Archive for May 31, 2012

How I Planned a Teacher Appreciation Banquet and What I Cooked

A few months ago, I had an idea to honor the teachers at our church. Our teachers sacrifice so much of their time, not just on Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Wednesday morning, or Wednesday night when they actually teach, but also in the time they spend outside of class planning and preparing and praying. I wanted them to know that I—as a parent of three children and as a student in several adult Bible classes—appreciate them.

I thus decided to host a Teacher Appreciation Banquet for all the teachers in our church—from cradle roll to youth to adults to men’s and women’s classes. I had been to one of these dinners before at a different church when my husband was invited to be the guest speaker, and I thought it was a great idea then. Nothing like this had been done in the almost three years I have been at this church, so now was the right time.

Without talking to anyone except Shane, I put together a proposal for the elders at our church (yes, I teach technical and professional writing and must practice what I preach when it comes to ideas and suggestions). This proposal was complete with a rationale, budget, and agenda. I then distributed it to the elders who discussed it, thought it was a great idea, and approved it. They even told me they would like to help serve the food. Great!

One thing that surprised me through this process was when I learned that nothing like this had ever been done before at this church (at least according to the people I talked to). I’m not sure why, but I can only guess that it didn’t happen because the people who would have done this are all teachers themselves. Most (not all) of the really involved people at our church teach and would not have planned this for themselves.

I began taking pictures and shooting video footage of all the children and youth. I decided on music for the video (it’s hard to beat Ray Boltz’s “Thank You”), and then our youth minister put the video together. I mailed invitations to all of our teachers, planned the menu, bought the food, ordered gifts, and bought lovely rose bouquets for the tables.

The day of the event comes. I had originally intended to ask parents of children and youth whose kids are blessed through these teachers to help me prepare the meal. I thought that was a great idea, but the dinner ended up falling on Memorial Day when many of our young families were busy or out-of-town. So, it was just me and two other people.

Terrie, a sweet woman who is always quick to volunteer to help out.

And Terrie’s daughter Hollie. I did not know Hollie very well beforehand because she currently lives in another town a few hours away, but she just took a teaching position here and will soon be moving back and wanted to help out.

My Helper!

Hollie, and I had a great time preparing the meal. We blabbed the whole time and the six hours we were there went by very quickly (The only way I knew how long I had truly been up there cooking was by how badly my feet hurt!). Here’s Hollies blog post about the event.

Here was the menu:

Strawberry Pecan Salad

Strawberry Pecan Salad

Applewood Smoked Bacon Pork Tenderloin and Dinner Rolls

Applewood Bacon Pork Loin Roast

Twice-Baked Potatoes
I used the Pioneer Woman’s recipe. It is definitely the best recipe I’ve ever tried. A healthy-minded person cannot have these

Twice-Baked Potatoes by Pioneer Woman

Green Bean Bundles
Hollie wrapped at least 200 of these! The Green Bean Bundles I make have butter, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Yum.

Green Bean Bundles

Green Bean Bundles and Twice-Baked Potatoes--Yum!

Dazzle Berry Pie (a light and tart raspberry dish that my sister gave me and I have adapted somewhat)

Dazzle Berry Pie

Here I am holding one of these yummy pies (notice my Sonic drink in the background!).

Holding one of the TEN Dazzle Berry Pies I made.

The tables with the flowers (beautifully arranged by Terrie)

Teacher Appreciation Banquet Tables

Each teacher also received this pitcher as a gift. (I got a great deal on the pitchers, thanks to Jessica Turner at The Mom Creative).

Simple Graces Pitcher Given to All Teachers

I end this post in the same way our video did: In the words of 3-year-old Mallory, “I love you, teachers.”

I hope you have been blessed by a teacher.

How I Created a Budget: A Story Involving a Church Plant, a Spreadsheet, Cash, and Envelopes

Yesterday, my post on 12 Tips for Saving Money resonated with you. Within 4 hours, this blog post quickly moved to fourth on my list of most-read blog posts. The three posts receiving more hits than that one are these:

#1: Running around Like a Crazy Woman: Why Less Is More
#2: Up In the Clouds or Down on the Ground: When Marriage Is Difficult
#3: Why I’m Uncomfortable with Mother’s Day

Since you seem somewhat interested in money and how to save it, I decided to follow yesterday’s post with another post on this topic. Today, I’m writing about how (and why) I created a budget and what it has done for me and my family. This process involves a story, a spreadsheet, cash, and envelopes.

Cash System

First, the story. In 2006, Shane and I lived in Gatesville, Texas. We had been married for four years, and Shane was a preacher at a church there. I had just finished my Ph.D. in May of that year and began working at Baylor in August of the same year. I was finally making a salary after so many years living off of Shane’s salary and a meager graduate school stipend. We were excited about almost doubling our income and beginning the process of paying off school loans and other debt we had accrued, including our car loan, loans on some appliances, and our mortgage. Luckily, we did not have credit card debt. We only had one kid. We didn’t really need a budget.

