A Running Commentary

Favorite running moment this month: meeting this huge Spanish-speaking cycling group on the outskirts of Nappanee. Leading the group of 50+ cyclists was a pick-up truck carrying a huge image of a saint and a giant vat of red flowers. (?) I couldn’t cross the country road where they were passing, so I turned left and started running against them yelling “Buenos dias!” like a hacienda was on fire. One cyclist gave me a high five, and I heard one man say, “Sabe que no es un señor.” (“She knows she’s not a man.”) Hahaha! #runningskirtsforever

Summer is winding down! From hiking the Rocky Mountains, to relaxing with my family, to enjoying a quiet month at home (my roommates were gone for the month of July, so it was definitely quiet around here), I definitely feel refreshed.

Even though I’ve been taking time to rest, I’ve been working on a few goals. This month my goal is: perfecting my long run.

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Currently I’m working toward a long distance running goal that’s been a dream of mine. To be honest, I haven’t been *exactly* diligent in my training due to my relaxed summer schedule, but now I’ve got my regimen down, I’m halfway through my training schedule, and I’m currently working on perfecting my long-run ritual. It’s a good idea to follow a ritual when planning long-distance runs. That way there are no surprises on race day, and you are confident that your fuel and gear are appropriate.

Okay, so now I am going to go ahead and geek out about running.

In case you were wondering, right now I’m working out about four times a week. Two workouts are short runs (4-5 miles), one workout is circuit training, and one workout is biking. On the weekend I complete my long run distance (currently it’s 14 miles). This distance will increase by one mile every week (up to 20 miles). One of the terrifying things about running your first marathon is that you never actually run 26 miles until race day. Many training schedules only take you up to 20 miles before you decrease mileage for two weeks in what is known as a “taper” period. Decreasing activity and resting during that period, followed by drinking a lot of water and eating a lot of carbs means that your body will be more than ready to conquer the full marathon distance on race day.

Maybe some of you are wondering how it is possible to run 26 miles without stopping. Well, it’s not. Most marathoners take short walk breaks every now and then. We newbies typically take short walk breaks every few miles, especially when we come to water stations.

During my weekend long runs, I’ve been working at perfecting my hydration. It’s been really tricky with the heat we’ve been having. I finally decided to buy a fanny pack hydration belt.

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(One of my friends said it should be called a chastity belt. Lol.) I really like this design by Nathan which can hold several different kinds of liquid. It’s comfortable, holds A TON of liquid, and has great little pockets for storing gels and my keys. Now I can easily take a sip every now and then when I’m feeling thirsty. Or at the end of every song. Whichever comes first.

I’ve also been trying out a new source of fuel. (“Fuel” is runnerspeak for EATING WHILE RUNNING, which is totally a thing. Runners simply burn too many calories not to refuel mid-race. So we eat and jog at the same time. And no, it’s not very glamorous.) Last year for my half marathon, I used protein gels, which weren’t so much for energy, but rather for muscle-building. This year, I’m focusing on using fuel as energy. I’m also exchanging gels for gummies. I find that energy gummies are so much easier to consume, and they feel better in your stomach rather than that full yogurt-y feeling after squishing down a whole gel pack.

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Besides hydration and fuel, I’m learning about my mind.
NERVES. All the nerves! These last few long runs have been nightmares! I wake up in the morning feeling queasy, sick to my stomach, and a nervous wreck! Two weeks ago, it was so bad that I put off my run for two hours, laid on my couch, called my mom, and wailed to her that “I can’t do it! I can’t run that far! I feel SO SICK!” To which my mom sort of giggled and said, “Well, I mean, isn’t kind of mind over matter? Just go out there and run it! You’ll be fine.” So I did. And I was.
My. Mom. Basically the best running coach ever.

Anyway, it’s a really weird feeling to know that your body is strong enough to do something that your mind is not. I’m finding that one thing I canNOT do is think about the run, or dwell on race logistics the night before. Eating pizza and thinking about something else is about the best thing.

