Why I’m Grateful for the Pandemic

August 2020

A few minutes on the beach when we tried to catch a launch on the coast

My life goes ninety miles an hour most days and has for as long as I can remember. I have tried to slow down so many times, but things just continuously come at me that it feels impossible. I found myself searching for ways to simplify and slow down.  Minimalism has crept into my life and I have cut down on how much stuff we have, which helped a lot with time spent working in the house.  But, as a teacher, there is always work to be done and the brain doesn’t stop working just because the school building is closed. I prayed for life to slow down. And then the Pandemic hit.

I’m not saying it’s completely my fault or anything, but…over the years, I’ve heard it said about both prayers and wishes to be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.  As a former middle school Reading and ELA teacher, The Monkey’s Paw immediately comes to mind and reinforces this idea.  Yet I still prayed for this.  So, when things started shutting down around town and around the world, I found myself grateful for it and sought out to make changes to our lives that could continue even after the world returned to normal.

Family meals This is something we have always tried to make a priority, even after my mom moved in.  With eating out not an option for us during the shutdown, we capitalized on trying new recipes, planning more efficiently to cut down on grocery trips and orders, and being more consistent.  It really paid off for us.  We enjoyed themed nights and tried our hand at making things we’d normally have gone out for or just ordered.  Dare I say, we even like our version of many dishes better than what we get dining out and for a fraction of the price!

When we desperately missed the Bavarian pretzels and beer cheese of Disney, we got creative! Not a huge success, but a lot of fun and we will try it again!

Routines This one is a challenge for everyone, so I know we are not alone.  We live in a multi-generational household with morning people that go to bed early, late people that are up into the wee hours, light sleepers, and loud voices.  There has been some tension for us, to say the least.  But we have found that we get our rhythm by being aware of each other’s routines, which comes from conversations during family mealtime, and we have established a sort of quiet hours for each other.  We also maintained getting up at the same time each day, having breakfast, going for walks, and doing our chores on specific days or at certain times to keep that consistency.  All day pajama sessions or binge-watching Netflix or YouTube never once became our life, although there were a couple of days when we stumbled across a great series or channel…

Family spaces – indoor and outdoor We are blessed that everyone has their own rooms as well as having both a family and living room and offices for those that work from home. The joys of owning an older home with oddball rooms in various places came in handy! But we had a few spaces that we had never really defined since moving in two years ago. They were just filled with leftover furniture or temporary items.  We capitalized on our savings from gas, dining out and entertainment and invested it in our home.  We created a comfortable family room for movies and game nights, and we got real patio furniture that gave morning tea or evening dessert & drinks a place to be enjoyed.  We also took the time to declutter things by the end that we realized we weren’t using despite being home more, which had been our excuse for not parting with them in prior purges.  Another dream project of having a garden and backyard chickens finally came into fruition and we have thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment and delicious eggs from our lady yardbirds, although our greenthumb still needs work since we didn’t get much of a harvest.  Now that we can go out and enjoy more things, we still find ourselves staying home more often, planning nights in the family room or on the porch and enjoying our spaces, even when we have other options.

some of our eggs from one day–we usually get 2-4 from our 8 chickens, which isn’t too bad in this heat and some are not daily layers.

Personal Care Habit This one has been an ebb and flow thing in our home.  When the pandemic and shutdown first became a part of life, the weather was nice here in Central Florida, so the routine of an evening walk to see the sunset and talk about our day or dreams of life after was great.  But when the afternoon storms crept in and the mercury rose, it became darn near impossible to keep it up, so it fell by the wayside, as did our personal care.  Hair cuts got neglected and manicures and pedicures were non-existent.  But after a couple of months, we missed these and realized that we still needed them in our lives.  We couldn’t go out to a salon, but haircuts, mani’s and pedi’s could still be done, especially digging out some of those bath salts and scrubs we lovingly purchased on previous outings.  We shifted out routine to walks and runs to the mornings and just start our workday around 9 instead of 730, letting ourselves come alive a bit before sitting down.  It really sets the tone for a day of success when you’ve done 2/3 or more of your step goal before sitting down to work at 9AM! I also loved reading but rarely could find the time. With life slowing down, now there is time in my day to read for me as well as to spend time reading with my youngest.

