END BORDER CHILD SEPARATION AND INCARCERATION NOW! Silence is complicity.

What does it take to remind a society of its responsibility toward children? Or maybe it’s that societies don’t really see their responsibilities toward children in the same sentimental terms in which parents see theirs. Every politician wants to be seen kissing babies (a trope that was nearly obsolete until revived by the current Incarcerator-in-Chief), but very many fewer of these politicos seem eager to stand up for children’s education, health and well-being, or apparently even their human right to be with their own families.

The current situation at the United States border with Mexico cannot stand. Soon enough we can expect to see concentration camps for separated parents and children elsewhere in our nation, and we know it. We can name this is an unimaginable evil, yet we can imagine it and cannot act to stop it.

There are those who will throw support for a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, including terminating an unwanted pregnancy, right back at those of us who decry border separation and incarceration. Nobody thinks abortion is a wonderful option, but many of those same people are also supportive of restrictions on the availability of affordable birth control. These are as much about the long-term health and welfare of children yet unborn as they are about s-e-x. If you say that because you disapprove of something else that this makes it okay to wrest crying children from their parents and lock them up, whether in cages or in Walmarts, you missed some important lessons and discussions in your moral education. (If you style yourself an observant Christian, maybe your Bible can help; try Matthew 18.)

The Interested Child calls on every elected and appointed official in the United States, at all levels, to denounce the policy of forced separation and child incarceration at our borders and to act decisively through federal, state, and local action to end this policy. (State action? you ask. Whose National Guard units comprise the enforcement infrastructure? Your state’s?)

The Interested Child believes that silence on this issue is complicity.

If you’re interested in some historical perspective, I have written about this elsewhere.

Shame on us!

THE INTERESTED CHILD: Now available in FREE e-book form

Once upon a time I began THE INTERESTED CHILD as a book, but in the interest of spreading the message a blog-like website seemed far more effective. Readers here have made this project exceedingly gratifying for me, and the feedback I have received has been heartening.

As a way of thanking readers and of keeping the concept going even if I haven’t had occasion to post new suggestions in a while, I have re-cast THE INTERESTED CHILD as an e-book and made it available for distribution AT NO COST through the website of THE INDEPENDENT CURRICULUM GROUP, a consortium of change-minded schools and educational organizations on whose board I long served and of which I am now executive director.

THE INTERESTED CHILD e-book is available in .PDF, .EPUB, and .MOBI (for Amazon Kindle) formats HERE.

If you know educators or family folk who might be interested, please spread the word!

And thank you once again for your own interest!

—Peter Gow

RAISING OUR VOICES AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE

We haven’t posted here in a long time, but the interest of children is what matters to The Interested Child.

I have written elsewhere about the horrific ways in which children have been treated in the world and about my own connection with the Newtown Massacre. But the world seems to have gone even crazier in the past couple of years, and the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last week was just one episode of madness too much. And I’m not talking just about the shooter, but about the studied way in which politicians keep sidestepping the issue of gun violence and gun control.

If you’re reading this you care about kids. You are likely a parent or a guardian or an educator. You watch kids every day. You have probably been watching the Olympics and marveling at the teenagers on skis and snowboards, for example, hurling themselves into the air, spinning crazily, and landing in the medal zone. You know that these are passionately interested children, and you pray that the sports systems that have brought them to PyeongChang are healthier and less exploitative than what we have been hearing about in women’s gymnastics. But I suppose we all wonder.

What we know about mass shootings is that nothing will happen, or at least that nothing has happened yet. Politicians bray about “thoughts and prayers,” mumble something about “mental health,” and then go back and curl up at the feet of their gun-lobby masters, apparently content that the cycle of violence is now as American as apple pie and that re-election is in their money-filled bag.

Some kids have even learned to capitalize on the sick pointlessness of all this, and the cycle now includes copy-cat threats to schools, replacing false fire alarms as an effective way to get attention, have some lulz, and maybe even delay that algebra test for a day. Someone, somewhere is keeping a tally, but Thursday and Friday’s toll of these was well into the dozens, nationally, by my quick review of local news sites across the country. And apparently a few of the thwarted threats were for real. Jesus wept.

