Wednesday, December 29, 2004

End of year thoughts

The end of a calendar year is always a time for me to reflect, reassess and think ahead. Some thoughts about where we're at and where we're heading.

Erin (10) has agreed to start working at formal math again, after a break of almost a year. She's been browsing through Singapore's NMC 1 with interest, and I have Geometer's Sketchpad software at the ready for her for where it intersects with the NMC curriculum. She continues to dabble in lots of academic areas informally, so aside from trying to prod her forth to fill in some of the holes in her music theory knowledge, I'm going to leave her to her own devices. She continues to read and write lots of fiction, is reading "Cartoon History of the Universe", is doing some musical composing, dabbling in Latin, and all sorts of gratifyingly academic things. And after almost 11 long years, she's becoming an easier kid to parent. Ahhhhh.....

Noah (8) has had a tough fall. His confidence has really sunk ... partly because of being in the shadow of his precocious-and-petite sisters, and partly because his perfectionism gets in the way of giving things a good try. We've backed way off in his areas of more formal study, setting aside new Suzuki viola repertoire (he's at the end of Book 3), Singapore Math 3A and Royal Conservatory Grade 1&2 piano. We are working on 'enrichment' stuff at an easier level. My first inclination when he hit this bump was to work co-operatively with him to find solutions, but I gradually discovered that he was interpreting that as "mom doesn't know how to get me past this either." For now he needs to catch a ride on my confidence, so I'm taking the lead, telling him I know he'll get past it, and here's how. We're structuring three short snippets of one-on-one learning time together every day (one for viola, one for piano and one for math games or reading to each other) and so far he's enjoying what we're doing and seems much more optimistic.

Sophie (newly 6) has taken a big leap on violin in the past couple of months and is asking (again, and persistently) for piano lessons. That may be her new foray for the New Year; we'll be talking to our piano teacher about that possibility next week. She'll probably continue eagerly but slowly devouring Singapore PM 2.

Fiona (23 months) is singing a couple of dozen Suzuki violin tunes beautifully on pitch. She counts aloud to 11, counts objects to 4, recognizes a few letters and has been out of diapers for almost a year now. Her new learning materials for the New Year are some washable felt-tip pens, a huge spiral notebook of blank paper and a tub of playdough. And (no kidding) ice skates.

Other family forays include our outdoor skating rink, our continued reading aloud of "the Story of Canada" and watching the documentary series "Canada: A People's History", lots of painting with acrylics and watercolours, and our efforts to get the GRUBS enviro/gardening club really off the ground.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Screen time

There's a discussion on an e-mail list I'm a member of about screen time and I got thinking about this again.

We don't really watch TV, though we have satellite service for dh so he can watch the news or occasional sports game. We get no local reception and there's no cable here, so this is the only way for him to watch the news. He watches maybe 4 or 5 hours a week. I'm just as happy getting my news on the radio or internet. We've tended not to buy newspapers because the kids read them.

Anyway, for whatever reason the kids have just never gravitated to TV, and I've never turned it on for them. We have an understanding that they can watch something if they have planned in advance what they want to watch, but they're so bad at planning and transitions that they just never get it together to work out what they want to watch and turn the TV on. I wanted to avoid the habit of turning the TV on because they can't think of anything to do. If they really want to watch something in particular, they're always welcome to. But they don't.

I have fretted a little over the computer use around here. The kids have gone through phases of playing computer a lot. We have a bench in front of the computer that seats three, so they usually play games socially, and the games we have are pretty much all things I have helped select or approve of at any rate. So I'm comfortable with what they play and how they play at the computer, but I haven't always been comfortable with how much they play.

Lately, though, I see all of them using the computer much more as a tool, and less as [albeit educational] entertainment. They're writing, sending e-mail letters, creating lists, editing photos for printing for journals, and so on. Last night Noah started a book report! Don't know what got into him, but there you are. So I'm feeling better about the role the computer is playing in our house.

We have weekly family meetings where, among other things, we discuss how the issue of screen-time has played out over the previous week, just to keep the kids aware that their choices about how much time they spend in front of a video screen are matters of physical and intellectual health. I don't seem to have to make any pronouncements or judgements, or set any limits; just asking "How are we doing with screen time this week?" is enough to keep them aware of the necessity of creating some balance in their lives.

So that's our family's path so far. No limits on quantity, just some structural things that hopefully encourage better-quality choices. And of course plenty of enticing alternatives to screen time. Mostly I'm happy with the balance.

Monday, November 01, 2004

A Little Structure to our Learning

As I continue to travel this path the distinction between unschooler and non-unschooler seems less important.

A couple of months ago we decided to try subscribing to an on-line DVD rental service. Netflix and Mentura have been running in the US for quite a while, but in Canada these services are only just becoming viable. We signed up with, knowing that the shipping time would be fairly slow to our far-flung rural part of the country, but figuring it might be worth it anyway because we have no local rental place anyway.

For those not familiar with these services, basically you create a 'queue', a wishlist of videos you'd like to see, from the immense on-line library. For a monthly fee you are entitled to have 4 (or some specific number) videos signed out at any time. They send you whatever is at the top of your queue that is available on the day of shipment. They arrive at your home and you are free to keep them as long as you wish. You send them back in the postage-prepaid mailers when you're ready to. As soon as they receive one of your four back, they send you another one from your queue.

We're really pleased with the selection ... it's immense. And the transit time has been a little better on average than we expected. We're getting two or three videos a week.

Now, we're not much of a TV family, so this is a fair bit more TV time than we're used to. But still not much compared to the North American average ... maybe an hour a day, or a little less. We're watching about 50% documentaries, and another 25% are dramatizations of books we've read. I think that educationally speaking I'm comfortable with the role the TV is playing in our family.

About the structure. I discovered that had the entire 12-episode video documentary "Canada: A People's History". So I said to the kids "Well, you guys are enjoying our Zip membership, but it's important to me that we can justify the expense for more than entertainment. So I want to make sure that at least some of what we're watching is helping you learn stuff. How would you feel about ordering the Canadian history documentary series one episode at a time, and at the same time, reading our way through "The Story of Canada" [a wonderful 300-page hardcover overview of Canadian history that we own but have never read systematically]?"

They said "yeah, okay, sure."

And so every couple of days we sit down together and I read 10 or so pages aloud from this history book. And once a week or so, we watch another episode of this wonderful video documentary series. No one's complaining. No one's rolling their eyes. They're listening and watching with interest. So far so good.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Our Moose is Home!

Seventeen months ago we said goodbye to Musette Moose. She's a poseable stuffed moose. I sewed her a little polarfleece vest with a maple leaf on it, attached a Canadian lapel pin, put together a little suitcase containing a tiny violin and a blank spiral-bound journal, and mailed her to some friends of ours in the Yukon, in Canada's far north. Since then she has spent time with about a dozen other families around the world. The families are all involved in Suzuki music, and many are homeschoolers. They took such good care of her! They filled her suitcase with keyfobs and lapel pins, with miniature souvenirs and with hand-made garments representing their corner of the world, and they filled her journal with scores of photos, stories and description. She arrived back yesterday, having successfully circumnavigated the globe.

We have photos of Musette at the St. Louis Arch and struttin' along the banks of the Mississippi River. Musette in the streets of San Salvador. Musette at Geysir in Iceland. Musette at Edinburgh Castle. At Buckingham Palace. In front of the Washington Monument. In front of the Coliseum in Rome. Visiting with a kangaroo in Australia. Under the midnight sun in Alaska. Pictured in a newspaper article in New Zealand.

What an amazing project this has been!

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Just a Day in the Life

I got up at 7:30, Chuck shortly after. Noah (8) was next up at about 8:45, followed by Fiona (21 months). I worked on the computer for a while, with my coffee. I'm still trying to get my new 'puter tweaked and all set up with my favourite software and all my restored files. Noah played Neopets for a few minutes but then opted for Playmobil in the loft. Fiona followed.

At 10:00 I got Erin (10) and Sophie (5) up. They stay up very late reading, and are always last out of bed. If I don't get them up they will sleep later and later each day, staying up later and later at night, so I make sure I have them up by 10 am or our ability to do things as a family really starts getting hampered by the unmeshed schedules.

At 10:30 we went to violin lessons. Sophie was first. She's working on Gossec Gavotte at the end of Suzuki Book 1 and everything is finally clicking. It was a very exciting lesson for both her and her violin teacher. Erin was next. Erin is practising very little lately; her enthusiasm is for piano. Yet despite having spent little time on her violin in the past week, she'd clearly done some good thoughtful work, because her Bach a minor last movement was much better! Noah is struggling lately. His teacher (my mom), he and I had a bit of a talk about how we can work best around his perfectionistic tendencies. He did some work on the Suzuki viola book 3 piece he's polishing up for performance at group class. He was given a bit of a nudge to get busy learning his next piece, because he's more than ready for it and just has to get down to the note-learning.

We got home at about 12:30. We ate lunch, fed & watered the chickens, collected the eggs, and did a bit of work on the Hallowe'en costumes. (Almost done! Fiona is Little Red Riding Hood while Erin is The Big Bad Wolf Dressed Up as RRH's Granny. Sophie is an owl. Noah is Anubis, the ancient Egyptian jackal god.) We went outside and did some garden work. Erin and Sophie planted flower bulbs. I planted garlic. We took down the plastic greenhouse, discovering to our surprise that there were three just-ripened tomatoes beneath it, despite the frozen ground elsewhere. Sophie and I pulled some carrots and jerusalem artichoke. We raked some leaves.

We came inside. I started pizza dough. We watched the first two hour-long episodes of "Canada: A People's History" on DVD. We have been reading aloud from "The Story of Canada" so that we get the somewhat same information in two different formats from two different points of view. Before we put it on Erin asked what would be covered in the first episode. I said "probably everything up to Leif the Lucky and his crew -- remember him? She said "well, yeah" (in a kind of a "duh!" voice) and then remarked "I learned about him in school." (She had tried school out for two days last spring.) I asked what else they had been studying. She explained that actually she hadn't learned about him, she'd been there for the end-of-unit test. I asked how she'd done.

