Loving My Neighbor Through School Choice

Over the summer we were at a family gathering halfway across the country. It was a lot of catching up and conversation about education came up. A cousin asked if ours was a good school and I hesitated. Yes, our school is an incredible school! We love it and our teachers. My daughter is thriving and her curiosity is encouraged. But it’s also a school that recently went on academic probation. Our test scores are low, mostly due to the fact that we have a large immigrant and refugee population – one of the things that drew us to our neighborhood. I laughed and said, “Good is such a relative marker.”

We went on to talk about the point of education. Is it to ensure our first graders are constantly challenged or is it to build empathy? Is it to check off a list of skills our kids need to know or is it to learn to be in community, to love our neighbors? For our family, we knew we could fill in any academic gaps that may arise on our own. But it would be much harder to expose our kids to families whose values, economic capabilities, and cultural backgrounds are different from our own.

When we moved to our neighborhood, our oldest was two years old – not even in preschool yet. We knew we were moving into one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our state and also into a highly respected school district. When we walked to our neighborhood school, just a block away, on the weekends to play, we were greeted with an enormous sign, announcing its status as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

Before having kids, I earned a master’s degree in urban education and taught for seven years at a charter school. I had studied the positive impacts of investing in neighborhood education while also working with families who had decided to choice into a different school. I enjoyed my time at a charter school, mostly because my grade level teammate was an incredible teacher. I knew the gift of working with her wouldn’t come often. Our school was a good fit for a lot of families but teaching at a charter was a reminder that there were excellent teachers there and there were people who would probably thrive in a different profession. The curriculum was good but not great. There were highly involved families and families who outsourced a lot of responsibility to the school. What I’m saying is, charter schools are not a magic cure. They have pros and cons, just like public schools.

As attendance to neighborhood public schools dwindles nationwide, my husband and I believed we were brought to our particular neighborhood for a reason. A natural outgrowth of that was to send our children to the school closest to us, where we could walk and meet other families in our area. Going to our local public school was the perfect opportunity to live out one of the Bible’s greatest commands: To love our neighbor.

Our dreams were realized at our school. Our daughter has had absolutely incredible teachers who love her and have poured into her curiosity. She has interacted with students from all over the world – over 40 cultures are represented. Just like my experience as a teacher, there are families who are highly involved and families who outsource responsibility to the school system. And they aren’t always the families you would expect.

Last year, our school went on academic probation. My husband asked if this impacted my love for our community and honestly, it made me value our school even more. When I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom each week, I see teachers who are highly committed to each and every student. When I spend each Wednesday morning teaching English to our immigrant parents, I see moms who are working hard to give their children the best opportunities. I love knowing I am raising my kids among these incredible families, regardless of what a test score shows.

I know school choice is a complex issue. There are as many reasons for choosing a school as there are schools and students. We all want what’s best for our kids. We have close friends who send their daughter to a private school that represents their minority religion and other friends who have chosen a charter school that offers Spanish immersion. We have friends who are as in love with and committed to their neighborhood schools as we are and we have friends who have chosen other options based on a variety of other needs.

As your kids enter school, I’d encourage you to ask: What motivates your school choiceIs it what’s truly best for your child and your neighbors? Is it motivated by fear of the unknown? 

Lean into where God has planted your family – perhaps there’s a reason … I know I have seen God at work in unexpected ways, right here at our neighborhood school and I am thankful I was here to witness it.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/school-choice-questions-ask/

One September Morning

I think my baby girl was about 6 weeks old when I first felt the itch to expand our world beyond the hammock in our backyard. While I loved snuggling my sweet newborn, I knew we needed a community. I was one of the first in our group of friends to have a baby and so I didn’t have a lot of stay-at-home girlfriends to lean on.

I remember typing in “MOPS near me” to Google one morning, knowing that an aunt of mine was a MOPS mentor for a group at her church in California. As little pinpoints filled the map on my screen, I wondered how I would pick one of the several groups that met within a couple miles of our house.

When my daughter woke from her morning nap, I closed my computer, packed a diaper bag with more essentials than I would ever bring with our second baby, strapped Bea into her car seat, clicked it into the stroller, and walked up the block on our first outing to our neighborhood library’s Book Babies hour.

Of course, we arrived late because that’s what moms of newborns do. As I unloaded and sat in the back of the group, a mom without a baby in her lap leaned over with a smile and welcomed me. Later, during “free play” time, she asked for my life story. Kathy is one of those women who probably knows details about everyone she’s in contact with––from regulars in the checkout line to those at her church. She has the ability to ask all the right questions and to make anyone feel safe and comfortable.

