#70. Go to the offices of your most local newspaper, and see if there is anything you can do there as a volunteer

IDEA #70. Go to the offices of your most local newspaper, and see if there is anything you can do there as a volunteer. Hang out and be helpful, if they’ll let you. The more polite and positive you are, the better your chances.

The heart of public discourse in our nation has always been the newspaper. Although the number (and page count) of great city dailies continues to fall, many communities continue to depend on a local newpaper (or two) to chronicle local evprinterents and local issues. Display advertisements draw citizens to local businesses, classifieds keep jobs and personal goods in circulation, sports pages and education features herald the triumphs of local youngsters, and editorial pages (especially those renowned for courage or contrariety) lead and model public discussion on issues both great and small.

Newspapers come in all sizes, from city dailies with legions of writers, printers, and delivery drivers to one-person small-town weeklies. Many of the larger papers have internship programs, some quite formal and reserved for journalism students and others less so. Smaller papers may either want or resist a helping hand, even that of a volunteer, depending on circumstances.

Perhaps the aspirant can approach a particular office at the newspaper and inquire about volunteer opportunities. At the very least, ask if someone might be able to show the youngster around; larger papers may even have scheduled tours. If there are opportunities to become involved, take them, no matter how trivial they may seem. In earlier times, the newspaper business was often learned literally from the bottom up, with the young Benjamin Franklin inking type and pulling paper on his way to becoming the chief writer and publisher of the influential Pennsylvania Gazette.

For some people the figurative smell of printer’s ink has an irresistible draw, and young people who discover this about themselves at an early age may see a lifetime in the world of words and ideas beginning to unfold in the pages of their first newspaper.

#69. Listen to an entire episode of On Point on public radio; call in with something thoughtful to say

IDEA #69. Listen to an entire episode of On Point on public radio. Call in with something thoughtful to say, and pat yourself on the back if you get on the air.

On Point is one of a number of syndicated interview and call-in shows on public radio; there are also numbers of regional and local programs of the same sort. Most feature an interview with one or more experts on a particular topic; sometimes the interview is with a single author, public figure, or artist. At some point listeners are invited to call in with questions and commentary; most show like On Point screen callers to ensure a very high quality of discussion.

Like This American Life, programs like On Point assume and require a level of awareness of and interest in the “deep background” of events and issues, and the experts on tap do not condescend to listeners in the level of conversation or vocabulary. In a nutshell, such programs provide, along with certain magazines and newspapers, the raw material by which many knowledgeable, thoughtful people inform themselves and form opinions about the major issues of the day. They require a certain degree of intellectual discipline, and the beginning listener may even want to have at hand an atlas or a dictionary to chase down stray facts that arise—a program segment on world affairs may focus on Vanuatu or South Sudan or Nunavut, and the active listener will need to know where these places are.

Call-in portions of such programs do not represent a significant change in the level of discourse. Calls are screened for relevance and, it can be imagined, for tone and overall quality; seldom does one hear callers who simply spout unsupported opinion. But many callers are in fact asking questions of the participants, and there is no lower age limit on the ability to ask good questions—for clarification, for further information, or in response to speculation (what if?). Producers seem to favor younger callers who demonstrate a serious interest in a topic, and so the young listener should not hesitate to try, at least, to connect. A successful effort is a feather in one’s cap, indeed.

And if the idea of calling is daunting, if the young person’s schedule doesn’t quite fit the broadcast time, or if On Point is not available in your area, On Point and most programs like it are available as podcasts from their related websites. (On Point‘s is here.)

Our Cure for Your “Summer Reading” Dilemma

The Interested Child was born as a list of activities put together by a couple of us working at a school in response to a heated discussion about what to assign for summer reading and how to hold students accountable.

Our thought was, Why not ask kids to have other kinds of learning experiences? Even if we’re not going to “check up on” them, we could just create a menu of ideas that might be fun and interesting–and educational in all the ways that we think are important.

