INTERESTS AND PASSIONS

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!

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

More on the Interested Child Mindset: On Doing Things Badly and the Cult of Expertise

We live in an age that venerates expertise and success, when children specialize in a single sport by puberty and when family cars accumulate miles transporting kids to and from lessons and tutorials, workshops and competitions. Ten thousand repetitions and probably as many tears are rites of passage for children bred to ambition by ambitious families, and mediocrity is viewed as failure.

We occasionally worry that The Interested Child may in some way contribute to this exhausting program of accomplishing. This regimen frames too many American childhoods and adolescences, starting far too early and ending too often with a hollow emotional thud! barely audible beneath the applause as college acceptances roll in or similar external rewards pile up. I’m not sure what values this promotes in the end, but I have my suspicions.

My grandfather, a reflective educator whose own library was filled with how-to books on subjects that interested him through his life but on which he was no expert, used to cite G. K. Chesterton’s contrarian take on the adulation of expertise: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (We referred to this adage in a post a few months back.) I have tried to take these words to heart in my own life and parenting, and we are pleased to remind our readers here of their profound wisdom.

My interpretation of Chesterton’s maxim: If someone truly enjoys doing something, then let the pleasure of doing it take precedence over doing it perfectly or even particularly well. Enjoy the doing as an end in itself. It’s okay to let go of the mantra that failure is only a step on the road to success; enjoying something that we don’t do all that well is just fine—contrary to cultural messages that a thing is worth doing only if it yields an impressive line item on a c.v. or a profit.

I can think of only one area where Americans seem to allow themselves wide latitude in performance: golf. Duffers may strive for years to be better, but shooting par remains a distant goal for all but near-professionals. Most golfers are surprisingly philosophical about being average, or a bit worse, but for most golfers (at least the ones I have known) the camaraderie and perhaps the scenery seem to be adequate recompense for “a good walk spoiled” around 18 holes.

Our task is gently to urge our children to try new things and then support them in engaging more deeply with the ones they seem to like. But we must not, in our parental exuberance and our own embrace of the Cult of the Expert, push them where our hearts and hopes, and not theirs, are leading. If they enjoy something, take something away from an experience, then that might be as far as it goes. We can dangle carrots to entice and encourage, but we must not resort to even the most metaphorical of coercive sticks in our quest to help kids learn to identify, follow, and build upon their own interests.

I’ll offer myself as an example here. I have played the guitar for going on fifty years, but I’m not very good and unlikely to get much better. I own a nice instrument and early on I really did practice for the requisite hours to achieve “expertise,” but about thirty years ago I hit a plateau, and now I mostly play when no one else is home. But my limitations as a musician don’t limit the pleasure I take in making music.

We like to think of The Interested Child as a mindset, not a checklist or a roadmap—as a compendium of ideas that might intrigue, not an enumeration of imperatives.

New Year’s Resolutions and the Interested Child Mindset

It’s the time of year when earnest folk around the world solemnly resolve to do something special in the new year: read more books, lose more weight, spend more time with friends and family. Bonne année

We are all in favor of earnest resolutions to accomplish particular goals, but we keep reading articles about why it is so hard for people to keep New Year’s resolutions beyond a few days or weeks. Life, as they say, tends to intervene. The poet laureate of New Year’s Eve, Robert Burns (who wrote “Auld Lang Syne”) put it best in his otherwise pretty much forgotten poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”:

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

While we might be pleased if the Interested Child wanted to spend some time with Burns’s 18th-century Scots dialect, we’d rather take a moment to reflect on resolutions, Big Plans, and themes related to the intent behind this blog.

We set out on the adventure that is The Interested Child based on our passionate belief that exposing kids to new ideas and experiences is by definition a good thing. We also believe firmly that nurturing any sparks of interest shown by young people–in just about anything that isn’t downright criminal or antisocial–is a way to coax such sparks into flame. We don’t, however, believe that there is any single magic formula for sparking interest or that an interest that burns bright in the moment flame need be or can be fanned into lifelong passion. We further don’t believe that the reason to help kids find their interests is first and foremost about building a portfolio or résumé for purposes of personal advancement; there is a relationship here, to be sure, (as a long-time college counselor I’m well aware of this) but sincere interest must be its own reward.

Thus, rather than “Try ten new Interested Child ideas” or “Read twenty more works of ‘classic’ literature,” we hope that parents, guardians, and friends will spare children (and themselves) prescriptive “resolutions” and focus instead on creating lives marked by open-mindedness, curiosity, and above all a willingness to try new experiences and ponder life’s questions from multiple points of view.

We number the “Ideas” put forth on The Interested Child largely for our own account-keeping and as points of reference; we don’t mean them to be seen as items on a checklist, any more than we keep lists of “New Year’s Resolutions.” We like to think of the ethos behind this blog as a set of broad principles and mindsets, to be drawn on as Interested Children and those around them take life and its challenges and opportunities as they come, with open minds and open hearts.

And in the meantime, we wish everyone a joyous and exciting (in good ways!) 2015!

Holiday Gift Ideas from the Professoriate

In a year-end fraught with anxieties about issues of justice, equity, and peace, The Interested Child believes that the greatest gifts that one can give anyone in 2014 are 1) a humble, considered, and empathetic perspective–the old advice about not judging a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes is an aphorism worth repeating to the young–and 2), above all, a sense of optimism and agency in the world. But these aren’t gifts that are easily wrapped to be opened at a holiday table or under a tree, and holidays for the young tend to include at least some more material and festal gift-giving.

Normally I don’t reblog other people’s content or extol the virtues of things as gifts, but the other day The Chronicle of Higher Educations “Profhacker” blog ran its compilation of gift ideas. Most of the suggestions were for grown-up items, but several contributors included ideas for gifts to engage the Interested Child (often in a family or collaborative context). Here are excerpts containing the suggestions that we liked best. (The complete post can be found here.)

From Jason B. Jones (follow him on Twitter), Director of Educational Technology at Trinity College (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Groovy Lab in a Box. Groovy Lab in a Box offers you everything you need to do a whole slew of science experiments on a given topic each month. There’s also online support for further experiments and research. I will say I tried this with the 11yo, a 7th-grader who loves science, and he thought he was about 3 years too old for it. Good for incipiently nerdy elementary school kids.
  • Makey Makey. Dubbed “an invention kit for anyone,” Makey Makey turns anything that conducts electricity into an interface for a computer. (Canonical examples include using fruit to play instruments, drawing interfaces with pencils, and so forth.) Makey Makey is great for all ages, but probably most ideal for elementary and middle school students. (That said, you can hook it up with a Pi or an Arduino and do super-cool stuff, too.)
  • Kano. Speaking of a Raspberry Pi, the Kano is an awesome implementation: it’s a snap-together computer, more or less, that even a kid can build. (The aforementioned 11yo was running programs on it in about 7 minutes, and he had to wait for a firmware update.) It includes everything but a monitor. I backed this on Kickstarter, and although it was s-l-o-w to finish, has turned out a real treat.
  • If your gift recipient is patient and likes robots, they might be interested in the Edison. Edison is a LEGO-compatible robot that can sense aspects of its environment. It seems like it will be fun. They are taking pre-orders now, and assert that they’ll ship in mid-December, but I backed this as a Kickstarter, and it shipped yesterday … and the estimated delivery is December 31! (Fortunately, the 11yo has gotten used to waiting for things after the Kano … I’m a terrible dad.)
  • For people who come at making and creative projects via crafts, one of the Sew Electric kits is just the ticket. You can either get the book or kits that include needles, batteries, LEDs, and even an Arduino. It’s awesome.

Board games recommended by Brian Croxall (follow him on Twitter), Digital Humanities Strategist at Emory University’s Digital Scholarship Commons  and Lecturer of English (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • The one that we have played more than any else in my house is Terror in Meeple City, which was called Rampage until recently. In this game you construct a cityscape with buildings supported by meeples and use your big, blocky wooden monster to jump on or blow down buildings. You’ll be flicking ice cream trucks at the other monsters trying to knock them down. It’s tremendous fun and laugh-out-loud silly, and my kids can’t get enough of it.
  • Our other favorite this year is Mascarade. Everyone at the table is given a role card (king, queen, judge, inquisitor, and so on). The game starts when the cards are flipped over and the first person takes someone else’s card, puts it under the table and switches it—or doesn’t—with their own card. When people try to take the power of their card, they might find out that they’re not who they thought they were. It plays 2—13 players, although it shines at 6 or more, and it’s hilarious.

And a couple more games, from Ryan Cordell (follow him on Twitter), Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Do you remember the first time you saw someone playing Minecraft and thought: it’s like an endless Lego set… Well Lego has brought Minecraft into the physical world this year, and the sets are sure to blow the minds of any 6-to-12-year-olds in your life (and, let’s face it, you too). The sets are The Farm, The First Night, The Cave, The Ender Dragon, The Mine, and the one I’m perhaps most excited to dig into with my kids, The Crafting Box.
  • We’ve probably listed it here before, but The Settlers of Catan is the board game for those who like board games, assuming that any gamers on your list somehow missed this one. If you’re buying for someone already addicted to the game (like my family), perhaps a board frame to keep those pesky hexes in place while playing. For younger kids, No Stress Chess is a great way to learn the moves of a chess game without, as the title promises, getting stressed about all the different options. Our twin 6-year-olds love this game.

