Robyn Barberry is the doting wife of her high school sweetheart, the mother of three precocious boys, and the art teacher at St. Joan of Arc school in Aberdeen.


January 2015
December 2014

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Recent Comments

Robyn, I know exactly how you feel. I wish that people could be understanding and that other children would too. Your boy will start speaking in full sentences and you will never be able to quiet him. Hopefully he is never bullied. Hopefully he won't wait until he's 25 to tell you about it if he is. Good luck to you and Patrick. My son is the best gift that God ever gave me!


Well written Robyn! I admire your patience and ability to stay calm and handle the hardships of motherhood beyond what I ever thought possible. I learned only after having my own children never to judge other parents because you have no idea what their situation really is. Keep being the awesome parents you are!



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Choosing Catholic: A celebration of Catholic Schools Week

“Let me show you a trick,” I told three sixth-grade students who were losing a battle against a mammoth-sized hunk of red bulletin board paper. They were decorating for Catholic Schools Week, the annual event that has St. Joan of Arc abuzz with preparations for five days of celebrating everything that makes Catholic schools so special.

I’d gotten there just in time. I showed the kids how to hold the paper taught and staple the sides. Then, we opened the scissors like an alligator’s mouth and scored the edges where the paper met the metal frame. The excess paper fell off, to find a new home in my collage box, and a final coat of scalloped border completed the stage.

I asked the kids how they were planning on being involved in Catholic Schools Week, and they excitedly revealed their roles in Tuesday’s big family Mass. They thanked me for sharing my time-saving tip and continued to decorate.

This is life in a Catholic school. Students are encouraged to take ownership of the space and the events with transpire within it. Outside-the-box thinking is not only encouraged, but taught. Relationships are richer. And when we throw a party, we go all out!

As a student at St. Margaret School in Bel Air, I can remember getting excited about Catholic Schools Week. We’d push our desks closer together to make room for the chairs that would soon be filled with our parents. Our teachers would always plan something exciting, to show off their skills and our knowledge. Maybe it was a spelling bee, or a flashy science experiment, or even a play. Whatever we did to showcase our academic highlights, it was genuine, and could only be accomplished by daily exercises to make our brains bigger, better, and faster.

The relationships I formed with my St. Margaret friends and teachers have lasted over a quarter century. My best friend and I met in third grade. Our babies are two weeks apart. My other best friend from high school married the guy I rivaled in the SMS student council president race. (I won.) I see almost everyone else from my graduating class on Facebook every day. Mr. Bean, the legendary science, language arts, and art teacher and I hang out at the gym. I recently ran into Mrs. Strong, who was my inspiration for becoming an English teacher. She said she might be able to babysit for me when she retires. I’m going to hold her to it.

As both a teacher and a parent at St. Joan of Arc, I get to witness this symphony on a daily basis. I walk down the halls fulfilling my “curator duties,” and see kids who are engaged in the work on their desks or on the SMARTboard. iPad apps and a state-of-the-art science lab reinforce the STEM focus of the school. Students spend more time exploring on their own with their teachers acting as dynamic guides rather than dry lecturers. The teachers know their stuff, care about each student, and are the kind of role models I want for my own children.

Rather than a downpour of standardized tests, students’ projects take center stage. Oftentimes these projects cross over subjects in the STEM interdisciplinary model. I had the pleasure of being a part of two of those for the third grade class. We created an island out of clay, pipe cleaners, and beads to coincide with their Mim’s Island Unit and recently completed a research project that offered students the opportunity to recreate the work of a famous artist, just as my favorite artist, Mary Cassatt, did when she was an art student.

It’s hard to tell what color the walls are in the St. Joan of Arc hallways because students’ essays and illustrations immerse you in a world of color and surprisingly neat handwriting. Our mural, based on student research about our patron, St. Joan of Arc, is breathtaking.

And in every room is a cross, a religious statue, a rosary, a reminder that you are blessed – and so is the school.   

Despite my background as an English teacher, my efforts to teach Collin reading using sight words never took him far. After five months in Mrs. Pesa and Mrs. Nocket’s Kindergarten class, Collin is breezing through books, even if he’s never seen the words before. The Super Kids reading program we use at SJA is incredible, and very similar to the one I used in Mrs. DeCapite and Mrs. Kelly’s Kindergarten class at St. Margaret’s. Each unit teaches the students a different letter using a character whose name begins with that letter (“Golly,” the dog, is my favorite. He came with a scratch ‘n sniff booklet.) Collin loves to tell me about the Super Kids’ adventures and to point out their letters everywhere we go.

St. Joan of Arc is a STEM school, which means that Collin will learn more science, technology, engineering, and math skills in the next eight and a half years than I will in my entire life. He gives me the play-by-play on science experiments all the time. (So, we have to take a straw and put a feather in it and blow! And that’s the wind. The harder you blow, the farther the feather goes!) Unlike me, Collin will learn to think logically. But, as his art teacher, I can assure you he and the rest of my students will be creative thinkers, too. By using “whole brain” thinking skills, they can solve just about any problem.

Besides providing a strong academic foundation, Catholic Schools also offer students character education. I feel comfortable knowing that my values and moral beliefs are embraced at St. Joan of Arc and that Collin’s teachers will reinforce what we’re teaching him at home.

After a recent snow storm, I was starting my car in the driveway when Collin, who wasn’t yet buckled in, pressed the button for my sunroof. Within seconds, the front seats, console, steering wheel and I were covered in a blanket of snow.

“Oh, Mommy,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m really and truly sorry. It was an accident, and I won’t let it happen again.” He continued to apologize for 15 minutes. I tried to contain my laughter, forgave him, and mentioned it to his teacher the next day.

