Sunday, May 22, 2005

News Clips

Lately my blog entries have been more reflective than newsy, so I thought I'd remedy the situation with a few News Clips.

A month ago I got most of my hair chopped off. I like it ... it's sort of medium-short, down to the angle of my jaw. The other day Fiona was asked to say something funny by some members of Erin & Noah's soccer team. She said "Mommy's hair funny, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" That got a big laugh from everyone. At least she's no longer asking me, in all seriousness "Mommy, are you a boy?"

Erin has had a couple of rehearsals of her Bach Piano Concerto in E major 'siciliano' movement with the Nelson string orchestra and it's going swimmingly. Her memorization is excellent and it's absolutely no problem to put together with the orchestra. At the last rehearsal she actually added some phrasing and dynamics, wonder of wonders! She has a lovely dress to wear for the performances, a fairly slim-tailored black velvet one with a lacey ivory white bodice. Nice and formal without being kiddie-pageant little-girlish, or flamboyant and slinky. Unfortutely we haven't found shoes yet to go with it. Besides Walmart, local selection is virtually non-existent.

I did an uncharacteristically sensible thing and booked myself and the kids into a B&B in Nelson for the four days leading up to the Concerto Concert. We'll be staying at a family-friendly guest house run by some homeschooling acquaintances of ours. This will allow us to avoid four additional back-and-forths to Nelson that week for the cascade of final rehearsals (generally speaking more than 2 trips to Nelson a week is considered unacceptable to the kids) and to have relaxing days uncluttered by all the extra things we get busy with at home (soccer, GRUBS, housework, playdates, errands, etc.). I think it will be a very nice time.

Our new minivan finally showed up and it's fantastic. So quiet, a dream to drive, and incredibly flexible in terms of seating and payload. We're also getting at least an extra 150 km on a (marginally smaller) tank of gas. Our trips to Nelson are so much nicer. We can converse with each other. We can listen to music or audiobooks without having to crank the stereo up so loud over top of the road & engine noise that we all go into sensory overload after 20 minutes and have to shut it off.

The soccer season is more than half over. I pushed Noah a little to join up because he clearly enjoyed kicking a soccer ball around at home, but was leery of the team/competitive mentality. He agreed to try it for three practices, and was instantly hooked. Erin didn't want to sign up until she discovered she'd be on the same team as Noah so she was in. Sophie didn't want to sign up until I explained that she wasn't expected to already know how to play, that the whole program was about helping kids learn to play. She's on a younger team which is a good fit for her. They're all enjoying it even though it's taking up a lot of time each week.

However, there's that whole winning/losing thing. Fully a third of their soccer time is spent in games. There's no attempt to compile 'league standings', score is kept in a low-key and somewhat informal way (they stop counting if one team is wiping the field with the other) and it's understood that the teams vary a lot in age and ability due to the varying size of the communities and schools involved. Still, when the two local teams were formed, the kids were divvied up on the basis of personality i.e. aggressiveness. Erin and Noah ended up on the team with all the less aggressive players, and all they do is get creamed in games (10 or 12 to 0 or 1). I think the idea of putting the less aggressive players together makes a certain amount of sense. The rowdiness, rudeness and physical hits of the "other" team are not contaminating the experience of these more sensitive kids. On the other hand, Erin and Noah and three or so of the other kids are pretty decent players, while the majority of their team-mates are either afraid of the ball, uninterested in soccer or totally distractable. We drove 2 hours one way last week to another town for a special game that was supposed to be more evenly matched, but the opposing team got a little mixed up over the format of the game and included, unbeknownst to us, four pretty adept players from an older age-group. So the kids got trounced again.

Erin and Noah aren't overly upset over all of this; the losses kind of roll off them, which I'm a little surprised and very pleased about. But a number of their team-mates / friends are feeling pretty depressed about the losses and that's affecting the whole 'team morale' and everyone's enjoyment of the whole experience.

