Language Learning

On Saturday, I worked with two students online. The first is a high school junior who I’ve worked with since she was in eighth grade. The second is an eighth grader who I met when he was in sixth grade. Both students are bi-lingual. Both students are high-achieving. Both students are expected by their parents to work hard.

“Gina” and I worked on SAT prep. She had taken a practice test and wanted to review the items she had missed. We analyzed her mistakes and discovered that almost all were related to vocabulary. Over the years, Gina and I have talked about the strength she has in knowing two languages. She can communicate with people in both Chinese and English. In fact, while she takes AP English Language and tutors Chinese students online to help them improve their English skills, she also studies AP Chinese! She has traveled to Taiwan many times with family and can spend weeks speaking nothing but Chinese. Then, she can come back to Michigan, slide back into her public school classroom, and navigate the language needed in all of her rigorous classes. This is a huge strength! However, since she holds in one hand all kinds of Chinese vocabulary and in the other hand all kinds of English vocabulary, neither hand has room for quite as many words as they could hold if they were cupped together holding words from just one language.

cupped hands

For example, although she holds the word ‘vague’, she may not also have obscure, dubious, ambiguous, and nebulous. Her hand simply doesn’t have the room. ‘Vague’ can usually do the job, except on the SAT, which may require Gina to know that obscure, vague, and ambiguous are all synonyms, and explicit is their antonym. The distinctions are challenging. So, we often spend our time working on vocabulary and helping Gina build images for new words so that she can put them on index cards and practice them when she’s not studying Chinese or psychology or one of the many other classes she is taking. She also has an English vocabulary app on her phone and plays freerice.com. She’s always trying to find ways to fit more words into her hands.

And then there’s “Kyle”. Kyle is fascinating to me. Although he is fluent in both Korean and English, although he speaks only Korean at home, although he is only in eighth grade, this kid has so. many. words. He did even when he was in sixth grade. I popped into our online room and asked him, “So what’s up? Your mom says you need some help with writing.”

“Well, my teacher says that I write too much. She says I need to be more concise.”

I’m chuckling to myself right now because in eighth grade, my teachers way back in the 70s didn’t expect me to write paragraphs and essays. I certainly hadn’t been given any feedback on my writing because I hadn’t produced any, but if I had, I am quite sure my teachers would have said I needed to be more concise.

“So what kind of writing are we talking about here — in class writing? or more formal writing?”

“Both.” Kyle is a striking young man — crisp haircut, sharp glasses, angular features. And he’s almost always deadpan. He cracks me up.

“Ok, so give me a typical in-class prompt.”

“Is The Giver a dystopian or a utopian novel?”

Again, I’m laughing inside. I don’t think I knew what ‘dystopian’ was until I taught Brave New World, but I digress.

So, together we built a very structured response to that prompt — topic sentence, three supporting points, and two pieces of evidence for each point. When we were finished, I looked at his face, read it, and said, “Pretty boring, huh?” He cracked a slight smile. “Well, tell me how you might’ve answered that question.” He admitted that he would’ve rambled and that his points would’ve been all over the place. “Ok! And that is what your teacher is asking you to work on! So, although it might be boring, I want you to practice this format for a while. Once you have the format, you can begin to experiment a little.”

He then shared a current assignment he is working on — a story told in two voices from two points of view. He chose to write about a hunter and a deer — one page for each character to tell the story of one day in the woods where they have an encounter. It’s vivid, and the language is clean.

“Kyle! This is beautiful. Your words are making me picture this snow-covered woods — I can even hear the hunter’s boots crunching in the snow! I can see him lift his bow, reach for an arrow, and take aim. This is fabulous!”

“She says we need to have sensory language, two adjective clauses, two adverb clauses, and ….” He’s reading from a list, discounting my praise.

We walked through his essay, which truly was well-written, particularly for a rough draft, and especially for an eighth grade bi-lingual student. We found his sensory language. I showed him how to combine his sentences by way of adjective and adverb clauses, and I pointed out how he had included the stylistic elements that his teacher was looking for. And then I said what I often tell writers who have too many words.

“I want to challenge you to make this even more concise. Right now this essay has 1000 words. I want you to cut that count by 10%. You have written a great essay, but play my game with me. See if you can cut 10% of the words, and then notice what impact that has on your story.

“Also, for your in-class writing, I want you to practice that format for a while. Learn the discipline, then you can experiment more.”

“So in other words, follow the rules and forget my voice,” he said pointedly.

“Well, no! Your voice is fantastic and natural. I don’t want you to lose your voice. And you won’t. As a matter of fact, when you practice this discipline, I think you will find more room for your voice.”

And he gave me that deadpan look again.

“Try it,” I smiled.

Gina is trying to expand her vocabulary, Kyle is trying to rein his in. Both are going to take work — practice, discipline, and courage. It takes real guts to admit that you don’t know everything — that you could learn something.

But when we do — when we admit that we have more to learn, when we listen to the voice of our mentors, and when we utilize that expert advice — we are transformed.