enjoying lunch and my book on the porch during a lunch break from working

Day trips and vacations This was the hardest part for us to give up since we were always on the go.  We are passholders and live close to Disney, the Zoo, nearby gardens, and the beaches are a two-hour drive in any direction. We have family all over, love to camp and have only taken our youngest to about half the states in the country and hope to visit more.  With all of that dashed, it affected our daily life.  One way we coped was packing a picnic lunch and planning a loop drive to places.  One of my favorites was a drive to the coast, up a coastal road and back home.  It was most of the day, but it was amazing to see everything so clean and clear and with light traffic and few people, we didn’t even mind that we could only walk small sections.  We even ventured to Texas to see family by taking a camper and boondocking along the way.  We saw about a dozen people on the entire trip and only had to go into a couple of stores.

a geocache travelbug we helped along on our camping adventure

Now that we can get out and about more and things are opening, we are starting to go more places.  But we are nowhere near at the pace of life we previously were.  Our excursions may be once or twice a month instead of every weekend. We are more selective on what we decide we want to spend our time and money on.  We still don’t turn on the TV until later in the day on most days and we continue to enjoy our family dinners several nights a week.  I don’ think I want to return to the breakneck pace we used to live at, I’m just sad that it took a pandemic to force me to change. 

Summer Learning

Engaging Children in Summer Learning Is Easier Than You Think

Sonya Barnes July 11, 2019†

Spending some time reviewing skills on one of our many road trips

I know people on both sides of the fence of summer learning—those that think kids need a total break from learning and those that believe they must stay proficient or they will slide.  I’ve thought long and hard on this topic, even lost sleep, both as a parent and as a teacher.  Is summer learning necessary?  Shouldn’t they be allowed to enjoy their freedom and have unstructured time to play and live life? Is the learning loss as high as they say it is? Won’t they just pick it up when we review or start building on the skill when we get to it during the school year. It’s stressful and confusing and both parents and teachers worry about making the wrong choice about it.

Playing in a learning lab in the Children’s Museum we found in Baton Rouge, LA

For the longest time, I didn’t think it necessary, until I realized a few things from both research and personal observations and conversations.  First, summers aren’t spent the same way for everyone, or the way that many of us did because life is not the same as it was for many of us coming up.  We are busier, people don’t spend as much time in person together, not all families have time to do family things, and some kids don’t have to worry about helping with as much around the house as others do.  I concluded that, if schools are responsible for teaching things like health, drug and alcohol, and internet safety because they need more than what they are getting at home.  Kids today are learning academic skills in larger chunks and at faster rates because there is so much more to know and, in the opinion of some researchers, they are learning these things before they are developmentally ready to learn them. The way many kids and teens spend their summers these days is with little to no application of academic skills to maintain proficiency. A small percentage of kids in the area I live take any kind of summer vacation beyond a weekend away at the beach, if they are lucky.  When I thought about all these things and the struggles I saw during the first few weeks back, it made me realize there was a need.

I have two children that are thirteen years apart. My oldest did summer learning workbooks I found at learning stores and eventually online.  He hated it, but we made sure we found ones that required less than 30 minutes of his attention a day.  As he got older, he complained about going back and doing review work because it was so easy, and he didn’t get why other kids didn’t know what to do.  When he transitioned to high school, we no longer did them since they were only printed through 8th grade, and he noticed more of a lag when he returned.  At that point, he saw the value of them and how much they truly helped him over the years.  When our youngest was finishing his first year of school, our oldest told me to make sure we did summer learning with him to keep him current.  When a teenager tells you that there is value in it, you know that means something.