I’ll add that “Settlers of Catan” has been a big hit among the game-players in our household for some years, along with an odd little mindbender called “Kill Dr. Lucky.”

Happy Holidays!

#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.

Thoughts on the World Cup

Although world championships are played off in many sports throughout the year, the grand-daddy of authentically “world” titles is of course the World Cup–by which I mean, although it generally goes without saying, the World Cup of men’s soccer, or what the rest of the world calls football.

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This year’s World Cup seems especially charged politically, what with questions about Brazil’s spending on tournament infrastructure and the general ethics of FIFA, the international body that sponsors the event. Globally, football is known for extreme fans whose behavior, sometimes tainted with racism, can give sports partisans in general a bad name. At least during the World Cup even “ultra” fans tend to be on their better behavior.

But in the end, we can reliably enjoy the spectacle of sixty-four high-quality 90-minute-plus games in which athletic and sometimes flamboyantly energetic young men will play their hearts out on behalf of their countries and the spirits of several billion(!) fans will rise and fall with the results of each game. If you enjoy soccer–the geometry, the energy, the cunning strategies, and the astounding skills of the players–the World Cup 2014 is pretty much guaranteed to please. And of course there will be controversy; a disputed call in the very first game, between Brazil and Croatia, already filled Thursday’s news reports.

For the Interested Child, the Cup offers lessons in geography, vexillology, culture, and of course the sport itself. Soccer itself spread across the globe with the British empire and was then adopted by populations far removed from British influence. The World Cup tournament teams themselves, often unexpectedly diverse, also offer little object lessons in both the history of imperialism–think of so many African players with surnames of European origin–and recent and contemporary demographics; think of the many European and American (North and South) players whose surnames bespeak the waves of emigration and immigration that are changing the face of many of the world’s more prosperous nations. The players may be wearing the uniforms of just 32 nations, but this truly is a World’s Cup.

The enormous geographical and climatological diversity of Brazil offers its own points of interest: the U.S. team will be traveling nearly four thousand miles just to get from venue to venue in its first three group games, from coastal Natal to Amazonian Manaus and back to coastal Recife. A search of various maps of the tournament cities can give a sense of the overall size and geographical extremes of Brazil. And some of the new-built stadiums themselves are architectural marvels, aesthetically exciting structures with breathtaking tensile roofs above the stands and open space above the playing surface, or pitch.

The child interested in numbers and statistics can also find a world of data to record and parse, and, thanks to the prevalence of gambling across the world, it’s not hard to find odds (ratios, of course) and other measures of probability relating to teams’ chances and overall outcomes.

And even if the politics or the big business side of the World Cup make it a bit different from, say, the Olympics, the tournament still marks a few weeks in which we can contemplate the idea that, with all our differences, we are one species and one planet, a great many of whose inhabitants seem to be fans of the sport of soccer. Or football–take your pick!

Celebrating Transitions and Interested Children

My school just finished its middle school-to-high school promotion ceremony, a happy event complete with student speeches, an eighth-grade class video, and a colleague fighting to hold back tears as she spoke about what she has learned from her students. It was a moment for all to remember.

This is the season for such transitional events, from scouts crossing bridges and flying up to schoolchildren of all ages leaving behind classrooms, campuses, and most of all caring teachers, leaders, coaches, and other adults with whom they have developed relationships of all kinds over the past year or more. My Twitter and Facebook feeds teem with photographs of happy kids, happy teachers, and happy families, and I get to feel just a bit older as my former students celebrate the transitions of their own children–including high school graduations. And this year I got to post one of those college graduation photos myself.

I like to think that each of these transitions marks, if not an Aha! Moment in a child’s life, at least a recognition of a changed, enhanced relationship with the world. I want to believe that kids making an upward leap to new challenges and new adventures are excited by the need to be a little more interested in, a little more engaged with the world they occupy–that each new challenge opens new doors of curiosity and maybe even passion, new perspectives on an existence rich with possibilities and connections.

And of course each of these new possibilities and connections carries with it just a bit more responsibility, a greater obligation to pay attention to the needs of those around them and the consequences of their own actions. This can be a wonderful and empowering thing, hard as it can sometimes be to shoulder those obligations.

It happens in our world that often we recognize and celebrate transitions and then take a break–summer vacation, now–before actually moving on to the next experience. I hope that as we send our transitioning children off, or maybe accompany them, that we take advantage of the moments we have to encourage and nourish their interests and take seriously their potential as active, engaged citizens of the world, whether they’re Brownies, Webelos, middle schoolers, or even college graduates.

Here’s to The Interested Child, of all ages!

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