Monday, December 28, 2015

Celebrating with Friends

Earlier this month, we got to experience another African first.  Ryan’s assistant had his first baby boy, a very handsome fellow.  As is the custom in this part of the world, they hosted a baby naming ceremony, which we were happy to attend.  We began by attending his church, one Sunday about 2 weeks after the baby was born.  A portion of the Sunday service was set aside to allow he and his wife to share, sing, and announce the baby’s name.  For many folks, this is the first time they share the name with anyone.  

Our friends are actually transplants from Nigeria, which is obvious from their outfits in this photo.

After the service we went back to the family’s house, where they had a big meal prepared to share.  Our friends had at least 70 guests.  We were invited to sit inside the house to eat, but most folks sat just outside the house under a giant tent.  I didn’t mind sitting inside for a little while because that meant I got to hold that beautiful baby while the family was busy greeting guests and making sure everyone was getting food and drink.  

Isn't he the cutest?

The inside of the house was a bit small for the crowd that was weaving in and out, so the kids quickly made their way outside.  Our hosts had invited drummers who were kind enough to drum us from the car to the door of the house with great eagerness.  After the kids piled back outside, they found the drummers quite entertaining.

It was a pleasure to spend a few hours helping our friends celebrate the birth of their first baby boy and it was fun getting to experience a different aspect of the culture here.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Spirit

This year, we celebrate our first Christmas in Niger.  It is our 5th Christmas in a row celebrating in  different country.  Five years, five countries... that's a lot of change.  Canada, Nigeria, Ghana, America, and Niger...each year has definitely had distinct memories, with specific highlights.  We are hopeful that this Christmas will be the first of many in this place and that we'll begin a series of Christmases that could actually run together with "what year was that?" kinds of similarities.  We shall see!

We have had a really great Christmas.  One of the things we really like about this place is that we can enjoy the simplicity of Christmas in Africa, while still having a great community.  Of course, we really miss our family and friends in the States as well as the hope of snow and all of the lights and glitter.  However, we are thankful for lots of new friends and a mission family that we have been able to share lots of new traditions and fellowship with this year.

We have enjoyed Christmas music concerts at the school, caroling by candlelight in worship, hosting a movie night with 20ish high school girls and teachers, caroling around our neighborhood with other friends and then gathering for cookies and cocoa back at our house, a cookie exchange at the US Ambassador's house, a Christmas Bazaar, a Christmas festival, a party for members of our mission.  We've baked and shared 40+ dozen cookies and candies over the last 4 weeks, and had the pleasure of sharing rice and beans with some of the less fortunate folks we have met around our city.  We've had lots of fun, gotten to know many folks, and had just enough activity to keep ourselves busy, but without the frenzied pace that sometimes comes with this time of year.  It's really been a lovely holiday season.

We shared Christmas Eve with a few friends and then we have had a quiet Christmas Day at home...just us.  We are thankful for such a sweet celebration of our Savior's birth.  Here are a few pictures from this Christmas season.

Lily helped with a silly skit in the Christmas Assembly at school.  She was a lamb and she's sitting beside her friend, Rudolph, waiting for their turn on stage.
Abe enjoyed decorating cookies...especially with sprinkles.

Lots of reading and relaxing going on over Christmas Break!

The girls enjoyed getting dressed up for a Christmas tea with friends.

Abby made 25 bottles of rice and beans to deliver with a friend to folks around town.  Here they are on delivery day.

Getting ready to go to a Christmas Eve gathering.

The whole family sharing Christmas Eve fun with friends.
Excited about Christmas morning goodies.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Every year, I watch the 30 days of thankfulness posts on Facebook and think about how I would like to participate too.  However, I know myself well enough to know that I would likely make it to about day 4 and then I would lose steam.  So, this year I decided that I would record some of my thankful thoughts in one swoop, on my blog, on Thanksgiving Day.  Except that I was so exhausted when our 50ish guests left last night, that I crawled into the bed at 9:15, without recording my thankfulness.  The good news is, I am awake early this AM and still have a heart full of gratitude.  Since Black Friday shopping isn’t an option, I can use this time to share my thoughts.  Here are some of the things I am most thankful for in this current season of life...

