Rainy Day Activity: Heading West with Pecos Bill

by Kaitlyn Crites

Pecos Bill was one of the roughest, toughest cowboys in the entire West! Raised by coyotes who would expect anything less?  Did you know he used a rattlesnake as a lasso? He rode a tornado through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona! Accounts of Pecos Bill are known as tall tales, exaggerated stories passed from one generation to another.

Why should students study tall tales?  These symbolic, insightful tales have survived for centuries, and reflect the cultures, values, mores and beliefs that shaped history.  In addition, they comprise a genre of literature all their own.

One of my favorite tall tales is that of Pecos Bill. There are several books for young people I recommend that cover this legendary figure’s engaging antics and lead to good discussion.  Children PreK through grade 2 will benefit from reading with an adult. Students grades 3 through 5 will also enjoy the books.

Pecos Bill, Colossal Cowboy: The Graphic Novel by Sean Hamann Tulien and Lisa K Weber

Pecos Bill by Steven Kellogg and Laura Robb

Here are a few questions to stimulate discussion with your child post read:

What does exaggeration mean?  Why do people exaggerate when they tell a story?

Do you think that Pecos Bill was really raised by coyotes?  How do you think that story got started?  Do people really believe he traveled on a tornado?

Pecos Bill roamed far and wide (you can pull out a map to track his course.) Why do you think he headed in the direction he did? What was he looking for?

Pecos Bill used a rattlesnake as a lasso. What would you use to make one?

Pecos Bill wore a vest. Why do cowboys wear vests? 

I teach a Saturday Enrichment Program course at the Center for Talent Development titled “Superheroes of the 1800s.” Students learn about the first American adventurers through creative hands-on activities related to geography and language arts. One activity the kids embrace could be easily replicated at home to augment learning about tall tales. We make western vests to get more in tune  with legendary cowboys like Pecos Bill. You and your child will be ready to jump into the saddle after creating this western vest!  And, if someone is searching for a unique Halloween costume this might fit the “Bill”!

Materials Needed:

To have your cowboy or cowgirl create their own western vest, recycle a brown paper bag from your local grocery store, and round up one or more of the following: crayons, markers, colored pencils, paint, glitter, construction paper, stencils, foil, stickers, ribbon, pins, buttons, and/or whatever else is lying around the house that will add color and contrast!

Instructions for Doing the Activity:

  1. If there is writing on the brown paper bag, turn it inside out.
  2. On a flat surface, cut from the center of the bag’s open edge to the middle of the bottom with scissors. Cut out a neck hole on bag’s bottom. Cut armholes in bag’s sides. Trim the front edges to complete the vest.
  3. Decorate your vest however you would like using art supplies found at home.  Almost any item works, so get creative!
  4. Cut vertically along the bottom of the vest to fringe the edges.
  5. If you would like to add rosettes, tear two aluminum foil circles (one smaller than the other) to make each.  Put a small circle on top of a larger one. Then, poke ribbon or yarn through layered rosette and into the vest and knot both ends.
  6. Try on your finished product!  Pecos Bill would be proud!

Modifications for Younger or Older Students:
For younger students, parents can assist in cutting the brown paper bag and additional items that will be added to the vest.

For older students, parents can trace circles on the brown paper bag for their child to cut independently

Additional Resource Link:

http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/pecos-bill/ offers multiple tall tales of Pecos Bill.  Parents can read these stories and have their child act it out while wearing their vests.  For example, taken from Pecos Bill Rides a Tornado, ‘Well, Bill jest grabbed that there tornado, pushed it to the ground and jumped on its back.’  By using his/her imagination, your child can grab a tornado from mid air, push it all the way to the ground, jump on its back, and ride it like wild old Widowmaker

Kaitlyn Crites teaches for CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program. Visit the Saturday Enrichment Program website for winter courses related to storytelling and adventure. Saturday Enrichment Program is offered at multiple sites throughout Chicagoland.  Other writing and literature courses are available online through the CTD Gifted LearningLinks program.

Spy Kids: Secret codes for gifted kids

Source: PBS/NOVA

As a kid,  there’s nothing more thrilling than speaking or writing in a language your parents can’t understand. Add the challenge of creating and deciphering your very own secret code, and you’ve got an irresistible and mind-bending activity for gifted students.

Deciphering codes requires looking for patterns everywhere, and it’s somewhat mind-boggling how important this process of searching for and defining patterns and relationships is to everything we do.  It forms the basis of language, mathematics, science, and even art and music.

The starting point for many children are basic substitution codes such as alphanumeric codes (1=A, 2=B, etc.) and Morse Code.  Studying and “playing” with these codes can help younger children develop their language, reading, and spelling skills as well as their problem-solving strategies.

Studying codes is also an excellent example of an activity that can fulfill the need that many gifted students have for tasks that increase in complexity the deeper they dig!  Codes are at the heart of the concept of algebraic functions in mathematics; the development of scientific explanations and predictions based on patterns of observations in the natural world; rhythm and pitch in music, geometric transformations and the organization of space in art, computer programming, and genetic sequencing.

Maybe your gifted child has already begun “speaking in code.” Where do you start in helping your child cultivate their own code books (even if they don’t tell you what it means)?

Here are some  resources to help you keep up with your child’s secret code enthusiasm:

Learn about the fascinating history behind famous secret codes:



A do-it-at home activity for making your very own secret code:


How to write in super-secret invisible ink:


Real World Secret Codes:


Decoding Ancient Languages: Hieroglyphs:


Patterns and Fibonacci Numbers in Nature:


Decoding DNA:


For secret agents looking to create and break a variety of challenging codes, visit http://www.nsa.gov/kids/home.shtml .

Hungry for more? Check out our new summer Math Studio course, “Codes and Spies”,  which integrates math problems and concepts with fun, critical thinking activities like solving puzzles, finding patterns in music, and building a Rube-Goldberg machine. “Codes and Spies” is for students completing Kindergarten through Grade 3, and will be offered afternoons in Chicago and Skokie, IL on July 9-13. Find more information here.

Has your child caught on to the “spy” phenomenon? What is their favorite secret code?

Rainy Day Activity: Exploring Typography

In continuing with our perennial “Rainy Day” series, we bring you this post by CTD Creative Studies developer/instructor Anne Stevens. Anne is a visual artist who specializes in painting and printmaking, as well as teaching gifted children to process the visual world around them. In this activity, you and your child will explore the fascinating history and techniques of typography.

Typography is a form of design that has paralleled the significant developments of the modern age. When elementary school kids know the names of fonts like Times or Verdana, it only follows that they should be exposed to the beautiful world of the designed letter and how it works. Each typeface develops, like a piece of clothing or furniture, in a specific historical context for a definite purpose. Learning about those developments opens the door to history and a deeper appreciation of the everyday choices we make with typography. This project can be adapted for any grade student, from K-12.  Students in grades K-4 may find the copying challenging, but experimenting with handling the brush and making large letters will lead into some interesting letter form making. Follow their lead, encourage them to develop their own alphabet, asking questions like, “If that is the A, what will the R look like?” Punctuation is fun too! Bonus trivia question: What world famous entrepreneur links some of his success to a typography class? (answer at the end of the lesson!) Materials Needed:

  •  A large paper surface, like newsprint, 18×24” drawing pad, rolls of white drawing paper, butcher paper, or newspaper. You want a surface where the child can iterate and practice and try again easily.
  • Square brushes (Foam brushes from the hardware store of any size work great for this!)
  • Watercolor, acrylic or tempera, diluted to a runny consistency like drawing ink in an open jar.
  •  Paper towel for blotting the brush.

Time needed: this is a 20-30 min activity, including cleanup. Working with your child is recommended. Instructions: Blackletter and Moveable Type

 The first moveable typefaces were based on blacklettering, which were used by European monks to manually copy important texts. Look at the sample: Do you see some common elements? I have isolated some in red. Can you find the Latin word for family? Great! You can you read blackletter. Blackletter is only used now as a Display face but there are some fun digitized versions that you can use for reference in any writing software. It is an interesting letter form to study because once you start writing with it, you can see it is made up of a very basic ‘kit of parts’ that is re-combined to make new letter forms. This uniformity makes it difficult to read but easy to understand as a system used for copying texts. This mechanical structure sets the stage for the development of moveable type (hey, why am I writing this a million times when it comes out looking exactly the same? Isn’t there a better way?) The history of Gutenberg and moveable type is an interesting destination to take your child from here. 1.  Start by drawing the ‘anchors’ for the letter or letters: 2. Connect the anchors with the verticals: 3. Make a fully-formed letter:

Getting fancy with an "a".

After years of teaching this kind of material, I believe that developing the product that the student begins can be a productive path, rather than re-directing them towards a specific end. This can be informative for parent, teacher and student because the student starts to evolve a new vocabulary for themselves and the exercise at hand. In the case of lettering and type, the awareness is kinesthetic ; holding the brush with lightness and intention, and paying attention to angles and shapes being made. The product is less important than the awareness of the intent and complexity of lettering and typographic design. The Modern Period

Futura used on the placard left on the moon in 1969 by American Astronauts.