Our go to summer learning book is one I found on Amazon called Summer Bridge Learning and it is my favorite of all the ones we have looked at and tried over the years. It has two activities to do each day, working in practice on math, reading, spelling, grammar, science and social studies.  It also has fitness activities as well as projects and experiments to do. There is a progress chart and stickers to help them see their progress. Since the work is simply reviewing the prior year, there is very little struggle on the work and often only needs a bit of refresher on something he may have gotten wrong. We no longer need the stickers because he has learned  that the daily work must be done to earn technology time.  When motivation was a challenge, we may tie a weekly incentive of ice cream for doing the week of work and a play day or picnic at the park for finishing a section.  If you are interested in the summer bridge books, use this link to find the one for your child’s grade level, plus you’ll be helping me out by using my Amazon Affiliate program. Amazon Summer Learning Books

Our school sends home district assembled summer learning packets that have incentives tied to them when they return, and this is a great motivator for some to work on it, although I have heard some kids say they did it all at the beginning, the end or had an older sibling do it for them so that they can get the prize, which defeats the purpose.  I know these learning guides won’t be a good fit for all kids.  But they need something.

If completing summer workbooks or packets is not your idea of summer, let me share a few tips we have learned over the years to engage kids  with the core skills that can keep their brains active that may not even seem like they are learning or reviewing their skills.  The key thing is to ensure that kids are learning how skills work together and practicing retaining the knowledge gained.

Learning how to set up and break camp. He can just about do it without us now.
After helping set up the tent, he’s helping dad cook over the campfire
  • Weekly trips to the library are a cheap and easy way to solve many issues.  It is an outing, something new, lots to choose from for free, and many libraries have movie or activity days during the week to plan around.
  • Local movie theaters and bowling alleys often offer summer activities on a budget for families.
  • Children’s museums and interactive parks, playgrounds and theme parks are in many locations and could be closer than you think if you are near a major city. Here’s a link to find one https://findachildrensmuseum.org/
  • Completing puzzles, whether technology-based, book or box style, can be good.  Things like cross words, seek and finds, or Sudoku can help keep the brain active. 
  • Being responsible for planning and prepping a meal and a dessert each week can help with their reading, math and problem-solving skills, and they can learn a bit of meal planning and finance skills, as well. 
  • If your family takes a trip during the summer, have them measure and calculate distances or speeds between points based on the time it takes, find local activities to do there and the cost involved.  If you have more than one kid and they are older, making it a competition to see who can plan the best itinerary for the day and include food stops, and for the best price, could be a way to make it engaging.
  • Involving them in back to school shopping and calculating the costs and what their needs are can help, as well. 
  • If you have younger kids, they can make flash cards of words they struggle with in the books they read. 
  • If there is something they are good at, set up your phone or camera to record them making a tutorial video for how to do it and maybe you can share it with a friend or family member.
  • If they love movies or streaming services or playing on devices, have them calculate how much time they spend on it and track the “distance” on a map driving at a certain speed to see how far they could have traveled in that same amount of time. 
  • Hobbies are another great way to engage them. This could be playing sports, mechanical work or even geocaching, a favorite past time of ours.
  • Finally, I suggest having them take on additional chores and responsibilities, especially if they are older or are home all day. This shows the acknowledgement of their promotion and increased responsibility and will engage their brains in doing something that contributes to the family.
Geocaching with dad

I cannot tell you how important it is to find a way to keep their brains actively engaged to avoid that summer slump, slide, or whatever you want to call it.  Everyone is different and will have different levels of need over the summer, just like they do during the school year. The most important thing is to find what works the best, not what works the easiest.  It is hard to awaken them when they return to school, especially if they slept all day and did nothing but vegetate when they were awake.  On that note, start working on that routine of getting up early and going to bed at a reasonable hour a couple of weeks out.  This can also be a challenge and make more of an issue with behavior both at school and at home at the beginning due to being tired or hungry at non-traditional mealtimes. 

