Creating Highlights

During my first year of teaching high school English, I was determined to make learning fun. In the first two weeks of school, I planned a day of interactive experiments to introduce the idea of gathering evidence for research-based essays and a murder mystery to introduce the characters of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

I was accomplishing my objective—my students were certainly having fun while learning—but I was exhausted. Each lesson took hours for me to prepare in addition to the hours I spent grading papers. How could I keep this up? I started to think that maybe teaching wasn’t actually the career for me.

Fortunately, my wise mentor teacher intervened, praising my creativity but also reminding me that every class period did not have to be a fantastical parade of learning activities in order for me to be a fun, effective teacher. She explained that I could deliberately plan one of these elaborate lessons—or “highlight lessons” as she called them—every month or so.  She assured me that these highlights would sustain my students through the duller days of note-taking and lecture.

Thanks to this wise advice, I did not quit teaching after one year—I went on to complete five fulfilling and fun years as a high school teacher before deciding to become a stay-at-home mom when my son was born.

And it is in my new role as a mother that I realize I can continue taking my mentor teacher’s advice.

As mothers, we do not need to burn ourselves out with expectations that we will plan outrageously fun and magical activities for our children every single day of their lives (or even every single day of their summer vacations); at the same time, we don’t want to spend their precious childhood years merely watching television, completing chores, and running errands. We have to find a balance. We can thoughtfully and deliberately decide which days are worth a little more time and energy and plan “highlight experiences” for our children to spice up the monotony of daily life.

When I look back on my own childhood, I can see that my mother utilized this method when she occasionally planned a family activity that took extra effort for her but that added a bit of excitement to our typical routine.

For example, in the middle of the drudgery of winter—Christmas long since past, and spring still months away—my mom planned “Secret Cupid Week” for us. At the beginning of February, we would have a family meeting during which we would each draw the name of a family member out of a bowl. It was then our mission to surprise that person every day during the week leading up to Valentines Day.

Since we were too young to go to the store by ourselves (and we didn’t have any spending money anyway), my mom set-up a “Cupid Store” in her bedroom. We each got a certain number of tickets to spend, and we would go “shopping” in her room—the merchandise spread across her bedspread. I remember agonizing over my purchases, trying to decide between the Dove Promises, York Peppermint Patties, and festive Pez dispensers. She also encouraged us to sneakily serve one another throughout the week, making beds, picking up toys, and hanging up wet towels that had been left on the floor.

I remember running home from the bus stop during those cold, gray days of February, hoping that “S.C.” might have left a surprise on my pillow or desk.

This tradition was such a highlight for me that I continued it even after I left home, first with my college roommates and then with my husband when we got married.  Every year, I am amazed by the corny surprises my husband comes up with:

We will continue this fun with our own children when they are old enough to participate.

When I look back on my childhood, I remember this magical holiday tradition and other such “highlight experiences.” I don’t remember the boring days spent doing chores or watching television (though there were plenty of those). Similarly, when my old students write me thank-you letters (which, amazingly, does happen on occasion), they always mention the highlight lessons that I carefully planned. Instead of remembering the week that I droned at them about punctuation rules (boring but necessary), they remember the time that my co-teacher and I donned costumes and acted out the witchcraft trial of Martha Carrier before we read The Crucible.  (Yes, I think I would remember it too–ridiculous wig!)

As mothers, we each want to be remembered as “fun,” but I’ve learned that doesn’t mean we have to plan all of the elaborate activities that we see on Pinterest; we can choose just a few of these activities and pull them out when things at home are dragging a little.  These “highlight experiences” and traditions are sure to be memories that our families will cherish and never forget.

Question: What is one of the “highlight experiences” that you have created for your children or that you can remember from your childhood, at home or at school?

Challenge: Evaluate whether you are planning too many or too few “highlights” for your children. If you have been planning too many, and are therefore feeling exhausted and burned out, consciously decide to eliminate one that’s been on your “to-do list” and save it for the future. If you haven’t been planning enough, decide when and what you will do, and start preparing!

Photos submitted by Rachel Nielson


  1. Claire says

    I love this philosophy! In my life, it applies even to scrapbooking. If I tried to make every single page fancy and elaborate, I would never complete an album. But making one fancy page for every 5 simple ones makes it manageable.

  2. Elsje Denison says

    Thanks for making me feel like I don’t need to come up with an amazing idea everyday to be a good mom! Sometimes I feel so guilty if I’m not constantly coming up with some creative, ingenious activity with my kids. I love your secret cupid idea! We’ll definitely be trying that this year.

  3. April Perry says

    Beautiful perspective here, Rachel! So much of life is “ordinary”, and it’s so nice to know that we don’t have to exhaust ourselves in order to do a great job. Thanks for writing!

  4. Claire says

    The other thing that occurred to me is that my son gets so excited by simple things. Sure, we have our highlights, but we also try to appreciate the fun in every day experiences, and he has definitely responded to this. I think if I stressed over making every day a big production, he would be less able to appreciate the simpler things in life.

    • says

      This is SO true, Claire. Sometimes “highlights” are spontaneous, simple, and totally unplanned. (I love those!)

      Great application to your scrapbooking too. I hadn’t thought of that, but you are so right.

  5. Allyson Reynolds says

    Love your perspective, Rachel! Thank you so much for sharing. I especially appreciate the “secret cupid” idea for that truly boring time of year. I need some ideas to spice things up during those months.

  6. Shelley says

    There is a game I sometimes play with the kids while dinner is cooking. It’s called “I’m Gonna Get You!” The kids run around on the first floor of our home trying to keep from getting tagged by me. I do not run, but I move around and hide in strategic spots and when the kids pass by unaware, I tag them. The element of surprise is what makes it so fun.

    I also do fun science experiments. We made plasma (the see-through, gas-like substance) in our microwave. We’ve made non-gross models of the heart, blood, and the cell using candy and snack foods (eg. graham crackers we frost blue or red for the four chambers of the heart and marshmallows for the blood vessels: jello for the cytoplasm of the cell and nerds for the ribosomes).

  7. Shelley says

    I forgot to mention that I play “I’m Gonna Get You!” until I tag each child. It doesn’t take that long. If I ran out of time, I guess any untagged children would be the winners.

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