Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Fortunately / Unfortunately

The kids invented a new game this week called "Fortunately/Unfortunately". It's a round-robin story-telling game. The difference is that the contributed lines of the story must begin, in alternating fashion, with "Fortunately...." or "Unfortunately..."

"Unfortunately the car was made of cheese and it melted."
"Fortunately I was really hungry, so I started eating the cheese."
"Unfortunately the cheese was rotten and made me very sick."
"Fortunately I was near the Aw-school hospital."

"Unfortunately when I told them what was wrong they just said 'Aw'."
"Fortunately I was feeling much better by then so I left."
"Unfortunately I fell down dead on the doorstep of Aw-school."

"Fortunately Athena brought me back to life."
"Unfortunately I am so evil that this was a bad thing."

And so on. The kids can play this sort of game for hours. Even Fiona was offering up contributions tonight:

"Fort-n-y Daddy is bad!" [laughing herself silly]

They have many other oral games they like to play. "Ask Anubite" puts Noah in the driver's seat having fun with free-association weirdness and big words. "The Question Game" is their co-operative open-ended version of Twenty Questions. They do regular round-robin storytelling and a looser co-operative form of story-telling. And they love making up wacky lyrics for songs they know (including every song they're singing in their various choirs).

We are getting a new minivan in the next week or two. What I'm looking forward to the most (besides not having to get the brakes re-adjusted or fixed on an emergency basis all the time) is us all being able to converse in the vehicle. The kids will be able to play these games all the way to Nelson and back. The new Sienna will be much quieter (smaller engine, less road noise, better sound insulation) and unless Chuck is along we will all be sitting in the front two rows of seats so we'll be close to each other. The Ford simply doesn't allow for conversation in transit and that has made our trips to Nelson every week much more challenging. We've felt positively spoiled the few times we've taken Chuck's truck to Nelson in that we can actually interact with each other without twisting around and shouting and repeating ourselves.

The new van comes at a good time - our Nelson trips will become more frequent through late May and June as Erin begins rehearsing her Bach Piano Concerto movement with the orchestra.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Rhetoric and gardening

Somehow when I was growing up it became a sort of family sport to expound with great assurance about things you knew rather little about, reporting vague impressions as well-founded facts, expressing momentary hunches as well-considered theories. The idea was to see if you could fool your listeners into believing that you were as much an expert and authority as possible. If challenged, you then went into defensive rhetoric mode, justifying your previous comments ... and if you painted yourself into a corner, you'd then smirk and confess "well, actually, I just made that up," and everyone would laugh. My brother Jeremy and I were particularly good at this game.

Echoes of this skill, I confess with some embarrassment, still show through in my contributions to message boards and e-lists. I usually make an effort not to mis-state facts, but I find I have this inclination to write responses that begin "I have this theory that...." and then make up the theory on the spot.

Just over two years ago I wrote something on a message board where a homeschooling parent was asking for help in nurturing study skills. I jumped in with a "theory" and its derivative advice. I've lost the original post, but I found an e-mail I sent elsewhere a week or so later which referred to the post:

"Someone in a homeschooling context recently asked me for help in nurturing study skills (by which she meant diligence, persistence and problem-solving skills). My advice? Take up Suzuki music lessons and gardening!"

The funny thing is that expounding on theories and giving advice I'd never thought through until that moment often provides me with some pretty interesting food for thought. Sometimes the theories my message-board rhetoric-loving alter-ego floats contain snippets of thought-provoking wisdom, and I think this must have been the case above, because I returned to think about my "advice" plenty in the months to come and it's ultimately had a dramatic influence on my behaviour and focus with the kids.

Here we are 2 years later and organic gardening and its related environmental education is where a huge proportion of my parenting / homeschooling energy is going. We've got a kitchen garden, a vegetable garden, a water garden with separate areas for the kids, new fruit trees, a fairy garden area, a worm bin, and an entire community children's garden and the GRUBS club being created to support that. We've reached the point where I'd describe our homeschooling approach as being centred around musical instrument study and gardening.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The littlest choir member