Running is such a crazy mix of emotions. Strange feelings of anguish, uncertainty, and euphoria can all characterize the same run. The crazy run that I thought I couldn’t do? I had this nervous stomachache for like 3 miles, but mile 8 was totally insane, and these crazy endorphins had me smiling ear to ear, and I felt like I wanted to jump into the swimming pool of happiness that is the world. And these are the things that keep you running. Rustling corn. Warm sun. Rolling fields. A town’s rhythm.

Yes! I’m SO EXCITED for October!

Some Mediocre Bulletin Boards That Took Way Too Long to Make

You know it’s that Back-To-School time of year when your favorite teacher stores offer extended hours (presumably so you can hunt down perfect bulletin board cut-outs at any odd hour of the day). Yep. We teachers are back in the classrooms, planning, strategizing, and decorating.

One of the funner (and yes, “funner” IS a word) things I get to do is design decorative bulletin boards for my classroom for the year. Let me just say that this is something that I take SERIOUSLY. (It’s okay, you can laugh.) I’ve been raiding Pinterest and Google for weeks, checking out teacher stores, and then revising my ideas.

If you’re not a teacher, it might be hard to understand how important bulletin boards are. While these decorations may seem peripheral, they can actually boost classroom morale. This can be done by using inspiring quotes, celebrating the changing seasons, or creating interactive bulletin boards that highlight student work. To a teacher, bulletin boards can also be prime real estate for supplementary learning. We teachers call these “educational” bulletin boards which reinforce concepts from a unit your class is studying.

The trick for great bulletin boards is creating designs (1) that don’t take hours to make or install, (2) that are inspirational or educational, (3) and that are visually pleasing.

Number three, there, is kind of tricky because the art of the bulletin board is its own genre, artistically, with its own conventions. For example, you have very specific spaces and proportions to work with (most bulletin boards are pre-cut squares or rectangles, 4’ x 4’ or 4’ x 8’, respectively). Also, while myriads of pre-designed background paper and pre-decorated borders exist, these supplies sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Frankly, “pre-designed” cramps my style; I like to think outside the box. For another thing, my classroom serves middle school and high school students, so I like to go with a more age-appropriate look; therefore, a lot of my bulletin boards don’t utilize the traditional scallop-y edged borders or elementary-looking animated die-cuts.

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These cheerful bugs are not exactly the look I am going for.

ANYWAY! Enough with bulletin board philosophy!

Here are some bulletin boards I made last year! I change my two class bulletin boards every* quarter.

1. Maps to Good Writing: an educational bulletin board that reinforces research writing concepts.
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2. I Lift My Eyes to the Mountains: an inspirational bulletin board using text from Psalm 121. I designed this board for use on dreary Indiana winter days.

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I borrowed the mountain design from Apartmenttherapy’s mountain mural design on Pinterest.

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3. Do Something Beautiful for God: a fun inspirational spring bulletin board using a Mother Theresa quote. (Can you tell I hate cutting out letters? #lazyprinting) I washed out the photographs using Microsoft Word. I pasted the pictures in Word then used the Washout color mode in Format Picture. The photographs suggest areas of Christian service.

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In context.

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4. Bulwer Lytton Contest: a silly bulletin board announcing my annual fall writing contest, seeking the worst possible first lines for novels. (Inspired by the exceptionally dramatic first line of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830s novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night,” which is forever ensconced in the memories of Peanuts’ lovers.) Students submit horrendous puns and wretched metaphors, submissions which we later tack up on the bulletin board. Last year’s winning first line from a resident 8th grader: “The rainbow was breathtaking. Like trying to breathe when somebody with really bad breath is standing an inch away from you and talking nonstop.”

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Happy Decorating, fellow teachers! May all the creative energies be yours!

*Except when I don’t.

My Bored Niece

Oh, look, it’s time to post again. This week I want to introduce you to my niece because, well, she is an important small person in my life (really, the ONLY small person in my life), and I like her a lot. I even got to spend a week with her this summer, an event I recorded in high definition cell phone photography.

