Monday, November 28, 2005

The mother of invention

Noah has been hankering after a webcam for use with his viola club of friends on MSN. He's made a few noises about wanting to buy one, but hasn't done the research yet, and I confess I haven't been in a big hurry to facilitate this for him. But last week he managed to tweak our QX3 Digital Microscope into believing it's a webcam. He unplugs the microscope, starts MSN, and then plugs the microscope in while the window is active. He can then send a webcam invitation to whomever he's chatting with at the time. He needed to add some ambient lighting because the USB-powered webcam light is insufficient at a distance of a metre or so, but he discovered that he could get identifiable blurry moving images of his face on the 'net.

Then one night before bed, when he seems to think laterally the best, Noah said "That digital microscope is near-sighted. I wonder if I could make the focus better by giving it glasses. Your old glasses might work, mom -- you're nearsighted."

The next morning, thanks to a lot of sticky tape, he got the microscope wearing glasses, and I'll be darned, the quality of the webcam image he's getting from it has improved two- or three-fold. If I'd been on the ball, I would have offered to order him a cheap webcam weeks ago with his allowance savings. Because I wasn't, he's learning all sorts of things, and now he feels like a successful 'inventor'.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Patchwork Weekend

I spent the weekend fitting together colourful squares in patterns. First, I got a good start on tiling the kitchen backsplash (finally). Paradoxically it takes a lot of organizing and trial and error to make something look random! Fiona passed me the right size and the right colour squares upon request. This project yielded pretty quick results. This half of the kitchen looks so different. Grout on Tuesday!

I also spent the weekend piecing a quilt top. Last weekend we started tie-dyeing squares for a quilt we're making Fiona for her third birthday. The kids did most of the tying and dyeing and lots of the ironing. For some reason I didn't generate too much interest in the sewing, so I did most of that with Fiona's (un)help. I haven't opened the whole thing up for Fiona to see and don't intend to. Most of the rest of the work can be done in secret. We've been talking about working on her "Q - U - I - L - T," and she is delightedly talking about how we're all sewing her "Q - U - I - L - T," not having the slightest inkling (we hope!) of what that is.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

It's alive!!!

We are new sourdough addicts. A week ago, based on my request many months ago, my friend offered to help me learn to bake sourdough. We ground some fresh rye wheat into flour. To a pinch of commercial yeast we added water and rye flour. Each day on four subsequent days we added another dose of water and rye flour. We left it in a warmish corner of the kitchen, open to the air for the first day, and then lidded. By Day 4 the stuff was bubbly and decidedly sour-smelling. The kids were alternately curious, disgusted and helpful.

On Day 4 we had a fully-formed sourdough 'chef'. Late that evening we pulled out a cup of it to make a sourdough starter, replenished the chef and tucked it in the fridge. By morning the starter was vigourous. It worked beautifully, just like regular yeast, though it didn't need sugar or anything else to encourage it to action. We made our first loaves then and as soon as they disappeared replenished the breadbox with more. The chef seems like it's going to be pretty low-maintenance, just needing re-feeding once a week in the fridge, and by setting up the starter at bedtime, the time required for producing the sourdough isn't particularly onerous and fits nicely into a morning at home.

It's so much fun to learn something new and find out that it's not as complicated as you thought.

A Basic Sourdough Chef:
Day 1: 2/3 c. rye flour, 1/2 c. water, 1/16th tsp. yeast
Day 2: 2/3 c. rye flour, 1/2 c. water added to previous day's mix. Cover.
Day 3: Same as Day 2
Day 4: Same as Day 2 -- should double in bulk within 8 hours.
Evening of Day 4: Remove 1 cup of mixture to make a starter (or discard), and replenish chef with 3/4 cup of rye flour and a little over 1/2 cup of water. Tuck in the fridge.
No more than a week later: same as Evening of Day 4
Repeat ad lib.

Sourdough Starter:
1 cup of chef
1/2 cup of water
1 cup of rye flour
Mix in a bowl, cover tightly and leave in a warm place overnight.

Sourdough Bread:
There are zillions of recipes. One we've liked adds to the starter 3 cups of lukewarm water, 2 tsp. salt, about 7 cups of wheat flour (about 1/3 of which is whole wheat), and a cup or two of carmelized onions. Mix, knead, let rise for 2 1/2 hours. Deflate, knead, shape into loaves, let rise for 1 1/2 hours. Bake very hot (400F+) for 30-40 minutes. Tossing 1/3 cup of water into the bottom of a very hot oven a couple of times at the outset of baking helps make a wonderful crust.

I said to Chuck "don't throw out the grey stuff in the fridge -- it's my sourdough starter." He said "when have I ever thrown out grey stuff in the fridge?" :-D

Friday, November 25, 2005

Radio Free KitchenTable

For the past couple of weeks we've been getting together with another unschooling family to plan a radio show. It will be part of a 16-week half-hour series on Kootenay Co-op Radio devoted to "Homeschooling Families: Pursuing our Passions." We're slated to do two shows, one, collaborating with this other family, about GRUBS and one about, well, I initially thought we'd do it about our music. More on that later.

