Sunday, December 31, 2006

Family games night

The plan was to have a family games night every week, though we haven't quite managed that. Maybe every second week. But I guess that makes it an even more special treat when we have a few days in a row to play intensively. Our Christmas Eve tradition is now that we open, and play, a new game. This year's game was Ticket to Ride Europe which you see the crew playing in the photo. We really enjoy the simplicity and length of play (60 - 90 minutes), which is somewhat shorter than our other favourite game Settlers of Catan.

We tend to play in non-competitive ways, or at least de-emphasizing the competitive element, because games involving people from age 3 to adult aren't exactly an even playing field for cut-throat play. Often this means not keeping score, playing with open hands, playing as a team, charitable trading and so on. While we all like to know the rules, we freely disregard those that increase competitiveness and decrease (for us) the enjoyment of the play.

We avoided competitive games for many years, sticking with Family Pasttimes games like The Secret Door or Harvest Time. Noah especially dislikes competitive environments intensely. But gradually we realized that we could play more conventional games if the object was fun rather than a win. Winning is always beside the point when we play.

We have a few other games we really enjoy, besides those I've mentioned and the obvious chess, crazy 8's and the like. Carcassonne, a medieval tile-laying game is fun, even just for making maps -- but also a good strategy game. Things... was a major hit last Christmas. Each player writes a response to a card like "things you shouldn't do at a funeral" or "things kids do better than adults", and the object of the game is to guess whose answer is whose when they're read aloud by a Reader. We always end up laughing very hard. Blokus doesn't get played as often as the others but is quick and fun.

We recently got Cranium which has been fun a few times but I don't think it will last. We've probably been through almost all of the cards, and it will get stale when we hit repeats.

Our favourite card game by far is Set Game. We take this with us everywhere. Sophie got the knack of this at age 5 and expect Fiona will be getting it pretty soon. It's one of those visual perception and pattern-recognition games that some people find much easier than others, and often it's children who triumph over adults.

A truly magical game we were given a few years ago by my UK-based brother and sister-in-law isWaldschattenspeil (Shadows in the Woods). It's played in the dark, with a tealight candle being the main gamepiece. Wooden trees cast shadows. Little gnomes lurk in the shadows as the candle moves around the board trying to find them. I can't recommend this game highly enough for its ability to cast a spell over a family huddled at the kitchen table.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Artist

Fiona loves painting. She's had exposure to tempera and acrylic paints, but what she loves are watercolours. She loves the intricacies of bleeding colours, washes, dry brush, dry and wet paint, blends and colour combinations. She plays around with these techniques endlessly, not aware of them as techniques per se, just experimenting and experiencing the different ways the paint responds and marries itself to the paper.

Erin went through a watercolour phase a year or so ago, and Fiona insisted on her own set of paints like Erin's. I found her one of the inexpensive Yarka sets that she really liked. They're a little gelatinous, but rich in pigment and they served her well. She wore them out, though, at a rate of about a set a month. Let's not even talk about paper. While I'd sometimes buy her the nice blocks for a treat, I settled on department store 9x12" sheets cut into quarters a lot of the time.

FeathersDry Wiggles
I thought I might buy her a block of good paper and another set of Yarkas for Christmas, but when I went to the local store, they had a sale on a Cotman portfolio & paint set ... 10 tubes of Cotman colours, two fine brushes, a palette, a small pad of good paper and a 12x18" zip-up portfolio. The whole thing was a great deal, around $40 Cdn, what I would pay for three or four monthly Yarka sets and a block of paper. So I bought it. Yup, for a 3-year-old.

Wet vs. Dry StudyColour Bleeding Study
She is thrilled. She has almost finished the new pad of paper, though the paints will last ages. She has been creating paintings for people, and when we've mailed them out as gifts, we've enclosed a recent photo, "a photo of the artist." So Fiona has taken to calling herself "the artist."

Desert Landscape
Whale Surfacing
I love watching her paint. She is variously intent, gentle, observant, contemplative, quizzical, bold -- and always fully engaged. Creativity at its finest.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

What We're Watching

I've got a "what we're reading" widget in the sidebar, so I thought I should complement it with an entry about what we're watching. From October to April we subscribe to, an on-line DVD rental service based in Canada. With thousands of documentary titles and tens of thousands of mainstream and oddball videos of other types, we get the kind of selection we could otherwise only dream of in our town with no public library and only corner store video rentals. For a monthly fee we can have four or sometimes five DVDs out at a time. There are no due-dates. They arrive through the post with prepaid return envelopes and we simply send them back when we're done. The quicker we make a return, the sooner we get the next choice off our request list.