But many times, in photographs, she looks, well, bored. At the very least, unimpressed. You know how kids are. You coo, jump, and sing, and:

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You play games and:

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Anyway, back to my niece: born in Nebraska, the prairies are her home. Unrelenting sun, rolling fields of grass-green corn, and a frolicking collie puppy make it sound like barrel-loads of fun, except that she is so completely chill about everything. (Or at least appears to be.)

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Not really smiling. More like, “I’m bored. Let’s go out and play. Almost done here.”

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Riding in the all-terrain stroller is NBD.

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“You want me to smile at breakfast at the coffee shop? I’d rather just stare curiously at you.”

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Photobombs outdoor brunch selfie. “Can we get this party started? Lil hungry here.”

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Even grocery shopping is pretty much “Meh.”

Now, Cassidy not completely unemotional. There are two hobbies that she greatly enjoys: (1) bathing and (2) pretending to drive cars.

Her absolute favorite thing in the world is bath time. When I got water AND soap in her eyes while washing her hair, I waited for screeching howls to ensue, but she just blinked at me, almost in annoyance, rather than discomfort, that I had interrupted her ceremonial splashing and endless jabbering. She soon recommenced her squawks of enjoyment.

And of course, driving.

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“Just taking a right here. Baby Gap is having a sale.” (No children were endangered in the taking of this photo.)

She smiles, she really does. But going from this

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to this

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takes no uncommon bouncing and balancing of the smart phone.

What shall we do with this shy little one? I think we’ll keep her.

Crypt Lake Trail: Thrill of the Rockies

When my friends and I planned our southern Alberta Rocky Mountain vacation, we were pretty laid-back about which activities to do, except for one: the Crypt Lake Trail. We knew we would be camping at Beaver Mines Lake Campground in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, and we were looking for an epic hike to conquer between kabob-roasting and kayaking. When we heard about the Crypt Lake Hike in Waterton Lakes National Park, we were sold.

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The Crypt Lake Trail was voted “Canada’s Best Hike” in 1982, and National Geographic rated the hike among the top twenty of the “World’s Best Hikes” in the “Thrilling Trails” category in 2014. Note it says world’s best, folks. World’s. This thrill was to be ours.

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What views! Credit: Julia Shank

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What sets the Crypt Lake Trail apart from other hikes is its beauty, its wildlife, and its exciting trail features (guaranteed to get your heart pumping).

B E A U T Y
The 10.8 mile Crypt Lake Trail, featuring a 2300 ft. elevation gain, is accessed by a 15 minute ferry ride across the beautiful Upper Waterton Lake (emerald and shining are two appropriate descriptors here). Some of the trail features include numerous waterfalls, noticeable scenery changes with gains in elevation, and intimate views of the Canadian Rockies.

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A light hail falling on Crypt Lake.
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Our ferry. Credit: Julia Shank
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…Waterfalls along the trail…
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Credit: Julia Shank

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We enjoyed the changes in scenery as we climbed higher into the Rockies. Credit: Julia Shank
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My friend Amy posing with a fun drifty-wood thing. Credit: Julia Shank
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Credit: Amy Gillett

W I L D L I F E
One of the thrilling features of the Crypt Lake Trail is that it is prime bear country. (Thrilling and a little terrifying to this Midwestern flatlander). We also began the hike with the knowledge that a cougar had attacked a teenage girl in Waterton Lakes National Park only just last year. This knowledge made us pretty aware of our surroundings. Not to mention the necessity of letting out a hearty “Hey-o! HEY-o!” everyone now and again, just to let the bears know we were in the neighborhood. (Sort of like ringing their doorbell. They don’t like to be spooked any more than we do.) Besides hollering, we weren’t exactly sure what we would do if we encountered a bear. A grizzled Canadian fisherman we had met the day before when we were kayaking gave us at least one tip: “Back away slowly, and don’t make eye contact.” Alas, we saw no bearkind, but this did not keep the bears from depositing their dung, twice, upon our trail. I mean, they could have pooped anywhere in the forest. But no, they had to do it on the trail. I took this kind of as a hint. “We are leaving this here so that you freak out.” –Bears, pooping. We also saw quite a variety of birds, and even a marmot. On our mid-June hike, mountain wildflowers were blooming, peeking out of their buds, as the last bits of snow melted in the warm summer sun.