  • An incredible husband who loves me so very much and shows me in lots of little ways that aren’t bouquets of roses or fancy date nights, but that suit me so much better.  Heavens, I love that man.  Marriage takes WORK, no matter how delightful your mate, but I think we are as “made for each other” as two sinners saved by grace can possibly be.
  • I am thankful for 5 of the greatest kids on the planet.  I have been so, so proud of them these last 6 months as we’ve transitioned to a new place and a new school routine.  They have hit some bumps, but I have consistently seen them respond in ways that make me smile or at least to be willing to learn from the times they didn’t.  They make me laugh and they bless me in too many ways to count.
  • My extended family.  My mama was one of 11 and I was blessed to grow up in a family chock full of cousins and aunts and uncles.  I don’t complain about having to sit at the kid’s table on Thanksgiving when I was growing up because I didn’t stop long enough to sit down.  There was so much fun to be had, I just grabbed a roll on the run.  I married into an extended family that was just as big as mine. Between the ones I share blood with and the ones I married into, there are some pretty amazing individuals that I call family! 
  • Technology!  Doing what I do is so much easier because of Skype, Facebook, and e-mail.  I fully acknowledge that I am living overseas at a time when these advantages make staying connected so much easier.
  • School, and the fact that we have choices about how to educate our children.  I’m thankful for the resources offered to us and the fact that I have options to meet each child’s needs as they come.  I know that many parents around the world would give their all to have that luxury.
  • Africa, and the fact that I am learning to appreciate it more and more as time goes by.  One day this week, I was stopped by a friendly police officer.  I really think he wanted to practice English more than anything.  We made a brief smile-filled exchange, partly in French, partly in English.  He didn’t ask to see my license or my papers...just asked where I was going and why.  After wishing each other the best, I pulled away and thought, “Two years ago, that exchange would have made me want to hop a plane home.  Now, I am laughing about it and thinking about how I have a good dinner table story to tell tonight.”  And as I was thinking that, I glanced out the window and noticed that I was passing a trader with a camel and a woman in a burka and then I thought, “Thank you Lord for this really cool life I lead!  What a privilege to be in this place a this time!”
  • My slowly growing French.  Progress, little by little, in French.  I’m thankful for it.  Not so much because I want to learn French, but for the opportunities it gives me.  Like Wednesday afternoon, on the way home from school, this orphan boy that I sometimes buy fruit from, flags me down as I’m sitting in traffic and asks me if I want to buy some bananas today.  Knowing I’m about to move, I decline.  Then he says, in French, “You will come next time and tell me another story?”  And I smile and say, “Yes, I will come again soon and tell you another story!”  And then I think about how this means that I now have to kick it into high gear and get my next Bible story down better because the Demon-Possessed Man is the only one I know well enough to tell to others yet.  
  • My American passport and all that it represents.  The fact that I have the opportunity for education, a career, to choose a loving spouse, to worship freely as I desire, to travel, to have 5 children, to pursue financial gain, and a host of other things, is not lost to me.  When you live in a country where women marry as teenagers, live behind a veil, and often have to accept their role as wife number 2, 3, or 4, you can’t help but be thankful for the rights that come with American birth.  I don’t know why God had me be born to a family living in a split level in suburban USA instead of a mud hut in West Africa.  Or why I was given the opportunity to become an educator rather than selling handmade soap off a tray that I carry on my head.  I just hope and pray that I will use the opportunities I’ve been given in a way that honors Christ and not to take for granted the responsibility that comes with those rights.
  • Churches in the States who give generously to allow us the privilege of serving here without having to worry about if there will be enough money this month.  I am also thankful for the ones who love us individually in little ways like packages or an entire suitcase of goodies that they send with volunteers for us to use for game prizes at Thanksgiving.  It was a lot of fun to get to give out chocolate chips, candy canes, and pepperoni to our colleagues because a church wanted to bless them!
  • The assurance that I have that when I die, I will spend eternity in heaven.  That means more to me now that my mama is gone than it ever did before.  I have no fear when it comes to facing eternity, only longing for a time when there will be no more striving, no more tears, and I will cast off the cares of this old world.  Last Sunday in church, a man here sang a song in English.  The church has very few English speakers, and he is not one of the few they have.  He obviously had learned this song in English just well enough to share it.  It was an old gospel song about heaven.  If I hadn’t heard the song before, I would have struggled to understand much of what he was saying.  But, knowing the chorus, I followed along and thoroughly enjoyed his efforts, singing along on the parts that I could.  When he got to the lines that say “I have a precious mother up in Glory Land, I don’t expect to stop until I clasp her hand, for me she’s waiting now at heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore,”  I nearly ugly cried.  In African church.  Where I was the only white woman and no one else even understood what the man was saying.  Yes, I am thankful for my eternal future in Glory Land!
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there.  I imagine that in 5 years, when I go back and read this post from a very different season of life...3 out of high school and 1 more nearly there, I will smile and appreciate the place I was in at this time.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Little Things

