Sunday, April 13, 2014

Unsolicited Advice for Being in my Life

This has been said by just about everyone under the sun.  I know that.  And yet I'm going to say it again.  If you want to be in my life, please be IN it.  Please be with me when we are together.  Here's how I think you should do this.

1. Put down your phone.  Better yet, leave it at home or in the car.  At the least, leave it in your purse or your pocket when we're having a conversation.

If you have a loved one in the hospital or you left your kids at home without an adult, you may need to take a call.  It's one thing if you are waiting for lab results or your deployed family member who only gets to call a few times a month.  I'll happily wait while you take that call.  Just tell me up-front, before you answer, that you need to take it.

I can't tell you the number of times lately that I've *tried* to have conversations with people who were constantly texting or checking Facebook while I was trying to talk to them.  It's rude.  It's disrespectful.  It tells me that I am not as important as whoever or whatever you are looking at on your phone.  It's all too quickly becoming the norm.

I've been guilty of this.  More than once.  I'm sorry for that.  If I've disrespected you in this way, I'm asking for your forgiveness right now.  I'm also asking for you to call me on it if I do it again.  Seriously.  If we're in conversation and I whip out my phone while we're talking, please ask me to put my phone away.

That's it.  There is no number two in this week's advice.  Number one really sums it up.  If you want to be in my life, be in it.  Put down your phone and let me know I'm more important that whatever is on that screen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


From the day I was born, I had a special connection with my mom's oldest little sister, Jean.  My birth certificate lists my name as Kelsy Jean.  I was named after her and because of that, or maybe just because, I have always felt a special bond with my Aunt Jean.  I've always been proud to be named after someone so incredible as her and a little scared that I won't be able to live up to it.

Jean and me, June 1982
When I was six years old, I was the flower girl at her wedding.  She said "I do" to the love of her life, my Uncle Lynn, that June.  I don't remember Jean before Lynn.  In my mind, they are inseparable, truly having "become one" on that summer day in 1982.  My family is awesome, but sadly, divorce has been a big part of it for the last three generations.  My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, and very close family friends have had failed marriages.  But Jean and Lynn were only married once.  Only to each other.  Not a lot of people can say that.  Even less can say that their years together were full of joy, happiness, love and serving Jesus together.

Over the years, Jean had a lot of health related problems.  When she was 16 she had Hodgkins lymphoma.  The radiation treatments that saved her life then caused irreversible damage to her bones and heart.  She had many surgeries, breaks, and related struggles throughout the years.  Last year she was denied a heart transplant because the doctors didn't believe she could make it through the surgery.  At that time, we knew that short of a miracle, her days with us here on Earth were numbered.

But that didn't stop her from doing what she always did.  She promoted women's heart health with Women Heart.  (That's her in the picture in the link, fifth from the right, the second person to the left of Laura Bush.)  Jean continued to be a vital part of the organization she and Lynn founded, Lead to Read KC, which brings adult readers into inner city Kansas City schools.  She continued to provide hospitality.  When Ray and I arrived unannounced in October, she wasn't having the best of days, but still got up and offered us a meal.  She flew often to Boise to spend time with her daughter's family and her new granddaughter.  She made chicken pies and macaroni and tomatoes.  She sent cookies to her great nephews and nieces.  She wrote letters. She laughed. She played the piano. She refused to quit living, loving or serving.

Jean and Lynn, sporting their Lead to Read t-shirts and enjoying one another
God allowed me to be at the Rundle home on March 17, 2014, Jean's last day on Earth.  Her body had been weakening for quite some time and we knew the end was close. But when I went with my mom to visit that day, I had no idea that we would be witnesses to her final breath.

When those final moments came, I was the last of the family to enter her room.  I'd been downstairs with my cousin Anna, grabbing a bite to eat and keeping each other company.  We came up quickly when a family member urgently called down the stairs.  We knew what that tone of voice meant: the end was upon us.  Anna raced up the stairs and I followed.

When I walked in the door, I saw Jean on her bed, Lynn kneeling at her side, holding her hand.  Her grown children were surrounding her, her mother and sisters standing just behind them.  There were tears and there was sobbing. But there was also something that was maybe a little unexpected.  The first words I heard when I entered the room were from Lynn.  "Praise Jesus."  He kept repeating that and encouraging Jean and the rest of us with things like, "Go. It's okay," and "She's going where she wants to be."  I know a lot of people who claim Jesus but there is no testimony like saying those words, "Praise Jesus," as your heart is breaking in two.  And his surely was.

Jean died like she lived: surrounded by those who loved her and praising Jesus.

At her memorial a few days later, friends and family gathered to remember and honor her amazing but all too short life.  Jean, always thinking of others, had been a part of planning the service.  She didn't want Lynn and the kids to have to do it themselves.  As people shared their memories of her, common themes were revealed:

Jean's love for music.  She was an amazing pianist.  That night we were able to watch video of her playing and singing. I don't think there was a dry eye in the place as we listened to her sing, "I Can Only Imagine."  While that is true for us, she is no longer imagining.  She is with Jesus, falling at his feet or dancing or singing or playing.

Jean's love for people.  She lived a hospitable life, feeding people, serving people, welcoming people.  She fit into any circle.  She worked with the homeless and shared a stage with a former First Lady at a Women Heart event.  She played piano with the symphony and at the nursing home.   She didn't care if you were rich or poor, Black or White, healthy or sick.  She only cared that you were in her life.  My husband once said that "Jean and Lynn are the kind of people who make you feel like they like you even if they don't."  I can't imagine that there were people Jean didn't like, but if there were, you can bet that she still made them feel loved.

Jean and my mom, Easter 2013
Jean's humility.  A week before she died, Jean, in the final stages of heart failure, in constant pain and  fully aware that her time was short, greeted her brother-in-law with "We don't have anything to complain about, do we?" And she meant it.  She never stopped asking about others.  She would be literally in the hospital and ask how someone's health/family/situation was.  To her, her own circumstance didn't matter as much as those of the person she was talking to.  She genuinely lived a life that put others first.