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Credit: Julia Shank
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Credit: Amy Gillett
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The trail only opening a week before, we saw traces, yet, of melting snow. Credit: Amy Gillett

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O B S T A C L E S
Perhaps Crypt Lake Trail’s “thrilling” status is due to the various obstacles hikers encounter. Whether it’s crossing a running stream, climbing through a cave, or skirting a cliff while hanging on to a cable, there are many exciting moments. A grown adult man said, “Basically, I got to the point where I just focused on the mountain and did not look down.” A fear of heights is not recommended for this trail.

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Julia crossing a stream. Credit: Amy Gillett
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Approaching the mouth of the cave. Credit: Julia Shank
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Do not look down. Credit: Amy Gillett
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Credit: Julia Shank
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Credit: Amy Gillett
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Only a liiiiittle steep.
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Credit: Julia Shank
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A little windy here! Credit: Julia Shank

Another thrill of the trail is that there is a bit of a time factor. For most of June, only one ferry runs between Waterton and the Crypt Lake trail head, leaving promptly at 10:00 a.m. and returning at 5:30 p.m. My friends and I happened to miss a turn on our way from Beaver Mines to Waterton, leaving us only seven minutes to buy tickets and board the boat! Thankfully, it was early enough in the season that there were still tickets available. When we arrived at the trail head, we re-packed our backpack and took potty breaks near the shore. This meant that our group was the last group to set out (around 10:30). While I enjoyed our solitude at the back of the pack of hikers, I was a little pensive about reaching the summit on time. The hike can take 2.5 to 3 hours one way, not counting hydration breaks and photo shoots, which, for my friends and me were quite numerous. (Our time was 3 hours, 11 minutes.) This left us about 30 minutes at Crypt Lake for lunch, bathroom breaks, and exploring. One gains a little extra time on the descent. Nevertheless, you really don’t want to miss the ferry back to Waterton, unless you’ve packed your down-filled parka, a flashlight, and a bedtime story book. Goldilocks and the Three Bears might be appropriate. The announcer on the ferry had announced as we were approaching the trail head, “We’ll be arriving soon, dropping you off, and picking up whoever didn’t make it back to the boat last night.” We took that to mean: be on time this evening. Anyway, the hiking time is totally doable, but it’s probably best to keep an eye on your watch.

T I P S
Here are some tips to make you fully prepared for the hike.
1. The Waterton Shoreline Cruise’s boatman’s speech is pretty informative. Listen up for history, interesting facts, and pertinent trail advice. He also might allay your fears regarding bears.

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Credit: Julia Shank

2. However, don’t be careless regarding bears. Take bear spray, a form of pepper spray designed for aggressive bears in the wild. The boatman and some other hikers downplayed the possibility of bear sightings, but my friends and I decided we couldn’t be too careful. And the majority of other hikers thought the same. We saw a total of five cans of bear spray among the ranks.
3. Toilet paper. It’s really okay. You can rough it behind that tree.
4. Take enough liquids. We took one water bottle plus one Gatorade per person, stuffing them into a single backpack along with bug spray, sunscreen, ridiculous amounts of trail food, a camera, and flip flops (in case we needed to ford a raging stream). Rushing on to the boat with five minutes to spare, the ferry man looked at our single backpack and asked where our other packs were. “We only have one pack,” we said. He shook his head, “How much water do you have? You should have 3 liters a piece. It’s a warm one out there today.” We ducked our heads and hopped onto the ferry. “Ch. ‘Warm.’” I laughed. “Maybe for Canadians!” Honestly, though, we did find ourselves conserving our water. It would have been best to take a few more bottles with us.
5. Take a watch so that you can keep track of time. I took my fancy runner’s GPS watch which was very useful for keeping track of time and distance.

