Beginner’s Guide to Skipping Christmas

Christmas 2016

Sadly, I could not find any evidence, mental or physical, that I ever mailed my 2016 Christmas letter. It is my best recollection that I never sent this to anyone. So, just to cover my bases, I am posting it now, one year later. You can think of it as a Christmas time capsule.

Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 8.03.55 AMWe are skipping Christmas this year. As time marches on and family circumstances change, we have the opportunity to “skip” the traditions we don’t like, retain those we do like and construct new traditions to take the place of the ones that no longer fit.

When you skip Christmas, it forces you to take a long, hard look at what practices are meaningful and which ones have gotten tacked onto your tradition like grandma’s Claxton fruitcake that somehow makes it onto the Christmas dessert table every year. (Seriously, who still eats that stuff?) You must analyze what part of your celebration has value and what parts can get shoved to the curb for the Salvation Army pickup.

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Some of my earliest recollections of Christmas are of the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album playing on the turntable. I remember the Christmas I received a metal dollhouse with plastic furniture. One Christmas, my mother made me a sparkly gold majorette outfit, complete with white go-go boots and a tall hat, adorned with gold braid, made out of an empty white plastic Clorox jug. We watched the Christmas specials (Charlie Brown, Rudolph and others) on TV, and they were only broadcast one time each season. While I don’t have much desire to listen to Herb Alpert any longer, I really wish I still had those go-go boots.

Fast forward to early Christmases with our young family–the anticipation of waiting for Santa, staying up till all hours of the night assembling bikes and other complicated projects, all of which involved feats of engineering too complicated for two people who scored poorly on the spatial reasoning sections of standardized tests. Two families and their traditions merged: Christmas Day bingo, making sugar cookies,Christmas Eve family parties, candlelight services. Our children will some day form their families and their own traditions; they will take remnants of the memories and traditions of their family and their spouse’s family and combine them–just like a fabulous patchwork quilt.

This year is unique. Geoffrey has lived in the D.C. metro area for a whole year, paying for his own car, cell phone and health insurance bill. His trips home for holidays require vacation time and a plane flight to Birmingham. Mary Catherine just finished the first semester of her junior year at Vanderbilt, and will spend her next semester in Paris, studying at Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies), situated on the Left Bank. Will is half-way through his sophomore year of high school and gets his driver’s license next week. Next year, it will be time to take college road trips with Will. Explaining all of this makes me reflective of how much life is changing. We are at a nexus.

Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 8.44.21 AM.pngThis has been a big year of change for me also. Early last year, I decided (rather, Greg convinced me) to run for a seat on the Vestavia Hills City Council. My role as a community advocate over the past years had begun to take more and more of my time. Our community was desirous of a change–they told me they wanted greater transparency and a voice in their local government. After making my decision to declare my candidacy in early spring, I spent many months making connections, raising money, knocking on doors and developing my campaign platform. Through all of it, I felt God’s leading and the support of my neighbors. On the night of the election, I was stunned to find that my cohorts and I had swept the election—winning all the seats on the council. Except for one returning councilor, every seat was held by a candidate who had never before held public office. Through it all, Greg was a trusted advisor and my biggest cheerleader. I was also fortunate to have a great campaign manager and committee.

Greg continues his involvement in many avenues of service—Boy Scouts, church, the Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 8.45.03 AMRepublican party and his work. He will tell you his greatest accomplishment last year was leading a crew into the backcountry of Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico. While it was one of the hardest experiences of his life (right up there with Air Force basic training), he will also tell you it was one of the most rewarding. I was proud of Will and Greg for completing the trek, hiking more than 100 miles, climbing more than 5 miles in elevation and carrying everything they needed for 12 days in a backpack. It was a lesson in teamwork, leadership and independence—something neither Greg nor Will can ever forget.

Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 8.45.40 AMThis Christmas, we are traveling to Steamboat Springs for some skiing over Christmas. With Geoffrey living so far away, it seemed the best opportunity to spend some family time together in the mountains and snow before we send Mary Catherine off on a plane to France. In a sense, we are “skipping Christmas” because we are trying something new. In another sense, we are holding onto the experiences of worship and family time that are most meaningful.

Whether your family is in transition, has experienced a change or loss or is in the “sweet spot” of building your nuclear family, we wish you joy. In the midst of any change, God is constant and his son, Jesus Christ, is our Savior. Take comfort, regardless of your circumstances, and be grateful.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” [I Thess. 5:14-16]

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” [John 1:5]



Identity or Ideas: What Will We Defend?

