#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.

#100. Learn how to read a weather forecast and a weather map

IDEA #100. Learn how to read a weather forecast and a weather map. Become familiar with the words, the concepts, the symbols, and the numerical information that appear on a comprehensive weather map, weather site, or weather forecast page.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.18.45 PMIt’s summer, and the weather probably matters more to young people now than at any other time of the year (except perhaps when they and their teachers are awaiting snow day decisions). And never before has information on the weather been so readily available to the average person—on television and radio weather forecasts (and you haven’t heard a serious forecast if you haven’t heard Vermont Public Radio’s “Eye on the Sky” broadcasts, rich in detail and available here on the internet), in newspapers, and above all on a variety of public and commercial internet weather sites like The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Weather Underground.

Summer can be a time of extreme weather events like heat waves and hurricanes, and the summer of 2015 is already producing its share of weather oddities. The young person who can become an adept consumer of weather-related information and who understands the significance of terms like high and low pressure, fronts, dew points, degree-days, and precipitation will be equipped, perhaps, to help friends and relations make plans and avoid or takeScreen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.35.49 PM advantage of meteorological phenomena. Simply the ability to read local radar maps can be a useful skill in predicting where and when “scattered showers” may fall, and the information often expressed as probabilities—”a 20% chance of rain tonight”—can also help the young weather maven understand more about the probability and statistics as well as to read different kinds of graphs and charts. There are also specialized forecast formats for aviators, mariners, and forest rangers—even major league sports teams have their own private forecasts made.

Global climate change is with us, after all, and so the odds are good that we will also become more adept at parsing news on weather and its trends as our local environments become more and more subject to the forces that have been set in motion and that will require us to adapt our behaviors and our expectations to new conditions. If indeed “everybody talks about the weather,” those who make sense when doing so will be increasingly worth listening to.

#99. Become really good at a strategy- or mathematics-based card or board game

IDEA #99. Become really good at a strategy- or mathematics-based card or board game. Study some books on chess, and practice until you are ready to enter a local tournament. Work to develop serious skill at other games, like cribbage, bridge, go, or even checkers. Try becoming a bridge master.

Summer is game-playing time in many families, among groups of friends, and even at camps. Some people enjoy playing games above all things, and many people are blessed with a basic “game sense” that grants them a certain degree of success. But skill in serious strategy games, as opposed to those that are based on luck, can be developed, and many popular board and card games can be played by expert players at a very high intellectual level.

Few games have attracted more thoughtful attention than chess, contract bridge, and the Japanese strategy game, go. Any library’s games section will have numerous books on chess strategy and on bridge, and a larger library is likely to have books on go; the internet is another obvious source of instruction. Mastery of certain basic skills and strategies in all these games can rapidly improve a player’s level of success, and all these games have organizations devoted to raising the level of play as well as to allowing young players of equal skill to test their abilities against one another in tournaments and other ranking events. If the youngster is interested in any of these games, there is literally no limit to what he or she can achieve.

Even humbler and simpler games, like checkers, Monopoly, and other card games, have established strategies by which the most successful players play, and the internet has provided a forum for serious players that is also a great resource for novices who might wish to become serious themselves. There are tournaments held in all these games, too.

More esoteric games—strategy games like Dungeons and Dragons, Scrabble, backgammon, and other patent card and board games like Uno and Five Crowns—all have their serious players, and once again the internet has enabled communities to form. There are even junior tournaments in Scrabble, and some schools even have competitive Scrabble teams that are every bit as disciplined and intense as school chess teams.

Even if the youngster only wants to become good enough to beat a grandparent at rummy now and then, the art of seeing any game as an assemblage of strategies, contingencies, and problems to be solved is powerful intellectual exercise. Along the way the child may also develop his or her number sense, spatial visualization skills, memory, powers of observation, and ability to visualize far ahead of play.

#98. Go to a themed community festival

IDEA #98. Find a town or community festival with a particular theme; enjoy yourself, and pay close attention to what is being celebrated and how the celebration is organized

The Fourth of July and Canada Day are behind us, but summer is when the inhabitants of communities large and small seek to recognize and reinforce their sense of shared identity and also to attract others to their communities by arranging community celebrations. The result is a coast-to-coast panorama of fairs, fetes, and festivals that honor everything from local agricultural products to local history to particular religious figures or events. Some are in smaller towns and villages, while others take place in big city neighborhoods.

Such festivals often feature foods and crafts that are unique to or at least identified with their place, and often there are parades, musical performances, community meals, and sporting events to attract and engage visitors. Often there are opportunities to participate and not just spectate; the interested child can run in a race, submit a piece of art, or judge  a contest.

I am realizing as I write more of these posts how important is a sense of place in our electronically connected but all too often virtually perceived world. The interested child may be a dynamo of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and technological savvy, but if he or she does not know how to connect to and appreciate where they are–the place they inhabit and the cultural and natural complexities and wonders of that place–they will be missing something essential in their development. Humans need to be together, and we need–I think, anyhow–to feel as though there is a place in which and to which we belong. Celebrating together–even in a place that is not exactly “ours”–reminds us, reassures us even, of the power of connection to place.

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Like “The Interested Child” on Facebook

  • About me

    about.me/peter.gow

  • Blog Stats

    • 5,042 hits
  • Where our visitors are from

    Flag Counter
%d bloggers like this: