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.

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Your words are always so inspiring. I also spent 12 years in Catholic school and chose to give my children a Catholic school education. It is the best decision we have ever made!

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I attended public school and taught in them as well. My husband attended catholic school K-12 grade. When our children were born, I was sure they'd attend the local public school. However, my husband asked me to go to the open house at St. Joan of Arc just to see it. I spent about an hour to an hour and a half and when I walked out, I called my husband and told him our kids were going to SJA without a doubt. I saw God everywhere, friendly faces and a welcoming family atmosphere. I realized that my kids could have God in their life daily and be with other like minded families and students rather than just think about God at home and on Sunday. Both my boys attended SJA through 8th grade and then went on to The John Carroll School and I was extremely satisfied with their education, both academic and spiritual. I'm so grateful that 15 years ago my husband asked me to visit a catholic school and consider it for our boys. Thank you Robyn for your insight!

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Unconditional

The Water Challenge


What is the one thing that every person in the world needs every day? Water. (5-13 gallons of it per day, to be exact.) In the United States, we are blessed to have access to an abundance of clean water for brushing our teeth, washing our clothes, our dishes, our bodies, cooking, and, of course, drinking. But over a billion people in developing countries, such as sub-Saharan Africa, do not have access to the very think that keeps us clean, healthy, and alive.  

At St. Joan of Arc School, we always strive to care for others and the environment. So, when we were asked to participate in The Water Challenge, through The Water Project, Inc., all of us joined the cause. Participants are asked to drink nothing but water in a reusable bottle for two weeks and document the milk, juice, soda, and coffee they eliminate. At the end of two weeks, each person donates the money they saved by choosing water over other drinks. The goal is for each person to raise $23. A few months after the money is returned to The Water Project, Inc., donors will receive a report of where their money went, including GPS coordinates! It turns their small sacrifice into something big and important.   




The idea is similar to the kind of fasting we do in Lent. The Water Challenge offers us the chance to think about those who have less than we do and to appreciate something we often take advantage. It also enables us to avoid the waste associated with disposable water bottles. Finally, it encourages us to take better care of our bodies by avoiding caffeinated and sugary drinks.

It was a rough start for many of the students, including my second-grader Collin. They were upset that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the juices they ordered for hot lunch or the lemonade at our Chik-fil-a fundraiser night. It was a big change for little kids, but when teachers like myself rose up to the challenge, our involvement and the reminder wristbands they wore inspired the students to stay on board.

Now the students are excited about their small sacrifice to make the world a better place. Collin even got my tea-drinking parents involved. They send us photo updates to let us know that they’re drinking their H2O! (Now that we've got them hooked, we need to convert them to reusable water bottles!)
                                                                                                                                




It’s not too late for you or your organization to participate in The Water Challenge. If you’re not a fan of tap water, you can buy a filter for your sink or a pitcher for your refrigerator. Even my gym has an awesome water fountain filter! An excellent selection of reusable water bottles can be found in many stores and on Amazon.com. Nalgene, Camelback, and Tervis make excellent leak-proof bottles and cups in a variety of sizes. I’m a big fan of the coated aluminum canteens like the 32 oz. mint green one I have by Simple Modern. My water stays cold for 24 hours!  




Since we started The Water Project I have more energy and am more aware of my water usage in other settings. I’ve been thinking about those who suffer because of their limited access to potable water. I hope that the money we donate can help make their lives better. Above all, I thank God for providing my family with a safe, clean source of the one thing we need most.        

January 14, 2017 12:40
By Robyn Barberry


No Child Left Inside


There’s a Nature Valley granola bar video circulating where an interviewer asks three generations of four families what they did (or do) for fun as a kid.  The grandparents discuss berry picking and escaping from near-bear attacks. The parents also describe creative outdoor play. The kids’ responses are alarming. “Fun” makes them think of their tablets and video games.

It’s heartbreaking on many levels. For one, millennials are living excessively digital lives, spending less time with peers and more time expressing themselves with their fingertips. (I have a theory about why so many young people I know are postponing their drivers’ licenses. They don’t need to get out of the house to socialize!) According to the Nature Conservancy, 88% of kids spend time online every day, while only 66% of kids have had a meaningful experience in nature. 