We've really enjoyed two recent sets of videos. The first is Michael Palin's travelogues. So far only the four episodes of "Sahara" and the six episodes of "Himalaya" have been released in Canada. We would love to see "Pole to Pole", "Full Circle" (around the Pacific Rim) and "80 Days" (around the world) someday too. The videography is amazing, and Palin comes across as a very real, likeable traveller. The out-of-the-way places he visits don't come across as romanticized, sensationalized or patronized. We have the last four Himalaya episodes to watch yet and can't wait. Noah and Sophie in particular enjoy these. In fact Noah's choice for a Christmas Night activity was to watch a "Sahara" episode rather than play with new toys or games.

The other series we have found very compelling is the "Up Series". This set of seven documentaries introduces a bunch of English schoolchildren from an extremely wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, beginning at age 7 and following them every 7 years with updates and interviews and peeks into their lives as they grow into adulthood. The series begins in 1964. We took immediate likes and dislikes to different children and were fascinated to watch them change (and not change!) as they grew up. At ages 14 and 21 it seemed many of them had changed a lot from age 7. Many were not nearly as likeable. But by age 28 (as far as we've watched so far) most had come home to themselves in large part ... though with many of the raw edges rubbed off and a pretty well-grounded sense of themselves and their places in the world. It's a fascinating sociological and psychological journey. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the series, though with spoilers.

Other recent hits have been "The Parrots of Telegraph Hill" (about a self-described 'dharma bum' in LA who has become the de facto naturalist / keeper of a flock of non-native but 'wild' parrots), "Into the West" (a fable about two gypsy boys and a horse in Ireland) and "Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real" (a 'Walking With Dinosaurs' style CGI documentary paired with a fantasy story line).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Atomic Tree Ornaments

Another product of Science Club. Two marbles, a black one (proton) and a white one (neutron) were twisted together inside a small square of plastic wrap (in lieu of nuclear force) and tied off with a string. Around this we created an electron cloud of wool roving. Not particularly seasonal or aesthetically imbued, several of our elemental hydrogen atoms have nonetheless ended up gracing our Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Acids and Alkalis

Today was another challenging Science Club meeting. The kids were very unfocused and there were only a couple of activities that pulled even half of them in. My four were all at various stages of recovering from illnesses, as were several of the other kids, and that certainly didn't help. However, I wanted to share this photo of our indicator solution. We boiled purple cabbage and decanted off the water to use for testing the pH of various mystery solutions. I'd never really gone through the business of creating a range of indicator colours side by side -- but we did today and were thrilled with the striking colours. Shown above are solutions of pH ~ 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Beneath the Action

A week or two ago I posted an image of Where the Action Is, showing the kids together at the computer bench, where they spend far too much time clustered together playing games. Here's the dark side... the floor beneath the computer desk. I finally got around to doing more than a traffic-area vaccuuming of the family room and pulled out the toybox/bench. This is what typically accumulates in the space of a couple of weeks. Maximize the image in another window and play "I Spy."

  1. Sophie's yellow slip-ons.
  2. A decorative Christmas paper punch
  3. A matchbox car
  4. 87 shreds of black naugahyde from upholstery that formerly graced the toybox top
  5. two marbles
  6. embroidery hoop
  7. spool
  8. two and a half pairs of Noah's socks
  9. scrap of yarn from Fiona's finger-knitting
  10. empty Avery label packet
  11. pocket Japanese-English dictionary
  12. white piece from board game set
  13. detritus of Fiona's paper-cutting festival-cum-tantrum
  14. half a Sudoku puzzle
  15. half a styrofoam peanut, left over from static-electricity play
  16. At least three kleenex scraps
  17. Four pencils, and the bonus item....
  18. Small plastic rainbow trout

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Choir concert

Last night was the local Community Choir's holiday concert. Erin sang. I've watched her perform on violin and piano and in choirs, dozens and dozens of times but I've never been so proud. Not so much of what she did, but of whom she has become.