In the last couple of weeks, here are a few things that have happened in with our family:

  • I was included in a text from a friend alerting me she’d seen french-fried onions at a local grocery store, just in time for American Thanksgiving.
  • A volunteer team staying at our guesthouse brought in packages for us from people who love us back in the States.
  • We bought medicine for a pregnant woman who had a stomach infection.
  • I listened to my language helper tell me a story of how he nearly had his motorcycle impounded on his way to our class.
  • We worked in the kitchen at school serving up nachos and tacos and washing dishes from a movie night fundraiser for Lizzie’s class.
  • A friend came by and asked us to pray for him as he was on his way to a meeting with a chief over an important property dispute.
  • I spent a Saturday afternoon laundering lots of towels and bedding from a sleepover.
  • My house helper shared photos from his phone of a decapitated giraffe just outside our city, taken by one of his friends who was on the bus that hit said giraffe.
  • We had dinner at a friend’s house.
  • We’ve traded carpool favors at least a half dozen times.
  • I’ve been asked to bake a quiche for a Christmas event coming up soon.
  • I sent out invitations for an American Thanksgiving party at our house.
  • Ryan bought a work-related airline ticket from a travel agent friend we’ve made at our French speaking church.
  • We surprised a friend with a birthday cake, a week after her birthday, since we missed it on the day it actually happened.
  • I committed to pray for my regular check-out clerk at the grocery store, after she shared with me that she has been married for 5 years and has not yet conceived a child, though she desperately wants to.
  • Ryan was approached by one of our mission workers, asking for a loan to buy a goat because his wife’s milk had dried up and he needed a milk source for their small baby.
  • I was surprised when a store employee was shouting wildly at me, trying to get my attention, across a parking lot, in Hausa, because, even though I operate primarily in French now, she remembers that I “hear” some Hausa and really wanted to greet me properly.
Why am I telling you all of this?  Because to me, all of these things are teeny tiny indications of community!  We have desperately longed to find community here in our new city.  We've asked many of you to pray with us about our relationships here and slowly, but surely, we're seeing those prayers answered in lots of little ways.  So, thank you to those of you who have prayed.  We are thankful to so many of you who share this journey with us through the gift of prayer and encouragement.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Break in Routine

In October, the kids had a week long break from school.  I am not gonna lie, I was counting down.  We were exhausted and really needed some “fun” by the time it came along.  Because we did a good bit of traveling during our time in the States and we are trying hard to save money this term (that whole, we’re sending one off to college in 18 months thing!) we aren’t planning to take a traveling vacation during this 2 year term.  There really aren’t many travel options in our country and plane tickets and/or visas to another country are just more than we wanna spend this term.  

However, not “vacationing” doesn’t mean that we don’t see the value of spending time together as a family.  So, we decided that we would take a week of vacation from work while the kids were on Fall Break and tried to have some R & R together.  We slept late nearly every day, which was heavenly.  Just not having a tight schedule was a treat.

The break started off with a big softball tournament that the kid's school hosts each year.  We spent one day at the ball fields, cheering on their friends and enjoying the company of other families.