“We’ve been really focused on apologizing and forgiveness,” she said. Collin even taught Frank how to say “Excuse me,” and excitedly retells the Bible stories he learns in religion class on our daily walk home. He also tells me about his friends who made “silly choices” that day. (Sometimes I think that silly friend might be himself.)

Living, working, and worshipping within a quarter mile radius has been a real blessing. I have more time to spend on my family and have found a home in my parish and school communities. I know every student in my school and many of their parents.

Seeing them at Mass on Sunday is a reminder that we are a unified front who have chosen to raise their children in a faith that has lasted over two thousand years, even as more and more people choose to live secular lives. Plus, it’s so cute to see the little kindergarteners wave frantically at me, their smiles revealing a recent visit by the Tooth Fairy.

I’m looking forward to the week ahead. Here’s our Catholic Schools Week schedule:

Monday – Buddy Day – Students will paint rice bowls with their buddy for Catholic Relief Services.
Tuesday – Parent Day – Parents are invited to attend 8:30 Mass and visit their children at school.
Wednesday – Teacher Appreciation Day
Thursday – Staff Appreciation Day
Friday – Student Appreciation Day – Pajama Day!    

Catholic Schools Week was, and is, an opportunity to answer the question, “Why?” “Why is a Catholic education one of the best gifts I can give my child?” I hope I’ve answered that question for you, but if I haven’t, stop in and discover for yourself.


January 27, 2015 12:14
By Robyn Barberry

Public policy

“Frank will comprehend and follow directions to ensure his safety in public places.” This was the goal that Frank’s special educator and I had established yesterday morning.

A few hours later, I was yelling his name and chasing him around the St. Joan of Arc parking lot with Leo on my left hip and Frank’s shoe in my right hand, looking like an idiot in front of the parents and grandparents of my students. I imagined them thinking, “If she can’t control her own kid, how does she manage mine?”

Frank isn’t like any of my 200 students, not even his own brother. For starters, he’s 2 and a half, which automatically makes him unreasonable. But Frank’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t understand us –Stop! No! Don’t! Come back! FRANK! - because of his language and developmental delay.

I like to imagine that Frank’s words are stuffed into a closet in his brain and that someone is leaning up against it. I’d love to push that guy out of the way so that I can hear Frank say, “Can I have an apple?” or “Have you seen my shoe?” or “I love you, Mommy!”

But, that guy is Goliath and Patrick, me, our parents, Frank’s teachers, and even Collin keeps slinging pebbles at him. It’s working, one word at a time.

Maybe someday that barrier will fall down, and I’ll say, “Frank! Let someone else have a chance to talk.”

The truth is, we don’t yet have a label to stick on Frank other than “receptive language and social developmental delay.” Those are just pieces to the puzzle. Symptoms of something greater. Is it a fluky phase? Or is it an auditory processing disorder? Or is he on the autism spectrum?

There are so many times that I wish I knew how to classify Frank so that I can recalculate my GPS for his future – and mine. Or at the very least so that I can explain to people in public why my child behaves in such an off-putting way!  
I took the boys to the Sky Zone in Timonium for New Year’s Eve. It’s a trampoline park that operates on a grid system – one jumper per square. Frank was in heaven. Except, he couldn’t understand the rules. There were several children half his size bouncing happily within the confines of their jumping units. But not Frank. He’d intrude upon other people’s squares, sending “Where is your mother, you little brat?” stares my way.

I pulled the attendant aside and apologized for Frank’s behavior, explaining that he has a developmental delay and has trouble understanding directions. She tried to be his “coach,” escorting him to a square in the back, but as soon as he interceded with a presumed cheerleader’s backflip, I pulled him out early.

Like any toddler, when Frank is removed from a situation he is enjoying, he throws a tantrum. Only, I can’t walk away from him like I did the two or three times Collin threw a tantrum. Frank runs – fast! And he is super strong, so grabbing him and holding onto him is nothing short of gator wrestling. To add to the chaos, his screams could earn him a spot in a metal band.

Most of our ventures out of our house involve Frank being strapped into a car seat or my trusty double stroller. I can’t trust him to hold my hand or stay by my side. He’s oblivious to traffic and has to get his hands on everything. We don’t visit many other people’s houses, and when we do, Patrick and I tag-team between socializing with our friends and family and “Frank Patrol.” The rules are: keep both eyes on Frank at all times and never let him go out of arm’s reach. It’s like being in a pool, only slightly less fun.

Frank, age 2, May 2014.  Note the lack of books on the bookshelf and the missing shoe.

I want to stop for a second to talk about what makes Frank so wonderful. It starts with those twinkly blue eyes. There’s a spark in there. He has so many ideas that he wants to share – as soon as we get that pesky bouncer out of the way. He’s generous with kisses and has hands-down the best laugh I’ve ever heard. (Usually it means he’s up to no good, but his chuckle makes up for it.)

He bops up and down in his booster seat and hums if he’s eating something really yummy. And he is a master at piecing together puzzles and solving problems – all without saying a word. In fact, he will determine a way to get something he wants without even needing to talk to us. This is why our doors, refrigerator, pantry, cabinets, and all electronic devices are outfitted with reinforced locks. (And he STILL manages to find a way in!)

So, back to the goal about behaving in public. Frank needs to learn to hold my hand, to walk close to me, to come back, to turn around, and to stop when we’re outside of the house. He needs full immersion in public places to learn how to live in the “real world.” I’m going to have to find a fun place to take Frank and Leo once a week. I’m going have to learn to ignore the dirty looks from people who don’t understand Frank’s situation when I’m chasing him or if he has a meltdown. And I’m going to have to keep praying that God grants Frank with the ability to speak and to listen, to understand and to be understood.  

