#88. Find the means to start learning a new language

IDEA #88. Find a language-IMG_1228learning website or acquire (at a library, maybe, or a garage sale) a set of teaching CDs (or even cassette tapes) for a language you’d like to start learning—maybe the language of some of your ancestors, or just a language that has been of interest. Learn a at least little bit—even just enough to say “hello,” “my name is,” “please,” “thank you,” and count to five or 10.

There are few things more satisfying than having even a smidgen of another language under one’s belt, and school and public libraries are great places to look for computer- or audio-based language-learning programs. (Other great places to look for these are library sales, garage sales, and flea markets; it seems that a great many people in our world intend to master a new language or two, but few sustain that interest, and so there is a surplus of language-learning programs for sale, cheap.)

The goal here is not necessarily fluency, although that would be a worthy objective. Rather, the point is to explore the language and learn a bit about how languages are taught and learned and above all to enjoy the process,. To have mastered a few conversational gambits (“Where is the pen of my aunt?” “Here is the pen of my aunt.”) or to know how to greet a person in another language is not only modestly empowering but just plain fun. To know how to count a bit is equally so.

Educational psychologists tell us that the younger a child begins to learn a new language, the more easily he or she will learn it, but in general the only way people of any age really master a language is by immersion. So in this case, since even the best systems fall well short of being truly immersive, the child should just delve deeply enough into the activity to keep having fun. A sustained interest may in time lead to interest in study abroad or in a domestic community of users of the language.

And there is no reason to limit this activity to a certain level of mastery of a single language. It is fun to imagine a child’s room with boxes of tapes for learning a number of languages littering the floor.

It’s also worth noting, strange as it seems, that several fictional languages—examples are Elvish, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Ring novels, and Klingon, from the Star Trek television series—actually have well developed user communities that can be discovered on line. Similarly, there are several “universal” languages—Esperanto and Interlingua are the best-known—that have significant user communities. All of these might lead the interested child a step further into the arcane world of “con-langers”: individuals who enjoy constructing their own languages, either based on existing language families or utterly new.

In a week or so we will take up another kind of language learning: computer programming, or coding.

#87. Bake a loaf (or two) of bread

IDEA #87. Bake a loaf (or two) of bread. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s a great exercise in food chemistry, cookery, and patience.

They say it’s the “staff of life,” and bread or bread-like foods are part of nearly every culinary tradition on the planet. Basically some sort of ground grain, usually but not always with a leavening agent like yeast or baking powder, breads are excellent sources of bread loavescarbohydrates—regarded by most as a dietary necessary, in reasonable quantities—and their varied textures are an epicure’s delight—and they just tend to taste pretty good.

Bread recipes and video instruction on parts of the job like kneading are all over the internet, and breads can be as exotic or as ho-hum as the baker wishes. The many cultural traditions represented in the bread family—from Middle Eastern pitas to South Asian naans to Native American fry-breads to the multifarious baguettes, limpas, pumpernickels, and “white bread” of Europe and America—could represent a cook’s tour of the planet for an ambitious and curious baker.

We recommend tackling a yeast-raised wheat bread as a first go—the preparation of the ingredients, the proofing or activating of the yeast, the kneading, the waiting for rises, and the smell of the hot loaves as they come out of the oven and are set aside to cool before slicing are a great combination of work and pleasure and a fine exercise in deferred gratification.

For thirty-some years we have been using the basic bread recipe downloadable here, the most flexible we know of. Based on white flour, yeast, sweetener (to feed the yeast), some kind of shortening, and a bit of salt, any sort of whole grain can be added, the sweetener is wide-open to experimentation, and the fat can be a low-flavor oil, butter, margarine, or (we suppose) animal fat or ghee. The process involves first mixing all the ingredients except the flour, yeast, and liquid; then add the yeast to this mixture with the bath of warm (boiled or scalded to sterilize, then cooled to body temperature) liquid; then slowly adding the flour after the yeast has burst into bubbly, fragrant life—some young bakers are intrigued by the idea of yeasts being living organisms, some are horrified.