Jean's love for Jesus.  Overwhelmingly, we were reminded at her memorial that "we do not grieve as those who have no hope."  We have no doubt that Jean is with Jesus, whom she loved wholeheartedly.   We know that for those of us who share that faith, we will be together with her and with Him when our time here is finished.  The memorial ended with all of us singing "10,000 Reasons" by Matt Redman, a song Jean not only sang, but lived, to the very day when her strength gave out and her soul met Jesus face to face.

Bless the Lord, O my soul
O my soul
Worship His holy name
Sing like never before
O my soul
I'll worship Your holy name

The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning
It's time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes


You're rich in love, and You're slow to anger
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find


And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore

[Chorus x2]

Jesus, I'll worship Your holy name
Lord, I'll worship Your holy name

Sing like never before
O my soul
I'll worship Your holy name
Jesus, I'll worship Your holy name
I'll worship Your holy name

Jean Lynette Rundle, beloved wife, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, mentor, and friend crossed over humbly March 17, 2014 in Kansas City, MO at the age of 55. The fallen world took her life, after suffering a battle with congestive heart failure for over 11 years. Jean was born the daughter of Janice Murphy (Higgins) on August 24, 1958 in Killeen, Texas. Her father, LeRoy Dyer of Middletown Connecticut and sweet mother Janice of Topeka, KS, survive. Jean grew up in Burlington Kansas and graduated from Emporia State, receiving a degree in Health Education in 1980. She moved to Manhattan, where she worked for the American Cancer Society and there met and married the love of her life, Lynn Rundle and together they shared 31 years, 8 months and 21 days together this side of the veil. God blessed them with three thriving incredible children and one blessed granddaughter. Jean's greatest joy in life has been loving well her children. Their oldest daughter is Amy Lynn Fosha and her husband Fred of Boise, ID parents of Prairie Jean Fosha; a son, Jesse Blake Rundle of Washington D.C.; and Anna Christine Rundle of Kansas City. Jean invested her life well, loving Jesus and her family above all else. Jean's true legacy will only be revealed at wedding feast of the Lamb where her crown will be adorned with the shadow of thousands of lives whom she influenced for eternity. Her life giving spirit, her warm gentle way of listening and her gift of music were trademarks, uniquely given and humbly shared with all who knew her. She was a blessed friend, gifted musician and pianist, blessing countless lives with her music at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, Kansas City Urban Young Life, and Women Heart, in Kansas City. Jean and Lynn invested their lives in Whiting Kansas with the Jackson Heights family and in Manhattan Kansas for 18 years before moving to Kansas City in 2007. In 2011 Jean co-founded the organization Lead to Read KC in the Kansas City Metro. Lead to Read is a growing organization with over 300 volunteer Readers who read once/ week to grade school children in 10 classrooms in the urban core of KC Missouri and Kansas and one school in Manhattan. The vision of Lead to Read was born out of Jean's deep compassion for the homeless and the fatherless; the children who are often educated in the urban core. Please visit In addition to Janice Murphy; her step-father, Bobby Lee Higgins whom raised her from an early age survives. Jean has three living brothers, James Higgins and his wife Valorie of Burlington, KS, Lee Dyer of Middletown, CT, Tom Dyer and his companion, Dianna Payne of Middletown, CT; Jean has four living sisters, Judy Hutson and her husband Ray, Kim Hatch and her husband Eric, Kathy Kopfman all of Burlington, KS and Sherry Dyer Simonson and her husband Eric of Slingerlands, NY. Jean was preceded in death by her Nannie and Papa Murphy. A visitation will be held on Friday, March 21, from 2:00 - 3:30 p.m. at the Maple Hill Funeral Home, Kansas City, KS. Jean's friends are invited to share a meal and fellowship with the family starting at 5:00 which will be held at Colonial Presbyterian Church, located at 9500 Wornall Road KCMO 64114. A memorial and celebration of Jean's life will follow, starting at 7:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, Jean asks that memorial contributions be made to the Lead to Read-KC Fund; National Christian Foundation, 706 N. Lindenwood Drive, Olathe, KS 66062 or visit, To share a memory, a story about Jean, or to offer a prayer, please visit Jean's memorial webpage at

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Unsolicited Advice for Your Wedding Registry - Kitchen Edition

This time, the advice is not totally unsolicited.  My dearest Kate, who was once one of my fifth grade students, is now a real grown up and is getting married soon!  She asked her Facebook friends advice on what to include and not to include on her registry.  Always a bastion of wisdom, I chimed in and decided to expand on it here.

Gift registries have come a long way over the years. They used to be paper pencil things you could fill out only at your local businesses.  Now they are electronic, world wide accessible and way more fun to fill out.

But somethings are the same.  If  you're getting married today, you're probably going to get towels, dishes and sheets, just like your momma and her momma before you.  Here's what else I think you should ask for.

Today I'm going to focus on things you will want for your kitchen:  Don't register for most of this stuff at Wal-Mart or Target or JC Penney.  Find a consultant and get Pampered Chef.  Their products will be so much better and you will use them forever.  A lot of it even comes with a lifetime warranty.  They do wedding showers and registries and what-not.  It's worth the effort!