But the children are speaking up in positive ways, too, and the media, at least, are suddenly beginning to listen. I read in my local paper today a story about a rally held by Parkland, Florida, students in which they spoke out—loud and proud and passionate and angry—on the issue of guns. “We call B–S!” was their cry. Bravo! Is ours.

And we have calls to action from other places: Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, Everytown, and the Network for Public Education have proposed days (March 14, March 24, and April 20, respectively) for student and teacher walk-outs and teach-ins. The idea is to spark enough positive action to capture enough of the attention of the voting public to, in turn, capture the attention of politicians at all levels—hopefully enough attention to drown out the gun lobby’s mandate for inaction.

The Interested Child supports these and other efforts to curb the United States’s appalling rate of gun violence: on an average day, 96 people die by the gun, including 7 children and teens. This is unacceptable.

And if children’s voices can help in this effort, we urge our readers to engage themselves and their own interested children in this work. This is not about exploiting children for political gain but about somehow finding the right combination of voices and messages to change the world, or at least our little part of it.

I don’t even understand why this is about politics at all. Who can disagree that kids’ lives should be protected by the adults who write and enforce the laws of the land?

#105. Read a poetry or literary magazine; write and submit something of your own

IDEA #105. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a poetry or literary magazine. Granta would be a natural choice, but there are hundreds “little” magazines, some “important” and others less so, that publish poetry and short fiction, sometimes along with photography and other visual art. If you want to submit something that you have written or created, pat yourself on the back. If it’s accepted, get someone to take you out to dinner in celebration.

For all that we read that the people of the United States  are low on literacy and debased in their cultural interests, the fact remains that Americans are a manically active people when it comes to writing and publishing poetry. Many universities publish august “reviews” containing poetry, prose, and literary commentary, and a glance at the section of poetry magazines on the shelves of any large bookstore reveals many, many independent reviews, poetry magazines, and literary quarterlies. Poetry is being written, and poetry is being published.

For the youngster with an interest in poetry, the discovery of these magazines can be a revelation—a window into a world of creativity and verbal dexterity and, more importantly, a whole choir of new voices to be heard. A typical IMG_2010periodical—and Granta is among the better known—rewards a slow and careful reading, with some contents requiring deep and immediate concentration while others can be set aside for another time. Even the little biographical blurbs on the writers can be of interest—who are these people, and where do they come from?

While it is true that many published poets are university-affiliated academics, there are enough unattached citizen-poets to remind the reader that poetry has been a popular and democratic art form since the days of Homer. A number of the smaller of the “small” magazines that specialize in poetry are themselves distinctly demotic in form, with production values taking a back seat to the sheer cramming in of contributed work. Here is poetry at its most raw, and here might lie the opportunity for a young poet to take a first step into the world of the aspiring poet—to complete the “final” draft of a poem or two.

In the past and still in a few cases, the poet’s next steps were to write the cover letter, to fold the obligatory self-addressed stamped envelope, and to stuff them all into an envelope in the form of a submission. Nowadays most poetry magazines solicit and receive submissions via email; it’s even fair to say, despite the “hands-on” urgings of this post, that there are as many online poetry and literary ‘zines as there are ones still in print.

The fortunate young poet will receive the overwhelmingly gratifying news that a poem—or two, or three—has been accepted for publication. As anyone who has ever read a literary autobiography knows, the arrival of one’s first acceptance is often the event that inspires a career.

It might also be happy case that the young poet’s school sponsors its own literary magazine, creating the opportunity not just for submission and publication but also to engage in editorial work—selection and curation, copy-editing, and preparation for press. Many famous writers got their start by publishing in and then working on school and college literary magazines.

#104. Learn a common communication code

IDEA #104. Learn a common communication code. Morse code—dots and dashes—is great for sending or receiving messages, even if it is no longer a requirement for a basic amateur radio license. Or try semaphore, also known as wig-wag, which uses two flags to send alphanumeric messages, much like the colored signal flags used at sea.