January 22, 2015 05:04
By Robyn Barberry

Chelley’s courage


Chelley Vukmanic is a lot like me. A graduate of Salisbury University’s English program (where we met), who became a teacher, a wife, and a mom in rapid succession. She’s a cheerleading coach, too, which, along with her Catholic faith, has brought her the optimism and hope she needs to face a serious medical illness. Here you will find her story. Here you will find a way to help Chelley and her family.

Fifteen Minutes

For the past five months, my favorite event of the day is my mid-afternoon shower. It’s not because I need to wash away the sweat and grime of a hard day’s work, though I wish it were. It’s not because the warm shower is relaxing, and it’s certainly not because I love our bathroom’s old fashioned tiling. It’s because for those 15 minutes each afternoon, I am standing and able to feel “normal.”

My Painful Diagnosis

This journey – my journey – began the first weekend in August when I got out of bed and felt the worst headache I had ever experienced. It felt like my head was imploding, and I assure you that this is not a hyperbole. My neck was sore, and I also couldn’t hear anything in my left ear. Once I began vomiting and could not even think straight, I went to the ER. I used trusty WebMD to diagnose myself with Meningitis, however, the ER doctor calmed me down and told me I was suffering from painful trigger point muscle knots in my neck and shoulders. He gave me pain medication, recommended physical therapy, and sent me home.

Being a high school English teacher and cheerleading coach, the end of August is usually exciting and fun. I get to help with Cheer tryouts, set up my classroom just how I want it for the new school year, and then plan out the first few weeks of lessons. Needless to say, this was an awful time of year to suffer from debilitating headaches. Instead of enjoying my reunion with colleagues on my first day back, I only survived the last 20 minutes of a department meeting with an ice pack held to the back of my head before needing to go home and lay down. Even though I was taking the maximum dosage of Ibuprofen and Tylenol each day, the only relief I felt came from lying flat on my back. The constant pain was keeping me so nauseous that my weight plummeted down to 82 pounds.

After weeks of physical therapy, three visits to my primary care physician, and a round of steroid medication, I was finally sent for an MRI of my brain just to “rule out anything serious.” I was very nervous about the MRI because I live with a panic disorder and being trapped in that small tube for any length of time will inevitably trigger an attack. My husband was able to stand in the room with his hand on my ankle for reassurance as I kept telling myself that the MRI would be over soon and the images would confirm that there was nothing seriously wrong with me. I repeated this like a mantra: “It’s almost over. You’ll find out that nothing’s wrong. It’s almost over. You’ll find out that nothing’s wrong.”

My husband and I had only driven about 10 miles away from the imaging clinic when I got a call asking us to turn around and return for more scans. By then I had been upright for too long so my brain felt like it was being ripped apart. I couldn’t handle it any longer, so as soon as the technician ushered us through the door, I pushed the patient chair out of my way and threw myself down on the floor of the neuroradiologist’s office. My pain completely overshadowed any embarrassment I might have felt from being sprawled out on the floor of a medical professional’s office as he was greeting us. When I apologized for having to lie down, the doctor’s response was, “Oh no, I would do exactly the same thing if I were you.” Then, he went into a detailed description of spontaneous intracranial hypotension caused by a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) Leak.

In the most basic of terms, a small tear in my spinal dura is causing spinal fluid to leak out of my spinal canal. Without the proper volume of spinal fluid to support my brain, it sags. The sagging pulls on the meninges, which connect the brain to the skull. Hence, the horrible headaches whenever I am upright. The neuroradiologist added that I need to lay flat as much as possible because if the meninges stretch too much, they can tear and cause a hematoma. There are also potentially life-threatening risks involved, such as a stroke. He told me to stay on strict bed rest and see a neurologist for further instructions. He helped me off the floor just to put me back into the tiny, constricting MRI tube for an even longer period of time to scan my entire spine in search of the leak. I did not need my mantra though. I prayed instead. My entire focus was on asking God for help while tears flowed nonstop.

How Many Spinal Procedures Does It Take To Seal A Leak?

I have been blessed with a phenomenal neurologist, Dr. Price, who has been amazingly supportive through this entire ordeal. She graciously came into her office early to see me the morning after the neuroradiologist called her. Dr. Price informed me that my images did not display the exact location of the leak, so the protocol is to go through a spinal blood patch procedure. She made some calls to an interventional radiologist friend and was able to get me an appointment for a blood patch at the hospital that same day.

Looking back at how quickly events occurred over those two days, I recall thinking to myself, “I’ll be back on my feet in no time!” Unfortunately, I was not one of the lucky people whose leak sealed with the first blood patch, or the second, or the third.  

I can say with complete honesty, brimming on the edge of desperation, that I hope no one I know ever needs any of the spinal procedures I have received over these past five months. My panic disorder definitely makes most medical experiences more frightening and intense for me than the average person, but I cannot imagine them being enjoyable for anyone. I don’t feel it’s necessary to go into much detail for this blog, but the blood patch procedures consist of the Interventional Radiologist using a long needle to inject a collection of my own blood into my spinal canal with the hope of my blood coagulating over the tear in my spinal dura, which would seal the leak. My lower back is numbed for the procedures, but I am awake on the table and able to feel the manipulation of the needle, as well as sensations caused by the needle entering the spinal area. Sometimes I would feel intense pressure, while other times, I would feel an electric shock shoot down my leg or across my hip.

Following each blood patch procedure, I was told to do nothing but lay flat for twenty-four hours, and then slowly regain a normal routine with fingers crossed that the leak had sealed. It was emotionally draining to be filled with fear and anxiety leading up to and during the procedure, followed by physical pain for a week, and then a complete hopeful desire to make it through each day without a headache only to crash into a solid wall of disappointment when the symptoms returned. A few weeks after each blood patch when I would feel the headache and neck pain return, I would sink into despair, anger, and shame.

After three blood patches and one special spinal imaging procedure, my Neurologist and Interventional Radiologist referred me to a Neurosurgeon at John’s Hopkins Medical Center. Dr. Price thought that Hopkins might have better luck identifying the exact location of the spinal fluid leak, which could possibly require surgery to seal. After a very frustrating month of commuting to and from Baltimore and two more MRI scans, we were no closer to a solution. My neurologist had heard of a CSF Leak Specialist who works at Duke University Hospital, so she referred me to him.

Ask, Believe, Receive

I cannot recall another time when I felt more hopeless and defeated. Since I am on unpaid medical leave and my husband had to resign from his job to take care of our six year-old daughter and me while I was on bed rest, we are approaching the edge of a cliff plummeting down into financial crisis. We are a young married couple who just purchased our first home and a new car now wishing that we had stayed in our little apartment and pushed our decrepit car around for at least one more year. Hearing that my only hope of leaving behind this permanently horizontal life involved traveling to North Carolina to see a specialist seemed impossible. I prayed to God and asked the questions that I didn’t know the answers to - How many months will I have to wait before the specialist could fit me into his schedule? How can I afford the trip? Who will look after my daughter? How will I handle more tests and procedures with my panic disorder? God answered each of my questions in his own unique way.

About a month after my diagnosis, I had a dream that I was at Salisbury University and failing Sociology because my professor didn’t know that my reason for missing class was a CSF Leak. In the dream, my roommate was Marissa, a friend I hadn’t spoken to much since we graduated from high school. Thinking it was a random humorous dream, I wrote about it on Facebook and tagged Marissa.

This sparked a conversation between us, which led to Marissa’s Bible group being generously supportive of my family. At the time, I thought the dream was a way for God to bring this supportive soul back into my life.

Fast forward to the end of November when Marissa sent me a message just to see how I was doing, and I explained that my best chance is to try to get an appointment with the specialist at Duke. I told her that I was feeling hopeless about the situation, and Marissa’s response was that she works there! I knew she was living in North Carolina, but since we had lost touch for so many years, I had no idea that she was working at Duke. Marissa offered to email the specialist for me and she even offered to host us while we are down there. Within two weeks of Marissa emailing the specialist, I had an appointment set up for early in January. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that I dreamt about a high school friend who I had not spoken to in over a decade and she just happens to work at the hospital where the only CSF Leak specialist on the east coast is located. I believe that Marissa is an answer to my prayers.

A few of my colleagues who had heard of our financial burden offered to begin an account for me at to help raise money for my trip to Duke and the unpaid bills quickly accumulating. I thanked them for the offer, but wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with publicly requesting monetary donations. After much discussion with my family, my sister set up and began sharing the link on Facebook. I thought that if we were lucky, we could raise half of the money needed for gas, food, and a hotel room close to the hospital so we would not be an imposition to Marissa and her family. In less than 20 days, the account raised $3,350! I cannot look at the webpage without crying tears of joy and gratitude. Family, friends, as well as current and former colleagues and students have been donating money. My heart swells even more when I see the names of kind strangers who are donating to help me and my family. I believe that everyone who made a donation is an answer to my prayers.

My 6-year-old daughter has been such a trooper through all of this, even though she has been worried for me and a little frustrated that her mommy cannot get out of bed. The last thing I wanted was to scare her more by bringing her to Duke with us during my upcoming spinal procedures, but we will need to be there for almost a full week.

My mother-in-law just recently lost her job because the company had to make cuts for financial reasons. Upon hearing what we are going through, she immediately offered to stay at our home and take care of our daughter while we are away for the week. She can work on her resume and look for job opportunities while providing our daughter with the comfort of a normal routine during this difficult time. I believe that this is an answer to my prayers.

As I mentioned earlier, medical tests and procedures are extremely challenging for me because of my panic disorder. I have tried medications, meditations, and therapy, but the anxiety lives on until the panic attack rises. During one of my last MRIs, my anxiety was worse than normal so I kept moving. The technician told me that she needed to re-do the scans because they were blurry from my movements. When she pushed the button for me to slide back into the enclosure, I tried to focus on calming breathing exercises, but it wasn’t working. Then, I began reciting the Rosary to myself. My focus transitioned from the loud clanking noises and the suffocating confined space to the Rosary. I was able to remain still and calm for the remainder of the scans. Even though my anxiety is a constant battle, I believe that turning my focus toward the Lord calms me much more than medication.

One Day At A Time

It is hard to live a life in a bed. I feel my muscles weakening, and I mourn the activities I can no longer do. I celebrated my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, Halloween, my daughter’s sixth birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year while lying flat in bed. I wish I could say that I’ve been optimistic and positive through this entire journey, but that’s simply not true. I have my bad days where I fear never returning to a life outside of my bed. But I’m trying to take it one day at a time. I’m learning lessons about humility, appreciation, family, friendship and faith. And as I await the upcoming spinal procedures at Duke that I pray will seal my leak, I’m really enjoying my daily 15 minute showers.