She sang in a children's choir for two or three years when there was a wonderful choir director running a children's choir in Nelson on the day we happened to be there for piano lessons. That hasn't worked out for a couple of years, but she has eagerly sung in the choirs that same choir director leads during the Summer School of Music week. She chose to join the more challenging adult choir during the summers, an option for the most advanced teen and tween piano students. She got her feet wet that way with four-part choral arrangements, and with many of the local adults who, during the remainder of the year, make up the community choir. Several of them asked her during the 2005 summer school choir if she was going to join the community choir in the fall. She thought about it, but decided not.

They hinted around again in 2006 and she decided to jump aboard. I knew she'd do fine musically and I knew she'd cope socially, but I never expected that she would blossom into an independent, confident, competent member of an adult group. There are two really nice 15-year-olds in the choir; one is a Japanese exchange student who is Erin's equal on piano, the other a down-to-earth kid who moved to the area a year ago. Leaving aside these three, the average age of the choir is over 50.

But age aside, they all love their music and they love the hard work they do together to bring together a concert. Rehearsals were once a week for the first 8 weeks and then twice a week (sectionals alternating with full choir rehearsals) for the past month. Choir rehearsals have been the highlight of Erin's life this fall.

Over and over again over the past month or two, long-time members of the choir have been pulling me aside whenever they see me to tell me how thrilled they are to have Erin in the choir, what a wonderful voice she has, how she stunned them by having all nine pieces memorized at least a month before the memorization deadline, and how much she's come into her own since joining at the end of September.

I had glimpses of the transformation over the past month or two ... arriving to pick her up near the end of rehearsals I'd see choir members teasing her, giggling with her; I'd watch the banter and seeing the mutual enthusiasm for the work and the fun. They love her; she loves being with them.

But the concert clinched it for me. There she stood, all 4-foot-10 of her, in the midst of all those adults, positively exuding joy and confidence. She sang from her heart - her whole heart, every bit of it. She has grown into her true self. Choir is the first challenging thing she's taken on completely on her own, without my help or input or support, with no siblings along, driven solely by her passion. She defined it as hers, she took it on, created her own expectations unsullied by mine. She created her own social niche unhampered by the expectation of fitting into a group of supposed peers. There was nothing between her and what she wanted to be doing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ferocious Doctor

Ferocious Doctor is one of the hundred-plus characters who inhabit Euwy World, my kids' silly universe where mistakes and stupidity are sources of delight and entrenched as cultural icons. Fiona has adopted Euwy characters into her own story-telling and play.

On the way home from Nelson she told me "I'm writing Ferocious Doctor."

"Oh, that's nice," I replied.

A minute ago, on his way to bed, Noah brought me the scribble pad Fiona had been using during the drive to show me her printing. At the top is says


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Where the Action Is

I'm not sure why I took this picture. It's just so typical of the kids, all glued to the computer, but socially so ... I thought you might enjoy it.

1. Old kids' artwork done with hand-made rubber stamps.

2. Erin cuddling Fiona, who is draped in a quilt made for her by now-grown friend living in Kamloops.

3. Sophie, under-dressed for winter as usual.

4. The Guide to North American Birds, Western Edition.

5. Webcam, mostly for keeping in touch with now-grown friend living in Kamloops. Perhaps potentially useful for keeping in touch with cousins in England, but procrastinating uncle hasn't yet bought his webcam.

6. Three-seater computer bench which doubles as a dress-up clothes trunk, with recently-shredded naugahyde upholstery.

7. One of Erin's thirty-some-odd self-taught and self-executed braid styles. Where did she learn to do all this? On the internet, I think.

8. Noah, with his knees pulled up inside his T-shirt, his usual sitting posture. The only way to dissuade him from this style of repose is to quip "Noah, you have breasts."

9. "101 Project Ideas with Geometer's Sketchpad" booklet, placed on window ledge as a sun-shade.

10. Metronome. Always handy. Seldom used.

11. Fiona, always in the middle of everything the older kids are doing.

12. A Hilroy exercise booklet, the medium of choice for Euwy stories and Euwy Cartoons.

13. Steering wheel, once used for noxious street-racing game introduced to children by bad-influence father who insists he really believed that he could download the game for himself and not have the kids find out about it. Steering wheel is currently serving an invaluable role as anchor for desktop clutter.

