More Writing Assignments for Kids: Writing Under Pressure

Yeh, so after I returned from Scandinavia, it was back to work for that kid o’ mine! I’m a regular crack the whip kinda mom. SO MEAN! Yes, I re-instituted the three-hour work cycle that I was having him complete earlier in the summer.

Anyway, this week it occurred to me that since my son was mostly having trouble in his writing with the first draft part, especially writing quickly, that I ought to give him some practice just churning out some short essays. SO … for the last three days, I’ve given him a timed writing assignment each day. No revision, no great length of time allowed for writing (30 minutes). Just think for a couple of minutes and write like the wind.

Here are the topics I gave him:

(1) It is better to be safe than sorry. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? (I got this one from the SSAT website as a sample question — in fact, they sparked the idea in me of doing this kind of assignment.)

(2) Is war ever justified? Is yes, under what circumstances? If no, then why not?

(3) Is it better to buy organic food from really far away or local food that is not organic?

I was shooting for questions with no right answer so he would feel safe in giving his own opinions. And I found it fascinating to read his ideas. For instance, war against aliens who are taking over the planet is acceptable. “It’s clearly self-defense.” Oh, and it is better to buy local conventional than global organic because we have to sacrifice our own individual health for the good of the planet, though he’d “rather have both organic and local.”

Isn’t that last one intriguing, though? Clearly my child doesn’t yet understand how organic is better for the planet, as well as for our bodies. But his answer was pretty revealing, I thought. I had no idea that he held so dear the idea of individual sacrifice for the common good. Surprising.

The best part is that I was able to tell him that I had no idea how I myself would answer, so I wanted to hear his thoughts. As keeps happening lately, he blew me away. Who is this little man?

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Welcome Back: On Loving Our Diverse and Complicated Country

The audience sat hushed in the oldest church in Lowell this morning. Even the baby near the back who had been fussing for most of the concert was silent. Then the familiar strains began of our national anthem. It was the final song of an hour-long concert. As I looked at the faces of the children, playing in this summer orchestra program for kids in our relatively impoverished and highly diverse city, I saw the face of America. Maybe more accurately, I saw the face of the world. Children of immigrants all, they played their instruments with concentration, skill, and joy. And I cried.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not really patriotic. I believe that patriotism is a dangerous stance. I fear it causes more harm than good most times. But this morning in that 184-year-old church, I wept. I felt so proud to belong to a country that has welcomed immigrants from every continent in every century since our founding, a place where my ancestors were welcomed when they risked all to leave Norway, Sweden, Ireland, England, Italy, and who knows where else.

Is there anti-immigrant sentiment in the US these days? You bet there is. Is there racism and discrimination? Quite obviously so. Still…there is a man running for president whose father was African. Obama is a first generation American, the son of an immigrant and he could end up holding our highest public office. Our country may have have it’s problems (no argument there), but we are in many ways still a welcoming place for newcomers — at least we ahve that intention and potential.

Like in my city, for instance. We face a lot of challenges here in this historic mill town. From its inception, though, Lowell has always welcomed immigrants. While it’s true that these newcomers generally live in the most degraded part of town when they first come, they often begin to improve their lot well within one person’s lifetime, if not sooner. As each new wave of immigrants has swept into the city — Irish, French Canadian, Russian, Greek, Southeast Asian (especially Cambodian), West African, Caribbean Latino, etc. — they have worked hard and moved out of “the acre” to make room for the next group of arrivals.

And there were these immigrants’ children and children’s children at the concert today, my son among them. Just having returned from Scandinavia and having spent the last three weeks thinking constantly about my immigrant ancestors, I heard and saw the concert with this filter in place.

So I made it home fine from my trip to Scandinavia. Our journey the last day was long and extended even longer due to a violent nor’easter storm in Boston that closed Logan airport. We finally arrived two hours late. At the immigration counter, we waited an especially long time. In our line before us, there was a family that looked to be Indian or Pakistani. The US government let these good folks enter our country, though not without a lot of checking and double checking and triple checking and quadruple checking. But after all that, the officer said, “Welcome to the United States.”

“What was your business in Sweden and Norway?” he asked me when I went up to the window after the family walked away to baggage claim.

I was there doing research for a book about my immigrant ancestors.

“Really?”

Yup. It was a great trip. Gotta lot accomplished.

“Okay. Welcome back.”

Welcome. Yes….

I get frustrated with the erosions of civil liberties and basic civil rights happening these days in the US. I am infuriated that we went to war in Iraq — a senseless and brutal act. I see so much that is broken or damaged in this country, so much work to do that it is overwhelming at times. But I also know that our diverse and complicated country has held and continues to hold out a beautiful promise to millions of people. They are welcome. Let us live up to that promise.

Trondheim, Bergen, and the Open Sea

Sorry that I’ve been off-line for a while, folks.  Odd that it’s been harder to get internet in Scandinavia than in Peru….  Anyway, here’s a recap on the last part of the Scandinavian portion of my trip.  Tomorrow I’ll post on the UK part.

TRONDHEIM:  Discovered a few key things of use there for my book.

(1) Lovely woman at the folk museum called her father on her cell phone to ask him about Trondheim in 1879, the year my Norwegian relatives left.  Her dad is a historian.  Found out the railroad had come there in the early 1870s but had not gone north to Bodø yet.  So my ancestors’ week in Trondheim would probably be the first time they had seen a train. Also, the city was just starting to industrialize then, with a few machine shops popping up.  They made iron stoves, among other things.

(2)  Lovely tour guides at the cathedral helped me put the pieces together that the ancestors would have been there during the time when they had just started restoring the ruined nave of the church.  I saw drawings of what it looked like then — much diminished from the grandeur of today.  That visit to the cathedral, the holiest sanctuary of Norway, made me start thinking about what my relatives would have done in Trondheim while waiting for that boat…. Ah, pray and attend church, I think.  They were very religious.  The tourguide ladies sent us to another old church that they thought my relatives also might have visited.  Yup.  Looked like their church in Bodø but only bigger and a little more ornate.

(3) Also discovered that they would have stayed at a boarding house down on the canals.  Interesting because there are also canals in Göteborg, where my Swedish relatives started their journey to America.  Canals, I know.  My own town is full of them.  Anyway, got a good view of that area.  Short stay in Trondheim, less than twenty-fours hours.  But fruitful research.

We also visited a decorative arts museum and an old fort that had been taken over when the Germans occupied the city in WWII.  I’ll write more about WWII stuff in a post after I return home.  It was very interesting how this kept cropping up….

BERGEN:  Flew to Bergen as the train would have to go all the way to Oslo and then Bergen. A short, uneventful flight.  I did not expect to discover anything of note in this city.  It was merely a stopping point, or more accurately, an embarkation point for our sea journey.  But, as has happened repeatedly on this trip, I gained in understanding.  Perhaps the most interesting thing was just to see this part of the coast and to realize that the immigrants hugged the coastline all the way south before crossing the North Sea.  Bergen was a major port at that time.  While their ship did not stop there, they were traveling in waters frequented by many ships.

By the way, it rained in Bergen.  Anyone at all familiar with the place will not be surprised.  It is like saying, “It was Bergen in Bergen.”  Charming city but we mucked about with our heavy backpacks in the rain for far too long to say we enjoyed Bergen fully.  Had a terrific meal at an Italian restaurant set off the tourist road one block.  Not a soul in there when we first arrived, but we were starving.  We sat down and had dinner while listening to loud Michael Jackson music. Waiter chose the music: “I LOVE Michael Jackson! He’s a great singer!!”  Surreal.

BOAT:  Boarded the Queen of Scandinavia the next morning at 8 a.m. and found our cabin.  La dee dah!  When I booked, I decided to go for the room with a window because I was worried about being sea sick.  Didn’t realize that Commodore Cabin essentially means first class.  Oh, my, aren’t we special?!  It was a lovely room (for a boat, that is) and I learned to thank my lucky stars for that window once we hit the open sea.  Before that, however, I made an appointment to interview one of the crew about travel from Scandinavia to England.  Kim from Denmark was super helpful (except for his comments that seasickness is purely psychological and HE never gets sick). What I learned from him that is useful:

(1) There is a very dangerous and rough patch of sea between the north coast of Denmark and south coast of Norway.  Our Swedes must have had a rough time traveling through there on their way to England, about a day out of the port of Göteborg.  Also, they sailed at the worst time, in October, after the start of storm season.  This explains why great-great grandma Lotta was so very seasick.  I knew that from my grandma’s story, but I didn’t know they had very good reason to be ill.

(2) Norwegian steamers would have followed the coastline even if they did not go into port.  One can totally see this after traveling by boat there.  A huge difference between the sheltered coastline with its many islands and deep and easily navigated fjords and the open North Sea where the wind sweeps down from the north and huge waves can make sea travel treacherous.

(3) The coast of England just appears out of nowhere, and it is relatively flat with a few hills with churches or ruined castles and a few lighthouses dotting the coast.  A strange contrast to the rugged fjords of the north.

When we hit the North Sea it was almost supper time.  Ugh. Within an hour I decided to take the little motion sickness tablet they give out free at the information center.  I went to bed and let it take effect. My friend had no problem with seasickness at all — thank goodness!  When I awoke from my nap, I felt better.  Decided to go to dinner as planned.  Ah, but I hadn’t counted on how the sight of odd sea-related food sitting out in a buffet would make me feel, plus the difficulty of getting to the buffet and back my seat with a loaded plate.  Oh, and the woman at the table right next to us who vomited on the table, poor dear. I ate a digestive bisquit and a few bites of lovely salmon, with my head turned to look out the window at the horizon.  Finally started feeling clamy and made a run for our lovely cabin where I applied a skin patch for seasickness and went to bed for good.  Awoke in the morning feeling much better.  I kept my equanimity overall.  Bed is sometimes best.  Even ate breakfast that morning.  But was heartily glad to get off the boat soon after that.

Good thing that I took that trip, too.  I discovered soon after boarding that the route is being discontinued in September.  This was my only chance to trace the ancestors.  Whew!  What a lucky duck I am!!

And now to bed. I shall write about the UK tomorrow (more interesting stuff)…unless I can’t get the internet connection to work again.  Took an hour this time before I managed to make it work, and I’m not sure how I did it.  Ah, well, homeward bound soon.  Missing the family. Will be good to be home.

Snake Burial on Memorial Day

So…ours was not your typical American Memorial Day celebration. It consisted, most notably, of my son burying a snake that our neighbors killed. The “murder” of this creature was a great tragedy to my child. He could not let it go until he had a chance to bury the fallen. It was an odd sort of Memorial Day for me, a day generally given to honoring our nation’s dead and acknowledging the sacrifice so many have made. Ironic, I guess.

Our neighbors — good people all — killed a garter snake on Saturday because it was “going for” their three year old. (My son told me that’s what they said, but I did not hear this first hand.) My boy was crying at the time that he told me the news. Crying and shaking his head.

“Those snakes don’t hurt anyone. Their teeth feel like velcro!”

More tears. Sob.

Maybe they don’t know very much about snakes, honey. I mean, it’s possible…no, I’m positive, they MUST not know much about snakes. They were just acting in a natural way. When people are afraid, this is the kind of thing they do.

“REALLLLLY???” His look of incredulity was marked. No doubt he took it for granted that everyone knows garter snakes are harmless.

Yes, really Not everyone knows how to identify snakes. Not everyone knows that snakes are beneficial. But maybe you can help teach them about snakes and how important they are for our ecosystem. Next time you catch a snake, maybe we can go over there, and you can teach them what you know.

“Okay….Can I bury it?” More tears.

Hmmm. This presented a bit of a problem. The snake had been tossed into the bushes in the neighbors’ yard after bashing in its head with a rock. Burying the dead critter would entail stealing it from their yard and taking it to our own to seek the restitution only a ceremonial burial (or court trial) could provide. I automatically saw why my son wanted to do this. But I also thought of the difficulties.

Maybe. We’re going over there for barbeque supper tonight. Maybe you can bring the snake home after dinner…? We’ll see.

As it turned out, shortly after we arrived (and after much going back and forth bringing our food items over to their yard), my son took matters into his own hands (which he assured me that he washed thoroughly) and whispered in my ear that he had taken the dead snake to our yard. Gulp. Wait and see.

Sure enough, a half-hour later or so, the neighbor kids came running up to the adults to say that the snake had DISAPPEARED!!! Gulp. Time to come clean.

Er. My son was upset about the snake … dying. He loves snakes and pretty much spends all summer catching snakes, building them little habitats and all that. So, he, uh, well, he took the snake home to bury it. Um. Half smile.

The next day, he dug a hole and laid the creature to rest. He covered the grave with a big rock. It was Memorial Day.

My husband did not know what to make of our son’s insistence on doing this. But it made perfect sense to me. He feels the injustice, the waste, in the killing of an innocent creature. “There was no reason for them to do it, Mommy!” No. It was loss of life for no good reason. A killing perpetrated out of fear and ignorance. I can’t help but think of our young men and women in the military dying in a war based on ignorance and fear. I do understand why the dead must be buried.

War, God, and Country…oh, and Teletubbies, too

I just had to pass along the joy, folks. Thanks to Martin Danahay, subscriber to VICTORIA listserv (a scholarly forum devoted to Victorian studies) for drawing our attention to this YouTube video: “The Teletubby Uprising of 1883.”

What can I say? Such a timely piece. So insightful. So poignant. If only President Bush could just view this film, I’m certain he’d be pulling troops out of Iraq by sundown.

(Note: The film is a bit long, but well worth it. After about five minutes, I was in stitches … er, I mean crying like a baby. The horror. The HORROR!)

I can’t wait to show this to my students next time I cover British Imperialism in my literature survey course. Does this count as creative non-fiction? Maybe I could show it in my writing class. Ah, and there’s a “Kipling poem” in it. Hmmm. That means it’s pertinent to my Intro to Poetry class, too. Hey, I just took care of three classes’ lesson plans. Yippee!