When I met Gina in the summer of 2015, she was timid. She gave me one word answers and was struggling to do schoolwork because each sentence was labored. Yesterday, when I asked what she’s been doing, she said, “During first semester we worked mostly on rhetorical analysis, but since Christmas we have started writing — what do you call them — oh, yeah, arguments.” She, an adolescent, has been leaning into her language process for three and a half years, and she is seeing the pay-off.

When I first met Kyle, he reminded me of my young self. He had a quick answer to almost everything. When he didn’t know the answer, he had several strategies for faking his way through. Now, at the ripe old age of 13, he is beginning to acknowledge that he has room to grow. He articulated the areas that had been identified by his teacher, and he at least considered the strategies that I offered him.

What a delight I have to witness their transformational journeys. And no, the metaphor isn’t lost on me. I, too, have admitted that I don’t know everything, that I have much, much more to learn. It’s taken practice, dedication, and courage, but I’m already beginning to see glimpses of transformation.

And yes, I did try to cut 10% of my words.

let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—

Proverbs 1:5

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Moving into the School year

A few minutes ago, I sat down to read my Bible study.  Just as I was getting comfortable, I remembered what my husband said last night, “If we don’t move the car first thing in the morning, you won’t be able to get out of campus when you need to leave at 10:30.”

We live on a college campus.  Our home, a three-bedroom ranch,  is nestled between three residence halls.  One long, narrow driveway enters the east side of campus and winds past a large parking lot and between the buildings to land at our doorway.  We’ve got one way in and one way out.  This is typically not a problem.  Our campus is small, and most cars are required to park in the parking lot.  We’ve usually got a straight shot from our doorway to the highway.

But today is freshman move-in day.

When I leapt out of my seat a few minutes ago to go move the car, I walked outside and noticed that about a dozen student leaders clad in red “Welcome” t-shirts were gathered, waiting the arrival of the first students.  My path was clear, so I drove our little Suze-e Cruze-e straight to the  lot,  slipped in an end slot, and put her in ‘park’.  As I pulled the key from the ignition, I looked up and saw a line of cars snaking down the narrow drive from the entryway.

I was just in the knick of time.

All week, the excitement has been palpable. Our campus pastor embodies enthusiasm.  Even though I haven’t seen him in person since Sunday, I have ‘heard’ him over social media.  He has been posting pictures of dozens of student leaders meeting at his home. He’s been gushing over Twitter about how he and the leaders have prayed over every building on campus, how he witnessed the first class of nursing students gathering at our new North building, and how the campus is primed and ready for our newest students to arrive for a year that’s themed #togethersetapart.

And he’s not the only one who’s excited.  I’ve stopped by the Student Life Office a few times this week and have found bustling activity — the men and women in this office work hard all year, but this is one of their busiest times.  Not only do they make the housing assignments,  train the resident assistants, and coordinate the move-in, but they also plan multiple events for welcome week including meals, evening activities, and a campus-wide service event for Sunday.

The campus, that gets pretty quiet over the summer, is starting to pulse.  I’ve been sitting here now for about half an hour, but I know that when I get up and look out the window, I will see overloaded cars pulled close to residence halls.  Parents will be carrying Rubbermaid containers and laundry baskets and thinking to themselves, “What have we forgotten?”  Students will be bundles of emotion — excitement, fear, enthusiasm, wonder, anxiety — as they meet their roommates and urge their parents to leave, saying, “I’ve got it from here.”

My golden retriever is pacing from one end of our house to the other.  He’s pressing his nose against the glass because it’s just so exciting out there!!

All my life I have loved the start of the school year.  It’s a clean slate waiting to be written on, a blank planner begging to be filled, a new race waiting to be run.  A new school year screams possibility!  For the kids outside my door and the one sitting right here at this laptop, I pray for the fulfillment of dreams, the facing of challenges, and the opportunity to fully embrace what it means to be #togethersetapart.

John 17:21

that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

 

 

 

Experimentation

Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to participate in an experiment.  After two years of limited part-time employment, I am gearing up for the next level of engagement.

As you may be aware, from 2005 to 2014 I was a full-time teacher and administrator at a small private high school in St. Louis, MO.  For at least seven of those years I was a very hard-charging,  responsible faculty member who worked long hours both at school and at home.  I managed that position while being married to a seminary student turned mission-planting pastor and parenting three teenagers.  It was a very busy life full of challenges and rewards.

When chronic illness started to impact my effectiveness in that position, my husband and I began to watch and pray for God to open a path to something different.  This blog began when God answered our prayers and transplanted us in Ann Arbor where he has been serving as the Dean of Students at a small Christian university for the past three years.

When I joined him two years ago, I rested for six months and then began to experiment with different levels of employment.  I started with occasional private tutoring.  I added a summer ‘internship’ at an educational agency before transitioning to adjunct instruction coupled with private tutoring.  I’ve been doing well for the past year balancing those two positions.  I have taught a few hours a week in the classroom while supporting several private students that I meet in homes, in libraries, or in coffee shops.  I’ve loved this combination.  So, I’m continuing it this fall — at the next level.