14. Cardboard box purchased in a futile attempt by Miranda to minimize desktop clutter.

15. "Interesting paper"... ready to fall off the despised open-ended shelving, as soon as Noah leans the wrong way and bumps it. Cardstock of various colours, laminating plastic, avery adhesive paper, CD labels, etc. etc., all poised for an avalanche.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Owl visit

Today, on my way to put up the Christmas lights, I discovered this guy perching outside on a beam about 18" from one of our windows. He's a saw-whet. The kids were able to get soooooo close and were completely entranced. This picture was actually taken from inside the house, through the aforementioned window.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pushing snow

We have a fairly long driveway. Three hundred metres or so, downhill and fairly straight from the highway, taking a little dip, then leveling out and diverging into a short lane heading for the carport and a turnaround circle. Since we don't have a 4WD family vehicle, we depend on conscientious snow removal -- otherwise we don't go anywhere (and despite our conscientiousness, that does happen once or twice a winter when weather conditions conspire against us -- and we just have to stay home).

In the past Chuck has done most of the snow removal. I tended to do it when he was too busy at the hospital, but he actually enjoys the solitude and physical nature of the job, so he did most of it even when he was on call. When I did the snow removal I usually had to leave the older kids looking after the youngest one and dash out to do it as quickly as I could. But this year, Fiona's old enough to come outside without being intimidated by the snow-clearing machines. We have a nice cat-traction 2-stage snowblower and a nifty Toro tractor with a plough blade. I've been doing more of the snow-clearing, especially when Chuck is on call.

Because Fiona can come out, the other kids no longer need to stay inside to look after her. So they come out too. And suddenly they're really interested in snow removal. I'm gradually getting them trained. All three are quite good with basic ploughing on the tractor. Erin's an ace backing it up and doing three-point turns. Noah loves the snowblower with all its levers and buttons. (Trust the boy of the family to quip "Oh, so I can aim it at people like a weapon?!!!") In the past few days they've eagerly taken over almost all the snow-clearing. They can talk chokes and shear bolts and throttles and chutes. They're thrilled with this new important role they can fulfill.

I think this is one of the big differences between my parenting style and Chuck's. It never occurred to him, in all those years of snow-pushing, to work to involve the kids in the job. Haha! Well, there will be no keeping them inside now. If he's out to plough, they'll be eagerly traipsing after him asking for a turn.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Here is where Noah worked tonight on Rosetta Stone Japanese. For years my workspace has been a 2 sq.ft. space at the end of the kids' communal desk. First I had a laptop there. Then I upgraded to a desktop computer, but tucked the CPU and keyboard underneath my little single-place-setting of desk space. Then, with the re-assignment of room roles necessitated by the arrival of our new piano, the old Niklas IKEA shelves that were once the 'entertainment centre' got vacated in the family room. For a couple of months they were cluttered with plastic bins. This week I did some serious re-organizing and moved my computer over onto the Niklas shelves. I'm now up to a good 4.5 sq.ft. of desk space, and I have two open shelves above which I'll hopefully be able to turn into storage / organizational space for me.

The kids use my computer from time to time, with permission. Permission is more likely to be granted when they're doing something specifically educational. In the past two weeks, family interest in Japanese language study has taken root. Noah had expressed interest months ago, but hadn't done much about it. But then we found the Slime Forest Adventure RPG which teaches Japanese kana and kanji and everyone's into Japanese. Noah had balked at the introduction to Rosetta Stone Japanese because he was self-conscious about the audio feedback and the right vs. wrong scoring. Especially now that his sisters are keen on the language and likely to peer over his shoulder watching his mistakes, he wanted total privacy. My little computer nook turned out to be the perfect place for him to work. We clothespinned a baby quilt over it and plugged in the headphones and he happily, on his own initiative, worked away diligently for quite a while tonight.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Gym

We've not had a public gym in our town until today. During WWII a Sanitorium was built here for Japanese internees who had TB. In the 1950s the San was converted to a reform school for school-refusing Doukhobor children (who were actually just being educated at home). A gymnasium was added at that point. Then when the government stopped apprehending Doukhobor kids for homeschooling, the reform school was vacated, and years later, it became the local public hospital / primary health care centre. The gym was for years a storage area for the maintenance department. Five years ago a community group initiated a plan to renovate the gym back into a gym.

