teamed up with Matt and Beth for what I can only assume is the first annual, Smokefest 2015.  

Matt arrived at our house at 6:15 am to pick up Stephen and our grill.  After all, one grill isn’t enough for Smokefest.  Hickory woodchips were placed on the charcoal and the meat (a beef brisket and 14 pounds of Boston butt!) was on the grill by 7:30 am.  Rotating shifts were assigned in order to allow each family to still go to church. Beth and I were on sides and pie duty, and the five children stayed out of the kitchen as long as we allowed them to stick a finger or two into the whipped cream filled bowl.   We made multiple trips to Kroger to pick up forgotten ingredients, and the pork took four hours longer than expected.  I ate at least half the greens right out of the pan before they even made it to the table, and 9-month-old Andrew pounded a good portion of the mac & cheese before all the dishes had been past.  But look at that spread. 

Twelve hours of food preparation with friends.  Worth every minute.  

 “…the most sacred moments, the ones in which I feel God’s presence most profoundly, when I feel the goodness of the world most arrestingly, take place at the table.”
-Shauna Niequist, Bread &Wine 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


 There once was a girl who loved to write.
That’s me.  Joy. Welcome to 44 & Oxford.
I have loved to write ever since I was young, but somewhere between post-college graduation blues and oh-man-this-is-adulthood, I started believing the lie that grown ups don’t write for fun. 
Today, that changes.

Today I remember that I’ve always been a writer; it just slipped away for a bit.  
Let's take a moment and remember together. 

Age 6: I fill the pages of my first diary, shamelessly using phrases such as “Dear Diary” and “See you again tomorrow,” and then hide the tiny key under a ceramic Beauty and the Beast figurine on my highest shelf.
Age 7: I co-author my first novel entitled Tom and Amy’s Birthday Party, a riveting page-turner of two best friends thrown into the ultimate test of loyalty when they discover they’ve planned their birthday parties on the same day.  Venues have been booked. Invitations have been mailed. Classmates are taking sides, and no one is backing down.  Will Tom and Amy’s friendship survive?  (I can’t make this stuff up.  Unfortunately, we gave the only copy to our second grade teacher as an end-of-year gift.  After all, she had laminated the cover for us.)
Age 11: My fifth grade teacher gives me the Most Likely to Win the Pulitzer Prize award.  This is most certainly the result of the brazen letter I voluntarily write to our state governor pushing to expand recycling programs in school cafeterias.  Wow. Such gumption.
Age 15: I take my first journalism class, which propels me into a career as a reporter for the high school newspaper. (You may recall my column titled Joybells Tells.)
Age 18: I enter college with intentions of pursuing a degree in journalism, but change majors after watching an episode of Oprah dedicated to teachers.   I sit on my couch crying, weeping, sobbing uncontrollably as Oprah highlights teachers who changed the lives of their students. (Should I be embarrassed right now?)   After the show I call my mom to tell her I am switching majors, to which she responds, “Yeah, I knew this was coming.  You’re meant to be a teacher.”
Age 22:  I stand in front of my first class of fourth graders, counting down the minutes until our first writing workshop together.   With a giddy smile, I release them to open new notebooks and write anything they want.  They stare at me, then at their blank pages and back at me.  “What are we supposed to write about?” one boy asks.  “Anything you want!”  30 minutes later and there are still just blank pages.  Wait.  I have to actually teach these children to write?
Age 25: Official adulthood settles in and takes its toll.  Teaching is overwhelming, my beloved writing workshop continues to be a major flop, and I’m too tired at night to do anything but watch all ten seasons of Friends. True story. 
Age 28: I discover blogs and spend an ungodly amount of time scrolling through the writings of strangers whom I soon begin referring to as friends.  I consider starting my own blog.
 Age 28 plus a few months: I talk myself out of the blog.
Age 29: I consider starting my own blog.
Age 29 plus a few months: I talk myself out of the blog.
(You get the idea. Lather, rinse, repeat.)
Age 30 Something:  Another literacy coach tells me I need a space to write and to stop making excuses and start a blog already.  She warns me that hardest part is coming up with the name.  She is right.  Poor Stephen (the hubby) is trapped in a 5-hour brainstorming session of potential blog names during our road trip to Pennsylvania.
And this brings me to today. 
There will always be a world out there pulling me away from writing.  There will be lunches to pack and a snooze button screaming to be hit one more time. But I need to start writing again, and I hope you will consider doing the same.
Thanks for stopping by. Let’s do this.