Starting next Monday I will have three sections of college composition. (All the writing instructors in the room just gasped.) Now, to be fair, two of those sections are small at just 12-13 students each.  The third section is a more average-sized class of twenty-one. So, do your math and you will find that I am going to have 46 composition students.  That’s a solid load.  Most English teachers would say, “That’s fabulous!  What a joy to have forty-six writing students!” (My last year in St. Louis, a staffing issue created a situation where I had about 80 writing students!)  And, indeed, I am thrilled.  I am also thrilled that entering my second year as a private tutor, I have a solid student base that easily yields 8-10 hours of tutoring per week.  God has indeed engineered a sweet gig for me.

However, I am a little anxious. My health is more stable than it has been in close to four years.  With the help of my medical team I have eliminated biologic and anti-inflammatory medications.  That’s right; I take nothing for pain!  I am also currently weaning off the anti-depressants that I started taking seven or eight years ago.  I walk, do Pilates, practice yoga, and get in the water regularly. I see a physical therapist and a chiropractor,  avoid gluten and dairy, and am following my doctor’s instructions for taking homeopathic and nutritional remedies. I’m doing all the things, yet I still have a measure of pain in my hips, neck, and back.  I still have psoriasis. I still have chronic eye issues. I still get knocked down if I do too much.

So how much is too much?

That’s why this fall is an experiment.  Can I teach forty-six students in the classroom and meet with a handful outside of the classroom without spending every weekend in bed? Will I still fit in exercise? physical therapy? time with friends?  time with family? What will happen if something unexpected pops up — an out-of-state emergency, a family crisis, a family celebration? I don’t know.  Have I created a schedule that allows for these variables?  We’ll see.

I do know that the success of this semester is more likely if I continue to practice the disciplines that I have re-discovered in this time of stillness — Bible study, blogging, prayer.   It seems I struggle to fit them in, when in truth, they are the most impactful moments of my day.  Writing the prayer reminders on my mirror and my fridge is a help, but I still need to choose to act on those prompts and actually pray. My devotional materials sit out in plain sight, but I have to move toward them and take the time to engage each day.  My blog is constantly percolating in my mind and begging to be let out through my fingers, and when I allow it the space and time, I become aware of all that God is working inside of me.  When I do these three things — prayer, Bible study, and blogging — I feel centered and purposeful.  I feel at peace.

So, on Monday, I’ll step feebly forth.  I won’t try to kick any butts or take any names, I will just show up and see what God has in store in this next chapter.

Luke 12:32

“Do not be afraid, little flock,

for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Creativity

Just under two years ago, as I said goodbye to teaching in St. Louis so that I could move to Michigan with my husband, I imagined that I would take four to six months to rest and recover and then I would find a job and get back to some kind of ‘normal’ life.  My limited view couldn’t see what God had planned for me.  I couldn’t imagine how He would allow me to experiment with different types and levels of employment so that I could see for myself what would be fulfilling, draining, energizing, depleting… I couldn’t envision a life where I would have so much freedom to learn and grow.  I couldn’t see how He could provide for us financially, so He had to show me.

In the past two years I have worked for Reuters as an election agent, tutored students in English, writing, reading, study skills and test preparation, participated in intensive reading and writing instruction, edited everything from a young adult novel to a Master’s thesis on cancer-treating drugs, scored standardized math assessments, and taught college-level writing and literature courses.

And though that sounds like a lot, I’ve had the luxury of making new friends, participating in a regular Bible study, joining a new church family, working out consistently at a local gym, reading dozens of books, visiting family across the state, exploring Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti with my husband, and providing a refuge for my daughters as they navigated some difficult life situations.  Not only that, I’ve had time to experiment with medical strategies — discarding some, embracing others — to find ways to feel better both physically and emotionally.

Much of that journey has been chronicled in this blog. I think I started writing imagining that I would arrive at a destination — that I would someday get to “The Next Chapter.” However, I think the theme of this chapter is learning to live in the process, to trust that God knows what is coming next and He is preparing me for it. I’m learning to not look too far ahead, but to enjoy each moment.

This morning, I was supposed to be doing some online scoring, but ETS contacted me and said that due to reduced volume, I was not needed and would still receive half of my pay for the morning.  So, I stayed in bed reading a great book a little longer than usual.  I got up, straightened the kitchen, made my tea, and picked up my old faithful devotional, Whispers of Hope by Beth Moore.  After having set it down for a while to study Hosea and Breathe, I turned to the first page to start my third journey through this book.

Was I surprised that the message applied directly to my life? Not really.  I’m starting to expect it.  I no longer get stunned when I see a message like this: “What God is doing in your life right now may not make sense to you, but it’s not because He’s nonsensical.  It’s because He’s creative…In His wisdom God knew [His creation] was good because He knew what was coming next.  He knows what’s coming next for you…Give God room to be completely creative.”

Two years ago, I had no idea what was coming next.  It was pure obedience (plus exhaustion and a touch of desperation) to move here with no plan. Granted, He had made it quite obvious that we should take this leap of faith by providing a position that was custom-crafted for my husband in Michigan, which we both call home, but still, for a chronic planner and do-er, it was a totally new experience.