Shane liked his job, and we loved that church (our first child was born there and those people and that church will always hold special places in our hearts), but we felt a desire to reach out to “non-church” people. People who didn’t know about Jesus. People who hated the church or who had been burned by “church people.” We wanted to reach out to, meet, and befriend the so-called “unchurched” or “dechurched.” We had heard about Mission Alive, a church-planting organization, and became interested in this thing called”church planting. After many months of praying and planning and preparing, we decided to move to Waco at the end of 2007 to plant The Grove Church.

During the transition time (or the “in-between” time as Shane called it in one of his blog posts at the time), from the time we decided to plant until we moved (which was about one year), I began to think seriously about our money. Like I said before, I’ve always been a saver, but now we were about to have to raise money for Shane’s salary and the church’s operating expenses. This was not a part of the church planting process that we liked. So much was unknown. We didn’t know how much money we could raise or how much money we would need to live on in Waco where we would soon be moving to a new, bigger, and more expensive house. We did not want to rely on the generosity of others for very long (less than three years). In the worst-case scenario, I wanted to be prepared to live off my salary alone if we had to.

So, in late 2005 at the very beginning of our dreaming and conversations on church planting (years before we took any action), I created a budget in an Excel spreadsheet. I looked online to determine what categories I needed for my budget. I decided on 18 categories, ranging from Household Purchases, Saving, and Groceries, to Giving Student Loans, and individual bills (cable, internet, phone, water, electricity, etc.). I then input Shane’s salary (I was writing my dissertation and bringing home zero dollars) and divvied up the money according to his paycheck. I followed the budget for three months, all the while adjusting it according to what I really spent.

After I started working and bringing money home a few years later, I decided to implement a cash envelope system. Here’s what this system entailed: I wrote out all the categories in our budget on various envelopes (see picture), which had been extended to about 35 different items.

Some of the Budget Categories I Use

When we got our monthly paychecks, I went to the bank and took out the amount of cash I needed for that month’s envelopes. I then put the right amount of cash in each of the envelopes. We used the cash until it ran out, and we were very diligent about not stealing from one envelope if we had run out in another one.

I took the envelopes with me when I shopped. I even found a nifty checkbook-size organizer that had eight different sections in it to carry around the cash I needed when I shopped. The system worked great. It did take me a while to get “caught up.” What I mean by this is that before beginning the cash system, I paid my bills based on the paychecks for that month. With the cash system, however, I had to have enough money in the envelopes before I spent the money. This meant that I had to have money in the envelopes and the bank. It was a process to be able to save enough money for this to happen, but it did.

Around this same time, I also decided to read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. I found many of his principles helpful, especially the ones about reducing debt, namely paying off the loans with the least amount of debt (which we did with my student loan, our freezer purchase, and two of our car payments). I also liked his suggestion to have a $1,000 emergency fund for use in, well, emergencies. If you had to use the money, then your immediate goal was to replace it.

One note about the book: I did not implement Ramsey’s principle of abstaining from giving (or “tithing”, as he called it) until you are completely out of debt. No matter how much money you make or have or how much debt you are in, I think it’s important to give some of it away throughout the process of getting out of debt. If we all wait until we are completely debt-free, we will NEVER give anything. Remember the widow in the Book of Luke? She gave all she had, even in her poverty. One of my friends did recently tell me, however, that he has since revised his stance on this issue (good!), but I’m not sure what he advocates now.

For several years, I carried around a lot of cash. Cash for groceries, household purchases, baby, haircuts, medical expenses, and a few other categories. However, this all changed two years ago when my husband and I went to see Wicked at Faire Park in Dallas. While we were eating lunch, someone stole my big organizer with all my cash right out of my purse (my driver’s license, social security card, and credit cards were also inside–ugh). I lost thousands of dollars.

I thus discovered a flaw in the system. A HUGE FLAW.

I began looking for other ways to utilize this system. I decided to still utilize the cash system but to do so without having to take out so much cash each month. I decided to organize it all in a spreadsheet and to just keep track of it electronically. It has worked even better.

Today, our budget contains 57 items in the list. Shane thinks I’m crazy for how detailed it is, but it works for me (and him, I think). I am constantly adjusting the items and the amount designated to each item because different expenses come up as your situation changes.

And what have been the results? We have a balanced budget. I don’t stress over money. I adjust the budget when necessary. We have paid off or gotten rid of at least seven loans (2 school loans, 2 car loans, 1 furniture loan, and 2 large appliances). We have not accrued any more debt. We now save in advance for cars rather than paying for them after we buy them. We only spend what we have. We have gained financial peace.

I want to leave you with a list of five budget categories that have helped me in one way or another. These may not be the typical items you will include in your budget, but they have been helpful to me so I’ll share them with you.

1. “School Fees”, one envelope for each child you have (this includes teacher gifts, school supplies, school pictures, field trip money, t-shirt money, and all those other expenses that come up once kids start school).

2. “Extracurricular Activities.” Includes tee-ball and other sports for your kids, as well as piano lessons, swim lessons, or art lessons. It can also include art, cooking, or tennis lessons for yourself (This category could also include the gym, but I typically have a separate item for it when I have been a member of the gym since it’s a recurring fee). You could also include going to the movies or other family activities.