So if your school is about to start the annual discussion of summer reading, or if you’re ready for a change, just download The Interested Child‘s list below and adapt it for your needs.

Or if you are the parent or guardian of an interested child, or if you work with interested children and want some ideas to keep them engaged and learning this summer, the The Interested Child‘s list might give you some inspiration.

You have seen some of these ideas in more detail here, and in the future you will see more of them–but this is the short version, suitable for distribution from your school, library, or organization website–or the front desk..

All we ask is that you mention us if you publish or adapt the document–but spread the word, and share the wealth!


#62. Watch “The PBS NewsHour” on your local public television station for entire week. Do you miss the commercials?

IDEA #62. Watch “The PBS NewsHour” on your local public television station for entire week. Do you miss the commercials? Share your thoughts with an interested adult or perhaps your school social studies or history teacher.

There are many positive aspects to engaging with public radio with regard to news and opinion, and the commercial- and sponsor-free national nightly news on the Public Broadcasting System is yet another source of information and ideas. Eschewing sound bites and short clips for extensive reportage on relatively few main stories each evening, “The NewsHour” fills its time slot with thoughtful reports illuminated by expert commentary, often from sages representing several sides of an issue. While a “NewsHour” viewer may not know the latest on the southside warehouse fire or the rollover on the freeway, he or she will likely have watched both Republican and Democratic leaders weigh in on the latest foreign policy proposal or have seen industry spokespeople and environmentalists duke it out on energy issues. Like public radio, PBS news likes to keep the level of discourse high, and full appreciation often presupposes an ongoing knowledge of many issues. Fortunately, this knowledge can be acquired by regular viewing.

Unique to public television news is the absence of commercials. It often comes as a disappointing shock to students to learn that commercial television and radio news are driven, just as entertainment programming is, by the need to keep listeners and viewers from switching the channel—that in a sense, the commercial network news programming is aimed at sustaining viewer interest between commercial breaks, since the sale of commercial minutes to advertisers is what pays the station’s bills. In other words, entertainment decisions determine what is shown on the commercial news and the kind of attention a particular issue receives. By taking a look at commercial-free news, the young viewer can compare the money-making approach with the informational approach.

Here is a great chance for the young viewer to begin a dialogue with a trusted adult about the nature of news and the nature of information in our society. It is hard to imagine an interested family member or teacher not wanting to cheer on any child engaged in this kind of exploration.

#61. Read a number of books by the same author

IDEA #61. Read a number of books by the same author. Start with Mary Pope Osborne or J. K. Rowling or Rick Riordan—or Toni Morrison, Avi, Emily Dickinson, Gary Paulsen, Tamora Pierce, or Shakespeare

The youngster may be a reader and already inclined to inhale the entire oeuvres of many authors, mowing down whole library shelves like an avenging angel of literacy. But if the inclination to read is modest, or if the young reader has difficulty finding books of interest, this activity might be one way to discover a passion.

The hard part, of course, is finding an author enough of whose output is appealing enough to make pleasing the prospect of reading even more. It might be that the work of an author enjoyed while much younger—even the illustrated “read-to” books of early childhood—might serve as a starting point; one thinks of Blueberries for Sal, whose author, Robert McCloskey, wrote and illustrated many books, not all of which are as familiar as Sal or Make Way for Ducklings. Many authors of children’s books have also written for older readers, and so the reader who loved A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle might find a foray into her Crosswicks Journal Trilogy of some interest.

Poetry, because the “units of production” are shorter and less intimidating, might also be worth exploring. Some “children’s poets,” like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, are quite prolific and endlessly entertaining, while older readers may want to take on the likes of Dickinson or Robert Frost or the very accessible Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate.

Series books are another way into this project, and the literary quality of the works does not have to matter. Any number of accomplished intellects have cut their teeth on the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or the Boxcar Children. We want our children to know that between the covers of books we can find satisfaction and pleasure and examples of people solving problems with optimism and confidence, and series characters do the latter book-in, book-out. Not Shakespeare, perhaps, but entertainment for the mind and medicine for the soul nonetheless.

