Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Only Plan that Matters

Things rarely work out the way you plan.   Usually when I hear this cliché, I think of a lesson plan, a family dinner, an event at church, perhaps.  Yes, there are always kinks, always bumps in the road.  It’s always a good idea to come with Plan A as well as Plan B and C, and usually, one way or the other, things work out.  But what about when the kinks and the bumps sum up not just an hour, an evening, or a day, but your entire life, and you’ve exhausted plan A, B, and C? 

We, especially we women, love to be in control.  So when life flies off the tracks, it drives us nuts.  We spend our whole lives planning our lives, sometimes at the expense of actually living.  This is especially true at the holidays.  The photo on the Christmas card has to look just right, all the perfect presents must be bought, wrapped, and arranged under the carefully decorated tree, every party must be attended (and sometimes planned) with a smile, and there better be delicious baked goods sitting out on the kitchen counter at all times. 

I resolved to have a better attitude about Christmas this year and I did until about two days ago when I hit a wall- now, if I make one more trip to Target, bake one more batch of cookies, or have to address one more card to someone I almost forgot, I may scream.  I soaked up December and all that entails for the first three weeks, even enjoying the aroma of my fresh cut tree.  But now, just at the time when I should be able to enjoy things most, I just feel done, spent, exhausted...and I can’t wait to take down that tree.

“What’s the point?” I ask myself.  It’s easier to muster up some enthusiasm at school or church for those excited little faces at my class party or in the Christmas play, but here in my living room, this sleeping dog at my feet has no idea what happens two days from now.  But as soon as I ask myself why I should even bother, I glance at my mantel and see the nativity scene and remind myself THAT’S the point.  I also remind myself that this “nativity scene” that has become so commonplace to us was anything but common.  It couldn’t have been Mary’s Plan A, B, or C for that Christmas, but as always, God’s plan was best of all. 

We read the first couple of chapters of Luke in the Bible this time of year and we picture this nativity scene and smile at its familiarity.  However, to Mary, the position she had found herself in was anything but familiar.  She had to have felt many of the emotions so many of us experience this time of year to a much larger degree: overwhelmed, doubtful, afraid, maybe even disappointed that her own plans didn’t work out.  However, above all, she felt awe for God’s love for both her and the generations to come, love that was manifested through that precious baby boy. 

It seems simple to us now, but to Mary that night, it had to have seemed anything but simple.  Such is true for our own for own lives when we hit those kinks, those bumps in the road.  The question is: how will we handle it?  Will we kick, scream, and fight God’s plan every step of the way because, above all else, we want to be in control?  Or will we handle challenges with dignity, as Mary did, and embark bravely on the journey God has planned for us?

Luke 2:19 reads, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (NIV)  I like The Message version even better; it reads like this: “Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.”  It’s okay to make plans, to have dreams, to hold them in our hearts.  That’s part of what makes us human; God created us so He understands.  But may we remember, as Mary did, that the only plan that matters in the end is the one that glorifies God.  And may we hold that deep within our hearts, this Christmas, and always.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Be All There

Four out of five days of “indoor recess” (a.k.a. supervised pandemonium) didn’t exactly kick off my holiday season with a smile this week.  Well, that isn’t exactly true- the smile was still there.  And luckily no one else could see the gritted teeth behind the smile, feel the deep breath being inhaled slowly deep down inside or hear me counting to ten in my mind.  Repeatedly.       

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my kids.  But some days they just don’t let up.  I imagine parents feel a more intense version of this constancy, as my chaos at least sticks to a schedule that ends at 3:00.  But these days, the minutes seem to tick a little more slowly as the couple of weeks before winter break loom before us.  This year, I had kids bouncing in the classroom BEFORE Thanksgiving all excited about how they’d already put up their Christmas trees.  Any teacher who is being honest would admit that sometimes you wonder if we’ll all make it to December 20th with our sanity intact. 

With that said, it is hard not to feel a little guilty at the end of the day this time of year.  I often ask myself if I was too snippy with a particular child, if I was prepared enough for a particular lesson after spending the night before working on the church Christmas play instead of lesson plans, or if the kids noticed I was making a Target shopping list during the aforementioned “indoor recess...”  It’s always been very important to me to “be all there” with my students, but this time of year it’s particularly challenging.  Some days, a fake smile, a thrown together lesson, and a “I’ll help you with that another day,” is all I’ve got.