Although the original uses of Morse code and semaphore communication have gone obsolete with improvements in electronic telecommunication, both are examples of highly successful attempts to make possible reliable communication over distance, and both still have some utility. The youngster interested in radio transmitting and not just listening can learn Morse (and still and qualify for an amateur radio license with special privileges); a flashlight can communicate a message in Morse in the darkness—in other words, the code can still do what it was invented to do, even if messages are no longer sent by telegraph operators. (Wikipedia, incidentally, has a great page on Morse code, with many linked resources.

Semaphore and signal flags can be used to send messages over much longer distances, and special “shorthand” jul08groupings of just a few wig-wags or signal flags are still established ways of sending common messages; websites devoted to both these forms of communication can be found. While a full set of cloth signal flags can be expensive to buy or hard to make, paper duplicates can be made with crayons, paints, or markers. Two sets of semaphore flags—one for each friend or “station”—require only some cloth and sticks.

Children’s and young adult literature of an earlier era often featured “secret“ communication using one or more of the methods suggested in this activity. Reading code is like knowing another language, with the added benefit of being a language that is well suited to technology-based communication.

Truly ambitious youngsters in search of a means of private communication might consider learning American Sign Language, a fully developed language (that represents a culture, as well) whose complexity and grace—especially once the user passes the finger-spelling stage—is extraordinary and whose use is thought to play a significant role in developing certain language centers in the brain.

For the young learner who is simply entranced by codes, a whole world of cryptography can be opened up by an exploration of reference and specific materials in any library. With so much of the world of codes and ciphers based on mathematical principles, their study can have a very positive effect in the development of mathematical and analytical thinking skills.

Critical Thinking, “Ethan Brand,” and the Holiday Spirit

We happen to be a family that celebrates Christmas, and we have tended to do it in a fairly traditional secular way: tree, stockings, presents, sit-down dinner. For a week or so before the actual day lights twinkle stereotypically in the living room and cats sip spruce-infused water from the tree-stand. Each of us maintains a hidey-hole for gifts and avoids the burden of wrapping until the last minute. There is egg nog.

At some point in my late adolescence I remember deciding that this kind of celebration, with more-or-less mandated giving, orchestrated good cheer, and choreographed gestures of comfort and joy stripped, in my home, of religious content, was indeed a humbug. Any day can be a fine day for giving or receiving a gift, and a little more spontaneity in the exchange can deepen its meaning. Why not find other days for random family gatherings or acts of kindness? Why Christmas? Didn’t the ritualization of pretty much everything about the day empty it of meaning and eviscerate “the true spirit of Christmas,” whatever that might be?

It wasn’t so much that I was Scrooge—I wasn’t trying to save a few bucks—but rather that I was taking my role as a self-styled cultural critic to a logical end. I still can’t say that I was wrong about anything, but I had missed something rather important. I could engage in my own personal boycott of Christmas, but if no one else was, what was my point except to add a bit of critical discomfort to the lives of family and friends? (Which may have been my point. But still.) I could reject the holiday spirit, but if everyone else had it—for whatever reason, because it was in the air, because they felt Christmas or the Solstice or something similar very deeply, or just because they were “s’posed to”—then my little boycott was not just a statement but an active turning away from community.

And in my personal spiritual construct, turning away from community was in fact the definition of the wrong thing to do. I had learnt this from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Ethan Brand,” where this rejection is in fact the Unpardonable Sin. So I made those around me suffer through one season, and then I decided that I could acknowledge and participate in the rituals of the holiday. To be sure, I have always found gift-giving hard, because I so want to quote-what-is-the-unpardonable-sin-asked-the-lime-burner-it-is-a-sin-that-grew-within-my-own-nathaniel-hawthorne-69-92-80find the perfect thing for each recipient and I remember all too keenly the disappointments of some of my own childhood Christmases. But I also know, as a parent now, that there is something very nice about sitting around with family and watching others be surprised and occasionally genuinely delighted by another’s gift. I like the smell of the tree, even if I don’t really love egg nog.

