Best 10 Tips for Rising Middle Schoolers

We’ve been compiling Best Tips for our youngest who starts 6th grade next week. Her big sister, now in high school, offered her advice as well as Dad, counselors, and other teens. Enjoy this list! It’s great for any of us starting off in a new environment.

10 Best Tips for Rising Middle Schoolers

  1. Stay organized. In addition to your weekly planner, use lists or other reminders to finish assignments on time. All of sudden, you have to manage multiple classes with multiple teachers. You can do it! Take time each day to make a plan for your homework. Give yourself a break if you feel disorganized at first and forget your gym clothes or instrument one day or if you forget to study for a science test. You’ll get the hang of it!
  2. Participate. Think about how you might join into the school in a way that’s perfect for you. It could be something small like raising your hand in class to answer questions. Join new clubs and sports. Go to the football games. Contribute in some way to the community of your middle school.
  3. Find your support network. The middle school years can be so challenging emotionally, physically, and socially. Think about your support network beyond just your parents. Who can support you in your community? Think about youth pastors, counselors, other parents, extended family, older students, and teachers. You need support, and we are all here for you!
  4. Own your personal grooming routine. Now is the time to take showers every day, stay nice-smelling, brush teeth, and launder your clothes to present yourself for the day.
  5. Ride the wave of emotions. You won’t always feel this way. My husband says, “It’s just a day. Tomorrow is a new day.” If today was not so good, tomorrow is a fresh start. When days feel dark and serious, find a way to have fun and relax. Eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, exercise each day, and take time to reflect on the day, and your emotions will calm down eventually. You are not your thoughts; your brain is doing crazy things, and when you feel like a stranger to yourself, just know that this is all totally normal for middle school. But if you feel overwhelmed or sad day after day, don’t be afraid to tell adults and doctors how you are feeling so they can help you.
  6. Consider your strategies. When a problem comes like conflict in a friendship, not finding a seat in the lunchroom, or any kind of disappointment, before you let the stress and overwhelming despair control you, stop, take a deep breath, and think of all the strategies you have to handle this situation. Then, celebrate that you figured out how to solve a problem on your own.
  7. Accept all people and treat them with dignity. You will meet so many people who have a different religion, political viewpoint, background, or lifestyle. Believe you have something to learn from everyone you meet, and don’t think you are superior to people. Instead of considering how different someone is from you, imagine that this person might become a great friend. Give people a chance.
  8. Smile, look people in the eye, say their names, and ask great conversation questions. Now is the time to perfect social skills. If you ask people about themselves, you can get a conversation going by then saying, “Tell me more! or What was that like for you?” So if you meet a new friend in Math, you can say, “Bill, what elementary school did you attend?” When they answer, say, “What was that like for you?” And the conversation will take off. Try it!
  9. Take on the role of encourager. Use your words to bless people, not harm them. If you must, walk away from gossipers and complainers and surround yourself with positive people.
  10. Remember that you are not alone and we all believe in you! You are great!  We are all here for you! Your family and your community are all here supporting you. You are a wonderful person, and the world needs someone just like you. Most of all, I remind my daughters that God is with them when they feel alone and that God has great plans for their lives when they feel insecure and lack self-esteem.

You are going to have a great 6th grade year!!


Finding Your “Patch of Sunshine”

Today my friend, Laurie (who originally challenged me to write my first blog post in March 2010–and my whole life changed after that one word of challenge), posted a picture of her cat lounging in the sun. She captioned, “He found his patch of sunshine today!” with the hashtag #livewithflair.

I smiled! I laughed! I remembered all those days I would come home from work and go find the cats lounging in some patch of sunshine.

I love to find my cats lounging in the sun when they “find their patch of sunshine.” It’s an ever-moving, ever-different patch because no day arrives the same and no sunshine stays in one spot for long. So it’s absolutely true that the cats “find their patch of sunshine.” Especially when the house is cold and dark, finding the patch of sunshine becomes of prime importance. It’s like the whole day, for a cat, depends up this search.

I’m inspired that we can find our patch of sunshine–that place of rest and warmth and joy–in any setting. It won’t be the same each day, and it won’t stay for long, but like cats, we search for sun, stretch out, and bask.


The New You

Today I suddenly recall the number of times God changes somebody’s name in the Bible. It happens a lot. It’s so cool. It’s as if God says, “You are no longer going to live in the past or as a victim of your past. You are no longer limited anymore by your past. You are a new person entirely.”