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Resting hikers eating lunch by Crypt Lake. Credit: Julia Shank

I find that being fully prepared means that you will be better able to enjoy the delights of the trail.

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And this trail affords many: the delicious scent of alpine air, the curious existence of mountain wildflowers, the rushing roar of steep waterfalls, hair-raising moments using the cable on the cliff, warm sun and abrupt clouds, and miles of mountains and scraggy rocks and green trees. If you sometime find yourself in the southern Alberta, I guarantee you won’t regret taking this thrilling hike in the Canadian Rockies.

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Credit: Amy Gillett
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Credit: Julia Shank

In Which I Post Pretty Pictures From My Vacation in the Canadian Rockies

For an end-of-the-teaching-year gift, God wrapped up a package in wind-tousled bows and pine-scented paper, stamped it “Alberta,” and left it at the base of a beautiful mountain. Folks, vacation is good for the soul.

I recently returned from Canada where I spent time camping in the Rocky Mountains and celebrating with friends in the nearby Alberta prairies.

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My first hostess was my beautiful cousin Ginger, who moved to Alberta three years ago from warm southern Virginia. She and her husband graciously hosted me amid moving boxes while introducing me to many interesting Canadian things.

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Did I mention that they roast their own coffee? Ginger’s uncle brings back coffee beans from his trips abroad, and Edward roasts them to perfection. At this house, I drank some of the best coffee I’ve had in years.

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Their darling daughter Addison, who wears her hooded sweater backwards because We Are Two.

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Tried poutine, a wonderful Canadian delicacy: French fries and cheese curds, smothered in gravy. This stomachache is available for purchase at most Canadian restaurants. Yum!

My cousin was also able to get me a tour of a Hutterite colony. Hutterites, a unique religious sect living a communal lifestyle, are quite prevalent in southern Alberta.

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Dining hall: Men sit on the left, women sit on the right at meal times. 110 people live on this colony.

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Part of the *TEN ACRE* garden that the small Hutterite colony farms. The 18-year-old Hutterite tour guide told us, “We have about an acre of garlic, and my dad says that alone is a $45,000 crop.” #wow

For the next portion of my trip, I met up with some of my old Bible School chums for a week of camping and active adventures.

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The characters:
Amy: Canadian. Lover of God, Gage (her husband), cats, coffee, and coulees. Also probably one of the most passionate nurses I know.

Julia: from Virginia, married to Sheldon (who likes to golf). This girl can always make me laugh. She’s funny, friendly, outgoing, and always ready for an adventure. She’s usually singing, and things you might hear her talking about include her family, her church, volleyball, and health. (Did you know that coconut oil is really great on your skin?)

We spent the first two days camping in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Arriving on a Thursday, we had our pick of choice campsites amid the Canadian pines. Our campsite was a short walk from Beaver Mines Lake. Girl-camping aside, we did not resort to “glamping” or “glamorous camping,” as one might assume. We chopped our own wood and set up our tents and unloaded our own kayaks, thank you very much.

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Kayaing. (And practically posing for National Geographic. Is not this location incredible?)
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Photo credit: Amy Gillett

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Hiking to Crypt Lake, an exciting adventure deserving of its own post, which is forth-coming.

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A steep section of the Crypt Lake hike. Approaching the cave.
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Mountain wildflowers.
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Sitting by the lake at 11:00 p.m. Days are much longer in the North. Photo credit: Amy Gillett
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Chicken kabobs. And magazines.
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Brewing Tim Hortons coffee. Of course. It’s Canada! Photo credit: Amy Gillett
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The view from our campsite.
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These girls tho.
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Posing with wildlife!
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Stupid deer stuck out its tongue at me.

We returned from the Rockies to Lethbridge, a university town in southern Alberta, home to an amazing geographical feature called “coulees.” I describe coulees as inverted hills. The flat Alberta prairie stretches unendingly, then suddenly dips down in these upside-down hills. Some coulees have water flowing through them. They are rather beautiful, and Amy took us on several coulee walks.