This is a twice-raised (actually thrice-raised) bread. Mix the dough to achieve a consistency so that when touched the dough doesn’t readily stick to fingers, then begin kneading. When fully kneaded, the dough is shaped into a ball, covered with a damp cloth, and left to rise in a warm (but not hot) place. When doubled in size, punch down, re-form into a ball, then allow to rise again. Divide the dough into equal parts, then shape into loaves, allow to rise, and then bake in a 350-degree oven for 30–35 minutes—perhaps a bit less if being baked as oblong loaves on a flat sheet rather than in loaf pans. Loaves should sound a bit hollow when tapped on the bottom when done.

We suspect you could use gluten-free flour to make this bread, and the recipe’s flexibility also invites experiments with form: we’ve made pizza dough and dinner rolls from the same recipe as well as long baguette-shaped loaves and our usual loaf-pan loaves.

If kneading sounds like a challenge, here’s another, no-knead recipe that substitutes patience for elbow-grease and makes an outstanding large, round loaf of bread.

As always, interested young bakers should be supervised as they work around hot liquids and hot ovens.

Once one recipe has been tried successfully, it’s time to explore the world’s recipe books for new adventures in bread!

#83. Trace your family history back as far as you can

IDEA #83. Trace your family history back as far as you can. Ask relatives for help; go on line; try a library.

For some children this will be much harder than for others, but all the basic resources needed are a family member or two and perhaps access to a good public library or Internet database. This activity is a wonderful way for children to understand the nature of their own lineage as well as the influence of real historical forces on their own forebears.

For a fortunate few, primarily of English or Northern European heritage, there exists a body of written documentation that may even includes published family histories. Beyond that, however, lies a wealth of genealogical resources and, more important, individuals with genealogical obsessions. A local library or historical society might be able to point the child (or the family) in the direction of people who will happily undertake specific research and whose interest in these matters is deep and whose knowledge is broad. Their guidance or assistance may help the child to locate marriage, birth, immigration, property, and death records, but it may suffice for the child to rely on the oral testimony of family members to construct a limited family tree that at least explains the child’s place in the cosmos.

For some children—adoptees, unaccompanied refugee minors, or others whose family records are hidden or have been obliterated by history—this activity could be much more challenging, and even potentially painful. Much adult guidance is called for in these cases, where it is even possible to run afoul of the law (with regard to statutes covering access to adoption records, for example). And as Alex Haley’s Roots project demonstrated many years ago, discovering the details of the heritage of those who came to America not by choice but by force can be extremely difficult, although resources to assist research in this area are more extensive now than they were thirty years ago.

One sees advertisements frequently these days for internet genealogical resources, which sometimes come with high subscription prices and that therefore should not be accessed without adult permission and supervision. These can be helpful for an investigating child or adult with an abiding interest and sufficient resources to cover the cost.

But at some point most children will express a desire to learn more about their lineage and family history, and this is not infrequently the subject of school projects. Whatever the amount of information to be found, the object of the exercise is to help the child in the development of a positive personal heritage and identity.

It can be very interesting to a child to establish that this heritage shows the influences of history—most people’s forebears have been part of one or another of history’s large-scale migrations—and of the cultures from, through, and into which they have passed. Even if specific information or evidence is scarce, sometimes family lore can also be a powerful thing in a child’s life.

#82. Read from cover to cover a magazine about a place that you might want to visit or live in some day

IDEA #82. Go to a library or a newsstand or bookstore and pick out and read from cover to cover a magazine about a place that you might want to visit or live in some day. Examples are New York Magazine, Arizona Highways, Cape Cod Life, and Up Here (about far northern Canada). There is a magazine for practically every city and region in the United States as well as for nations and cities outside the United States. Get yourself interested enough to think about planning a visit there some day.

If one cannot always travel to a new place, it is fun to imagine what it might be like to be there. Some “place-based” publications—New YorkScreen Shot 2014-11-22 at 9.23.12 AM Magazine, for example—are primarily intended for those who already reside in and are familiar with their eponymous location, while others—like New Mexico Magazine—are “destination” publications, filled with enticing material designed to coax readers into visiting or moving.

Readers of these magazines should be looking carefully not only at the articles but also at details of content like advertisements, including even the smallest. What is the appeal of this place? How do those who live in and like the place present its “story”? What are some common graphic themes—colors, symbols–and images that readers are intended to associate with the place? What can be learned about the economic life of the place—real estate prices and the types of jobs or economic activities to be found there?

