Summer Writing Assignments for Kids: Persuasive Argument and Credo Statement

You may recall that I am a mean ogre of a mom who is making her son write and practice spelling and punctuation this summer. Boo. Hiss. 🙂

Actually, it is going remarkably well, so I thought I’d share two more assignments we’ve done:

(1) Persuasive argument. Okay, so I figured that this one had to be about something he really cared about, so I asked him for each person in his family what would he like to persuade them to do. Then he chose the one that he cared most about. Turns out that he chose to write to his grandmother to ask her to come visit while I am in Europe. I felt a little weird about him writing such a letter to my mother-in-law, but it was the essay he most wanted to write. She’s a nice lady, and I figured she would understand that it wasn’t intended as a pressure tactic.

Anyway, the really interesting lesson for my son was in distinguishing between reader-based and writer-based prose. His first draft was a scattered list of about twenty things, about half of which really had nothing to do with his grandmother. So we sat down after he completed this rough draft and with each point, I asked him, is this something that will persuade Grandma to come? Is this something she will care about? Is there a better example of what might appeal to her? And with merely that sort of questioning, he came up with a multi-faceted argument with some impressive reasons as to why she should come for a visit.

We are still waiting to hear if she will be able to make it, and while it would be lovely if she could, of course, we know it’s not easy to make a cross-country trek like that. What is exciting to me, though, is how much he learned from this writing assignment. Writing for a specific audience is really important!

(2) Credo Statement: Earlier this week my son attended a friend’s Vacation Bible School for two mornings. He was a bit miserable, to be honest. Not only did he feel lonely and left out (he’s an introvert by nature), but he found the evangelical Christian message troubling. I was very surprised by his reaction on that count. He is more highly developed in his theological positions than I had realized! So I talked with our friend and explained that my son didn’t want to attend any more. She was gracious and loving, as always. I appreciated how she made us feel okay about backing out of that. Usually my motto is finish what you start, but in this case, it became clear to me that my son had some real disagreements, so I wanted to honor his values and ideals. Ah…what better way to honor his beliefs and ideals than… to make him write about his own beliefs in a personal credo statement?!

At our Unitarian Universalist church, the kids participate in a Coming of Age ceremony the year they first enter high school. They run a church service at the end of the year and each youth reads a credo statement that they wrote, explaining what they believe. So I figured my son could write such a statement, too, and when he’s in ninth grade, he could compare how his views have changed.

The thing about this assignment is that it can be really difficult to write about such an abstract topic as religion. So I asked him to write a narrative first about his experience at Vacation Bible School and then to explain what he himself believes. I did have to help him come up with his brainstorming list on the second part by asking him questions. But again, he showed a lot of independence in knowing what he believed and didn’t believe. He felt comfortable saying that for some points he just wasn’t sure, too.

As for the audience for this piece of writing, I didn’t want to get into that in the very beginning because the first draft is difficult enough. But I just asked him who he wants to share this with, and he said our friend the evangelical Christian, who also happens to be her church’s Religious Education Director. Since she was running the Vacation Bible School, I guess he figures it would be good to share his experience and beliefs with her.

I’m glad he’s chosen this recipient since we will get another opportunity to work on the whole audience thing. In the argumentative essay for his grandma, he had an audience who would naturally look on his essay with more favorable eyes. In the credo statement, he has a loving reader who also happens to be a “skeptical audience,” i.e., a reader who disagrees with much of what he says. So it will be great for him to revise his first draft with our friend in mind. He will have to explain a lot of concepts that he uses in his essay, concepts that he knows by heart from our UU church but that need explaining for an evangelical. And he will have to watch his tone and be careful not to stereotype or over-generalize evangelicals, too. He even just proposed that he could include suggestions for Vacation Bible School for future years.

I’m psyched! What a great learning opportunity for him. And very interesting for me to get to see what he thinks and feels. He surprises me every day as he learns and grows. I like who he is becoming!

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The Rebel Jesus and … Al Gore…?

“So Jesus was kinda like Al Gore,” my ten-year-old son explained as we were driving along this morning. HUH?

I can’t remember his original question this morning, but we soon found ourselves in a discussion about how some people read the Bible literally and others see it symbolically. This led to further discussion of creationism vs intelligent design vs evolutionary biology. Then the conversation morphed into a discussion of Jesus and the four versions of his life presented in the gospels.