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In Lethbridge, Amy also treated us to Spudnuts, donuts made from potato flour. I loved this adorable shop.

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Time at home…

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Getting pretty with Finn, Amy’s (thirsty) 16.8 pound rare white Burmese mountain cat.
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Making Honduran enchiladas with Julia for Amy’s family. Photo credit: Amy Gillett

I’ve never gone on a vacation where I’ve played so many sports. We went kayaking, hiking, walking, swimming, played tennis, and even played a round a golf!

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Hey, I never claimed to be Venus Williams.
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Magrath Golf Club. Amy worked it out so we could get in for free! Hee hee.
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Each golf cart is equipped with an iPad informing you of which hole you’re on, what is par, and any pertinent golfing tips. #Swanky
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Golf class in college really paid off. #not
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So much laughing every day.

The Sunday after camping I commented that all that hiking and mountain air made me feel so good… that I feel like I can truly take a deep breath for the first time in months.

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Last week was an extremely happy trip with life-long friends.

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My heart is full.

Everything You Wanted to Know About My Life: Family Summer Edition

It’s morning, and I’m peering out from messy hair and cotton pajamas, animatedly insisting some political point, getting crumbs on the newspaper, when I realize I’m having trouble expressing what I’m thinking. I scoot closer to the solid oak table, my Mom picks ups her coffee cup, and I try to explain again what it’s like to come home after moving out of state.

“It’s amazing to me how everything is the same here! The same fields, the same houses, the same people, the same problems. Life goes on, and it goes on without me.”

“And at the same time, I have this whole other life. Indiana.”

“Yet. At the same time, everything is different here! My friends have moved away. The children are grown. There are tons of new people. Even our house is different because my bedroom is empty. Everything is different.”

As disorienting as these things can be, coming home for the summer is deeply gratifying. I’m learning that returning home means I will be tired for about a week. It’s like my whole body relaxes because I can finally fully be myself again. I fall into the rhythm of being part of a family. I can yell and be yelled at. I can be hugged. I can be painfully honest. My family can be painfully honest with me. I understand them. They understand me. They get me.

Being part of a family again means noticing how my parents have aged. It means sitting quietly by Papa in a Sunday night service and having him quietly ask me afterward, “So what are you thinking?” It means reading the newspaper with Mom nearly every morning and discussing our favorite stories. It means staying up late reading and Papa interrupting to tell me all about the great new thing he learned from the book of Matthew. It’s my married sister popping in at every possible waking hour to be with her little sister. It means relishing animated news updates with the mother and the sister about absolutely all the new Plain City things. (Guess. Who. Is. Engaged. Did you know they moved the cell phone tower? …And, I mean, I wish I could tell you which old lady has a crush on Jack Hanna, the local zookeeper, but I was sworn to secrecy.) It’s my mom hinting that she wants her canning room cleaned. And finishing it in 2.5 hours with my sister. (Cringe: we found apple butter from 2005.)

Things I’ve done so far:
1) Sun-popped Corn Ice Cream and Black Current Frozen Yogurt by Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. It was the buttery-est popcorn ice cream I’ve ever had. It’s also the *only* popcorn-flavored ice cream I’ve ever had. But still.

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2) Bleh, gone car shopping to no avail…. Bleh!
3) had Sunday dinner with some of my favorite people from church. Tried not to cry when 200 people swelled in 4 part harmony to old familiar hymns…
4) behold, haveth sewn an stripe-ed shower curtain for the holy halls of far yon’ Nappanee bathroom, wherewith I shall be-deck mine hardy shower with said fair-colored tapestry, er, sheet.

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5) cut peonies, ma fleur préférée

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I apparently even liked cutting flowers in 1995.

6) went thrifting for my sister who ALWAYS complains that I find these really great bargains at thrift stores but that’s only because I have a lot of patience for picking through every single shirt on the rack in order to find one great one, you really have to be patient, and she basically just wanted me to do the searching for her, and I did, and we found her some really great stuff and it doesn’t hurt that I found a J Crew top and two Alfani skirts, but is anyone counting?