We've had three sessions. The first was just a regular GRUBS meeting where we were putting the garden to bed and planting garlic. I took my minidisc recorder and caught a half hour or so of "ambient sound" of hoes and chatter and giggling and humming. When I reviewed the recording later it was kind of funny to realize that while there was lots of noise of kids playing and giggling, and my kids were generally one half of any group or dyad, they spoke about half as much as their playmates and at about half the volume. I could hardly ever hear them!

The next time we got together it was a planning session where we talked about the kinds of things we'd fill the show with and how it might be organized. That went pretty well. Everyone contributed ideas. Some prodding was required here and there, but it was relatively easy to keep the kids focused and the ideas flowing.

Then today we got together to do some recording. The kids were supposed to have thought about one activity the GRUBS had done that they'd found particularly enjoyable, and to be ready to talk about it. I was pretty sure it would be a stretch for my kids. And it was. Their verbal reticence had them smiling and looking away and mumbling "someone else can say." But all the kids found it hard to speak "as if to someone who didn't already know what they were talking about." I could probably have jumped in and done the 'teachable moment' thing, but I knew that was only going to make my kids more self-conscious about speaking. We just meandered around various topics for a long time, and Erin, Noah and Sophie did speak up a few times when things seemed to be turning into a real conversation rather than some seemingly artificial communication. Some of that stuff will no doubt be useful for splicing in here and there.

The outcome of that mostly-unsuccessful attempt at laying down some useable audio for the show was that the kids unanimously asked to be more formally interviewed by myself and the other mom. They wanted questions to set the scene or topic, to prompt them and lead the conversation where necessary. I'd sort of been hoping to do the whole show with children's voices only, but we definitely need to concede to the kids here. They need the guidance. And that's what we'll do at our next session, after next week when we go for our studio tour and orientation.

The funny thing is that afterwards my three were talking amongst themselves about a hypothetical Euwy Radio Show. Euwy World (a.k.a. Planet Egypt) is their vast imaginary world. I asked "would you like to do an Euwy World radio show?" They gave me a resounding, unanimous, enthusiastic "Yes!!" Erin said "That would be fun, because we could be silly. It wouldn't be serious and stilted like the GRUBS show." The ideas started flowing.

So now I'm beginning to envision a radio show called "Homeschooling Families -- Pursuing our Passions: Imaginary Play." About a third of the show would be a monologue by me, talking about the role of imaginary play in our family, and the remainder would be illustrative chatter about that imaginary play by my kids. I could explain how enchanted I was to read about The Doll Game in Nancy Wallace's "Child's Work: Taking Children's Choices Seriously" back when I was just researching homeschooling. And now I see something similar, if not more passionate, played out in my own family. I could talk about how homeschooling has given the kids the time to have this rich tapestry of imaginary play. I could explain how easily this play is shared among these three children of disparate ages, ages that would be separated all day in a school situation. I could talk about how there Euwy-based learning has ignored subject-area boundaries, how it has grown up with the kids, how it now encompasses technological tools like websites and digital video cameras and computer graphics programs. I could talk about the psychological / developmental purposes this play seems to serve in their lives. And the kids... well, they could just talk delightedly and in their typical rather silly fashion about Euwy World itself. Erin has written little radio-plays filled with ridiculous and often fairly random occurences. They can endlessly recount the geneology and history of the important inhabitants of Euwy world.

We might try this.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Time to quit

Here's a letter I wrote to Noah's piano teacher last weekend. It explains where we were at and what we did. Noah read most of what I wrote over my shoulder and felt okay about it.

After much discussion over many weeks, and a few long heart-to-hearts this weekend, we've decided that Noah will not be continuing with piano lessons. As you know, he's really struggled for the past year or two. Not musically as much as emotionally.

His perfectionism is at the root of the problem. I had hoped that piano would be an arena in which he would be forced to work through some of his perfectionism. Alas, it seems he's mostly entrenched himself in a kind of 'perfection paralysis'. He has Erin out there as a model and because of his musical perceptiveness he knows exactly how far he has to reach to attain the level of competence he's striving for. And his mechanism of coping with the vast gap between where he's at and where he wants to be is to put off doing the hard work that reminds him of all the learning that lies ahead, and then have huge sobbing meltdowns over the fact that he doesn't feel prepared for his lesson, or isn't 'ready' to practice with my help, or whatever.

I have tried so many, many approaches to help him and myself deal with this. Leaving him alone, helping him practice, insisting on a certain task list, leaving him to noodle around, letting him coast, coddling him through, problem-solving together, playing the heavy. Nothing seems to be able to jiggle him loose. He's miserable at the piano so often that I'd do almost anything to help put an end to it. I've suggested a break from piano many times. In the past he's seen this as punitive (if you don't practice, your mom will take away your lessons!) or as an acknowledgement of failure (you're not progressing, so you might as well quit) and so he has resisted
the idea. I've suggested that maybe a change of teachers would give him a fresh spin. He's refused to consider this. And so we've continued on. He's made some progress on the instrument, but has continued to struggle emotionally.