In the same vein, what can we learn about the cultural opportunities and activities in the place? Does the magazine focus any particular aspect of the fine arts or other cultural features in music, theater, or folk traditions? Is there anything about food that looks interesting or unique; are particular aspects of culinary heritage represented that may stem directly from the history of people who live there or who have immigrated there? What would make you want to visit the place on vacation or perhaps even move there? Does the place look as though it would be fun for children, or does the magazine focus only on adult-oriented Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 9.24.43 AMsubjects?

In the United States a fifth of the population moves every year; consequently learning to “read” a place and its culture is a valuable skill; a young reader can start mastering this skill by reading about a place. Specialized magazines focusing on a particular area have proliferated in recent years, and for the thinking child  learning how to read cultures with skill and in detail is a skill well worth having.

#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.

The Ferguson Syllabus: Talking About Social Justice with Kids

Readers of this blog may or not take an active interest in issues of social justice, which tend to reside (as we confess that we do) on the progressive end of the political spectrum. But it would be hard for anyone in the parenting or educational business to have missed the tsunami of responses to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the shooting by police of Michael Brown.

The shooting and the subsequent community unrest have highlighted any number of issues, from the nature of policing to the extent to which racism is bred in the bone of American society. For high-minded rationalists, the civil unrest is a symptom of something complex and nuanced, and for those who lead from the heart in response to the death of a young, unarmed African American man, these events are indicative of a deep and festering wound in the soul of American society.

For the parents and teachers of interested children, the Ferguson situation seems to require some kind of response; children who pay attention to current events will have questions from which it is hard to turn away. This matter has very much been on the minds of educators, who have tried hard–ourselves among them–to consider the most honest and direct ways of responding to these questions while balancing a teacher’s responsibility to promote thoughtful inquiry against the equally compelling civic obligation to call out injustice and advocate for justice.

To this end–and I know that some of our readers here are in the home-school world and may not be attuned to discourse in the traditional school community–we would like to call attention here to a gathering resource for talking to and teaching kids of various ages, developmental stages, and perspectives about the events that we now refer to simply as “Ferguson.”

If you are familiar with Twitter–and it’s actually a pretty worthy resource for information and ideas relating to educational interests–you may know and understand the “hashtag” concept: that certain topics can be tracked or searched for by hashtag, which is simply a topic name, compressed to a single character string, preceded by the pound sign (#). Thus, anyone with a Twitter account can search or follow the tag (for example) #RedSoxNation (caps optional) to keep tabs on what Boston Red Sox fans are thinking about. Trending events, whether in the news, sports, or entertainment areas, quickly generate their own hashtags, and #Ferguson has been virally popular in recent days.

Educators, eager to gather resources or teaching about “Ferguson,” have created the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus as an identifier for ideas, materials, readings, and approaches to bringing Ferguson-related issues and events into their classrooms. For parents of interested children, as well, a search on #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter will yield useful resources. And if you are home-schooling your child, then the resource will be doubly valuable.

The District of Columbia public school system has also created a handbook of teacher resources on this topic, many of which could be adapted for home use.

We try to stay away from politics here, but the fact is that the events in Ferguson have struck a chord in educational circles that seem to require a response, and so we offer the #FergusonSyllabus as one way for those who are raising and who work with interested children to explore the many serious questions the events in Missouri have been raising for so many of us.

Incidentally, if this inspires you to take the plunge into Twitter, you can follow us there @interestedchild.

#76. Find an old or historical map and compare it with a modern map of the same place

IDEA #76. Find an old or historical map in a book or at a museum or library and spend some serious time studying it—then compare it with a modern map of the same place. What features do you see? How has the place changed over the years? What theories can you come up with as to why these changes have occurred?

Maps are not only informative but also beautiful, and old maps, especially those made in the days before modern printing technology replaced the human mapmaker’s steady hand and designer’s eye, have a seductive force. A map is above all the graphic representation of a place, and fine ones can evoke that place through detail and color; even a modern highway map has the power to suggest both flow and movement and the nature of human settlement patterns accommodating themselves to nature.

