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!