As we talked, she invited me to the MOPS group that had just started at her church. It was one of the farthest in my Google search but still only a five- minute drive from our house. I decided that this conversation was Divine Intervention. A few days later, I walked into a church and was greeted with coffee, muffins and women who wanted to know me. Kathy wasn’t there but she had told the leader about a new mom she had met at the library. This group was expecting me and I knew I had found my home.

As I sat at a table, holding my baby, watching the other moms work on a craft project, another mom asked if she could hold Bea so I could make my own craft. Before I knew it, April was bouncing her next to our table as I found myself with baby-free arms for the first time since giving birth.

It’s been seven years since that moment and I can now say with confidence, that morning was life-changing. These women have become our family’s close friends. We’ve celebrated birthdays and baby showers together, we’ve gone to each other’s homes for dinners and watch each other’s kids in a pinch. Recently, my family switched from our church of 10 years to fully commit to the community at our MOPS church. It has always been home, even though it took us time to realize that.

Looking back, that day in September seems so random. It’s rare when God speaks so loudly or so quickly to my questions. As school starts back, I’m looking for those nudges again. Where is God leading me? What relationships do I need to invest in? What volunteer opportunities will fit our family in this season? How will I look back on this season and recognize that God was speaking loud and clear?

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/mops-story-one-september-morning

Front Yard Living

At the beginning of the summer, during our daily Quiet Rest Hour, the energy in our house changed. I looked up from my book and felt that it had gone from Quiet Rest “Quiet” to eerily and suspiciously “Quiet.” I closed my book and walked upstairs where I found my oldest daughter obediently and happily reading in her room. My three-year-old was not in her room or in the playroom – our two designated Quiet Rest spots.

I looked into our garage and, sure enough, found the door open and a tricycle missing. Barefoot, I walked out to the front, crossed the street, and headed toward the most likely of our neighbors. There I found my daughter and her friend playing sweetly in the driveway. I waved to our neighbor who told me that, when asked, my daughter confirmed I knew exactly where she was.

Welcome to our neighborhood. Of the eight houses in our cul-de-sac, seven know my kids and take an interest in our daily lives. Three have an open-door policy, meaning if I can’t find my kids, I’m fairly certain where to look. But really, I know exactly where my girls are: out in the street, biking, playing, imagining, building forts, and exploring with the neighborhood kids and grandkids.

This community didn’t happen overnight. When we moved into our house in the suburbs four years ago, it was December so we didn’t have much of an idea about our neighbors. We had a good feeling – right away, people stopped to introduce themselves and I often found our driveway and sidewalk miraculously shoveled after a snowstorm. As winter merged into spring, we found ourselves outside more and more often.

Garage doors stayed open, front porches were filled in with comfortable chairs and hanging plants, and I discovered we had moved into a neighborhood of front yard people.

I responded by moving our water table to the front yard, stocking our freezer with Otter Pops, and learning the value of shifting from the backyard to the front yard. Often, my inclination is to go out back, where I can read quietly in our hammock, where my preschooler can run through the sprinklers naked, and where we have a sweet haven from the busyness of life.

Our backyard still functions as that but it has become so much more. When we intentionally decided to shift to living out front, we invited our neighbors into our lives. We met the little girl across the street, who is nearly the same age as our oldest. We met the grandparents whose grandkids often bike with our girls. We sat on front lawns and learned the stresses and joys of each other’s lives.

There’s a cost to living out front. We’ve had to navigate boundaries and space when it comes to kids trooping in and out of our side gate. On stressful days, I just want to close the door and hunker down and that’s not always possible.

Choosing community can often be messy. And yet, I wouldn’t give up that intention for the world. Now, as our kids grow and our activities have changed, we’re not just hanging out in front as often. Already I feel pangs of nostalgia as our kids get busier. I’m thankful for the newborn down the street, knowing that front yard living will continue for a few years more.

I think back to that relatively simple act of moving the water table out front and marvel at all that unfolded from there. Even as summer comes to an end and we look toward more structured days, I think about small ways I can keep my focus on our neighbors – from bringing a book or my computer out front to wave as others walk by to date nights after bedtime on the front porch rather in the backyard, I want to continue the spirit of loving my neighbors well by being present in my neighborhood.

What is one small shift you can make to live in your front yard more often? Perhaps sidewalk chalk or bubbles in the front yard will help you meet new neighbors? I am amazed at the ways the simplest acts bring about community.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: https://blog.mops.org/backyard-front-yard-living/

Summer Rhythms

My first summer as a new mom didn’t really feel like summer. I had been staying home nearly a year and so, as I watched moms with older kids reframe their schedules and lament the loss of alone time that school provided, our routine stayed the same. Some things did change. After attending MOPS for that entire school year, I started getting invitations for playdates. A group of moms met for weekly hikes at trails around town and I started experiencing a new world of exploration.