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.48.22 PM.pngOn the long drive to and from Nashville to deliver my daughter and all of her belongings to her dorm room at Vanderbilt University, I listened ad nauseum to news reports about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Commentators said the police were not vigilant in stopping the violence and police responded that protestors refused to comply with instructions to ensure their safety; they talked about the clubs people were carrying and how protestors deployed balloons filled with urine to spray reporters and opposing protestors; they discussed how the original intent of the rally was only to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Sadly, for seven hours, the talking heads and their paid experts went round and round the boxing ring, jabbing at paper-tigers and looking for someone to blame, but they never really got to the heart of the problem: The riot in Charlottesville was not prompted by the removal of a statue, but was the culmination of a political philosophy that has been fermenting for some time now in America–a phenomenon known as identitarian politics.

An identitarian’s ultimate political purpose is to promote his or her own culture, race or social ideology and is “founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” [] The identitarian cares more about bolstering his or her own image than in affecting positive social or political change. The movement, which first emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, has experienced a recent, strong revival in Europe and is often associated with fascism. In America, this resurgent ideology has been translated to the epithet “white supremacy,” from which it is a short hop, by the liberal media, to conservatism. Surprisingly, both right and left apologists acknowledge this tactic is a blight to rational and productive debate and that both sides are guilty of its use.

From the right:

“Which is why identity politics — after decades of polluting our minds — now feels so wrong. We finally wised up. Identity politics preaches a splintering of one large collaborative group into competing vindictive ones — resulting in new angry tribes whose central thesis is to NOT cooperate. Because cooperation is a sign that you are violating their religion of separateness. In the American “melting pot,” identity politics wants to smash that pot — to bring us back to the Dark Ages, when collaboration was sparse.” [Identity politics: the biological fraud; by Greg Gutfeld]

And, from the left:

“Identity politics of this sort leads us, when confronted with a social conflict, to ask a familiar question: ‘What’s the politically progressive position on this?’ This approach to social issues betrays a troubling narcissistic displacement: rather than analyze the social issue on its own merits, the political identitarian uses the issue as a way to assert his own persona. At worst, the social stakes of the issue are just a means to the end of his self image—what matters is what his position on the issue says about him.” [Political Identity as Identity Politics; Richard Thompson Ford]

When taken to the extreme for any group, identitarian politics results in monolithic positions that are unproductive and degenerate into verbal rock-throwing. Speakers on both ends of the political spectrum do a lot of speaking but not a lot of listening–because listening might require a change of position that would threaten the group’s identity.

What if politics became less about people (one’s idols, statues or favorite team) and more about ideas? What if we had monuments to ideas–the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Federalist Papers–instead of people: Would we be tearing those down too?

Until political discourse becomes more about ideas and less about your ancestors, where you grew up or what news station you watch, we will remain stuck in the political quagmire that we see displayed in Congress. Some say the ultra-left are responsible for the emergence of the ultra-right (and visa versa). Is this stark division reversible or have we returned forever to the time of skins and clubs, where the strongest and meanest survive? We need to return to the foundational principle that we are a people who use productive, civil speech to build a better republic. If not, we create our own destiny, which is the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville last weekend.

Social Graces

tin-can-11I am at a wedding reception, enjoying the company. I see a friend dancing with her son, the groom. A guest, one of my long-time friends, tells me about her son making the dean’s list at Auburn. An acquaintance approaches and tells me about a great charity that will help her son obtain an experimental medical treatment–I gladly make a donation. I walk over to join a small group laughing over their goofy mistakes navigating the new online school registration system. A friend and I begin a conversation about a concern she had about sharing some sensitive information in the registration process.

Then, suddenly, a woman I have never seen before approaches the group. She slaps my face, calls me a fool and a liar and then waits for my reaction. I blink, stunned.

I spend a minute or two crafting my scathing and clever response, but then one by one backspace over each letter. I delete her comment and take a deep breath. There are some advantages of social media over real life interactions.

LPM Curriculum Meeting Minutes


Notes from Liberty Park Middle Curriculum Information Meeting

  • 2017 May 18, 8:30am
  • Prepared by: Kimberly Cook

[These notes are my personal notes and paraphrase of comments made at the meeting. I also recorded the meeting, so if anyone has particular questions about the discussion, you can inquire.]

Elective Courses Overview:

  • 2008-2009: offered Art, Band, Choir, Spanish
  • 2016-2017: added Family and Consumer Science

Note: Career Prep A / Digital Photography were offered in 2016-2017, but they did not have success in getting enough students enrolled–2 or 3 at most—so the class did not “make.”

  • 2017-2018: French, German and Coding were added to course offerings.
  • LPM will continue to offer these courses each year; at some point, we hope they will have enough numbers to “make” the course.