One day, we went to a local hotel and swam in the pool.  We had it nearly to ourselves, since it was just an average Monday.  To our surprise, they let us carry in a picnic, so we sat poolside and ate lunch, purchasing only our sodas on site.  It was a nice afternoon together.  

Another day we stayed home and played games all day long, while we ate assorted junk food that we don't have too often here.  We watched movies together on several evenings, with no one saying they needed to bow out to do homework.

Towards the end of the week, we went out to some large sand dunes which sit about 60 minutes outside of the city.  We joined with 3 other families to share a sunset picnic and a climb together.  Because it was a hot time of year, we couldn't go out during the prime of the day, but we hope to return sometime during cool season so we can enjoy them before the sunsets!

Here's Lily enjoying the view from her perch on the dunes.

Abe, climbing higher

The beautiful view!

Little man was less than thrilled that we wouldn't let him run off with the high school boys.

We hosted two birthday parties that week, one for Abe and another for one of Abby's good friends.  She really, really wanted to give her a surprise party and so she planned, plotted, and crafted to make it happen.  She invited all of the girls from the Junior class and they had a nice evening in our backyard, with a bit of a beach theme.  


A few of the party-goers!

We had a pleasant week and we were ready to start back and tackle quarter number 2.  I have to say that our second quarter of school has gone much better so far than our first did.  I'm not sure if it's because we knew what to expect this time or if it's because we now realize that it's possible to just survive it for 9 weeks and then another break will roll around quickly.  We are also learning to appreciate the good parts and endure the not so good parts.   When we've done it 4 times, we'll have a year in the books!  Needless to say, we're already looking forward to Christmas Break in just 5 more weeks!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Pop, Fizzle, Bang!

Let me just start off this post by saying that Abe LOVES school.  I knew that he would.  He is an extremely social kid who thrives on routine, both of which school provide for him.  He also has a really good teacher, who has lots of experience in the classroom.  It has been a great year for Abe and of all of our kids, he is the only one that I have no concerns about whether or not traditional school was a good idea.  It clearly suits him well.

So this year, when his birthday rolled around, we knew it was a good year to let him have a "friend" party.   That's what we call them at our house... those years when the kids are allowed to have guests other than our family over to celebrate.  Abe's birthday fell on a Saturday and so we thought it would be a good idea to have the party on his actual birthday.  Except that it was also the Saturday of the big (we didn't realize HOW big) annual softball tournament that the kid's school hosts AND another girl in Abe's class scheduled her party for the same day and time.  At the last minute, we decided we would move it by a few days, which resulted in some of his friends actually being able to attend.  And, I'm pretty sure he had a good time.

He decided he wanted a science theme, which came together pretty nicely with the help of Pinterest, a few websites, and a kindly Science teacher at school who loaned me a few test tubes and such.  I will say that planning a birthday party in Africa can be a bit frustrating because for every 5 cool ideas I read, I can usually find 1 that can be pulled off with the supplies I can find here.  Let's just say that for this theme, baking soda and vinegar were my friends.  

There are lots of things that are different about hosting a party here.  One of them is that RSVPing seems to be unfashionable.  Which may or may not lead to underestimating your numbers.  Not that it really matters in the end, but let’s consider it a lesson learned.   Another is that you shouldn’t naturally assume that the kids are gonna speak proficient English.  At one point, I was trying to speak in French to these two sweet Italian brothers, because my French certainly exceeds my Italian and my English seemed to be confusing them.  I turned to another little boy, who I assumed to be a French speaker since he had an accent, and asked him in English for help with a certain word in French.  The little boy looked at me and said, “How should I know?  I speak Portuguese!”  It gave me a good laugh in the midst of a bit of chaos.

Overall, it was a success and I think Abe felt celebrated.  The kiddos seemed to have a good time, and that was my main goal!
Here is Abe with his family cake, on his actual birthday.

Here's the table, all ready for guests.  

Abe readily agreed to my idea of having the kids each decorate their own cupcakes.  Score one for mom not having to assemble marshmallow fondue decorations in hot Africa!

The kids started out their time together by trying to build the tallest tower out of toothpicks and jelly beans.  Most of them loved either the building or the sneaking of jelly beans, so that was a hit.

