Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Human Experience

This morning, my family and i attended a gymnastics meet for The Littlest Drama Princess. She and her fellow gymnasts were a bit more nervous at today's meet than they were at the last one, and that was hard to watch - and harder still to try to push them through it to overcome the butterflies and near-panic. In the end, each child tackled her own nerves and stomped on them as she walked through the struggle to the other side. Accomplished. Take that, fear!

One of the greatest moments i have ever experienced in my life thus far happened during that battle over nerves this morning. You see, when we go to these meets, there are 4-6 different gymnastics facilities represented. We have parents and coaches and teams from all around our area, people we have never met and will likely never see again. The girls in each team have 4 different events: Uneven Bars, Vault, Balance Beam, and Floor Exercise. Each event happens at all times, so the teams are rotated through the events in an orderly fashion, but nevertheless, all of the events have gymnasts performing - simultaneously.

So, as you can imagine, we move around and get the best view of our own child when it is her turn, we cheer on our home teams, and we leave room near the other events for those parents/families/friends. Pictures are taken, cheers are raised, and there is a lot of applause for each event, so it can seem disjointed when you are focused on one event and there is cheering and applause for another.

However, at a pivotal moment for one of our team's littlest and newest gymnasts, as she took the floor to begin her routine, she froze, panicked, and then... covered her face and began to sob. As we sat helpless in the stands, gymnasts all over the competition were still performing their routines in their events. We waited with bated breath, watching, whispering prayers for strength for this 4yo during her first-ever competition while the music carried on without her... and finally, the coach walked up to her and bent over to talk with her.

As the coach spoke to this precious child, still, the rest of the place carried on. But i was focused. "Lord, help that sweet child!" i whispered. "You've got this!" i tried to *think* across the rows of chairs and gymnastics mats to her frightened little brain. The coach spoke briefly with the judges and they agreed to let her start over.

She took her place. She squeezed her eyes shut. The music began. She marched out those steps in the beginning, eventually opening her eyes and waging that war with her fear, staring it down as she nailed the second, then the third, then the final segment of the routine. The music rang out its final notes. She saluted the judged. And the crowd went WILD. WILD, i tell you! EVERY parent there, every grandparent, every coach, every child, the WHOLE PLACE erupted in applause and cheers.

it.was.awesome.

My oldest daughter and i teared up, ready to hug every living soul in the room.
And my faith in humanity was restored.
There is still good in the world.
At heart, we care deeply, even about other people's children, whom we'll never meet.
And when terrible things happen, we get to glimpse that side of humanity as neighbor comes to the aid of neighbor. And when we see a child struggling with her fear, we cheer her on as if she was our own. That, friends, is all part of the human experience.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

You Can Be a U.S. History Detective, Too! [a book review]

I was given the opportunity to use and review the U.S. History Detective, Book One, by The Critical Thinking Co. My children all studied U.S. History this year, so I was thrilled to be given the chance to try one of their books. My oldest child was given this one since it is written for students in grades 8-12+.

The curriculum we chose for U.S. History this year was very thorough, I'm sure, but my daughter found it very dry and boring. The reading was lengthy and she found she was not retaining much. Then she started using the U.S. History Detective book. She was much more excited about the shorter length of the lessons, the way the pages are laid out (I have a real personal struggle with curricula that is written well but laid out badly - read, overwhelming to the student), and the frequent review sections. To expect a student to read an entire chapter of 8-10 pages of history facts and figures and then answer only a few questions always seems silly to me, and The Critical Thinking Co. must agree because they have sections about 2 pages in length before asking for student feedback. The way it is broken up is much more conducive to retention, in my opinion.

There are multiple choice and free response review sections, charts and diagrams, a "Fun Fact" section for each lesson, and lots of pictures to help with the multiple ways a student needs to get the material into the brain's memory banks. I am always impressed with The Critical Thinking Co.'s ability to make their books interesting and interactive as compared to other texts.

This is one example of what I really liked about the book:

It is a review activity using a Venn Diagram to help students compare and contrast indentured servants with slaves. That is a literary process! I love when our subjects can be combined in a meaningful way - it takes the busywork out of language arts to write about something you are already learning in another subject area. :)

My daughter really likes this book and finds that it works well with her learning style. She tends to have trouble retaining a lot of text, so having it broken up in meaningful ways and with frequent student response sections has really helped her make more sense of U.S. History. If only we'd found this book earlier this year! ;)

If you are about to study U.S. History, or if you need a summer review, I recommend the U.S. History Detective. And since it is Book One, I intend to keep looking out for Book Two on their website (it isn't there yet, but I think this one will be a success, so it's just a matter of time)!