7) ran 3 miles JUST IN CASE I decide to run a marathon in the fall because I turned 26 on the 26th this year and why wouldn’t I run a 26 mile race this year, because, I mean like, seriously, HELLO?

So now that you are at the end of this post. Maybe you are thinking along the lines of one cousin commenter: “Nobody cares.”

Well. I’m on vacation. And this is what I posted.

And tomorrow we’re buying FORTY POUNDS OF SUGAR to make strawberry jam. So there’s that.

Diversity in the Classroom: the Mennonite Surprise for Liberal Educators

One of the things that has constantly amazed me about teaching at my tiny little Mennonite school is that there is so much diversity. You wouldn’t think so, would you? Not, at least, in a church school serving a conservative denomination that, for better or for worse, has historically stressed conformity.

DIVERSITY IS THE WORD
The word “diversity” is certainly a current catchphrase in today’s world, especially in the liberal public university. You hear about it everywhere from biology (natural diversity), to sociology (social diversity), to literature (various and diverse literary theories). In education courses, we study diversity as it relates to the kinds of students in the classroom. We study different kinds of learners, but we also talk about the various cultural differences that might pop up in the classroom which we might have to deal with. We are instructed to be understanding of that diversity.

MENNONITES: CULTURALLY DIVERSE?
When I moved to Indiana, I felt that in some ways, my days of figuring out diversity were over. After all, I was moving to a tiny town in a rural religious community. How diverse could it be? I figured pretty much everyone would be wearing John Deere t-shirts and camo, and totin’ rifles and warm apple pies. I assumed that I had this community all figured out. I mean, hey, I grew up Mennonite, how “culturally” different could it be?

I assumed I would have my classroom figured out because I reasoned that my students would have a similar background to me. And to a certain extent they do. For many of the students, we have a lot in common. Things like whoopie pies and homemade bread. A capella singing and church food committees. Funerals meals and wedding volleyball. We all know what these things are. But there are ways in which diversity pops up in unexpected ways. For example, our school serves over ten different area churches. Those churches differ in practice and expression of their Christianity. That means the children’s homes differ. Different families have different attitudes toward education. Different families have different practices relating to the use of social media, movies, and Netflix.

A visitor to our school would look out at all my students and see one mass of Mennonite kids. But to the keen eye, the diversity is invigorating. Contrary to what would have been my assumption, not all of my students have white European ancestry. We have students whose racial backgrounds span four different continents. So in history class, I can’t so easily gloss “our ancestors” as being the early Anabaptists in Europe. Also, we have diversity in family background. I think there’s an assumption that Mennonite families are these perfect little units with a Mom and a Dad, six kids, and grandparents next door. But I have found that not all of my students have picture-perfect-package, tied-with-a-bow, families. I see a child desperate for attention, attention she doesn’t get from her large family at home. I see students whose families have been touched with death or separation. I see students fiercely missing their older siblings who are growing up and moving away. I see students with parents from different cultural backgrounds. Backgrounds other than the cookie-cutter Mennonite background of Northern Indiana Amish ancestry. I see students whose families have been touched with pain due to church problems.

And while our private school employs a strict dress code (thankfully), you can even pick out diversity in the students’ personal style through their footwear. Vans or Toms? Converse or Air Jordans? Uggs or wedge booties? There is certainly diversity and difference of opinion.

STEREOTYPES: WHAT’S THE POINT?
So I ask myself, where did this cookie cutter come from? And since it doesn’t fit so many of my students, why don’t we just get rid of it?

Because life is easier if we don’t take diversity into account. It’s much simpler to talk about things “on the whole.” It’s easier to talk about “the majority.” It’s easier to make something “one-size-fits-all.”

But maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

DIVERSITY IN UNIFORMITY
It’s interesting to me that my school is more diverse than I (and maybe other outsiders) originally assumed, but that my school, as a whole, also adds to diversity in literary experiences. Let me explain. While my students’ home lives may be diverse (they have different backgrounds or family dynamics), they still represent, “on the whole” (to borrow that horrid phrase) a generally similar ethnic, or people group, background. The religious background is pretty unifying at our school. So while there is diversity, we do experience a unifying identity. (Students are taught to filter life’s questions through an Anabaptist, Biblical worldview. And many students experience the same in their home churches.)