3. “Babysitting.” If you want to have a Date Night with your significant other, or if you are a single mom/dad and want to go out at night, this envelope is a MUST. Saving for a babysitter is also good incentive to actually go on the date. You already have the money saved, so go spend it.

4. “Christmas.” I have a “Gift” envelope for birthday parties, holidays, and other special occasions, but I have found that I am more conscious about how much I spend on Christmas and what I buy when I have a special envelope designated for Christmas. Beginning in January, I start putting money in this envelope. By the time Christmas comes around, I know exactly how much I have to spend, and it is there before I spend it. No worries. No fuss. I have also noticed that I spend much less than I did before. It’s not because we don’t necessarily have the money to spend; it’s just that I became aware of how much money I spent on Christmas and realized that it was way too much…and not even what Christmas is about for me anyway. If you don’t celebrate Christmas (or if you don’t spend enough to warrant a separate enveloped), then maybe you can think of a different occasion.

5. “Work Expenses.” I have two separate Work envelopes–one for Shane and one for me. We both have expenses for our jobs (most of them are for books we need to buy). It’s important to itemize all of these small items so that you don’t mess up the budget.

Thanks for reading.

Twelve Tips for Saving Money

I am a saver. I like to save money. I like a bargain.

When I was growing up, my dad required my three siblings and I to keep three jars: one labeled Saving, one labeled Spending, and the third labeled God. When we received money of any kind, Three Money Jarswhether it be our meager allowance ($1.00-$3.00) or birthday or Christmas money, we were required to divide the money evenly between the three jars. He wanted us to know how important it was to save, only spend what was available, and give away a large portion of our money as well (33%).

Two of my jars were always full. Can you guess which ones? If you guessed Saving and Spending, you would be correct. I even saved my spending money.

I guess my dad discovered I was a saver early on because by the time I was eight, he put me in charge of balancing the family checkbook (some of you young people don’t even know what that means!). This was a big responsibility and I took it seriously. My husband thinks it is hilarious that I balanced the checkbook because of how poor my math skills are. Balancing the checkbook taught me some things about money. I learned the true value of a buck. I learned how important it is to only spend what you have. I learned the importance of organization.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve become even more of a saver. I especially like it when I can save money in one place (electricity, gas, housing, groceries, etc.) so I can either save it or spend it on something I really like spending my money on, such as traveling with my husband or kids.

For today’s 12 Series, I give you twelve tips for saving money.

1. Cook (and eat) at home. Buying food, cooking it, and eating it–at home–is much cheaper than eating out, especially when you have more than two people to feed. Eating out drains the budget and you will save money if you eat at home. The more people you have to feed, the more expensive it gets to eat out.

Eating at home may not save a single person much money (I can’t speak to this anymore). But I do know that it can be quite cheap (even for one). If you’re scared by cooking, just try it. Begin with a recipe that takes 15 minutes. You’ll be amazed how quick you pick it up. After ten years, I now like to cook and feel confident in my skills. Plus, the food I make at home is much healthier than the food in restaurants around here. There are many reasons to eat at home.

People often say it’s more expensive to cook healthy food. I don’t really agree with this assumption, especially when you compare how full you get when you eat healthy food versus how much more you eat when you eat junk food. But, even if you think healthy food is more expensive (which I don’t), I think it’s one area worth spending the extra money on. Good food equals good health, and paying extra for things that are good for my body and my spirit and my family is fine with me.

2. Don’t be enticed by marketing ploys that promise “the best sale ever.” Seriously, don’t. Resist the temptation to sign up for emails from Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor Loft, Pier One, Children’s Place, Old Navy, and all those other stores that offer big sales and discounts.

The goal of these emails is not to save you money, contrary to the subject line in the email. Their goal is to get you in their store so you will spend money.

If you hadn’t gotten that email saying, “Everything at the store is 40% off!!”, you wouldn’t have gone to the store anyway! Unsubscribe from these email alerts. Even when places offer coupons through email (like Bealls or Target), you can often find them on their websites, or, when you are at the counter checking out, just ask if they have any coupons you can use and they will most likely give it to you or just apply the discount to your purchase.

Emails aren’t the only place retailers get you, though. TV commercials are another way they do it, especially with our children. If you have DVR, skip through the commercials. If you don’t, tell your children to get up and go do something during the commercials so they aren’t manipulated into wanting more “stuff” that just clutters your house and your life.

Do not be enticed. Resist temptation. Flee from it…quickly. When we give in, we always end up spending more money than we would have had we not known about these “sales” in the first place. Less is more.

3. Buy from Amazon. I have a lot of friends who refuse to buy from Amazon (or Wal-Mart) for moral reasons or for fear these big companies will destroy small, local businesses. I respect those positions. I have thought them at one time or another.