My older 4 were a big help with the younger crowd.  I ought to hire them out as birthday party helpers!

We made and played with Ooblek.  I wanted to make slime.  But, after making a substitute recipe for liquid starch and another for corn syrup and having an epic fail in my trial runs, we went with Ooblek instead!  My corn syrup fail did result in some pretty decent hard candy though!

Everyone was gathered around for the fun.

There was much excitement as we exploded ziploc bags.

And of course, we could not have a "science" party without the obligatory Coke and Mentos explosion. 


Friday, October 16, 2015


One of the things that we are really loving about school is the community that the kids are finding there.  That was really the thing that drove us to consider school.  Our kids were incredibly isolated with homeschooling in Africa.  This simply wasn’t a problem homeschooling in the States.  But, there were times during our first term, when our kids went 3-4 weeks without spending time with another child who was not a sibling.  We just didn’t think that was healthy and it wasn’t good for morale.  So, while it wasn’t necessarily our first choice in regards to academics or curriculum, we decided that for at least a season, we needed to put them in school and let the experience the community that comes with that lifestyle.  

Thankfully, the community at the school that they attend is really incredible and exactly what we hoped they would experience.  There is a strong spiritual emphasis and the adults who are investing in them there are encouraging them in many positive ways.  When we were in children’s ministry, Ryan and I always taught parents that they needed to be sure that there were other adult voices in their kid’s lives who would reinforce what they were trying to instill.  This is  because, like it or not, there comes a season in most every kid’s life where mom and dad’s word is no longer the most influential.  That’s the time when kids need people who care about them, that they have relationships with, who are not mom and dad.  We are glad that the kids have some of those people through their school community.

Another thing we like is that the school requires students to get involved in serving others.  All of the high schoolers are required to complete a minimum number of community service hours.  There are adults who coordinate some of these opportunities.  Lizzie is on a team that visits a baby home each week and Abby is leading a group of 6th grade girls in a weekly Bible study time.  These are great opportunities for both of them.

I also love that there is a real diversity in the population of students.  Just in Lily’s sixth grade class of 16 students, there are approximately 10 different “passport” countries represented, spanning 4 different continents.  In addition, because the school is K-12, there are a variety of ages represented and there is a real family emphasis that crosses grade levels.  

This past week, I was able to see a fun manifestation of that community.  The school hosts a big softball tournament every October.  Teams come from around the city and even sometimes from neighboring countries to participate.  It’s a weekend of community and fun and it is followed by a week of fall break.  In the week leading up to the tournament, they have Spirit Week, which isn’t something that unusual for schools to do.  I’ll admit, when I first hear about it, I immediately thought, “This is gonna be like 25 Halloween costumes in 5 days, what a nightmare!”  But, it ended up being fun for everyone.

What I loved about the way they did it is that each morning, all of the students, in every grade, lined up around a courtyard area and those who had dressed up marched around the square a few times while the others smiled and waved and took photos.  Because I was subbing in the mornings, I was able to see the daily parade and it was so much fun. On one of the days, each grade level picked a theme and the whole class dressed up according to the theme.    This was probably my favorite day to see how they all cooperated to pull it off.  

I wasn’t great about taking photos, but here are a few photos of their “Spirit Week” adventures.

One day was "fan" day.  Four of my five stuck to their KY roots and wore their UK blue.  Lizzie chose to go with a more literary take and joined with a friend to be Gryffindor fans from the Harry Potter series.

I was quite surprised when Abe's good friend from school showed up sporting Big Blue pride too!   No wonder Abe likes this guy so much!

Here are my 5 on class day.  Abby's class went with superheroes, Abby was Cat Woman.  Abe was a minion along with his classmates, their teacher was Gru.  Isaac and his class went with a Nintendo theme, Isaac took the part of Donkey Kong.  Lily was one of the dwarves as her class picked Snow White.  And, Lizzie and her class decided to be pirates (who don't do anything!) and they even had the ukulele and song to go with it!

Here are some of the junior girls representing  various super heroes.  I always knew Abby was a social kid, but these first 9 weeks of school have really proved that point!  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

September Highlights

September flew by at our house.  At Concourse speed.  Or, maybe it was the speed of light...whichever is faster.