So that’s why a casual afternoon conversation with one of my students today struck me as particularly sweet.  A lot of the kids had already left for the day, but about half a dozen remained, including one of my more mature, quiet girls.  Out of the blue, she asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you like being here?” and as I turned my head and looked to her for clarification she continued, “I mean, teaching, at this school.  Do you like your job?” Immediately I answered, “Yes, I truly do.  I love my job.” She then said, “I can tell.  You’re one of the nicest teachers I’ve ever had.” 

In August or June, this comment might not have struck me as extraordinarily special.  But on a dreary Friday afternoon the first week of December, it brought a genuine smile to my face.  It showed me that (hopefully) despite the snippy comments, unprepared moments, and distracted responses, they get it.  They know I like being there, they know I love my job, they know I love THEM.  Even in December, when they’re a little louder, a little rowdier, and a little harder to rein in…  I DO like being there.

This holiday season, I hope I don’t forget this little lesson.  Despite the chaos, I don’t want to forget where I am and that I LIKE being there, that the people around me and the moments that we’re sharing matter.  My prayer for you this holiday season is that you’ll remember the same. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I'm Thankful For...

When I was a kid, there was this song we’d sing at school for Thanksgiving.  In my family, we still sing it as a joke sometimes, because I sang it so much when I was little.  (I was rarely quiet if you can believe it.)  Since my last post, the words have been echoing in my head (in the cheesiest of ways). 

The song goes like this:  There are many things I am thankful for / I can find them near and far / There are many things I am thankful for/ Let me tell you what they are…”  After that, the kids in the class sing, “I’m thankful for __________” and take turns filling in the blank, then the last line of the song says, “And I’m thankful to be me.”

Sometimes I worry that this blog is too gloomy, that I spend too many words lamenting and not enough lifting up.  In truth, I do live a very blessed life and I am so very thankful to be me.  So today, I wanted to prove that I’m taking my own challenge and “just trying” to focus on the positive.  Today, I wanted to fill in the blanks of that childhood song and tell you that…

I’m thankful for

my family.  This starts with my husband who has proven his unconditional love to me time and time again.  So many times, I have cried to Brent that we’ll “never have a family” and every single time he has looked me in the eye and emphatically replied, “We are a family.”  He’s right, and he is everything to me.  I am also thankful for the families that we come from.  We both were blessed with parents who put us first as they raised us, and love us for the adults we have become.  Last (but not least) I am blessed to have a sister who is also the greatest friend I could ask for, and I’ve watched Brent become closer with his brother the last few years as well.  There’s nothing better than family you’d choose to be friends with!

friends who feel like family.  I’ve never been one to classify the importance of a relationship by whether a person is family or not.  If you’ve invested in my life, taken the time to get to know me for who I am, and loved me well, you are family in my book.  I’ve been blessed throughout my life with people who fall into this category, and I am thankful… every weekend away, every day spent at the waterpark, every long conversation over a cup of coffee or dinner, every Saturday night playing games and laughing, every text just checking to see how I am.  It always amazes me how God places just the right people in our lives at just the right times.  All we have to do is be willing to open our hearts.

a job that I LOVE.  Recently at a teacher of the year reception I sat next to a young man who works at our school system’s central office.  He seemed perplexed that I had worked at the same school in the same capacity since college and didn’t have any aspirations to go elsewhere.  I’m not sure he bought into my explanation of why I’m truly content where I am, but luckily, it doesn’t matter what he thinks.  All that matters is every morning I walk into a classroom at a school that feels like home and am greeted by twenty-some little people who think I know it all.  It’s an awe-inspiring responsibility and yes, some days it feels overwhelming just like anyone else’s job.  But unlike most jobs, the pay comes in unexpected hugs, uncontrollable giggles, and an unexplainable bond with so many children whom yes, I slip up and call “my kids” sometimes. The truth is the truth, and in some ways, they will always be mine.  For that I am thankful.

my faith.  I am thankful for the challenges of the last few years because they have taught me that my faith is real.  I am thankful for a husband who loves God even more than he loves me, who has refused to let me give up on my faith even when things are hard.  I am thankful for our church, for the people there who love God and love each other, and perhaps most of all, love to have a good time.  I am thankful for our pastor whose words of truth on Sunday morning ring out over the lies I’ve been telling myself all week more times than not.  I’m thankful for the youth group we work with for reminding me of the roots of my faith every time I answer their questions, hear them sing a song of praise, or listen to them pray.  Every moment that I feel God working in my life, I am thankful.

