Gifted education at home — meet a materials provider and climate change activist

Carolyn Wilhelm, author and publisher, with her husband Gary Wilhelm at a Dublin museum. Photo: Clare O’Beara.
Carolyn Wilhelm, author and publisher, with her husband Gary Wilhelm at a Dublin museum. Photo: Clare O’Beara.

A year ago, homeschooling was for a tiny minority of children. Today, schoolchildren are remote learners. The speed of the onset of Covid-19 has left some parents and institutions unprepared, but plenty of online resources are being made available for free. Nonprofit Sesame Street has made a great deal of downloadable or interactive content available. Schools can set a page of approved material for e-mail homework, or class work guided by a teacher over Instagram, Skype, Zoom and other platforms. Parents can track down the kind of resources and books best suited to individual children, including the gifted and talented, to keep them happy, occupied and learning.

Carolyn Wilhelm has been providing this kind of resource as well as publishing books on Amazon for junior readers. She owns the Wise Owl Factory website which she started after retiring from gifted education. Carolyn’s response to the ‘stay at home’ issue has been that earlier this year she almost retired from blogging and creating, but now she’s glad she didn’t. She has a BS in Elementary Education, an MS in Gifted Education, an MA in Curriculum and Instruction K-12. She has taught grades one, two, three, four, and five, as well as gifted education. Carolyn became a certified trainer for non-profit Climate Reality Project in 2019, and she is now a volunteer presenter on environmental issues, for schools.

Among the materials provided for free at Wise Owl Factory are worksheets based on books by other authors (with their approval), appropriate for the age level. Carolyn encourages children to read and while doing so, to study characters and learn facts, to compare and contrast people or countries. Demand for her material continues to rise with the Covid-19 lockdown. I interviewed Carolyn on her 2019 visit to Dublin with her husband Gary Wilhelm, a retired civil engineer, and their daughter Betsey.

You are a teacher and a versatile author, and write in a few different genres and for different age groups. Why did you choose to work this way and publish independently?

“I taught gifted ed to the whole school for two schools. I taught analogies, thinking skills, to kids aged from 5 to 12. Then we retired. Gary had built our house, a cabin on our land. We live there part time. Betsey is very keen on horses and she rides nearby. Gary has written a memoir about being a civil engineer in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Good Afternoon Vietnam. I blogged but boredom set in. So, I put lessons on line for different age groups, with work sheets. As we are able to publish books independently on Amazon and we have time, that was our choice.”

I enjoy the concepts which you introduced in ‘The Frogs Buy A House’, to make children familiar with the terms and the issues around house hunting and moving. What is the best part of writing for children?

“The best part is when the kids like the story. Feedback makes all the difference. For Multicultural Children’s Book Day, I gave a book away, but I got no feedback.”

The lovely book about a family with an adopted daughter ‘A Mom: What Is An Adoptive Mother?’ has illustrations to show how the mom and little girl do not look the same. Who illustrates your books for you?

“My daughter Betsey wrote this as a Mother’s Day card for me. I thought it was so lovely that I wanted to make it a book. Betsey is named as an author but she didn’t want to be credited as the sole author. I found online an artist called Pieter Els who lives in South Africa. He created the illustrations to put this book on his CV.”

Dystopian middle grade fiction is quite a different prospect. Many adult readers will need no introduction to the facts around climate change. Your 2019 award-nominated Young Adult (YA) book looks at a dystopian future for young people in America and the UK. What prompted you to write ‘Climate Change Captives 2035’?

“This book started as a short story and I needed to do lots of research. I got so upset from all I was seeing that I made it book length. I aimed for middle grade, but with references to real articles so the students can look up the facts. An Al Gore symposium came up and my book was picked before publishing. The promoters said, “Why would we promote your book?” and I said, “I have three hundred thousand followers on Pinterest.” They said okay. Then I had to finish ahead of the symposium. Pieter Els created the illustrations for me.”

This YA book is set in a future Minnesota at the start, with depleted wildlife and limited resources. The only thing thriving is poison ivy. But the young characters still have to go to school and some are depicted as homeschooled. You pack a lot of references in by way of text notes. What are you hoping young readers and families will do after reading your book?

“I am hoping they will be better informed and will start to see what changes they can make. Al Gore showed us that storms are striking around the world and people are suffering. The readers will start to look at science-based papers like those I reference, and they can see that communicating with kids in other countries will help us all to learn.”

I am certain that Greta Thunberg would approve. Why did you involve young people from Northern Ireland in the story?

“A friend of mine called Crystal is blogging from Castleview Academy in Northern Ireland. She homeschools. Her real kids are in my story and they have their interests represented; nanoengineering, jujitsu, trees and baking. They wanted to be represented as 12 but are younger in real life. I was able to show them a chapter at a time and get their input.”

I enjoyed the ingenious ways people deal with the energy scarce future. I particularly like the concept that governments have to stop fighting wars and go to court instead, as wars are too costly to the environment. Which of your predictions for coping with climate change do you see as most likely to come to pass?

“When I read your book Dining Out On Planet Mercury I learned that the salt water will rise through the water table and kill trees in cities near the shore as the sea levels rise. I didn’t realise that before. I’m sure we’ll have to develop methods of tackling it.

“I camped out as a kid, I was a Campfire Girl. We picked up fallen wood for fires. We owned six acres of northern Minnesota and this had plenty of birch trees. But the birches died as the land got wetter and heat brought gypsy moth infestations. So already this is happening, and I show this in my book. I think we need more wind farms like the ones upstate from me, also general installation of solar panels to make power locally.”

Thanks for talking with me today.

The author, Clare O’Beara, has just published her fifteenth book on Amazon, A Pony For Quarantine, about a young teen girl in Ireland during the Coronavirus lockdown.

Environmental journalist, tree surgeon and expert witness, and former national standard showjumper. Author of 18 books of crime, science fiction, YA fiction.