The problem to my mind is not with the composition of the team or with the poor matching of the opposing teams, but with the focus on weekly competitive games. During practices the kids are perfectly happy to scrimmage in a flexible way with other local kids without rigid team assignments. At "home", they often divide into three teams and rotate playing A vs. B, B vs. C then C vs. A, five minutes at a time. There are goals and there are saves and they are serious about the play. But team assignments are flexible and no one group of kids gets consistently beaten. They learn and take a supportive interest in each other's successes, often high-fiving members of the opposite 'team'. Their coach is just amazing at nurturing this kind of environment. To me this is the ideal format for these kids. The mood becomes much more upbeat by the end of the week's two practices, but the games on the weekend make it tough to stay motivated.

Ah well, overall it's still been a great experience for them.

The kitchen renovation is showing signs of being imminent. Our entire kitchen will be gutted sometime in the next month. This is something that was in the ten-year plan when we moved into our house eleven years ago. Plumbing will be moved, bricks and concrete footings will be broken up and removed, floor leveled, walls insulated, flooring replaced, drywall finished, cabinets replaced, peninsula built, new range and sink installed, pantry built etc. etc.. The two guys who were hopefully going to do the lion's share of the grunt work have somewhat unexpectedly got very busy, and Chuck is facing the prospect of having to work full days in the clinic plus on-call (rather than the half days he currently works) as the clinic moves to Electronic Medical Records. We're still planning to go ahead in about a week, but just writing it here I'm beginning to wonder if we should wait another month. We'll see. We've put together a couple of the lovely IKEA cabinets and they're waiting hopefully in the dining room along with the cork flooring.

Our garden is basically in. With most of our gardening energy going into the GRUBS garden site in town, we've planted a little more conservatively than in previous years. Still, I'm feeling quite good about the home garden, which had gone quite feral in the years I had three very young children. I've made a lot of small cumulative gains in the past three years and have had to put much less energy into preparing the beds this year than in past years. The onions/garlic/shallots, peas/beans, squash/cukes and lettuce/spinach are all up and growing well. The perennials (raspberries, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, etc.) are all showing increasing productivity one year to the next.

I think that covers most of the newsy stuff. I'll probably be back in Reflective Mode by my next entry.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Light Box

At a yard sale last weekend I picked up a light box for $3 and knew exactly what it'd be for. It's a flourescent-lit box about 12 x 16 x 2" that's got translucent white plastic on the top. It's intended for photographers to use when examining and sorting their 35 mm slides or negatives. But I'd always wanted one for the kids to use when tracing.

Mona Brookes (of "Drawing With Children" and 'Monart' fame) mentions the usefulness of tracing when kids are beginning to work on realistic drawing techniques, especially if they're perfectionists. The idea is to start with a stack of drawing paper, setting one sheet aside for the final product. You then work on a drawing until you're not happy with part of it, at which point you trace the 'good parts' onto a new sheet and continue from there. And so on, until you're happy with an entire picture ... and then you take your reserved sheet of paper and trace your drawing onto that. The tracing gives plenty of chance to feel and repeat the execution of certain line shapes, and mistakes aren't some awful dead end, just another step along the way.

The kids gravitated right to the light box. They threw magazine photos onto it and traced out the contours. They're having to make decisions like how far to extend the line that defines the nose, where the contour becomes just a blend of shades. The subject matter has been somewhat bizarre, to say the least. Erin especially is choosing head shots of fashion models in ads from the throwaway waiting room magazines we get. She generally mocks anything of this ilk, having coined the word "beautyish" for "aspiring to the aesthetic standards of the shallow and ridiculous fashion industry". But she's always been fascinated with drawing faces, though she's not been particularly adept at them and hasn't wanted any help to improve. Now, I can only imagine that by repeatedly creating line drawings from large-format facial photographs that she's discovering things about the lines and shapes and proportions that make up the human face. I'll be really interested to see where this goes.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Teaching vs. Parenting