January 08, 2015 05:51
By Robyn Barberry

Etsy: Your one-stop-shop for one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts

At Christmas time, we give each other gifts just as the Magi bestowed frankincense, gold, and myrrh on baby Jesus, who is the greatest gift anyone could ever know. The tradition of Christmas gifts shared among loved ones is beautiful … but sometimes it can be so frustrating!!! What do you buy for the person who tends to shy away from anything new or different? Or the person whose interests change so quickly you’re always two steps behind? And who could forget – “the person who has everything?!?!”

After throwing my hands up in the air, I stopped my annual sojourn to the mall and took a tour on the Amazon, instead . With my Prime membership, I am guaranteed free two-day delivery on hundreds of thousands of items. Here is where I find great prices and availability on those things that normally would cost me a parking nightmare, long lines, and murky encounters with other stressed-out shoppers – the kind which make me question the spirit of Christmas.

But, even the Amazon jungle has its limits. Sometimes I’m looking for something unique; something that doesn’t come from a factory; something that isn’t buried under plastic in a box. This used to require hit-or-miss trips to craft fairs and expensive commissioned pieces. This year, I’ve been finding treasures on Etsy, an online marketplace for artists, artisans, crafters, antique dealers, and other creative minds to peddle their wares.

I started using Etsy as a venue for finding graphic designs for invitations and games for Frank’s Dr. Seuss-themed first birthday party, but soon I branched out into fine jewelry for my mom, reusable The Very Hungry Caterpillar sandwich and snack bags (perfect for St. Joan of Arc’s waste-free Wednesday lunches), and everything a little boy could ever want that has a lion on it (sorry, Leo! You’ll just have to get used to it).

Lion Cupcake Topper available at PrettyPalace1

Crochet lion newborn bonnet by kreativkris.  Screen printed personalized lion pillow by zoeysattic.  Custom first birthday lion bib by grandmasbabyboutique.

I have been able to find things I never imagined just by typing a word into the search tab. (I just tried “Nativity” and found all of these diversely beautiful things!)  Every seller I have dealt with has been professional, flexible, and eager to please.

My business-savvy best friend, Rachel, and her talented husband, Dave, sell his iconic Baltimore-themed photographs at their 13th Hour Photography Etsy store. Dave uses a special metallic paper to make his art appear 3-D. Dave says, “It’s so rewarding knowing that someone spent their hard-earned money on purchasing a piece of my artwork. Whether they bought it to display in their home or give as a gift, it means so much to me personally.”

Baltimore Ravens Win Superbowl XXXV Crab Art Print by 13thhourphoto.

So if you have a talent, consider sharing it – and making a little extra dough – on Etsy. And, of course, if you’re looking for a special gift for an O’s fan, Ravens fan, or photography connoisseur, check out 13th Hour Photography.

I wish I could share with you some of the awesome custom Christmas gifts I’ve found so far, but I’d be ruining the surprise for some very special people in my life who just might be reading this!

My suggestion: start shopping on Etsy soon. Like the second you finish reading this. Craftsmanship takes time – and so does shipping. (We have a few things coming from Europe that we ordered two weeks ago). So, what are you waiting for?!?! That perfect present is a click away!

December 12, 2014 03:41
By Robyn Barberry

Off to see the wizard

Don’t tell the FBI, but when I was 5 I made a poster advertising a screening of The Wizard of Oz and hung it in our living room window. I was charging 25 cents, and my brother and I were in our makeshift Dorothy and Tin Man costumes, waiting for the VHS tape to rewind. (My mom had recorded the movie when it aired on channel 13. I still remember exactly where the commercials interjected, offering us time to go to the bathroom and/or get a snack.)

Our theater boasted a 19-inch screen and two yellow plastic Little Tykes chairs. It was so much better than when we used to watch it in black and white.

Flash forward to 2012. I’m bundling up a 13-day-old Leo in a yellow blanket and the lion bonnet I had a lady from Etsy make just for him. Frank’s Tin Man costume already ripped up the side, and Collin’s homemade Scarecrow hat looks pretty darned close to the one from the movie. We watch it several times a week, even though Frank, like his uncle, is a little scared of the Wicked Witch.

It’s still one of my favorite movies of all time. I can recite every word in my head. I have a pair of ruby slippers.

Obviously I’ve been a big fan for a long time for reasons I can’t even begin to get into. But, I’ve never experienced The Wizard of Oz like I did last Sunday, when I saw it on the big screen for the very first time at the Senator.

My mom, my aunt, my cousin, Collin and I settled into comfy seats with popcorn, peanut chews, and Swedish fish, the curtains closed before us. We couldn’t wait to pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

After Betty Boop’s Snow White ended, and all but a few kernels of our popcorn remained, that familiar overture boomed through the speakers, rumbling the ground below us, the “young at heart” for which this film was dedicated.

As the all-too-familiar picture unfolded, I found myself seeing and hearing details I’d never noticed before. A sign painted on Professor Marvel’s caravan indicated that he was a “balloon exhibitionist.”

The munchkins became individuals, rather than a bright blur of tiny faces. “That’s me; that’s Frank, and that’s Leo,” Collin pointed out when the Lollipop Guild did their little song and dance for Dorothy. He continued to point “himself” (the guy in the green plaid shirt) out. It was easy to follow that particular munchkin when he was so…big.

I admit I was a little afraid when Dorothy and the guys were wandering through the woods. Collin and I held onto each other when the Cowardly Lion read the sign: “I’d turn back if I were you.” Those Flying Monkeys are terrifying when they’re 8 feet tall!

I focused on every word of every song, laughing with the rest of the audience at the appropriate times, clapping when the Witch was dead. (Ding! Dong!)

