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I had the privilege of leading the service this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, in a fabulous collaboration with Ashley Greve and Bob Blinn. Our wonderful artist in residence Maya Rogers led the music.

You can watch the service here!

I included this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye as part of my prayer and meditation.

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

Here’s my reflection: The New Kid

The New Kid

Picture me, age 7, wearing a sunshine yellow Izod shirt and matching cotton shorts, missing a couple teeth, cruising down the sidewalk in blue and white roller skates. I would happily skate up people’s driveways to see who was available to play. Some days we watched monster movies with Geoff and David, some days we twirled batons with Amy and Karen, some days we played king of the hill on the pile of mulch in the Perrys’ driveway. It was all very suburban and lovely. Until…

After I finished second grade, our neighborhood elementary school closed and became a police station. The kids in our neighborhood were sent to two different schools, one of which included the gifted program that I had been assigned to. I was nervous about going to a new school, but then third grade started, and I found my people, and absolutely loved my new school. One of my best friends from third grade remains one of my best friends today.

Meanwhile, back in my neighborhood, something strange was happening. When the kids I used to play with in the cul-de-sac realized I wasn’t going to school with them anymore, they stopped playing with me. Or speaking to me. Somehow, they got this idea, whether it was from their parents or each other or who knows where, that I thought I was better than them. I didn’t. I wasn’t. Just because I was going to a different school with a different program did not mean I didn’t still want to ride bikes and play tag with them. I did. But I wasn’t allowed to anymore. They unceremoniously unwelcomed me from their midst. It was awkward and painful. They assumed something about me that wasn’t true—that I was suddenly arrogant, or a snob, even though I wasn’t behaving any differently than I had when we were hanging out in their basements. But that was that.

Fast forward a few years to ninth grade and another fork in the academic road. My friends from junior high were scattering to different high schools. My neighborhood school did not have a stellar reputation. I had heard rumors of chain-wielding gangs of immigrants roaming the hallways. Somehow, I bought into some bizarre stereotypes. I assumed the worst. So, I found a math class I could take at another, allegedly better, high school, and transferred. And I had the absolute worst year of my entire public education career. At this school, which was much richer and much whiter than my neighborhood school, people were mean to me. I was turned away from activities I wanted to do. Hardly anyone in my classes spoke to me. I was miserable. I made a handful of friends who sustained me that year, mostly people from the literary magazine who considered themselves willing outcasts of the school’s elitist culture. By the end of the year I was willing to face the prospect of roving gangs at my neighborhood school because I figured they couldn’t possibly be more unkind than the privileged white kids I’d been surrounded by all year.

First period in 10th grade I walked into Mr. Lunsford’s biology class at my neighborhood school and a whole bunch of people, most of whom I had never met, seemed surprisingly, genuinely happy to see me. As the days and weeks went on I was warmly greeted by familiar faces from elementary school and total strangers. I felt at home instantly. And guess what? No threatening thugs anywhere. Whatever I had assumed turned out not to be true. Surprise!

Recently I’ve been reading this book—Wonder by RJ Palacio—with my daughter at bedtime. I read it originally when it came out in 2012, and it’s one of my favorite books. Wonder is about a boy named August Pullman who is starting middle school and he’s nervous. Not just because he’s been homeschooled his whole life, or because it’s middle school, but also because he has a severe craniofacial anomaly. Genetics conspired to make Auggie’s face startlingly different from typical faces. By age 10 he has already undergone dozens of surgeries. When Auggie introduces himself at the beginning of the book, he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Our only insight into Auggie’s appearance comes from his description of people’s reactions to him. Stares, gasps, kids running away on the playground. At his new school, all but a couple kids give him a wide berth. They cover their mouths when they whisper about him, but he knows exactly what they’re saying. Many of them play a cruel game they call the Plague, where they try not to touch Auggie, even in passing, and if they do they have to immediately wash their hands to prevent catching what they somehow imagine is the disease that caused Auggie’s facial differences.

The few kids who actually get to know Auggie discover that he’s awesome. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s kind. He loves all things Star Wars, and playing video games, and when his dog Daisy licks his face. But because he looks so different, most kids, and many parents, don’t give him a chance. They make assumptions, such as that the school made an exception to admit a student with special needs who requires extra accommodations, none of which is true. One mom goes so far as to Photoshop Auggie’s face out of the class picture, saying he just doesn’t fit in.