 Specifically, get these:
  • Forged cutlery.  If you spend any time in the kitchen at all, you will need a good knife set.  I highly recommend the chef's knife, butcher knife and small paring knife.  I use them almost every day.
  • Stoneware.  Get the covered baker and a pizza stone.  If you plan to have a large family, get two.  They're so worth having.  Everything tastes better when cooked on a stone. 
  • Salad spinner.  I don't have one of these, but I wish I did.  My mom has one that I've used many times and it makes washing fruits and veggies a breeze.  It's a great way to let the kids help with meal prep, too.  
  • Can opener.  Get the one that actually breaks the seal rather than cuts the edges.  So much safer than having sharp metal in the kitchen.
  • Cutting boards.  Get a couple of sizes.  The mini ones are great for quick snacks and the larger ones for bigger meals.
  • Kitchen shears.  Get a pair.  Use them for cutting up chickens.  They are awesome.
  • Garlic Press.  Connie Seibel turned me onto these many years ago, when we were neighbors in Gridley.  I have used mine almost non-stop since then.  Garlic has about a million and one healthy qualities, so go ahead and stick it in everything.  Makes stuff yummy, too.
  • Mix-and-chop.  It's a funny, kind of star shaped utensil that makes chopping up ground beef, onions, etc such a breeze.  You want one of these.  Trust me on this.
Here are a few other, non-PC things you should have in your kitchen.
  • A Ninja.  No, not a Jackie Chan movie extra; a blender/food processor combo.  It's so fantastic, I cannot begin to tell  you how much I love this thing.  It's as awesome at chopping onions as it is at making smoothies.  Get one.  You'll thank me later.
  • Pyrex bowls and dishes with lids.  You're going to want a couple of these.  Glass is so much better than plastic.  You can freeze it, microwave it, and eat right out of it.  Be sure to get the ones with lids.  Lids are so much better than covering something with plastic wrap.  When you can, get the lids that snap on.  They are awesome!  We use these in my husband's lunch box almost every day.
  • A crockpot big enough to cook an entire roast or 10 pounds of ground beef.  This can be your best friend in the kitchen, especially if you work outside the home and when you have little kids to take care of.  
  • I love, love, love my Zyliss brand ice cream scoop.  It's the one thing I have that I love this brand more than the Pampered Chef equivalent.  It's that good. 
I will probably have more unsolicited advice for you on the rest of your list soon.  Be looking for it!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Unsolicited Advice for Homeschooling Little Ones

Over and over and over again I see and hear loving, caring, hard-working mommas who are contemplating homeschooling their preschool and kindergarten kiddos ask the same question; "What curriculum should I use?"

My answer is very simple:  "None.  You do not need to buy an expensive big box curriculum for a child that age."

Give me a minute before you think I'm advocating the impossible and I'll expand on some things I think you should do instead.

1. Read to your child.  Follow the words with your finger while you read aloud and help your son learn that English tracks from left to right.  Ask natural questions as you read.  Have your child predict what will happen next.  Count the number of dogs on the page.  Ask which has more, what color the balloons are, or what time of day it is in the story.  Little ones love this and these are the prereading skills they need.  An expensive curriculum won't likely give you much in this regard that you couldn't figure out all by yourself but they will charge you an arm and a leg.

2. Go places.  Go to the library, the grocery, the zoo, the park, the museum, the firehouse, city hall, the aquarium, and to church.  While you're there, talk about what you see and what you're doing.  Even if you think your kids are too young to understand, with time and repetition, they will pick up on so much more than you can imagine.

When you're at the grocery, explain to your daughters and sons that you are picking cereal based on what is on sale and the nutritional content.  Let them see the difference in price between red delicious and Fuji apples.  Let them help you put the produce on the scale and learn to read it.  At the checkout, explain the difference between paying with a debit card, credit card, check and cash.  Explain why you choose to pay the way you do.  It doesn't need to be a formal lesson or one that takes very long.  A few sentences here and there add up!

My kids have all been to the voting booth with me more than once.  They know how the process works and why it is important to me.  Hopefully, by the time they are 18, going to the poll will be such a natural thing for them to do that they won't miss a single chance to have their say in the world.

3. Use what you've got and what's around you.  Point out letters and numbers you find in your home and around town.  In the car, have the kids look outside for the letters in their names or the alphabet.  At home, have them search through magazines for letters.  Cut them out and make an alphabet book or wall with construction paper and glue.  Make or buy some simple and inexpensive letter flash cards if you must.

Sing the alphabet and count as part of your bedtime or bath time or whatever time routines.  Make it a natural part of the day, not "school time."  Learning can take place 24/7, so don't relegate it to 8-3.

4. Let kids be kids.  There is much knowledge to be gained in free play. This is something any preschool or kindergarten teacher worth listening to would tell you.  They would probably also tell you that they are getting more and more pressure to leave this out in lieu of formal learning.  They probably hate that.

5.  I'm a big believer in the "better late than early" philosophy.  I had a friend once explain it to me this way: It is possible for a farmer to work his field in the cold, snowy, frozen ground of January.  It can be done, but at a great cost in time and resources for the farmer.  The ground itself does not necessary benefit from this either.  However, if a farmer waits until Spring and works his ground when it is ready, it is a much, much easier process for both the farmer and the field.   The same is true about our kids.  If we force them to begin formal schooling before they are ready, the process is long and hard and often kills the natural love of learning the child once had.  If however, we wait until the child himself shows some signs of wanting to begin, it all goes so much more smoothly.

I have four kids and they have all learned to read at different ages.  At age 5, my oldest wasn't ready for kindergarten.  He didn't show the least bit of interest in learning to read.  At age 6, we started our formal homeschooling and he still wasn't ready then.  I didn't understand all that I do know and I probably pushed him too hard that first year.   At age 7, when he decided he wanted to be a reader, he became one.

My daughter read early.  She listened to me teach her brother that first year and when I started with her the next, she really had very little to learn.  She had picked it up from listening to me work with her older brother and basically taught herself to read at age 5.  She has been a voracious reader since.

Tigger is almost 7 and still learning to read.  At age 5, he had zero interest so we didn't do much.  This year, he started taking an interest and we have used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons along with sight word cards to teach him.  Once he saw the value in reading, he started wanting to do it, with less fuss when I told him to get his book out.

My youngest just turned four and we have done zero formal schooling with him.  He watches a lot of Leap Frog videos (The Letter Factory is our favorite!) and has a Letter Factory toy of his own.  He sits with Tigger and me when we do our reading lessons and he's learning.  A few weeks ago my dad handed him a pen and told him to write his name. He did. All by himself with not one single writing lesson. You will be surprised at how much your kids will pick up just by living.