"Oh, pretty well," she said, shrugging. "I got perfect, 'cause I was the only one who got the spelling of 'Leif' right." I had to laugh about that. She was the only one who hadn't been taught the material and the only one who got a perfect mark.

We watched the DVD. Noah lost interest partway through and went back to the Playmobil. Fiona napped.

Sophie and Fiona and I made the pizzas. Erin and Noah practised piano.

We had a late supper after Chuck got home. Afterwards we built a bonfire and watched the eclipse. Noah and Sophie had showers. Sophie did four exercises from her new Singapore Math book. Erin wrote some stuff on the computer and played around with Geometers' Sketchpad for a while. I read aloud from "Firewing" by Kenneth Oppel. Noah went to sleep. Erin and Sophie went off to bed with their respective novels and who knows when they fell asleep.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Inviting winter home

Yesterday we could see the snow falling on the mountains above us. The kids were lazy and aimless. I had lots of fussy errands to do and the day was dreary and uninviting. I did some stuff at home, ran to town with the little one, did half of what I had on my list and thought "Snow Day!"

I drove home and picked up the older kids. Told them to grab their new winter boots, their winter jackets and their mittens. I drove up towards the pass. After about 10 minutes of driving we came to a lovely little lake at the saddle of the pass where the trees were cloaked in snow and there was a couple of inches of the fluffy white stuff on the ground. We parked the van and got out.

For an hour we ran around throwing snowballs at each other, building small snowmen, making slushy snow-angles, eating the snow. Then we piled in the van and drove home, the kids cherishing the shrinking snowmen they were holding on their laps. We put the snowmen in the deep freeze, built a fire in the woodstove and drank hot chocolate.

We decided we'll do this every year. The first time winter's in the neighbourhood, we'll go out and meet him and invite him to drop by our place.

Sunday, October 03, 2004


We've lived in our little corner of the province for 10 years and this is the first year we've mushroomed. Back in the 1970's an underground economy sprang up in our area when it was discovered that the pine mushroom, which grows in our region after the first fall rains, was equivalent to the much-prized matsutake mushroom of Japan. People have made as much as $40,000 in 3 weeks in the past. Nowadays there are so many pickers out that profits are much smaller, but it can be lucrative.

Not this year. It was dry for 15 months and then it rained for a month straight. And then the sun came out and the ground warmed up a bit, and the pine mushrooms started popping up by the thousands. Friends of ours went out last week and picked 60 lb. in a single afternoon. This is a mushroom that in a year of scarcity will fetch $50-100/lb for Grade 1 specimens. This year the price is $2-4/lb.

Well, we were given a couple of dozen pounds. They are delicious! They cook up firm with a lovely flavour that's aromatic and almost spicy. And we decided we should go out picking to find some of our own. We had touched and smelled and handled and tasted so many that, when given a few tips by our friends we felt confident that we could find our own and identify them with certainty. We headed out on a long logging-road drive north of the lake and came out at a forestry service campsite area. The kids mostly hung out at the beach playing with rocks, water and sticks, while I went off in the woods and hopped across acres and acres of moss hunting the elusive gourmet mushroom. I found about 10 lbs.

At home we're eating mushrooms like crazy, and dehydrating them like crazy too. I've got a couple of pounds of dried mushrooms (that's a lot... maybe 30 lb. worth!). And tonight I tried out a soup mix I'm concocting ... dehydrated pine mushrooms with spices including wild ginger and dried veggies etc. to make a hot & sour soup. I think it's a go, and we'll send it out as Christmas gifts in ziploc bags.

Our area is just so beautiful at this time of year, I can hardly believe it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Noah's Birthday Bonfire

There's a magic about the dark.

Last night Noah had a birthday celebration. We had daytime and early-evening committments, but he wanted to celebrate his birthday on the day, and in the dark, in part because it was a full moon. So we lit a big bonfire at our place and arrived back here with a swarm of friends just after it got really dark, just before moonrise.

We roasted marshmallows, popped popcorn and cooked bannock-on-a-stick. We doled out a big birthday cake. Every kid had brought a flashlight and they swarmed around the property, through the woods, to the apple and plum tree for (more!) food, played hide-and-seek. Then I went off secretly into the forest and hung a dozen and a half 'light-pens' off the trees. These were inexpensive ball-point pens we'd found at a store a month or so ago. They have three coloured lights in them, and button batteries and a clear plastic shank. When you turn them on you can select one of 7 colours, or a flashing sequence of all 7. They're really bright. They also had lanyards attached. So I "hid" them around the forest, all flashing like fairies, and sent the pack of kids (aged 3-17) in to find one for each of them. The sight of the lights dancing in the woods was amazing!

Then we had various packs of kids running around the property with their coloured lights spinning on lanyards. They decided you could be on a "team" by setting your light to the colour matching that of the other team members. Joining a team was easy -- set your light pen to a different colour. They roamed for a couple of hours like this at least, just being together. We had the telescope out and practically burned our retinas out looking at the bright full moon. It was totally magical. I don't think anyone will forget it for a long time.

And it made realize again that simply being together in the dark creates magic. I remembered the "Shadows in the Forest" game we have, a Waldorf-style board game played with a candle, shadow-casting wooden trees and little gamepiece gnomes. Everyone loves it and we have a fiercely-guarded tradition of saving it for certain special times of the year. This summer on warm nights we used the air mattress and an Itty Bitty Book Light to do our bedtime readalouds under the stars on the lawn. There was an amazing display of northern lights one night, and there were plenty of shooting stars and satellites to be seen. And we just love power failures. Out come the candles and the lantern, we cuddle in front of the wood stove and read aloud or play guessing games, drinking hot chocolate warmed on the stove. And I remembered the nights we skated under the stars on our home-made rink. And the night Erin and I bundled up at 2 am in snowsuits and sleeping bags and watched a meteor shower. And I remembered one of my favourite picture books of all time, Jane Yolen's "Owl Moon", which evokes the dark so beautifully. And the scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy" when the family clusters around the fire in the winter-dark evening each doing their handiwork.

It's so easy to turn the lights off and create magic. The darkness creates a surrounding cloak that draws people together.

We must do more of this.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

On an even keel

Lately Fiona's language has really taken off. "Cheese" is now "chizz", not "zzeee". There are several new words each day. We've lost count. And phrases ... 'happy kids' and 'pee done' and and 'want cookie'. What fun! She's fallen in love with a little doll, and with a harmonica. She is insisting on having picture books read aloud to her.

Today we tried needle-felting and it was a huge hit. Normally when I try out a new skill or craft, the kids (Erin especially) keep their distance. My guess is that they figure I have "ownership" of the activity, so it can no longer be theirs. (This makes it tough to 'strew' and 'model' effectively!) But they were quite intrigued by needle felting, perhaps because I didn't expect them to be. I felted a small beaver tail. Then I added the beaver to match. The kids all helped with the felting. They want to try their own creations tomorrow.

We're back to regular piano lessons. Three days before they started Noah reminded me that early in the summer he told me he didn't want lessons this fall. Oops. That rang a bell; I'd conveniently put it out of my mind. I'd told him that since we'd paid for the music summer school week I expected him to continue with piano until then, and we'd talk later. He cheerfully continued, and kept practising (fairly lightweight stuff, but practising nonetheless) afterwards. But he raised the issue again. Erin was sleeping over at a friend's, and Sophie had a friend over, so Noah and I managed to have a long heart-to-heart at bedtime. It was wonderful. We talked about the joys and benefits and advantages of doing piano, and the challenges and frustrations and difficulties. We did some trouble-shooting and discussed the whole issue of lessons. The upshot was that he decided to continue lessons, but on his terms: no 'testing' or 'scorekeeping' at lessons, and less focus on reading skills. When we attended the first lesson it turned out that his teacher had re-thought her reading approach with him and decided to focus on an intervalaic approach rather than a note-naming approach. Noah was pleased with this; since he's grappling with the alto clef on viola as well as treble and bass clefs on piano, the note-naming was getting even muddier.

He came home with a fair number of assignments, but he's done very well with them; his new piece was easy (mostly rote-learned), his reading work is more to his liking, and his review and technique is getting fluid fast. He's feeling really good about his learning ability on piano.

Erin is amazing me with her piano playing. She's suddenly leapt light-years beyond my own piano ability. The grade 7 & 8 pieces are coming easily to her, even the modern, unpredictable, atonal ones. Her teacher promoted her officially to grade 7 (despite the fact that she only moved to Grade 6 in January) and seems to be fast-tracking her with technique work and theory.

Origami is big around here lately. The kids have discovered (or rediscovered) an Usborne origami book, and they've been teaching themselves and each other out of the book with no adult help. Even Sophie has read her way through the instructions for making a bead, a snapping mouth and a pinwheel. Erin has perfected the star box, and Noah's specialty is the fox.

The Sodaconstructor site has also been big lately. Interestingly the kids have pointed out the geometric similarities to their origami work. The Neopets site has also been getting rather too much play.
All three kids are reading voraciously the past few days, since we began firing up the woodstove on chilly mornings. They grab a quilt and a book, and cozy up on the living room floor in front of the stove. The other afternoon I found Noah and Erin crammed into the wingback chair side by side each with their own novel. Today's choices: Erin - "A Year Down Yonder" by Gregory Peck, Noah - "Moominsummer Madness" by Tove Jansson, Sophie - "The Children of Noisy Village" by Astrid Lindgren.

Noah and Sophie have continued to work occasionally in their math workbooks. Noah is partway through Singapore 3A, Sophie is in the early part of Miquon Blue.

Sophie, Fiona and I harvested some wheat the other day from where the highways department had planted it for erosion control. We've had fun threshing and winnowing on a micro-scale. Winnowing consists of jiggling half a cup of wheat in a plastic cup while blowing into the cup. It's quite spectacularly efficient -- we have to be sure to do this outside because the chaff just flies out of the cup. We shall see if we can grind enough flour for a batch of muffins.

Today we went down to the lake to stake out the site of the future organic gardening children's club. We've got about 2100 sq. ft. marked off. Hopefully the site owners will be okay with where we've situated it.

Our own garden is proving fairly productive. I think I didn't prune back the late tomato blossoms and new growth aggressively enough; the tomatoes are taking months to ripen! So I've done a better job of pinching them back in the past 2 or 3 weeks, and Noah and I built a hoop & clip small-scale greenhouse over the tomato and pepper bed. Things are ripening like crazy in there now, so there are tomatoes, beans, corn, greens and carrots for supper every night, as well as apple crisp for dessert. There's something appealing about eating only "in season" produce from one's own garden. Frost is due soon, though, so this won't last. I'm amazed we haven't had frost yet.

We had our first violin group class of the fall last week and the kids learned to dance a minuet. Noah is being very helpful with the two boys about his age who have just joined the class, having only started lessons last spring. They're nice kids; I'd like to see friendships flourish. We have three more weeks until orchestra starts but Noah has his viola music and is working studiously away at it. Both he and Erin are very keen for the start of orchestra.

Other fall activities haven't really materialized, at least not yet. Art class is delayed a month or two. Gymnastics seems destined not to happen this fall. We haven't really looked into the details for choir yet. I quite like the rhythm of our weeks for now. All our scheduled activities fit between Monday morning and Wednesday noon. Later in the week we get down-time, family time and visits with friends and grandma. Perhaps we should hold steady.

Our readalouds have got stalled a little, because we stumbled upon the two Moomin books we'd only read once at a bookstore last week, and we've had to read those before continuing with our 'in progress' books. We've read "Finn Family Moomintroll" and are almost finished "Moominvalley in November". Noah has nicknamed himself "Thingumy", because he has a good friend named Bob. (Thingumy and Bob are Moomin characters.) The 'in progress' readalouds are "Island of the Blue Dolphins" by Scott O'Dell, "Silverwing" by Kenneth Oppel and "The Lantern Bearers" by Rosemary Sutcliff. The latter has me really intrigued by the historical setting (post-Roman Britain) and I find myself reading through reference materials to fill in my own (appallingly poor) understanding of world history.

Amidst it all we mow the lawn, practice violin/viola/piano, bake bread and cookies, feed the chickens, play games with Fiona, draw, paint, sculpt, attend meetings, lessons and rehearsals, run errands and the like.

It's been a really good couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Digital Blue Days

Last spring the currently-visiting Ontario grandmother gave us some cash in lieu of Christmas and birthday gifts for educational or recreational supplies. We bought a basketball hoop with part of it. A month or so ago a friend gave a great review of the the Digital Blue QX3 microscope. We were really impressed with the images she showed, so we went ahead and ordered our own. It arrived yesterday, while the aforementioned grandmother was still visiting. It was a great mail day. Not only did the microscope arrive, but a new issue of Boomerang AudioMagaizine showed up, and so did Erin's new (oblong! grown-up!) half-size violin case. The microscope excitement trumped everything, though.

It was a cinch to install. It connects to the PC by USB cable. The software is dead simple. Everything shows up on the computer monitor. There are three optical magnification levels: 10X, 60X and 200X. The illumination is USB-powered with a top and/or bottom LED. They're automatically adjusted by the software (with manual over-ride). The image quality is excellent. The optical unit comes off the stand so that it is possible to examine arm hairs, fingerprints, eyeball veins and nose hairs in detail :-P. The kids spent all day gathering specimens, comparing, zooming in, viewing, saving images, gathering more specimens. I'm really impressed with the ease of use and image quality for a unit that costs < $50 US. Amazing really.

Sophie was examining some bits of printed scrapbooking paper with the microscope and then diverged into an interesting little side-project. She cut a couple of dozen bits of paper about 2" x 4", folded them in half and then cut a variety of shapes out of the folds. She ended up with a 'collection' of shapes with one axis of symmetry which she was very intrigued by. As time went on she got very good at predicting what the shape would be when unfolded.

Noah wrote a bit of a story on his own, with no prompting, yesterday morning. He's never done that before, at least not in the last couple of years, not since he became and independent reader. He hs mentioned a couple of time that "I don't have the skills I need to write." I asked him what he meant... whether he was concerned about handwriting or spelling or punctuation. He said it was spelling. I reassured him that lots of reading and lots of writing would help him learn to spell. I said that if he wanted to do some work specifically on spelling with me, I would help, but that I was pretty sure his spelling would come along if he wanted to just do some writing. So it was interesting that he asked for help spelling a couple of words but was comfortable working most of the spelling out on his own. He did pretty darn well. It was only 5 or 6 sentences, but there were words like "bother" and "before" and "party" and "pickle" and "hasn't" and they were all correctly spelled without help.

Everyone did their practising fairly cheerfully and thoroughly. The kids watched a bit of Olympic diving with their dad. Noah asked some questions about China and expressed an interest in learning more about it and maybe visiting some day. I mentioned that the latest Boomerang has an article about China's economic and political changes.

Just before bed last night Erin discovered the sheet music to "Puck" by Edvard Grieg in a stack of old piano music we had. She's mentioned several times since the summer school that it was a piece that she really liked; another student was working on it. The piece is on the Royal Conservatory of Canada's Grade 8 syllabus. Erin is nominally Grade 6, although some of the supplementary pieces she's learning are Grade 7 or 8 level. She sat down this morning and spent the better part of an hour working on it and made incredible progress with it. She will probably have the notes learned and most of it up to tempo within a week. I hope her teacher is okay with her learning ahead on her own like this.

Noah created and taught to Sophie a simple five-finger bass line accompaniment to the first 8 bars of one of his new piano pieces. They had fun 'performing a duet' for both Grandma's. Tonight they've been teaching Fiona to 'perform' i.e. to climb up on the piano bench, bang some keys, climb back down and take a bow.

A week or so ago I found a file on one of the computers that Erin had forgotten to delete or transfer over to her secret bedroom laptop. She's so private about her creative writing that I eventually turned an ancient laptop over to her. It's good for nothing but word-processing and listening to music CD's, which she does sometimes for hours on end. Anyway, she accidentally left this file on one of the computers I use, and I found it. I was really impressed. I hadn't read anything she'd written in 18 months or more. I e-mailed it to a friend who is a writer/editor by profession and has sort of been my unschooling mentor for the past half dozen years. She wrote back:

"This is extraordinary writing . . . really extraordinary writing.
Extraordinary for anyone of any age, never mind a 10-year-old. I've evaluated manuscripts for publishers, and also edited my share of children's novels and chapter books for small publishers, and I haven't often seen stuff of this quality.
One thing that is so very striking about it is the rhythmic quality of the
prose, and how that rhythm carries the meaning of the text."

I thought it was very good, but I don't have much of a frame of reference, and felt that my parental pride was probably colouring my judgement. I was really struck by my friend's reaction.

Here's a little snippet from the file I found:

Nyre, the girl from Wen Revned, the girl of the green eyes, the girl of the black hair, the daughter of the right-hand man to the queen, would grow up to be the Signseeker, the greatest of the Eightfold, and yet she didn't know. No humans can see what is ahead of them. And yet she, Nyre, the Sweetie of the Orchard, as fair as spring herself as just released from Winter's grip, would be able to do it, the first of all humanity to do so. At eleven years old, Nyre's hair was as glossy as placid water, and her eyes were the colour of the forest.[snip] ...

It was a sunny afternoon when Nyre met Louappe, and Nyre was out by the fountain staring at the reflection of the apple tree in the water. Nyre idly watched the branches of the apple tree sway in the cool breeze. The lilting sound of her brother's pipe drifted into the courtyard. He was playing Syh Mugden. The mysterious and melancholy music of the Biekall Pipe made her feel strangely drowsy. She saw a figure pass into the shade of the apple tree. Papa? No, it wasn't Papa. She was too sleepy. She closed her eyes for a moment, and then the drowsiness passed. The man under the tree, wasn't Papa. That was for sure.

I wish I could confess I'd found the file and tell her how impressed I am, how impressed our friend is. But Erin would be mortified and might even stop writing. It would be a huge betrayal to her. She's intensely private about her writing, presumably because it's so important to her, because she takes it so seriously and it therefore makes her vulnerable. My guess is that by age 12 or 13 she'll be ready for a bit of sharing. I think it'll take some more maturity of self-concept and just general maturity. I do hope she learns to share her obvious talent. Still, I need to remind myself that she's only 10. It's probably a good thing that she is growing her own writer's voice free from her meddlesome mother's tendency to micro-manage.

Today we drove the visiting grandmother to the airport. On the way back we listened to our Boomerang issue which we all enjoyed. There was a great D-Day storytelling segment that brought me to tears (not a good thing while driving!). I stopped for a coffee when Fiona got fussy. She got out of the van and proceeded to run through all the rather deep puddles. She was delighted. Fortunately she had spent part of the morning engaging in her favourite pasttime of dressing herself in multiple layers of clothing. We simply peeled off the top two layers of pants and one pair of shorts to discover the shorts beneath were still dry.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Long time, no blog!

It's been a busy month. The local music summer school began a few days after I last wrote. Erin and Noah were registered as piano students, and Sophie insisted at the 11th hour that she be enrolled too, as a violin student. Erin squeaked into the "Lower Advanced" piano class and was also registered in the string chamber music program. She capably held her own in both programs with much older kids. What I'm most proud of is how she performed on violin. She was placed in a string quartet to work up two movements of the Haydn Op. 74 No. 3 quartet in B-flat major. It is not a real "beginner" quartet; it's fairly sophisticated classical music with a fair share of technical and musical challenges. She did just amazingly well with phrasing, balance, dynamics and other musicality issues on a new half-sized violin and bow. I was very proud. They got a huge ovation from the audience. The average age of the quartet was 12 1/2 and they sounded pretty darn sophisticated.

Noah had of course recently switched from violin to viola and he has made incredible strides with tone and musical confidence. He had a stellar lesson with the viola specialist who said all sorts of really nice things about his playing and his potential. His piano experience was a little underwhelming, but he really enjoyed the social atomosphere of the class and discovered that his note-reading and new-piece-learning skills are much stronger (compared to other students at his level) than he'd thought. He easily learned his 4-hands duet part while his older more experienced partner struggled.

Sophie was in the beginner master class and was the most advanced student and the only girl. She worked with a really nice accompanist and learned to give cues at the beginning of pieces and after fermatas.

After the summer school our friends had their baby, much to everyone's delight. And amazing home birth of an amazing little girl. We went for visits: to see the baby, to play with the older kids, and to take the family meals.

We spent some time renovating the little cabin. The kids helped paint, hammer, clean and carry stuff. We installed the beginnings of a low-flow irrigation system in the garden.

Then the kids' other grandmother (my mother-in-law) came for a visit. Things have been very low-key since then, since she's mostly interested in spending time with the kids at home. We've been to the beach, the market, out for dinner a couple of places, and for a couple of social visits, but have mostly been at home. We've done lots of gardening together.

The kids have been pretty creative and self-sufficient at home. I think they appreciate the chance to be home with no outside committments for a while. They've played outside together lots. They're practising violin and piano well. Noah and Sophie are doing lots of math. Noah finished up the second half of Singapore 2B in 3 days and is enjoying the beginning of 3A. Sophie has moved on into the Miquon Blue Book. Erin is doing some music theory bookwork each evening when the middle two do their math. She doesn't enjoy it but did sort of promise her teacher she'd do some work through the summer. I haven't made a big deal about it, so she's managing to make herself do it.

Our family readalouds are happening again more regularly. On the go right now are "The Tale of Desperaux" by Kate di Camillo, "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper and "The Lantern Bearers" by Rosemary Sutcliff. Erin had lost interest in this nightly ritual for a while. She joined us again when we started doing our readalouds by Itty-Bitty Booklight while lying on the big air mattress on the lawn under the stars. We saw an amazing Northern Lights display one night, and lots of shooting stars and satellites.

Soon we'll be sidling into our fall routine. I hope we can keep things sane.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Piano paralysis

Noah has fairly decent note-reading skills but he will not access them while learning to play new piano pieces. Instead he will fumble around trying to learn a new piece by guessing at what he thinks the left hand ought to do while the right hand is playing a remembered melody. I'll wander by the piano and discover that he hasn't even got the book out ... it just never occurred to him to use it as a reference while trying to learn to play a new piece. He's learning tons about harmonization and composition and improvisation in the process, but what he's not learning (and what's annoying him to no end) is new pieces. And after a few seconds of trying to sound out an acceptable bass line and not getting it quite right, he's fed up. I don't know where he thinks the notes are going to come from... it's as if he expects them to materialize at his fingertips out of thin air. Pieces with patterns in them he can learn in about 5 minutes, even if the patterns are fairly complex. He learns easily by ear, but we (he, I and his teacher) all agree that the piano is where he ought to be learning note-reading, theory and transcription skills. His teacher has made an effort to build his confidence with pattern-based pieces, but the confidence doesn't carry him forward when he meets any sort of challenge. He's really at the stage now where he needs to make an effort to tackle things he can't learn in 5 minutes. Perfection paralysis.

His teacher has been very creative and flexible, but the bottom line is that he needs to be able to make a mistake and work through it, rather than leaving the piano for 3 days after eachwrong note.

I've written a few thoughts lately about Noah's piano paralysis, and it caused me to remember many of the creative and resourceful strategies I used when Erin was at the same stage. I realized that I hadn't given Noah the benefit of that kind of support. Sometimes because I'm a less neurotic and obsessive parent to my younger children they get the short end of the stick :-P. So last night we tried out some ideas I'd used with Erin. Amazingly enough, 18 hours later the Minuet he's been stuck on since April is now pretty much learned! This morning he's been jubilantly playing it over and over and clamouring to start the Bourrée that follows it.

Monday, August 02, 2004

A Sandy Beach

I have a friend with a baby due soon and want to be able to attend the birth. Since Chuck is on call so much, and my mom is away on and off through the summer, I thought it would be a good idea to get Fiona comfortable with our favourite 'babysitter'. I use the word in quotes because RoseAnne is really more of an adopted big sister and friend to the kids than a caregiver, but she is 17 and super-responsible and I have occasionally hired her to cope with the older three kids. I asked her to spend a couple of half days with us back to back to see if Fiona would take to her. The first day RoseAnne came to our house. The next day we went out of town to go grocery shopping, have a picnic lunch and then go to the beach. Fiona was happy as a clam with RoseAnne at the park while I did the shopping... her first time apart from adult family members!

The beach in Nakusp is sandy, unlike the rocky beaches around our hometown. I was struck by the fact that a sandy beach is an art and engineering material simply perfect for children. There's no set-up, there's no clean-up other than a quick swim. There's no adult saying "no, don't mix those colours" or "please don't waste the paper" or "how beautiful!" or "let's save that to show daddy" or "how about a little more over here?" There's absolutely no parental judgement or control. And it's ephemeral, so perfectionism really doesn't rear its ugly head. Beach sand is so totally experiential and process-oriented... there's nothing about end-products.

I think we must try to spend more time at the sandy beach.

The kids have been spending huge amounts of time in the dirt near the lawn, mixing water and dirt to make mud of more or less clayish consistency, sculpting, digging, eroding, piling, building, drying, patting, moistening, packing. I thought about all the valuable imaginative play that was involved, but until I watched them in the sand at the beach, I hadn't thought about the value of the artistic exploration.

Three cheers for muck!

Friday, July 30, 2004

Noah is a violist!

It wasn't like he had begged for a viola. I play both violin and viola and he had expressed no spontaneous interest in taking up the viola. But I'd heard about the magnificent little Sabatier instruments and so I planted a seed with him. I said "Maybe someday you'll want to play the viola too." He's the biggest for his age of my four kids, though that's not saying much. And while he's never expressed any concerns about it, I had always had at the back of my mind the knowledge that he's growing up in the shadow of a precocious older sister who is learning the violin and piano as well. We also live in a tiny rural community with very limited group class opportunities but with a thriving community string orchestra which is in desperate need of violas.

He was beginning to outgrow his 1/8th size violin and it looked like yet again he'd be growing into a hand-me down instrument from his sister. He was about to begin a romp through Book 3 and was interested in really focusing on sight-reading and orchestral skills. It seemed like a good time to introduce a new instrument and a new clef and a new role in ensemble-playing. I mentioned the possibility again and he was enthusiastic. I'm sure most of it had to do with the simple business of growing into a new instrument, but whatever the reason he was keen on a viola.

And so I sent my mom off to an institute to meet an instrument I had located and priced out from the Sound Post in Toronto. I told her to buy it on my behalf if she thought it was wonderful. I was at another institute, and I actually called to locate her and give her my number in case she wasn't sure about the purchase. But she didn't call me back. It turned out this was because she was sure -- it was a simply amazing instrument.

The viola is an asymmetrical viola from luthier Bernard Sabatier in Paris France. It is the same size as a 1/4-size violin and has a rich C-string tone. We arrived back from our institute to the news that the viola was on its way. It was driving back across the prairies with some friends of ours. Noah couldn't wait! He asked me to start some alto clef reading work with him. He counted down the days. He wanted to cancel his piano lesson in case it came while we were there! Finally it arrived. Wow! It is at least as wonderful as we'd expected.

It has a much bigger, more mature sound than his 1/8th size violin. And it's a viola in spirit, timbre and tone, all the way to the bottom of the C-string. Noah was entranced by its wacky shape and by the sound he could get from it almost immediately. He began playing through a lot of his violin repertoire. I'd told him that except for 2 pieces all of Books 1 & 2 viola were the same as the violin books, so he should start there, just a fifth down. He knew what I meant, but his perfect pitch kept getting in the way. He'd want to start playing "Allegro" and shift to 4th position to find the high A, then realize that this was his viola so he didn't have to reach for the high notes. So he'd dig around on the lower strings for a lower A and then try to start 2 octaves down only to realize that this wasn't quite right either. Then he'd remember the "fifth down" rule and intellectually figure it out. I could tell his ear just didn't have a blueprint of "Allegro" in D major. I'll be buying some Suzuki Viola CDs, but I was intrigued to see how his mind and ear were competing to be in charge.

Almost immediately he loved his viola best. He talked about quitting violin. I explained that he would want to keep up violin to play in groups, but that the instruments would be the same size, so switching back and forth would be easy as his ear learned to adjust. He played it many times a day. He learned "French Folk Song" on Day 2 and "Bohemian Folk Song" on Day 4. He polished up "Martini Gavotte" in short order and forged ahead into the Book 3 "Bach Minuet". He picked up the viola to demonstrate any time anyone stopped by our house. People are intrigued by its "melted" look, and he enjoys the attention.

The technical transition is going well. Noah has a very intuitive physical sense, and with some encouragement to "really work for the tone" was able to get a big robust sound right from the start. He has a few technical issues (a 'tippy-toes' bowhand, for instance) that were being addressed anyway, but which now have more reason to be treated seriously. "You can't get away with that on the viola," I say. "You really need to be able to sink your arm weight into the string through those middle fingers. It's even more important with these big low strings." And of course he's more motivated to do so. He's finding the Kreisler highway easily, probably aided by the universal tendency to slip a bit towards the fingerboard when moving to a bigger instrument. Intonation is a little unreliable on fourth fingers and he needs some encouragement to use all of his (much longer) bow. But all in all the transition seems scarcely more challenging than that of moving to a larger-sized violin.

He's got the knack of starting a fifth lower, but his darn aural memory still likes to reassert itself from time to time a Da Capos, where he'll often suddenly modulate from C major to G major, for instance. Funny, that.

He's only been practising his violin every other day and very briefly at that. That's fine. His 1/4-size violin isn't available yet, but should be soon, so probably the less switching back and forth from the 1/8th the better. So far he's loving the change and enjoying the attention he's getting.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Home again, home again, jiggety jog

Not much of note on the way home. We spent a day in Spokane, did some shopping, went to Riverfront Park and did some kid-things (rode the 1909 carousel, geocached, fed more ducks, etc.), swam in motel pools and so on. Bought some books and music CD's, drove back to Canada and bought a new truck for dh. Leased, actually. His Toyota is 13 years old and starting to get unreliable, which isn't so great considering he's the sole physician on-call for our ER 50% of the time. When we bought the Toyota we had just got married and were thinking we'd probably have a child or two before too many years went by, so we made sure the two bucket seats in the front were supplemented by a couple of jump seats behind in the extended cab. We had a rude awakening last summer when the minivan ended up in the shop for 6 weeks: you cannot fit a family of 6 in a light-duty 1991 Toyota extended cab! Especially not when 2 of them are in carseats and two ought to be in boosters. So this time around we got smart: the pickup truck seats six in a pinch!

Glad to be home. The garden is nuts with weeds, but many of the veggies are doing well. I've got some performance gigs coming up with rehearsing to do, and we have a packed social calendar for the next four or five days. But I'm hoping things will get a bit more relaxed for a time after that.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Homeward bound

We went to a nearby city (Moscow, ID) for the Farmers' Market because Stanley, one of Erin's instructors, was playing jazz violin for the morning. We met about two dozen friends from the institute hanging about. It was a wonderful friendly wrap-up from the institute. We bought cherries and doughnuts and smoothies and coffee and browsed the market. Spent the afternoon at a terrific aquatic centre.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Suzuki Institute

The institute was awesome. Erin had 6-7 hours a day of instruction. She was the youngest in most of her classes by at least 2-3 years, so she didn't really have any social peers, but she had plenty of musical peers, which was really what she needed since she doesn't get that at home. The Advanced Orchestra was excellent, very challenging and filled with capable players, and she ended up in a master class with two teens who clearly play with lots of passion and committment. The 13-17-year-olds she was with in orchestras and groups were a really nice bunch too and they made her feel part of the social banter even though she was so tiny and somewhat shy. She made some really big strides participating in discussions both during classes and afterwards.

Noah had 4 hours of classes a day and was well-placed for confidence-building. He was the most secure and most advanced kid in his orchestra and master class, which was great, because he doesn't have Erin's stoical "deal-with-it" mentality when outside his comfort zone. He made many friends and proved to be a bit of a social magnet for kids his age and a bit younger. Every time I'd enter the music building with one of the girls, kids would come up to me and ask "where's Noah?" He impressed his master class teacher enough that she promoted him to the 3rd Suzuki Book on the spot and asked him to learn a new piece, which he did. He got a big boost from that. He made a very good friend, another 7yo homeschooled boy, and really enjoyed his company in classes and elsewhere.

Sophie had 3 hours of classes a day. She too was well-placed for confidence-building. She was doing the Junior Institute for "first-time enrollees under 7 and in the first half of Book 1." While she had moved into the 2nd half of Book 1 since registering, and was therefore the most advanced kid in two of her classes, it was the right place for her since she'd never had a lesson or group class with anyone other than her mom or grandma. She loved her group class which was run by a truly gifted teacher who was unrelenting in his expectations. I couldn't believe that the kids were enjoying themselves... he worked them so hard, insisted they toe the line (literally and figuratively) and had them repeat things like standing up and sitting down like a drill sargeant until they were perfect. But the kids loved working hard for him. This particular teacher is an internet friend of mine, and is very unschooling-friendly and child-centred, yet was able to pull this motley group of 4-through-12-year-olds together through leadership rather than coercion. Amazing!

The social activities were low-key and enjoyable. The institute was friendly and warm. We really really enjoyed it. Chuck spent lots of time being the "Suzuki parent in loco" for Noah and also sometimes for Sophie, and really liked being able to be involved. Fiona survived just fine, napping on my shoulder, making countless recreational trips to the washrooms and drinking fountains, watching, singing, smiling.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Pullman Institute arrival

Arrived in Pullman, checked into the dorm (wonderful! a suite of three small bedrooms and a large living / kitchenette area and bathroom) and did some grocery shopping to stock the kitchen for the week. Then we headed 3 minutes' walk up the hill to the music building for registration and the welcoming "play-in" for the week's Suzuki institute. The kids were eager participants and very comfortable up on stage with scores of others. Later we watched July 4th fireworks from our dorm window far into the night.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Into the US

Did most of the southerly drive to get us into the US for our music workshop. Stopped to get a map of the area in the first town on the American side and saw a guy walking across the parking lot to his RV with a rifle casually at his side. Eek! Plenty of interesting discussions and observations about cultural differences.

We stayed at motels on the way to and from the workshop. The kids really enjoyed the pools, and swam every evening and first thing in the morning. They were terrific about practising their violins too. They'd received ensemble music to prepare for the workshop just a few days before we left home, so practising had to continue during our meandering trip, and it did, quite cheerfully. They each did 10-20 minutes of hard work starting at about 9 am each morning.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Fort Steele

We visited Fort Steele, a re-created 1898 town, and spent the better part of the day there despite an incredible downpour. Had a ride on a steam train. Watched blacksmiths (one with a personal interest in swordsmithing, much to Noah's delight!), leatherworkers, candy-makers, etc. at work. 

Friday, July 02, 2004

Creston and Cranbrook

We visited the Creston wetland wildlife preserve. Saw turtles and birds. Walked the boardwalk, hiked the perimeter of some marshes, looked at the indoor exhibits and learned a lot about flora and fauna. We also went to a railway museum in Cranbrook where they had many opulent passenger and sleeper cars restored to Edwardian splendour.

Quite wonderful. I've always had this dream of living in a railway car. It was definitely re-awakened.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Vacation Time

Two weeks off for Chuck and a music workshop to go to in Washington State. Drove away amidst mixed weather. Waited an extra hour to take the big inland ferry (rather than the small one) across nearby Kootenay Lake. Fed the ducks and geese at the ferry dock. Fiona loved this. There were zillions and they were very tame. Kids enjoyed the ferry and the café. On the other side of the lake we stopped and watched a glassblower, blacksmith, weaver and broom-maker at work in the artisans' village there. Erin collected the first of many amazing wildflower bouquets.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Figments of our imaginations

We have the coolest new family of unschoolers here in the New Denver area. After trying out the area last fall they moved away, then moved back, this time quite committed to staying. I feel like I've known Donna my whole life... we are so comfortable together. She's a jewelry maker and watercolour painter, also (in a former life) a high school art teacher. She has four kids, with #5 due in a couple of months. She's managed to get the valley's renegade/underground midwife to agree to let me hang out at the
birth. We're all to just pretend I'm not a doctor in another life .

Anyway, our kids have this instant chemistry too. Bob (11) is Noah's best friend and is a wonderful gentle role model with the work ethic of a Clydesdale. Margaret (9) is a great pal for Erin... they've got Harry Potter and sandboxes in common. Allie (6) and Sophie have hit their stride. And Ezra (newly 3) is my little sidekick. What a sweetie he is!

I told Donna that I had this sneaking suspicion that she and her kids didn't really exist until some higher power decided to create them to fill our social needs. She said she was pretty sure we were figments of her imagination too. We feel lucky to have found each other, whether we're imaginary or not.

On Friday I had the whole gaggle of kids here all day just by myself, and it was really no more trouble than having just my four. And heck, with (soon) 9 kids between us, who needs a homeschool support group!

I'm playing "block mom" a lot lately. It's not a natural role for introverted me, but it's okay when the kids are so "easy". Erin's had an 8yo girl over two or three times. There's a 5yo boy who spends some time here once or twice a week. Then there are Donna's four, who are here a couple of half days a week. And all day today I had another of Erin's close friends and her younger sister. My kids are really enjoying all the social contact, but they always like at least one day at home just as a family in between.

This past weekend we had our Suzuki violin "Performance Party". Lots of food, and solos by all the kids. My three all did really nice jobs. Sophie was a confident and cute-as-the-dickens performer in her little flowered recital dress. Noah oozes musicality as he sways with his beautifully polished Book 2 pieces. And Erin's playing just grows in sophistication and her physical appearance of ease with the instrument has really improved this spring.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Day 2 at school

Today in math they multiplied decimals to hundredths by single digits, did speed drill on division facts to 50, and reviewed 3D solids like prisms and pyramids, so I guess yesterday was uncharacteristically simple stuff. I also looked at the circle bookwork they had done yesterday and Erin was definitely overdramatizing the simplicity of it... they were drawing 90-degree rotations of characters and shapes in the quadrants of circles and observing the relationship between circumference and diameter using strings. And recognizing circles. She had only told me about the simplest stuff.

She got an A+ on a math test and learned to play the 3 ukelele tunes the class has been learning this year in 20 minutes. She got 86% on a review test for a social studies unit she hadn't done, got perfect on the spelling pre-test, and earned a "sticker for her folder" for her reading aloud. She thought it was all pretty bogus. She came home tired and needing down-time, but happy that she'd had the experience.

She's not interested in going to go to school next fall any more. Yay!

I think she's proud of herself for handling the stress of jumping in to something like this with no advance preparation and no coddling... of being able to fit in and do what is expected and find her way through and do fine. I'm kind of proud too. Having courage in that sort of situation isn't easy for someone as introverted as she is; I know, because I was the same kind of kid.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Day 1 at school

Off she went yesterday morning with her backpack and her lunch and a big grin and a bit of nervousness.

I picked her up at the end of the day and she was still smiling. Of course she'd felt socially comfortable because she knows most of the kids in the class already. She'd had fun. She said it would be nice if you could go to school maybe once every two or three days.

Academically it was appallingly unchallenging for her. Apparently they were doing geometry, which began with identifying two circles in a cluster of ovals and kidney-shaped blobs. The arithmetic was stuff like 7x1+3 and 25x2, stuff that Sophie is working on. Social studies was a quiz game to check mastery of the recent Canadian studies. I asked Erin if she knew any of the answers (we haven't exactly done anything much to learn about Canada) and gave me a "duh!" look at said "All of them." She came home with a list of reading words from Charlotte's Web that she was supposed to practice reading with a parent and get initialed. She first read Charlotte's Web over 5 years ago and refused to do the "practising with a parent" thing. The words were things like "knothole" and "lugged". She got Sophie to read them to her. In science they learned how the earth's rotation and tilt make day and night and summer and winter. She rolled her eyes over much of this.

She didn't get any practising done. We had agreed that if she was seriously thinking about going to school next fall and continuing with violin and piano that she should make sure she does her practising this week to make sure she can handle juggling it all. I know that there is no way she will agree to give up her music, so my guess is that her conscious decision to choose the Stanley Cup playoff game, outside play and alone-time over practising is telling me she doesn't want to go to school next year.

This morning I said that since she was just "playing school" this week that I would "play school" with her and fib by initialing her homework, since I knew she had read through the words on her own, but that I certainly wouldn't do this if she were really going to school, because in that case we'd have to play fair.

She went off willingly this morning, but I don't think her grin was as big.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Cast-Off Day

Up early to get Erin's cast off. The kids were impressed with the cast saw. We tried to meet with the Manager at the hospital who could give us the rubber stamp we need to get started with the Kids' Garden Club ("GRUBS") but she had double-booked herself and was in a meeting. We went to the open-air Friday Market and saw a lot of people we knew. We looked at the work of the aforementioned unschooling mom... wonderful jewelry and watercolour paintings. She says she wants to come and paint our pond sometime.

We came home for breakfast. We decided to make another attempt to meet with hospital-manager-lady. Tried to catch her after her meeting but missed.

We visited with my mom at her house. She's been away for six weeks and has just de-jet-lagged. Fiona is very comfortable with her, perhaps more so than before she left, which is great! Then we went for the celebratory ice cream cone I'd promised the kids for Cast-Off Day. The picnic table spot beside the ice cream store was overgrown with rye-grass taller than my kids. They had fun pulling out grass at ground level and marching around with "pathetic staffs". They used Sophie (height 102 cm) as a measuring post to find some grass that was exactly a metre long.

The cottonwood cotton had drifted off a nearby tree and collected alongside the sidewalk. There was a ton and the kids spent a while collecting as much as they could. They decided they could use it to stuff a doll or soft toy animal for Fiona.

We came home for lunch. After lunch a pal of Erin's came for the afternoon. They played outside on the swings, with the balls and bikes, on the gymnastics bars. Erin was trying out her new arm. She also played some piano. The kids made some limeade. I made them a smoothie. (It was really hot!) They did some glass-painting again. Played on the computer a bit. The toy that's the hit right now is a set of 16 of those green plastic pint-baskets that strawberries come in. They made a castle, a temple, a tower and a series of zoos with plastic animals in their cages. Then there was a dropping game of some sort invented using base-ten rods and baskets and awarding points for certain arrangements of rods in baskets.

The friend's mom came to pick her up and she and I had a long chat about her vision for a local Community Educational Resource Centre. Basically she's talking about a place where people would come together to learn and share expertise and pool resources and borrow and lend. It would offer Sudbury-style schooling for kids who needed schooling, and be a sort of unschooling flashpoint for the rest of the community. You might go there for art and puppetry and basketball, for a LLL meeting, to play chess or cribbage with some seniors, to borrow a microscope or xylophone, to sign out an ancient history book or a phonics game or an audiobook, or to use the science equipment or art space. Pretty terrific stuff. She's actually in the midst of writing a PhD thesis on models of community-based sustainable learning, so for her it's not all a pie-in-the-sky thing. However, I keep returning to the reality that we live in an economically-challenged community with a catchment population of under 1500.

After the mom and her daughter left, my three played outside together happily. They were in the sandbox for ages. Sophie was sieving out stones with abandon and relishing the texture of soft, fine damp sand. Noah built a large tomb / pyramid and had trick entrances to foil tomb-raiders and a whole story about the hero who was the only one who could open the tomb. Erin built a large and impressive booby-trap by digging a very deep hole, laying a couple dozen straight twigs across the top of it, then layering on long grass and finally sand to disguise the whole thing. Then they played some tag games together, and tossed the football around for quite a while. It was really nice to see them spending a couple of hours together focused on the same co-operative activities and games without any input from me.

The Grade 3/4 teacher called and said she'd be happy to have Erin there next Monday and Tuesday. The rest of the week is already pretty chaotic and so she specifically suggested just two days at the start of the week. Erin seemed satisfied with that. I told her that was good because it meant we could all go to the Harry Potter movie (which is 90 minutes out of town) on Wednesday or Thursday. I'm really trying to load the dice by gently drawing her attention to all the sorts of opportunities she (and we!) would miss if she were at school full-time.

After supper Erin did more music listening and reading. Noah and Sophie did some math again. There was a smattering of computer play and independent reading. Erin's reading through a big music reference book we have.

I inflated the air mattress outside and piled it with blankets. After it got dark we all lay out there looking at the stars and watching for satellites. The (almost full) moon wasn't up yet, so it was plenty dark. I brought the boombox out and we listened to a couple of chapters of an audiobook ("the Kite Rider", set in medieval China under the Mongol Empire) in the dark, staring at the sky. Then we all went to bed.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

A bear day

The day started with my "tour of the property". I try to get outside first thing every morning and do a circuit to check on everything. Sophie and Fiona came with me. We checked on the chickens, fed and watered them. They're about 5 weeks old now and one has been much smaller and lighter than the others. She's less different than her sisters now, but there's still a fairly pronounced difference. We're anxiously looking forward to seeing how she turns out. Then we checked the hot frame and the gardens for new sprouts, to assess the weed situation and to train the peas and beans onto the trellises. We looked around for the raven that had been hanging out, injured, at the corner of the property the day before, accepting food scraps and letting us get within arms' reach. We didn't find it, so we didn't leave any cat food out.

Then we had 28 people (19 kids) in our tiny living room for a homeschoolers "bear talk". A local bear biologist brought some slides and talked about habitat, conservation, safety and population issues pertaining to bears. This was set up by one of the unschooling moms here who is new to living in bear country and wanted some sensible and useful information for living alongside bears to empower herself and her kids. I had put the word out by e-mail and virtually all the local homeschoolers showed up, along with a few from communities within 40 minutes drive. The biologist had never done a talk for kids before and was quite concerned that she wouldn't be able to hold their attention. The kids were mostly under 10, age range being 3-12. Erica (bear lady) was enthralled by the kids' attentiveness and enthusiasm.

Afterwards we headed to a nearby trail and did a short hike that took us to a bear den. The kids had an absolute blast and crammed 11 of themselves inside. It was beneath the roots of an old-growth western red cedar. A major hit. There were also zillions of baby western toads hopping around the parking area and that was good for a lot of entertainment. Noah and one of the 11yo boys really hit it off. They brought a baby toad back to our place to join our adult toads (2) at our pond. Bob's mom and three siblings stayed for lunch. The kids played together all afternoon. I got a chance to get to know the mom better, and she's just wonderful. They moved here about 8 months ago, but were planning to move away so didn't really make a whole lot of connections. However, after a trial move to another place, they're back and committed to making things work. A whole family of other unschoolers! The kids played in the sand and mud, on the computer, in the garden, with the chickens and with the toads. We heard the raven and saw it on a perch in a nearby tree. Noah later saw it fly a short distance, so it seems to be doing better.

After the other family left my kids had some much-needed down-time. I made supper. Erin has been spending hours listening to Saint-Saens' orchestral works. She has discovered how to actively listen for layers of complexity within music and increase her enjoyment. I'm amazed! She's begging for his Organ Symphony, which I've ordered a copy of.

After supper Sophie wrote her daily "secret". I gather this is some journaling she's doing on scrap pieces of paper. The poor kid is begging for a hand-made journal like Erin's, but I don't have time to make one for a couple of weeks, until the clinic bookkeeping is dealt with.

The kids did some painting on glass jars and bottles. I'd bought some Pebeo Vitrea 160 paints recently for a home-decor project I've got in mind. The kids used the paints to decorate two or three jars each.

Noah and Sophie did some math bookwork. Everyone read... Asterix, Garfield, LOTR, Louis Sachar easy readers, a variety of stuff.

I read aloud from "Lord of the Nutcracker Men" by Ian Lawrence, historical fiction about WWI. Erin's decided not to listen to this one, though I think it's great. She went to her room and journaled to a Saint-Saens soundtrack.

Off to school

I still haven't heard from the teacher who is supposed to call me about Erin joining her class next week. I talked to the principal on Tuesday and he was going to ask her to call me to set things up.

As I've been explaining to people around here, this year 80% of Erin's art class was made up of kids from the same Grade 3/4 class at the local school. They'd pile off the bus chattering away about the day at school. They're nice kids and Erin is pretty good friends with most of them. I think she has been left feeling like she's at a party with a bunch of people she's friends with and they're all talking about the cliffhanger episode of some TV series she's never seen. She wants to watch the show just once so that she knows what they're talking about. That's my guess as to the nature of her interest in school.

She finds large-group interaction tiring, values her down-time alone, is years ahead in academics, has little patience for crappy cliquey social stuff and hates working "to task". I'm pretty sure she'll find school stifling.

However.... (and it's a big 'however')... Erin has a tendency to read control battles into everything, and I confess that in the past I have, in the midst of conflicts with her, said things like "Maybe you should go to school because I certainly can't get you to do anything, and I think you need to learn that sometimes there are things you just have to do!" Or "Most kids have six hours a day when they have to do what they're told; you have no idea how lucky you are!" These are the sorts of things that Erin will take and twist in her own mind. Never mind that it's been weeks or months since I've said anything like that. She sometimes does things she hates, things that make her miserable, in order to "win", or in order to avoid what she perceives as "losing face".

So I'm just a little worried that all of this funhouse-mirror passive-aggressive mind-game stuff might contaminate her spin on school.

The good news is that the end of this week has ended up packed full of fun homeschool group activities.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Quick update

We've been for a weekend out of town (medical conference), some book-shopping and art-supply restocking, and a lot of driving. My double-duty teaching responsibilities should settle down a little after this week... I'll have child care at least, since my mom is back. Basically I've been swamped. I got up at 6 a.m. this morning to go plant out the tomato seedlings in the pouring rain because I just hadn't had a chance. Life's been nuts.

I'll write a more detailed post later, but Erin's going to school next week, I think... just to de-mystify the experience for herself, but she may (I doubt it, but it's a possibility) decide she wants to go full-time in the fall. At that point we'll have to have to do some pretty serious thinking. I'm not sure what my line is. I think she should have a lot of say... but maybe not all of it.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Month at a glance

Gosh, it's been a while. I can't possible include all the details of the last month, but here's an overview.

My mom has been overseas, so I've been doing all the local violin teaching, with Fiona in tow. It hasn't been easy, but I only have a week to go in this fashion. I think I'm going to make it.

The older three have relished their added freedom and responsibility while I'm teaching. I've hired them to manage Fiona a couple of times when the weather has been nice and they've taken her outside to play. They've managed their own issues, fed themselves, entertained themselves, etc..

Erin broke her arm 3 weeks ago, so she's not been practising violin. She's been doing a bit of piano and some music theory bookwork to fill the void. She's finished her Singapore Primary Math studies and is taking a break from formal math (I suggested she just "play" with math until she turns 11 next year, at which point she could consider starting a high school program). She's been listening to audiobook re-runs in her bedroom for hours on end over the past month, and reading a fair bit on her own. She seems emotionally a bit more fragile. Mostly she's happy, but there's clearly some stuff running pretty close to the surface inside her. I'm not sure if it's just the temporary loss of her music-performing identity or if there's something else. She doesn't seem to know either. Maybe it's good... normally she reacts to stress with stoicism and/or anger. So see her weeping because Sophie pushed her and grabbed a book out of her hands is kind of refreshing in a way.

About Sophie grabbing a book... this reminds me that my elder three are all now sharing much of their reading material. The gap in reading fluency has closed a lot in the past month for the middle two kids. The other day they spent their allowance on an Asterix comic book and they've all been taking turns curled up on the couch reading it. Given their current fascination with cartoon books I've ordered the three volumes of "The Cartoon History of the Universe" by Larry Gonick. Looking forward to getting them.

Noah's penpal came to visit a couple of weeks ago ... from Holland. The boys had been corresponding through the post since last summer. Their family has just got their landed immigrant status and came to Canada to get it validated. They hope to move here in a year. The boys had a blast running about outside and playing on the computer, despite not sharing a language. They are definitely two peas in a pod. They really enjoyed each other. Erin and the eldest girl in their family are both 10. They were the big surprise... they'd never been in touch, but they yacked away at each other, the other girl mostly in Dutch, though as the day wore on using more and more English, and Erin in English... and they even understood each other! They really hit it off. Sophie ran around sucking up the energy. We had a pretty cool visit.

We were part of an exchange visit between two dozen violin kids from around our region and two dozen from Ottawa, Canada's capitol. We had four billets who took over the kids' rooms and the kids and I slept in the camper. We had three 12-year-old girls and a 14yo. One of the girls noticed the Grade 7 piano book and asked who played, because she was using the same book. So Erin and she took turns playing for everyone on the piano. Sophie's violin was lying around (the billets' violins had been locked up at the school for the night) and one of them got it out and started playing. Noah got his out and played for them, and then they took turns playing duet parts (on Sophie's violin!) with him. He was in his element! I got my violin out, and the girls showed off for each other and for my kids. Erin played her violin. Lots more passing around of violins, trying out pieces, kids clustered around the piano. Pretty neat.

Our baby chicks had arrived a week before, and the billets loved carrying them around. At one point we had 7 chicks running around the living room and perching on kids' laps and shoulders.

The next day the Ottawa crew performed at the school. Erin, Noah and Sophie sat with a friend in the school audience. I got the day's activities set up. The exchange kids were split into three groups to rotate through three activities and my kids were able to participate, either fully or organizationally. They got a tour of the Nikkei Centre, a "living museum" of sorts dedicated to remembering the time during WWII when Canada interned Japanese-Canadians away from the Pacific Coast. The fellow leading the tour was 14 when he was relocated there himself. Nice guy and full of stories. We had toured "the Centre" several times in the past, but not since Noah and Sophie were old enough to get anything much out of it. Since we know personally several people who were relocated and interned here, it was a really meaningful bit of history.

There was an art workshop. They were creating a multi-sided puzzle of 4"-cubic wooden blocks, one block for each student, with a different theme / technique on each face of the block. The last activity was a walking tour of New Denver I created, featuring a cache hunt. A "passport" contained clues to the location of small plastic tubs containing custom-made rubber stamps hidden at points of interest around town, and information and anecdotes about the area, as relevant. The walking tour included a half-hour lakefront trail hike and several stops on the downtown strip where ice cream and postcards could be purchased, etc.. Everyone seemed to really enjoy this. My kids had had a lot of fun setting it up and had really wanted to do the tour with the exchange kids to watch them hunt for stuff, but it was in the midst of that day that Erin broke her arm, so we were at the hospital (where her dad was the only one available to put her cast on).

Capping off the exchange week was a large group performance at the "big" theatre in Nelson. Sophie and Noah did me proud playing on the big stage. Noah played with the orchestra for two numbers, a first for him. And they played their Suzuki repertoire confidently in the big group.

Our baby chicks are thriving. We have a "mystery chick" who is much smaller and whiter than the rest. She seems healthy. It's quite fun speculating how she'll turn out. She's definitely not going to end up being an Isa-Brown like the rest... a hatchery error we're delighted with, since it adds an element of mystery to the whole hen-raising endeavour.

The garden in coming along and the kids are still interested in helping out from time to time. I'm not putting any pressure on them to help, but one or two will drift out and help from time to time.

We've done some tie-dyeing. We've been watching Colonial House on PBS. Gymnastics classes and piano lessons continue. The violin practising goes on. Art classes wrapped up last week. The kids have been writing to their penpals.

Readalouds at this point include "the Sands of Time" by Michael Hoeye, "Surviving the Applewhites" by Stephanie Tolan. Our current audiobook is "Guards! Guards!" by Terry Pratchett, which is hilarious, but the humour is mostly going over Noah's and Sophie's heads.

We're taking a family weekend in the city (Kelowna) this weekend, where Chuck has a medical course to attend. Erin has a waterproof latex sock to put over her cast so she'll be able to swim in the motel pool. We're taking Chuck's laptop in the minivan so the kids can watch a DVD during the drive. This was a real hit last November when we did the same trip.

I'm reading "Mitten Strings for God" and thinking a lot about simplicity and building family relationships. It's very inspiring.

That's the month at a glance!

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Juggling activities

Noah's penpal's team lost their soccer championship game. Too bad. The good news is that we'll be meeting him and his sisters and mom in less than a month.

We had another tough day juggling activities. Three of us wanted to go to the community cleanup day. Two of us wanted to stay at home playing K'nex. Two of us wanted to go to the recital rehearsal and stay afterwards to socialize. Two wanted to bake cookies, but ... later. Only one kid was interested in doing practising early enough in the day to free up the social time after rehearsal. Some kids wanted a video. Others wanted a big imaginary game instead, but insisted everyone participate.

So we didn't get much done. We hung around home. I did some garden digging. Sophie helped sow some beans, peas and onions. Erin and I went to the rehearsal (it was terrific!) and then came home directly. No cookies got baked. No community cleaning-up happened. There was a fair bit of testiness in the family relationships.

I'm feeling a bit frustrated. Prior consensus helps, and that's been lacking. But even so, even when everyone agrees about the day's schedule, there's invariably one or two kids who change their mind and decide they'd rather just keep whacking the tetherball around, or reading, or whatever.

I'm also feeling the impending onslaught of craziness that will occur over the next 4 weeks as I resume violin teaching and deal with three huge music education organizational endeavours in the region. It feels like a tidal wave is about to break over me, and I'm not as relaxed with the day-to-day stuff as a result.

Everyone did some math bookwork today. It's 8:15 pm and we're still working on getting the last bit of practising done. Tomorrow is a "town day", with gymnastics, grocery-shopping and piano lessons. I hope we find our stride again soon when it comes to juggling things at home.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Penpals and Screen-Free Day

Yesterday Noah's penpal's dad came for a visit. The penpal lives in Holland. His family is planning to immigrate to our neck of the woods (which is why we were originally in touch, which led to the boys' contact). Anyway, the visit was a rousing success. Noah was very excited to spend time with someone so intimately acquainted with his friend. There were photos and gifts and stories and comments about similarities.

Since then Noah has been very focused on his penpal. He knows about today's soccer championship game and is hoping to hear soon who won. He wants to learn to speak Dutch. He's looking forward to meeting J. some day (maybe soon!). He wants him to teach him to play soccer. He carries the photo album around with him. I've come to appreciate what a good friend Noah is. He cares deeply and (more to the point) demonstrably about his friends. He is thoughtful and loyal and proactive in nurturing the friendships he has. I expected the penpal friendship to be so remote and abstract that it would take some prodding on my part for him to continue putting energy into it, but that hasn't been the case. I think that the people who have Noah as a friend are lucky people indeed.

Erin, though almost 3 years older, needs so much more help in this department. And yet, as in all areas, she rebels against help.

We tried a screen-free day today. I kind of sprang it on the kids, which wasn't fair, and it showed. I asked Noah and Sophie last night if they'd be okay about it and they said yes. Erin wasn't impressed when she got up this morning. She came around with time. But by supper time she was really wanting to write a story (although her handwriting is astronomically better lately, she still only writes creatively on the computer, where she's much faster and can edit easily). And Sophie and Noah were fast losing their enthusiasm for a screen-free day. So I caved in. We turned on the computer. Dh came home and turned on the hockey game without anyone complaining.

However, it was a good day. Everyone did their practising. There was lots of outdoor play. Erin and Noah decided to try to teach themselves to play soccer. Neither has ever played. They got a kickball out and took shots and made a pylon course for dribbling the ball practice. I did a fair bit of gardening (digging over the soil and creating two 4x15-foot beds, mixing in some wood ash and compost).

I read aloud from a magazine this morning, a funny article about the "slow food" movement (pro-slow-food). The kids were mildly interested and we talked about a bit of this and that. I should read more like this to them, rather than always just fiction at bedtime story-hour. We did a lot of tidying. I spent almost two hours catching up on the laundry and managed to excavate the laundry room down to floor level. We listened to a variety of music ("The Proclaimers", Bach Oboe works, Jascha Heifetz violin encores, etc., a rather eclectic mix!) that the kids chose. Well, I chose the Proclaimers, and while Noah enjoyed it and practiced keeping the beat and then subdividing it into duplets and triplets, drumming on his knees, Erin objected and put on Bach.

Somebody did an experiment with licorice strings and water. No one will confess.

I ran soil chemistry tests. Only Sophie was even mildly interested. We are seriously potash deficient... hence the wood ash added to the garden today.

Chuck was out of town at an auction for flooring materials. We had a bit of discussion about strategies for pricing and talked about why things are sometimes cheaper at auctions.

We have decided (I think we're all on board) that every Thursday will be a screen-free day. It's as tough for me as it is for the kids, but it helps us all be aware of the additional time we have for ourselves without the computer. And we tend to make an effort to do something nice together when the computers aren't occupying us.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Art gallery

Sophie is reading everything lately. She'll sit with magazines, comic compilations (Garfield is a favourite), easy readers, novels, newsletters, anything, really, and I'll hear her reading aloud quietly to herself. The other two learned to read more internally, silently. It's fun to witness the progression.

Weather is pouring rain today and cold, so I'm trying to inspire some spring cleaning indoors. Success is limited. The kids polished the piano and tidied the living room floor.

The art show last weekend was a great success. It was the exhibition marking (almost) the end of the year's art classes for Noah and Erin. The teacher mounted the artwork nicely and made nice display cards with the kids' names. The exhibit was in a real gallery space, following an outdoor community event, so there was a huge busy influx of visitors, just like a real art show opening. It was great for the kids to hear people oohing and ahhing over the work of themselves and their friends. And everything looked so professional in that setting.

When their paintings and drawings came home this week I was inspired to hang it at home with a little more care and respect than usual. It looks really nice. I've been thinking lately about how a parent responds to a child's creative output is a balance. While you want to demonstrate interest and support and encouragement, you don't want to give the impression that you feel every scribble is a work of art, or should be. I think too much focus on the end-produce stunts creativity and joy. I think it's important for kids to understand that not everything has to be worth displaying on the fridge, that creative work is valuable even if (or perhaps especially if) it doesn't yield a highly-polished end-product. I find that specific comments about the art, rather than general praise, makes a good strategy. "You made some really intriguing colour choices in this one. I think the blue and brown really work together nicely, and the orange just jumps out at you and draws attention to the centre. That's really neat." And I find that if I let the artwork they produce linger a little in piles that in a few days or weeks the kids are quite clear about what they consider worthy of display.

So today we have two beautiful walls of construction-paper-matted artwork, distilled from reams of stuff the kids have produced over the past 8 months or so. It's quite inspiring.

We're (I'm) having a bit of an issue with the amount of screen-time in this family. I feel a family meeting coming on with this at the top of the agenda. A couple of weeks ago the computer crashed and wouldn't reboot for love or money. Alas, Chuck took it upon himself to fix it that very evening. Lack of parental communication. Some intentional procrastinating would have been most appreciated by me. Still, there's lots of outdoor play happening too, so there's some balance there.

Friday, April 09, 2004

The Outdoors Beckons

Noah is usually up by 8:30 and plays a bit of totally uneducational Midtown Madness 2 on the computer. This morning, while trying to win enough races to unlock a new car, he got to the point of tears several times. He would not quit. I reminded him that games were supposed to be fun but of course (I should know better!) this made no difference. Fiona was the only one able to break his negative spiral. He took a break, went back, finally won the crucial race and unlocked the coveted car. He said "that's better... now you don't have to worry about me crying and screaming," and laughed. I'm amazed how easily he bounces back from outbursts like that. Erin assumes one wins a badge of honour to be able to cling to a bad mood for hours.

When the girls arise, they eat breakfast. This is usually cereal, though lately Noah has been asking for "family breakfast" from time to time, which basically just means I prepare something healthy and set it down in front of the bunch of us, including Chuck if he happens to be home. Porridge, orange juice smoothie, maybe some fruit or toast. Then they all go outside. I've discovered that if I go outside they'll soon follow, which is odd because they're rarely the slightest bit interested in what I'm doing and usually end up in a totally different corner of the property from me. But I guess they just need me to remind them, after a long winter, that the weather is lovely outside. I'm trying to get some garden beds tidied up, raking the leaves and twigs, doing the last bit of pruning, divide some overgrown stuff and remove some ugly bushes. The kids are biking, mixing mud and water and sand and various bits of foliage, doing the occasional bits of yardwork.

Lately they've all be whittling wood. Erin wanted to make a staff, and I turned a nice straight 5' apple branch over to her. As I got a knife out and set her to work peeling bark, it occurred to me that whittling is exactly the sort of mesmerizing and relatively mindless pursuit that she'd likely really enjoy. It would give her time to be alone with her thoughts outside. I was right: she sat there for three hours the first day and has continued to strip and carve and whittle for a while every day since. Noah and Sophie have enjoyed sticks and knives too lately. I haven't been supervising terribly closely. They know the safety rules and have always been scrupulously observing them when I've checked. So far no missing digits.

At some point during the day we generally have somewhere to go.... violin group class, orchestra, violin lessons, art class, gymnastics/piano or the community garden. We've done pretty well lately at squeezing in a daily activity or two at home together: bookbinding, dyeing eggs, starting sprouting seed, making seed pots, baking muffins, this and that.

Today I made and bound a slim journal as a guestbook at the open house being held to memorialize an elderly friend who died earlier this week. I also toted the kids around to borrow coffee urns and put together cheese and cracker trays. We'll go to his home tomorrow morning and help set the food up. We're taking the Lego for his 4-year-old granddaughter who will probably enjoy some child-friendly diversion. My kids and I talked about how they felt at what they fondly term their grandpa's "Deathday Party" last summer ... how nice it was that some kid friends came and played with them amidst a sea of adults.

Practising has been occurring during the late afternoon and/or evenings. I'm not pulling my weight on it. I seem to manage to practice effectively with one child one week, and another child the next week, but never everyone at once. Two weeks ago Noah had an amazing week of progress. Last week Sophie had a big leap with her tone and bow direction. One of the pluses of this spotty support I'm offering them is that they do see the difference my help makes, when available, to their progress.

Erin got told off at her violin lesson this week. She'd been practising the Bach a minor violin concerto for weeks at top speed with no care whatsoever, and both my mom (her teacher) and I were getting fed up. Probably Erin was getting fed up too with her lack of progress. My mom and I carefully orchestrated the lesson admonishment, and it worked very well I think. My mom basically said "Hey, who are we kidding here? This isn't any better because you're not working on it properly at home. There's no point in you playing any more of it for me, because we both know what it's going to sound like: just like it did last week, right? Rather than pretending you're trying hard at home and everything will eventually work out, let's just put that behind us and do some proper work on it today." I think that the good-natured "you-can't-pull-the-wool-over-my-eyes" and "let's get on with it" approach was what she needed. She had a pretty good working session at her lesson and was unusually cheerful and responsive. It will be interesting to see if she does any effective home practising this week.

The high school kids who make up most of the 1st violin section of the orchestra were away this week, and so Erin was the only 1st violin there. She sat as concertmaster and played up a storm. She really knows that music! I was impressed! Noah, who had come to his first orchestra rehearsal two weeks ago and got really fired up about it, balked when it came time to go this week. Oh well: it's too late for him to truly join the orchestra this year (concerts are this month) and he'll be more than ready next fall.

Math usually happens in the evenings. Noah has recently finished Singapore 2A, Erin has finished 6A. Erin is getting to a level where she actually has a little learning to do. Nothing's too challenging yet but she's beginning to have to really think about the story problems. Noah is still finding his math very easy, which is a great place for him to be. He needs to build confidence. Sophie is plugging through Miquon Red. She's clearly learning. Even a couple of months ago she wasn't totally clear on what 32 really meant (i.e. 3 tens and 2 ones) but she's now confidently doubling 16 and 30 and such-like, without manipulatives. I'm often not sure where she's picked things up. The other day she was playing the piano and calling out note-names. I've never taught her any note-names: the program we've looked at a bit is totally interval-based at this point. But there she was, calling out "F! A! F#!" and playing them all appropriately.

Fiona has been out of diapers, even for out-of-town trips, for a couple of weeks. I guess my family is done with diapers forever. I'd probably be a little more wistful about this landmark, were it not for the fact that I'm so proud of her and me for the success of our elimination communication adventure. She's 14 months and got her first immunization today. Took it like a trooper.

I'm continuing my efforts to create a children's gardening club. I've got a proposal on the agenda for the community health centre's next board meeting. I ordered a terrific "curriculum" book which is chock full of amazing activities and ideas: the "Junior Master Gardener Level 1 Teacher's Guide." If my kids were more amenable to mom-directed canned activities, it would be just great for at home. The activities are creative, kid-friendly and extremely varied. Looking forward to using it next year in a group setting though!