**********************************
I also get to offer my readers the following deal from The Critical Thinking Co. as part of my agreement to write this review. If you ask me, that is a major bonus!
***********************************

15% Off Any Size Order!
Details: Offer expires 5/31/2015 at Midnight PST. Use Coupon Code BLOGR315. Online prepaid orders only. Valid one per customer. Offer does not apply to iOS or Android apps, or manipulatives such as Attribute Blocks, Interlocking Cubes or Pattern Blocks. Offer may not be combined with other discounts or offers, and is not retroactive. Not valid on wholesale orders.

*Disclaimer: I was given a copy of the above-mentioned book for free with the intent to use and review it honestly. A positive review is not required and the above review is my honest feedback after using the book.

Critical Thinking Co.'s "Understanding Algebra I" [a book review]

I was given the opportunity to review two great books for The Critical Thinking Company. The first one is called Understanding Algebra I. Since my oldest child is just wrapping up Algebra 1, I thought this would be a great overview after-the-fact as math is not easy for her.

One thing we noticed right off the bat were well-laid-out pages. There was color, charts, diagrams, and plenty of white space! One thing I personally think math textbooks get wrong too often is jamming too much information onto a page, and the student can start the lesson overwhelmed. That often happens with my oldest, so this was a bonus right away.

Another thing that we liked was the opportunities to practice each concept at the end of the section. I actually felt like she had more practice problems related to the concept than her current math program. Part of that, in my opinion, is the nature of having a very spiral approach since there are so many review problems in each lesson. I am not opposed to it (I actually prefer spiral math), but I think her current mathematics program could add a few more problems to each section that are specifically related to that lesson so that the child has ample opportunity to master the concept before moving on. Understanding Algebra I did that very well, and even threw in Word Problems sections and More Practice sections.

There was a time or two that she saw something in the book that she didn't already know and neither she nor I felt it was explained well. Part of that could be that her current math program is not known to be advanced and some Algebra I courses could be more advanced. I'm not sure the reason, but it only happened a couple of times - so that is likely just due to our difficulty with that particular concept each time.

Additionally, we battled a lot of illness and my daughter participated in a high school musical with her tutorial program during the time we were reviewing this book, so we did not complete it. We intend to finish it, though, because she has to take a test to demonstrate mastery over Algebra I shortly. :)

In conclusion, I think Understanding Algebra I is a great resource! If a parent doesn't understand Algebra, this would be a great book to put into the hands of the student who needs a better explanation of the subject (or if the parent just wants the student to learn independently!).

EXTRA!! As part of my review, The Critical Thinking Co. is offering my readers the following deal - Happy Learning! :)
***************************
15% Off Any Size Order!
Details: Offer expires 5/31/2015 at Midnight PST. Use Coupon Code BLOGR315. Online prepaid orders only. Valid one per customer. Offer does not apply to iOS or Android apps, or manipulatives such as Attribute Blocks, Interlocking Cubes or Pattern Blocks. Offer may not be combined with other discounts or offers, and is not retroactive. Not valid on wholesale orders.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of the above-mentioned book for free with the intent to use and review it honestly. A positive review is not required and the above review is my honest feedback after using the book.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Confession

Over the past several months, more than a year if i'm honest, i have faced more mountains than i could move. During that time, i thought i was doing well holding up my end of the bargain: i kept my head up, i kept my feet moving, and i never shook my fist at God. The rest, i figured, was up to Him.

Sure, i trusted Him. Most of the time.
And i leaned on Him. Sometimes desperately.
And i praised Him. Even when it hurt.

But i forgot to hold on to those lessons He was teaching me. I allowed my focus to stray from the moment-to-moment, peace-in-the-storm joy of the Lord...and my focus became my own suffering.

I became battle weary. Understandable, some might say. As did i.
But then i did something that i never should have done: i gave myself permission to whine. I was justified, after all; I was going through a lot!

But when i gave myself permission to whine, i constructed an idol. My idol wasn't a statue or a religion or a person; my idol was my pain. I dragged it around and showed it off - "look at my pain," i cried! I let myself make all of my decisions based on my circumstances. My circumstances began to define me.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are seasons of suffering in which we must take care of ourselves. Self care is not selfishness, it is necessity. Even God, in all His infinite wisdom, built rest into His own calendar - and then into ours. Respite gives us needed energy to keep moving and strength to endure.

What i am talking about is the stage during which we must RISE OUT of the ashes and become what God has been shaping us to be. During that metamorphosis from broken to beautiful, we are meant to take off the old and become something new. From a caterpillar to a vibrant butterfly! An amazing miracle of God's hand! We cannot become the butterfly if we hold onto the caterpillar's hardships.

At one point, i knew i had to be doing something wrong; i recognized that i was in sinful disconnect from God, just based on my personal experiences. The problem was, i couldn't put my finger on it! I even asked God repeatedly to show it to me! But God... in all His gentleness, knew i wasn't ready to hear it or see it. My focus was still wrong.

So this morning, after 2 weeks of physical suffering, i awoke without pain and without illness. I have never been so grateful to see 6am and my normal routines! I took joy in my work, delight in my day's obligations, for the first time in months.

And God, being God, finally removed my scales and allowed me to see my sin.
Here i sit, wanting to weep, laugh, praise, and dance... knowing i have broken through the chrysalis - finally! - and ready to see what God wants to use me for in this next season.

I have been prepared for something. We all have. The only choice we have is how we allow ourselves to be used for the Kingdom. Or even if we allow it.

My selfishness, my sin, my pain nearly kept me from whatever God has planned for me. That would have been a far worse fate than anything i have suffered this past year! Praise God, He never gives up on us!

Life can be hard. We can get battle weary. But our earthly circumstances should never define us, and our joy cannot rest in our situation. This life is fleeting, and the moments are temporary. The painful moments and the joyous ones. But the Joy of the Lord is eternal, lasting, and surpasses all this earthly realm has to offer!

Today, i choose joy. And i submit my pain to the One who can make beautiful butterflies out of caterpillars and strong trees after devastating fire. And i cannot wait to see what He does with me! :)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Put Down Your Smartphone and No One Has to Get Hurt

Dear Driver,

Hello! I hope you have enjoyed the introduction of spring weather thus far and i pray this letter finds you well.

This afternoon, my children and i were coming home in the early stages of rush-hour traffic. We had the advantage of being able to drive in the HOV lane, though, which was super awesome as i had a stomach ache to beat all and needed to hurry home. The problem is, while we were over in that lane, my son, who was in the passenger's seat, looked over and saw you staring at your smartphone. While driving.

Then he saw YOU doing it, too.
And then YOU.

I argued that maybe you were placing a call, but when we leapfrogged back and forth a couple of times, it became obvious to both of us that not one of you was placing a call. Or putting down your smartphones. Two of you were casually perusing your smartphones while paying partial attention to the traffic ahead of you and probably no attention to the traffic all around you.

According to my son, it looked like you were on Pinterest or Facebook.

Look, folks, i know there's some FAB-u-lous recipes for the perfect, 30-minutes-or-less, weeknight dinner on Pinterest and you're on your way home to a house full of Ravenous Rugrats, and there are trending stories on Facebook that you've just got to catch up on, but not one of those things is worth the inconvenience of a car accident, the increased premium on your insurance, or (dare i say it..?) - SOMEONE'S LIFE.

My oldest daughter is 15 and studying to take her driver's test to obtain her permit. She saw you, too. Are you setting the best example for her or other teens? Because they.are.watching. Always.

My youngest child is 8 and she is happily playing with her flipflops in the backseat, chitchatting about her gymnastics class yesterday and the skills she is obtaining from her favorite teacher. Are you prepared to be the one to take away her ability to continue with her love of gymnastics because you cause an automobile accident that damages her precious little body with your careless disregard for both safety and the law? Because some accidents are preventable. And some wounds don't heal.

In our house, i practice what i preach. I mean what i say. I ask for forgiveness when i mess up. And i try to do what's right. Because these kids are tomorrow's leaders. 
Did you catch that? KIDS are tomorrow's LEADERS. 
And unless we show them how to fight against the temptation to break the rules, they will take the easy way out. 

Just like you did today, Driver. You took the reckless, selfish route today when you made your smartphone more important than your driving - and everyone else's safety. [Here's a thought: carpool if you must use your phone on your commute.]

Concerned,

AngieV
Mother of 3 in Middle Tennessee


Smoke and Mirrors

Over the past 18 months, my life has been pretty non-stop upheaval and stress. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the list of Top Life Stressors has knocked nearly constantly at my door. And they aren't really polite about waiting to see if i want them to hang around!

During this time, i have prayed, begged, wept, screeched, sat in stony silence, and lost myself to hysteria too many times to count over the drama that has become my life. I have enlisted many prayer warriors for many situations beyond my faculties, and i have cried in the front row (with friends) and the back row (alone) of my church. Winter has become my New Normal, and i'm not talking about the weather.

So, this past week, yet more drama came to call. And it was followed closely by... yep, you guessed it, more drama. Gah! I was pretty sure i had been hit by more than i could handle, i got pretty depressed, and when i thought i couldn't take any more of it, God reminded me that i was not alone and that He would get me through all of it.

I spent a few days with Him between messes and He spoke confidently and sternly to my heart. I realized that as much as i have leaned on others this past year and a half, i really only need God. I am tired of whining, tired of complaining, tired of sounding like a broken record. Things aren't really changing, at least not fast enough for my liking and not in any direction i want them to go!

So... i am going to stop focusing on the things that are a mess and start turning toward the parts of my life that i can do something about. The parts that satisfy my soul, soothe my spirit, calm my mind, and bring me joy.

I'm going to walk into the Fun House and play with Smoke and Mirrors. That junk the devil wants to throw at me? Yeah, it's not really there. It doesn't own me. It can't control my day or my mood or my reactions. That mess the world keeps creating around me? Can't see it anymore for all the Smoke from my praise music and gluten-free flour puffs and watercolor paints. All of the tough stuff that has become part of my daily living? It's impossible to see in a room of Mirrors that reflect my service to the Lord and my love for others.

I'm lifting up my head, turning from the negativity that tries to bring me down, and walking in the light. Just a tiny amount of light casts out the deepest darkness! And i know i am not anywhere close to "the deepest darkness" life has to torment us with, so i know i'll be okay.

Sometimes, the best way to handle the hard stuff of life is to play games with yourself. I'm not beyond tricking myself into discovering joy. :)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Gossip (Psst!)

Gossip.
What is it?
I mean, what is it really?

One definition is "casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true."

Another is "idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others."

So, gossip is first, about someone else. Second, gossip is generally speculation. And third, gossip is often about another person's private affairs.

I have been the victim of vicious gossip.
And i have been the deliverer of gossip.
I have also been an unwilling participant of gossip, trying to get away or encourage the deliverer to stop gossiping.

Here's what i know:
- gossip is talking about something that isn't your business.
- gossip is talking about someone who isn't present.
- gossip is passing on someone else's problems disguised as a "prayer request."
- gossip isn't necessarily based on any facts.

Here's what i've ultimately come to see about what gossip isn't:
Gossip isn't telling a friend about your personal experience with someone. But that line gets fuzzy, so it's okay to err on the side of caution there.

Gossip isn't asking questions about something that involves you in some way so that you have a better understanding of what is happening, what will happen, or what you can expect going forward. But it is wise to keep those questions to the facts and centered around your area of interest or influence.

Gossip isn't confiding in a prayer partner about a problem you are personally having, even if it involves another person. But a trusted prayer partner who can keep your confidence is essential when speaking of delicate situations involving others, to be sure.

Am i The Gossip Guru? Heavens, no. But i have experienced the good, bad, and ugly of gossip and seen all of the confusion that comes with that word. And i figured it's worth talking about.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers?

I have to say that i am noticing something lately about the kindness of strangers. And it is both surprising and obvious at the same time. Especially if you live in the South, as i do. ;)

Strangers will let a car go in front of them in traffic, offer a handshake and a smile in the church lobby, and exchange pleasantries while lingering in a waiting room. I see these behaviors all the time. And i think they are well done. We should be kind to one another! And as a Christian, i know that God calls us to love one another, that He rebukes us in the holy Scriptures to love even "the least of these" [Matthew 25:40] and the ones who are less lovable [Matthew 5:43-47].

Lately, though, with Social Media, i am noticing another trend in the kindness of strangers: we praise, encourage, and compliment one another in the public forum. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. But it hit me like a ton of bricks this week that we are not as good at performing those same kindnesses amongst our own families.

In the same way that we can have heated debates on Social Media and say things we would probably never say in person, we are also quick to offer lengthy encouragement, hearty praise, and flowery compliments - in the Social Media forum, at least. And yet... are we using those same gifts in our own homes?

Here's what i mean...

Are we offering the same flowery praise to our children? Our spouse?
Are we encouraging our children and spouse as much as we encourage others on Facebook?
Are we speaking words of praise over our children and spouse enough to fill their Love Banks?
Are we quick to speak life when a child or spouse has made a mistake?

Or... do we save those sides of ourselves for strangers (or practical strangers)?

The truth is, on Facebook, you can get encouragement back. You get "Likes" and words of affirmation after being a public cheerleader. But you don't exactly get that with your kids, do you?

I've read a lot lately about our culture becoming narcissistic, and i believe this may be part of it; we long for praise, encouragement, and compliments (it's human nature). But is it driving us to demand that sort of positive reinforcement from one another in any way we can get it? Are we less able to hear constructive criticism because of it? Are we becoming less interested in pouring positivity into the lives of people (like our children) who cannot pat us on the back for every good word? Are we less invested in the long-term satisfaction of a job well done and more focused on the immediate gratification Social Media offers?

Something to think about, anyway.
What say you?