Saturday, September 21, 2013

Backpacking Hamill Creek Trail

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Homeschooling just one, v2.0

What a difference this year! A new violin teacher has arrived in the area and I have relinquished all my private lesson teaching to her. This means that Fiona is not dragged to a furniture- and electronics-barren teaching studio for hours each week to sit and wait for me to finish working. It's the second year that Sophie and Noah have both been full-time students, so our house doesn't feel suddenly much emptier than usual. And last spring, for whatever reason, Fiona made her peace with homeschooling not just as a necessary accommodation but as a gift, an opportunity.

I feel relaxed and present in both my own life and in hers. We are finding a good balance between intentionality and serendipity. In the past we've defaulted to a style of serendipity that felt more like "we're too busy to really think about what we'd like to do," a tidal wave of chauffeuring, scheduled activities, volunteer and work commitments that left our discretionary time entirely spent in recovery mode.

Last spring Fiona joined the Grade 7/8/9 class for an introductory Spanish course, where she excelled both academically and socially. At the end of the year she wrote the Math 8 final exam (at home, under no pressure) and completely aced it. These two accomplishments were sufficient to allow her to be easily welcomed into the Grade 9 math course at the local school this year, where she is spending two or three hours a week. The format of those hours is rather in flux. For now some of the time is spent on group projects spanning several grade- and ability-levels from basic Grade 7 to advanced Grade 9, and most of the time is spent working independently through the course syllabus and workbook in a classroom with a range of grades and a teacher and aid circulating to support and assist as needed. She ended up somewhat accidentally seated at the slightly raucous Grade 7 table (I think she had forgotten that while nominally a 7th grader, she was there to do Grade 9 math -- perhaps she'll get moved), but nevertheless she's enjoying working on her own in the midst of a group of similarly engaged math students. She likes the course and is moving quickly through it.

So that's and hour, two or three mornings a week. Her other scheduled once-a-week programming is a violin lesson (yes, with a real teacher!), violin group class, gymnastics and homeschool art class. She still has three days a week completely free, and every morning is empty until 11 am. For her, for now, this is exactly the right balance.

And here's what she's busy with in her unschooled time, in addition to the usual eating, housework, playing, hanging out, being active outdoors, etc.:
  • KhanAcademy math, totally for fun
  • violin practicing -- which is daily, independent, and enthusiastic at this point, thanks to the novelty of having a 'real' teacher
  • exploring human evolution, human genomics and pre-history
  • learning a bit of ASL
  • reading for pleasure
  • historical fiction readalouds (me to her)
  • science textbook reading / browsing
and she's also busy with two "projects," in the style of Project-Based Homeschooling. For now she's chosen backcountry survival skills and meal preparation. The main difference between the autonomous interests she's developed and pursued in the past and what she's doing with these interests is that she and I are intentionally devoting regular energy and time to these projects.

I think the most important thing that results from this approach is a change in me: she and I are clear that these projects get some regular priority in our lives. This keeps the momentum going, at least so far. We've enjoyed several amazing Fiona-dinners, and have a backpacking trip planned together later this month. The weather is still mighty fine, we are luxuriating in the additional time and energy we have at our disposal, and we are feeling optimistic and full of energy. It's a wonderful time of year.

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Sunday, September 01, 2013

End-of-summer road trip

We flew Erin out of Kelowna to go back to school. Kelowna is less expensive from a flight standpoint -- and much more reliable in the winter, when the Cancelgar airport earns its unendearing nickname -- but it involves eight or nine hours of driving instead of three and unless one is masochistic the necessity of an overnight in a motel. So we've tended to fly her out of Castlegar in the summer, and Kelowna in the winter.

But this time, with a significant shopping list and two growing girls needing new clothes, we decided to drive to Kelowna and make a bit of a road trip out of it. The Delica makes road trips quite lovely with its bright and airy interior, flexible seating and iPod compatible stereo system. So we got up early the night after a spectacular thunderstorm and headed out. We dropped Erin off at the airport and headed into the land of big box stores and malls.

Sophie is wealthy from her summer of restaurant work, and even Fiona has accumulated a nest egg from her various bits of paid work in the community and her allowance. So they were happy to meander the mall with their debit cards in hand, sometimes with me, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. Sophie has a self-described addiction to frugality and such a conservative intuition about her finances that budgeting is sort of beside the point: she'll never spend too much. We first tried releasing Sophie into the wild a couple of years ago on a similar trip and the results were successful beyond my wildest dreams. She spent so little, and bought so much, and what she chose was really neat stuff: appropriate, slightly funky, stylish, and well-balanced to her needs.

With Fiona it's hard to say how she'll do managing all her own purchases; right now she's so limited in choices by her tiny size (girls 8) and relatively sophisticated sense of style that there's a completely justifiable tendency to snap up whatever works. (In our area, the only store selling clothing in girls' 6-14 sizes is the Walmart 90 minutes away. The consignment and thrift stores there rarely seem to have much either, as I suppose there are scores of girls facing exactly the same dilemma who live nearby and can snap up things as they come in, while we can only check every few weeks.)

We spent the night at a nice motel with a pool and waterslide. The next day we meandered around the city, shopping for the various household items on our list. And we checked out the most amazing hole-in-the-wall-of-and-industrial-area diner-type restaurant.
Then we headed north, taking the long way home. Our first stop was in Enderby where we snagged a cheap motel and then went to the drive-in. I had last been to a drive-in in about 1990 with Chuck in our cranky VW Westfalia. We'd found a spot in the back row, popped the top, and watched Dick Tracy from the upper-level mattress, propped up by pillows and frosty beverages from the fridge below. Even then it was a sort of retro experience that we felt lucky to be able experience.

Now, 23 years later, that theatre is closed and the Starlight is one of few remaining drive-ins in Canada, one of only three in BC, and the closest to us by far. It seemed like something the kids should experience at least once. We parked backwards near the back of the theatre, opened the hatch and laid the back seats out flat. We made a trip to the Snack Bar for all the standard fixings. The rear bumper of the Delica made a lovely shelf for drinks, and the popcorn bags fit nicely in nooks to the side of "bed."
It was a pretty awesome experience. The weather was lovely: we were warm with just regular clothes. The audio channel broadcast 1950s and 60s tunes about cars and car culture. The van was comfy as heck. The girls' favourite part of the showing was the 1950s cartoons beforehand, complete with little animated chocolate bars doing tight-rope dances, and reminders every sixty seconds that "the show starts in ____ minutes." We watched Pacific Rim, which was fine. The content of the movie wasn't why we were there, of course. We were super tired, so we didn't stay for the second show.