The most dramatic moment, as you can imagine, is when Dorothy opens the door that leads from Kansas to Munchkinland and color, glorious color, gushes through the screen. The audience gasped and applauded just as it must have 75 years ago.

Seeing The Wizard of Oz at the Senator was like putting on a pair of glasses and a set of hearing aids. The movie means even more to me now that I’ve seen it under a magnifying glass, soaking up the details of the costumes, the sets, the special effects, and heard it through an amplifier: every creak, every rustle, every note of the orchestra, and every whisper of desperation for a brain, a heart, a home, the nerve.

Above all, I was locked in and focused expressly on the masterpiece before me. I wasn’t folding laundry or pressing pause to break up a fight about a toy. I didn’t check my phone once the entire time. Those 101 minutes were dedicated to The Wizard of Oz.
After running into a fellow St. Joan of Arc teacher and her three spectacular daughters that I’m lucky enough to call my students, we left, our minds buzzing our hearts fluttering.

I can’t wait to return to the Senator for some more of their special showings.  On December 20th, at 10:00 a.m., they will be airing another one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, for charity. Bring a few canned goods, and I’ll see you there!  

December 02, 2014 04:49
By Robyn Barberry

'Beautiful Oops!'

I am a murderer of trees. All art teachers are. We go through more paper than The Baltimore Sun.

“Can I get some more paper?” asks the girl in the jumper who tugs at my shirtwaist. “I made my house too big.”

“Mrs. Barberry! I need to start over!” one student will shout, holding up a crayon portrait. He’s made an X over an asymmetrical face.

Swish, swish, swish, the sheets disappear before me and become butterflies and monsters and those broads from Frozen and inevitably a conglomeration of squares from Minecraft. And sometimes they’re not perfect. But, isn’t that okay?

I needed an intervention; a way to teach the kids to be resourceful. And creative. And confident in their abilities.

So, I consulted the manual on all of those things. A book that would make the medicine behind my message go down smoothly and sweetly.

Enter  "Beautiful Oops" by Barney Saltzberg. With more color than Collin’s 152 crayon collection, fun little characters, and an important message about art and life, it was just what the Lorax ordered.

Each page shows a different “problem,” like a paint splatter or an unsightly crease, along with a whimsical “solution,” like turning it into an animal.

I’ve always loved books with “special effects,” and this one is full of them. From fun textures to flips and folds and an accordion-style pop-up that elicited elated gasps, I never lost a second of attention from even one member of my easily-distracted audience of kindergarteners and first graders.

Naturally, there was an assignment to go along with the book. Can you guess what they did?

I gave each student a piece of paper that was in some way damaged. Some of it was my recycling, some was crumbled up, some burned, some ripped, some with fingerprints, some with eraser-smudged pencil marks, and so on.

I was astonished by the results! A curvy piece of torn paper became a snowboarding course. A streak of highlighter became a kite string. Sharpie dots became a woman’s shirt. A gash in the middle of the page became a pop-up beaver. Collin (he’s my student as well as my son) turned teeth-like cuts into tabs for an x-ball machine. (He may have meant Xbox, but he has no idea what that is…)
A gash in the middle of the page became a pop-up beaver

Collin turned teeth-like cuts into tabs for an x-ball machine.

The students excitedly shared their assignments to their classmates’ amusement. They were so excited about their work that I let them take their “beautiful oopses” home. I just wish I’d taken more pictures!

At the end of class, I reminded them of the real lesson. Instead of throwing something away, why not turn it into something different? Fix it. Change it. Give it a second chance. You never know what a little ingenuity can do.

November 20, 2014 03:58
By Robyn Barberry

Born to run

It is like something out of a dream. A stadium full of people chanting his name, “Col-lin! Col-lin!” as he weaves his way around the track, through the field, up the hill and back. Five years old, but hanging with the fourth graders in this, his first, ¾ mile race. The one question on everyone’s mind, “Can he do it?”

Flash forward to the day before. A conversation on the walk home from school.

“Collin, you’re going to after care tomorrow.”

“Where are you going to be?”

“I’m going to a race.”

“You’re running?”

“Not this time. A couple of the boys from running club are running in a race. It’s at Bob-Bob’s high school, where Becky works, Archbishop Curley.”

“I want to go.”

“You’re too little. Maybe when you get a little older.”

“I can do it,” he said. “Watch!”

He ran the 1/8 of a mile ahead of us to our front door.

“See! I told you! I can do it!”

“It’s further than that,” I told him. “It’s like running to the bowling alley.” He was used to our Tuesday excursions to Bowling Club.

But, he normally ended up hitching a ride on my stroller.

“Aww, please!” he insisted.

“Let me think about it,” I said.

I reread the flyer for the Archbishop Curley Cross Country Classic. The youngest age group was 4th grade and under. The distance was ¾ of a mile. I imagined one of my kindergarten students’ parents approaching me and asking me if his or her son or daughter could participate. Based on the information before me, I’d say they qualified. And so did Collin.

“You can go,” I told him. “But you have to run. You can’t stop. You have to keep going.”

“Okay,” he said.

Before I knew it, I was writing his name on a paper bib (number 61) and pinning it to his navy blue St. Joan of Arc Sweatshirt. I surveyed the crowd. He was the littlest kid there. Everyone else seemed to be noticing, too. I overheard their whispers as we walked by, “How old is that kid?” I struggle with a severe “Imposter Complex,” so I began to wonder if I was making a huge mistake.