Now, six years later, I’m one of those moms I looked up to. The one who is restructuring schedule and figuring out how to create space for the quiet and alone time I got used to, even with just two mornings a week to myself while our youngest was at preschool.

I hesitate to give advice or share our summer routine because what works for our family could translate to the most stressful summer for yours. One thing I’ve learned over my almost-seven years of motherhood is to try to take the path that is least stressful. If I’m calm and happy, it’s likely my kids will be calm and happy.

Some of my friends make lists of things to do in the summer months so if the kids are bored, they have a preplanned set of ideas to fill the time. I recently read about a mom coordinating her days into “Movement Mondays” and “Water Wednesdays” so their weeks have a rhythm and structure. I know another mom who lets each of her four kids pick one activity they want to do during the summer. She doesn’t guarantee which day they’ll do it but she does promise to make time for those activities.

In our house, summers are for slow mornings in our pajamas, for playdates and water fun, for Costco-sized boxes of OtterPops, for riding bikes after breakfast and before dinner, for extra screen time and reading in our backyard tree castle. As my girls grow, I’m finding a natural rhythm to our days. My oldest thrives on sticker charts and created one for our fridge. I don’t know what reward she’s working toward, but she’ll tidy, sweep, and read to her sister all for the promise of an extra sticker. It works for now.

I thought I’d share a handful of rhythms we’re creating this summer. They didn’t all work last year and they most likely won’t all work next year but in this moment, they are what give me space and the structure I need in these blissfully unstructured days.

Chores Before Screen Time

Normally, I don’t link screen time to a rewards system because screen time is my time. Making my girls give it up means I’m giving up a quiet space in our day. But this year, my almost seven-year-old really wanted to start a chore chart so I did link screen time to her simple chores. Mondays she tidies the main floor, Tuesdays she sweeps, Wednesdays she cleans her bedroom. You get the idea. The baseline is minimal. If she kind of does these chores, she gets screen time. I figure anything is better than nothing and so far it’s decreased my nagging. For me, the key is trying rather than perfection. Our nearly four-year-old is off the hook for this. If she tries at all, we’re good!

Fun Meal Planning

I try to involve my kids in our weekly meal planning anyway, but summers are for saying yes to more. When my youngest asked for cake for dinner, I googled savory cakes and was amazed at the choices! This simple yes means something new in our meal rotation and it feels like a celebration. The other day we ordered pizza, spread the picnic blanket in our front yard, and had an impromptu dinner. Suddenly our normal Friday fare became an out of the norm experience. I’m trying to remember this philosophy in other areas of our days. We have to eat anyway—what’s a simple way to make a normal meal special? What are other daily tasks that can be made fun? Is there a playground next to the grocery store? Can you stop there for a few minutes before your errands? Is there an ice cream shop on the way to another place? Taking some time to mix up your routine feels incredibly special to kids of all ages.

Relaxed Rhythms

Our family works well when we’re on a rhythm rather than a strict schedule. If possible, I like to spend the first few days of summer establishing a new routine. For us, this looks like busier mornings and quieter afternoons. Even though we’re long out of the napping phase, if we’re home we practice an hour of quiet rest after lunch time. Sometimes this means going to our separate rooms with a book. The other day, my girls took their books to the backyard tree fort for the hour. Whatever we do, it has to be an activity that involves minimal interaction with me so that we can all rest.

None of these rhythms happen perfectly on any given day. But because I’m choosing to practice and model them, on those longer days it’s easier to lean into this modified schedule.

If you’re able, take five or ten minutes to think about what gives you the most energy in your mothering. If you need that hour of quiet and space every day, take the time to train your kids to give you that. It won’t be perfect but it will be better than nothing. If you thrive on activity and unique experiences, make a list with your kids and plan out some summer adventures! Just remember that whatever you choose, it has to give you joy and life.

I’m leaning into the paradox of embracing the spontaneity summer offers while creating a structure and rhythm to our days that will keep us sane and safe. It’s what works for our family in this given season and I’m remembering to listen to that more than anything.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: https://blog.mops.org/summer-rhythms/

The Reality of Rest

Our fall break didn’t go as planned. I mean, when does any stretch of time off really go as planned? But this week capped any week I’ve ever had. From an unexpected health emergency landing my husband in ICU for a few days to a drunk driver plowing through our fence at midnight one night, we had a week I hope to never repeat.