This summer he had a thrilling Suzuki viola institute experience and followed it the next week with the VSSM week with T___ G___. He really liked her, a lot, but felt just as "yucky" about piano at the end of the week as he had at the beginning. He commented that he often felt totally psyched about viola, but never ever felt that way about piano.

And then at the end of September he managed to quickly learn a couple of more advanced piano pieces and felt a nice sense of competence from that experience. He didn't get a sense of joy and accomplishment, but he was reassured that he was capable. I think that these two experiences have allowed him to see that (a) the piano is not giving him joy the way the viola does and (b) he's not a failure at the piano. Those two things have made him feel okay about leaving piano. His sense of relief was almost palpable, actually.

So that's where we're at, and why. We've come up with some ideas for tackling the perfectionism in other arenas -- it's certainly a pervasive character trait -- and I think he's feeling quite okay about himself.

We'll come at our usual lesson time this week unless I hear otherwise from you. I want to make sure that he and you have a sense of closure and that he is comfortable and not feeling ashamed. I know he is worried that you will be disappointed in him or that your feelings will be hurt and it would be helpful if you could reassure him on that count. I guess we can then work out what would be best for you in scheduling Erin's lesson.

As the above letter attests, it was difficult to get him to the point of accepting "quitting" as an option. I had to take the initiative in raising the possibility and helping him look seriously at it. I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing. But a couple of days later, it's seems clear that it's a good move. He's happier. He's more passionate about his viola. He's sat down a few times at the piano just to play for fun, something he hadn't done much of in a long time.

His teacher was wonderful when we went to talk to her before Erin's lesson. She made him feel happy and comfortable with his decision. She told him that the door is always open, and that things may get rusty but never forgotten, but that he's absolutely made the right decision for now at least. She talked about her (now grown) boys, all three of whom studied piano, only one of whom didn't quit. "And," she said "I love all three of them. The piano worked for one of the but not the others. They're all still wonderful, intelligent, compassionate young men."

She gave him a little gift, just a party-favour-like thingie that she had on hand, and he was quite smitten by the fact that she made this gesture.

About an hour later, out of the blue, he said "I think I might want piano lessons again someday. Maybe next fall. That's not too far away." Whether he was just feeling a bit wistful or actually meant it doesn't matter... time will tell, and for now he's happier.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A fall rhythm

I suppose I haven't blogged in a while because things are just ticking along. I actually feel like we've got the overscheduling under control for the first time in many years. I have time to think about what we/I should be doing at home. It's a great feeling. I have to resist the urge to take on new 'projects' to fill the space in my life. Not that there's really space. Just that it doesn't yet feel like my life is full to bursting with committments.

The kids' weekly activities are as follows:

  • Monday: Piano lessons, public swim
  • Tuesday: Afternoon playdate, Violin Group Class or Community Orchestra (alternating weeks)
  • Wednesday: Violin/viola lessons during the morning, art class in the p.m.
  • Thursday - Sunday: nothing!

My weekly activities fit around theirs, mostly on Thursdays and Fridays:

  • Monday: grocery shopping while we're in Nelson for piano, once-a-month evening clinic
  • Tuesday: I lead group class and community orchestra
  • Thursday: morning clinic alternate weeks, afternoon teaching
  • Friday: afternoon teaching

Our weekends are completely clear, and even our weekdays are pretty sane. For now, at least, there's no choir, no skating, no soccer. There are no impending concerts or recitals. GRUBS is pretty much finished for the year. My volunteer committments are under control. I'm not in the midst of rehearsing for a chamber music concert. Our kitchen renovation is pretty much complete. The pace feels terrific right now.

My only problem with all this is that I'm having moments of panic regularly over not seeing the kind of self-directed productive work and play that I'd like to see from the kids. I'm no longer too busy to care that they're not doing anything.

Noah and Sophie agree with me that they are happier when they are filling their days with tangible things, things that feel like "fun work" or "hard fun" or just "worthwhile". Even though they have great difficulty motivating themselves to actually start, they feel good about themselves when they've done stuff like dishes, working with the dog, exercising, writing or math. So I have some justification for strong-arming them into things -- they are grateful at the end of the day to have 'done something' and they ask for similar structure or guidance the next day. The fact that they often exhibit a fair bit of resistence in the moment is just an annoyance. Erin, on the other hand, would never admit that she feels good when she's accomplished things that she knows I approve of. So 'encouraging' her to pull her weight in the family is very difficult to do. Likewise, strong-arming is highly counterproductive. She does practice both her instruments, fairly diligently, every day without reminders, and I'm certainly grateful that this is no longer an issue for us. But the rest ... ahh!!! It is a challenge.