Critical Thinking, “Ethan Brand,” and the Holiday Spirit

We happen to be a family that celebrates Christmas, and we have tended to do it in a fairly traditional secular way: tree, stockings, presents, sit-down dinner. For a week or so before the actual day lights twinkle stereotypically in the living room and cats sip spruce-infused water from the tree-stand. Each of us maintains a hidey-hole for gifts and avoids the burden of wrapping until the last minute. There is egg nog.

At some point in my late adolescence I remember deciding that this kind of celebration, with more-or-less mandated giving, orchestrated good cheer, and choreographed gestures of comfort and joy stripped, in my home, of religious content, was indeed a humbug. Any day can be a fine day for giving or receiving a gift, and a little more spontaneity in the exchange can deepen its meaning. Why not find other days for random family gatherings or acts of kindness? Why Christmas? Didn’t the ritualization of pretty much everything about the day empty it of meaning and eviscerate “the true spirit of Christmas,” whatever that might be?

It wasn’t so much that I was Scrooge—I wasn’t trying to save a few bucks—but rather that I was taking my role as a self-styled cultural critic to a logical end. I still can’t say that I was wrong about anything, but I had missed something rather important. I could engage in my own personal boycott of Christmas, but if no one else was, what was my point except to add a bit of critical discomfort to the lives of family and friends? (Which may have been my point. But still.) I could reject the holiday spirit, but if everyone else had it—for whatever reason, because it was in the air, because they felt Christmas or the Solstice or something similar very deeply, or just because they were “s’posed to”—then my little boycott was not just a statement but an active turning away from community.

And in my personal spiritual construct, turning away from community was in fact the definition of the wrong thing to do. I had learnt this from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Ethan Brand,” where this rejection is in fact the Unpardonable Sin. So I made those around me suffer through one season, and then I decided that I could acknowledge and participate in the rituals of the holiday. To be sure, I have always found gift-giving hard, because I so want to quote-what-is-the-unpardonable-sin-asked-the-lime-burner-it-is-a-sin-that-grew-within-my-own-nathaniel-hawthorne-69-92-80find the perfect thing for each recipient and I remember all too keenly the disappointments of some of my own childhood Christmases. But I also know, as a parent now, that there is something very nice about sitting around with family and watching others be surprised and occasionally genuinely delighted by another’s gift. I like the smell of the tree, even if I don’t really love egg nog.

At some point I suspect many interested children will question the rituals and traditions with which they live, and I believe wholeheartedly that they should. Whatever the holiday or occasion—and it certainly doesn’t have to be Christmas—it will mean more when the young person comes to it on his or her own terms, having tested it, questioned it, thought it through. I suppose this risks full-on rejection, but that is an individual’s right, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to figure out what he or she owes to family and community and how to make good—or not—on that obligation. I may have taken my theology from “Ethan Brand” (others will find better, richer sources), but we must all decide for ourselves where the “spirit” and the rational self and our place in the world intersect.

I am sorry for having annoyed folks with my Christmas boycott many years ago, but in my own way I grew from it, and when I say “Happy Holidays!” to some one nowadays I mean it: I want them to be happy. And I hope that they have thought about why they might be happy, or even how they could be happier or be making others happier. Being in the holiday spirit, I think, entails thinking about what this might actually mean. And meaning, of course, is what matters.happy-holidays

“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.

#100. Learn how to read a weather forecast and a weather map

IDEA #100. Learn how to read a weather forecast and a weather map. Become familiar with the words, the concepts, the symbols, and the numerical information that appear on a comprehensive weather map, weather site, or weather forecast page.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.18.45 PMIt’s summer, and the weather probably matters more to young people now than at any other time of the year (except perhaps when they and their teachers are awaiting snow day decisions). And never before has information on the weather been so readily available to the average person—on television and radio weather forecasts (and you haven’t heard a serious forecast if you haven’t heard Vermont Public Radio’s “Eye on the Sky” broadcasts, rich in detail and available here on the internet), in newspapers, and above all on a variety of public and commercial internet weather sites like The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Weather Underground.

Summer can be a time of extreme weather events like heat waves and hurricanes, and the summer of 2015 is already producing its share of weather oddities. The young person who can become an adept consumer of weather-related information and who understands the significance of terms like high and low pressure, fronts, dew points, degree-days, and precipitation will be equipped, perhaps, to help friends and relations make plans and avoid or takeScreen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.35.49 PM advantage of meteorological phenomena. Simply the ability to read local radar maps can be a useful skill in predicting where and when “scattered showers” may fall, and the information often expressed as probabilities—”a 20% chance of rain tonight”—can also help the young weather maven understand more about the probability and statistics as well as to read different kinds of graphs and charts. There are also specialized forecast formats for aviators, mariners, and forest rangers—even major league sports teams have their own private forecasts made.