you.  I started this blog about a year ago and it was a huge and scary step for me.  Personally, I had kept our infertility a secret from many people in our lives up until that point and professionally, I was just reaching the point in my teaching career where I thought I might have anything worthwhile to share.  I had this web address reserved for six months before I actually got up the nerve to post, but it’s a risk I’m glad I took.  I’m thankful you are willing to read it and I’m thankful for any way that God has used it to uplift.  I’m also thankful for the way people have shown support to me, and I’m thankful for those of you that have reached out to me for support now that you know my story.   So thank you, for listening to my heart and for sharing yours.  I’m thankful that we’re all in the crazy thing called life together.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Just Try

There is always a reason to be thankful… not just in November, not just when we’re praying at the dinner table, not just at church on Sunday, not just when a specific prayer is answered.  Always. 

For some of us, ironically, it’s harder to be thankful this time of year than others.  The simple reminder, the unspoken pressure, the general expectation to be thankful sparks involuntary recoil deep inside of me.  You see, I have prayed the same prayer continually, persistently, for well over five years.  Yet my prayer has remained (and seemingly will remain) unanswered.  So when commercials with kids piling out of cars at grandma’s on Thanksgiving fill my television, pictures with babies in Santa’s lap fill my computer screen, and every display in Target reads, “Give Thanks” the human side of me says, “Why?” 

But something even deeper inside of me says, “Just try.” 

Thankfulness, gratitude, isn’t our natural human tendency.  We are much more inclined to be selfish.  We are always wanting more, demanding more…of those around us, of ourselves, and whether we like to admit it or not, of God.  But the truth is, we could get everything we think we want, and it still would never be enough, at least not this side of heaven.  Every single life has holes, missing pieces…some of us just rearrange things to hide them more easily than others.  But the missing pieces are no excuse to overlook the rest of the puzzle. 

So this week, I’m taking that challenge from deep inside my heart: just try, and hoping you will do the same.  With a little effort, I think we’ll see, no matter our circumstances, that it’s easier to be thankful than not to be.  As long as I keep a tight grip on my selfish desires, it’s easy to convince myself that I’m lacking, that it’s not enough.  But if I just try to overlook the missing pieces, with a deep breath, with a whispered prayer, with a fresh look at all those pieces I do have, it’s harder not to be thankful.

Besides, what if the missing pieces aren’t really missing at all?  In truth, we have everything we need to be happy on any given day.  Too often, we create reasons to be unhappy, to be ungrateful.  We focus on the one thing we don’t have instead of the thousand things we do have.  Yes, it’s possible that we’ll find the missing piece and the puzzle will be complete.  But sometimes, just when we least expect it, the puzzle gets rearranged and we realize we had the pieces we needed all along.  Other times, we may spend our whole life wondering about that hole, but I’m convinced when this life is over, we’ll understand. 

There is always a reason to be thankful… not because we are better than someone else, have more than someone else, or have achieved more than someone else.  Instead, we are thankful because we are better than we have been, because we have what we need, and because no matter what we have or haven’t achieved, there is always the opportunity to do more, to do better…to be better.  We just have to keep trying, even (especially) when it’s hard. Because there is always a reason to be thankful…

Thursday, November 20, 2014

8 Steps to a Class Party You Can Enjoy

When I think back on my first year teaching, there are many things that make me shudder, but perhaps this is most true when it comes to my holiday party.  Back then, I was still a little bit afraid of the ever-threatening parent involvement so I asked exactly ONE parent to help with my party.  I also drafted my sister to come help, but being that I was 22 and she was 19, most of the expertise in creating childhood Christmas fun came from my lone grade parent.  Bless her.  Most of what I recall of that chaotic hour and a half involves a roomful of loud and crazy fifth graders with my head spinning and counting the moments until it would be over while I tried to juggle every activity, craft, game, and snack.  

Thankfully, I’ve since learned how to plan a classroom holiday party that I actually enjoy so I thought I’d share my plan:

Step 1: Draft as many parents to help as possible.  There is no such thing as too much parent involvement for this event (the kids are so wild by this point- the more adult eyes that are on them, the better).  

Step 2:  Allow parents who have their own idea to run their own station and for the parents that don’t have their own idea, provide an easy-to-run station that they can run by themselves (see below).  Do not plan to run a station yourself.  This frees you up to do other things during the party OR to run a station should the need arise. 

Step 3:  Compile a list of needed supplies and send home this note to parents who were willing to send in supplies right away.  Ask that the supplies be sent in a day or two before the party.  Ask someone to send in six inexpensive plastic table covers (Dollar Tree) so you can throw them over the student desks and other tables in your room and instantly have a party room instead of a classroom.   This also contains the mess at the end of the party- they all go in the trash!