Far too many of today’s kids aren’t playing outside. When I was ten, my neighborhood was composed of entire families of “free-range children.” We’d set up camp by the creek, pick berries, collect rocks, and study bugs. Today, for valid safety reasons, parents are discouraged from allowing their kids to explore the outdoors unattended. I doubt many of them would be interested in doing so, anyway.

The most detrimental loss belongs to our environment. Because so many kids aren’t spending time getting to know the plants, trees, animals, and water that make up planet Earth, one out of every three young people doesn’t feel obligated to combat the damage our world has suffered at our hands. (Again, according to the Nature Conservancy.) How will the next generation continue to sustain life on earth, if they don’t care about the ecosystem or don’t know how to help it heal?

In response to all these issues and more, the state of Maryland has developed and implemented a series of environmental literacy standards for teachers to use in their classrooms in the hopes that students will be both inspired and armed with the knowledge it will take to save Mother Earth.

But, what am I to do? I’m but a lowly art teacher?

“Nonsense,” says Notre Dame Maryland University professor and STEM coordinator, Dr. Juliann DuPuis. After moving here from New Hampshire, she established a Summer STEM Institute for teachers at the University.

Through day-long programs such as Project WET (about oceans and other bodies of water), Project WOW! (Wonders of Wetlands), NOAA’s Globe Project, Project Learning Tree (I think you can guess what this is about), and Project WILD (about wildlife), Dr. DuPuis and guest environmental educators modeled dozens of ways that the twenty teachers in my class can incorporate environmental science into our wide range of grade levels, curriculum, and school environments.

I sat next to Donna Jones, an inquisitive algebra teacher at Woodlawn High School. Even though our jobs couldn’t be more different, we each managed to find ways to incorporate the activities our instructors demonstrated into our classrooms. The games we played were both fun and educational, and we got to spend plenty of time on the gorgeous grounds of NDMU.

The final component to the class was our “No Child Left Inside” research project. I chose to focus on the Anna C. Leight Estuary Center at Otter Point, which is a ten minute drive from our school. There, we will contribute to clean-up and wetlands restoration projects while practicing wetland photography. The class will write and illustrate a book about our experience, including facts about wetlands and our best photographs from our field trips.

I’ve also decided to establish a “We Love our eARTh” theme for the school year in my art and library classes (yes, I’ve taken on a new role!). Stay tuned for the results of my students environmental art projects, more than a few of which will come from the guides and exercises I gained during my week at the NDMU Summer STEM Institute!    


Model of the water cycle my group made for Project WET.

We went with an "Itsy, Bitsy Spider" theme.


My group, Donna, Alex, and Noelle, building a boat with sticks and yarn for Project WOW!

Our boat had to be float and hold a tennis ball without allowing it to get wet in the small pan.

 

We did it!


My second team gathers data, including GPS coordinates, for our GLOBE location.


My team surveys our location.


Donna examines a "tree cookie" during Project Learning Tree.


Pretending to be "hungry" trees during Project Learning Tree.


Alex and Noelle examine a black bear's fur during Project WILD.

August 04, 2015 03:38
By Robyn Barberry


Lessons from my dad

When we become parents, we become providers. At first, it’s the basics: a place to live, something to eat, soft fabrics to keep baby warm. Then, we add education: Sunday school, preschool, K-12, college. But, throughout each moment of our lives and theirs we are teaching our children what we think it means to be a good person.

Those informal lessons are what matters most. They’re the kind gestures we don’t expect anyone to notice. They’re teachable moments that have the sticking power of warm spaghetti. They’re the video clips our children burn into their minds and play again and again. My dad has given me a lifetime of memories that have influenced decisions both big and small since the Father’s Day weekend I came home from the hospital as a newborn. Here are a few of those times when my dad stood taller than most men, and encouraged me to join him in making the world a better place.


*****

I’m seven years old, and it’s summer. We are seated three across the blue perforated vinyl bench seat in my dad’s white Chevy S-10 pickup.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“To the recycling center,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. I was bored. I wanted to be in my friend’s pool, not in this hot truck hauling bags of crushed cans across town.