What God was doing in our lives did not make sense to me, but it wasn’t because He was nonsensical.  It was because He had a creative response to my self-destructive soldiering ways. He had information that was beyond my scope.  He knew what was coming next. And in my exhaustion, I was willing to allow him the room to be completely creative.

Guess how creative He is — He’s giving me the opportunity to teach high school students from across the country and around the world this summer at the University of Michigan. I’ll get to speak into their writing process and, hopefully, into their lives.  He’s allowing me to lead three sections of writing at Concordia in the fall — a three-minute walk from my kitchen to my classroom. And – gasp – He’s orchestrated an opportunity for my husband and me to chaperone a group of students to Israel for two weeks in January!

Could I have imagined all of that two short years ago? Not in a million years.  I was picturing myself shelving books at the public library. Not that that would’ve been a bad gig; perhaps that’ll be the next Next Chapter.  For now, I’m pretty content in this chapter and grateful to its Author.

Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord

“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,

plans to give you a hope and a future.”

 

 

 

Marginally Speaking

Sometimes when God nudges us to make a change, we make that change and then slowly over time notice the benefits.  Other times, God gives us an immediate indicator that we are heading in the right direction.  That happened for me this week.

If you read my recent post, Margin, you know that I decided, while reading Priscilla Shirer’s Breathe: making room for sabbath, to turn off my phone from 8pm to 8am every day. I made that decision just two days ago while sitting right here on this futon doing my Bible study. I blogged about it then went through my day.  I got home Tuesday night, played all my turns on Words With Friends, checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, then turned off my phone a bit before 8.

I wasn’t quite ready to go to bed, so I sat next to my husband on the couch, crocheting and watching “Bizarre Foods” (I only recommend watching this show if you would like to curb your after dinner eating — yuck!).  We watched and laughed at its ridiculousness.  Then, I crawled into bed and, as usual, settled in to read.

Typically after an evening of watching TV and constantly checking my phone, I can read for thirty to sixty minutes before falling asleep.  Not Tuesday.  Nope.  I got into my comfortable position, opened my book and made it through two or three pages before I had to surrender to sleep.  I slept hard.

Then, I woke up around 7:15am.  Usually, the first thirty to sixty minutes of my day are spent in bed checking email, messages, Facebook, etc.  But it was 7:15, and I had made a commitment to keep the phone off until 8am, so I crawled out of bed, showered, made my breakfast beverages, and dressed for a day of Bible study, teaching and tutoring.  Around 8,  I checked messages, emails, etc. I noticed that I had missed a call, so I messaged the friend who had rang me, talked to my husband for a few minutes before he left for work, then settled in to prepare for Bible study.

The phone rang.  The same friend called to explain why she had called — to talk through the fact that her day was not going the way that she had planned.   She’d had an interruption that was causing her to spend an extra two hours on the road to retrieve an item that had been left on our campus.  I commiserated with her then hung up to go back to my Bible study about margins.

I started reading then thought to myself, “You’re dressed.”  Yes, that’s right, I was dressed and ready to leave for Bible study and I didn’t have to leave for another 30 or 40 minutes. I turned back to my reading.

“You know, you could  get that item and meet your friend half way.” That one wasn’t me.

How do I know?  Because I argued back, “but I’m supposed to be at Bible study in half in hour.”  I went back to my reading.

“What would happen if you were late?”

“Well, I’m always late.” Yes, I picked up my phone, made arrangements, and started driving.

So, here’s my analysis of what happened.  If I had not decided to add in a margin to my life — some white space — by turning off my phone from 8p to 8a, I might have still been lying in bed when the friend called.  I would not have been dressed. I would have been reading Facebook posts and playing WWF.  I wouldn’t have had the space in my day to drive twenty minutes to help her out.  But, I did make that decision.  I did put the margin in my life.

And the very next morning after making that decision, God provided a tangible reward — an opportunity to use that same time, the time I’d been filling up, to help a friend.

You might think that my friend is the only one who benefitted. Not true.  The whole time I was driving I was thinking to myself, “Really?  You’re gonna respond to my decision that quickly? You want to affirm this decision that strongly?”  I was flabbergasted. I was stunned to notice God working in my life in such a way.

And here’s the nugget, guys.  I noticed because I wasn’t face-down into my phone. Yes, this is hugely convicting and embarrassing.  I have spent far too much time in my phone.  I’ve known this.  I just didn’t want to make a change.

And, I’ve got to be real honest here and say that it’s been just as hard as I thought it would be.  After 8pm last night, I kept mentally reaching for my phone to check for messages, see if everyone was ok, or if I’d missed anything.  I had to continue to remind myself that I had already turned it off for the night and that everyone would be ok without me for twelve hours.

The hardest part, however, wasn’t the lack of checking in, it was the awareness of all the thoughts I have routinely shoved down by occupying myself with my phone.  With my phone turned off, lots of ugliness creeps to the surface — regrets and questions about how I have parented/continue to parent, worries about finances, personal insecurities, and all sorts of stuff I have chosen not to think about.  With my phone down, I can not ignore these nagging concerns.  I am forced to look them in the face.  It’s not pleasant, guys, to look at all that stuff.  It makes me feel yucky.  I don’t like feeling yucky.