On the last Sunday before our first grader had to return to school, we had plans to go to church and then to our local garden center for their Fall Festival. We’ve done this with our neighbors every year and it’s one of my favorite fall traditions.

As we were eating breakfast, I noticed the first sign of a migraine headache move across my vision. I’ve had ocular migraines since I was about 11 years old but with age, they’ve lessened in frequency and intensity. Now, I usually get one or so each year, after a particularly stressful event. So, it was no surprise that this migraine moved in as we were preparing for one last day of a highly stressful and unusual break.

The only way to combat these headaches is Excedrin, a dark room and rest. This was how I found myself on this last day to redeem a decidedly unmagical, unrestful week of break.

I’m going to go out on a generalizing limb here and guess that most of us moms have trouble resting. It isn’t until our bodies completely rebel against us that we take time to rest, and even then I often power through. (I still did two loads of laundry mid-migraine thanks to a potty training regression.) My husband absolutely stepped up, took the girls to church and the pumpkin patch, despite his 30% blood loss from the week before. But even with the best partner on this journey, rest doesn’t come naturally for many of us.

I often blame our current state of affairs for this lack of rest. We are constantly on the go, able to work from anywhere, always plugged in. It’s hard to truly rest. In fact, some of my favorite vacation spots are the places with spotty connections and no Wi-Fi because I’m unable to cheat and must just enjoy the moment.

But then I read the Bible and realize that this whole idea of rest has always been a revolutionary idea. Why else would God have to explicitly put rest as one of the Commandments? If we were able to naturally practice this essential skill, we wouldn’t need a divine reminder.

And clearly, the word of God didn’t change people’s attitudes toward rest. Centuries later, Jesus needed to remind his followers again and again of the importance of rest. He modeled it by going away to quiet places, much to the chagrin and bafflement of his disciples. He reminds us, Come to me, all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

I don’t know about you, but it gives me a lot of comfort knowing that I’m not the first or only person who struggles with rest. It’s human nature to want to get one more thing finished, to not trust that God’s wiring of our need for rest is holy.

In a perfect world, rest would look like a silent retreat away from all responsibilities. Last year, I was able to spend two nights at a convent, just me, some cows and a group of faithful nuns. I was able to hike and wander, to eat meals in silence, and to pray the offices as I wanted. I came home so rejuvenated!

That’s not my reality, though. My reality includes two early-risers who start the day enthusiastically ready to go. It starts with moments squeezed between squabbles and getting teeth brushed and into the cracks of naptime.

I’m learning to live in this tension of raising active and needy humans and longing for rest. Sometimes, rest looks like a walk after bedtime with our dog. Sometimes, rest looks like putting on screen time so I can just read the Bible or get something done. Sometimes, rest looks like setting my alarm a half an hour earlier to write a bit before the house wakes up. Sometimes, rest is acknowledging that I cannot get everything taken care of — and that’s OK.

That week of fall break taught me something important. If we don’t rest (however that looks) then our bodies will rest for us. When I go too long without that act of self-care, my body rebels against my worry and struggle. Maybe I need to start paying better attention to the gift that God has given me: That I depend on rest, for my physical health, emotional health and spiritual health.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: https://blog.mops.org/the-reality-of-rest/

Small Actions Take Courage

I had the honor of writing about my experience in our school’s Family Literacy Program for the MOPS Magazine. They’ve republished the piece over at the MOPS Blog today so I thought I’d share an excerpt. I hope you’ll head over to read the rest!

nordwood-themes-179255-unsplashWe sat together, sipping coffee. She asked how I took my coffee and I replied, “Usually black.” She told me she was the same. Back home, they grew and roasted their own coffee, which she would drink black. But here … We smiled and rolled our eyes toward the cream-filled mugs.

We talked about family and I asked her if she had plans to go back to Ethiopia to see her mom. She said, “No.” Last year, her father had been brutally killed, their house burned down, and her mother and siblings went into hiding. Now, they’re able to talk on the phone sometimes, but it’s hard. She doesn’t want to go there; they can’t come here.

When I signed up to be a tutor for the family literacy program at my daughter’s school, I hadn’t anticipated these stories. Stories of leaving children behind; of worrying about policies impacting their families here. Stories of loss and hope and struggle; the reality of living as an immigrant or refugee in America.

My first thought was that I had absolutely nothing to complain about. My life seemed easy, privileged and unreal compared with my fellow moms. Who was I to feel tired or annoyed with my kids? Who was I to question my next steps or identity as a stay-at-home mom? These women were working multiple jobs! They really knew what stress and work-life balance (or imbalance) looks like!