“They’re going to turn these cans into other things instead of throwing them away. It’s going to help save the environment, like the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

For every summer of my life, my dad and his family had rented a house on the Bay to go fishing and crabbing. My cousins and I swam in the waters of the Chesapeake and played baseball and a million other games of our own imaginations on her shores. Maybe those cans would become a boat or something.

It wasn’t popular or easy to recycle when my dad chose to make his small contribution to the environment, but it stuck with me, and now, especially as an art teacher, I’m quick to reduce, reuse, and recycle. God created this world for us and we must honor Him by taking care of it. That’s what my dad taught me.

*****

I’m fifteen years old, and I’m difficult. My dad and I don’t seem to see eye-to-eye about anything. Sports are his life, and I’ve decided to be an artist. It couldn’t be further from my dad’s world, but he built a bridge to mine and made plans to take me to the Walter’s one day. Reluctantly, I went along, disappearing into the alternative music streaming through my Discman (another thing he didn’t understand). 

On our elevator ride to the second floor, we found ourselves stuck. For half an hour! What else could we do, but talk? I told him that I wanted to study art in college, and he suggested I become an art teacher. I told him it wasn’t what I had in mind, but he reminded me that I have a gift for working with children, that I come from a long line of teachers and that a career in education would offer a stable income for my family. I insisted that I wasn’t interested.

My dad maintained his cool, even when the maintenance man who finally freed us from our trap appeared, sandwich in hand. He and I spent the rest of the day taking in Japanese screen prints and Faberge eggs together, my Discman packed neatly away in my purse. I took the opportunity to teach him the art history and criticism I learned in school, and, without knowing it, he set the foundation for my entire future.

*****

I’m 29, I’ve just delivered my second child, and my beloved cat, Kurt, whom I’ve had since I was in middle school, is very ill. Letting him go was losing a part of who I was; the child who still existed in me. He was black and sleek and affectionate, like every other feline my dad had loved, and watching him dwindle into a bundle of bones with sunken pale yellow eyes was too much to take. The vet said he wouldn’t last but another couple of painful weeks, so I made the hardest choice I’d ever had to make.

And my dad came with me. He and I both held Kurt in his final moments, then we held onto each other. His compassion for animals is unrivaled. Both he and my mom are pretty much vegetarians, and, consequently, so am I. He rescued domestic rabbits that some idiot set loose in the neighborhood. Sometimes he buys a bag of food for the shy cats who live with me now. He believes in being gentle towards the defenseless.

My dad attended Archbishop Curley High School and has a special devotion to St. Francis. Maybe that explains the birdfeeders and houses he keeps throughout the yard. He encourages me to do the same.

*****

I’m still 29. A tree has fallen on my house. My parents open their door. “Stay as long as you need to,” my dad says. They help us with our babies. My dad stays up late nights with Frank. They develop a bond stronger than Velcro. He is patient. He is kind. He is always willing to look after my boys if he’s available. And I can’t ask for a better caregiver because he’s done so much for me.

My dad’s given me my faith. He’s filled my plates with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. He’s gave me a place to call home as a child and as an adult. He’s given me my formal education. But most of all he’s give me and my family love. Thanks for everything, Dad!

June 21, 2015 01:25
By Robyn Barberry


Art for our Earth


In honor of Earth Day, I invited Melissa Filiaggi, the recycling program manager for Harford County, to visit my art classes to discuss the importance of caring for our environment and create some cool art from recycled materials.

Melissa happens to be one of my best friends. The irony of our Earth Day teaching experience is that we both started college as art majors at Towson. I ended up becoming an English teacher, while Melissa studied biology so intensely that she spent almost two years living in the Peruvian rain forest. After teaching in the public schools, the opportunity came up for her to work directly on improving the environment, which led her to her current position. Her creativity and understanding of children are gifts that allow her to continue to teach about environmental responsibility at various schools and events in the community.

The students and I were so excited that we were having a visitor. Melissa gave an interactive presentation about what happens to plastic water bottles when they are recycled. Students bounced up and down while pretending to ride on the truck to the recycling center, did their best impersonations of The Wicked Witch as they melted down, and stretched their arms as high as they could reach when they were pulled into plastic threads that could be used to make new material. Then, Melissa showed the students a fleece scarf, a fuzzy teddy bear, and an Under Armour running shirt that were made of recycled water bottles.