The last day we drove north again to pick up the TransCanada highway before heading east and then south again to get back home. This brought us alongside the CPR at the site of the completion of the trans-continental railway in 1885, the famous Last Spike locale in Craigellachie, BC. Fiona and I have been reading our way through pieces of Canadian history over the past year or two, and it seemed only right that living so (relatively) close to this site we should stop and visit.

After that we went on to visit the Revelstoke Railway Museum to complete the day. We had driven by it many, many times on our trips to and from Calgary getting Erin to her lessons there, but we'd always been focused on just getting the trip over with and the kids had never wanted to stop and explore. So this time we did and while it wasn't exactly the most mind-blowing museum we'd ever been to, Fiona did get her model-building ambitions extremely excited upon viewing the huge model railway on display, as well as some of the other diorama exhibits.

Then it was a familiar hop-and-skip across the ferry to home. Noah had finished his last couple of shifts in Sandon. Sophie has a weekend of restaurant and baby-sitting work but has Labour Day off. And then the big kids are back to school and the rhythm of life will change and it will truly be fall. It felt lovely to grab a last few footloose days of summer.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Garlic marshmallows

We thought it would be fun to learn to make marshmallows. Then we thought it would be fun to make cool, fruity or hipster flavours of marshmallows. Then we thought ... garlic marshmallows! With some product development, these might be the next big thing at the Garlic Festival!

We used a standard marshmallow recipe: 4 Tbsp. gelatin, 3/4 + 3/4 cups water, 2 cups sugar, 1 Tbsp. corn syrup, 2 egg whites, and we puréed four cloves of roasted garlic into the water that we dissolved the gelatin in. 

They're ... well, they're marshmallows. They toast up beautifully. And they're quite palatable and tasty, in the way that you might agree that garlic ice cream (another novelty item that's been known to sell quite well around here on the 2nd weekend of September) is surprisingly yummy.  

They may or may not make it to market for 2014, but they've been enjoyed here on a touch-of-fall evening, the night before Erin leaves for Montreal.


Slowly moving this blog over to a new home at I'll continue to duplicate posts for a while in both locations, but this copy will eventually become archive-only.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Our old espresso machine, acquired on grocery store affinity points, served us well. For the past few months it's often refused to operate unless nudged or tilted on its side during the warm-up phase. Then it gave up working entirely. Definitive diagnostic disassembly and attempted repair last week proved unfruitful: one of the connections had corroded through, and something else in the thermostat assembly was no longer functioning, likely as a result of all the short-circuiting that had been happening. It hadn't cost us a cent, and had faithfully made between 4 and 10 hot drinks a day for almost four years. We moved it out of the kitchen.

For a few days we tried to make do with the old drip coffee maker. It just wasn't the same. So, kijiji to the rescue: I found a professionally-refurbished Nuova Simonelli Oscar available nearby for just over a third of the original price. It still cost a lot, but it's so nice. It's a beast of a machine. It has far more pressure and steam than its predecessor, and is built for the kind of heavy use our family wants. And it has a heat exchanger, so it stays hot as you pull shot after shot and run the steamer full-tilt. It is heavy, though, and demands quite a footprint on the kitchen counter. But, wow, it does such a good job.

Running on

Telegraph Trail
I haven't written about running in almost a year.

I made running a part of my life beginning in March 2009. More than four years. I'm still at it, but am currently plagued by an ankle bursitis (the left retrocalcaneal bursa, if you care) that started niggling away at me two years ago, and got a lot worse this spring. The good news is that the bursa isn't structural in the same way that bones, tendons and ligaments are, so I'm unlikely to do horrible permanent things to myself. The bad news is that I should probably stop hiking, biking and running and immerse myself if a sea of ibuprofen and ice for a month or two.

I can't. I've tapered back: I'm only running a couple of times a week now, and nothing fast, and nothing over 10-11 km. But I can't stop. I just miss it too much.

I finally got an xray which showed no calcification, no bone spur, nothing amiss except a lot of soft-tissue swelling around the Achilles tendon. The tendon itself is strong, flexible and pain-free. So I don't suppose I'm doing damage by letting it niggle along. And among the recommended interventions are avoiding shoes with rigid or overly large heel-counters or tight heel straps (uh, I don't use shoes at all 98% of the time). That part I can do.

Last winter I did a series of weekly running clinics and learned some stuff about form -- hip extension, in particular -- that is likely to be helpful in the long term. This spring and summer I've been running with some local friends who are well-matched. They don't do as much distance as I've tended to, but they're mostly up to 10k and so far they're happy.

All my road runs are barefoot. My trail runs are occasionally partly barefoot, but I usually use New Balance WT00's. I seem to have lost my good huaraches in Hawai'i: I need to get some more, because I'd prefer to use them on tamer trails.

So I have no big race plans at this point. I'll probably do the 10k at the SufferFest this year, because my friends are doing it, but not trying for speed, just supporting them. Six months ago I had dreams of doing the [vertical mile] 45km Idaho Peak run, but this isn't the year for that.

The Fitbit Flex
Two things have made the less-running less-biking thing work for me. First, I got myself a FitBit Flex, a little wristband gizmo that tracks my walk/run activity via digital accelerometer technology. I like it for other reasons too ... it tells me neat things about my sleep, and has a silent vibratory alarm that I can use to wake me (and no one else) up, or to remind me when a lesson or meeting should be wrapping up. But because it tracks my walking and slow running indiscriminately from speedwork, I can focus on just logging locomotive activity, not necessarily running fast. When I wear my Garmin I know it's recording information about distance and speed, and I can't help myself pushing to optimize those. When I leave it at home and use the Flex, which I do most of the time now, I do a better job of taking things slowly and easily.

I've also been working more on strength. Pushups, pullups, squats, core strength, all those sorts of things. In the past I could only manage 8 pushups. Now I can do 70 push-ups in five sets. Recently I've been trying out the You Are Your Own Gym (#YAYOG) app on my iPad. So far I really like it: there's tons of challenge there, and no special equipment required.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Planning homeschooling

As has been our after-SVI routine for the past few years, Fiona and I are thinking about and planning the upcoming year of homeschooling. While she had some ambivalence about homeschooling during the tail end of winter last year, she's now firmly back on board and looking forward to another year of self-directed learning. While it seems likely that she will end up in school at some point in the future, her current plan is for an accelerated but part-time route into high school, allowing herself plenty of time for travel and other adventures.