And here’s the thing: Authors write to be read and enjoyed, and most do not write just so that scholars and schoolchildren can spend endless hours in detailed analysis. The point of this suggestion is not just to develop breadth and skill as a reader but also to sharpen taste—to learn what one likes to read. The focus should be kept on the doing and not on the debriefing.

#53. Watch a silent feature film from start to finish without stopping it, and discuss or write down your thoughts on the experience

IDEA #53. Watch a silent feature film from start to finish without stopping it, and discuss or write down your thoughts on the experience.

The idea of watching a two-hour film without spoken dialogue is shocking to many young people. Accustomed as they are to having the plot carried forward by word, young audiences of today are actually often resistant to the concept of the “silent” film—and of course the fact that virtually every minute of surviving silents is in black and white robs them of even more prospective appeal. All young people can imagine are scratchy figures jerking across a screen to the remorselessly insipid accompaniment of a tinny piano.

But yet, there are any number of powerful films made before the age of talkies that can still compel a room full of twenty-first-century adolescent viewers. Chaplin’s features, especially Modern Times, can win over an audience today every bit as effectively as they did nearly 80 years ago, and such archetypal “horror flicks” as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu still chill the spine. Other classics—Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or D. W. Griffith’s epics like Intolerance or Birth of a Nation—remain compelling and even controversial—especially Birth, which is still best viewed with some strong caveats and much historical context supplied. Other genres, including even the better of the Griffith weepers—Orphans of the Storm or Broken Blossoms—can hold their own, as well. In 2011 there was even a successful attempt, The Artist, to create a “modern” silent; it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

What often comes as a surprise to contemporary viewers is that the silent film actually has a very clear narrative structure, helped along by title cards, exaggerated facial expressions—the “over-acting” that can look so dated in out-of-context clips of these old films—and musical sound tracks that, if played by a master and not just dubbed in with no attempt to match the story, effectively cue the audience as to the mood and tempo of the action. If the young viewer should see one of these films at one of the many revivals or festivals that feature serious artists performing the musical accompaniment, the effect is every bit as powerful as a modern film. The black-and-white issue soon fades; it might even be suggested that “cultural literacy” in our society includes a familiarity with some of the classic sound films of the pre-color era as well as silents.

By all means, encourage the young viewer to figure out the narrative techniques militated by the medium and find ways for him or her to share observations—perhaps in a school newspaper review. And why not encourage a language arts or social studies teacher to screen a silent film as part of a class or as an out-of-class treat—to spread the gospel?

#52. Turn off the television for a week (or a month)

IDEA #52. Turn off the television for a week (or a month); consider that a billion people on this planet have no access to television at all. Do it right—no computer streaming, no videos, video games, or DVDs, either. Try reading aloud as a family or playing some of those board games stashed in the closet. You may find there are plenty of ways to keep yourself and your household entertained without what some people used to call The Idiot Box.

Advocates of this activity, which even has a “National TV-Turnoff Week” (May 5-11 this year, if you choose to wait) cite benefits ranging from nutritional to mental health, but a more profound reason to shun television is simply that the thinking, curious child should be able to make the transition to TV-free life without much fuss or bother. Rather than presenting the absence of television as a sacrifice that is somehow “good for” kids, like castor oil or standardized tests, it might be better to plan television-free time as part of a broader program of alternative experience—a hiking trip, a visit to a relative, or something closer to home like a family chess or Monopoly tournament or a communal read-aloud of the latest Harry Potter or other series book. In other words, plan on doing something so that the absence of television is not the focus but rather a natural byproduct.

Admittedly, this may be easier said than done, especially for children who are dependent on television or other video-based entertainment as their primary form of recreation. If it has to be a battle, going television-free is probably not worth it, although a moderate level of reward for compliance is not an admission of bad parenting.