I’m sitting in my chair by the Weeping Cherry, sipping my routine hazelnut coffee, reading the Bible and thinking about the past and all the ways I need to mature and grow when, like lightning in my soul, I remember God changes names. 

He takes the old you and gives you a new identity, one not rooted in all the past limitations or stories, but a totally new you. He often takes someone and turns their identity into the opposite of what they once were (or who others believed they were). Abram (who had no children yet) now becomes Abraham (the father of many). Sarai (who also had no children yet) becomes Sarah (a princess and mother of nations). You can read about this in Genesis 17.

But it gets better as you keep reading the Bible. Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul. All now manifest the power of God in stunning, overwhelming ways.

I wonder if the new name helped them remember. I wonder if they slipped back into using their old names and had to say, “Oh, I’m sorry! That’s not actually me anymore. I have a new name I go by now. And by the way, this new name means I’m this awesome new person and chosen by God to do amazing things. So remember the new me.”

I tell my friend that I don’t want to live in the past me anymore; I want to live in the new identity God gives me. God will one day actually assign me a new name (Revelation 2:17), but right now, as a child of God, I am “crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). I have His name, really.

He changes our name. We are new people. We become the opposite of that identity that most drags us down. I like to think the new me has something to do with hope instead of despair, peace instead of anxiety, abundance instead of emptiness, and connection instead of loneliness. Is there a name that means all of those things?

I’m so glad God changes names. He determines who I am, not my past.



Us, Only More Real

I’ve been worried about abundance lately. Who can say that, really? I’m worried about abundance. What a curious life! Here’s the situation: I have three tomato plants with dozens of tomatoes ripening at the same rate. Soon, I’ll be up to my nose in tomatoes.


What do you do with so many? My neighbor pops in and helps. She’s carrying a peach cobbler she made from her peach tree which means I’ll listen to absolutely anything she has to say. I brew coffee as she teaches me all about making sun-dried tomatoes in the oven. Basically, 200 degrees, slice tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic. Hours later, and you have your dried tomatoes.

As we drink a quick cup of coffee and discuss our transition to the fall semester–the whole time lamenting hard things and what a long summer it’s been–my dear neighbor tells me how she dried out the tomatoes and then froze them in little baggies.

“What did you use them for?” I ask, not being able to remember one single recipe that required dried tomatoes. Why is it that we possess in abundance what we feel we can’t use? We waste so much.

“Pizza! Pasta! Salads!” she says, describing the pop of flavor and how delicious those tomatoes were all year long. I learn I can also make chicken with a sun-dried tomato cream sauce, a baked tomato penne, tomato soup, tomato risotto, and a goat cheese and tomato spread—all with dried tomatoes!

A whole new autumn and winter take form, and in this scene, I’m stirring piping hot tomato soup to my family in my cozy home. Everything feels right again. We’re stocked with dried tomatoes. What more do we need here?

I consider how intensely tangy my tomatoes will become as I dry them out. I think about how the flavor emerges in concentrated form. It’s wonderful, like an amplified tomato, a version of itself that was always in there but drowning in excess.

I think about this long drying and dehydrating process that produces this particular flair. For so many of my friends, this whole summer was a long drying out. For some of us, this was a soul-dehydrating summer. We feel stripped down, emptied of our juices, and all leathery inside and out.

Consider the sun-dried tomato! What attempted to dry us out only intensified our flavor. We’re us, only more real. A tomato amplified. 

I like to think about struggle and disappointment as a way of creating the real me, the one with all the tangy zeal. It’s painful when all the comfortable, juicy things in life leave us. But then, what’s left is real and true. The Italian Mamas know this. This beautiful intensity!


What to Do with So Many Cucumbers

First of all, I planted one tiny, little cucumber plant. From this one little plant, we gather hoards of giant cucumbers. We picked six today! Can you relate?

Who can eat so many cucumbers?

We slice the cucumbers and place them in a marinade of apple cider vinegar (1/2 cup), sugar (1/4 cup), finely chopped red onion and garlic, and some seasonings like salt, pepper, ground mustard, and fennel. We let the cucumber slices (our sweet little pickles) marinate for an hour or so, and then we feast.

I put the cucumbers on the counter in a big bowl with a container of toothpicks nearby. Soon, all the cucumbers have disappeared. (This is why you have no picture today.)

If you have too many cucumbers in your garden, remember a quick “sweet pickle” marinade.