By chance, Patrick was working on one of Curley’s athletic fields, so he made arrangements to spectate, as did my dad, who is a dutiful Curley alum, and Collin’s godmother, Becky, who teaches Spanish there. We watched each heat take off from the track, break through the fence, dominate a monster of a hill, tear through the top tier of the stadium, and round back down the hill into the home stretch of the track. The oldest students did it twice, while the younger groups fought their way around once.

Once. That’s all it would take for Collin to finish the race. As he bounced up and down cheering on our two runners, I imagined him stumbling up the hill, falling to the ground in tears until I came to rescue him. I pictured him veering off of course. I saw a vision of Collin quitting before he even made his way through the fence. My students, on the other hand, finished strong and made me proud.

When it was time for the fourth grade and under boys to line up, we barely made it to the track on time. As soon as Collin set his toe on the line, the gun went off, and so did he.

He fell behind just as soon as he started; his short, little 5-year-old legs no match for the brawn of the seasoned 9-year-old athletes. Patrick and I followed him on the ground, all the way to the fence, where a Curley student acting as a course marshal decided to abandon his post (Collin was, after all, the very last runner) and join Collin for his adventure. I looked at his face and thought I saw him crying. He smiled and waved.

Patrick and I stood at the base of the hill, our hearts pounding, watching in anxious anticipation as he ran toward the sky. We cheered him along, yelling out his name. Suddenly, a man with a radio voice joined us. “And coming up the hill right now is Collin Barberry, a kindergartener from St. Joan of Arc, and the youngest runner to ever compete in the Curley Classic. Let’s cheer him on!”

The fourth graders were finishing in bursts as Collin reached the top of the bowl. A line of spectators formed above the top row of the stadium, reaching down to give Collin “high-5”s. He tagged every single one, back-tracking if he needed to.

He kept up with his running partner all the way back down the hill and powered through his final stretch. The crowd went wild as the little blond-haired boy in the rumpled navy blue sweat suit crossed the finish line.

I ran over to him. He was panting, his face crimson. His hair had taken on the form of a stormy sea, wet, wild, and wavy. He looked like a grown man for a minute. Then, I saw that his shoe was untied and remembered that he was so little that he didn’t even know how to tie it. “I’m sorry I doubted you,” I told him as I turned his royal blue laces into bunny ears.

Patrick, my Dad, Becky and I swarmed him with hugs and forced him into a million photo ops. A lovely young lady, Caroline Kogler, approached us and offered Collin some Powerade and candy (Father Matt tried to steal some of Collin’s Skittles!) and told us that Collin would be receiving a medal.

“Look, Mom! I earned a medal!” he said, proudly raising the bronze coin on the red, white, and blue ribbon around his neck. It didn’t matter that he was the last runner to finish. What mattered was that he did finish, even though no one expected him to. Not even me.

Collin opened himself to the possibility of success. And everything else fell into place. I’m so grateful for that young man who ran beside Collin like a guardian angel. I thank Ms. Kogler for formally recognizing Collin. That’s not why we came, but it made his first race extra special for him. I’m honored to have been a part of the Archbishop Curley Cross Country Classic, and thank Mr. Gene Hoffman for giving Collin the opportunity to participate in this outstanding event.

Above all, thanks be to God for giving Collin strength of body, mind, spirit, and will to complete such a challenging feat. I learned more about my son in those 12 minutes than I have since the day he was born.    

November 13, 2014 04:02
By Robyn Barberry

"Love, Serve, Teach"

Like myself and my St. Joan of Arc counterparts, Beth Awalt loves her job.  As the volunteer manager at Catholic Charities' Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, she spends her days welcoming those who wish to serve to a facility that provides housing and training to over 275 homeless men and women.

The bounce in Beth's step and her winning smile warmed the gray October morning when the St. Joan of Arc faculty (myself included) arrived for our annual retreat.  This would be a professional development like no other.  We would be on our feet, working side-by-side, talking and laughing, spending our time together doing something that matters.

I was expecting the facility to be some dim industrial space with nondescript walls and dirty floors.  Instead,  the Weinberg Center was bright and clean, with inspiring works of art EVERYWHERE.  Everyone I encountered was friendly- employees, volunteers, and residents alike.

We toured the dorms, which are empty during the day while residents work or socialize in two large lounges at the very front of the building (one for men and one for women).  We learned the rules of the place and that they help maintain a sense of peace in the community.  And then, we made sandwiches.  Lots of them. 

In the cafeteria area, we arranged ourselves alongside about two dozen loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly.  Each of us had a role in assembling these "emergency meals" for the Weinberg Center to provide for people who, for various reasons, are unable to participate in scheduled meal times.  We lost count, but we made enough sandwiches to fill a 35 gallon plastic bin to the top!

We also stopped briefly at Our Daily Bread.  Once again, it was a far cry from the gloomy gray room I'd always pictured.  The entire first floor was abuzz with excitement.  Change for the better exuded from the computer lab where men in the Christopher Place Academy prepared themselves for life in the workforce.  Lively conversation and the aroma of lasagna filled the air of the bright cafe, which looked more like my award-winning college cafeteria than the soup kitchens I'd seen in movies.  My big takeaway: they need us to make casseroles.  Recipes are available here.

Next, we took a tour of the Basilica.  I hadn't been there since I was confirmed 15 years ago, and found myself most impressed by the paintings of the Evangelists that were discovered in the dome during renovations and, of course, the crypt.  Photographs and artifacts from St. John Paul the Great's visit to Baltimore brought back memories of my incredible privilege of being present that day.  Of course, I visited the gift shop and  narrowed my selection down to a special cross that spoke to me.  As we were leaving, we spied none other than Archbishop Lori, who was taking his beautiful dog for a well-deserved walk.