A few factors came together at the end of last year. First, she tied for the top mark in the Grade 8-10 Spanish course at the school, and earned kudos for her contributions to the class and her strong and sensitive leadership skills. Next, she scored the top mark by far on the Grade 8 math final exam. (She had not taken the course at school, but wanted to do the exam to prove herself according to the school's yardstick.) In light of these scores, her homeschool liaison teacher articulated how ridiculous it felt for him to be writing reports for her referencing the Grade 4 expectations. He felt that her declared grade level should not be her age-grade, but whatever would suit her best from a practical standpoint, and was willing to support a multi-grade skip if that's what we wanted.

So we talked things over with Fiona and decided to split the difference. With commitment she would be capable of Grade 9 work. By age she will be Grade 5 age this coming year. We decided to declare her in Grade 7. Although nothing is really going to fit her perfectly, this seems like the best fit. Why?

Well, first, there's the issue of smoothing over grade placement if and when she decides to enrol in bricks-and-mortar school. If for example she wants to take Grade 10 or 11 in the classroom at age 13, it will be easier to argue for that if she's nominally in Grade 10 at the time, vs. being still registered in Grade 8. On the other hand, we don't want to over-reach. We don't want to set up a situation where at age 14 she fails pre-calc or senior English simply because she hasn't developed the intellectual maturity to cope with those courses. While Fiona insists that she would be totally fine taking two years to do a one-year course if it proves too much, I don't think we want to set up a situation where she is under stress because of an usually advanced placement.

A minor bookkeeping advantage is that it will be easier for her liaison teacher to report meaningfully on her learning this year if it's within the ballpark of her declared grade level. Although it's nothing but a bit of awkwardness for him to tick off that he has evidence that she has learned about division in math, it is more meaningful if her record can reflect more of what she actually learned.

Furthermore, I can envision times when the grade skip will give her explanatory short-hand for things that might otherwise be a bit awkward to explain. Why she's taking an elective with much older students, why her math and spelling skills are so far beyond those of her homeschooled friends, why she'd be better off with the older group at the homeschoolers origami workshop, that sort of thing. Not that she would ever advertise her grade placement: it's completely beside the point for her 99% of the time. But once in a while, owning up to a grade skip can be a succinct way of explaining advanced academic needs and abilities that are being questioned.

The main advantage for now, though, is in integrating with current school activities. As usual, she is welcome to attend school for whatever she's interested in as long as it is okay with the teacher in question. But the assumption of the teacher and students is that homeschoolers join the class of whatever grade they are is registered in. Because of the way the school is currently organized and enrolled, Grades 4/5/6 are lumped together and are part of the primary school, while Grade 7 is considered part of the high school. Academically and behaviourally she's so far beyond where the younger class is at that she finds it almost painful being there. Grade 7 gets block scheduling of distinct subjects, rather than the looser, more flexible cross-curricular approach of the younger grades. So it becomes possible for a homeschooler to take one or more particular subjects at school at the Grade 7+ level. And the monthly week-long immersive electives for Grades 7-12 are now available to her should she wish to take them. There are plans for electives in things that are definitely not within her comfort zone (extended back-country ski adventures, a survey of martial arts) but others that might: local ethnobotany/history/archeology, and creative dance, for example.

Which brings us to our learning plan process for the upcoming year. Because her siblings are at school, and because last year she chose to make use of some course-like structure, our discussion started out with "got any ideas for science?" and "I think this is what I want to do for math...." and such. Very school-like and subject-oriented. I let her ramble on with ideas, and we wrote some good stuff down to research further.

And then, when she kind of petered out with ideas, I said "There's this thing called Project-based Homeschooling, and it has nothing to do with subjects. It's just about things you're interested in, and you decide what those are, and how you want to learn about them. And my job is to set aside time to help you along with your project, whether every day or once or twice a week. What about that?" Then I gave her an example: if a kid wanted to learn to bake. Their project might include researching things on YouTube and keeping a board on Pinterest, and making grocery lists and practicing baking techniques, learning how to photograph food, keeping a blog, or creating a recipe scrapbook, holding a bake sale... or whatever they wanted!

 Her eyes lit up. "I already know how to bake all sorts of stuff," she said, "but ... survival skills! And meal preparation, like, three-course dinners. And I'll probably have a couple of other ideas too. I love this!"

We talked about how this is different from "just living life and following interests." Because, see, last spring she mentioned a few times that she wanted to learn some wilderness survival skills. And how much had actually happened? Not much. We built a snare. We did a few little hikes. We did a long mountain bike ride. That's all -- nothing very focused. Neither she nor I had made time for more. Other stuff got in the way, or we forgot. PBH is different because we will plan to make time for this specifically. And we will also make an effort to ask ourselves the question "How can this thread of learning be enhanced or extended or otherwise enriched?" More intentionality of time and subject matter.

She's my kid who likes organizing and circumscribing her learning (this is why she was getting boxed into a subject-by-subject orientation). So I think this is probably right up her alley. It's a more holistic, interest-based way of getting that framework of organization. Not sure how it will all play out, but it feels like we're off to a good start.

She also has plans to do some more subject-specific learning. She's going to try taking Grade 9 math at the school in the Grade 7/8/9 classroom. We'll see what that ends up looking like: the structure of the school is very much in flux. She's interested in ASL, and in continuing with gymnastics and violin. And she is cool with doing one novel study a term to exercise her written language and analytic skills, recognizing that this is a relatively painless way to generate the information her liaison teacher likes about her level of mastery of English. She wants to dabble her way through the BC Science 8 textbook, and likes what is on the Grade 7 social studies curriculum, which is ancient civilizations (we've ended up exploring mostly Canadian history over the past couple of years). We'll do that in our own way, probably with a lot of videos, some historical fiction and anything else that intrigues her.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Alpine hikes

Since Erin goes back to the city soon,
we've been making an effort to get out
into the wilderness for some big hikes.
We met a lot of pikas on yesterday's Alps Alturas Trail. 
Fiona is amazing. All 70 pounds of her.
Five hundred metres elevation gain?
A thousand? No problem! (Not that she
doesn't sometimes lose heart, or complain of
being tired. But don't we all? And she gets
to the top anyway.)
The best part is the excitement of seeing what's at the end of
the trail. Usually snow, and a basin of some sort. Wonderful
clear water. A stark world that feels near the sky.
Sophie, exploring the edge of an alpine lake, in front of
some watermelon snow.
We could actually smell the watermelon scent this time,
it was so concentrated. Chlamydomonus nivalis is the
name of the algae. 
Even amongst the rocks so near the sky, alpine
flowers flourish.
"Tourist heaven," Fiona pronounced.
The little lake seems to pour over the edge of the
world into the infinity of mountains beyond. 
Food for the summit: an absolute must. Caramel nut
brownie energy bars by Luna. Yup. Best summit food ever.