I’d love for you to comment below with your thoughts on the topic as well as other suggestions for keeping those brains engaged all summer.

Using Your Break to Better Yourself

By Sonya Barnes                                                                                                       June 13, 2019

What is it that we crave about summer?  We count down the days as we race towards it at breakneck speeds—longing for its arrival—but why?  Is it the chance to slow down?  Is it temporarily doing away with agendas, alarm clocks, meetings and parent communications? Is it traveling or getting quality time with family that we don’t see during our hectic school routines?  It may be some or all of these, depending on you.  For me, it is not only these things, but also the chance to sit back and analyze how I did things, what worked and what didn’t work, as well as trying on new habits and seeing how I can make them fit in my life.

Routines are an important thing to me, and not just because I am OCD (CDO my husband likes to say since I have a habit of alphabetizing things (don’t get me started on my love of my label maker), but also because I have learned that routines make for consistency and efficiency, two key elements for success.  This past school year has been a challenge. We moved into a new house to make room for my mother, my oldest son finished his Associate’s degree and started at a new college for his Bachelor’s, my husband changed jobs after dreaming about it for two years, and I was committed to a training program for the duration of the school year that came to a conclusion about the time my mom became fully retired.  Whew! I was exhausted.  The routines we had had in place since my husband had joined the ranks of the teaching world 4 years before (which were pretty consistent from when he ran his own business before) were suddenly thrown for a loop only a couple of months into the school year when he decided to leave education and go into business for himself again.  We did our best to adjust, but by the time the school year ended on the same day that my mom became a full retiree, we still hadn’t adapted. 

I am also a huge travel bug.  I often jokingly say that I work to support my travel habit, which is not too far from the truth.  I have downsized possessions dramatically over the last few years into a more minimalist lifestyle as well as paid off most of our bills, so a good portion of our budget was for now and later fun money (vacations, entertainment and retirement).  With the job change, that changed for us quite a bit, so we’ve also had to adjust and, luckily, had room in the budget.  But we still plan to work in a few trips this summer.  Truth be told, I am writing this in the kitchen of one of our family members we are visiting as we are doing a loop to see them and check off a few more states from our bucket list.

Every educator does different things with their down time.  For me, I spend it reconnecting with family, both near and far, refreshing my home with a variety of projects and trying out new routines that I can establish at a slower pace and maintain when I go “back to work” in August—although I, like most, will work during the summer attending trainings, reviewing my practices and material from the past year, analyzing test data when it drops, and creating/adapting new things for next year based my end of year student surveys and data about the upcoming students given to me by the prior grades teachers. Don’t get me wrong, I also get out and enjoy the longer days and extra family time by taking advantage of some of the discounted or free activities available in our local area like weekly movies, zoos, aquariums or theme parks—if you are lucky enough to live close to any of those.

Our family will have to establish some new routines with all our lives changing in the last few months, so there are things we can do over the next 6-8 weeks to help us out during the school year.

I use this in the camper with a dry erase marker to keep it super simple. One of these days, I will do it for the main house.

Meal Planning and Preparation. We will try out new recipes and get back into meal prepping and menu planning, as well as simplifying our meals.  We got in the awful habit of eating out or eating prepackaged/easy meals for the last month and that did not help us handle the crazy routines that the end of year brings.  We have tried all of the prepping ideas for meals and have actually found the simplest for us is stocking up on family packages of meats and freezing into portions (we cut into bites when cooked to cut down on overeating) and we keep fruits and veggies on hand to accompany them.  We can go from freezer to table (or lap on the back porch) in 45 minutes, even on a busy day, and feed our family of 5 for well under $20 for the meal.  Going out is actually an inconvenience for us. 