But, ever since moving to a small country town, I have become Amazon-obsessed. Here’s why. Their stuff is competitively priced. I can get new and used stuff for low prices, probably the cheapest on the planet. I also live in a small town that doesn’t always have what I need, which means that I would have to drive 45 minutes to one hour to get what I need. Gas is expensive and driving that far takes up a lot of my time. So, I use Amazon. They deliver right to my door.

I also have a Prime membership, which one of my college roommates convinced me to get, and I’m so glad I listened to her advice. Prime offers free two-day shipping on almost everything (even big, expensive things like playground equipment and furniture), free returns, and free streaming on thousands of movies and TV shows (saves rental fees). I encourage you to check it out.

I also shop at Amazon because of “Amazon Mom” (they also have Amazon student for college students) and “Subscribe and Save.” I use Subscribe and Save to buy diapers, wipes, oatmeal, paper towels, and many other household items. With the Amazon Mom discount added to the Subscribe and Save discount, you end up saving a lot of money.

One last reason I use Amazon is because they are tax-free in Texas. I feel a bit guilty admitting this as a reason because I think we all have a responsibility to pay taxes to live here, but I also want to save money, so I still buy from them. This will all be changing soon, though, because starting July 1, Amazon will no longer be tax-free in Texas. We can thank the Lone Star State for that! (Note the sarcasm.) They sued Amazon over back-taxes and reached a settlement, so now we all have to pay taxes. I guess I’ll be buying a lot of items at our state’s annual tax-free weekend.

4. Buy in bulk. I try to avoid eating a lot of non-perishable food items (see #2 above), and I eat food that is fresh, refrigerated, or frozen as much as possible (food located in the U-shape of the grocery store). However, there are some items located in the center aisles that I do buy, and I try to buy in bulk whenever possible. I buy bigger bags of cereals, canned goods, snack foods, pasta, beans, and household items like toothpaste, shampoo, and paper towels. We don’t have a Costco nearby, but there is a Sam’s Club in Waco where I buy most of my bulk items. I also buy a lot of these bulk goods at Amazon through Subscribe and Save.

5. Conserve in your home. Turn out the lights in rooms you are not using (better yet, use natural light). Adjust the thermostat according to your comings and goings (and don’t forget to do it!). Buy a programmable thermostat that won’t let you forget. Weatherproof your home. Don’t use as much water. Wash dishes by hand. Use more cold water.

6. Set a budget. Setting a budget and sticking to it has helped our family immensely. It also keeps me sane and lets me know where our money is going.

7. Don’t purchase books (printed or digital) unless absolutely necessary and, if necessary, buy used. I’m sure this advice seems odd, given I’m an English professor, but I believe spending less on books is an important way to save, and it’s an easy expense to drop when you want to save money. Instead, check out books from the library. Most libraries now offer digital lending services where you can download books to your Kindle. And all of this is free. LibraryIf you have an Amazon Prime account (and a Kindle), you can check out Amazon’s Lending Library where you can check out a variety of books. They also have a variety of free Kindle books for purchases–new ones are added all the time.

You can also ask your local library if they have an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) department.

If you live near a university, see if you can get a library card there. You’ll have an even greater selection to choose from and most of them have wonderful ILL Departments where you can order any book you want from other libraries (and it’s free!). You can also borrow books from friends or buy used books.

I am somewhat hypocritical when it comes to children’s books and scholarly books for my work. Although I use the library extensively in both of these cases, there are some books that I must own.

8. Shop consignment stores. I buy my children clothes from consignment stores (The only new clothes they get is given to them by their grandparents.). I’m not at all ashamed of this because not only does it save money but it is also good for the environment. I also shop in the off-season when everything is on clearance. It’s getting a bit harder to find used clothes for Elizabeth. She’s in a size 7/Medium and most clothes in her size are worn out because of how long children stay in one size. I can still find dresses and jeans, but t-shirts and shorts are much more difficult.

There are places that sell cheap kids’ clothes (i.e., Target, Wal-Mart, Kohls, Ross, Marshalls), but I am somewhat hesitant to buy from these places because if it is THAT cheap to consumers, then most likely the person who made it was not paid a fair wage and that bothers me (but that’s for a different post).

9. Spend less. Spending less doesn’t seem like it should be an entry on ways to save money because it’s so obvious, but I think it’s an important one. If you spend less, you will save money. We live in a materialistic, competitive culture that tells us to find our identity in material things and stuff, but this doesn’t bring true fulfillment or happiness. Spend less. Just do it.

10. Garden. Our garden is beginning to produce vegetables, and we are so excited. We’ve already eaten cucumbers, zucchini, squash, and peppers from the garden and tomatoes, onions, and watermelon are almost ready. Last year, our garden produced so many tomatoes that I was able to make marinara and pasta sauce for the entire year. We just ran out in March. That saved us a lot of money.

11. Pay bills online. I was a latecomer to online bill pay, but I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, and I find it fast, convenient, cheap, and easy. No stamps. No envelopes. And it’s free (if you’re paying for it, find a different bank).

12. Spend only what you have. Here at Casa de Alexander, we use the Cash System to help us spend only what we have. We take cash out each month (it’s all electronic, so we don’t have all that cash lying around in our house, but it’s the theory). We have been able to get out of almost all of our debt by spending only what we have in the bank.