At this point Fiona thought the summit of the hike
was at that ridge a hundred metres up. How wrong
she was ... but she made it the extra 500 metres.
Truth be told, these girls ate their way to the top.
Huckleberry tongues.
Lyle Creek Basin. The most beautiful place ever.

The pour-over of the basin lake into Lyle Creek. The water
just disappears over the edge into ... nothing.

We got caught in nasty weather during one descent. We had a tarp
and jackets and could have stayed dry. But it was warm, and we were
feeling wild and crazy. We ran through the deluge, jumping smack
into the puddles, ponds and creeks that were forming as we watched.
Wind flower, or western anemone, makes seed heads that look like
aging hippies. Fiona collected seed heads along the trail and
felted this tribble. We brought it home, where it's drying on a ledge.
The Delica in its native environment.
This vehicle was made for this kind of travel,
up high into the subalpine on crazy forestry
roads. Drives that used to be impossible, or
at least hair-raising, now feel like no big deal.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

SVI 2013

Another SVI has come and gone. This year a lot of the organizing fell to me, since my mom moved away last fall. So I found myself doing my usual Suzuki-parenting, plus a lot of the this-and-that volunteer stuff I've usually added to that, plus the lion's share of the administration. I confess I didn't sleep a whole lot.

For the first time Fiona got included in the chamber music program. That meant she was in the same program as Sophie and Noah, though they were all in different quartets. Noah and Sophie had worked hard to reschedule their shifts at work to clear time for SVI, and I was a little worried about how they would transition from that grown-up world of employment amongst adults to a music camp with kids -- one that included their baby sister. But it was fine. Fiona fits in with teens pretty well, and the older kids were of course pretty lovely with the younger ones. They're Suzuki kids after all ... they've grown up in communities of fellow music students where mutual support, regardless of age and level, is the norm.

 The opening chamber orchestra performance was a string version of Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," which showcased the experienced violinists and violists and gave the less advanced cellists a manageable role. It was a cheerful and energetic start to the main SVI week.

We had about the same number of students as the past couple of years: just over 80. And as is normal for us, a huge proportion of the students, almost three quarters, are repeat enrolees. It makes the whole thing feel even more like a family reunion than it would otherwise. But every year there are some new families shuffled into the deck, and new friendships that spring up. So much magic, both musically and socially.

Sophie and Noah have not officially been studying their instruments for the past year or two. They've continued to play when called upon, whether with the occasional regional orchestra, or trio gigs around town, but haven't been practicing regularly or working on solo repertoire. It was a tough call whether to enrol them, but they both said they'd like to be involved and were willing to work to master their music and contribute as much as they could.

And they did. And they pulled out solo repertoire to work on in master class. Sophie dug into the Mozart G Major Violin Concerto, and Noah pulled out the Bloch Suite Hebraique Romanza. They learned their chamber music and orchestra parts well and worked hard. They enjoyed the week a lot. Maybe not enough to continue working on their own throughout the year, but it was valuable for them to see that they could still use their music, and still take up active study where they'd left off and make progress.

The faculty were mostly people we knew from past years. Favourite people of ours. More of that family reunion feeling. We hung out at the faculty lounge, and Erin joined us after work for Happy Hour. One night we went star-gazing with Erin and Noah's former teachers from Calgary. Just what we needed: an even later night than usual. But it was totally worth it, and very memorable.

Erin joined in the orchestra at the Faculty Concert, and played concertmaster in the Faculty Orchestra at tutti night. The evening activities were at least available to her. She was working long days at the café, where things were the busiest they'd been all summer by a long shot, thanks to all the business generated by SVI.

Noah's quartet did a great job of a couple of movements of the Tchaikowsky Quartet No. 1, and also an arrangement of Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. Sophie was in a quintet playing Mozart K. 516 quintet in B-flat. Fiona took up viola to play the Mozart K. 157 quartet in C Major. The senior orchestra managed the Holst St. Paul's Suite. And the senior repertoire class of violins and violas did a Michael MacLean Tango.

Together with the new artistic director and the other local co-organizer, I felt pretty good about the whole endeavour. I learned some things about scheduling, and communication, and about the need for delegation. My mom arrived before the last day and seemed pretty pleased to see that the whole thing had proceeded fairly smoothly and that people seemed happy.

So yeah, there will be a tenth year. We're thinking ahead already.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Theatre camp

Sophie had been doing occasional dance classes at school all year with the high schoolers. It was an experience Fiona was really pining for, but she was too young. So when the same teacher was offering two weeks of intensive dance camp, one for teens and one for her age group, Fiona was the first to sign up. Sophie was interested in the teen camp, so when her work schedule turned out to fit fine with dance she signed up as well.

Because Fiona was all signed up for dance, she opted not to do theatre camp. Instead, she spent that week, while Sophie was immersed in Dance, helping out at Music Explorers. The following week would be dance camp for Fiona.

Except that there wasn't enough enrolment, and it got cancelled at the last minute.

So. Sigh. She'd already given theatre camp a miss because she was planning to do dance camp. It didn't seem fair.

Then the drama instructors, who were running drama camp in a nearby community the following week, offered to drive her there and back every day. The program there was small; Fiona would be a very welcome addition.

So at the last minute we signed her up. Every morning we'd meet Mat and Jess at the café in town and they'd scoop Fiona up and take her for the day. She ended up with a fabulous group of kids and the chemistry and work ethic were really positive, somewhat in contrast with how they had panned out the previous week in our town. So it was a blessing in disguise.

Along with a variety of theatre exercises and games, they spent the week creating a play from scratch. The instructors had the kids create their own characters, contribute to creating the plot and write one or two of the scenes.

Part 1 


 Part 2 


Ghost town docent

This is a plum area for a teen to find summer employment. With such a small population, and a large summer influx of vacationers, there are plenty of jobs for students. For many teens all it takes is a bit of word-of-mouth expression of interest, and some employer will call them up and offer work.