Later in the book we do read a detailed description of Auggie’s looks from the point of view of his big sister, Olivia. She is realizing that there’s the Auggie she sees, of whom she has always been fiercely protective, and the Auggie that other people see. She is candid about the effects that having a little brother who looks so shockingly different has had on her life. She is loving, and patient, but also weary. And honest.

Olivia’s voice is one of several we hear in Wonder, in addition to August’s, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much. Mr. Tushman, the director of August’s school, says at one point, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story,” and RJ Palacio offers us windows into the many facets of this story. She wrote a companion book in 2014 called Auggie & Me, which tells the same story through the lens of three other characters, including Julian, who is Auggie’s greatest antagonist in Wonder. Just as so many kids make assumptions about Auggie based on his looks, the reader makes assumptions about Julian based on his behavior. Clearly, he’s just a jerk, right? But there are, as Mr. Tushman points out, almost always more than two sides to every story.

Our brains are hardwired to categorize for survival—is this creature friendly or likely to eat me? Is this food edible or poisonous? But what happens when that desire to classify everything you see gets out of control? I struggle with this constantly. Is that person thinner than me or fatter than me? Does that person have holes in her clothes because she can’t afford better clothes or because she’s trying to be fashionable? Why is it fashionable to have holes in your clothes? My brain goes into overdrive. So while I want to be welcoming, while I aspire to be friendly, while I deeply wish I were the person who goes over and sits down at the lunch table where the different looking new kid is sitting all alone on the first day of school, I don’t know if I really am. I am convinced that sometimes my assumptions—about someone else or myself—get in the way. What if that person who is crying just wants to be left alone? What if I am insensitive because of my white privilege? What if I ask an intrusive question because I am curious?

Sometimes this interrogation of myself keeps me from being welcoming, inclusive, or brave. Our theme here at UUCA for September is welcome. So today I’m making a commitment to be more welcoming, everywhere I go, whether I am greeting the new kid or I am the new kid. I’m making a commitment to not let those questions and assumptions ricocheting around my head get in the way of reaching out to someone. I’m making a commitment to remember that there are almost always more than two sides to every story, and to do what I can to listen to all the sides.

One of the great characters in Wonder is Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who teaches his students about precepts—words to live by—and encourages them to come up with their own. I’ll leave you with Mr. Browne’s precept for September, a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

May it be so. May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

This came out of an exercise from my UUCA covenant group. My co-facilitator D suggested, shortly after the election, that she felt motivated to affirm where she stood, in order to be better able to stand up in the face of the insanity we felt was crashing down all around us. At our December meeting we took the opportunity to write statements of belief. I found it surprisingly empowering to do this. 

road

I believe in always going the extra mile. I may get there late, but I’ll always stay until the end, after all the work is done.

I believe in asking good questions, because people are almost always grateful for the chance to tell their stories.

I believe in being generous because why not? Even if I don’t have much I will always share it with you, or with whoever needs it.

I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions. Despite recent evidence, I have to believe that most people are doing the best they can with what they know and what they have.

I believe in saying yes. I’m going to learn from doing something new. I’m going to push myself. I’m going to make life a little easier for someone else.

I believe in community. I am a better person when I surround myself with good people and I give myself to the whole.

I believe in the necessity of loving yourself and taking care of yourself. You’re the only one who truly knows what you need.

I believe in asking for and accepting help. Everyone can do something and I definitely can’t do it alone.

I believe people know more than they think they do.

I believe in the power of music and words to inspire, to heal, and to make meaning in a chaotic world.

I believe that words always matter and I choose them with care and attention.

I believe that sometimes the wisest and kindest thing to say is nothing.

I believe that it’s never too late to try again and you’re never too old to learn.

I believe kindness is most important of all.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.36.00 PMMy daughter is finishing a book in bed, reading with her book light while her brother sleeps on the other side of the room. This fills me with such delight I do not care how late she stays up. It helps that today is the last day of school, and there is nowhere she needs to be in the morning. I have turned off my 6:30am weekday alarm until September. My husband pointed out this morning that I never get up at 6:30 anyway. But that’s when I am supposed to get up, and that’s when I need to begin the process of gradually waking up and hitting snooze until it is absolutely necessary to get out of bed and start the day.