Early in the month, we hosted a brunch for a couple who was retiring from many years with our organization.  Retirements here always fill me with joy at the marveling of a race well run, while also making me sad to see that kind of wisdom climb on a plane and leave us behind.  Every one sort of has their own strengths that we can learn from.  This particular couple was so kind to us during our first few months in Niger and inspired us to be diligent in language learning and to build strong relationships with the nationals here.  

At the end of August, I agreed to substitute teach at the kid's school for a colleague who needed to go out of country for some medical appointments.  She thought she would be gone for about 2 weeks.  In the end, my sub gig turned out to be 6 weeks long.  The good thing is, she only teaches one class in the morning and I was done by 9 AM and headed home for French Study.  But, adding that into the mix of language study made for some pretty busy days.  I had a great experience though and since the class was Lily's grade, I got to know her classmates really well.  They are a fabulous group of kids. It made me remember how much I love being in a classroom.  Maybe someday, I will get to return to the classroom setting for a longer season.  For now, it's back to the French books with renewed intensity!

September also brought Lizzie's 15th birthday.  She invited a few friends for a sleepover.   If you know me, you know that I love themed birthday parties.  In true teen fashion, Lizzie asked me to keep it simple, and so I did.  I created a photo scavenger hunt for the girls to do around our compound, did a trivia game about Lizzie for the girls to do, and I had ordered the new Disney Descendant's movie and the girls watched that.  I did theme the foods a tiny bit to go with the movie, but tried hard to keep it from being too juvenile, lest I embarrass my teen.  Other than that, they did their own thing.  

Lizzie is my fire hater.  So, when we handed her a "Malificent" cupcake with a flame blazing, let's just say we couldn't sing Happy Birthday fast enough!  At least I don't have to worry that this one will turn out to be a pyromaniac!

Parenting teens is so different, is it not?  There is a reason why there are umpteen million advice blogs written about parenting preschoolers and only a handful about parenting teens.  Those of us who are parenting teens are fully aware of the fact that we have no earthly idea if we're doing it right or not and we pray that we won't screw it up too badly!   I have great teens, but it's still a bit of a land mine on any given day.  I try hard to appreciate the positives, but I'm not gonna lie, there are days when I would give a pretty penny to go back to the time when goldfish crackers and sippy cups made me their superhero and a clean-up song brought them happily running to quick-tidy the living room.  But, ahem, that wasn't the point of this post.

Another September highlight was a visit we made to a friend's house.  We were  invited to spend the Tabaski holiday with a national friend.  Tabaski is an important time in the Muslim faith, when each family sacrifices at least one sheep based on their beliefs concerning the story of Abraham's sacrifice.  It's a bit like a city wide barbecue because all through the streets, people gather and share fires lined with roasting rams all day long.  The next day, the share the meat with others.  We went for a few hours, and enjoyed meeting his family.  They were very kind and together we shared the customary tea.  Then they used the same charcoal that the tea was prepared on to roast one of the sheep livers, which we also shared.   We didn't stay until our host's rams were done, but they did send us home with a plate full of entrails.  Later that evening, he also brought  some flank meat to our house.  Even though those flavors aren't what we are accustomed to, it was very kind that they were willing to share so generously with us and we were humbled by their hospitality.  It was also kind that they were patient with our slowly growing French.  We pray that our friendship with this family can grow in many ways as time goes by.

Here is the teapot, being heated

Our view while waiting for the tea.  Why yes, those are sheep heads and skins sitting next to us.

Our host was pouring the tea between these two cups to cool it and to create a nice foam.

"Hmmm, maybe if we walk over here and intently watch this nice line of cows going by, we will avoid offers of seconds on sheep liver."  

Roasting rams, not quite ready.

Our "to-go" plate of entrails.

There were some other fun events in September, including a silent pie auction/chili cook-off at the kid's school.  There were about 35 pies donated, and we didn't manage to win a single one of them.  However, the pecan pie we donated did result in a bit of a bidding battle and managed to bring the senior class about $20 in funds, so that was a good.  The evening was also supposed to include a game of donkey basketball.  Like, where people play basketball while riding on the backs of donkeys.  However, that got rained out, much to the kid's disappointment!

