#32. Think of something that you are good at and find someone you can tutor or teach—could be art, could be algebra, could be reading, could be basketball, could be …

IDEA #32. Think of something that you are good at and find someone you can tutor or teach—could be art, could be algebra, could be reading, could be basketball, could be …

This activity begins with an act of reflection, a consideration of what the young person might actually be good enough at to teach. This might be more difficult than it seems, if for no other reason that some things at which he or she might be highly skilled are not of interest or use to others—or that the skill is so intuitive that breaking it down to be taught might be overwhelming.

But surely the youngster does possess a useful skill, and so the real problem becomes to find an audience. Perhaps a few flyers could be posted in central places in the community—try the bulletin board at a local supermarket—including a phone number. Perhaps an ambitious wannabe coach could announce a batting or shooting clinic at a such-and-such a time at a public park or court, or a less physical skill could be taught at a “seminar” at a public school or library (having of course obtained permission first).

Before any instruction begins, the young tutor should make an effort to break down the activity into intelligible and therefore teachable components or steps. A good teacher has a lesson plan, and so here a written outline or even a script would be very useful. Think abut what the final goal or outcome would be, and “plan backwards.” Think about ways to make each step interesting or fun; perhaps a game would engage the participant(s) while also making even the “teaching” fun.

For one-on-one instruction, it is important that all aspects of the arrangement—goals, time, expectations, supplies and equipment if needed—be clear to all involved. A safe, appropriate, and supervised place is critical, although this could be a home. It is also important that the young tutor know his or her limits and that he or she be able to stop or end the arrangement if necessary.

The idea here is volunteer service, but the work here could evolve into a small business. While no one expects anyone endlessly to give away expertise, it is important for the parent or guardian to be ready to talk about the nature of service and its place in the life of a young person, especially when it might seem time to put the instruction onto a different sort of footing.

#31. Write a letter to a public official suggesting a solution to a problem you see in your community, state, or country

IDEA #31. Write a letter to a public official suggesting a solution to a problem you see in your community, state, or country. Make sure that your letter is detailed and persuasive and that the official you are writing to actually has some authority in the matter you are writing about. Pat yourself on the back if you receive an answer; give yourself a reward if your answer is not a form letter; persuade someone to take you to dinner if your letter actually makes a difference.

Like the letter to the editor, the letter to a public official is a fundamental building block of a democratic society; the letter is even part of that “right to petition” that is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Even in an age when politicians tend to look to polls and to visits from lobbyists for guidance on important issue, letters from constituents still receive a surprising amount of attention at all levels of government.

A letter to a public official should, like an editorial letter, be clear in intent and as concise as possible. It should also, of course, express a point of view or make clear a course of action that is being recommended. If possible, it would also be a nice touch to make some specific reference to the official’s position or track record on the general issue.

Before writing a letter the youngster should give some thought to and possibly do some research on the matter of a proper recipient. If the matter is local, who are the local or regional officials who deal with the particular issue? If the matter is statewide, should the letter be to the executive branch—the governor and or someone in a particular department—or to a member of the legislative branch? On a national level the question is the same. Along the way, the letter-writer will learn a good deal about the three branches of government as well as about the structure of state and local administrative systems—levels of government that are often unknown territory for students.

An opening paragraph might introduce the writer vis-à-vis the official (constituent, neighbor, interested observer) and then make clear how and why the issue under discussion is important in the writer’s life.

Body paragraphs, which could number one or more, ought to set forth the writer’s recommendations with as much supporting detail as possible. In the latter sections and appeal to the official’s self-interest is permissible (“I’m sure that with 28% of voters in this district being retired, many people would find the policy helpful”), as is any kind of distinctly personal touch might underscore the writer’s point (“Since my sister uses a wheelchair, accessibility in all of our playgrounds is very important to me”).

A closing paragraph should thank the official for his or her attention to the matter and perhaps include an offer to meet face-to-face with the official to discuss the matter. As with the letter to the editor, proper business-letter form is very important here, although it would not be necessary to type or word-process.

Many officials with large constituencies and large offices—the President, many senators and governors—will have form letter answers—some, it must be acknowledged, maddeningly bland and noncommittal—that are sent almost automatically to letter writers; the same holds true for many members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Well-crafted, provocative letters to officials at any level can, however, elicit thoughtful, personal responses, and, on rare occasions, a letter-writer can be rewarded by action—even the very thing the writer has recommended.

But any answer is at least an answer, and the young writer will grasp the idea that the government does actually listen to the people, even when it does not always act in swift accordance with each individual’s wish.

#30. Write a script and then make a storyboard for a film you would like to make

IDEA #30. Write a script and then make a storyboard for a film you would like to make: create the dialogue and the settings, then draw pictures of each scene with the dialogue that would go with it. If you feel ambitious, you could even borrow a camera and start filming; at least, you could make the trailer for your own “blockbuster” movie idea.