I am thankful there will be no more late passes until the fall. When Zoe and I looked at her end-of-year report card today at lunch I noticed that her teacher, or the school, or some benevolent being, didn’t even count her tardies for the fourth quarter, which were numerous. Only some of them were her fault. A few were mine. Many were caused by her brother needing to poop at the precise moment we’re walking out the door. Now he can poop any time of the morning that he pleases, because who cares if you’re late to camp?

Speaking of pooping, we are done with diapers! This feels miraculous to me, a day I was never quite sure would arrive. I discovered with Zeke that having a kid potty train when he has a fully functioning bladder is not so bad. I have a greater appreciation for Zoe’s years of struggle with a recalcitrant bladder and immense gratitude that it went so smoothly for Zeke. Now all we have to do every morning is pick out which superhero underwear he wants to wear. Tonight we discussed whether Superman wears underwear with little pictures of Zeke on it. He said Superman’s underwear also has pictures of Zoe and me on it. I guess that makes sense, since some of Zeke’s underwear has Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. So when Amazon delivers underwear to Metropolis, perhaps it’s the Rosso Family variety pack.

After Zoe and I and a few hundred students and parents from her school watched all the teachers and staff do their song and dance numbers after dismissal, one of my favorite traditions at Zoe’s school, we went out to eat so I could have lunch and Zoe could have pie while we pored over the last day contents of her backpack, including several more items that her teacher gave away to the kids so she wouldn’t have to pack them up today because the school renovation starts Monday. Zoe already came home bearing a dictionary, an atlas, and several other books she was thrilled to have “won” in class. Her teacher is quite clever.

Then at Zoe’s suggestion we went to a paint-your-own-pottery studio and made mosaics, which we had never done there before. We had a lovely, meditative time together, which we always do when we make art. She also painted a bowl. They sent us home with grouting kits to use to finish the mosaics in 48 hours when the glue dries. I have never grouted before. Exciting!

Finally, I am thankful that the three of us enjoyed an unprecedentedly peaceful dinner tonight at Silver Diner, which I allowed Zoe to choose in celebration of the last day of school and her great report card. We went after her martial arts class, and after I let the kids run around the turf room at martial arts fighting with swords made of pool noodles, and after Zeke totally averted a tantrum on his own when Zoe handed him a plain noodle instead of one with Superman duct tape on it, and after we talked with Zoe’s instructor about what’s required of her to earn her red solid belt at the end of the summer, and after we got snow cones (blue raspberry, cherry, and grape for Zoe; pineapple and strawberry for Zeke and me to share) from the truck in the Evolve All parking lot because I had promised the kids last week we would get them tonight. So really you can see we went to dinner quite late and given all that I fully expected any or all of us to meltdown, but we didn’t! Everyone ate all of their food. Zoe discovered she liked asparagus after eating it accidentally thinking it was green beans. We even got milkshakes (yes, I was super indulgent today–whatever) and the waitress brought Zeke a sthamiltonbroadway10rawberry instead of a chocolate but he decided he liked it anyway–another chance for a tantrum that didn’t happen! We listened and sang along to Hamilton at top volume in the car on the way
home, showered, and no one argued about anything. Zeke asked me to sing “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Helpless” in the shower but I couldn’t remember all the words, even though we’ve listened to it a gazillion times.

Seriously, this is all true. I know it sounds extraordinary. I didn’t yell at anyone all day. The kids didn’t fight. It was awesome. Of course now Zoe comes in and says she feels ill, which is probably because I let her have so many treats today. So, perhaps my fault. But otherwise it was such a lovely, peaceful day. You really need one of those every now and then.

 

 

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 11.43.42 AMI’ve been volunteering once a week in Zoe’s class this year to help kids with reading and writing. Next week is my last time in the classroom for the year. As I’ve written here before, it’s been a wonderful experience. Recently the class has been working on writing letters, so I wrote them one of my own. 

May 29, 2015

Dear Zoe, Zain, Ryan, Parin, Morgan, Madeleine, Lillian, Kevin, Kari, José, Jonathan, Jon, Jeremy, Jackson, Isabel, Hannah, Denis, Clare, Christopher, Bryant, Brenda, Ben, Angela, and Ms. deOlazo,

Thank you so much for welcoming me into your classroom as a volunteer this year! I have really enjoyed getting to know all of you and working with you to strengthen your writing and reading skills.