This fall the renovation has been more or less completed. It's a small but beautiful gymnasium attached to a very small fitness centre. The official opening is next Monday. We are thrilled. Goodbye cabin fever! We can book it for two hours for $1/person for groups of three or more. With my four kids, so that means $5 for two hours of family gym time.

Fridays I have booked for a regular homeschoolers' gym time. Today there were thirteen of us there (short notice -- I expect there will be more on average). We brought basketball, playground ball, medicine ball, badminton racquets and birdies. The kids were ages 2 to 14. Total free play. Very fun. Everyone got very pink and thirsty.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Co-op learning

We're now four weeks into Science Club. We meet for two or three hours on Wednesday afternoon. I'm preserving my optimism with effort. We've done some fun things, from the planet walk to the 'elevate an apple' challenge, to printing evergreen foliage on clay tiles. We've touched on principles of gravitational acceleration, solar system orbits, taxonomy of trees, convection and plate tectonics. Some sorts of activities are definitely easier to do in groups.

Co-operative learning has a lot to recommend it, but I'm just not sure this group is going to make it work. I'm trying really hard to find ways to make it work, but truth be told I've never been able to imagine my kids being happy in this sort of co-op homeschooling arrangement. Erin is light-years beyond everyone else in general knowledge and although she's been polite about her boredom so far, I think it's asking a lot to expect her to stay cheerful and engaged (especially as she's in a similar situation in violin group class and community orchestra). Noah balks against anything that hints of comparativeness or competitiveness. Even just encouraging different kids to pursue the same task side by side invites a vocal self-congratulatory attitude from one of the other children, something which sends Noah into a motivational tailspin. When things get loud and chaotic, which they do, Sophie retreats into private play with her friend. Fiona gets clingy, and tends to be tired at that time of day.

If this flops, I will reassure myself that the kids are getting excellent, meaningful experience with co-operative learning and living through GRUBS, music ensembles and family life.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Fiona is reading. Not only that, but unlike my other (previous) 3-year-old reader, Erin, this one's doing so quite unabashedly, stumbles and mistakes and all. Mostly just three- and four-letter words with short vowels and the simplest of consonant blends, but she's doing it, and building on her progress as the days roll by. Her printing is almost as good as Noah's was six months ago -- and she has fewer letter reversals than Sophie had numeral reversals a year ago. She painted the most amazing duo of paintings this afternoon ... and can add numbers to twelve, and plays the violin beautifully, speaks up to acquaintances of all shapes and sizes, finger-knits up a storm, and is cute as a button. Is there anything this kid isn't capable of?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Power failure

Windy sleety day. We have Science Club scheduled. It's at our house, because the power is out at the place where we usually hold it. We go on a planet walk, pacing out the scale distance between a soccer-ball sun and the various planets. We give up after almost a kilometer of walking when we're still only at Saturn. They sure are small and far apart, and, as we head into a wicked sleet-laden wind, we comment on how it sure does get cold as you get far from the sun!

Science Club wraps up around dusk, and our fellow club-members are just pulling out when our power fails. I pull out some candles, check on the phone with neighbours to make sure the outage is more than just us, and to ensure that someone has reported it. Noah stokes the fire in the woodstove and I pull soup out of the freezer. We make space on the woodstove to heat up soup and coffee and then we settle down with books and board games. I read aloud for a while. The kids read to themselves. We play long games of Carcassonne, Frog Juice, Qwitch and Set. We stir the soup, I drink the coffee. More reading.

Chuck gets home from work and we eat supper. We'd set aside tonight to watch the last hour of a video, and we briefly bemoan the fact that if we had enough of a flicker to get the DVD out of the player, we'd be able to watch it on the laptop. But although the power does flicker on for a couple of seconds, we're too far from the DVD player to press 'eject' in time. Ah well... what's a few more hours without electronics. We do more reading and board games. Kids do their practicing. It's piano by candlelight, which seems worthy of a photo.

We all love power failures. Various kids say several times "I love power failures." The kids boo when the lights come on.