But that’s not fair – not to them or to me. I’m learning to stop and listen, but not to let the stories of others overwhelm my own journey. Maybe I don’t have to decide to move my family to another country, but I do have to make small decisions that will impact our future. Read the rest over at the MOPS Blog!

What are ways you’ve been gusty lately? How do you remember that your own courage matters, without comparing your journey?

Making Space for Joy in the Details

We lit the Joy candle a day late this year. Parties, celebrating, community. This is what gives me joy. In the midst of all the sweet moments, we had our share of meltdowns and overtiredness because that’s part of this season, too. I often need to remember that it’s ok to reset in the mist of everything. I wrote this for the MOPS Blog and I hope it resonates, one week before Christmas.

Annie-Rim_Advent-2017We’ve had five years of practice in celebrating Advent with kids. Last year, I caught a glimpse at the results of our hard work and intention. At the time, my four-year-old was finally starting to “get” the daily readings, the candles, the coloring pages and family discussions. We actually start our preparation in November with a thankful tree so that by the time the first week of Advent arrives, we’re in a ritual as a family.

The thing I grapple with most about creating traditions is keeping the magic and wonder of the season alive. I’ve got the details down: Thankful Tree? Check! Christmas tree and decorations after Thanksgiving? Check! Boots out for St. Nicholas with Christmas jammies? Check! Candles and a wreath on our table? Check! Age-appropriate nightly devotional with optional coloring pages? Check!

Without these details, we wouldn’t observe the slower pace of Advent. It would feel like “one more thing” to do during an already busy month. Knowing which details work for our family has helped Advent run a bit more smoothly and has given space for the magic and joy of this season.

But sometimes I get too caught up in these details. I forget to pause and allow for joy and wonder. I focus on the outcome of the moments rather than the moments themselves. How can I live in the wonder of discovering the point of our Nativity if I’m so busy creating “easy” moments and experiences?

Some of my friends thrive on spontaneity and magical moments come naturally for them. Joy is not something they plan into their lives. Even as I write this, I know that joy is so much deeper than the plans themselves.

But I also am a realist and know that even the best intentions of letting go of holiday expectations can be forgotten in the midst of everything we juggle. I’m remembering that God created me as a detail-oriented planner and I can find joy within my nature.

It’s not too late to pause and recalibrate. I’ll do self-checks throughout this season to make sure I’m truly enjoying all that we’ve planned. If I’m not, I remember it’s not too late to fix it! What can I let go of or reframe so that I’m less focused on the details and more focused on the reason I planned those details?

If you’re like me, and can feel a bit lost in the midst of holiday expectations, can I offer a few ways to keep your joy at the center of all the plans?

Write down what reminds you of the birth of Jesus.

I know this sounds cheesy, but think about which activities you do during this time that bring the focus back to the manger. Is it a personal devotional each morning? Is it playing Christmas hymns in the car or while you make dinner? Is it lighting the Advent candles each night with your family? Whatever keeps that focus at your core, find time to do it every day. Keep it simple!

Decide what you can outsource.

I can’t do it all, nor do I want to. I have a friend who loves crafting with her kids and they sit together cutting out leaves for their Thankful Tree each year. That’s not me. So, I go to our local teacher supply store and buy precut bulletin board leaves. The outcome is the same and it guarantees success for our family. Likewise, my mom has a tradition of baking cutout cookies each year for our annual Christmas party. It’s time consuming and messy and feels like one more thing. But it’s a sweet time of creativity and bonding for her and my girls. Buy something ready-made or find a friend, neighbor or relative who loves doing that. Asking for help is a great way to bring your community together.

Remember that each year is different.

Our first year of Advent as parents looked vastly different from last year, which will look different from this year. I’m learning to gauge what works and doesn’t work and adjust as needed. This may mean that we only read a Bible verse at dinner, rather than a whole devotional. Or maybe this year, we’ll have time to color all the ornaments for a Jesse tree instead of a few selected coloring pages. Remember the practice of this season – we are creating traditions and rituals to help shape our kids’ faith. Keep it about them!

All of these small things helps me remember the joy of the season. As much as I’d love to go back to a time before consumerism and parties and the chaos of December, I am remembering that this is the world I live in. How do I find joy within our cultural norms and expectations? How do I keep Christ at the center of our anticipation? By working to make space in the midst of it all, I am finding joy and Christ in all the details of the season.

How’s Advent going for you this year? What are you learning? How do you make space for resets?

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog: http://blog.mops.org/advent-2017-making-space-joy-details/.