We would go out on a limb here so far as to suggest that families who make access to video entertainment too easy or too ubiquitous a part of their children’s lives (in-car television and movies come to mind here) give up a tremendous amount of ground in the struggle to turn their children into observant, thinking beings; we always wonder what a child engrossed in a video in the back seat misses by way of watching the world or of actual conversation, even on the most uninspiring of commutes. While there is nothing wrong with watching television, movies, or playing video games, too much of these activities unmediated by either more active forms of entertainment or critical reflection engenders, we believe, a cognitive sacrifice from which it may be very difficult to recover.

So turn the television off for a week, or a month, or a couple of days not as a punishment or a cold-water cure but because the child, and preferably the whole household, might have better and more interesting things to do.

#47. Find and read the book that is the basis for a film that you have liked

IDEA #47. Find and read the book that is the basis for a film that you have liked. Find someone else who has read the book and engage them in a serious discussion about the differences between the book and the film; it’s not just about which is “better.”

It is no secret that many popular films are based on books, but in a surprising number of cases the books tend not to have been best-sellers, even if the movies become blockbusters. Or the books may be “classics” that have attracted the creative imagination of a director.

In all events, if you saw and enjoyed a film based on a book, why not pick up and read the book on which it is based? Several recent film series have been based on the fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, for example, and anyone who has not ventured into the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter stories will be well rewarded. In these cases book sales have benefited from the films’ popularity, so the reader will be able to find plenty of fellow-readers with whom to discuss the books; happily, this sales synergy between film and book often occurs.

The differences in story-telling technique between book and film are of course a subject in themselves. Not only do length, scope, and number of characters play a role, but sometimes a filmmaker will choose to take a point of view in the telling that may differ from that of the author of the book. (Such differences sometimes create real friction between writer and director, but for audiences these differences can be a source of interest.) There are examples of short stories expanded to full-length films and lengthy novels compressed to a couple of hours, often with vast amounts of plot stripped out for brevity’s sake. Both art forms, film and writing, impose certain disciplines on artists, and it is in reflecting on these disciplines and how they manifest themselves when a book is adapted for film that the young viewer can sharpen analytical and critical skill.

#39. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a general magazine about society and culture, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper’s

IDEA #39. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a general magazine about society and culture, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper’s. There are others. Pat yourself on the back if you feel like writing a letter to the editors in response to something you read. If your letter is published, get someone to take you to dinner in celebration.

A surprising amount of the world’s intellectual discourse continues to take place in the pages of magazines frankly targeted at the affluent and educated—and influential. In articles, reviews, and opinion pieces, major topics of concern are introduced, defined, and debated, and anyone wanting to understand the nuances of the issues of the day ought to be familiar with the way in which the “national conversation” takes form at a higher-than-network-television-or-even-cable-news level.

Most public libraries will subscribe to several of these magazines. The New Yorker is notable not only for the high quality of its non-fiction and fiction content but also for its sophisticated cover art and cartoons; in recent years the magazine has broken important stories on aspects of American foreign policy as well as on human rights issues and domestic policy. The Atlantic and Harper’s tend to have a bit less variety (but more illustrations, some in color), but they regularly feature articles by serious “opinion makers” as well as book, film, and even food reviews. The conservative National Review and the more liberal New Republic and The Nation tend to focus more on political issues, including elements of American culture that have become pressure points in liberal–conservative disputation. Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone are the village elders in a related genre of magazines promoting a particular kind of “hip”-ness; many of these are devoted to a serious analysis of popular entertainment, although the range of topics covered runs from outdoor adventure (and gear! Outside is a leader in this area) to alternative politics (Utne Reader and Mother Jones, for example).

There are numerous smaller magazines of opinion and culture, some with explicitly political agendas and others that cover arts and entertainment from an intellectual standpoint. Left alone in a library or bookstore, the curious young reader can become familiar with any numbers of such publications and, more importantly, become familiar with the ways in which writers with cultural influence frame and express their arguments. At the very least, the young reader is likely to be mildly amused by the New Yorker’s cartoons (although some might be rated PG-13)

#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.

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