(Oh, by the way, we’re Unitarian Universalists, just in case you’re wondering. And, no, we don’t spend every Sunday doing interpretive dances, regardless of what Garrison Keillor says!)

So, anyway, I was trying to explain to my son about the canon formation process (how the different books of the Bible came to be chosen by the church fathers to be included in the final version of the Bible) and that led me to bring up the original Jesus–a radical guy who served the poor and upset the apple cart–versus the Jesus that church leaders made him into through texts written much later–as in a highly theologized God incarnate.

When I explained about what we know about the historical Jesus being a rabble-rouser, my son piped up with the comment I quote above: “So Jesus was kinda like Al Gore.”

My first thought was, HARDLY! Gandhi or MLK maybe, but Al Gore? A politician?!! Then I looked at it from my son’s perspective. To him, Al Gore is a rabble-rouser who is trying to change the world and help people. He’s a real role model for my son, who is an environmentalist who wants to change the world. Gore has helped effect a sea change in the American public’s attitude about global climate change. He has fought for the environment for decades and faced ridicule and countless disappointments. He’s also no martyr. But we weren’t talking about Jesus’s martyrdom in our conversation, only his work with the poor and downtrodden.

Yeh, I know. For some of you readers, this post may make you feel a little uncomfortable. I was surprised at how uncomfortable it made me feel, too, considering that I do not believe in the trinity or Jesus as God (except in so far as I believe that God is love and that the power of love resides in us but is also bigger than us). I’m sure to my son, though, the comparison made sense. Two men to admire. Two people dedicating their lives to help others. Two leaders who inspire millions.

I love how the most interesting conversations seem to happen while we are driving along. I take my cue from my inquisitive son’s questions and follow his lead in car conversations generally. I do have to wonder, though, how he will like going to Vacation Bible School with our friends’ kid this summer. He’s not shy of asking pointed questions. Could turn out to be a real rabble-rouser….

Mother’s Day Weekend: Ferry Beach, Maine

Just got back yesterday afternoon from our annual all-church retreat to Ferry Beach, on the southern coast of Maine. About 250 people usually come from our Unitarian Universalist church to this yearly weekend away. It’s always held on Mother’s Day weekend, and pretty much every year my husband stays home and let’s us have our special weekend (besides, it’s chaos there, and though my son and I like a little chaos every once in a while, it’s not the hubster’s cup ‘o tea.) Anyway, as always an awesome time! And as always, I’m exhausted. 🙂

About my lovely weekend…

It takes a village. The most notable thing about this annual weekend is how we work cooperatively to take care of one another. We cook together (everyone signs up for one chore during the weekend) and eat together, sleep in dorms, hang out on the beach (if it’s not raining!!) or in the common areas, and care for the children in small groups or what have you. The weekend is relaxed and slow-paced, with a variety of activities, planned and spontaneous. The retreat center where we always go is lovely though fairly basic. I like that it is not a luxury hotel or some such nonsense. I like it’s age and homey-feel.

To give you a taste, here is a picture of a sign out front. Cute!

No nonsense here! Just good old-fashioned fun. “If the rock is wet, it’s raining.” Yup. And the rock stayed dry all three days! Having no rain all weekend was a special treat — that’s a rarity this time of year. More times than not it rains at least half of the weekend. One year, we all stood on the deep, covered, wrap-around porch and watched a huge lightning storm rage for an hour. That year the majority of the dunes were destroyed, and I returned home to a city flooded at 100-year stage levels. Yikes! But this year, no rain. Cool but sunny about half the weekend and quite bearable cloudiness the rest of the time.

…which meant that my son and I were able to spend a lot of time on the beach. He dug a huge pit with his pals. Of course. What else would a ten-year-old enjoy half as much?

That was pretty much most of Saturday. Then on Sunday we took a walk on the beach down to the breakwater (HUGE granite boulders piled in a line a mile out to sea). Last year we discovered a quiet cove right on the other side of those rocks, so we returned this year to check it out again. Along the way, we searched for flat rocks to skip into the water. Here’s my son proudly holding up his latest find:

Amazingly, before going to bed last night, I managed to do most of the laundry and get us unpacked — as well as get my son packed and ready for his week at nature camp! Happy Mother’s Day to me, boo hoo. 😦 No, I’m just joking! I got what I wanted for Mother’s Day — a lovely time with my son on the beach in the morning and squeaky CLEAN front windows, when I returned home, washed by my hubbie!! Yipee — life is grand!

