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.