These are just a few of my tips. I know there are hundreds of other ways to save money. I’d love to hear ideas of how you save money or spend less.

It’s a Matter of Perspective

When Shane and I first moved back to Texas from Kentucky, we lived in Gatesville, a small town about 45 minutes west of Waco. Shane was the preacher at a church there. I became good friends with Amy, a girl who lived with her husband about 5 miles outside of the town. When we talked at church or on the phone about what we would be doing the next day, she often told me, “I have to make a trip to town tomorrow.” The first time she used this phrase, I thought she meant that she would be driving to Waco. That’s what I meant when I said I was driving to town. Cool! Let’s go together. To me, driving into town meant a long drive to the “big city.”

Living in the Country

Image courtesy of

But I soon learned that she did not mean that at all. Instead, when she said she would be driving into town, she meant that she would be driving the five miles into our town, not to Waco. She lived in the country and “town” for her was Gatesville. I lived inside the city limits (and also came from the big city), so, to me, “town” was the bigger city of Waco.

It was a matter of perspective.

Last week I posted 12 reasons I like living in the country. A lot of people read that post, and, since then, at least five people have told me, “You know you don’t really live in the country.”* They have pointed out to me that since I have city water and city sewage, I do not live in the country. They also used as evidence the fact that I do not have well water. No, I do not live in the country, they say; I live in a “rural community,” “a small town.” One friend at my church even commented that she must have me out to their house so that I can see what living in the country truly means.

In some sense, I agree with them. Yes, I do live in a city. It is rural and small, but it’s still a city. We have about 7,000 people living here. I do not have to “drive into town” for groceries. I have neighbors. I have a city address. I live on a paved street. I do not have a well. I do not have a stock tank. I do not have cows or horses or pigs. I have internet access and it is fast. I have good cell service. We have 4G.

No, I do not live in the country in the same sense my great-grandmother Meme did while she was alive. She lived in a single-wide trailer with nothing else around her for miles. No grocery stores, gas stations, or schools. Not even a Wal-Mart. She used well water. She had cats running all over the place. She had a big tank in her yard that we liked to climb all over. Skunks lived under her trailer and made a major mess of things. She lived in the country.

Shane’s grandmother also lives in the country. I love going out there to the ranch. She lives in the country in a way that I do not.

But, in another sense, I do live in the country. Although it may not be the country in the technical sense of the word or in the same way my great-grandmother did, I still live in the country in comparison to my experiences of city life.

As I mentioned before on this blog, I grew up in Houston. For those of you who live in or have lived in big cities, this doesn’t need much explanation. For those of you who were part of my life in Houston and knew what life was like for yourself and for me, you know what a statement like this means. Images of city life immediately take hold, and you can imagine what big city life is like.

But for others who have not lived in a city or a bigger city, saying that may not mean very much.

When I graduated high school and first moved to Abilene for college, I thought I had moved to the middle of nowhere. Abilene was considered a “small town” to those of us who came from bigger cities. It was. About 150,000 people. Fast forward several years later to Gatesville: 10,000 people.

My definition of “small town” soon shifted. Gatesville was a small town; Waco was the “big city.”

How we regard life is a matter of perspective. Where we’ve come from. Where we’ve been.

Our perspective shapes what we see. Our perspective limits what we see.

Only when we interact with others who come from different places than we do, who have different experiences, who believe different things, can we truly understand how limited, situated, and incomplete our perspective is.

Only when we get to know others can we truly grow in our own perspectives.

*My husband was one of the people who told me that I am wrong, that, no, we do not live in the country. I think this is interesting because, like me, he lived in big cities for most of his life. I think it’s even more interesting because he has  referred to where we live as the wilderness.

Bad Moms and Being Mom Enough: A Reflection

By now, you have most likely read or heard about the recent article in Time magazine titled, “Are you Mom enough?”. The blogosphere (and the media) has been abuzz over this article.

I'm not a bad girl; You're a bad mommy!

Image courtesy of

Some authors have addressed the title of the article and all that it implies (competition, self-hatred, guilt, mommy wars, sexism, identity issues, etc.). Others have commented on the cover image in which a three-year-old boy is sucking on his mother’s bare breast while looking at the camera (how it is going to scar him forever, how public breastfeeding is fine, how this goes on in all areas of the world, how this mother is a helicopter parent, etc., etc.). Most discussions have addressed the topic of the article, attachment parenting.

I’ve read many commentaries on and responses to this article. (I particularly liked what my college roommate had to say about it, as well as another blogger’s provocative post, “Where Is the Mommy War for the Motherless Child?“.

I have my own opinions on all of these matters. I obviously do not choose to do attachment parenting. I stopped nursing my children when they were between 8-10 months old. I do not carry my baby around on me like a papoose; he weighs too much and I would break my back. I do not, under any circumstance, allow my children to sleep with me and my husband in our bed. I also work outside the home, which Dr. Sears, the founder of the movement, discourages women who want to incorporate attachment parenting philosophies from doing.