Noah tends to be a bit of a content homebody, introverted and with few material ambitions, so it took until this summer for him to really want a job. He eventually decided (with a bit of nudging, I confess) that he was interested in The Sandon Job. Sandon is a ghost town near here; it experienced a huge silver mining boom in the 1890s, and is what really opened our whole area up to European exploration and settlement. The town was mostly destroyed by fires and then by a massive flood in the 1950s but a couple of tumbledown buildings have seem some restoration and a few survived the various disasters and been kept up by private interests. There's a Historical Society that runs a small museum and keeps archives and artifacts. The museum is open during the summer, and typically receives a grant to assist with hiring a student. The job is about 30 hours a week and pays fairly generously. The student is expected to help the adult employees with whatever work is necessary, from cleaning the outhouse (not the pit! just the outhouse!) to greeting visitors and various other types of clerical and cleaning work.

Unlike most of the word-of-mouth service industry hiring around here, this position, being filled by a non-profit society and funded by a grant, has considerably more administrative procedure behind it. They advertised for applicants. Noah submitted a cover letter and a CV. He followed up personally to make it clear that his interest was genuine. He corresponded with the Society president, and then spoke on the phone with the person in charge of hiring. There was then a proper interview (albeit held in the casual circumstances of a local café), and a waiting period while other candidates were interviewed. Finally he got the phone call offering him the job, and there was another meeting to discuss the details. All of which was really terrific for Noah, I think. He has the people skills necessary to present himself well, but he's always uncomfortable with new situations and unfamiliar expectations. Now he's done the whole job-search thing once, and successfully. That will give him confidence with the process if and when he has to cope with a more typical job market in another location.

So he puts in four or five full days at the museum every week. He works with one or another of the two main adult employees. They are as different as night and day in some respects, and they don't like each other much. They never work together; Noah is the primary interface between them -- a potentially awkward position to be in. His diplomacy and adaptability has amazed me. I've seen it in his peer relationships, but to see him confidently navigating the social demands of these adult-co-worker relationships is really awesome. I won't share details for reasons of privacy, but there are some considerable interpersonal challenges involved in all this. But ... well, some of Noah's comments about those challenges have made it clear to me what a charitable, empathic and honourable person he is. It's enough to make me a bit weepy-proud just thinking about it.

I know that Noah has a tendency to be quiet and self-conscious. I wondered how awkward and avoidant he would be with museum visitors. I wasn't sure how he was coping. When he was exploring the possibility of applying for the job I admit I underplayed the public relations aspect of it, knowing it would make him anxious and possibly turn him off applying altogether. He does not really want me visiting the museum while he's working, and I've respected that, but it's left me curious about his work persona. Was he very reserved? Was he busying himself with cleaning and administrative work to avoid having to talk to strangers? I knew his adult coworkers were enjoying working with him and had nothing but good to say, but still, I wondered.

Then I met some visitors to the area at Sophie's Dance Camp. They had been out to Sandon the day before, they said, and had met my son. "What an amazing tour guide he is!" they gushed. "Really?" I said. "That's great to hear, because you know, well, he can be a bit shy." "Shy?!" they said, incredulously. "Not at the museum! No way. Not at all! He's so knowledgeable and personable." I'd love to be a fly on the wall. And yeah, when I ask Noah about it, it's clear he's amiably greeting visitors and doing a ton of the actual guiding and talking -- and is pleased that he's doing well at this. It's been the perfect summer experience for him.

Plus he's making lots of money, which he tends to forget about; he periodically remembers the paycheque thing with surprise and delight. He's thinking of buying an iPhone (outright: no cell plan, at least for now), and a gaming console, and funding a trip to Edmonton to visit friends and attend a music festival.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Music Explorers

Fiona has that gene, the one that instinctively attracts her to young children. How tragic that she's the one of my children with no younger siblings. However, she makes up for it when she's out and about: she gravitates to young kids, and they gravitate to her. She's done a little bit of mother's helpful type babysitting (supervising kids while their mother is busy doing something else in the vicinity), and she's been asking for opportunities to volunteer with the preschool set for a while.

This week in our community there is an introductory music program called Music Explorers for children 3-6. It's like a music-focused kindergarten, in the true kinder garten sense: a warm, developmentally appropriate place for play and exploration and creativity with time outdoors in the garden and beyond. Fiona offered to come in for a show and tell with her violin, and the instructors were thrilled. They also suggested that she might be interested in coming earlier in the week to enjoy a walk led by a bird call expert, and to provide an extra pair of eyes and hands to help with supervision of the children on the walk. She thought that sounded lovely.

One of the instructors hasn't been well, so Fiona's small contribution to the week has ended up being much larger. Along with an older teen friend she's now attending the whole program as a helper, and the presence of these two older girls is enabling the secondary teacher to manage as the sole teacher for a portion of the morning. They move furniture, prepare snacks, put away equipment, interact with the children, help with the group singing and rhythm activities and help with supervision.

Today was the day for show & tell on the violin. Fiona talked a bit about her violin learning, and about how the violin works, and then played "Sing a Song of Sixpence," which the kids had been singing each day, for them to sing along. She played a duet with a cellist friend. And then she managed a long line of eager kids as they each took a turn of their own with a tenth-sized violin she had brought along for the purpose.

She and I had talked in advance about how to manage this. We knew she would only have a minute or so with each child to avoid the others getting frustrated with waiting their turn, so I suggested not worrying about bow-holds at all and simply allowing them to grab the frog of the bow any which-way. Instead she should focus on good violin position, keeping the instrument safe, and then let them make a few open string sounds.

And she did brilliantly! She set up their posture nicely, and they co-operated so well with her. She also managed the line well, keeping each child's turn to just the right length and reminding those waiting that their turns were coming very soon. They were thrilled to be able to hold and scrub a bit on a real violin, and they loved that it was another kid who was showing them. I don't think an experienced Suzuki teacher could have done any better with one-minute mini-lessons for a pile of young children.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fiona's "Grade 4" year

When the kids were younger, our natural homeschooling year was kind of upside-down. Winter would see us spending a lot of down-time in front of the fire, energy and creativity at a bit of an ebb. Once the longer days and warm weather began in spring, learning would explode. The summer fun of outdoor activities, community special events and music workshops would propel things forward. In fall any scheduled activities would start anew and there would be lots of enthusiasm, all of which would end in a big crescendo leading into holiday celebrations, performances, crafting and gift-giving. After that a couple of months of fallow time felt natural and healthy.