Global climate change is with us, after all, and so the odds are good that we will also become more adept at parsing news on weather and its trends as our local environments become more and more subject to the forces that have been set in motion and that will require us to adapt our behaviors and our expectations to new conditions. If indeed “everybody talks about the weather,” those who make sense when doing so will be increasingly worth listening to.

#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.

#96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation

IDEA #96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation: learn how to use an abacus, a slide rule, a quipu, a Curta calculator, or some other calculating device or method. Instructions can be found in libraries or the Internet, and slide rules can be found at yard sales, on Internet auction sites, or even in dusty drawers in old mathematics classrooms. There is even chisanbop, a really efficient form of calculating using just the fingers that can be learned on the Internet; it is Korean in origin, and experienced practitioners can perform chisanbop calculations almost as fast as an electronic calculator.

It is hard to believe that just two generations ago most of the electronic technology that we now use to perform mathematical calculations was unavailable to the general public. Even electric adding machines used power only to assist mechanical processes, and only the most expensive and cumbersome machines were capable of simple multiplication.

Even so, human genius in many cultures had observed certain characteristics of numbers and created hand-operated devices that could perform sophisticated and precise operations. The east Asian abacus, for example, can add, subtract, multiply, and divide in skilled hands almost as quickly as an electronic calculator; although its capacities are limited, it is still sufficient for most commercial needs. The slide rule, images-1based on logarithmic principles, enables rapid calculation in a number of modes, depending on the design of the rule (not, incidentally, a ruler, since a slide rule is not made for measurement); during World War II virtually every complex machine short of the atomic bomb was essentially developed by engineers using only slide rules.

The Curta calculator, a rarity these days and rather expensive when one can be found, is a masterpiece of precisioncurta-1-nolegend2 design and manufacture from Liechtenstein that could do virtually anything a slide rule could. But the Curta is entirely digital, taking input and yielding data in precise numbers. We are partial to the Curta if for no other reason than that its mechanical elegance is almost unsurpassed. If the youngster has access to one of these, simply handling it will be a satisfying experience.

Chisanbop (also chisenbop) made its appearance in the U.S. just as cheap electronic calculators were imagesentering classrooms, and so a promising and capable way of teaching students to perform calculations literally by hand never quite had its day in school. Like the mechanical calculators, chisanbop provides its own education in aspects of number theory.

If the youngster is intrigued by this kind of technology, there are still other, less known systems that have been used for numerical recording and calculating, and there are also groups of enthusiasts who are determined to keep alive the skill of using them. While teachers may decry the apparent de-emphasis of “math facts” in contemporary education, the simple fact is the humans have been engaged in developing ways to make calculating “automatic” for hundreds of years.

#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!

#93. If there’s a sport you enjoy, consider going to a sports camp this summer to fine-tune skills and make new friends

IDEA #93. If there’s a sport you enjoy, consider going to a sports camp this summer to fine-tune skills and make new friends

Sports camps come in all sizes and in all degrees of seriousness, from a couple of hours a day for beginners to invitational residential camps at which college coaches scout scholarship prospects. Some are camps with varied programs built around a particular sport, while some are essentially pre-season training experiences for committed varsity-level athletes. Some are inexpensive, even free, while others cost hundreds of dollars a week.

If a child is really interested in a particular sport and enjoys both the play and the camaraderie, a sports camp can be a way to support the interest while providing a positive personal experience. It’s important to be realistic when selecting a sports camp, however. Is the camp only for the super-talented, or is it intended for athletes of all levels? How committed is the child to the sport? Do you want your child to be pushed by drill-sergeant-like coaches for five days, or do you want the child to build on fundamental skills in order to take more satisfaction from recreational participation? Do you really believe that your child is a scholarship prospect, or would everyone be happier at some place a little less intense? How much is the child’s camp experience about fun and friend-making, and how much is it about developing killer moves in the sport? And then, of course, there’s the financial factor: Is the whole experience going to be worth the cost in dollars and time, including travel?

If the parents’ and child’s goals and assessment of needs and talent agree, then the choice of a camp should be relatively easy. Speak to the director to find out how serious the training regime might be. If you can contact other parents or guardians, get a sense of what the camp culture and atmosphere are like. Also check on health and safety: is there a trainer or a nurse on staff? What is the food like? Is there water always available for the campers?

The best part of a good sports camp is that the staff is able to break skills down so that young athletes actually understand what they are doing and how certain tactics and strategies work. Good athletes, after all, are able to envision and think about a game even as they play it, their mastery of basic skills so complete that their conscious minds are free to create new plays. Any experience that helps the truly interested young athlete approach this level of understanding might be well worth the time and effort.

As summer approaches, it’s probably a good time to start exploring camp options–locations, day-only or residential, overall programs, prices. It’s also good to have a couple of months’ lead time`for the child to look for ways–babysitting, odd jobs–to help defray the cost, thus raising his or her commitment level as stakeholders in their own experience.