Last night after I put my book down, I closed my eyes because I thought I was ready for sleep. I was tired, but as I lie there trying to sleep, the ugliness started playing out on my mind screen.  “Ugh,” I thought, “why!?!?!?”  I felt overwhelmed.  In desperation I said to God, “Is this real?  Is my memory real? Please replace these images with what is true!”

Did you see that?  I didn’t shove the images down.  I held them up to God and asked for His reality check.  Why was I able to do that? Because I’ve put a margin into my life.  I’ve left some white space, expecting that He will step in and fill it.  I am acknowledging that the story I am writing is rough and needs the hand of the Master.  I need Him to speak into my life — to offer encouragement, correction, and guidance.  I haven’t been leaving room for that.  I’ve been writing all the way to the edge of the paper.

I’m a mere two days in, guys, but this change is so important that God is already dramatically stepping in.  It’s like He’s been standing by waiting for the opportunity.

 

I Samuel 3:10

“Speak for your servant is listening.”

 

 

Margin

I’m still behind on my new Bible study, Breathe: making room for sabbath by Priscilla Shirer, but I’m not feeling the need to rush.  I’m trying to drink in the ideas and let them tumble around inside my head for a little while.

What I’m tossing around today is the idea of boundaries. Priscilla Shirer uses the terms ‘margin’ and ‘boundary’ almost interchangeably.  The idea is to leave space in our lives — to not plan ourselves out to the edges.  When I think of the term ‘margin’ , as a writer, I think of the edge of the page.  My students are required to double-space their papers and to leave a one-inch margin around their text.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it makes the page look nice.  But more importantly is the fact that they are leaving room for me. They are leaving space on the page for me to engage with their ideas, to comment, “nice job!” or “I see what you mean!”  They are leaving a place for me to give guidance, “I am wondering if you could clarify this a bit for me” or “Say this more concisely.”  They are planning for the actuality that I will be joining them on this page.

So why don’t I apply this rule to my life?  Why, so often, do I plan my life right out to the edge of the paper, single-spaced, in 10 pt. font!  I’m not leaving room for anyone — not the people I pass throughout my day, not my kids, not my husband, not my own thoughts, not God.  Nope. I’m filling it up, often well ahead of time.  And I’m sitting here wondering if I do it so that I won’t have time for others, myself, or — gasp — God.

Let me pause for a minute and say that I have more freedom for boundaries in my life right now than I have had in a very long time.  I am only working part-time and much of that is scheduled by me.  We live in a very small home, which, except for the interior, is maintained by someone else.  The only other beings who live with me are my husband and my dog — both of whom are extremely low maintenance.  And still, still, I plan myself out to the edges of the page.  And, when I don’t have anything planned, I fill my time with activity — crocheting, television, Words With Friends, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  I don’t often let my mind be still.  And I’m starting to think I am doing this on purpose.

Why? Because when my mind is still, it wanders to things I don’t like it to think about — mistakes from the past, worries about the people I love, things I wish I could change. So, rather than looking those thoughts square in the face, I occupy myself, or at least my mind.  It’s a way of avoiding reality, I suppose.  But, you know, I think I am also avoiding something else.

By eliminating the margins in my life, I am eliminating the spaces where anyone else can enter in.  I’m making myself so busy that I have little time to chat with a friend, to phone my sister, or to pray. And by not leaving much room for these others to engage with my life, I am limiting their ability to encourage me and to guide me.

The first chapter in this Bible study challenged me to identify specific areas that I let have too much control over my time. I identified two — working and social media. Let me explain.

The nature of my work right now is that I teach one class at the college where we live — three days a week for fifty minutes.  That is very easy and do-able.  Yes, it is an English class, yes I have papers to grade, but it is very manageable.  However, in addition to that I am a private tutor/proofreader.  I have an online profile through which potential students can contact me at any hour day or night.  Sometimes I get a message at 9pm asking if I could proofread a 3-page document before midnight.  I also get requests all day long for in-person tutoring.  I can make my schedule as busy as I want it to be. I don’t always do a great job of maintaining a healthy boundary.

Social media is a great modern tool.  It allows us to connect with people around the world.  We can share photos, engage in political dialogue,  or promote causes we care about.  However…..we can also use it to fill in the white spaces in our lives.  If I’ve got five minutes to wait in a line, instead of noticing my surroundings, I often check email, text a friend, or post on Facebook.  If I’m in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, I play Words With Friends or read my Twitter feed.  If I’m sitting next to my husband on the couch at night, I usually have my phone in my hand — checking messages, playing games, reading posts.  I’m not allowing a margin that invites others to engage with me.