Yet taking this further, I see this unifying Mennonite identity as adding to diversity in contemporary culture. It is intriguing to see my Mennonite students defy secular teenage stereotypes in the English classroom. I would like to explain how my Mennonite students add diversity where my secular university said there would be no diversity of opinion.

I once took an education course on juvenile literature. The class should have been renamed: Liberal Agenda for Teaching Trashy Young Adult Novels. My professor put together a reading list of “diverse” contemporary literature written for young adults. We read these books in order to get ideas for what to teach at the secondary level. (Later, I found out that nearly all twelve novels were on the banned books list. I should have figured that out. I THOUGHT they were trashy! But coming from my Mennonite background, I wasn’t exactly sure what you “English” people read when you are teenagers.) The point my professor was trying to make by having us read these books and discussing them in class was that there is some literary merit to banned books, and reading edgy novels like this in class can get students excited about literature. It gets them reading, and it gets them thinking. Sometimes contemporary novels can be paired with classics to make that interaction with a classic text more meaningful. (For example, pairing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian with The Scarlet Letter to update discussions about  subculture versus dominant culture.)

The point of the class was not always that classics are bad, but sometimes we need to work really hard to make connections for students. However, there was much classics bashing in that class, especially about some of the heavier religious classics. For example, I was told up and down: “Do not teach The Scarlet Letter. Students hate it. They do not relate to it. Are you teaching is simply because it’s on the curriculum? Get creative.” When I got to my school, I noticed The Scarlet Letter on the curriculum, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, here we go.”

Guess what?
My students loved it. One student gushed: “I loved that book! I would have read it on my own, but I got soooo much more out of it because we discussed it in class!” Every day the kids would come to class: “WHAT?! Dimmesdale is THE FATHER?!”
And the themes of legalism, communities’ response to sin (and sinners), the theme of guilt… All of these things my students highly identified with, and they could relate to these themes. We played conscience alley with the different characters. We played “What Would I Do?” games. We talked about the spiritual themes of the book. (We get to do this at our religious school.) So, thank you, Hawthorne. You wrote a classic, and it still speaks to people today, even teenagers.

I bring this up because I was told that teenagers HATE The Scarlet Letter. Ironically, an institution that preaches diversity got it wrong. They left a Christian perspective out. Interestingly, my teenagers’ one point of uniformity is their one point of diversity in the world. They deeply understand the idea of community versus the individual. They understand the idea of sin and guilt. They’ve seen legalism and hypocrisy played out in their own communities, especially in religious contexts. In some ways, the themes of the novel are very real to them. So I say that I love that my classroom is diverse. And even in its uniformity it is diverse, because they relate to literature they’re “not supposed” to relate to.

This year we read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I had a bit of the same reaction. Oh, dear. Here we go again. Another deep religious classic. But again, my students were so into it. It was the first day, and we had an invigorating discussion about justification by faith alone versus the viewpoint of salvation being faith and works. WOULD YOU EVEN GET THAT READING TWILIGHT. What excited me most about the conversation is that the conversation wasn’t entirely between me and the students. The students were talking amongst themselves, exchanging ideas. So I went home that day smiling. Once again. My students are proving the majority wrong. There are teenagers who want to talk about spiritual things. They don’t see Bunyan and Hawthorne as boring dead guys. (Well, I mean, let’s be honest. Of course they do. But they are willing to discuss the themes of their work. And sometimes volatile discussions ensue. I feel like those are the days that I WIN as an English teacher. Or at least literature wins.)

My take-away lesson is: never assume there is a cookie-cutter shape. Always be on the lookout for subtle differences. If there is a majority, find how that majority is different from other majorities. Diversity is a thing.

My teens get The Scarlet Letter. Not a ton of English teachers can say that.

Maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.