We discussed how artists recycle old materials to create beautiful art. I mentioned the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore’s home for the eclectic work of self-taught modern artists, and told the students that even they had the ability to create something unique using the materials in the bins on their tables. Once they figured out what they wanted, Melissa, me, and some wonderful parent volunteers would assemble their work with hot glue guns.

You could have powered a jet with the energy surging throughout the room. Tin cans sprouted faces. Soda bottles grew feathers and became birds. Vehicles were assembled with the love and care that goes into restoring a classic car (except these were more enviro-friendly). Musical instruments filled the room with a joyful noise. And one of my pre-K boys made a “tickle device” that could brighten up anyone’s bad day.





Some of the art was a free-formed collection of things the artist perceived to be beautiful. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have a function. What mattered is that these objects weren’t headed directly to the landfill. Contrary to our society’s tendency for disposal, this “trash” was given a second chance and a new purpose. More importantly, children’s eyes were opened to possibilities by engaging the whimsical right side of their brains.



Encouraging subsequent generations to problem-solve by thinking “outside-of-the-box” is an essential part of restoring and preserving our planet. A STEM education, such as the one we provide at St. Joan of Arc, offers young people the opportunity to work collaboratively and reach solutions through a balance of sound reasoning and ingenuity. Sure we spared two giant trashcans worth of junk from entering the waste cycle, but more importantly, the students learned that the world is in danger and that it’s not too late for them to make a difference. 

April 22, 2015 11:56
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


Painting with mud



“Dirt,” the second-grade teacher told me when I asked her what they were learning in science class.  Since St. Joan of Arc is a STEM school, I’m trying to tie material from other classes into my art lessons. The eighth grade was learning about heat, so we used a hot plate and crayons to create melted wax images on aluminum foil. The seventh-grade was learning about solubility, so we combined salt and watercolor paints for a cool tie-dye effect. But, dirt?

Naturally, I consulted Google for advice. I found a home-school mom’s website with pictures from a mud day.  Her children were encapsulated in dirt and mud. I decided rather quickly that I should make every effort to keep my students’ uniforms crisp and white.

Then, I stumbled upon something awesome: the dirty car artist, Scott Wade. This guy carves masterpieces into the thick dirt found on the back windows of people’s cars.  But, where was I going to find 18 dirty cars (and stepstools) to make this happen?

Louisiana Mud Painting looked promising, until I learned that I’d need to travel all over Harford County –and perhaps even the state of Maryland—to find the many types of soil I’d need to offer a range of colors.

I was stumped and running out of time.  That’s usually when I pray. I fixed myself a sandwich (also a good time to pray) and returned to Google one last time before deferring to a plan B assignment. This time, I stumbled upon something new: Korhogo Cloth (African Mud Painting)

The material used for the painting looked similar to burlap.  I had a roll of it left over from Collin’s Scarecrow costume last year and a pot of dirt that used to be a plant (I’m a horrible gardener for a farmer’s wife), so I mixed some dirt and water in a plastic bowl and used one of Frank’s old paintbrushes to paint a house on the fabric.  It looked great, but when I moved it after it dried, all of the mud flaked off.

As it turned out, it needed a binder.  We were out of eggs, so I used some brown tempera paint (it has egg as a binder) to make the mud smoother and stickier.  This time, it looked great.  I mixed up a bucketful for the students, poured into little white plastic bowls, warned them that even though it looked like chili, they shouldn’t eat it, and let them go to town on their pieces of burlap.

Thanks to God for directing me to a cool project idea, the students’ projects were a great success.



 

 

 

September 09, 2014 02:44
By Robyn Barberry


Apology to a mother wolf spider


I first spotted you outside my back door on my return trip from taking out the trash. You were about the size of a quarter, coffee brown with eight legs, a gazillion eyes, and a lumpy back. You looked like a brown recluse, the type of spider that bit my mom just before my wedding. The scar was so horrendous, her satin periwinkle dress had to be altered to cover it. I was afraid you’d bite one of my children. I was wearing flip-flops, so I tracked down the nearest blunt object, a citronella candle in a red, white, and blue striped metal pail, and squashed you.