Mondays are our "Nelson days". Today was a typical one. We leave home at 9 am. From 10:30 to 12 noon we have appointments and/or errands. Then we eat lunch (I pack a lunch at home ... soon we'll be eating in the park; through the winter we eat in the van). Our weekly family meeting occurs at lunch, sometimes at a café if we have enough extra time for coffee or steamed almond milk. Then we grocery shop. After that it's off to piano lessons. Noah has his lesson. Then while Erin's having hers, Fiona and I run Noah and Sophie to choir. Boys' Choir is first. Then Fio' and I run back to pick Erin up. Sophie starts Girls' Choir. I get to choir practice with Erin and Fiona. Erin is in Intermediate Choir which rehearses last. After the last choir rehearsal, we head home, arriving at about 7:09 pm. A long day! Fiona (almost 27 months) is generally a cheerful tagalong. She knows the routine well, and though nothing directly involves her, she has great fun feeling like she's a part of the whole day.

Today when we arrive at the church during Girls' Choir, Fiona asks "My turn choir?"

"Yes, when you're older you can be in choir!"

"My turn choir," she says, nodding.

Girls' Choir finishes. Erin goes up as the Intermediate Choir assembled. They start their warmups.

"My turn choir," says Fiona. "You take me mommy."

"Maybe when you're bigger. That's Erin's choir," I whisper.

Choir rehearsals are held in a nice large church sanctuary. Two or three parents are usually there to listen. The kids are well-behaved and hard-working. The Intermediate Choir numbers about 15 girls from age 11 to 15 and they are way up on the raised area behind the altar, in the choir pews.

Fiona begins toddling up the steps towards the choir. She sidles into the middle pew, the one behind Erin, right at the end, about 3 feet from the last choir member in that row. She's quiet as a mouse. She sits there with a serious look of concentration on her face, watching the director, listening to the choir, with her tiny little feet sticking out straight just barely beyond the edge of the pew.

Allison, the wonderful choir director, makes a little comment to the choir about how quiet Fiona is.

"I have a 3-year-old," she says, "and I wouldn't even want him in the building during a rehearsal. Look how perfectly quiet she is. Amazing!"

But that's just the beginning. The first warm-ups are over. Fiona's still sitting, paying close attention. Allison gets the girls to stand up to sing a first piece. Fiona stands. And stays standing for the 5 or 10 minutes they work on the piece. She's so tiny I can only see the top of her head behind the pew in front of her. Allison can't believe her -- she turns around a grins at me. Then they sit. Fiona turns around, climbs up on the pew (it's a long way up for her!), and sits.

I'm just grinning from ear to ear. Sophie and Noah are laughing quietly. Fiona is so sweet. The choir is working section by section on parts-singing. She's still sitting up there, ever so seriously, doing what she calls "my turn choir". I quietly sneak up the steps to the end of the pew.

"Are you done?" I whisper to Fiona.

"No," she whispers back. I sneak back down.

The choir is smiling, loving this. They stand again to sing. She stands. They sing for a long time. It's a couple of hours past Fiona's usual nap time and I can see she's flagging. She's still standing but she's laying her head on the seat. They sit. I look at her, smiling, and give her a little wave.

She's been up there for about 20 minutes. She decides her turn is over and toddles quietly back down the steps. Sophie walks out to meet her and give her a hug. The choir girls are just in raptures over the whole thing, so the whole choir and the director are waiting for her to take her seat in the audience before going on with their rehearsal. At the last second, Fiona trips, the combined effect of new sandals and the sloping of the church aisle, and hits her head on the first pew. There's a small gasp from the choir. Fiona holds in the wail until I get her out of the sanctuary -- well, almost, anyway.

A few minutes later she's happy again, with a small egg in the centre of her forehead. "I do my turn choir," she tells me, with a big grin on her face.

After rehearsal is over, Allison tells me how amazing Fiona is. I laugh and jokingly say "Yeah, but by the time she's actually old enough to be in the choir, she'll probably be a hellion."

"Ah, maybe," says Allison, "but at least we had today."


Saturday, April 16, 2005

Reading aloud

Maintaining the kids' interest in being read aloud to as they grow older is something I've been working away at. I'm of a mind to think that the key is to treat reading aloud as something families do, rather than something parents do for children who can't yet read (at least at that level) on their own. In other words, I think that if you create a culture of reading aloud in your family, one where adults read to adults and kids read to adults (for mutual pleasure, NOT for evaluative purposes) and adults read to kids, then children will be less likely to abandon the ritual as they grow in maturity and age. They won't see it as something that "little kids get from their parents when they can't read to themselves yet", but something that "human beings often enjoy doing together".