We also didn't really have a difference between weekdays and weekends. We were as likely to take a "nothing day" to just stay home and chill on a Wednesday as on a Saturday, and a history of Canada book was as likely to get pulled out on a Sunday evening as a Monday morning.

Once we started adding school to the mix, though, we kind of fell into a more traditional school year. This year Fiona's homeschooling has been even more strongly ruled by the school calendar than in the past since she opted to do a course at school and had both her live-at-home siblings in school full time.

She wanted to do a fair amount of bookwork, but she decided she would only do it on weekdays, and only until school let out in June. Sounds a lot like school-at-home, doesn't it? So be it: that's what she wanted. She started out with some tentative plans to do some handwriting workbooks, some curricular novel studies, to graze through a math enrichment book (Challenge Math) and to dabble in a bit more of the TOPS chemistry program. She also wanted to continue with gymnastics and to participate in homeschool art classes, to take Spanish in the classroom at school, and to continue with the Law and Government workshops in Nelson. She also decided to continue on with violin lessons even though that meant studying with her mother as her teacher -- definitely not her preferred structure, but the only option for continuing formal study at this point. We wrote all this down as a plan for our DL program so that we could revisit it, regalvanize our efforts and/or amend the plan as needed.

So how did it all play out?

The handwriting books arrived in the mail today. Long story, three complicated chapters with one long intermission. So that didn't happen, not yet anyway. TOPS chemistry .... well, she did a bit early in the fall, but then she seemed to not want that structure, and science just meandered off on serendipitous tangents according to whatever experiences and interests came her way -- volcanos, DNA, natural history, astronomy, all very loose and led by whims. No textbooks, no output, no plan, whatever goes. During the fall her interest in math bookwork seemed to have pretty much fizzled. I don't think she did anything much until the end of November when, at the back of the classroom where her art classes are held she encountered the school's Grade 8 textbook and fell in love. We borrowed a copy and she continued to really enjoyed it, finishing the whole course by the beginning of May. She even chose to write the same final exam the schoolkids wrote, albeit in the comfort of her own home (she's finishing it up as I write this post). The curricular novel studies? She did one, enjoyed it because it was something new, did another and wasn't feeling the love any more, so that was the end of that.

Law and Government was awesome, finishing with a great moot court experience. Gymnastics has been great; she was asked to move up to the most advanced recreational class for her age and we had to ask the Corazoners for some concessions on their transportation to make the schedule work, but it was definitely worth it as she's much more challenged. Spanish worked out as a second-semester course and she roundly enjoyed it, fitting in well and even taking on a natural leadership role with the older kids in group project work.

Violin has been not entirely successful. When she studied with an "outside teacher" the implicit expectation by that teacher (even if it was "just" her grandmother)  of regular practicing was enough to ensure that she did her half hour of practicing most days. She also tends to be socially motivated by things that family members are busy with, and this year neither Noah nor Sophie have teachers (they're well beyond a level that I or other teachers in the area could teach at) so she hasn't had that family momentum to get caught up in. And she suffered the fate that all the other local students suffered: a shared master class of 90 minutes didn't offer them nearly enough individualized guidance to progress optimally. So she's struggled with motivation, and has practiced rather minimally -- briefly two to four times a week on average. We've managed to recruit a teacher to the area for next year and she's decided there's enough chance that that will help that she's willing to carry on through the summer. She's also looking forward to SVI of course, and will get a chance to do some chamber music there.

So that's it for the planned stuff. There's been a lot of pretty great unplanned learning ... the Vi Hart videos, the snorkelling in Hawaii, the XC skiing, the fascination with maps and globes, the conversations, podcasts, documentaries, encounters with interesting people, books read, computer games played, TV shows inhaled, community events, family expeditions, friendships, performances and volunteer activities.

She did have a low point in late winter where she began talking about going to school next fall to fix whatever she was seeing as the problem. There was some social stuff behind it I think -- perhaps she had been slightly excluded at a social function by the clique of girls who dominate the class she would be in at school. I was in the process of setting up a trial week for her at school when the ground shifted again and she told me not to bother. She spent a morning with the Grade 4/5/6 group at a theatre workshop and found herself very frustrated by the time and energy that had to be spend on behaviour management. "Not worth it for me, at all," was Fiona's verdict. For what it's worth, I think the teacher is amazing, she's one of my best friends, and most years her classroom would be a lovely place to spend some time. This particular group of kids, though... well, things are a little over the top, even for her.

After that brief flirt with the idea of school Fiona's spring energy kicked in, and ever since she has seemed really happy with what she's doing and where she's at. She has loved the independence she's had this year during my teaching time, taking on some volunteer work, some small bits of paid housekeeping at an apartment, a bit of mother's-helper type babysitting, she likes the crazy fun drives to Nelson with all those teenagers, her friendships with various older and younger kids, the travelling we've done and the "chill" time she gets at home. For most of the year there's been little structured learning other than the math two or three times a week,  and the Spanish class, but there has been lots of other stuff and she's curious and creative and full of enthusiasm.

Winters, especially late winters, are always hard here. Perhaps if we plan ways to cope with that nadir ahead of time next year we won't suffer for it.

And so ... onwards into summer and beyond.

Another year of school

Rose and the Doctor at school on Fictional Character Day
Classes have ended at the local high school. Sophie and Noah are in the midst of exams. This represents the completion of Sophie's second and Noah's first year of full-time school. They've also just completed course selection for next year. It feels like a suitable time to reflect and look ahead.

It's a tiny high school and it seems to be getting tinier all the time. There are some compromises that are inevitable, but of course there are some tremendous advantages. Chief among the advantages is the fact that at a school this size each student becomes the co-author of an unofficial Individualized Education Plan. The teachers know the students very well indeed. The teachers are few enough in number (five!) that they communicate and co-operate extensively and naturally so that they can each get a holistic view  of the student and his or her interaction with the courses. At a school of this size no one ever says "we can't make an exception for just one student!" It is a school made up of exceptions. And so my kids have found it a comfortable place to be.

Despite Noah's incredibly strong written English abilities (he scored perfect marks on all three of his final English essays and his History 12 teacher thinks he's amazing), his jaw-dropping musicality on viola and his deep affinity for choral music and Corazón, he seems to be leaning towards sciences at this point. He took both Biology 11 and 12 this year, and Pre-Calc 11, and seems to have done very well. Next year will be his senior year and he'll fill in the rest of his pre-university science roster, as well as taking a Programming 12 course. I hope he'll continue to be happy at school next year: a lot of the social interest and challenge this year came from sharing classes with five fairly academically-minded Grade 12 students. But they're done now, and at this point there are no other students in 11th grade planning post-secondary studies.

Sophie is still registered in her age-grade, but this year ended up in accelerated courses for pretty much all her academics. The level of challenge is a better fit for her, especially in English (she was already ahead for math and science) and she is looking forward to sinking her teeth into more specialized sciences next year. She too is more interested in sciences than anything else. Because they held her actual declared grade level back in keeping with her age, she has three more years of high school, which is a lot of time to fill. We'll have to see how that plays out as she gets older.

Next year will bring a further evolution of the high school program. Students will get very little traditional classroom time. Each month will include the option for one week to be spent in non-traditional "immersion electives," most of which are out of the classroom, focused on things like agriculture, back-country survival skills, sports, ethnobotany and a variety of other possibilities. Students who choose not to do a particular immersion elective will be in school but with fewer teachers about. They'll have tutorial time on Mondays, where they meet with a teacher one-on-one to keep tabs on their goals, planning and progress through various courses. They'll get one or possibly two "seminar" classes per core course each week, where they will explore that subject in a multi-grade group-based manner -- possibly with some direct teaching, by doing labs or a group project or exploring ideas through discussion. And for the non-core courses, and for all the rest of the learning in those core classes, they'll be doing self-directed study. A lot of the content comes from textbooks, but increasingly many of the courses are based on-line.

During non-elective weeks, the schedule will be similar, but with a little more classroom/seminar time. So there's almost none of the traditional "sit in your desk with your age-mates and be taught by a teacher" stuff left by next year. The school has been experimenting with non-traditional learning for a long time, but it feels like this is the tipping point. Essentially traditional classroom-based learning is gone.

I like the model. The electives capitalize on the passions and expertise of the teaching staff and on the unique things our valley has to offer by virtue of its environment. The in-school model of seminars and self-directed course-work seems like an efficient way to use 5 teachers (most of them part-time) to administer over thirty different courses to fewer than forty different students. It also allows highly capable students to theoretically move ahead quickly and in their own directions. I say theoretically, because they will also need the motivation, the work ethic and the organizational skills to make that happen. I think my kids, because they've been self-directing and self-structuring throughout their lives, will probably do just fine. Certainly Erin did well with a very self-directed model through this school, and Noah has managed pretty well this year with his self-paced math course. Sophie is diligent and organized and I think she'll make it work.

But I'm not sure it's going to work for a lot of kids. Will a brief weekly tutorial with a teacher be enough to ensure that they actually do that self-directed work throughout the week? Even the Grade 7 and 8 kids will be part of this model to a significant extent. I hope there's a good safety net to catch the kids for whom the personal responsibility for self-direction is too much too soon.

And I'm not sure how it might play out for Fiona. She had thought of doing Math 9 at school next year for the collegiality of being in classroom with fellow students. But if "doing math at school" consists of a weekly multi-grade seminar and a lot of self-study, is that enough of what she wants to warrant having to abide by the school's time-line, the testing and grading, the constraints on her out-of-school activities? We'll be thinking and talking about that.

At any rate, the year seems to have been very successful for both kids, and they're happy with where they're at. With the two of them there full-time I kept expecting to feel some wistfulness about the end of their homeschooled educations. But it hasn't felt like that at all, and it didn't with Erin either. That's because I've never really thought of homeschooling and schooling as being two competing choices for us. They're just two possible equally leitimate answers to the questions we've always asked the kids and let them have full autonomy over: how much structure do you want for your learning, and how and where do you want to get it?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Delica

Remember way back in 2008 when I was driving Erin and Noah to Calgary once a month for lessons, and was pining for a Mitsubishi Delica? It would hold our family and instruments and groceries, and would transport the Corazon choir kids, and would get up and down our driveway, and be reliable on our mountain roads during the winter. At the time, Chuck talked me down. We needed a reliable vehicle that could be serviced locally, not an ancient Japanese monster that no one had a clue what to do with.

So what changed? Well, we eked four and a half more years out of the Sienna and although I'm still driving seven kids to Nelson once a week, we're within spitting distance of no longer needing all that passenger space. Two of those teens are graduating and moving away, which brings us down to 5 passengers and a driver, and in a year and a half Noah will likely move on too. So we still need a minivan, but only for another year or two.

The other thing that changed is that there's now a service station in Nelson that is specializing in working on these things.

I wrestled with the fuel economy issue. I feel no end of guilt over the fuel we burn for transportation. While living rurally allows us to cut our carbon footprint in several important areas, transportation is definitively not one of them. Part of me really wanted to hold out for a hybrid Toyota Highlander. But we had to buy Erin a violin this year, and a Highlander would have meant making a big long-term (financed) investment. Would we be kicking ourselves in a couple of years, making payments an expensive near-new Highlander when our passenger needs had diminished to Prius proportions?

And really ... by owning a minivan we are saving the need for a second vehicle to drive all those kids to Nelson every week. Our minivan is certainly not burning as much fuel as would be required to get two smaller Kootenay-winter-worthy vehicles to Nelson and back.

Besides, the Delica gets remarkably good mileage for a 4WD vehicle. It's almost as good as the Sienna 2WD which is right near the top for 7+ passenger vehicle fuel economy. No, it's not a Prius, not a Leaf. But those aren't realistic for us right now.

We've owned the Delica for a little more than a month now. No nasty surprises so far from a mechanical standpoint. Driving it has taken a bit of getting used to. Mostly for the high, truck-like feel. The right-hand drive was surprisingly no big deal. The kids absolutely love it: the modular seating and sun roof makes for a sociable living-room feel in the passenger seats and the rides back and forth to Nelson are quite lovely.

Bokashi experience so far

Last fall we started using a bokashi waste system. All food waste, including meat, bones, dairy and small amounts of oil and fat, went into a plastic 5-gallon bucket with a lid, combined with sprinkles of a microbial starter. We used a potato masher to pack down the waste as it accumulated, creating a fairly anaerobic environment. Once a bucket was packed full, we sealed it off from ambient oxygen and left it for at least a couple of weeks and started a new bucket.

After 2-4 weeks, the bokashi fermentation would be complete, Todd the Bokashi Guy told us. We took him at his word, but having seen the stuff coming out of the community bins at last fall's Harvest Festival it was hard to believe that much had actually happened. The food looked almost the same as when it had gone into the bucket. It smelled worse, to be sure -- a combination of vinegar and vomit, maybe? -- but the colour and structure was pretty much preserved.

Really, Todd? I thought. Well, let's work on the assumption that you're right. We'll assume that some sort of invisible process has occurred, and this stuff is really mostly digested like you say, appearances to the contrary. If you're right it'll turn into fully finished compost in days rather than weeks once we get it into the garden.

So all winter we fermented our food waste. When all three buckets filled we emptied the oldest of them in the compost area beside the garden to await spring. We piled on some dried leaves, and hoped beyond hope that once the pile warmed up in the spring we wouldn't end up with a party of bears and cougars feasting off a massive yummy pile of table-scrap soup.

And so now the weather is warm. And the verdict?

Todd was right!

Today I took the fork out and probed through the heap which has received a total of about forty gallons of food waste over the past seven months. The two most recent five-gallon additions to this pile were 4 weeks ago and 3 days (yes, days!) ago. I haven't done much mixing other than piling on some leaves, so I expected to see Monday's food sitting right below the top layer of leaves in all its colourful slimy glory. But no: there is an occasional recognizable bit of citrus fruit rind from the most recent addition, but other than that the pile is black gold.

And ... this has been our best spring in recent memory when it comes to bears. As far as I know we haven't had a single ursine creature lingering on our property. The dog agrees.

So yeah, bokashi for the win, I say!

Monday, May 06, 2013

40th Anniversary SSSG Trip

This year was the 40th anniversary of the Suzuki program I grew up in. The program back "home," in Ontario, a place I left in 1981, where none of us lived for a while but where my sister and my mom now live again. A few months ago I had been warned that I was expected to attend the celebration at the end of April. As one who tends not to do a good job of maintaining old relationships, I tend to balk at the prospect of school and college reunions. I live more in the here and now. I'm not much of one for nostalgia. But this was different. I wanted to go. 

Fiona, my sister and me puzzling over quartet music
My brothers were both coming. So were the kids who were part of the chamber group I grew up with. Unlike my friends in high school, my relationships with these kids had been an authentic part of who I was then ... a part that had stayed with me even through the years of no contact. Now we were all pushing 50. Wow.

Erin was still in exams in Montreal. Noah and Sophie were off on tour with their choir during the week that overlapped with the beginning of the anniversary celebration. So Fiona and I decided to go just the two of us, leaving Chuck to work and to be the parent after Sophie and Noah returned. We would attend the gala weekend, then drive up to Montreal after Erin's last exam was over and use our rental vehicle to help Erin move from the "mansion" where she's lived the past two years to a tiny bachelor apartment in the student ghetto. And then the three of us would fly home together.

The weekend was amazing, from the family time with siblings and raucous restaurant meals to the gala catered dinner, the alumni performance I was part of to the final performance that involved alumni, alumni offspring (i.e. Fiona) and all current students playing together at the big new (to me) performing arts centre.

Me, my two brothers, Fiona, my mom and my sister at the banquet

Afterwards there was more family time, and we spent time at my mom's jamming with some string quartets. Fiona even got to play along for a movement with the big people.

Backstage at the performing arts centre with a veritable flock of Bach Double-ists
And then -- what were we thinking?! -- we drove through Toronto and all the way out past Ottawa to Montreal. We cleaned the heck out of Erin's old place, packed her stuff, drove through traffic-and-construction-clogged downtown Montreal back and forth and back and forth and back and forth with our little compact car, delivering boxes and piles of things. And cleaned more, and slept on the floor, again. And cleaned more and drove more through downtown. And then bashed our way back through rush hours in Canada's two largest cities once more a day and a half after driving east. We escaped without any real mishaps and miraculously no parking tickets. 

We arrived home very tired, two of us with crashing head colds, but delighted to have been able to attend. Reconnecting with family and friends was amazing. Fiona was a wonderful travelling companion; she put up with everything happily and loved meeting everyone, whether she knew who they were or not. And it was lovely to see where Erin is ensconced in Montreal. 

Most of the living room floor at Erin's new place. Did I mention it is small?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Math cat

Though still essentially an out-and-out unschooler, Fiona has been taking Introductory Spanish at the local school this semester. Nominally she's in Grade 4 and the requirement for second-language learning doesn't kick in until Grade 5 within the DL program we're part of. But she was interested in doing something like this. When we first raised the possibility last fall, our DL liaison teacher who happens to also teach Spanish and Math at the local school looked at the schedule for us and we were disappointed: Spanish was scheduled for Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tuesdays conflicted with Fiona's gymnastics, and Wednesdays with her violin master class. So we set Spanish aside in the hope that it might work out for next year.

Then the high school schedule got shuffled, and Spanish ended up on Mondays and Fridays during Semester 2. This worked out perfectly: these are Fiona's two completely empty days. Although the course is intended for students in Grades 7 through 12 (with the bulk being Grades 7 & 8, as it's an introductory course), the teacher knows her well and was happy to welcome her. Our current principal is generally quite opposed to grade-skipping, but there is a policy that DL students can be welcomed into any class with the approval of the teacher. We had that approval, and since Spanish isn't offered to younger grades no one could really ask "why wasn't she placed with her age-mates?"

She's doing well in the course. Her test and assignment marks have been great, and she's fitting in very well, participating well in class and, more amazingly still, taking on leadership roles in group projects. She loves all the trappings of school: the binder she takes, the supplies that tuck into it, the schedule of three hours a week that she needs to be there, the deadlines for assignments, the studying for tests. It's been a fabulous introduction to school for her.

She would like to attend school a bit more next year. The obvious course to add would be math, since it's the one subject in which she has been following the school's curriculum. The wrinkle is that she's four years ahead age-wise. But Spanish has given her a chance to show that she fits in socially with those kids and can handle the organizational expectations of a high-school style course.

Yesterday she was doing some algebra at home from the end of the Grade 8 workbook. It had snowed outside. The wood stove had a nice hot burn going and the living room was cozy and warm. Fiona was sitting on the sofa with a London Fog in a mug in front of her. The cat was curled up beside her being cute and loving.

Fiona decided that math should always be done this way. "Everyone should have a math cat," she said. "This will be one of my Terms & Conditions for doing math at school next year." We envisioned the scenario:

Teacher: "Okay, everyone open your books to Unit 6.2. I would like you to do the odd-numbered practice problems on page 142 and 143. Can someone help me with this box? Thanks. You can come and get your cats now."

The teacher and a student yank the lid off large Rubbermaid container. The nineteen cats inside begin to stir.

Teacher: "One cat only per student, please.... "