The imagination of the young runs to story-telling, but here is a way to attempt to set a narrative out in detail. The script is important, and the storyboard, a film-industry tool in which the director lays out the narrative with scene-by-scene sketches as visual accompaniment, is in itself a powerful story-telling medium; it also enforces a strong discipline of sequence and causality. Most storytellers find it a challenge to begin an elaborate story and actually work it through to a conclusion, and so storyboarding provides a neat and tidy technique for working through imaginative hurdles.

As in so many ideas involving some form of visual representation, the quality of the actual sketches is less important than the narrative structure. For this reason, the budding director might want to begin with a modest project—a documentary on a common activity, perhaps—rather than a full-blown space epic. Such story elements as beginning, middle, climax, action–reaction, conclusion, setting, and character all take on a significance even more stark than when one is writing a short story, and the addition of even the crudest visuals underscores the need for a strong point of view and a clear storyline.

And if the young director can acquire the tools to make a rough-cut of the actual film, all the better! It might even be possible to find  some instruction in filmmaking as well as access to the tools of the trade through a local school or public access television station.

#29. Visit an art museum or gallery and write down some of your thoughts on the visit

IDEA #29. Visit an art museum or gallery and write down some of your thoughts on the visit.

Like the sketchbook suggestion in #20, this suggestion is designed to help the young person make and deepen the connection between experience—in this case, close observation of specific paintings or other works of art—and words.

The art of seeing art does not have to be developed in gallery space. In a world in which images fly past the eye, learning to look for patterns and harmonies requires first of all the ability to look with a careful and unanxious eye. No one can enjoy a museum or gallery who feels the pressure to “appreciate” all he or she sees; the stereotype of the broing, knowledge-spouting “high-brow” is among the most powerful cultural deterrents in our society. The skill, the art, is to learn to look at and reflect on those things to which the eye and mind are most drawn, whether they are masterpieces or not.

Even if the site visited is modest in scale—a small local gallery, perhaps—and the works viewed less than Old Masters, the young person is also working here at developing skill in expressing a response to such an experience—and it must be emphasized here that there should be no expectations in terms of quality or quantity other than a good-faith attempt to elicit something more than monosyllables.

By way of motivating suggestions or topics, even such hackneyed prompts as “My favorite sculpture was” or “The part I liked the least was” might be offered. The object is not to present merely an “answer” but to develop skill in the presenting evidence both from the experience and from the child’s thoughts and feelings that will effectively support the assertion. The word Why? is always more important than What? and this is especially true in matters of opinion. (And, it should be added from this educator’s perspective, in a world in which simply having an opinion—see any cable news channel—seems to be valued for its own sake, the student who has internalized the habit of presenting evidence to support a point of view is light years ahead of most of his or her peers.)

The audience for the written response might be the child him- or herself—just a private journal or diary, maybe. If a relative, guardian, or friend should offer service as a reader, let this reader be gentle and positive only. A critique of what has been done rather than friendly encouragement toward even more will quickly defeat the purpose of this exercise.

#28. Go to a grocery store that specializes in a national or ethnic cuisine you don’t know much about—try some new snack food and an unfamiliar beverage

IDEA #28. Go to a grocery store that specializes in a national or ethnic cuisine you don’t know much about—try some new snack food and an unfamiliar beverage.

Thanks to the proliferation of American-style packaging, snack foods and drinks are often the easiest things to identify in shops specializing in particular regional or national cuisines. Candy, chip-type snacks, and fruit drinks and ices can give an idea of what the dominant flavors or spices of a culture might be, and even something as exotic as a mango-flavored potato chip will meet with the approval of most young eaters.

The next level of exploration might involve delights sold in packages that do not so eloquently telegraph “sweet non-nutritious item for kids”—nuts, baked goods (beware of these if allergic), or dried fruits packaged only in plastic bags and sold by weight or wrapped in white paper with the price scrawled in wax pencil. An inquiry to the clerk, “What should I try if I wanted to learn more about food from your culture?” may yield a tasty surprise, sometimes savory or sometimes sweet. Most specialized stores would be happy to expand their customer base, and so an inquisitive customer who has learned to enjoy salted plums or lamejun (or pulled pork, for that matter) can become a de facto ambassador of national or regional good will.

Even when traveling in the United States, the curious shopper may find astonishing local or regional differences: self-rising flour in a half-dozen brands in the South, a myriad of locally produced mustards and sauerkrauts in northern cities populated by many people of German or Eastern European descent, meats and seafoods of startling variety. Favorite candy bars, sodas (the many regional root beers that sweetened my childhood are, alas, largely extinct), and baked goods still define American regional comfort food.

#27. Spend some time in a place where English (or whatever your native language might be) is not in common use

IDEA #27. Spend some time in a place where English (or whatever your native language might be) is not in common use.

This may be a suggestion for older (probably high school-age) children, but family vacations and even group service trips or tours could involve younger children.