So I try to include Chuck in our readalouds with from time to time. Often that's tough, as our 'down-time' and bedtime schedules rarely coincide with his. But I'll sometimes save an interesting magazine article to read at supper time. Or we'll share a favourite audiobook with him (perhaps not necessarily at the same time, but we at least share a common exposure that way). And when we're on vacation we always all listen to the readalouds. Chuck and I used to, before kids, read aloud to each other on long car trips, and we share this with the kids.

Two message boards I'm a part of recently had polls asking how often parents read aloud to their kids at bedtime. On one general parenting board 53% said "never". On another over 90% claimed to read aloud to their kids "with some regularity" and this was a poll concerning kids who were already reading independently. The latter was an education-focused board for parents of gifted children. Stark contrast, hmmm? I wonder which direction the causality runs?

I think that reading aloud to independent readers is very important. It allows you to share a common body of knowledge and vicarious experience with your children, to pass along your own love of certain books and favourite authors, to spend time being with your children, to expose them to themes and subject matter that they might not choose to read on their own, and to 'read a little over their heads', expanding their comprehension and vocabulary far more than will happen just through independent reading. Two of my kids were reading independently at 4, and I just never would have entertained the thought of giving up reading aloud at that age... thankfully that early start got us all over the hump of believing that reading aloud is just a helpful thing parents do before their kids can read independently.

I know that families with children in school have a tougher job finding time for reading aloud, and I can't presume to truly understand the challenges of scheduling and time constraints facing families with kids in school. I can't help but wonder though whether, while it's presumably more challenging to find the time, it's perhaps even more important that they do, because relative to families that don't do school they have so little shared experience and so little shared time. Reading independently, though important, does not fill that void.

At the risk of appearing dishwasher-obsessed, I will mention that hand-washing dishes as a family creates a wonderful opportunity for shared reading aloud. One person can be appointed the reader-aloud, while the others wash/rinse/dry/put away the dishes.

Jim Trelease's "Read-Aloud Handbook" contains some very compelling arguments and statistics about the importance of reading aloud as a family. The read-aloud bibliography is also great. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Another full day

Life is very full lately. There's soccer, three times a week for Erin and Noah, once a week for Sophie. There are Suzuki violin lessons and an upcoming regional concert, with extra preparation for that. There's community orchestra, and an upcoming concert, and extra repertoire to prepare for that. There's GRUBS, just about ready to kick into high gear. There's our monthly visits to the nursing home to play music, and the preparation time involved in that. There are piano lessons. And choir practices for each of the three kids. And we're attempting to trade in our minivan and buy a new one ... extra trips to Nelson for appraisals and the like. And trips to Trail for the music festival. And Chuck out of town for six days over the next couple of weeks. And a garden to put in. And a summer music camp to plan. And a chamber music concert for me to rehearse for, and (hopefully!) practice for. Not to mention a lot of book-keeping and tax preparation to catch up on.

I need to cut myself some slack. And the kids too. Tonight they're playing extremely boisterously in the living room, rather than practising, as they really ought to be. We were up early and on the road by 7:30 a.m. for the 2-hour trip to Trail for the music festival. We've always given it a miss in the past because when we've observed we've found the atmosphere quite sterile and with competitive overtones. But our piano teacher really wants Erin to participate fully next year, so I thought we'd test the waters this year. I registered Erin & Noah as a piano/viola duet, and Noah & Sophie as a piano/violin duet, performing pieces they've been playing competently for months now (Dvorak's Humoresque and Bach's Minuet 1). They put a little extra polishing effort into them, and off we went. Erin & Noah were in the "under 12" class, and Sophie & Noah were "under 9's". They were the only duos entered in each of these two classes.

We arrived in time to hear some advanced teen violinists in the Unaccompanied Bach class. The playing was mostly quite impressive, and the adjudicator was encouraging and insightful in his comments. Erin and Noah were keen to listen to the whole class and the feedback. Then my kids played. They did really well. Noah filled the church with his big viola sound. Erin had no piano stumbles. Sophie carried herself very well, and Noah, who had a tiny memory lapse on piano covered it so well that I don't suppose anyone noticed. What was most impressive was how well they listened to each other.