Seasoned homeschoolers, would you agree or are you big fans of the big box curriculum?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Off to the Vet

So, the other day I decided that I needed to take my dog to the vet to get his shots.  They were, after all, due in December.  It was February 28 and I thought I would bite the bullet and take him in.  Why the delay, you ask?

Well, you see . . . Flash has this thing about getting in the car.  Once upon a time he used to like it but now that I won't let him sit in the front seat and hang his head out the window it's a different story.  Don't think I'm awful, but when he was a puppy he jumped out of my arms and out the window of our moving car.  Since then, I've never trusted him to be smart enough not to fall out and I just don't think I could handle it if I ran him over.  So I don't let him hang out the car window.  And he hates that.

So....Friday we have an appointment with the vet.  It's just short of a 20 minute drive.  And the dog howls the entire time.  I am not even exaggerating.  The. entire. time.  Even better, my four year old decided to "sing along," so we got the full stereo effect.  Big E and I could not stop laughing.

My daughter, however, who had her ears closest to the canine symphony, was less than impressed, as you can see by the photographic evidence I captured that day.

As horrible as this excursion was, this still wasn't as bad as when we had to take him in last summer.  He'd slipped a disc in his back and I thought he was dying.  He wouldn't move and the howling started at home.  I hauled his 50 plus pound beagle butt into the van and he continued to serenade us with the music of his people as I pulled out of the driveway.  Lucky us, there was summertime road construction on the highway and no way to evade it.  Even luckier, we managed to be first in line for the wait for the pilot car.  Yep.  We had to sit, looking at the highway worker holding the stop sign, for 15 entire minutes.  Like that's not awkward enough without Flash baying like he's on the scent of the world's largest rabbit.  The poor guy didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  Honestly, neither did I.  About ten minutes in, or maybe it was only two, either way, it felt like we had been sitting there for hours, I let my then nine year old son walk the dog along the side of the highway in a construction zone.  Because, you know, at the time it seemed safer than leaving me in the car with that insane beagle.

Like my sister says, "that dog is a mess."  And oh, my goodness, he is.  He is a mess.  A giant food stealing, stinky eared, gets up on the furniture when he's not supposed to and drives my mother crazy mess. But he's almost 14 years old and I think his days are numbered.  He's totally deaf and mostly blind already.  But he still follows me from room to room and sits at my feet.  He whimpers until I pet him and if he gets out, I'm worried out of my mind until he comes home.  He's my dog and even though I hate to admit it, I love the smelly, bratty beast that he is.

One day, long from now, my kids will recall their childhoods and tell my grandchildren of that crazy mess of a dog that howled the entire way to the vet.  Every. single. time.  And they will laugh and they will smile and they will know that they share something that only their mother and their siblings can fully understand.  And they'll laugh again and tell their children that "Flash was a good dog. . ." most of the time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Miscarriage Story

A while back a blog post was circulating on Facebook.  It's an incredibly personal story that challenges pro-life people to reevaluate the way they handle women (and men) who experience loss through miscarriage differently than they do the loss of life from an abortion.  It's worth the read.  In fact, go read it now, then come back and read the rest of this post.  

I didn't click the link the first couple of times I saw this because I didn't think it would apply to me.  I am pro-life and I've had a miscarriage but I didn't know the direction the author was going to take with this post.  I just thought...I don't know what I thought, really, but I didn't feel compelled to read it.  And then today, I did.  And whoa.  I should have better prepared myself for the mental onslaught that ensued.  

After reading this blog from Mrs. Lewis, I sat in front of my computer just bawling my eyes out, filled with the pain of my own experience with miscarriage. 

Just a few days after Christmas 2008, we lost a baby, or at least the hope of a baby.  The doctor told me that I probably wasn't really pregnant, but body thought I was...there's some medical term for that happening that I don't remember. I've never known how to deal with that part of my experience. I was 12 weeks along. 

Because of some incredibly serious complications, I ended up in the ICU and nearly died. The single scariest moment of my life was when my heart rate dropped down into the 30-50 range for the fourth time in an hour and I knew I was going to have another seizure.  I remember looking at my husband and telling him to make sure the kids (we had three under age six at the time) knew that their mom had loved them.  I meant it and I really didn't think that I would get the chance to tell them myself. By the grace of God and the skills of the correct doctor that was finally called in, within a few very long days, I was able to come home and hold my babies in my own arms, to whisper my love to them in my own voice.

My parents were there.  My in-laws and my sister rushed to see me.  People from my church came.  In the days and weeks that followed, they brought us more food than we could even eat.  They loved on us and did all that they knew to do to make life easier for me as I recovered from a horrific ordeal.  They were amazing and wonderful and a blessing that I still treasure today.  So very many people prayed for me during that time and so many worked to meet our physical needs that I’m sure I don’t even know them all.  I have rarely felt so much love as I did during the weeks after my hospital stay.

People were taking care of and praying for ME, my 30 something self, but really most people barely acknowledged that we had lost a baby, a life, a person. There was one nurse in Topeka that I remember.  I was in over the New Year and the hospital was packed.  I'd been moved from the ICU to the PCU and she hadn't yet had time to read my chart.  When she asked me why I was there, I told her. She immediately stopped what she was doing and said, "I am so sorry.  Do you need anything?  Do you want me to get someone for you to talk to?"  She was the first and the last of the medical staff to do so.  That was my second day there.  No one else there spoke of the baby or my loss again.  The emotional aspects of the miscarriage didn't matter at all.  The only thing that mattered was my current physical condition.  And I understand why.  It was bad.  It was "I almost died" bad.  As horrible as that was, someone else did die.  Not just almost, but totally, even before drawing a first breath.  My baby died that day.

I had a dear friend who came to the hospital and brought with her a small statuette of an angel holding a baby. On the bottom she wrote, “Baby Crutchfield 2008.” 

At the time, I didn’t know what to do with it or how to respond.  I don’t remember what I did when she gave it to me.  But in the five years that have passed since then, I have more than once sat crying, holding that small figurine. It's the only tangible link I have to tie that pregnancy to the rest of my world.  Had I seen it in a store or at someone’s home, I wouldn’t have looked twice.  It isn’t the kind of thing I normally would go for but because of the circumstances surrounding my receiving it, it has become one of my most valued treasures.

There were others who acknowledged the loss, I'm sure, but I just don't remember. I was exhausted, not just physically but emotionally.  Overall, the extreme nature of my own medical problems allowed us to practically bypass the loss of our baby.

Even my husband and I grieved separately; alone. It was too hard to talk about and it was so busy, with three kids who were so little and me just trying to recover, that even I blocked out the thing that had landed me in the hospital to begin with. No one else talked about it, so I didn't either. If they tried, I just told them that I was fine and let myself believe that it was true.  I simply didn’t think about the baby we had lost. 

But every once in a while, when I read something like the story on The Lewis Note blog or hear someone's story of loss, it brings all of those suppressed feelings to the surface. And I sit and mourn the loss of a child I never held in my arms; a child whose face I never saw, a child to whom I never gave a name because that would have been too weird.

I never know how to count my children. Is my baby boy my fourth or fifth child?  When I talk about being pregnant, I know I was pregnant 5 times, but is it worth explaining to complete stranger or a new acquaintance why I only have four kids with me at the park? Is it horrible for me not to acknowledge that precious life that once dwelled in my womb simply because it is easier than explaining my loss? 

Adding another layer to those feelings is the fact that I honestly don't even know if my baby actually existed. The doctor told me that my body lied to itself and tricked me into thinking I was pregnant when I wasn’t.  This has always been a struggle for me to accept.  I don’t know if it is true. I know that I lost a lot of blood and tissue before I went to the hospital and that I was too afraid to look at it for fear of the worst.  I know that I felt sorry for the sonogram tech working the ER that cold December morning.  She didn’t want to tell me there was no baby but we both knew what we weren’t seeing on the screen.  I do know that the HOPE of that child was once very much ALIVE. And I know that the pain of losing that child, even if it was only the hope of a life, is real and long lasting.

Tonight as I watch my living children, I am reminded that if our miscarried baby had survived, our youngest child would not have been born.  He was conceived three months after our loss, over three months before our other baby would have been born.  There is no way that they could both exist.  But here he is, giggling with his big brothers, dancing with his big sister, snuggling with me in my chair and wrestling with his daddy.  He is here and he is loved.  No, he doesn’t make up for the child we lost and I don’t think of him as a replacement child.  He is an extra special blessing all his own.

As I write this, I know that there are hundreds, thousands of women who have felt the loss that I have.  Some of them once, some twice and some more times than I could probably handle.  To those women, I say this. I am so sorry, Sister.  I am sorry that you are going through this.  It is hard and it is painful and it is not, no matter what people tell you, God’s will.  He does not hate you nor is He punishing you.  The wages of sin is death.  Because of the sins of humans, death became a part of our world. We can’t change that.  But we can know that there is hope in Jesus.  I know that I will one day rest in His arms and if there was a life growing inside me, he will introduce us.  On that day, I will hold my unborn child close and whisper to him or her, “Momma loves you.  Momma has always loved you.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Unsolicited Advice: Books You Should Read

There are a lot of really great books out there.  So, so many things that are worth reading.  In my opinion, here is a list of fiction that is MOST worth reading.  These are my favorite books, in no particular order, except the first one.  It's my all time favorite book.  Everyone should read it at least twice.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I first read this while staying with my Aunt Jean for a few days in the summer.  It was the shortest of the classics on her shelf and the only one I thought I could finish in the allotted time.  I think I was in the eighth grade.  I stayed up all night reading and cried more than once.  I reread it in high school English class and again in college.  I've picked it up a few more times since then and it never fails to move something inside of me.  The old black and white movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch is very much worth seeing.  (*I wanted to name one of our boys Atticus, but Vance vetoed it every time.)

2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Vance recommended this to me when I was in college.  I remember that I literally laughed out loud and cried like a baby within a few pages.

3. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
My first introduction to the Enderverse was this book on CD.  I happened to pick it up at the library when I was looking for books to keep me entertained on my hour and a half commute.  I'm pretty sure I drove around extra and sat in the garage with the car off just to hear a few more minutes.  OSC had me from the first few lines.  There are about a million sequels, some of which I love and others that I couldn't make myself finish.  The best of them are the Shadow books, which are about Bean and Petra.

4. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Just fabulous.  A great read aloud for kids.  When you finish it, you should go ahead and read The Lord of the Rings.   Entire fandoms have been created around these great works.  Read them and find out why.  And no matter how great the movies are (and they really are amazing!) the books are better.

5. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis (all of them)
These are also great read alouds.  They make for great discussion of sacrifice and the love Christ has for his people.

6. Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck
This one will make you laugh until you cry. I read it with fourth and fifth graders and my own kids when they were 8 and 10.  Grandma's antics will leave you with a stitch in your side from laughing so hard. Bonus, it gives kids an idea of what life was like during the Great Depression.

7. Charlotte's Web by EB White
It's a classic.  Kids love it.

8. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Ms. Ritter read this to my class in fifth grade.  I bawled like a baby.  So did all the other girls.  The boys tried to be tough, but I remember seeing many of them wiping their eyes as well.  The love story between the boy and his dogs and his family is well worth reading.

9. You Are Special by Max Lucado
Every kid should know that he is loved by his maker and that alone is enough to make him special.  We love this book so much that we named our oldest son after the woodcarver in it.

10.  Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
If you want to know just how much God would do to prove his love for his people, read this book.  There's a good chance that it will change your life.