In a great piece in the New York Times’s “Motherlode” blog Lisa Heffernan writes with, er, passion, on how the quest for Passion, with a capital P, is bad for kids. The essay comes uncomfortably close to what this blog is about, and, feeling a bit defensive, I want to clarify what I see as the difference between the effort to help a child find interests and the all-hands-on-deck crusade to make sure that Johnny or Susie has a developed Passion by the time he or she is ready to apply to college.

In the explanatory material in the column to your right I make no bones about the connection between interests, passion, and success in many things, including college admission. If this seems a little cynical, I guess that it is, but after forty years as a teacher and a college counselor in schools where admission to selective colleges is a goal, I know that there is a connection, and it would be fatuous to deny this.

But I’d like to get back to first principles. Everything we know about learning, and about intelligence for that matter, says that learning is greatly enhanced by some kind of sensory and emotional engagement with the work. Kids learn better, and do better work, when they can find something interesting in the work they are asked to do. Most schools, of course, work to bake the “interest factor” into their curricula, but countervailing trends like an emphasis on standardized testing can impede this effort. Kids’ families need, in my humble opinion, to take up the slack here when they can.

There’s almost nothing sadder than encountering a ten or twelve or fifteen year-old who claims not really to be interested in anything much. No, they don’t read about any one thing, or watch particular programs, or seek out particular activities. Among the overscheduled offspring of the college-aspiring bourgeoisie, this phenomenon is not rare; the kids are so busy being dragged around that they haven’t had a chance to just sit and smell the flowers and imagine themselves doing….

It’s also the case that some of these children do in fact have a deep interest about which they are afraid to talk. It might be the Red Sox, or a particular video game, or heavy metal music, or Michael Kors, or college basketball. And it’s true that school folk—pointing a finger here at myself—tend not always to acknowledge that such interests are “worthy,” and so kids keep their encyclopedic knowledge of National Hockey League scoring statistics, celebrity fashion, or their Level 80 achievements in World of Warcraft to themselves. Such interests may indeed become true passions, and as a counselor I learned years ago not to be surprised when kids expressed an interest in college programs in sports management, music production, fashion, or game design.

The “Passions” that dismay Lisa Heffernan and myself are those constructed out of whole cloth by someone other than the actual kids or based on a momentary interest that a parent or guardian—or possibly sometimes a counselor or even a teacher—then force feeds, like a Strasbourg goose, to plump a vague interest into a demonstrable, comes-with-credentials Passion. If there is anything that more likely to lead a kid to burn-out or even resistance to new ideas, it is having someone else falsify or force-feed an interest so that it looks like a passion.

So far there have been over ninety suggestions offered on this blog, and I want to emphasize that I hope these are more or less what Heffernan is calling for: things a kid might try or that a family member or teacher might suggest—not a “to-do list.” I’ve said this before.

Bill Rice, a school colleague from forty years ago, proposed, in the middle of a discussion about youth concerts for school groups put on by the local symphony, what I call the Candle Wax Theory of Learning. Another colleague had expressed frustration with these musical field trips—kids fidget, talk, fall asleep—but Bill had a more philosophical approach: “It’s like making candles. Every time you dip them in a new experience, a little bit of it sticks.”

I’m not sure the analogy is perfect, but every time a child is exposed to something new, whether an idea or an activity or a book or game or movie, some little thing may stick. My goal at The Interested Child is to help families and help kids figure out what it means to be interested in something and how to think about the world in a way that stimulates intellectual curiosity.

Passion will come, if and when it comes, all in good time.

#91. Make something really complicated or really large out of pieces from a child’s building toy set

IDEA #91. It’s part art, part engineering: make something really complicated or really large out of a child’s building toy set like Legos, Construx, TinkerToys, or K’nex. Find a younger sibling or a pre-school teacher who can help you amass a truly awesome pile of raw material; choose your objective, make a design, and build away!

Go play with children’s toys!

If this seems like the simplest of all possible suggestions, think again. The lessons of pure design, structural visualization, logical planning and execution, measurement, and improvisation are essential tools for solving a great many of life’s problems, big and little. Here is a chance to be a design thinker, a maker, a true practitioner of STEAM: science, technology, engineering design, art, and mathematics.

In fact, being a professional display builder for Lego is said to be a lucrative career, and at one point the “audition” involved the deceptively simple task of building a sphere out of the random pieces the company supplied. Lego was looking for creative, adaptable brains who could imagine and then build whole new product lines and who could make the toys themselves into hitherto unimaginable constructions. All of the commercial building toys—or even a pile of homemade blocks made of scrap lumber, for that matter—have the potential to transcend their status as elementary toys to become the elemental stuff of wonderful new visions, made real.

Yard and rummage sales are great sources of these toys. They might need a quick bath in soapy water before use, but they last nearly forever, and losses to breakage or misplacement simply add to the challenge of conceptualizing and completing ambitious designs.

Alternatively, the exercise could be to start small: discover the fewest number of pieces that can make a recognizable version of a specific object, for example. Or create hordes of tiny objects or figures, arrayed in patterns.

The possibilities here are truly endless.

#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!

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