At some point I suspect many interested children will question the rituals and traditions with which they live, and I believe wholeheartedly that they should. Whatever the holiday or occasion—and it certainly doesn’t have to be Christmas—it will mean more when the young person comes to it on his or her own terms, having tested it, questioned it, thought it through. I suppose this risks full-on rejection, but that is an individual’s right, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to figure out what he or she owes to family and community and how to make good—or not—on that obligation. I may have taken my theology from “Ethan Brand” (others will find better, richer sources), but we must all decide for ourselves where the “spirit” and the rational self and our place in the world intersect.

I am sorry for having annoyed folks with my Christmas boycott many years ago, but in my own way I grew from it, and when I say “Happy Holidays!” to some one nowadays I mean it: I want them to be happy. And I hope that they have thought about why they might be happy, or even how they could be happier or be making others happier. Being in the holiday spirit, I think, entails thinking about what this might actually mean. And meaning, of course, is what matters.happy-holidays

#103. Attend a presentation on a topic that interests you by an interesting speaker or lecturer at a local college or university

IDEA #103. Attend a presentation  by an interesting speaker or lecturer at a local college or university

A local college or university is likely to be a fountain of opportunity to hear accomplished people talk about their fields of expertise, an art that once upon a time had the popularity of prime-time television and major league sports rolled into one. When popular lecturers—think Mark Twain or Charles Dickens—roamed the land and when the Chautauqua circuit brought experts, entertainers, and charlatans alike from village to village across America, the arrival of an itinerant speaker, on whatever subject from spiritualism to the pyramids of Egypt, was an eagerly awaited phenomenon.

Although the opportunities still exist in popular culture cable news talk shows, the History Channel—to hear bright speakers strut their stuff, there is nothing that can compare to the immediacy and power of a live lecture pena-moradelivered before a bright, eager audience. Listening to such people speak truly does “elevate” the mind (another old-fashioned concept quite apropos here), even when the subject matter may be obscure and the speaker less than Churchillian. (For this reason it may be worth introducing the youngster to one of the “lecture circuit”’s more charismatic or timely characters.)

We would add here, Ask a question in the customary Q&A period after the main presentation. Make it a good one, and pay close attention to the answer, even if it is not the one you had hoped to hear.

This activity can be made interactive by having the interested child initiate a conversation about the presentation with a knowledgeable or engaged adult—a relative or teacher. Or better still, follow up with an question to the speaker him or herself, via email; even “famous” people can usually be contacted via their institution, speakers bureau, or website.

“Problem-Solving Communities”

A recent blog post by Steven Mintz on the Inside Higher Ed site extolled the virtues of “problem-solving communities’ The piece referenced the history of problem-solving organizations and competitions in elementary and secondary education and gave a particular shout-out to Future Problem Solving Program International, an international organization founded in 1974 to promote problem-solving as a specific skill and mindset.

Twenty-five years ago I had a brief stint as assistant coach to a team of students who were engaged in the competitions managed by Odyssey of the Mind, founded in 1978, now also an international organization imagesand competition. Our team made it to the World Finals, but a tight budget kept me off the plane to Colorado, and thus I missed seeing our team finish third there! But the experience, and the program, inspired me.

Part of that inspiration has drawn me to a certain genre of reality TV that involves problem-solving and puts the problem and the solving over human drama. The old Scrapheap Challenge (known in the U.S. as Junkyard Wars) program enchanted me, with teams competing to solve engineering challenges under tight constraints and limited in their selection of raw materials to what they could find in what seemed to be the world’s most wonderful junkyards. Project Runway at its best offers the same kind of experience: a problem, constraints, solution design, coaching, and critiques. All these shows lack is the opportunity to iterate and improve the work product, but otherwise they give a fair representation of the “design thinking” process that many schools are talking about these days.