The adjudicator was very positive and encouraging. He had some useful comments about playing chamber music as opposed to solos. He loved Noah's viola. He awarded my kids "Certificates of Merit" and a bit of scholarship money and invited Noah and Sophie to play on the Honours Concert, an invitation we declined because of the additional travel involved.

Overall it was a very positive experience. The observation of advanced students was an excellent opportunity, the kids played well and felt good about what they'd done, the adjudicator was kind, encouraging and helpful, and there was some tangible affirmation of the kids' abilities. I think they'll feel fine about participating more fully in the festival next year.

Then we headed for home. We stopped at home to change out of recital clothes, grab something to eat and then head out for soccer practice. Then home to catch up on the dishes and cook a quick supper and ... well, they're giggling and running around in the living room now and there I'm going to leave them. They have a game out of town tomorrow morning, a couple of activities on Sunday, and then an extremely full day in Nelson on Monday.

The kids need their down time. They're so much happier, and so much more productive, when they get it. I was proud of them today, not only up on stage, but listening in the audience, and on the soccer pitch.

I'll start working in half an hour or so at winding them down and then it's a night to choose a new novel to start as a readaloud. Avi's "The Barn", which we finished in four nights, was brilliant but very sad for me as it reminded me of providing palliative care for my dad. I'm sure the kids felt the same thing. There was no animated chattering or questioning at chapter's ends like usual.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Dishwashing Convert

I've won one convert in the dishwashing-by-hand campaign. Sophie is my tireless helper. She really enjoys the quiet time with me, the suds, the warm water, the gentle clinking of dishes, the conversation. We're going on four days without using the dishwasher, with just the two of us working with occasional help from Noah, whose appreciation of the process seems to be growing as well.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Child-led bedtimes

I guess way back when Erin was born I missed reading that book about getting your baby on a schedule. When Erin was an infant she had her own ideas about when to sleep and when to wake up and I never thought to try and change her mind -- I just adapted. She was never much of a sleeper. She catnapped on my shoulder, she wanted nothing to do with a crib. At 18 months she gave up naps. By age 2 she was sleeping less than 10 hours out of 24. Throughout most of the past 11 years she's gone to sleep for the night after 11 and woken up no earlier than 8. For the past three or four years her sleep hours have generally been between 1 a.m. and 10 or 10:30 in the morning. I've occasionally joked that she homeschools because she refuses to do mornings. She always manages to be up in time if our schedule demands it, but her general preference is to sleep well past 9.

So imagine my surprise a couple of weeks ago when I realized she was actually in her pyjamas ready to go to bed before Sophie and Noah were ready for their bedtime story. It was only 10:30 pm! I commented about the early hour, and she said "Haven't you noticed? I've been going to bed half an hour earlier each night for the past week."

Three days later she was heading for bed at 9 pm. I was flabbergasted. I asked her whether she was going to bed at 8:30 the next night. "No," she said. "Now I'm going to work on falling to sleep within 3 hours of going to bed."

And so she did. Now when I get up at 7, she's sitting at the dining room table reading magazines and drinking tea. Why?

"I like getting up early."

She's been incredibly disciplined about it. She rushes to her practising directly after supper so that she'll be done in time to head to bed by 9. She comes in the door from orchestra rehearsal and heads straight to bed. She leaves in the middle of a video if it's 9 o'clock. She bought herself an alarm clock this week, because she's discovered that if she sleeps past 7 am she has trouble falling asleep by 9 pm.

It's truly amazing what children will choose to do when we trust them to make good decisions for themselves.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Goodbye Stikine

I was throwing pizza dough and decided to take a tour around the property while I was doing so. I walked out behind the garden and spotted Stikine, the 13-year-old deaf, arthritic family dog lying in an unusual place under the trees. Suddenly I thought "he's dead." I don't know how I knew. I walked over and sure enough, he was lying peacefully at the edge of the forest, having laid down to draw his last few breaths there in the shadow of a 100-foot white pine. I don't know how long he'd been dead, but not long.

I called the kids. They had watched their grandfather die at home 18 months ago; they're comfortable with death. We had been talking about Stikine getting old, and the fact that he probably wouldn't be around for too much longer. They were sad, they came to see him, and pat him one last time. We buried him a dozen feet from where he died.