I’ve known this for a while.  And, I’m a little hesitant to continue this paragraph because I know I am about to publicly commit to change. And change, my friends, is not always easy…especially when it relates to those behaviors that offer us some kind of protection from ourselves or the world around us.  I’m thinking that one change I can choose to make that will allow me a little more white space, a little more opportunity to engage with others, including my own thoughts and God, would be to put my phone down. Every night. From 8pm to 8am. There it is. In print. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it?  I think I’m going to actually turn it off during those times. Any messages I receive between 8p and 8a can wait. Right?

Are you like me?  Does a decision like this raise a little anxiety?  What if I get bored? What if someone needs me?   What if I miss something?  Yeah, the fact that I’m freaking out a little bit tells me that this decision is long overdue.   I’m feeling very resolute at 2:35 pm, but I have a feeling that I might feel a little uncomfortable around 8:15.  Nevertheless, I believe this is one small step God is calling me to in my quest for Sabbath.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Hebrews 12: 1b

Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.

Danger! Danger! Danger!

One dichotomy of thinking that I have clung to in various ways for most of my life is a bit embarrassing to admit:

If I am thin, I am valuable; if I am fat, I am detestable.

This belief led to a certain degree of self-loathing in my adolescent and young adult years and then propelled me into the disordered thinking and distorted body image that supported an eating disorder and remnants of one for much longer than I would care to admit.

‘Thin’ as defined by me has meant a variety of things. Its worst definition was a denial of self — a refusal to care for my needs in favor of controlling my body to attain and maintain a particular size.  Over the years, the definition morphed into something more socially acceptable — a particular dress size, for instance, that could be maintained through regular exercise, an aversion to excess, and a more private critical eye that was still always trying to find a way to weigh just a little bit less.

‘Fat’ as defined by me has meant anything over a particular number on a scale, laziness, apathy, and a refusal to take charge of one’s life.  I had been ‘fat’ in my younger years.  I didn’t like myself then, and I wasn’t going back.  I had control over my body.  Fat people were simply ‘less than’ me.

See why I am embarrassed?  I had put myself into a category, ‘thin people’, and, in so doing, had positioned myself in opposition to those outside of that category.  Now, in my defense, this was not conscious.  I would have never admitted this out loud.  I pride myself in treating people fairly, not judging a book by its cover, but looking on the inside to find value and worth.

But, I’m admitting here that I have been a hypocrite. And, as with almost every other judgment I have made in my life, my judgment of ‘non-thin’ people has had more to do with what is inside of me than what is inside of them.

I know this because in the last three and a half years that I have been dealing with health issues, I have been slowly putting on weight.  It’s now up to twenty pounds.  My clothing size has changed.  The number on the scale has exceeded my ‘safe number’.  I don’t like how I look.  I don’t like how I feel.

I’ve been trying to accept it.  I have bought some new clothes.  I have done a lot of self-talk.  I have continued to exercise.  I have continued to watch what I eat.  I keep telling myself, “this is not a failure; it is a disease.” Or, “you don’t have control over this, you will have to adapt.”

So last week when I went to see my doctor, I said, “My weight keeps climbing.  It edged up again this time, didn’t it?”  I think inside I was hoping she would say, “you don’t have control over this, you will have to adapt, it’s part of the disease.” But do you know what she said?  She said, “I want you to keep track of everything you eat for a while, so that I can see what is causing this.”

Gasp. You mean it’s something I am doing? I might be able to control this?

Danger! Danger! Danger!  All the alerts are going off in my head.  Keeping track of what I eat was a gateway to anorexia over thirty years ago.  Each day I tried to eat less and write down less. If I write down what I eat now, I will fall back into this disorder.  I can’t do that!  I have to let myself eat whatever I want.

Did you hear the dichotomy? Either I eat whatever I want, or I will have an eating disorder. It’s simply not true, but this is challenging territory.

Can I be attentive to what I eat without being restrictive? Can I assess what I am eating without the pressure to trim down? Can I trim down without dieting? Am I comfortable allowing my doctor to see everything I eat (or don’t eat)?  Am I willing to let her speak into this?

Before I could go too far down the rabbit hole, I blurted out in her office, “I used to be anorexic….” Phew! I got it out.  “Well,” she said, “we don’t want to get anywhere close to that, but we do want to make sure that what you are eating has a healthy ratio of fat to protein to carbohydrate.”

I didn’t initially want to follow her directions.  And then, I wanted too badly to follow her directions.  I started thinking, “well, I could lose those twenty pounds and get back into all of my old clothes….” That’s all it takes for me, really.  Just a quick thought and I am off and restricting.  Quietly.  In private.  Hiding my plans from others who might want to stand in my way.

For the first three days I recorded what I ate quietly on my phone app without telling anyone.  And, of course, I limited what I was eating so as to ‘eat less’ than the prescribed number on the app. Sigh.

Then, I told my husband about the app.  Now I am telling you.  I am not going to believe the dichotomy any longer.  I have value and purpose regardless of a number on a scale or a dress size.  My weight does not define me.  I can watch what I eat without being restrictive.

I can evolve past this dichotomous thinking.  God has so much more for me.