On the way to the pie auction, we did experience one other little delight.  We saw our first hippo!  We know they live all along the river that traverses our city, but this was our first time seeing one in the wild.  He was standing along the edge of a patch of grass munching away.  We were so busy oohing and ahhing that none of us got a decent picture.  But, I'm here to tell you, those puppies are BIG!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Long Overdue Thank You

Two weeks ago today, my kids started school.  For the first time ever, all of my children left to spend all day with other teachers.  Every day.  For a whole school year.  This has been a big ole adjustment for Chez Campbell.  I'm talking immense...cavernous (I took these adjectives from Lily's vocabulary list, are you impressed?)

Overall, it's gone okay.  They aren't exactly soaring yet, but they are making serious steps in that direction.  Most of our learning curve hasn't been about the academics or the content, at least not yet.  It's been more about the systems and the styles.  The heart of the school is precious and the social environment is as good as you're going to get when you put a bunch of young'uns together for 7 hours a day for 170ish days.  It's a good fit for our family.

One of my biggest fears about sending them was that I have some pretty strong ideals about education.  And sometimes, it's hard for me to be flexible in those.  I knew that I would have a really hard time letting go of the planning and oversight of their curriculums and their instruction.  And I was right, it has been difficult.  Nearly every night, there has been something that I have been handed or heard from one of my children that has forced me to narrowly resist raising my eyebrows.  If I'm being totally honest here, I haven't been completely successful at that...there has been some raising of eyebrows.  There may have even been some mumbling about Bloom's Taxonomy and higher level thinking skills.   But alas, I'm rambling.

For the most part, I have behaved myself, bit my tongue, and moved forward in the homework march, even though I am pretty thoroughly opposed to homework.  I have tried to focus on the positive things, with varying degrees of success.  But there was one issue that I simply couldn't let go of and after days of praying, researching, and battling my inner self, I decided I had to approach a teacher about it.  I won't go into the details here, because it's not the point of this post.  But I will say, that as I wrestled with whether or not I needed to shut up or speak up, I did a bit of self-examination.  Why is it that I can't simply send my kids to school and be okay with the provided instruction?  Why would something like the details of instructional choices get me so torn up?  I mean, there are dozens of other really great parents who send their kids to the same school every day and assume they are getting what they need.  Why can't I be one of those parents?

Through my questioning, I ended up taking a trip down memory lane.  The time was December 1996 and Ryan and I had been married for about 18 months.  I was a fresh college graduate, eager for a classroom.  Because of my December graduation date, I spent a semester substitute teaching in a system that I hoped I might get a job offer to work in.  With Ryan still in school, we were ridiculously broke.  We still laugh about our Valentine's Date that year.  We did a cheap takeout pizza special, eating out of the pizza box in the car with a two liter of Coke and two straws, in the parking lot of the dollar theater.  We really wanted a real job.

I wanted a classroom and I needed an income.  So, when hiring time rolled around, I remembered the words of our university education advisors, letting us know that the state of KY had 18 applicants for every opening available at that time.  I applied all over the State and took the first job they offered me, which came from the first interview I had.

It really was a miracle that I got the job.  When I went for the interview that day, the hall was lined with other interviewees.  I knew my chances were slim.  It was a county where teaching positions open only upon death or retirement and there are always lots of homegrown candidates waiting for the jobs.   But God had a plan for me in that place.  As it turns out, the new principal at the school had a sister who had taught my husband in high school, 2 hours away.  The crazy thing was, she was one of my husband's favorite teachers and she thought pretty highly of him too.  I can't remember how we made the connection, but I do think it is the thing that brought my thin resume to the top.

There were 4 of us that year who were new.  All of us were fresh college graduates.   The decision was made to put 3 of us together and call it the 4th grade team.  Some principals would have cowered at the thought.  Not this one.  She treated us like we were her dream team.  We were teachable and instead of lamenting, she invested.  As a first year principal, she had dodged the administration bullet much longer than many of her colleagues had.  Though she was only a few years from retirement, she had a ton of energy and spunk. She wasn't your average teacher and she definitely wasn't your average administrator.  I think I knew it then, but I really know it now.