Step 4: About a week before the party, e-mail a few choice parents and ask them to come thirty minutes prior to the party to set up.  Get the kids out of the room for this time (think specials, lunch, recess, etc.)

Step 5: The day before the party, put the supplies for each station in a plastic grocery bag with a copy of a sign for that station stapled on the bag.  Print another copy of the signs and include one in the bag so that the sign can be put on the table after the station is set up.  Leave these bags out for the parents who will come in to set up before the party.  Don’t forget the plastic tablecloth for each station!

Step 6:  Put your students into groups (however many stations you have should be your number of groups).  As you walk in the room, assign each group a table to start at and roll.  I allow 10-15 minutes for each station.  A tip: make snack one of your stations.  Five students grabbing for food at once is always better than 25.  

Step 7: Enjoy the party!  I walk around chatting with parents, having fun with students, and most importantly TAKING PICTURES!  The parents will be busy running the stations so they won’t be able to travel with their child from station to station.  Every year, I make a Winter Party Animoto and e-mail the link out to parents the next day as a thank you.  It’s a hit year after year!  Educators can apply for a free Animoto account.  Check out my Animoto from last year here so you can visualize the whole thing:

Step 8: End the party with ONE whole group activity, usually the best one (a grand finale of sorts).  This could be a crazy game, a fun video, or a book exchange.  See ideas below.

Easy-to-run Holiday Station Ideas (Step 2)
·      Holiday Drawing with a Twist:  Have students follow these directions, but have them draw on a paper plate that they must hold atop their head as they draw.
·      Holiday Pictionary:  Get a free word list here.
·      Holiday Bingo:  If you play this, make sure you ask a parent to send in candy for the prize.  Order a Holiday Bingo here.
·      Holiday Musical Chairs:  Simply play holiday music and play the classic game.  You’d be surprised at how much kids still enjoy it.
·      Make your own snack:  The ideas on Pinterest these days are endless.  My personal favorites are simple: decorate your own sugar cookie or decorate your own Christmas tree (a sugar cone). 
·      Make your own holiday cards:  Every year, I ask a few family members and friends to give me the Christmas cards they would otherwise throw away.  I let my kids cut them up and make their own cars.  Simple, free, and they love it!  You can let them keep the cards to give away or you can donate them to a local nursing home.

Ideas for Grand Finale (Step 8)
·      Backward Charades:  Divide the class into two teams.  Put two students (one from each team) in front of the board with their back to the board so the rest of the class sees the clue but they don’t.  The rest of the class silently acts out the clue while the two people who are “it” guess.  We played this with regular words at youth group at church recently and it was a huge hit!  I’m trying it for the first time with my class this year.  You can get my PowerPoint for free here: Holiday Backward Charades
·      JibJab:  I’ve gone over the top the past two years and created JibJab videos with my students’ faces.  A JibJab account (www.jibjab.com) is $18 per year, but I’ve used it for church and other things as well.  This is always a surprise to the students and they LOVE them, make me link them on my website, and watch them again and again.
·      Fat Santa:  Get sweatpants and sweatshirts that are WAY too big for your students (two outfits).  Choose two students to put on the sweatsuits and split the students into two teams.  Provide students with balloons (it would probably be a good idea to already have them blown up- perhaps the parents who help set up can do this) and whoever can stuff the most balloons into their person’s sweatsuit in two minutes wins.   This game always gets lots of laughs.
·      Classroom Book ExchangeStudents can bring gently used books or Scholastic book club always has a lot of $1 books to choose from.  You can do the book exchange using any party present giving game or idea.

Lastly, when the party is over, you’re only faced with one final task: making sure you kept all those sweet gifts straight and writing thank you notes for all of them.  I believe that it is really important that the thank you notes get written promptly so that children understand the importance of gratitude and manners.  However, I tend to be wordy with my thank you notes and spend more time than I really have to spend on them at times.  The past couple of years I’ve used a shortcut that’s too good not to share.  After Christmas, I order kids’ thank you notes on clearance, the kind that just leaves blanks for you to fill in and a place to sign your name.  I almost always write in a couple of extra sentences as well, but this still has cut the time I spend on thank you notes in half while still getting the job done.  Here's a sampleThank You Notes

Remember- this is one of those moments that the students may actually remember when they look back on their year in your classroom.  Hopefully some of these tips will allow you to be all there and enjoy the moment with them.