8 Favorite Teaching Quotes

I love collecting quotes on teaching and learning that helped shaped my teaching philosophy over the years. They resonate with me in various ways and inspire me as a new semester approaches. I thought I’d share some of these gems with you:

1.  “We teach what we most need to learn.” ~Parker Palmer, Educator and Activist

2. “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. ~E.O. Wilson, Harvard Biology Professor

3. “His passion was in his oddly ragged eloquence and in the way he could take words you had heard all your life and make you hear them, and the holiness in them, as though for the first time. . . [He] was so aflame with his subject that you couldn’t listen to him without catching fire yourself.”   ~Frederick Buechner in The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections

4. “[Teaching’s] ultimate goal is to liberate persons to fulfill their potentialities for authenticity and creativity. It is guided by a vision that urges persons to interpret their lives, to relate to others, and to engage with the world in ways that they perceive to be ultimate.” ~ Rev. Roberta M. Nelson, DD

5.  Maria Harris once asked a class to answer the question “What is teaching?” in Haiku form.  One student’s response was:

We meet awkwardly

I invite you to walk.

I find you dancing.    ~Bill Maroon, 1987


6.  “What is great teaching? Love of subject; love of student.” Richard Wallace

7.  In an excerpt from this poem, “The Student,” Marianne Moore describes the college student mind:

“[He] is too reclusive for

some things to seem to touch

him; not because he

has no feeling but because he has so much.”


8.  “Anything looked at closely becomes wonderful.” A.R. Ammons


Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you as a teacher or student?


When I Go Back to Poetry

Every so often, I discover a new poem, and then I’m hungry for poetry all over again. I gather stacks of poetry anthologies and go back to poetry. I find a new one from my favorite poet, A.R. Ammons, and I request the book, The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons.

I love this one from the collection.


~by A.R. Ammons

May happiness
pursue you,

catch you
often, and,

should it
lose you,

be waiting
ahead, making

a clearing
for you.



A Simple and Fun Way to Know Your Neighborhood (I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Tried This Before)

Carry dog treats as you walk around your neighborhood.

That is the secret.

Dog treats. 

My uncle recently encouraged me to carry a bag of dog treats on my daily walk around the neighborhood. I had been complaining about how I’m so distant from the neighborhood now that we’ve outgrown the Walk-to-School campaign, Neighborhood Fitness Night, and even Saturday Pancakes.

“Carry dog treats. That will solve your problem.” He tells me his own tale of how all the neighborhood dogs know and love him–and even follow him around for those treats–and as a result, he has met so many dog owners back home in California. These owners, who once wouldn’t look him in the eye or pause for conversation will chatter away when asked if you might give their sweet dog a treat.

The way into a neighbor’s heart? The pets. I’m learning it’s true.

So I go to the grocery store. For the first time in my life, I purchase dog treats. I’ve never had a dog. I don’t know anything about dogs. But I carry the treats in a little bag on my walk.

Oh, the people I’ve met so far! Oh, the stories I’ve heard already! I’ve learned about aunts visiting for birthday parties from North Carolina and a neighbor on the street behind me that I have never even seen whose dog now loves me. I carry the treats, and when a dog passes, I compliment the dog, offer treats, and let the whole new friendship unfold.

Living with flair means you carry dog treats. You’ll experience your neighborhood in a whole new way.

Someone asked, “Are you OK being known as the Lady with Dog Treats?”

Yes. Yes, I am.


The Great Place of Weakness

Today a wise mentor reminded me about the “great place” of weakness. It’s a greater position! It’s a greater posture to then receive the power and sufficiency of Christ.

What a mystery! What a curious thing to grasp!

We offer weakness and know, by experience, that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” The New Living translation of 2 Corinthians 12:9 says it like this:

Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.

How strange to know more and more that God’s power works best in weakness. Sometimes, I’m learning, God brings us exactly to these very weak places–emotionally and physically (even spiritually)–so we understand something new and different about Jesus.

Lastly, my wise friend prayed for me that, after weakness, I might know a deeper and different form of joy. Isn’t that a wonderful prayer for us all?

A deeper and different form of joy. Yes! 


Awaiting the Eggplant

Every morning, I cannot wait to sneak out onto the glistening morning grass to peer into the eggplant bush. Soon, the beautiful glossy purple fruit will grow until it’s ready for harvest. I’ll, of course, make Eggplant Parmesan.

But until then, it’s a joy to plant seeds, observe their growth, and await a harvest. The simple pleasure of awaiting purple eggplant begins my morning here.