We spent a lot of time that year learning about the 7 multiple intelligences.  We were challenged to teach to a variety of learners, through a variety of methods.  We had trainings in kinesthetic movement, art, writing across the curriculum, and just about anything you can imagine to challenge us on how to get kids to learn in a variety of ways and to move beyond basic knowledge to higher level thinking skills.  As she got to know us, she poured resources into us so that we could grow in the areas we were most interested in.  I had the opportunity to go to lots of trainings in Language Arts because that we where my passion was.  After Abby was born, my first time leaving her alone was so that I could go to a conference on how to teach algebraic thinking skills in the elementary classroom.

Not only did she get us training, but she challenged us to "teach outside the box."  At the time, fourth grade was the time when students did units on state history.  Our little 3 teacher team followed her lead and wrote a grant our very first year.  They were doing an archaeological excavation in our town of a fort that had been an important part of KY history.  With her encouragement, we used our grant money to take the kids to the dig site and then research the fort and the period it was built in.  After that, the students proceeded to calculate and build a 1/10th scale model in the parking lot.  That's right...seventy fourth graders.  In the parking lot.  With hammers and nails and a 1/10th scale model of a fort.  Forts are big, y'all.  Even 1/10th of a fort is big.  Those that weren't on building duty rotated into other history based activities like candle dipping, folk dancing, making strawberry jam, and lots of other fun stuff.

You know what, those kids loved it.  And we loved it.  And there was some pretty darn authentic learning going on in that hallway.  I can't assure you that any of them finished 4th grade having memorized the state bird or knowing the state motto.  But by golly, they had gained so.much.more.

We had the longest planning times in the county.  The highest classroom budgets too.  I remember her telling me that the county administration questioned both.  But, she knew that to plan and prepare for authentic learning and to assess it in a way that isn't just multiple choice and matching took time.  So, she arranged our instructional schedules in a way that the kids had lots of arts and electives and we had more than 30 minutes of planning a day.  I don't remember her being stingy with anything... except the copier allowance.  She had to get that extra classroom budget money from somewhere.  And who needs worksheets anyway, when you're building a fort and writing about what you're learning?

I only had the privilege of working with that school and those people for two years before God called us to move to NC so that Ryan could continue his education.  But those two years made a significant impression on who I am, the kind of educator I am, and what I understand about how people learn.  I have carried those lessons with me everywhere I've gone.  Through 2 more public schools, 7 years of teaching in homeschool co-ops, 12 years of homeschooling my own children, and more Sunday School lessons than I can count, they have shaped the way I interact with students of all ages.
I am so thankful that God saw fit to put me in that tiny little tobacco town where the soil of my heart and mind were so wonderfully cultivated by such a brilliant educator.

So, Mary Jo Gibson, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, thank you.  Thank you for taking a risk and putting 3 newbies together and then leading us to believe that the sky was the limit.  Thank you for not settling for tidy classrooms with well-maintained columns of quiz grades.   Thank you for constantly pointing us back to the standards and asking us how we were going to meet them in ways that fostered a love of learning and addressed the needs of every child, not just the ones who were "good at school."  Thank you for teaching us that good grades don't always equal understanding.  What a gift you gave to me!

Monday, August 17, 2015

All Around the Compound

A few photos of life at our house, as of late:

Here's Raphael, one of the giant tortoises we inherited with the house.

And this is Henri, a scraggly stray that we've taken up with.  He is the sweetest cat and loves lots of ear scratching and leftovers, while happily making his home in our yard.

My Sunday morning clothes, on my Monday morning clothesline.

Here's one of the many hedgehogs that also call our yard home!  The kids love to catch them and play with them for a little bit before setting them free again.

This bird, that Isaac thinks must be a juvenile kite, happily ate the hot dog pieces leftover from dinner last night.  He was super friendly and spent much of the afternoon interacting with Isaac. 

Abby and her Eno.  Anytime, anywhere, she loves it!