Modernist typefaces like Futura or Helvetica reflected their designers’ desire to create a typeface that was spare and only contained essential elements, with a more mechanistic purity of form. This can be duplicated by using the square brush to produce letterforms that are uniform in their width all the way around. Making O W with the square brush.At this point, your child will want to write their names and interesting words with their brush in their preferred form. Suggest words with letters that are interesting to try to figure out, like K or Q. Encourage them to continue developing their own alphabet. Consider directing them to graph paper and using the idea of an underlying grid to build their alphabet. Or, check out a book or class on Calligraphy, or look at graffiti artists and their connection to all of these letterform traditions!

Modifications for Younger or Older Students: For your younger child, after playing with the brush and the letterforms a bit, go into Microsoft Word and experiment with the following typefaces: What does my name look like in: Lucida Blackletter? Matura? Futura? Let them browse and find their favorite typefaces. For older and younger children, look at illuminated letters and initial caps and suggest they illuminate their initial. Older students can be typography detectives. Sometimes designers tell you in the front matter of a book what typeface they used: can you identify it that way? Or can you go into Word and figure out what typeface was used in your favorite book through comparison? Alternatively, find a favorite typeface and Google its name to find out its history. You can also research interesting typographers like: Giambattista Bodoni, Hermann Zapf, and Tobias Frere-Jones.

Additional Resources and Links:  http://ilovetypography.com/2007/11/06/type-terminology-humanist-2/

http://ilovetypography.com/2010/08/07/where-does-the-alphabet-come-from/ http://www.bemboszoo.com/

Dover has an interesting series of books on lettering.

Trivia Question answer: Steve Jobs! Watch his inspirational graduation speech at Stanford in 2005 to hear the story.

Anne Stevens is a visual artist with an MA in Visual Studies from UC Berkeley. She has developed the Creative Studies program exclusively for the Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program, as well as an online curriculum for CTD’s Gifted LearningLinks Program.  Click here to enroll in one of her upcoming courses for grades 2-6. Registration closes September 17!

Venture into the Visual

Creative Studies students study their interpretations of the same photograph of a tree. This experiment is done while we study the pixel grid, the foundation of all digital photographs. It reveals how the most simple digital translation—reduce this photograph of a tree to a one color image—can generate a wide range of results.

by Anne Hayden Stevens

Why are stop signs red?  How did writing develop?  What is “abstract”, and how do we use abstract images and ideas?

The Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program stretches your child’s thinking and encourages them to engage creatively with complex concepts. Your gifted child is full of questions (and theories!) about how the world around them works.

Our new Creative Studies classes address the questions your child has about the visual world in particular.

Take a moment to think about what “enrichment” means.  I define it as a way to deepen the level of inquiry into and comprehension of phenomena our kids experience every day. Creative Studies unpacks the visual artifacts of our media-rich existence, from picture books to the electromagnetic spectrum, and explores the role they play in our lives.

Modern culture relies on visual design more than ever. Tools once reserved for the adult world (like PowerPoint or digital photography) are now staples in the elementary school classroom. Through analysis and understanding of the visual underpinnings of these tools, we can cultivate a sense of empowerment and aesthetic understanding to communicate ideas effectively.

The arts are an excellent context for exploring the endless range of possible solutions to a problem. Creative Studies in-class experiments are often open-ended.  Students must frame problems for themselves and develop their own goals through discussion and trial and error. This approach nurtures self-sufficiency and a sense of creative authorship. Many problems in the adult world involve these sorts of challenges. Our Creative Studies experiments provide early opportunities to explore the emotions and intellectual challenges of the open-ended question.

Based on my experience teaching Saturday Enrichment classes, I’ve found that students like having a context to probe and discuss the media they consume regularly.   Kids who love to draw, build or design, begin to see the connection between their interests and the making of visual culture. Our gifted children may be the innovators of their generation. Creative Studies courses lay the groundwork for using visual language as part of their innovation toolkit.

Creative Studies classes will debut this fall at the Northwestern University site of the Saturday Enrichment Program.  Eight-week courses are offered as follows: “Studying the Visual World” for grades 2-3, “Images and Text” for grades 3-4, “Art and Science of Color” for grades 5-6.

So, share your thoughts: How can creative study enhance the learning experience of our gifted children?   Are you aware of other program models that venture into this arena?

Anne Hayden Stevens is a visual artist with an MA in Visual Studies from UC Berkeley. She has developed the Creative Studies program exclusively for the Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program, where she has taught since Fall 2010.