I don’t love my children any less. I love them a lot, actually. I believe it’s important help my children feel loved, safe, confident, self-assured, and independent. I let my children play for long periods of time without getting involved or interjecting my own agenda. I let them work out problems. I tell them, “No.” I ask them to be creative. I challenge them.

Most mothers do.

What I have learned from being a mother for almost seven years is that there are many different ways to mother. There are different ways to be a mother. And there are different definitions of mothers and motherhood and mothering.

As moms, we have images in our head about the kind of mother we want to be. If you’re like me, you often feel guilty about ways you do not live up to your own expectations. Our culture and the media (and sometimes religious organizations and people) send the message that we are not good enough, that we are not “Mom enough.” My recent post about Pinterest images attests to the pervasiveness of societal expectations and norms.

But who are we to judge other mothers? Aren’t we all just trying our best to do good our their children?

We are all “Mom enough” to the children in our lives.

They love us. They know we love them.

We must know that who we are is enough.


My Favorite Children’s Books

One of our favorite things to do during the long summer days at home is to read. We like to read throughout the year, but we designate more time during the summer for reading because we are home almost every day, we like it, and it’s a good skill to practice and learn. It also fosters bonding, confidence, and independence.

One thing we did for the first time last year was participate in a couple of summer reading programs. Our local library always has a summer reading program. They participate in the State of Texas’ Library Association’s reading program. This year, the theme is “Get a Clue…at the Library.” Last year the theme was “Dig Up a Good Book.” Both Peyton and Elizabeth, with my help, read 100 books during the month of July. I don’t know about you, but that is A LOT of books to read for one month (25 per week), and since I was helping both of them read, that was double for me! But, we all persevered, (somewhat begrudgingly by the end), and the kids felt so much pride in having read so many books and completed the program. They especially liked the celebration at the end where they earned certificates and prizes. They were successful consumers of literacy, or “literacy winners” as I call it in a recent article published by CCC.

Other companies like Barnes and Noble and Scholastic also have summer reading programs that often offer free books or incentives for kids who participate. All in all, these programs can motivate kids to read, encourage parents to read with their kids and older siblings to read to younger siblings, and get you through the “I’m bored” talk of the long summer days.

For today’s 12 series, I am going to list my favorite children’s books. Children’s books are both visual and verbal, beautiful in words and in art, and I really, really like them, especially as a teacher of writing and multimodal composition (using words and images and other modes together to make meaning). I have a lot of favorites, but these are the ones that top my list right now.

1. How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You by Jane Yolen. This book is silly and fun to read. It’s also poetic and clever, especially for rambunctious children. My son Peyton had it memorized after the 4th or 5th reading and loves reading it as we go to bed. (Also, check out How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and other titles int he series)

2. There Is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems. I discovered Mo Willems last summer during our reading extravaganza, and I enjoy many of his books. My kids laughed out loud at this book and most of the others we read. This specific title is part of the Elephant and Piggie series about two friends experiencing life together. He has another series about a pigeon, and the kids liked those, too. I highly recommend this witty author. Both the words and pictures will crack you up.

3. The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg. Creative, suspenseful, and fun to read. It will keep your kids attention and keep them guessing throughout the entire book about what would happen next.

4. The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room by Stan and Jan Berenstain. We like so many of the Berenstain Bears books, but I listed this one because of our recent emphasis on simplifying and de-cluttering and “less is more”. Last summer, Elizabeth only wanted to check out these books.

5. Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. I had the joy of hearing Donald Hall give a wonderful presentation a few years ago when he came to Baylor as part of the Beall Poetry Festival, which the English Department here puts on every Spring. My children love this book. It’s a sweet story about a hard-working family who lives on a farm and makes their living by working with their hands. It’s simplicity at its best. The images are evocative and the message is simple, yet profound. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

6. The Runaway Garden: A Delicious Story That’s Good for You, Too! by Jeffrey Schatzer. This book is about a garden that runs away and what happens to the individual vegetables as a result. This book contains a lot of literary devices, including homonyms and puns, which make it fun for older children as well as adults. And I always like books about food.

7. Sir Cumference and the First Round Table by Cindy Neuschwander. What a fascinating, original book. The author has several books in the series and I recommend them all. This book teaches math terms (radius, pi, circumference, diameter) in a very creative way. You definitely should check it out (my daughter didn’t like it as much as my son because “it’s a boy book”, but I disagree with her!).

8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Classic book about imagination and dreaming. I didn’t read this book as a child (probably because I was almost a teenager), but I highly recommend it. Beautiful pictures.

9. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. My sweet mother-in-law gave this book to Peyton recently, and it’s a wonderful book about taking care of the planet and being good stewards with our resources. Big change starts small, and this book emphasizes this throughout. The artwork is amazing.

10. Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Marjorie Priceman. When I give someone a book, this is the book I give them, especially younger children because it emphasizes counting and music. But older kids like it, too. You must read this at least once. Great story about an opera.