We'd already been looking for a new young dog, but our search will intensify now. A dog gives me a lot of peace of mind when the kids are outdoors without me; I know cougars generally avoid human beings, but there are rare exceptions. And I appreciate the effect of a barking dog in keeping bears at bay ... away from compost and the fruit trees and the garden and the garbage.

But we sure miss Stikine. He'd been a part of the fabric of our lives for so many years.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Pestles and my trivia magnet

A month ago Chuck bought a marble mortar and pestle. It had sat on an obscure ledge in the kitchen since then and I've used it several times. Apparently none of the kids had noticed it until tonight when I had it out to grind some dried rosemary to add to pizza dough. Erin asked "when did we get this? It's neat." I told her it had been there for a month. Sophie asked what it was for. I said "It's for grinding or mashing herbs and spices. It's called a mortar and pestle, though I'm actually not sure which is which."

Erin gave me a "duh!" look and said "The pestle is the club-shaped thing."

We've never owned one. As far as I knew she'd never seen one. We've never discussed them. She has no obsessive interest in culinary arts. How did she know this, and with such assurance? I don't know, and neither does she. She really had no idea where she'd encountered this little snippet of knowledge.

She stuns me like this at least a couple of times a day. She's a trivia magnet.

Family Meetings and Computer Use

We've been having family meetings for about a year now. Not always every week, but usually. We have a "standing agenda" of items we always touch on, and anyone is free to add items to the agenda at any point. The Standing Agenda includes
  1. Health issues: nutrition, meal planning, exercise and sleep
  2. Balance of at-home down-time vs. outside activities
  3. Housekeeping division of labour
  4. Practising
What I want is for the kids to see that monitoring these items is worth doing so that we can intercept difficulties before they really settle in, and to recognize when things are working well and learn from them. There's a magic to our family meetings. The kids love them -- they're generally lured to them with steamed almond milk or something similar, but there's more to it than that, because they linger long after the drinks are done, suggesting new things to talk about. Family Meetings have proved quite magical in problem-solving. They occur after the heat of the moment has passed, so we're calmer, more rational and more gracious in dealing iwth each other. When we brainstorm a solution, our practice is to agree to try it for a week. That gives us a chance to work past the inevitable bumps at the outset, while allowing that this may not be the ultimate correct solution to the problem.
For the past month or so we've had "Computer Use" on the agenda. We had recognized in our discussion of health issues that we were not balancing active and inactive play and that the computer was the main culprit. Poor weather was certainly playing a role too, as was my poor modeling, and the addition of high-speed internet and some swanky new software to the roster. The computer seemed to be forming an increasingly seductive presence in our family life. I was feeling very close to imposing some sort of coercive top-down parental regime. But I decided to put it on the agenda of our Family Meetings and try that first.

We toyed with a number of possible solutions. I had little hope, because we'd discussed these sorts of issues before with little improvement. We tried "no computer until after supper" and "no computer until after supper unless you've done your music practising sooner" and "2 hours of computer a day." These were all met with intense resentment when it came time for me to enforce the co-operatively agreed-upon rules.

Then, just over three weeks ago, Noah, who usually has the most ambitious schemes (and the least ability to follow through) suggested creating a contingency between music practising one day and computer privileges the next day. Much to my amazement, it's worked and we've renewed the rule on a weekly basis with everyone's blessing. I don't need to nag or step in to enforce anything. Procrastination is always an option, but sooner or later fatigue provides a natural deadline as the kids slink off to bed. They wake up knowing they've chosen a computer-free day. We've discussed it as a matter of balance, not punishment -- if your life has been overbalanced towards sedentary & recreational pursuits, it makes sense to compensate the next day by leaning towards active play and responsibilities.

There's a built-in payback system, though ... if you've missed a day of practising and wake up to a computer-free day, you can do yesterday's practising, and then today's too, and then go outside for some physical activity, and you can then have computer time.

So far every time a child has missed a day of practising, they've chosen payback over a totally computer-free day. But the principle of compensatory balance is being honoured, the computer is being used somewhat less, the practising is getting done without nagging, and the kids are seeing computer use as an ongoing "healthy mind issue." This is progress.