A good library will have plenty of atlases and other books containing maps, and some may even have a separate collection of maps. If no hand-drawn antique is available, find a pre-World War II National Geographic Society map and enjoys its wealth of detail as well as the extreme clarity with which the makers assembled the many elements into an information-rich thing of beauty. A modern map, even from the same source, is likely to show differences. Europe, for example, will have different borders and country names and even city-name spellings, while a map of your neighborhood or county will show new streets and roads at the very least. The force of history—the number and location of rail lines, for example, or the appearance of limited-access highways—will be clearly evident.

To use maps comparatively in this way is to understand how humans perform one of our elemental acts: interacting with land. Since the beginning of history humans have felt a need to represent their presence and the presence of things they have created on the land. In addition, maps have always portrayed the resources humans need—rivers, oceans, forests—as well as the obstacles to the realization of aspirations—those same rivers, oceans, and forests as well as mountains and, since the rise of empires and nation states, borders. On a community or regional scale, a topographic map may explain why Main Street has such an odd kink or why the Center Line Road has such a prosaic and puzzling (center line of what?) name.

Of course, any comparative analysis also expands map-reading skill, an essential ability even in the age of Global Positioning Systems. The individual who is able to make the leap between understanding two-dimensional representation and three-dimensional reality will always, literally and figuratively, know where he or she is, and, given a few clues from a map that correspond to what can be seen, he or she will be able to find the way home—even across boundaries of time and history.

A Serious Interlude: Issues of Security and Privilege for Interested Children

The Interested Child proceeds from a number of assumptions, but then so does the way we speak of childhood in our society. “We believe that children are our future,” we sing, and we like to believe that this belief is common across the spectrum of humanity, especially in the industrial democracies that have defined the world we live in and shaped the way in which we envision childhood. Children are special, are learners, are to be protected and nurtured and looked after as they make their way through an educational system designed to prepare them for the world they will inherit as adults.

But the fact is that not every child in our society is on this path. Millions live in poverty and attend schools that are underfunded and underappreciated in every way. Segregation has returned to the American public school system, holding hands with an over-reliance on standardized testing and an under-reliance on the good will and dedication of teachers. We are gripped by reports of events in which young people, in particular young men of color, are gunned down by forces allegedly representing law and order while going about their business, unarmed and unprepared for the swift violence that escalates in the blink of an eye to end their lives.

Some of my friends on Facebook tell the story: How as parents of color they feel increasingly insecure allowing their children out in the world, how every parent of an African American male must have “the talk” with their son about how to comport himself when confronted by official suspicion, how to channel, nearly 60 years after Number 42 took the field for the Dodgers, the patience and resilience of Jackie Robinson when stalked or harassed or accused. While self-deluded reactionaries congratulate themselves on living in a “post-racial” society (whatever that even means), people on the front lines of building a multi-racial society—parents, teachers, children—know that the struggle for equal opportunity and equal rights continues undiminished.

At the heart of this struggle lies the matter of privilege—call it race privilege, skin privilege, whatever. It may be distressing to have this brought up on a blog site devoted to developing the curiosity and intellectual and creative passion of children, but events this week in Missouri, whatever the “facts,” are a reminder that interested children, even if they may be created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, are not always treated equally. It’s far too complex a topic to address here in great detail, but parents of the economically and socially dominant races and classes owe it to themselves and their interested children to take up the question of the unearned privilege that comes with race and class, privilege that some us of gain only by accident of birth and lineage.

Part of the recognition of what this unearned privilege means is an acknowledgment that not everyone has it, and that the assumptions and presumptions that we make about the world and how it works do not apply to everyone. To teach a child this, to help him or her develop the humility and circumspection to move through the world fully invested in and open to their own experience as well as the experience and perspectives of others, is to give a gift of inestimable proportion.

Some readers will take offense at this suggestion, I am sure, but what better way to help a child develop the habits of mind and soul to navigate and appreciate the many cultures and possibilities of this earth than by opening his or her mind to the idea that not everyone does or can expect the same things of life, regardless of their intelligence or interests or will? What better way to help a child develop the empathy and understanding that can help him or her contribute humbly and fully through a lifetime toward making this world a better, safer, and even more wondrous place?

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