#78. Read a book in translation from a language and/or culture that you know relatively little about

IDEA #78. Read a book in translation from a language and/or culture that you know relatively little about. You could even try a graphic novel or a comic book.

A good many of the books that children in Western society enjoy these days started out in languages other than those that dominate, and in recent decades publishers seem to be falling all over one another presenting collections of folk tales for children from cultures around the world. This kind of introduction to multiculturalism may inspire a larger world-view, but it order to sustain that view it is necessary to continue to feed the mind with even more words and ideas whose place or origin is unfamiliar.

Fortunately publishers and librarians have seen the need, and so there is a broad choice of works in translation for readers of all ages. That said, two trends in contemporary book publishing may have at least in part the effect of negating their own multicultural benefits.

One is a focus on the “exotic” that can have the effect of representing unfamiliar cultures as so “other” or alien as to be unknowable—or worse, somehow less “sophisticated” or even capable. This can be downright dangerous, as it can support stereotypes that drive wedges between cultures (and present some as “less” than others) rather than underscoring the commonality of the human experience. The point of this exercise is to underscore the richness in the varieties of ways that peoples have responded to the natural and political circumstances of their time and place. Translated and published properly, the literature of an unknown culture can be illuminating in multiple ways. Done badly, the opposite is true: a poor version of The Odyssey can make even the ancient Greeks look silly.

A second trend is the focus on the lurid and the violent, particularly in some of the “graphic novels” from Japan that are increasingly prominent in American bookstores. These extended comic books, called manga in their more popular forms, can be playful, amusing, and even instructive (for one thing, many editions are direct translations, and the panels and pages read from right to left, a cross-cultural delight in iteslf). Some series, however, focus on conflict and antisocial behavior that may not only give the wrong impression to younger readers. As in all cases where a youngster is venturing into cultural unknowns, parental guidance would be in order here.

If, however, the reader is simply discovering the joys of literature in translation—many mystery series, for example, have come into English from other languages—let the enjoyment and the pleasurable immersion into other ways take their course.

#77. Shoot a series of photographs with the goal of capturing one wildly beautiful image of something (or someone).

IDEA #77. Shoot a series of digital photographs (or a roll of film) with the goal of capturing one wildly beautiful image of something (or someone).

Any camera, from a cellphone digital to a single-use disposable camera (although the combination of initial cost and film-processing fees can run up a significant tab) can be used to take award-winning photographs. If the youngster has little experience in the visual arts, the first step might be for him or her to simply become accustomed to looking at the world through the viewfinder, not snapping pictures but getting used to the idea of the visual world broken into smaller units, framed.SMO Library view

Another first step might be to look at great photographs. Any issue of the National Geographic magazine is a miniature museum of photographic excellence, and many art galleries display photographs. The public library should have photography magazines as well as books of photographic art. Simply looking at beautiful photographs is a wonderful way to begin to understand the potential of the medium to do more than record snapshots of friends and relations.

Landscapes, candid, portraits, close-ups—all kinds of subject matter lends itself to beautiful, even moving photography. The child may want to ration the images he or she creates (especially if a film camera is involved), or perhaps the exercise of taking a series of photographs of a single subject would be worthwhile. A photodocumentary, although not quite fulfilling the notion of a single beautiful image, could also be a great project—a series of photographs or friends at play or of a neighborhood activity, or a family portrait gallery showing relatives at work.

If the child has access to a digital camera, the ability to capture a huge multiplicity of images can be used to help the child develop an “eye” through self-critique. Which images “work,” and which do not? What are the elements of a great photograph?

When in the end the beautiful photograph has been made, the final and perhaps most satisfying project will be to decide where and how it will be displayed, or to whom it might be given. (And do not forget that there are any number of photographic competitions in which to enter the image. Some are even for young photographers only.

School and the Interested Child

Another school year begins, and for some children this means a period of dissonance in the transition between the relative freedom of summer break and the regimentation of the school year. Even for home-schooled or un-schooled students, life in the months that comprise for others the academic year is probably more scheduled and more circumscribed than vacation time.

We are a family of schoolteachers, and so for us it is not an article of faith that school is a place of oppression and stultification where rote learning and dreary routine either squelch intellectual curiosity or kill the young soul. As independent school folks we aren’t bound by the kinds of state testing regimes that do truly impinge on the freedom of most public school teachers and students, but we do answer to our superiors and our marketplace. Nonetheless, we believe in school.

Some years back I was contacted by the parent of one of our kids’ classmates. She was concerned—upset, even—that her daughter was completing her assigned work with time to spare each evening. What did I think of this, and what did we do about it at our house, where the same situation, she was sure, obtained? (And it did.) Among independent school parents in Boston(ish), as in most ambitious urban(ish) communities, a nearly unendurable homework load is the sign of a righteous—that is, rigorous—and worthy education, the marker of a “good” school.

I’m afraid I gave the wrong answer, which was that we were delighted that our son had extra time in the evening to be a part of our family and to pursue his own interests. How great that he could be a kid, sitting in the living room and chatting as we watched television, and that he could consume the books he was taking out of the library by the bagful. The conversation soon ended.

We are not fans of extreme homework ordeals, although we were not entirely unhappy when they have occurred for our children from time to time (sometimes as the well deserved result of some inattention to assignment sheets), and we are especially not fans of homework that is repetitive or assigned simply to be homework. We sincerely hope that your child doesn’t have much of this, and we urge families to be assertive with teachers when homework loads are oppressive and destructive to family values and student confidence and happiness. Research is beginning to suggest that excessive homework, or even homework at all, is a poor learning tool, but this notion is so counter to prevailing cultural beliefs that it’s a tough position to defend. Few schools have the courage to embrace the principle of diminished homework.

We are fans of the idea that children should be allowed the space and resources to be interested even amidst the exigencies of a busy school year. It can be difficult, but we urge families and children alike to make a priority of carving out time, a few minutes a day even, to pursue personal interests, hobbies, and areas of curiosity even against a backdrop of homework and schedule of classes and extracurriculars. (And let me add, as a former college counselor, that the “extracurriculars” that matter are those about which a student can speak and write with honest passion. The “best” extracurricular is the one that most engages and inspires the student; for the child with real interest, there isn’t any hierarchy of activities, most-impressive-to-least. Don’t believe your neighbors or the cocktail party “experts” when they try to tell you there is.)

We also offer this tidbit, based on sixty-plus years of observation in our own classrooms: That the most successful students are actually those who are able to look at the material they are studying and find in it—in each topic, and even in each assignment—something that piques their interest, that allows them to bring their own personal curiosity to bear. This can be a stretch (“Do problems 1– 17, odd” may not exactly set a child’s mind on fire), but somewhere in every topic and every task many students are able to find some tiny (or larger) nugget of interest, something to spur engagement and even original thought, and this engagement and originality are the hallmarks of a successful student.

It may be axiomatic in some quarters that school is a drag, a damper on the spirit, but it doesn’t have to be this. Just as we urge the Interested Child to engage with new activities and new ideas, so do we urge him or her to engage with school—at the same time as he or she continues to engage with his or her own continuing exploration of the world and all that it offers.

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