Normally, this type of extermination is strictly business. Just ask the ants who manage to find their way onto my kitchen counter after a big rain. For a vegetarian, I’m surprisingly ruthless when it comes to insects (and arachnids, like yourself) invading my turf. But, when I killed you underneath of the porch light, it was different.

Immediately after I squished you to pieces, I was amazed at how many pieces there were, and how far they were spreading, and how they appeared to be moving. They were. Within moments of your death, thousands of teeny tiny spiders, the size of couscous grains, scurried about in every direction.


I didn’t know what to do. The protective mother lion in me thought I’d better squish them all before my home was overturned by an infestation only seen in nightmares and horror movies. But I chose to watch and wait. I assumed that you were pregnant, and that these little guys were stolen from your womb too soon. By the looks of them, they wouldn’t last a day. I set down the candle and headed to my bed.

Like any curious and/or confused American, I Googled the situation and learned that you were a wolf spider. (The Brown Recluse looks similar, but has a characteristic “violin” on its back). Although you do have venom and aren’t afraid to use it, you’re relatively harmless to humans. In fact, you seldom enter people’s homes, preferring to stalk the outside perimeter at night, searching for food. And you carry your babies (spiderlings) on your back until they’re big enough to make it on their own.

I sighed, put down the phone, turned out the light, and lay awake on my pillow, gazing into the moonlight outside of my window, replaying our encounter over and over again. You didn’t deserve to die. You were a creature of God, designed for motherhood. Like me, you took your babies everywhere, you were always on the lookout for food, and you were vigilant about keeping your precious little ones safe. But then again, that’s why I squashed you in the first place. Now that I know the difference between you and your dangerous doppelganger, the Brown Recluse, I’ll spare the next mama wolf spider I find.     

August 11, 2014 10:36
By Robyn Barberry


A picture's worth


As we were straggling out of Collin’s end-of-preschool picnic at Annie’s Playground, Ms. Andrews, his teacher, called after him, “Collin!  Wait!  I have to give you a hug!”

She came dashing over to us in her turquoise trapeze tank, her asymmetrical dark hair swaying, big sunglasses in place, trusty spray bottle in hand.  (She uses it to “surprise” her students with a cooling mist on warm days.)  Collin, a contrast with pale blonde hair and a faded light blue t-shirt, ran down to meet her at the base of the hill.  She crouched to the ground on one knee, set the spray bottle down and said, “Look what I found!” 

It was a puffy white dandelion, ripe for wish making.  She picked it.  Collin folded himself under her arm and right up next to her.  Together they blew, seeds speckling the landscape scene behind them of a nearly clean pavilion to the left and to the right a maze of firetrucks and fortresses to be climbed.

Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons via r. nial bradshaw

Everything about the scene before me was beautiful.  I thought about snapping a photo with my phone, but I was frozen.  So I had to use my mind.  Click.  A teacher and a student saying goodbye over a dandelion.  Click.  Fill in the details.  Now that I have a mental picture, what is it about?  Now:  That moment when the past and future meet.  Change.  Good change.

“Now there are a million new dandelions out there,” Ms. Andrews said with a smile as she put down the stem and picked up her squirt bottle.  “Make sure you bring tissues to graduation,” she told me.  “The slide show pictures will have you boo-hoo-ing.”

I was about to cry right then, especially because I didn’t take a picture of this special little moment in my son’s ever-growing life.  As she walked away, I wanted to call her back and have her reenact the dandelion scene one more time after I deleted some pictures from my phone.  I decided it wasn’t worth it.  The sentiment behind the image would be lost.  I will pay closer attention the next time a scene unfolds before me.  This time I’ll have a camera ready.

Why does these little moments matter?  Because in life we are witnesses to God’s presence.  He reveals Himself to us when we stop what we’re doing and focus on the beauty before us.  Those glimpses of heaven are all around us.  It’s why photographers and artists labor over every detail so that we can see the world with their eyes.  It’s why we carry cameras around with us everywhere.  You never know when you’ll catch a glimpse of God.  We just have to remember to use them.      

When I picked Collin up from school the next day, I noticed a collage of students’ pictures on a poster by the door.  They were all blowing dandelions.  And in his book bag?  An entire flash drive full of pictures from every day of the school year.  Thank you, Ms. Andrews!

May 22, 2014 02:08
By Robyn Barberry