11. If I Ran the Zoo (and many more…) by Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss is, by far, the most often read author in our house. Between The Lorax, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Cat in the Hat, we feel like Dr. Seuss is a member of our family. What an amazing talent he was. His legacy lives on in kids and adults all over the world.

12. Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman. I tend to be a little bit of a prude (I was raised that way), but having sons has changed me. Boys like to talk about pee and poop and underwear and penises and all other sorts of things that used to make me very uncomfortable (the fact that I even wrote the word penis shows how far I’ve come!). This book is wonderfully hilarious and great fun for boys (at least for my son) who like to talk about these things at the dinner table.

Well, there’s twelve of my faves. But I do have one more, so here it is, just because…

13. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. This book is a classic. I always liked it, but as an adult and a parent, I like it even more. I understand the story differently, and I think it teaches a lot of good lessons for children.

What children’s books would you add to this list? What were your favorites as a kid? What are your favorites as an adult? A parent? Will your kids be participating in a summer reading program? I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

What I Really Do in the Summer

College students and professors all over the country are beginning their summer breaks. Courses are complete. Finals are taken. Seniors have graduated and moved away (hopefully finding jobs). Current students are enjoying the break from the daily grind of reading, writing, and studying for courses, while professors are appreciating not having to go into the office every day, taking a break from planning for classes and grading, and having more time allotted to non-teaching aspects of our jobs.

Graduation was a little over a week ago and since then, I have heard the following comments from friends, family, and acquaintances:

“You’re so lucky to have the entire summer off!”
“Aren’t you glad to be out for three whole months?”
“I wish I had as much time off as you.”

“Are you enjoying your break from work?”
“It must be nice to only work 32 weeks out of a year.”

These comments—while well-intentioned and most likely just meant to start a conversation about my summer plans—point to some faulty assumptions about academic life, especially life on the tenure-track.

Such a perspective isn’t surprising. Most of these well-meaning people have jobs with clear-cut work hours (8-5, Monday-Friday), vacation time (2 weeks), and sick time (a certain number of hours).* Others are K-12 teachers who actually do have a true break during the summer, so, they assume, I must have a break, too. My mom, for instance, was a 3rd and 1st grade teacher most of my life (she retired last year), and except for a week or two of professional development in which she was required to participate, she was “off”. She was not required or expected to do any work during her summer vacation. Of course, it wasn’t a true “vacation” for her; she was home with four kids during the summer. But she didn’t have to “work”.

*This doesn’t always apply to many people I know who own their own business and do not get any time off (perhaps they don’t have any employees or only have one or two people or just can’t afford to take off). If they take time off, they don’t make any money or their business might suffer from being closed for so long.

When professors are “off” (i.e., not teaching), however, they are *not* on vacation. Instead, we are busy doing the stuff we are unable to do during the academic school year. For today’s post, I’m going to debunk this assumption that professors are “off” all summer by explaining what I will be doing over the summer in terms of my work. My summer plans are specifically situated in my own context as a a tenure-track academic preparing to go up for tenure in the fall. Summer plans and activities may not be the same for other academics, professors, or instructors, especially ones whose primary responsibility is teaching (although they probably feel pressure to write and publish as well during the break).

1. Read. A lot. I have developed a list of about 30 (academic) books I would like to read over the summer, which equals out to about 2-3 books a week. I’ve already read three books since school ended, but I have a large stack waiting for me. Some of the books are for my research; others are for my teaching. Either way, I have a lot to read. It’s important to note that this reading does not include all the fiction and non-fiction I want to read.

2. Write. A lot. If I were ranking this list, writing would be at number 1. It is expected that academics write over the summer, even when we are not paid for our summer work through a sabbatical or grant. I hope to send out at least one article over the summer.

3. Revise an article that has been rejected. Last week, I received (bad) news that an article I wrote was rejected to the journal to which I submitted it. Rejection is no fun. It can be extremely discouraging and disheartening to receive such news. You can only send an article to one journal at a time and they hold on to it between 4-6 months (at best) before notifying you of the decision. When you receive negative news, it can depress me for days. But it’s the reality of academic life. There’s even a journal called The Journal of Universal Rejection that rejects every single article they receive. I don’t plan on submitting there, but I find the premise delightfully ironic.

4. Plan the courses I will be teaching in the Fall (and even the Spring). This activity involves several components:

a. Compose a syllabus. Decide on course objectives, assignments, grading criteria, rules and guidelines for the course. This needs to be done at least one week in advance of the semester and takes a lot of planning.

b. Draft a course schedule. Creating a course schedule for the entire semester before you ever teach a course is probably the hardest part of planning for a course. I begin work on this early and make changes all the way up to the start of class.

5. Plan for next year’s research project. I received a Baylor University Research Committee (URC) grant for a project I’m working on that examines how students write about the writing they will complete in their jobs. I will have a Research Assistant and I need to make plans for the academic year.

6. Compose a Research Leave application. I plan on applying for a Research Leave for Fall 2013 or Spring 2014. This application is detailed and time-consuming, and I plan to do much of it over the summer.