Romans 12:2

 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

still learning, re-visit

after writing about what some of my students are learning on Monday, I re-discovered this post, first written almost three years ago, about the lessons I have learned from my children and my students. re-examined on February 28, 2019

Parenting and teaching have changed me. At one time I was quick to pass judgment on apparent ‘misbehavior’, I often fell prey to either/or reasoning, and I saw most arguments as very black and white. However, through more than two decades of parenting and almost that many years of interacting with students, my firm — almost rigid — beliefs about almost everything have been challenged and re-shaped.

One of the lessons that my kids and students taught me is that there is always more to a situation than first meets the eyes. Let’s say a student walks into my class late, unprepared, and seemingly unengaged. It would be easy to assume that this student is apathetic about my class specifically, and perhaps education in general. However, a closer look might reveal that the student was doing everything he could to get to my class on time, but his parents had their own timetable — they made him take care of a younger sibling all night, they got home from work late in the morning, and then made my student wait while they showered before they brought him to school. My student wanted to complete the homework, but his sibling was demanding. He wanted to be on time, but he had no alternate way to get to class.

Or, let’s say one of my children is snarky, disrespectful, and seemingly bent on opposing every direction I give. I might assume that my role is to demand respect, give firmer demands, and heap on consequences, but a closer look, and some long hours of listening, may uncover some deep pain that the child is afraid, even ashamed, to share with me. Acting out is not the problem; it’s a symptom.

Another lesson I’ve learned from my kids and my students is that there is always a third option. “Mrs. Rathje, should I study education or medicine?”  “Mom, should I run track or play soccer?” “Would it be better if I took this job or if I didn’t work at all?” My answer — “Is there a third option?”  Why not consider a career as a nurse educator? Is there any other sport or activity that seems interesting to you? Is there a different job you could consider? more schooling? service learning?

Too often I have found myself trapped in either/or thinking:

  • Do I want to be a vegetarian or eat meat?
  • Am I a night person or a morning person?
  • Do I like contemporary or traditional worship?
  • Am I conservative or liberal?
  • Should I teach or write?
  • Am I a Spartan or a Wolverine.

Don’t be ridiculous, that last one was just to see if you were still paying attention.

In my earlier life, I found it safest to ‘choose a side’. I was forming my identity, after all. I wanted to find my place. It felt too risky to remain fluid. I wanted the security of saying that I was Lutheran or Republican. I wanted a box to check. I was anti-Disney, pro-Life, for the environment, and against dying my hair.

Here’s the thing: putting myself in those boxes positioned me against those who put themselves in other boxes. If I liked only wheat bread, I might judge someone who only bought white bread. If I only shopped at Kroger, I might look down on someone who only shopped at Wal-Mart. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to listen to why they preferred white bread or Wal-Mart. I knew I was right. No discussion was needed.

My attitude limited me. I unwittingly cut myself off from all kinds of people and experiences.  

Enter my children. And my students. Early on they were willing to listen to whatever I had to say. They were pliable. They wanted to please me. But over time, as they developed minds of their own, they began to question my positions. They began to challenge my opinions.

How dare they? I did not like this at all!! After all, I had been being right for so long. If I allowed myself to think differently, I was admitting that I had been — gasp — wrong!

But not really. That was some more either/or thinking. Here is what I have come to believe: once upon a time I held certain opinions based on what I knew at the time. Over the years, I have had many experiences that have caused me to re-think those positions. Based on what I know now, some of my opinions have changed. That, my friends is called human growth and development.

And here is the most important thing that I have learned. Life is complex. We can hold conflicting truths. I can, for instance, like the story line of The Lion King and still hate the over- commercialization of Disney and its portrayal of female characters. These opinions can co-exist. I can understand the health benefits of whole grains and still appreciate a nice loaf of French white bread. I can appreciate Wal-Mart’s low prices and still object to the business practices of the Waltons. I can eat both meat and vegetables, just vegetables, or choose a third option — vegetarianism on the weekdays and carnivorism on the weekends.

The amazing human mind is capable of far more complexity than we give it credit for. We limit its capacity to grow when we compartmentalize ideology into false dichotomies.

You might think I feel afraid now that I’ve moved outside of my previously confining boxes. Not at all. I find more room to breathe out here.

I’m telling you — a mother can learn a lot from her kids, and a teacher often learns from her students.

It is not only the old who are wise,
    not only the aged who understand what is right.

Job 32:9

Speaking of Politics….

How about a new topic?  How about politics?  I know, it’s quite a shift from chronic illness, but with primaries scheduled across the nation and all the news stations covering debates and polls, it’s kind of hard to avoid the topic.

We shouldn’t avoid it, yet we often do.  For years I dodged the subject– I think because I didn’t want to disagree with anyone.  Also, I didn’t want people to judge my views.  And, to be quite honest, I didn’t know a lot about the issues. I was just ‘picking a side’ to pick a side.

Over the years I have tried to become more informed.  I won’t say that I have achieved this goal, but I have learned a lot and changed quite a few of my early-held opinions. And what were those naive opinions?

Well, for one, I thought that all Christians had to be Republican.  I was shocked to learn  when I first met my husband that his parents, devoted Christians, were very actively involved in the Democratic Party.  For a long time I did not understand that, nor did I try.  I had decided that Christians were Republicans. Period.