Roger Dobnikar, LPM Asst. Principal: LPM contacted Central Office with the numbers that signed up for French and German and they were instructed to let those parents know that, due to the number who signed up, these courses will only be offered online with a person in the room with them (facilitator), but not with an actual teacher of the language. Parents were offered the option to drop back to their child’s second option. That is why those parents received a letter.

For Coding, there was not a second option, so parents did not receive a letter; the school automatically went to the second option on the student’s course card.

Dobnikar reviewed the process used for choosing electives:

  • Current 6th and 7th grade students went over course cards in a meeting on May 1 and Mr. Dobnikar explained options for electives.
  • Parent and student signatures are required on the card.
  • For 7th and 8th grade, course descriptions sent home and posted on website so conversation could continue at home.
  • Courses were explained in a video and in meetings with students.

Q: Many students chose Robotics as their first choice for Lancer Period; how many slots will be made available for the club?

A: Everyone should be able to get their first choice; the school will expand the opportunity to meet the need

Q:[Jennifer Weaver] Could you address the advantages of taking some of the electives?

A: Discussion ensued regarding foreign languages:

  • The middle school foreign language program takes one year (Level I) and divides it into a two-year program
  • Taking the Level I course in middle school allows students to start Level II foreign language in 9th grade; it also opens another slot in grades 9-12 to take another elective course
  • Students do not receive a Carnegie unit for the middle school Level I course, but it prepares them for Level II in grades 9-12 and gives them a headstart in that foreign language

Q: [Stacy Hurst] How will scheduling be handled when 8th and 9th grade are together, with the 8th grade 7-period schedule and the 9th grade 8-period schedule?

A: [Jane-Marie Marlin, Asst. Superintendent] These are long-term decisions we are not prepared to make right now.

Q: What will the schedule be like for 9th grade in Fall 2019?

A: [Marlin] Students would have the same schedule as what is in other high school grades; can’t answer about how 7th-8th grade schedules will change at this time.

Q: Why can’t students be allowed two electives, instead of just one?

A: [Marlin] This option was carefully considered (“explored deeply”) in the task force that studied middle school scheduling earlier this year. The group concluded this would create a more stressful environment for students, having an additional graded course.

Q: [Sarah Brown] What are the advantages of taking Career Prep A in middle school?

A: [Marlin] Career Prep A is required by the state for graduation; A is computer skills-based and B centers on financial literacy. There is some discussion that, with offering Career Prep A in middle school, Career Prep B may be embedded in another subject in 9th-12th.

Career Prep A and B are offered in summer school also, but there is a fee. Rising 9th grade students are eligible to take summer school courses this summer.

A parent pointed out that if someone starts a foreign language in 7th grade, they can’t take Career Prep A in 8th grade.

Q: Why is Career Prep A paired with Digital Photography?

A: [Dobnikar] Digital Photography was the only semester course that was an option to pair with Career Prep A.

Q: What if a student wants Career Prep A and 3D Art?

A: [Dobnikar] We would not have the teacher availability to do both.

Mr. Munger discussed how the goal of the VHHS 8-period day change was to eliminate the need to take summer courses and provide more flexibility and opportunity for elective courses.

A parent suggested it would be helpful to invite parents of students in lower grades to participate in curriculum nights at VHHS so parents and students can have a better understanding of how early curriculum choices in middle school can affect their path in high school.

A parent encouraged people to sign up for daily email blasts from VHHS to start receiving important information about summer school, etc.

Q: [Weaver] Would offering foreign language (first year) to 8th grade help LPM achieve the numbers needed to “make” a course? Jennifer encouraged the central office to look at numbers from a different perspective and provide opportunities for students, even though the numbers are lower at LPM.

Q: [Stacy Hurst] It was stated a student cannot change languages in middle school or take a first-year middle school foreign language course in 8th grade; why?

A: [Brooke Izurieta, LPM Spanish teacher] explained you need both years to qualify for the next language level in high school. She explained that first-year language in middle school is an introduction, whereas the second year is more reading and writing.

Discussion ensued about the value of taking a language course to “try it out” before committing to a long-term course of study in that language.

Q:  LPM has less than half the number of students compared to Pizitz Middle. If 15 is the number required to “make” a course, shouldn’t the board consider offering the class to LPM students at a lower threshold, to compensate for the lower student enrollment at LPM?

A: [Marlin] The online foreign language delivery method was never was just going to be about sitting in front of a screen. She discussed a “blended” experience, perhaps with some high school students coming in to assist.

A parent commented that online vs. live teacher is obviously a very different experience.

Q: Can we offer a unified arts approach for language? [rotating through various languages]

A: [Kacy Pierce, LPM Principal] We currently don’t have the teachers for that.

Q: [Joanna Rumbley] What is it going to take to get French/German off the ground? Students are staying away from foreign language because they heard it was going to be a video. In order to achieve equity, both schools need to be treated as one student body, both in Fall 2019 and now. The LPM community pays the same tax dollars as everyone else, but we are not being provided the courses. [applause]

Marlin said it is the intent, when 9th grade is added, that courses will be held to the same standards. If it is a Carnegie Unit course, we absolutely will offer it.

Q: Then, why is there currently a different analysis for LPM compared to PM [in regard to numbers in a class]?

A: [Marlin] Whatever we currently have at the high school we will have in Fall 2019.

Kimberly Cook made the statement that obviously students/parents do not consider an online course to be equivalent or of the same value as a foreign language taught with a teacher in classroom. You can see that from the way the enrollment numbers dropped from 6 to 2 and from 5 to 1 in French and German when parents were notified the class would be online.

A: [Marlin] Once we have all the changes in, the board will revisit the decision.

Q: What about the rotating schedule?

A: It is the desire of the faculty to continue the practice because it is best for students. This creates potential problems with teacher-sharing. [My observation: It will be difficult to teacher-share unless the schedules are identical.]

Marlin said they would have to be creative in designing the 9th grade schedules.

Q: Is there a plan in place to choose the people who will administrate the change?

Q: What will happen with the handful of students who take French/German using the online program in the first year if we add a teacher for second year?

A: They will transfer to the live teacher.

Kimberly Cook encouraged parents and students to make their elective choice, before the change deadline, with the assumption that the foreign language class would be offered by a teacher in the classroom. This is the only way to ensure that the board can properly assess the level of interest. She asked that this be communicated to parents and students by the school. Mr. Dobnikar indicated it would be shared.





Curriculum Alignment Report


Community Meeting, May 16, 2017, at Liberty Park Baptist Church

Thank you for attending our community curriculum alignment meeting last night. It was nice to get to discuss this important topic on our turf, without someone timing us. I want to thank Liberty Park Baptist and Pastor Scott Guffin for providing the space so we could meet as a community. They provided the chair setup and signage to direct us to the meeting room. This was so much appreciated.

There are several important meetings coming up of which you will want to be aware:

  • Wednesday (tonight), May 17, 6pm, Board of Education – Anna Velasco asked the superintendent to be placed on the agenda as a delegation representative; the superintendent will allow Anna 5 minutes to lobby the board for complete curriculum alignment for Liberty Park Middle School. If you are able, please come out as a show of support for this concern.
  • Thursday, May 18, 8:30am and 6pm, Liberty Park Middle School – The Board of Education and school administration will present information regarding new course offerings. This will be an opportunity to ask questions and get more information about the courses and scheduling process.

Helpful Links:

Meeting Report:

We had approximately 30 people attend last night, which was good for a busy school night at the end of the term. The discussion centered on our community’s desire to have a curriculum that is completely aligned with Pizitz Middle School. This concern grows from a desire to provide Liberty Park Middle-zoned students with the same academic opportunities as those provided to other student in our community and to protect our neighborhood property values. With the advent of 9th grade moving to Liberty Park Junior High in Fall 2019, the issue is time-sensitive and critical.

Anna presented information regarding her experience with Liberty Park Middle 2017-2018 course scheduling.

Anna received a letter from the school stating there had not been enough students to register for French and so the class would be provided as an online course with a proctor supervisor. The letter advised if her student wanted to change course selections, in light of this information, the school could make a course change. Anna felt the implication was that the school expected the delivery method would make their family desire a course change, since someone checked with her student to say, as a paraphrase, “We haven’t heard back from you; do you still intend to take French?” and also because the procedure for switching classes was outlined in the letter. (If the course was equivalent to what was promised initially, there would have been no need to outline the delivery method in a letter to the parent.) After further investigation, Anna discovered 6 students enrolled for French and 5 for German. Since the parent notification regarding the delivery system, the numbers have dropped for 2 for French and 1 for German.

In addition, Anna was told that the following elective classes would also not be offered due to low enrollment: Career Prep A and Coding. The school indicated Coding would be offered as Lancer Period club. (Lancer Period is a non-academic, 30-minute class offered at the end of each day for club and athletic activities.)