7. Compose an application for a Summer Sabbatical. I would like to have summer funding next summer, so I will also apply for a Summer Sabbatical through my university.

8. Update my technological skills. I teach writing and design courses, and my students and I use technology every day. I am quite adept at Word, Excel, Publisher, and WordPress, but I need to enhance my skills in the Adobe suite, particularly InDesign and Photoshop. I plan on learning these better over the summer.

9. Get organized. Shred paperwork. Clean out my office. Organize and delete computer files. Go through my email Inbox and delete, delete, delete.

10. Attend professional development seminars or workshops. In June, I will be attending a one-week seminar in Rhetoric and Composition at Michigan State University.

11. Begin thinking about and planning for the graduate course I will teach next Spring. Book orders will be due in October, and I need to know early what I will be doing in the course, tentatively titled “Teaching Digital Rhetoric.” I will do a lot of research for the course in terms of texts, assignments, and requirements. And, since there isn’t much time in December to plan for Spring course, I need to do most planning over the summer and during the Fall semester.

12. Put together my tenure notebook. More on this in the future.

As you can see, my summer is filled with things I must get done before school resumes in August. Yes, I appreciate that I have a break from teaching and commuting to the office every day, but it’s not a true break that the word “vacation” entails. I will take a vacation–two actually. One with my husband for my 10th anniversary and another with my family to the beach. But, the pressure to read, write, publish, and get caught up is ever present in my summer life, even when I’m playing with my children, watching a movie, or hiking in the park. That’s just the way it is.

We Were Swinging

Some family visited us this weekend. City folks. My mom and younger sister Kellee and her adorable daughter Olivia.

Olivia at 17 months

Sweet Olivia

My mom is from Houston and my sister is from Dallas. We live about halfway in between the two cities, so they met in the middle at my house for the weekend. We enjoyed ourselves. We didn’t “do” much–not as much as we would have had we gone to one of their homes, or to my other sister Kim’s house in Austin. There, we probably would have taken the kids somewhere to do some activity (i.e., a museum, a splash pad, a well-known park, a great restaurant, the movies, shopping). The activity would have been a lot of fun, but it would probably have cost a lot of money and we would have been on-the-go the whole time.

In this small town, we don’t have as much access to these kinds of experiences. Sure, we could have driven to Waco, which is about an hour away, but Kellee’s house is only an hour and fifteen minutes away. Why would we do that? And our small town does have some enticing places to eat as well as a wonderful state park just a few miles away.

But, they didn’t really come here to spend more time in the car. They came here knowing we probably wouldn’t do very much. They came to rest. To relax. To take things slow. To get away. To enjoy the slow pace.

And it was the simplicity of our weekend that they seemed to enjoy the most. This says a lot coming from my mom who likes to be busy and “doing” things. She is constantly on the go and likes it that way. But not this weekend. She was the one who kept insisting that we just take things slow.

Friday night, we did have one event. We went to Elizabeth’s t-ball game. She played the best game of her (3-year!) career, and it was a lot of fun.

Elizabeth at t-ball game

My mom with Levi

Nana with Levi

Saturday morning, we watched the kids swim in the kiddie pool and play on the jungle gym.

My mom, Kellee, and I sat in one of our porch swings for much of the day, drinking our Sonic drinks and talking.

Kellee and Olivia

My sister Kellee and niece OliviaLevi (9 months) playing in the pool

Swinging awaySaturday afternoon we walked over to our church to attend a Fish Fry. None of us really knew what to expect and, to be honest, we were a bit skeptical of how the food would taste or what it would be like.

I guess some people from my church are reading my blog because one woman was very surprised that I had never attended one before because “it isn’t a country thing; it’s a lake thing.” My family went camping two to three times a year when I was younger, and we would fish. We caught perch and catfish, but we always threw it back. Even if we were to catch something worth eating, my dad didn’t have the supplies to clean and fry the fish, so we always threw it back.

But there’s just something about fresh fish. It is scrumptious. The fish we ate was breaded with flour and coated with a delicious mix of spices. It was flaky, yet crispy and so very tasty. We also ate our fill of hushpuppies (which Peyton kept calling “cheese balls” because they were so soft in the middle), cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, and all kinds of desserts. I hope I can attend many more fish fries while I’m in the country (And it was really nice not to have to cook it but to enjoy someone else cooking for me for a change!).

After the fish fry, we went back home, put the kids to bed and sat in the backyard on the swing for the rest of the evening. The breeze rustled the trees. The birds tweeted and chirped. Our dog Shiloh ran around and licked our feet (they did not like that). It was even cool enough that my mom wore a lightweight jacket. We enjoyed the smell of the night air and the cooler weather, knowing it would not last much longer. Summer heat and humidity would be coming soon.

And we kept swinging. Even long after it got dark. We were swinging, back and forth. Enjoying the quiet of the country.

This was a relaxing weekend for us all. It was peaceful, restful, and simple. If you were to ask us what we did all weekend, I would say, “We were swinging.” I was glad that my family got to experience a little bit of my life, to see why this city girl likes the country.