Home projects. There is always maintenance to be done as a homeowner, so we will take care of those, as well as cleaning out closets and cabinets to purge forgotten possessions and reorganize them.  We have found that having less stuff helps us clean faster and we have less to clean, which means more time for life.  I stumbled over minimalism a few years ago while looking for solutions since I am a terrible allergy sufferer and we have loved the simpler lifestyle.  But those old habits of a lifetime to take a while to break, so refreshing the home and reviewing the books I have help quite a bit.  Not familiar with minimalism, or not sure how it could possibly fit for you?  Check out the author Joshua Becker and his realistic family approach that works for us at https://www.becomingminimalist.com/.

Planning for the next school year.  I know, you don’t want to think about it, and I don’t either.  But I don’t like a crazy start to a new year, so I do a few things early in summer to help.  When we are cleaning out those closets and cabinets, I purge any clothing items that don’t fit or need repair or replaced so that I can get those ordered, fixed, purchased or budget for them.  My son’s school has a uniform, so we will pass on any items that someone else can use and get his items ordered early so that we can pick them up at orientation.  I also start shopping school and art supplies, prepackaged snacks, cleaning supplies, and anything else that could help around the house or classroom or could be donated to his classroom teacher.  Those BOGO sales run all summer, so taking advantage now helps me out a lot later in the year.

Nap time is a summer favorite, especially during those afternoon storms Florida gets

New routines and habits. My daily reading, devotions, exercise and cleaning routines all slacked off in the last couple of months.  I take the time to figure out why, shuffle my day around and put into practice my routines during the summer.  I can go at a slower pace while I make them a habit and then a few weeks before going back to work, I can time how long it takes me to do all the things, allowing me to adjust my wake-up times and bed times to accommodate.  I do the same for my little one so that we can reestablish his routines before going back, as well. I also look at how well we have done with chores and will adjust our chore charts, laundry rotations and shopping days.  With so many changes this year, many of our routines never got followed or were tweaked during the year, so a family meeting over a delicious and relaxing meal gives everyone a chance to chime in on what works and doesn’t work so that we can adjust.  It sounds like a silly thing, but no one fights over the washing machine, yells about a stack of dishes, or complains about an empty cabinet when we work together.

Hoping to get 5 more states filled in this summer, then we can start working our way out West.

Travel and quality family time. We usually plan a couple of trips in the summer in addition to celebrating birthdays for several family members.  We usually plan a big family trip and a smaller get away nearby, and sometimes these double as a birthday celebration.  With the change in jobs, we sold our camper and have less time to go on adventures.  This year, we are fitting in an early summer trip to see family and check off more states (with any luck, by the time you are reading this, I will have checked off state number 50 for me, and number 30 for my soon to be 8 year old).  We are also working in a couple of other trips, but they will be business related for my husband.  When we are at home, we capitalize on the summer movies at the local theater and the passes to parks nearby.

The beach is our happy place

Rejuvenate your mind, body and soul. This is probably the most important one I do with the slower pace.  I love to sit on the porch in the early morning, before the Florida humidity chases us all into hiding until sundown like in those apocalyptic movies. While I am out there with my tea, or a book, I will take the time to connect with each sense—what do I see, hear, smell, taste, feel—and it really helps me connect with the world around me and helps me stay clear and focused during the day.  I also try to get in for a massage, a new exercise program I heard about from a friend, as well as taking care of as many doctor’s appointments as I can so as not to interfere with the school year.

So, what kind of things do you do over your break?  Are you a Netflix and chill in your jammies all day, every day while capitalizing on Uber Eats and grocery delivery services?  Are you like me and try to accomplish a lot?  Or are you somewhere in the middle?

If you are not a teacher, or get only a week or so off, you can work in some these ideas to your own schedule, even with only a week or two off.  Choosing only one or two things to start with this break can still make a difference and you just work on other things on future breaks.  It may not sound like how you want to spend your break, but if the way you were doing things wasn’t working or making life run smoothly, then you owe it to yourself and those around you to try new approaches to making your life easier.  You just need to take that first step.  Happy summer!