11. The Mark of the Lion Series by Francine Rivers
My mom introduced me to these books.  Reading them was the first time I was able to really picture what the world looked like around the time of Christ.  The courage of the central characters makes this more than a romance, but an epic tale of adventure.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reasons We Love Homeschooling #1-9

There are a lot of reasons we love to homeschool.  A lot.  For this post, I even asked the kids and they were happy to share what they think are the best things about being educated at home. Some of our reasons are totally obvious but some of them may surprise you.  In no particular order, here are a few of our favorites.  

*Please know that I am in no way implying that families who don't homeschool cannot do some of these same things or that they must have horrible relationships with one another.  I do not think that for even one minute.  These are just some of the benefits that I see in our home, with our family.  

1. On days when we're just really sleepy or don't feel well, we get to sleep in.  There are no tardy slips to fill out.  We sleep until we're not tired and then we do our work when we're rested.  That may mean sleeping in until 10:00 or taking a nap at 2:00.  It also might mean doing school at 6:00 PM.

2. On a related note, we don't have to get up and out of the house in a presentable fashion by 8:00 AM.  In fact, most of the time, we're still in bed then.  And as you can see here, clothing is totally optional during school time. (Apparently, so is cleaning the carpet.  Eh, a girl can only do so much in a day.)

This means we get to stay up later, too.  Because of that, the kids get more time in with their daddy, who doesn't usually get home from work until around 5:30. If they go to bed at 10:00, they have the chance to get some time in with him that they would miss if they went to bed at 8:30.

3. EZ - "I get lots of breaks."

4. Truly differentiated instruction. If you're not in education, just know that it means this: Each kid gets to learn at his own level and own pace.  Or as my oldest said when I asked him what his favorite parts of homeschooling are, "I get to learn what I'm ready for."

5. Reading lessons = snuggle time.

6. Our kids like each other.  I mean, really, really like each other.  At this point, if my "school aged" kids left the house during the day, it would just be AJ at home.  He doesn't even want to think about how bored he would be with just Momma around to entertain him all day.  

Right now, they even like spending time with their parents!  All three of my big kids gave more family time as one of their top reasons they like homeschooling.

EZ - "I get to stay home with my family!"

Big E - "I get to see my family every day."

Baby Girl - "I get to see my family."

7. On snow days, we can ditch the books and go outside or stay warm and not get behind. Either way, we don't have to make up a day over spring break or in the summer!

8. Big E - "That it's AWESOME!" I would say that's a pretty great endorsement coming from a ten-year-old boy!

9. We get to take more field trips.  Once a month we take a class at the zoo.  We've been to museums, government buildings, planetariums, and nursing homes.  We don't go just once a year.  We go whenever there is an event we want to attend.  We also get to go places during the week and avoid the weekend crowds.  Recently we celebrated a birthday at Chuck-E-Cheese on a Friday afternoon.  There were less than two dozen people there.  So, so much better than fighting the crowd on a Saturday.

Big E - "I get to go places with my homeschool friends that I wouldn't get to go to otherwise." 

Baby Girl - "We get to go on field trips more often, like once a month.  I don't think we would do that as often in public school."

There are lots of other things we love about being able to educate our kids at home.  We'll try to share more of those with you soon.  For now, if you're a homeschooler, what do you love about it?  If you're not, what do you think you would love?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Unsolicited Advice: How to Make a Kid Hate Reading

This is a bit of a follow up to last week's post for teachers.  It was too long to include on that list, so here it is, getting a whole fancy-smancy page to itself.  
I've heard it over and over and over.  "My kid used to be an avid reader.  He loved to read...until ____ grade.  Then he absolutely hated it."  

For over a decade now, well before Common Core or even NCLB, all of these conversations included one common denominator; Accelerated Reader, commonly referred to in most schools as AR.  Commonly referred to in my mind as "How to Kill a Love of Reading." 

Properly used, AR can be an awesome tool for teachers. Along with it's companion STAR testing, it can help kids and teachers in many ways.  Before we get into that, let me give you a quick overview of how these two programs work.  Well, at least how they are supposed to work.

First, the kids take a STAR test.  This is a computer based test, made up of progressively harder multiple choice questions.  Kids who get questions right keep getting more questions, in less time, until they can no longer answer correctly in the allotted time.  Miss a few in a row or take too long to answer and the test ends.  If you want to get more info on this, you can look it up here.  Teachers generally give this test within the first few days of school, then depending on the school, again each quarter or semester, and once more at the very end of the year.

After the class tests, the teacher gets almost instant access to about a billion (or maybe more like 20) reports.  She can find out a ton of data about the kids in her class.  The report that I have seen most widely used is the ZPD, or as stated on the above linked website from the tests developer, the
Zone of Proximal Development:  The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the reading level range from which (the student) should be selecting books for optimal growth in reading. It spans reading levels that are appropriately challenging for reading practice. This range is approximate. Success at any reading level depends on your child’s interest and prior knowledge of a book’s content.
So far, so good. There is some good data there that good teachers can use to differentiate instruction and to quickly identify students who may struggle or excel. Teachers and kids can go into a library and easily find books that the students can read independently.

Now let's go back to the ZPD.  Notice how it says, "This range is approximate.  Success at any reading level depends on your child's interest and prior knowledge of a book's content."  Yeah...that's the part teachers tend to forget about.  Instead of using it as the guideline it was developed to be, they turn it into hard and fast rules that no one can get around, no matter what.  I've known school librarians and teachers who would flat refuse to EVER let a kid check out or read a book in class that was outside of their ZPD.  

Let me give you an example.  The names are changed to protect the innocent but the stories are true.

Tom is in fourth grade.  He reads really well, like his ZPD at the beginning of the year is 11.6-12.8.  This means that as a nine year old, his reading level is equivalent to a junior or senior in high school.  This does NOT mean that his maturity level is equivalent to a 17 or 18 year old.  But his teacher doesn't care.  Nope.  That teacher says that he can ONLY read books in his ZPD.  Unfortunately for him, his elementary school library doesn't carry many of those.  Go figure.  So he reads through the few books they do have, is bored to death, and then his teacher tells him he has to get books from the high school library.  Because you know, fourth graders should be reading first hand accounts of the Bataan Death March, facts about abortion, fiction that depicts drug and alcohol abuse by minors and of course, sex.  After all, if he can score that on one multiple choice test, he must be ready for all that entails.  And if you've read any young adult fiction these days, you know that they are labeled that way because they are not for younger kids!  So, all year long, Tom reads books he's not interested in. He wants to read the books the other kids are reading; Harry Potter, Bailey School, Shiloh...but no, those are below his ZPD, so he's not allowed.  So Tom begins to hate reading. He doesn't get to read anything that he wants so reading is a chore that quickly becomes a bore as well.  By fifth grade, Tom is no longer a reader.  Mr. Smith and his unbending, set in concrete interpretation of the STAR test has killed Tom's interest in reading.  Now a senior, Tom no longer reads for pleasure.

Kimmie is in first grade.  She doesn't read very well yet because she's just getting started.  So her ZPD is somewhere around 1.1-1.6.  When she goes to the library to get books, the books on her level are short.  They are mostly pictures and may only have a few words in them.  AR tests have 5-10 questions on them.  Because Kimmie's books are so simple, there sometimes aren't 5-10 things to ask on the quizzes.  So the quiz authors ask things like "What color was the ball on page 3?" or "Does Jill have blue or green eyes?"  Neither of which were at all relevant to the story.  Kimmie has no idea and simply guesses at the answers.  Her teacher uses AR as a big part of her grade, so Kimmie's report card stinks.  Her parents are upset with her and Kimmie isn't able to put into words why she has done so poorly.  She now thinks she's a horrible reader and doesn't want to pick up any more books.  

Teachers, librarians, parents: listen up.  STAR testing and AR were not meant to be used this way.  They are not The Ten Commandments of Teaching Reading.  ZPD is not set in stone.  It is a guide, a tool.  Use it as such.  Don't suck the life out of young readers by making it more than it is.

I'm not saying you should abandon the test data altogether.  Just don't make kids stick to them so strictly, especially the advanced readers.  If you are teaching third grade and they score with a higher than that ZPD, make them read third grade and up books.  Encourage them to choose some harder books but let them read the occasional picture book that their friends are all talking about.  If a struggling reader really, really wants to read a book about baseball that is three grade levels above them, let them try it.  Not every time, but sometimes.  Chances are, if you give them the tools, they will, in time and with practice, learn to pick books they are ready for.  Let them fail if need be but give them the chance to exceed expectation as well.

Now let me tell you another story.  This one is also true but is about a little girl who has never taken a STAR or AR test in her life. She happens to be home educated but this could easily happen with a child in other types of schools as well if she had the right teacher.

Allie was at the end of second grade when her mom brought home a book for her older brother to read.  It was a book about time travelers that had a grade level equivalent of 5.0.  That means it should be good for middle fourth to middle fifth graders.  Allie was not reading anywhere near that level at the time, nor had she ever read a book with 366 pages and no pictures.  But she was interested.  She wanted to read it.  So her mom, who also happens to be her teacher, let her.  Mom gently quizzed her to see that she was comprehending, which Allie was, so she continued.  It took her almost two months to read the book.  It was Book 1 in a series that currently has six installments.  When she finished it, she practically ran to the library to get Book 2.  It didn't take her as long to read that one.  By November of third grade, Allie had read all six books and was eagerly awaiting Book 7.  Book 6 she read in just over a week.  She now frequently reads books that are written on fourth, fifth and sixth grade levels with ease.  And guess what.  She loves reading.  By taking on a challenge and succeeding, she became a better reader.  She even found a favorite author and is now inspired to become a better writer herself.  

If you're a school librarian or a classroom teacher who uses STAR and AR, please, please, please take a few minutes to evaluate how you are using these tools.  Are you building better readers or are you stifling them?  Are you facilitating a love for storytelling or squashing all desire to read for pleasure?  If you look honestly at your approach and realize it could be better, improve it.  Don't let one more day go by that kills a love of reading.  Don't let your class be the year that Tom starts hating books.  Instead, make it the year that Allie discovers the joy of reading and decides to become a writer.

If you're a parent whose kid's school uses these tools, please take a minute to talk to your child's teacher about their philosophy on this.  If you don't agree with her, make your case.  Make it strongly but respectfully. Advocate for your kid.  Don't let this year be the year he learns to hate reading.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Unsolicited Advice for New Teachers

In 1998 I graduated from college and got my first job: teaching fourth grade at a small school just 15 minutes from my hometown.  I was just barely 22 years old and had my very own class of 14 ten-year-old minds to mold.

I worked hard with those kids.  I gave them everything I had that year.  Even so, in the end, I didn't think it was enough.  My principal was shocked to find me, after the kids had gone on the last day, sitting alone in the corner of my classroom, bawling my eyes out.  I just knew that I had failed those little people that I had poured so much into.  Luckily for me, my principal was a wise man who told me to suck it up; that I had done a great job and that I wasn't personally responsible for each and every student for the remainder of their lives.  I took that advice and it made the rest of my career a little easier.  Here are a few more nuggets of wisdom I wish I would have known that day.

1. Be creative.  The best things I did with my fourth graders weren't the things the textbooks suggested.  They were the things we did that were hands-on.  Yes, they took more work, but they were also much more rewarding.

We had a boat building contest.  I gave the kids craft sticks and soda bottles and sent it home for a week.  One kid came back with his boat covered in sprayed fiberglass!  He certainly won the contest! The next year, when I had his little sister, I had to be sure to have more well defined rules.  :)

We also did an econ project where we baked and sold hundreds of cookies.  The kids learned a lot about economics, everything from investors, to marketing to sweat equity.  They even got to choose what to do with their profits.