Another Grandma Dream: Saving the Pictures

Last night Grandma’s house in California was in imminent danger of burning down. In my dream that is. I was there helping to save everything important in the house. My newish neighbor (here in Massachusetts) was sitting with Grandma, comforting her. He is a minister of the more traditional variety and has a soothing and calm manner — thus he appeared in dream, I guess.

I moved from room to room in Grandma’s house looking for what mattered. Over and over again I chose photos: big and bulky framed photos, loose photos, photo albums. I quickly found these hard to carry, so I looked for bags to hold them: old purses, shopping bags, luggage, etc.

Every once in a while, I paused and looked at an item and thought, this is special. Hokey but special. Wall plaques with sentimental sayings — but SOOOO Grandma.

From the front of the house, as I moved towards the back and then the upstairs, I heard Grandma and my neighbor. Organ music began to drift through the house, a plaintive and old fashioned tune. It sounded like funeral music but was somehow peaceful. I thought, Grandma is comforting herself with music. She was playing the organ in the dream, though she rarely played her organ and didn’t really know much about music in real life — certainly not enough to play that well. But she did have an organ in what she called the “music room” of the house.

When I got into the dining room, I had a flashback to my early childhood, well before my folks divorced. I remembered visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house before they built the addition that turned their kitchen into a formal dining room and their patio into a kitchen/family room. I must have been about five? This really happened, but it was strange how I was remembering this lost detail while in a dream. I was thinking at that point about how much had happened in that house.

The thing that bugs me about the dream is how I didn’t even bother trying to help Grandma herself. She was alive in the dream, but I basically ignored her. Or more accurately, I took her presence for granted. It was the pictures I had to save. They were the thing that would be lost. Grandma was safe and comfortable, talking to my minister neighbor. We would have plenty of time to get out safely — the neighborhood was being evacuated soon but not yet. There was time to gather the things we wanted to save.

I wonder what all this means….

Supper at the Shelter

Same old rutted, dirt parking lot. Same loitering, scruffy men and women lingering on the sidewalk. Same feeling of wariness that leads me to lock my purse inside the trunk rather than bring it inside. But something had changed.

Last Thursday I returned to duty, as it were, helping to serve supper at a local homeless shelter. A few years back, after making the acquaintance of the shelter’s director ( now long gone), I decided to try to get my church involved. Folks got interested right away — not many, mind you — but enough to staff one dinner a month. I served for a few months before managing to convince another person to take over as liaison and coordinator. After abut a year, I stopped serving there.

If was always difficult for me to go but also gave me a good feeling. I came away counting my blessings. It’s such a cliché, I know, but I always felt that way. But I also felt disappointed in my shyness. I always hid in the back of the kitchen, volunteering to scoop the hot main dish onto the plates; even though this was the hottest job, it was the furtherest away from the people coming through the line. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to BE around these unfortunate folks.

I knew from the director many of their stories (with no names attached because of privacy, of course, but I got the idea). Many of those we were serving were men and women who were working but underemployed. Most lived at the shelter because they couldn’t afford housing in New England. Some lived elsewhere but couldn’t make ends meet and came to the shelter for food. The open door policy for the kitchen made such possible. Some of the folks there were handicapped or elderly. One ancient guy — George — looked and acted remarkably like George Burns and was an incorrigable flirt! Some of those who lived at the shelter were very young — in fact, they were only 18 years old and fresh out of foster care but unable to make it on their own. These I found particularly disturbing — to think that as soon as they were of age, the system dumps them on the street as if they are now fully capable of handling whatever life throws at them. Some of the 18 year olds in the shelter were not even finished with high school yet!

Anyway, I went back this month after a long hiatus. While the clients seemed pretty much the same, I had changed. I arrived a little late and thus had no choice but to work the counter — the position with the most contact with the people coming in for a meal. I didn’t mind a bit. In fact, I was glad. And furthermore, I started chatting with people. I looked them in the eye and made small talk, even asked one guy to give me a report later on the dessert he had chosen. A lone, multi-tiered parfait-ish looking thing had been sitting on the tray for a few minutes, but there were no takers. He grabbed it and I commented on him being the brave one. After supper, he came back up and said it was a delicious chocolate mouse and raspberry concoction. What a smile on his face. And I felt so natural and at ease the whole time I was there.

I was so surprised to see George there as well — and amazed that he still remembered me. He asked, “Where ya been doll?” Oh, working, I replied. I could have answered in so many other ways, I suppose. Too busy to be bothered helping y’all. Too chicken to keep putting myself out there. Too overwhelmed with the duties of being a working other. Too focused on helping other people who also needed me. So many answers. So I just said, working. He smiled and said, “Glad to have you back!” Good to be back, I replied with a cheery and honest smile.

What changed? I’m not sure. I do know that when I came back from Peru, my first instinct was to go back to the shelter and start serving again. Why? Again, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a matter of my realization that I’m not cut out to go to a developing country to serve, so I’d better do what I can in my own neck of the woods. Maybe it’s just the fact that I spent some time with the poorest of the poor in Peru and so I feel more comfortable interacting with these good folks now, less afraid. Maybe it’s just that I’ve learned from several sources lately how important it is that we treat people as if they exist. A guest preacher at my church earlier this month mentioned a study that showed how people who feel invisible experience negative health effects. She said that even a simple interaction that acknowledges a human being’s presence — a smile, a greeting, a compliment — can alter the chemicals coursing through one’s veins.

Whatever the reason for my sea change, I left the shelter feeling grateful — yes, I expected that — but also happy about my own actions for once and hopeful that I can make a difference, however small, in the lives of those in need. I’m learning and growing!

Hope Springs Eternal: Spring of Eternal Hope

To me, Easter is hope. Hope that loved ones live on in some way after we lose them. Hope that Spring will follow Winter. Hope that we are not doomed — love makes a difference.

I used to think of hope as a relatively naive emotion, a blind and Pollyanna-ish sentiment ill-founded in reality. At least I thought such on gloomy days when I had spent a little too much time reading the newspaper or listening to NPR. I went through a period last spring when I was studying global warming and felt as if we were all doomed — no way out, bleak future at best.

Since then, however, I have come to think of hope in another way, starting with a recognition of dire circumstances and emerging as a commitment to live as if we can make a difference Maybe all we can do will not be enough, but we do not ultimately know this for sure. Hope is looking the world’s and our own pain and problems in the face and daring to move forward anyway. Thus hope wears the look not of a fresh-faced cherub but of a wrinkled old woman who still insists on “puttin’ up peaches” for the winter.

Grandma’s mother was such a woman. On the day she died, she canned peaches all morning.

As a New Englander now, I must trust that Spring will come … eventually. I had occasion to assure a newcomer to our country of this fact yesterday. The couple whose wedding I attended in Peru joined my family and me for Easter yesterday. (He works here and brought his new wife to the US shortly after they were married in Lima.) What a time to arrive in America! January in this part of the country is frigid and bleak. When I told this woman that soon she would see an explosion of green everywhere, that New England is positively lush in springtime, to hang on and she will see a feast for the eyes — she looked dubious. It’s hard to imagine such a scene when one looks out the window at this moment.

I, myself, have been anxiously scanning the conservation land behind our house for the first signs of spring: budding skunk cabbage in the creek bed. Nothing yet. But I well remember how within a week of seeing those bright green leaves emerge, all the lawns will turn green and then the leaf and flower buds will appear on the trees. And we will have months of verdant foliage, ending in a blaze of bright hues months later in the fall.

Our new friend must take this on faith.

We all must.

Happy Spring, folks. The calendar says last Thursday spring arrived. I don’t believe everything I read, but I am determined to hope. Maybe this year I’ll even take up canning.

Ten Joys to Chase Away February Blahs

Montessori Mama posted ten joys that chase away the February blahs, and she invited others to do the same. (She got the idea from Soule Mama.)

My ten Feb. faves:

1. Snow. I grew up in California and still think snow is utterly and completely miraculous.

2. Reading a good book under warm covers. I love to read, but do less of it when it’s hot weather.

3. Watching the lunar eclipse with my son (see my post from Feb. 21!)

4. Warm, soft Westie dog on my lap.

5. Digital cameras… really the coolest tech invention in a long time.

6. Reading The Lorax to kids at my UU chruch as a part of our “to Nature we are connected” programming. We are working with the kids to teach about waste and over-consumption, to help them see the need to not just recycle but also REDUCE and REUSE.

7. Snowshoeing. How COOL is that??

8. Twinkly white lights on our bush that I haven’t had the heart to take down yet from Christmas.

9. My son still giving me hugs and blowing me kisses though he’s already ten (how did the time go by so fast?)

10. Banana bread. It’s just plain yummy, and I don’t make it in hot weather either.