But that’s way too simple isn’t it?  Certainly there are Christians on both sides of the aisle — and there should be!  In order for our system of checks and balances to work, we need diversity in the ranks!  We need people of prayer within all political circles! If all Christians join one party, we set up an us vs. them scenario which makes it very difficult to find common ground.

Another early held belief was that I was right and I had to force my ‘rightness’ onto everyone else.  Do you know what I discovered? I discovered that when I walked around declaring my ‘rightness’, nobody wanted to listen to what I had to say.  They didn’t want to enter into dialogue with me.  Do you know why?  Because I was rigidly opposed to hearing what the other team had to say.  So, they took their ball and went home.

I began to experiment.  What would happen if I, instead of trying to coerce others to agree with me, asked questions that would help me understand their point of view.  You won’t believe this, but listening to the reasoning of others has not only helped me see the complexity of a variety of issues, it has also sharpened and molded my own opinions.

I also used to believe that you had to declare your allegiance to one party or another, and that you had to vote accordingly.  So, for instance, if I was a Republican and the best candidate the Republicans could put forth was Kermit the Frog, I would be obligated to vote for him. Well, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?  Why would I vote for a Muppet?

I mean, deciding to vote according to party allegiance is simple, right?  You trust the ideals of the party to guide the selection of a candidate.  You agree with the ideals, so you vote for the chosen candidate.  You don’t really have to take the time to research the individual issues, to study the complexity of the election, or to enter into complicated conversations with people.

Simple is not usually smart, though. I mean, I haven’t found a party that matches my ideals.  I haven’t found a candidate anywhere that loves the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind, and loves his neighbor as himself.  I haven’t found any human who is unfailingly trustworthy.  I haven’t found any politically-driven group of individuals that consistently acts in the best interests of its constituents.  So why would I align myself with one?

You may be wondering what will I do when it comes time to vote next month in my primary?  How about the actual election?  Those are tough questions.  They are questions that have caused me to read a lot and listen a lot.  They also prompt me to pray — not that my candidate would win, but that God would place into power the person who will serve His purposes.  I mean, if I’ve learned anything in these past fifty years, it is that I don’t know what God knows.  I don’t know who the best candidate is, what our country will face in the next four years, or where our country is headed.  But He does.

So instead of running my mouth and telling people what they should do and who they should vote for, I am going to go to my knees and pray that His will would be done and that I wouldn’t stand in the way.  And, of course, I’m going to vote.

 

Romans 13:1

13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

syllabus shock

A new semester started today at Concordia University.  Students are roaming the campus with the stunned look of disbelief on their faces.  I kept my class short — about twenty-five minutes.  I introduced myself, handed out my syllabus, got an introductory feel for who is in my class, then excused them to go sort out their new realities.  Some of those students said they had had four classes today!  Four classes equals four syllabi and innumerable deadlines and assignments to consider.

The first day often serves as a warning — beware! I am going to expect a lot of you!  In fact, I informed my students that we will have our first quiz and our first in-class writing response on Wednesday.  We aren’t wasting any time.  We are jumping in with both feet.  By this time next week they will have already read Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Kate Chopin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne!  They will have already got in the habit of identifying author, time period, genre, and literary devices, and they will be taking some stabs at author’s intent and strategy.

Or they won’t have gotten in the habit…in that case, they might already be overwhelmed by this time next week. In fact, many of them were overwhelmed already today.  They don’t know how they are going to pay for their books.  They are on academic probation because they didn’t get in the swing of things last semester, and they are worried that this is the first day of a repeat performance.

And those are just the school-related worries.  When I stood in front of twenty-eight students today, I am sure I did not fully grasp the combined weight of concern that they dragged in with them — family issues, friendship conflicts, relationship woes, health concerns, and any number of internal conflicts.  And here I am, ever the jokester, making light of all the additional responsibility I am heaping on top of them.

Earlier today, way before my class, I attended the first chapel service of the semester.  As per usual I don’t remember all of what was said, but I do remember an admonition that Pastor Ryan Peterson gave to the students.  He said, “I want to challenge you to attend chapel everyday…to engage with this community…to connect with the Word of God…because there will never be a better use of your time than that.”

I am praying right now that the students heard that message, not because it’s a good thing to do to go to church.  Not because anyone will be taking attendance.  Not because someone is going to judge them if they don’t go to chapel.  No.  I am praying that they will hear his words of love — the invitation to enjoy the privilege of engaging with community and to feel the strength that comes from the Word of God.

Why? Because it will keep things in perspective.  The overwhelming tide of assignments, finances, and responsibilities can make us think that we are drowning.  When we believe we are drowning, we flail about, we yell for help, we try to swim for the shore, and we exhaust ourselves with all that trying.  But the Truth is that we are not indeed drowning.  Yes, it can get a bit stormy and bleak.  In fact it can get downright scary.  And, if you’re going it alone, it’s really easy to forget that you are sitting in the palm of His hand.

Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has happily given you His Kingdom. 

Luke 12: 32