#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.

#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.

#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.

#97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

IDEA #97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

Your local college or university may in fact have the superb art gallery you have already explored, but perhaps it has other collections that are more esoteric or more modest. These collections may pique or inspire new interests, and a visit may hold many surprises.

The first order of business is to determine what is there. A search through the college department listings on line may turn up a “museum” or “collection” of whose existence you had been unaware, or perhaps the college library has information. It is possible that the facility you seek has limited hours or limited access; you may even have to throw yourself on the mercy of a librarian, curator, or docent for permission to view and explore.

In the aggregate, America’s university collections of cultural and natural objects dwarf those of the Smithsonian, and locally you may find yourself gazing at birds’ eggs from the Arctic or ethnographic relics from nineteenth-century journeys to the

Yale's Peabody Museum

Yale’s Peabody Museum

South Seas; maybe you’ll even find dinosaur skeletons

. You may come across surprising and delightful troves of material from your own community’s human or geological past, or the papers and possessions of a well-known graduate of the school. Perhaps there is an arboretum or a special garden or greenhouse.

The actual content and size of the collections do not matter in this activity. The object is to explore the ways in which other minds have worked to order knowledge and experience for the use and edification of others and to let oneself be captivated and inspired in the process.

#95. Keep a journal

IDEA #95. Keep a journal

The number of unopened, unused journals occupying the bedrooms of America’s children must be in the hundreds of thousands; journals seem to be popular gifts from hopeful older relatives who see in the child perhaps a kindred spirit, perhaps just an interesting or provocative voice. Keeping a journal requires both a desire to write and an inclination to keep a record of one’s own life, so it would seem, that few people actually possess. While we are not surprised to find that our favorite novelist has kept a journal since she was nine, we are stunned when we learn that a good friend has done the same—such is the rarity of journal-keeping.

By narrowing the notion of “journal,” however, it might be possible to find a model that would entice even the least prolific or literary-minded young person to take a flyer.ADS5245_RL_NM_222 Back at IDEA #20 here we suggested keeping a sketchbook, a kind of visual journal, but here we are more focused on the written word.

This may be a daunting idea, and literature abounds with novels in diary form that are detailed transcriptions of events that run to hundreds of pages. But rather than providing an exhaustive record, perhaps the interested child’s first journal could have a focus on specific activities—matters related to a hobby or a trip, say—or on responding to a particular issue in the world or in the individual’s life. It could even be a record in prose of some ongoing phenomenon, even the weather. A journal may also be finite, lasting only as long as one vacation or one family journey.

By reducing the scope of “journal” to something manageable, the idea of regularly writing something down may not seem quite so burdensome or overwhelming. And though the image of a journal is a leather-covered tome wrapped in ribbon and written in fountain pen, there is no reason that a journal cannot be kept on line or at least on a computer. The idea is to write, to record; the medium is immaterial.

And any journal is traditionally the private property of the keeper, to be shown only when and to whom the writer wishes. If your interested child decides it might be fun to keep a journal of some sort, parents and guardians and other nosy types are politely invited to KEEP OUT!

#94. ‘Tis the Season: Go to the Spring Play at your local high school

IDEA #94. Go to the Spring Play at your local high school (or to whatever the seasonal play might be if you don’t happen to be in the Northern Hemisphere)

If you are already performing in or are part of the stage crew of your school play, you are already attending, but for the rest of the community school plays are an easily accessible cultural event as well as an affirmation of the creative spirit of a poster-web300community.

Whether the school play of the moment is a musical–these tend to be popular in the spring–or a drama or comedy, it is probably based on a script that is familiar, even iconic, in the history and world of theater. What better way to add to one’s stock of cultural knowledge as well as to appreciate the enormous effort of the cast, crew, and faculty who have spent months putting the production together?

Purchasing a ticket and sliding into a seat for an evening’s or afternoon’s entertainment is not just about enjoying the show, which is bound to be impressive even if it’s not Broadway or even the bus-and-truck companies that roam among city theaters large and small across the country. Attending a school play is a way of acknowledging and applauding, literally, the long hours of rehearsals, interesting technical challenges analyzed and resolved, and all the joys and occasional frustrations that go with being part of a collaborative team–an ensemble. The students have worked hard, with late nights even as they begin to finish up the term’s academic work, and the adults overseeing the project have put in their own blood, sweat, and occasional tears.

So, whether they’re for Grease or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or You Can’t Take It With You or Macbeth, watch for the posters for your local high school’s spring play to appear in local shop windows and make a plan to see the show. The interested child may be inspired, and at the very least he or she and any adult companion who happens to go along will be well entertained.

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