This morning we held a family meeting under the apple tree, and among other items on the agenda was our regular touching-base with whatever structured learning work the kids are doing. I went from one child to the next. I asked Erin how she felt about how she was doing with this sort of work and she explained that right now she's working on Food and Music Theory. I asked what she meant by Food and she didn't want to explain exactly, but she said that so far she'd finished with Bedtime and Nails. As is the norm when discussing things she takes seriously with this kid, I had to guess at what she was saying, and presumed she meant resetting her bedtime for a more reasonable hour (something I wrote about recently in this blog), and stopping biting her fingernails. Food presumably meant working through some of her picky-eating tendencies, and Music Theory was fairly self-evident, as she recently promised her piano teacher that she would do 20 minutes a day of theory bookwork. Math and Housekeeping, she explained, would be next, once she was done with Food and Theory. I found it interesting that as an 11-year-old unschooler, she still makes no distinction between the structured (i.e. goal-directed, self-motivated) work of quitting her nail-biting habit and the structured (i.e. goal-directed, self-motivated) work of music theory bookwork.

A related issue came up on the Unschooling Message Board I oversee at iVillage. Another mom posted:

"I went to a mom's group and the topic was using books to teach your children to read. Most of the ideas presented were things I just did when playing with my kids. But I never considered it teaching them to read.

"... do you think your children just learned or did you teach them? Also do you think maybe the difference is in the definition of teach? "

I too have told people that I didn't do anything to 'teach' my kids to read, yet when asked for suggestions for reading-readiness activities, I discover that over the years I've done lots of things that other parents would consider part of a 'teaching reading' program.

What I think is going on in my head relates to what I think of as the crux of unschooling. It is absolutely parallel to what occurs in fully unschooled children. They see no distinction between living and learning, between work and play and education. They don't know that figuring out the origin of the word 'gargoyle' is language arts, history and mythology. They don't know that making a picture with a compass and ruler is geometry and art and fine motor skills. It's just life.

Similarly, an adult who is fully in the unschooling mindset and whose child is of the same mindset sees no distinction between living alongside a child and teaching, between work and play and education.

Just as children are hardwired to learn (naturally, unconsciously, simply in the course of life), adults are hardwired to teach (naturally, unconsciously, simply in the course of life). It is only when we make the choice to separate learning from living that the distinction between teaching and parenting becomes relevant. When we don't cleave reality into Learning vs. Living, there's no need to cleave our parental interaction with our kids into Teaching vs. Just Being a Parent. The line seems artificial, fuzzy, and beside the point.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Heaving a sigh...

... of relief. We survived the past week. Tomorrow is a completely free day. We haven't had one of those in weeks. Most days we've had at least two, and sometimes more, outside activities. In the past week: two concerts and all the organizing/packing/traveling that those entailed, one extra rehearsal, violin & piano lessons, soccer practices and games (4x per week total), art class, group class, choir rehearsals, GRUBS, trio rehearsal. In the midst of it all Chuck was gone to Vancouver for 3 1/2 days so it almost all fell to me. We made it to everything, didn't forget anything crucial, and didn't kill each other in the process. Not only that but we managed to spend some nice down-time together one afternoon that really recharged us. I'm getting better at focusing us on the routines and expectations that make coping easier and the kids are getting so much more understanding and willing to pull together.

It wasn't easy, and I did have a near-meltdown one morning as we were supposed to be leaving for a rehearsal & concert and two of the kids, both of whom happen to have massive layers of dirty and clean clothes strewed permanently on their bedroom floors while their mother waits for the 'natural consequences' of such mess and neglect to reveal themselves, complained that they couldn't find any dark-coloured socks to wear with their black pants and shoes. Yes, complained, as if it was my fault. Me who had been up since 5 organizing and packing and making lunches and assembling photo displays. But as I say, no one killed anyone. And more than half the clothes were tidied up the next day.

We are all enjoying our less scheduled week this week. And I mean enjoying. We are appreciating the time we have at home in each other's company and feeling that it's a precious thing to have. We've been reminded how important it is.

Fiona was a delight at both concerts. She had a bit of company from Sophie, who didn't play at all in the first concert, and only played a few numbers in the second. But really Sophie was a companion, not an overseer, and Fiona was a perfect member of the audience both times, with no intervention required. How is it that I am so lucky four times over to have children who can be brought to classical music concerts and behave impeccably at age 2? How wonderfully odd are these children?