But I digress. The Interested Child likes to reference programs and opportunities offered in schools that might pique the curiosity and perhaps in time the passions of kids, and programs like Odyssey of the Mind and its counterpart, Destination Imagination, are superb in this area–and we suspect there are local and regional versions and variations that also ignite children’s creativity around solving complex problems in ways that incorporate every aspect of STEM, STEAM, and intellectual endeavors in general. There are also numerous robotics programs and competitions that serve the same purpose–and then there is Canstruction, which combines design, problem-solving, and service learning.

So if your school–or your interested child’s school–has a team or a program based on the idea of problem-solving, look into it. If you’re an interested adult, you might even ask about volunteering as a coach or a driver or a fund-raiser.

And if there is no “problem-solving” program, suggest that having an Odyssey of the Mind, robotics, Canstruction, Destination Imagination, or similar program would be a great way to engage kids in hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, the humanities in action, and even service learning. I remember the thrill of watching kids’ gadgets and machines and solutions in action at OotM competitions, and you and any interested children you know can be thrilled, too.

#102. Become an expert on something

IDEA #102: Become an expert on something: ball bearings, the moons of Jupiter, the manufacture of lip gloss, the art of Renoir. Learn as much as you can about the science or engineering or art behind your topic; offer to give a presentation on your subject to your class at school or to some other group.

At some point many children become at least temporarily obsessed with something, and parents or guardians can nurtures the idea of obsession and expertise. Even so, many other children have a difficult time latching onto something that is truly of great interest, and so it is the combined job of the family and the child to try to identify something that has the potential to become, if not an obsession, at least the center of a strong, deep interest.

Sometimes the subject can be elicited through a kind of Socratic dialogue with the child, trying to draw him or her out on some apparent interest, past of present. The interest might be related to sport, to family, to nature, to the arts, to a pet or a hobby—it does not matter. What does matter is that child begins to see value in amassing more than a superficial knowledge or skill and to reach the point where one piece of information invites the discovery of yet another, and so on, until the youngster’s knowledge may exceed that of those around and even become a source of pride.

Many school projects are designed around the idea that the student should find an interest and develop it, and the best of such projects succeed admirably in inspiring children. Sometimes the student may carry the interest forward with him or her, building upon it until true expertise is obtained.

There is of course a danger that a narrow and passionate interest will somehow run counter to the exigencies of mr-peabody-and-sherman-tv-showschool learning, or that the individual will indeed run the danger of boring friends and family with recitations of facts and figures. With regard to the former, a well-developed interest is regarded as the sign of a capable and disciplined mind, while it may be up to those friends and family members to help give the young expert some perspective on where and when a demonstration of mastery might or might not be appropriate. But the child who possesses the curiosity and the discipline to develop a strong interest has acquired intellectual character of a fundamental and important sort.

#101. Write seven poems. Six just aren’t enough.

IDEA #101. Write seven poems. Six just aren’t enough. Go back and revise them at least once a week for a few weeks, at least. Do they get better? Submit your favorites to your school newspaper or literary magazine.

Committing oneself to write a series of poems has the effect of committing oneself to be, at least for a time, IMG_1636a poet. Half a dozen poems or more constitutes a serious endeavor, with the attendant issues of both content and quality.

There is no reason that the poems could not consist of a series on a particular topic, for example, or a group of portraits of friends or family members, like the Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters. The poems could even, together, form a single narrative. While poems tend to be taught piecemeal to students in school, as if each were unconnected to any other, poems are often grouped around certain themes when they are collected by their authors into book form, and the aspiring poet might turn not just to Masters but to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel or Robert Frost’s early North of Boston collection by way of inspiration.

Much of the exercise here is not just the writing but also the continuous editing and polishing that poems require. One poet of our acquaintance refers to his collection of poems in progress as his garden, always in need of pruning or other care, sometimes ready to bloom in publication but more often requiring more work before being set out before the world.

Should the young poet complete the poems and find the enterprise congenial, perhaps a poetizing tendency may take root. At the least, the poet should try to submit the work to whatever publications are handy, usually through a school but sometimes through a local or even national poetry contest. Beware, however, any poetry “contest” that offers publication for payment. While most are legitimate in their way, some are scams, and to be truly a “published poet” one should not have to pay for the privilege.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: