Thursday, March 18, 2004

Penpals and practising

My kids are on a bit of a penpal kick right now. A couple of years ago I'd tried to interest Erin in penpal correspondence, but the enthusiasm didn't really kick in and the few little bits of effort she expended weren't enough to fire things up. This time things are different, probably for two reasons.

First, the impetus for the projects hasn't come from me, so there was no question of who "owned" the ideas. This is all about the kids, and I'm staying very much in the back seat. Second, we're working mostly with postal mail rather than e-mail. The tangible nature of letters, stamps, treats and trinkets has won the kids over big-time.

Noah has a Dutch pal who is enthusiastic and quick to reply. J.'s mom types a dictated letter in Dutch and then translates it to English and J. sends both copies. The little packets he's been sending and receiving have inspired Noah's sisters. Erin has started corresponding with a former e-pal in Scotland again, through the mail this time. And I've just got Sophie hooked up with a little girl in Japan with a Canadian mom, who wants to know more about Canada and to pick up more English.

I knew having a penpal would provide some learning about languages and cultural and physical geography, and give some writing practice. However, it's also providing some neat opportunities to practice particular types of social skills: some perspective-taking based on limited information ("from what we know about him, do you think he's the type of kid who would enjoy ____?" or "let's be careful not to send so much that she feels she has to live up to our example") and to work on the responsibility of nurturing and maintaining a friendship ("Since we're not going to get around to sending our packet until next week, maybe we should send an e-mail to let him know").

It's been a transitional 2 or 3 weeks for Erin's practising. She hit a big lull in motivation at the beginning of March. For years I've known that she wants to be in charge of every minute aspect of her life. But when it came to practising, although she hates me "making her" practice, she hasn't wanted to take responsibility for it herself. She's ten now, in Book 7, and has occasionally in the past year demonstrated brilliant analytical and problem-solving skills in her self-directed practising. Given that we're always battling over getting the practising done (started, mostly) I really felt it was time to give her not just independence in practising, but responsibility for ensuring it gets done. Yet she seemed to want to refuse to take responsibility. She preferred to stay embroiled in a power struggle with me

Then I thought about it: I try to hand over responsibility when I'm at the end of my rope. I'm saying "I've had enough of this! I am not putting up with it any more! You are in charge, and you can sink or swim."

Invariably, she sunk. And blamed me. She was already in a cycle of resistence, feeling frustrated and discouraged, and of course she viewed my quitting as her practice cop as a withdrawal of support.

Now, for the past week, things have been on an upswing. Conflict is at a minimum. We're in one of those too-rare phases when there isn't much resistence. And I said "You're doing well. I don't think you need me to boss you into practising any more. I'm sure you can handle this."

She's swimming! I've not quit as her practice cop... I've been offered, and accepted, early retirement.

I'm sure there are rough patches in our future. I'm sure she will begin to sink from time to time. But this is the first time I've made any progress in getting her to "own" her success or failure in regular practising.

I have a feeling this is an lesson I should try to learn well and get comfortable applying to all parts of life before ushering four kids through adolescence.

Noah has discovered that he can read the text in reference books, rather than just browsing pictures and captions, and is delighted to be able to teach himself all sorts of interesting stuff. His reading confidence is taking off in a big way with this discovery. He sits near me in the family room and explains what he's just learned. He's reading the "Usborne Illustrated Guide to Greek Myths and Legends" lately.

Sophie is reading quite well now too, simple picture books, easy readers. It was on December 1st that she first read an unfamiliar word ('Montana') aloud and I thought "yikes! she's starting to read! how'd I miss that till now?"

Suddenly I've got three kids reading for pleasure, not just one!

Erin, who has been writing daily in her (locked) journal, tells me her cursive writing has improved a lot. I found a computer cheat code on the desk done in cursive and I have to say it's true. Noah has just about finished Singapore Math 2A and I've just realized I'd better hurry up and track down 2B for him (2A was just an "experiment" to see if Singapore would suit him). Erin is gradually patching up holes in 6A before moving ahead into 6B. She's slowed down with her math again. Sophie has lost her Miquon Red Book, so she hasn't done any formal math in a week or two. She's doing lots of self-directed piano work (setting out rhythmic reading flashcards and clapping them, reading ahead in her first primer book, practising and improvising).

I've made small blank journals using some of the kids' marbled paper for the covers. Now I'm restoring a Beatrix Potter book I read as a child, just for fun. I feel like Mo in "Inkheart". I've also been doing a bit of organizational / feasibility work on possibly creating a Junior Organic Gardeners' Club in our town. And I'm creating a brand-new website from scratch. It must be my spring rush of creativity, arriving early.

Our big readaloud right now is "the Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman. Must go read now.

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