In my fifth grade class we read the book Esperanza Rising and celebrated Mexican culture with a a small fiesta.  We tasted jamaica (a drink pronounced ha-mike-ah) and rice water.  We learned Spanish words and ate fresh-made tortillas.  My student teacher had never had them before and I remember thinking, even the adults are learning now!

2.  Set the bar high.  I firmly believe that almost all students will rise to the expectations of their teachers.  If you lay out clear expectations and are consistent in making sure they are followed, you will have very few discipline problems and very few academic failures in your classroom.

3. Treat kids as individuals.  Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing.  Fair means everyone gets a chance to succeed.  The kid with divorced parents who spends Wednesday night at Mom's house may need extra attention on Thursday mornings.  The little boy whose father is in jail might need more warnings to stop his behavior than the kid sitting next to him.  The little girl who grew up reading Spanish may need a little more time to translate in her head before answering your question.  Give it to her.  This doesn't mean you're playing favorites or being unfair.  It means you are meeting the needs of the kids in your classroom in the best way you can.

4. Don't use behavior charts.  This teacher already wrote a blog about why they suck.  Read it here. She says it better than I can, so really, go read it.  Quit humiliating kids with these ridiculous things.  Would you want your boss to post one in the lounge with your performance evaluations?

5. Don't take away recess.  I know, I know, it's so hard not to, but really, just quit doing this.  The kid who drives you the most crazy in class is probably the kid who needs to physical activity the most.  This is the number one thing I would take back if I had those early years as a teacher to do over.  I would give more recess and absolutely zero time on the wall.  Even on the worst of days.

6. Quit grading every problem of every assignment.  This is crazy and unnecessary.  There is no good reason for you to spend two or three or four hours a day grading papers.  You can throw some of them in recycling without ever looking at them.  You can stick them in the Friday Folders with just a checkmark or a sticker.  If you must grade them, grade as you go.  Have the kids work a couple of problems, they come to you to have them checked before they can move on.  You can also have the kids trade and grade.  This works especially well on spelling tests and math worksheets.  With today's technology, you can probably even show the answer key on your smart board and have the kids check them that way.  You're doing enough without grading every single pencil mark your students make.  Take back your evenings and weekends.  Just quit this.  Yes, Mrs. Perfect, I'm talking to you.

7.  Admit when you've blown it.  My second year of teaching I had a particularly bad day.  I don't remember exactly what happened or why I was off kilter, but I do remember ten-year-old Kristi asking me if we could talk in the hall.  When we stepped out of the classroom, this brave little soul told me that I was being unfair.  The kids hadn't done anything bad and I was yelling at them and just generally being unkind.  She was right.  I have rarely been so humbled.  After sending her back to class and taking a few minutes to compose myself, I walked back into the room and apologized to the entire class.  Our day got better from then on and I was able to preserve my relationships with those kids, even on a bad day.

8. Treasure the little moments.  My favorite moment as a teacher was at a school awards ceremony.  John, who had been in my class the previous year, had gotten an award for his Exemplary score on his state tests.  After getting the award and before heading back to his fifth grade class, he walked over to me, gave me a hug and told me, "Thanks, Mrs. C, for teaching me stuff."  It was just 10 seconds to him, but it still makes me tear up.  Treasure those moments; those thank yous and those hugs.  Hold on to them on the days when you just can't seem to get anything to add up or you have an angry parent show up at your door.  You're going to need them on those days.  Write them down.  Keep a file or a scrapbook of the good things and check it often.  Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

9. This one may be uber specific, but I had a great system for fire drills.  At the beginning of the year, I would assign the kids a number.  I usually did this alphabetically but you could do it however you want.  We used the numbers for everything from attendance to turning in papers, so the kids were very familiar with their numbers.  At fire drills (or tornado drills or whatever) they were to get in line in number order as quickly as they could when we got outside.  We quickly numbered off and I knew exactly who was present and who was missing. My class was always among the first to turn in attendance and  more importantly, I was quickly able to identify who was accounted for.

10.  Don't give homework just to give it.  Just don't.  The kids who "need" to the work are most often the ones who don't have the support at home or the academic skills to do so.  It takes them hours and causes undo stress for them and their families.  The kids who can get it done quickly don't need it, they already have the skills.  It's just busy time that takes away from the really important stuff in life: family time.   Leave room for the kids to be kids.  Let them play and enjoy their lives at home without worrying about another math paper.

Yes, there will be exceptions to this one.  There will be days when you need to send something home.    It's hard to, say, observe the moon at 2:00 in the afternoon.  So, yes, kids will need to do this at home.  But give them some leeway.  When I assigned homework, it was almost always a weekly assignment; very rarely something that had to be done that night.  By this, I mean that I gave homework on Friday afternoon that had to be completed by the next Friday afternoon.  That gave the kids a week to work on it and didn't mean they had to do it on a certain night.  I think most families appreciated that.

I'm not gonna sugar coat this; some administrators will insist you send homework.  With ridiculous educational initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, the pressure is on!  Many principals don't know how to deal with it.  I once got graded down in an evaluation for not sending enough work home with elementary kids.  I wish I was kidding.  It's a tough one to stand your ground on, so do your best to know what you're getting into.  If you have the chance, ask what the expectations are for this when you interview for a job.  Finding a principal who shares your values can save you a whole lot of headaches.  Take it from a girl who had six bosses in nine years.  The ones who shared my philosophies (and I'm not just talking about homework here) were a pleasure to work with.  The ones who didn't weren't so easy to work for.  There's a huge difference.

11.  Make physical contact with each kid, each day.  In my classroom, this meant that before they left for the day, each kid gave me a hug or a high-five on the way out the door.  Every. Day.  I connected with them, one-on-one, for at least that brief second each day.  I think it made a difference.

So, there you go, new teachers (and maybe some veterans, too).  And just because I know that teachers LOVE graphic organizers, I'll leave you with these.