We ended our day by breaking bread at Mick O'Shea's.  While laughing with colleagues and learning more about their lives, I thanked The Lord for allowing me to be a part of such an extraordinary school family and for the life of comfort I live.    

November 04, 2014 09:17
By Robyn Barberry


On Saturday, amidst great fanfare, Leo graduated from having his life measured in months to having his life measured in years. In other words, he turned 1… and we celebrated.

Have you ever wondered why first birthday parties are such a big deal? Why is so much effort put into an occasion the guest of honor is unlikely to remember? And the details!

The party was held on the sod farm. The sunshine illuminated everything, while the wind tormented the orange, yellow, turquoise, and spring green tablecloths and balloons. The lion piñata swayed back and forth as we weighted down the plates and napkins which starred an adorable yellow lion with an orange mane. He was holding on to a blue balloon. “1” it read. 

Both grandfathers prepared their famous chili (vegetarian and venison). Patrick whipped up his first batch of real macaroni and cheese. Our friends at Chick-fil-a delighted kids of all ages with their crowd-pleasing chicken nuggets. A very dear friend prepared 6 dozen cupcakes: chocolate, vanilla, and pumpkin spice. She even made a little lion smash cake. And with all that food, it was a real fight to keep the bees away.

My sister-in-law hid some cannonball pumpkins (about the size of a grapefruit) in an open grass field. A short hayride led us there, and the children squealed as they “picked” their pumpkins from our “patch.”

The candle wouldn’t stay lit, so poor Leo didn’t really get to make his wish. (I made one for him.) I’m not sure why, but he was hesitant to tear into his little lion cake. (His brothers didn’t mind.) Of course, he was spoiled with toys, books, and new clothes (always nice when you’re the third son!)

The party was delightful, but it wasn’t because of the details I just mentioned. Soon, they will fade from everyone’s memory. Even mine. But the thing that will stick around is the warmth and love we felt that day.

Like a wedding, a first birthday party isn’t just about the people who are being celebrated; it’s about the contributions made by loved ones in bringing them to this point. Leo’s first birthday party wasn’t just about him reaching a major milestone; it was a way of honoring his brothers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. These were the people who fed him, changed him, bathed him, clothed him, played with him, and read to him during his infancy. These were the people who nurtured him and helped him grow into the toddler he is becoming. And I’m grateful for each one of them.

I haven’t written much about Leo. I wanted the first year to be just for us. But I will tell you that he is quite sweet, patient, forgiving (especially to Frank, who has a tendency to bite, hit, and be rough with him), curious, and almost always smiling. He loves his kitty cats (and animals in general), every kind of food (even Brussels sprouts!), patty-cakes, Sesame Street, and stealing travel-sized toiletries from underneath the bathroom sink. He’s happy, healthy, strong, and lovely – all the things we prayed for when he was still living in my tummy. As he grows, you’ll get to know him better. I’m looking forward to it, too. 

October 22, 2014 01:12
By Robyn Barberry

The math lesson

I always joke that part of the reason I chose to major in English is that I wouldn’t need math. My distaste for numbers began in third grade when I struggled to learn my times tables. In sixth grade, the letters showed up next to my numbers, and rather than rising to the challenges Algebra offered, I resorted to doodling in the margins of my notebook. I took the most basic math class I could in college, “Mathematical Ideas,” then turned my back on calculations and equations for nearly a decade. I taught myself algebra last summer to prepare for my real estate exam, but there are still more holes in my math education than there are digits in pi.

So when Dr. Peter Litchka and Dr. Peter Rennert-Ariev of Loyola University, the directors of the revolutionary professional development program St. Joan of Arc has joined alongside several other Archdiocese of Baltimore schools, asked my colleagues and I to go “out of our comfort zones” and observe another teacher from another subject area, I knew where I was heading.
Enter Kim Evelyn (pronounced “EEVE-lin”), the middle school math teacher at SJA. She invited me to visit her sixth-grade class on a Wednesday morning to observe a lesson on decimals. 

Class began with a homework check, a quiz, and an awesome and unexpected prayer.

Mrs. Evelyn defied the traditional model of teaching by spending less than 10 minutes in front of the board introducing the new topic: decimal place value. “Remember: this is the pennies column and this is the dimes column,” she explained. I wish I’d learned that in sixth grade!

Students spent a short period of guided practice time delving into the fascinating task of measuring gerbil’s tails to the required decimal place (within the confines of their textbooks, of course.) And then, the most exciting thing happened … the iPads came out.

An air of giddiness swept through the room as students fired up their tablets and logged into an interactive program called IXL. IXL is an online, subscription-based program available for preK-high school levels. It covers both math and language arts and includes a variety of problems and games, all of which offer incentives (ribbons), scores, and constructive feedback.

The students were so engaged in the program that you could hear the tapping of their fingers on the glass screens of their iPads. Occasionally someone would exclaim, “I got a ribbon!” Mrs. Evelyn circumnavigated the room, spending a little more time with those students who weren’t grasping the concept and awarding those who finished with a small piece of candy.

Before I knew it, class was over. I was even a little disappointed, as I had been playing along on my phone. (IXL offers 20 free questions a day!) What a striking difference from the days when I tried to nudge the minute hand forward by squinting at it, rather than moving time forward by busily focusing on the problems in front of me. The marriage of technology and the modern, “guide by the side, rather than sage on the stage,” philosophy of teaching have transformed the way students learn. Mrs. Evelyn’s classroom reflects that. It’s a glimpse of the future of education. And it’s exciting.

October 16, 2014 02:56
By Robyn Barberry

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