Although this suggestion may sound as though it involves exotic and expensive international travel, it might also be possible to accomplish this through low- or no-cost domestic service or service-learning programs into the Southwest, into immigrant communities, or even onto Native American reservations. And Canada has several regions in which English is not residents’ usual first language.

A fact of North American life is that in many areas—some large, some small—English is spoken only as a second language. Whole communities of Spanish speakers abound in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas, while in a few Native American Indian communities indigenous languages are making a strong stand or even in resurgence. Particularly in urban areas, growing populations of recently arrived immigrants maintain their own languages as a barrier against cultural loss. Even if it may be difficult to find residential experiences in the non-English-speaking U.S.A., there may be abundant local opportunities to spend significant amounts of time among communities that function with little or no use of English. Some volunteer experiences in such communities involve teaching English, but others focus on even more elemental needs; many such programs are faith-based. Family experiences in culturally novel regions of one’s home country can be of great value.

If finances allow and interests inspire ways to seek non-English-speaking experiences outside the country, a number of programs—some focusing on language instruction, others on service, and some on cultural exchange—exist. In addition, family travel is a great and supportive introduction to unfamiliar cultures, and it may be that the younger family members adapt to linguistic and cultural challenges more readily than adults, providing a shot of confidence in addition to the learning. Let language not be seen as a barrier but rather as an opportunity; some basics can be acquired via on-line or media-based programs, but one of the exciting aspects of travel is to learn to communicate across language barriers. (And do not forget that virtually the entire province of Quebec in easily accessible eastern Canada is aggressively involved in maintaining its heritage as a French-speaking region.)

Formal cross-cultural experiential programs that serve high-school students are growing in number, including even a few that involve the student living away for a full school term or year. Of course, any program should be thoroughly investigated, and no student should ever be enrolled in any program about which any unanswered questions exist. Reputable programs like the American Field Service, School Year Abroad, and the Experiment in International Living have been engaged in this work for decades, but about less well-known operators the family will need to do research, perhaps with the help of a school counselor or language teacher. The most established programs, incidentally, offer some financial aid.

The point of cross-cultural experience is to be intellectually challenged and inspired and not merely to have one’s ticket punched as part of a résumé-building experience. If the prospect of such an experience is truly exciting to the student, then find it and do it, and the results will be far more profound than a line-item on a college application.

#26. Find a product or company you are interested in, find it on the stock market, and follow its fortunes there.

IDEA #26. Find a product or company you are interested in, find it on the stock market, and follow its fortunes there. Imagine that you have bought 100 shares of a stock, and track it—write it down!—at least once a week on the Internet or in the newspaper. Keep track of how much you win or lose in a month, or two months. Are you happy or sad that you didn’t invest real money?

Stock market reports feature prominently in the news, and investment is the cornerstone of capitalism. The child who learns to understand the system and who can begin to see the relationships between the urge to buy and the urge to sell can at least begin to develop a sense of society’s values as well as how day-to-day events influence the economy.

The first order of business is to help the youngster understand what a “share” of a company is, and how the rising or falling value of the share is a function of the perceived future value of the company. The simple fact is that a stock sale represents a fundamental disagreement between buyer and seller as to whether the value of the stock will rise or fall, a fact with profound implications for the economy as a whole and, of course, for the immediate future of the company.

The second step in this activity is to choose a stock for the hypothetical purchase. Youngsters like to invest in things in which they believe and with which they are familiar—a company that makes a favorite possession, like a computer or a game, or that provides a service the youngster enjoys, like a particular restaurant or television network. It should be fairly easy to find out if the company is listed on one of the major stock exchanges—New York or NASDAQ—and what its trading symbol and current share price are.

Imagine one share at X dollars, and then imagine a hundred shares. This is the initial investment cost. For the duration of the activity the young investor can track the share price; does it rise or fall? Older children may want to track several stocks, perhaps keeping a graph or table of daily value and perhaps also noting the state of the market in general, up or down.

At the end of the period, total up the value of a hundred shares and then compare it to the initial cost. If the investment “made” money, especially more than a percent or two, the investment was sound and perhaps spectacular. If there was a paper loss, then all involved should feel relieved that the investment was not real, but even a significant loss might not signal disaster. The question might be, What would explain the rise or fall in the stock’s price? Were there news items relating to the company and its business, or did the fluctuations in price seem to have little relationship to anything obvious?

The real lesson of the stock market is to look at long-term investment and to see how a company might do over an extended period of time. Another wise investment strategy involves diversification, investing in several or more different kinds of businesses. Many people do not understand the importance of the stock market as a principal investment of pension and retirement funds, insurance companies, banks, and even college and private school endowments—not just individuals.

It should be possible to locate a stockbroker—try an online search—who would be willing to discuss the market and its vagaries and processes with an interested young potential investor. Of course, this exercise could be performed with real money and real shares, although perhaps a very small amount of stock would be a safer way to start.

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