I have been impressed by how hard you have worked, how creative you have been, and all the great questions you have asked. I’ve seen your reading and writing grow so much throughout the year and I am so proud of you! You’ve written beautiful haikus, funny limericks, lovely letters, bold book reviews, and more. I’m always interested to know what you’re reading and I love seeing it when you get really wrapped up in a book. I love your enthusiasm for the stories that Ms. D reads to the class and how you can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Just as much as you’ve improved your reading and writing, you’ve also grown as people. I like how you are so generous in helping each other when your friends get stuck or need to know how a word is spelled. I like how engaged you are in the games and activities that Ms. deOlazo comes up with, like the concentration exercises, stretching and meditation, and even four corners. I know that the abilities you are developing now will be incredibly useful to you as you move through school and into life. It’s wonderful that Ms. D is teaching you how to work together, how to solve problems in interesting ways, and how to be flexible and imaginative. Those are important skills for everyone to have.

I will miss spending time with your class so much! I hope you have a wonderful summer and that I will see you all next fall.

Yours,

Ms. Rosso

We have retired the baby monitor. Rest assured, the baby is still working hard. He’s even been promoted to toddler, now able to walk as fast or faster than he could crawl, which was surprisingly speedily. Strangers on the playground would frequently remark, “wow, he’s fast!” as he careened around their kids going up stairs on his hands and knees. But the monitor is superfluous. It was only being used by Zeke himself as a toy, because it has buttons and beeps when you push them. He would pick up the monitors and press the buttons and carry them from room to room. If he cries when he’s asleep we can hear him anyway. He’s plenty loud. And if he cries for an extra minute because we are in the bathroom or washing dishes and can’t hear him immediately, he’ll live. We are just callous that way.

Last night after we came home from camp and day care and the grocery store, Zeke was a little edgy. He had started to melt down at the store, occasional threatening cries staved off by me carrying him and Zoe pushing the cart while I hissed at her to watch out every 30 seconds or so when she almost crashed into someone or something. In the checkout line the cashier, a man, thoughtfully handed Zeke the electronic PIN pad so he could push buttons. I don’t know how he knew that Zeke loves to push buttons, but that definitely bought us some time. We made it home, and I plied Zeke with a bottle of milk and Sesame Street so I could bring in the groceries. Sometime during all that he fell down the stairs, but was ok, and I held him for a while on the sofa, as I was dripping with sweat from all the trips in and out and hauling him around and it was a hot day, and he seemed fine. How many times can a toddler fall down the stairs before he actually gets hurt? I don’t want to find out.

By the time Randy got home from work Zeke was really cranky. I hadn’t had a chance to make any food for anyone because I had been chasing him. Randy picked him up and held him and they both dozed off. Randy for only a moment, but Zeke was out. This was 7 o’clock. At least an hour or an hour and a half before Zeke usually goes to bed. And he was wearing a dirty shirt and a diaper. And hadn’t had a bath. But he was asleep, so Randy laid him down in the crib and put a blanket over him. Perhaps 30 minutes later, Zeke woke up screaming. He screamed when I picked him up, screamed throughout the bath, screamed while getting his pajamas on, although he cooperated for all of these activities anyway. He’s very good at putting his arms through the sleeves of shirts, although he does not care for pants. The wailing abated momentarily when Zoe brought up the musical glowworm that used to be hers that we recently rediscovered and she said Zeke could have. She was kind and he was distracted for an instant, and then resumed screaming.

Randy attempted to feed him and get him back to sleep for about an hour, but he would have none of it.

So he stayed up until 11. At least he wasn’t screaming all that time. From 9 to 11 he played happily. He climbed on and off the sofas about 50 times. He wore hats. He carried around a small dinosaur and rearranged all the coasters. I asked him to put the dinosaur on the coaster and he did! I asked him to bring the dinosaur to Daddy and he did! He’s good at following instructions when he wants to. And we read many books. Front to back, back to front. Occasional pages here and there. He prefers books with photos of objects to illustrations. He flips through these books and points to items of interest and says “this?” and looks at us. It sounds more like “dis” and we say the name of the object. Sometimes it feels like we’re undergoing some kind of memory quiz or neurological exam. “LEMON! BOOTS! FROG! BOWL! BATHTUB! HOUSE! GRAPES! GRAPES AGAIN! FROG! APPLE! BOOTS!” We hope we will pass the test.

Last night in one of the books on one of the pages filled with grocery store-related items, there was a red bell pepper. Zeke pointed to it again and again. “PEPPER! PEPPER! PEPPER! PEPPER!” punctuated occasionally by “WALLET AND MONEY!” “POTATOES!” and then back to “PEPPER!” and every time I said pepper Zeke smiled, until he was finally laughing out loud at the pepper. We would close the book and he would open it again, find the page, and point to the pepper, “PEPPER!” Laughter. “PEPPER!” Laughter. Oh thank goodness for amusing vegetables.

Finally he started getting floppy and curling up and Randy got him another bottle of milk and I took him outside for the lullaby walk. Within a few minutes he was asleep. Over the past month his sleeping habits have improved significantly. About 85% of the time — clearly a scientific measurement — he will go to sleep without a fight around 8:30 and sleep through the night, until somewhere between 6am and 8am. The other 15% of the time there is some sort of sleeping calamity, either at bedtime or at 2 or 3 or 4am. But progress has definitely been made, for which, and for that red bell pepper, we are profoundly thankful.

Carry On, WarriorLater this month I am participating in Glennon Melton’s Messy, Beautiful Warriors project on Momastery. This means I will be writing a post that is linked to Momastery and maybe, if I’m lucky, it will be reposted there. I am a big fan of Glennon so I am excited about this opportunity.

What’s in it for you? A free book! Because I said I would write about being a messy, beautiful warrior, Glennon sent me a copy of her book to give away. I own it and I’ve read it and it’s great. Randy even read it, and he mostly reads tech blogs and news and books about programming, so that’s a testimonial right there.

Any reader who makes a thoughtful comment on my blog in April, and who says he or she would like to be entered in the drawing for the book, will be eligible.

Coming soon–reflections on birthdays and messy beauty!

There Is a Bird on Your HeadToday I volunteered in Zoe’s first-grade classroom for the first time. Her teacher had asked if I would come in and read with kids. When I arrived, she handed me an index card with five kids’ names on it. I read about the life cycle of frogs, about goats (I learned there are more than 600 kinds), about how monsters make their meals (lots of metal junk), about Teeny Tiny Tina, about a tricky Grandpa, and about Elephant and Piggie dealing with a bird who makes himself at home on Elephant’s head.

Zoe’s teacher has signs posted all over the room about how to read–strategies for sounding out words, techniques for reading with partners, questions to ask yourself to help you understand what you’re reading. I’d attended a reading celebration in the classroom already so I was familiar with the techniques. I’ve loved learning about how first grade works now because it seems completely different than it was in 1981 when I was in it. The options for reading with partners include choral reading (reading in unison), taking turns page by page, or echoing. With every book I read with every student, I asked how he or she wanted to read that one. When L. and I were going to read There Is a Bird on Your Head he chose echoing. L. is a fairly fluent reader, and I thought echoing was really for kids who are still trying to sound out words, but it was his choice. And, although it took a long time, echo reading with him–especially that book–was fun. He read with enthusiasm and expression, and I echoed. I realized I could simply mirror his expression or interpret the lines (which are short) in a slightly different way with different inflection. I could see the benefit to echo reading for a young reader to hear another way of doing it even as he’s exploring his way.

A few kids saw me carrying my card and wanted to know whose names were on it. One boy who is a friend of Zoe’s asked if I was going to read with him. When I said not today, he said he hoped I would read with him next time.

As I was leaving, the teacher thanked me and said I was welcome to read with the kids anytime, and asked if I would be willing to read to them aloud–as if this would be a significant and daring feat to accomplish. I said yes. She also said she appreciated me coming in because some of the kids don’t have anyone to read with them at home. Somehow I was startled by this. I realize there’s a wide socioeconomic spectrum in Zoe’s class, and probably some parents work multiple jobs. But the idea that no one would be reading to these kids at home was heartbreaking to me. Zoe has probably spent thousands and thousands of hours reading and being read to over the past six years–by parents, grandparents, teachers, babysitters, and whoever else was willing. All this good book time has made her the reader she is today. Thinking that some of these kids don’t get to enjoy that time and attention at home makes me want to go back soon and read with all of them. By the end of the year I will know everything there is to know about goats.

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