Anna pressed Asst. Superintendent Jane-Marie Marlin to provide more information to parents about the new course selections to boost enrollment. Parents shared there was no curriculum night or notification to parents/students regarding the new course offerings. One parent said she was not even aware her daughter had signed up for courses—there was no communication from the school to let parents know courses were being scheduled or to inform parents about the new aligned course offerings. She was unaware of the courses for which her student had applied.

In response to Anna’s concerns, the school produced a video, published on social media and sent out as a link in an email. She was told course cards would be sent home for review and possible revision, but this has not yet happened. Only a course change card has been posted.

A discussion ensued about the differences between courses offered at Pizitz Middle and Liberty Park Middle. The following are the published course guides for the two middle schools:

Notable differences are that the new courses added at Liberty Park Middle (French, German, Coding and Career Prep A) to achieve alignment had insufficient enrollment. Parents agreed that an online language course with a proctor is not at all the same as a language course with a qualified teacher in the classroom–the two experiences are not at all equivalent.

In the recently released curriculum video, VHHS World Language Department Chair Lisa Garrison explained world languages were “a vital tool all of our students need.” She said it was best to “begin this journey at an earlier age–not waiting until they are at the high school” because “starting a language early is always a benefit because their minds are set up [such that] the earlier they start learning a language, the easier the acquisition….” (At this point, the video abruptly trails off so that we cannot hear the rest of what she said.) Pizitz has offered all three world languages (French, Spanish and German) since before the beginning of Liberty Park Middle school. In its nine years of existence, Liberty Park Middle has never before offered French or German, although parents have clamored for it.

Also in the video, Brooke Brown, VHCS Director of Curriculum and Instruction, said, this year, LPM French and German would be offered through the Middlebury online interactive program, as well as through making use of “resources and experts from our community who can also enrich that experience for our students.” Liberty Park Middle will use this delivery system, but Pizitz Middle will not. One parent shared her child had been part of a pilot “French Fridays” offering this year, using the Middlebury delivery system, and that it had been a useless course. She said her child had gained nothing from the experience and the child said she did not understand why she had bothered to participate. Unless something changes, Although this will be the tenth year of LPM’s existence, unless something changes, it appears French and German will still not be offered as full electives with a teacher in the classroom.

After further discussion, parents concluded the following:

  • Course alignment must be complete: the same courses delivered as electives in both schools to all students who enroll and the courses must be delivered in an equivalent manner. (An online delivery system is not equivalent to having a teacher in the classroom; a 30-minute club period is not equivalent to an elective, academic class offering.)
  • Alignment cannot be a numbers game, because this is what has been used as an excuse for nine years, during which Liberty Park Middle students have suffered due to lack of opportunity and delivery of an inequitable learning experience.
  • Parents suggest a paid advocate (such as a junior-high administrator or ombudsman for Liberty Park Junior High) to ensure that parity is achieved, not only now, but as plans are made for the addition of 9th grade in Liberty Park.

Parents were encouraged to contact the Board of Education by email to share concerns and also attend the board meeting, May 17, 6pm, at which Anna Velasco will speak as our delegate.

Action Items:

  • Attend the BOE meeting on 5/17/17 to show support for Anna’s message regarding parity.
  • Write (email) board members and the superintendent to express the need for parity to be a priority. Please provide reasons for your concern.

  • Encourage your students (and get them to talk to their friends) to reconsider elective choices—choosing electives they think would best serve their interests without regard to fears it might not be delivered in an equitable manner. We need students to sign up to display the true level of interest in these classes before we can advocate for parity.

Report submitted by: Kimberly Cook (


Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 10.42.23 AMori·en·teer·ing |ˌȯr-ē-ən-ˈtir-iŋ | noun:  a competitive or noncompetitive recreational activity in which participants use a map and compass to navigate between checkpoints along an unfamiliar course

“Busyness is often our temporary escape, and so we run, and we run until we have nothing left to guide us.” [D’Anna Lundstrom]

A friend, Paul Hughes, once likened our life journey to an orienteering race. Paul noted that a proficient orienteer will set her compass coordinates and run, keeping compass in one hand, map in the other, alternately raising the compass or map every few steps to avoid getting off the unmarked trail. The motion of raising the compass is an important part of the technique, because straying from the path costs more time and creates more risk than averting one’s eyes from the trail to check the compass.

Continually, repetitively, regularly, the orienteer raises her compass to check her course.

“Watch the path of your feet And all your ways will be established. Do not turn to the right nor to the left; Turn your foot from evil.” [Proverbs 4:26-27]

The orienteer sets her compass to reach the mark and she follows the path.

“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

The orienteer calculates her course correctly and checks her progress continually, reaping the reward of His steadfast love and faithfulness.

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

“Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.” [Psalm 25:4-5]