Ten minutes later they're sitting in front of the computer with their eyes glazed, unable to imagine life without their precious screen time, complaining when I suggest they ought to do something else for a while. What contradictions they are.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The All-purpose Comeback

I'm one of those people who is full of brilliant comebacks ten minutes after the situation where I needed them. I don't think on my feet very well. I'll blame it on my poor social skills, courtesy of my public schooling.

It's been quite a while since I've needed to cope with a rude almost-stranger criticizing our homeschooling, but I've got one more "one size fits all" response in my armory, besides the classic Bean Dip one. It goes like this:

"What exactly do you mean by ______?"

In the blank goes whatever the obnoxious person has just raised as an objection. "Social misfits," "qualified experts," "socialization," "overprotective," "independence." It doesn't matter what the noun is -- throw it in there! The beauty of this one, just like the Bean Dip response, is that you don't really have to think on your feet to pull it off.

The typical reaction is a sort of double-take, followed by some backpedaling as the person realizes that they haven't actually thought about it, and probably you have. Suddenly they're on the defensive.

"Well, you know, getting along with different people."

"What do you mean by different people?" [see ... for all you technology geeks, this is a recursive function in our algorithm!]

"Umm, you know, kids who come from different backgrounds, or, well. .... "

"Different backgrounds? What exactly do you mean by that?" [another call to the recursive function!]

"Well, aboriginal kids, or poor kids, or kids who..."

(By now you're thinking, and enjoying as the obnoxious person is madly digging holes and stumbling into them.)

"You don't find any of those out in the community?"



We were in a concocting mood, and stumbled on the recipe for "gak" or "elmer's slime", which just happened to require two ingredients we had on hand -- 225 ml of PVA glue (Elmer's Glue-all) and 1 tsp. of borax. Actually, we have about 1000 tsp. of borax on hand, but we only needed one.

We mixed the glue with an equal amount of warm water, added some food colouring and then stirred in a solution of 1 tsp. of borax in 125 ml of warm water. Voilà, non-Newtonian fluid!

It became everything from masks to clothing to balls, tongues, snakes, pianos, 'octopus leather' and 'inflated goatskins'. The kids really enjoyed playing with it during readaloud time. It's amazing stuff. Packed into a large ball, it can be bounced or broken in halves. Gently encouraged, by gravity or fingers, it becomes an amazing fluid.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Singapore 5B at age three?

Fiona has been busy writing lots of letters and numbers lately. Today I found a 'spent' Singapore Primary Math workbook which she had commandeered for her own uses. She made me take an eraser to most the previous pencil work a couple of weeks ago and has been having her own way with one of the word problems. This page was lying open. She had used enough appropriate numbers and symbols that I did a double-take. Did she really try to write 40 P(ercent) for the answer to part A, do you think? Okay, it's probably a backwards 4, but who's to say? And where did she come up with the idea that decimal points and percent signs were part of this solution?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Science Club

First it seemed like a great idea to continue to get the homeschooled core of GRUBS together for a weekly co-op learning venture during the cold months. I talked to the other mom-of-many about it and we talked to the kids. Everyone thought it was a good idea. Then I got cold feet. I didn't want to be saddled with the organization of yet another weekly activity that my kids ended up feeling was more my deal than theirs, fighting them to get ready and at least look interested, dealing with their complaints about having to leave whatever they're doing at home.

So I tried to bail. But then, in public, in the presence of their friends, my kids swore up and down that they wanted to give it a try, at least for a month. They really wanted a science club, they said. Every week, even, rather than every 2 weeks as I'd suggested.

So here we go. Surprisingly, it's going sort of okay. We meet for 2 - 2 1/2 hours on Wednesday afternoons, in a comfortable but somewhat neutral place (i.e. not at either family's home). The age range is of course immense:
  • 13-year-old boy of an anti-academic bent
  • a 12-year-old girl of a hyper-intellectual bent who probably knows more about a lot of this stuff than both moms put together
  • a 11-year-old girl who tends to gravitate to anything the 12yo does
  • a 10-year-old anti-competitive perfectionistic boy who doesn't do "anything with points"
  • a 8-year-old girl who is pretty tight with...
  • a 7-year-old girl, who enjoys the tight little dyad
  • a 5-year-old boy who has very strong ideas
  • a 3-year-old girl who thinks she can do anything a 12-year-old can
  • a 2-year-old girl who is at a pretty 'busy' stage, though occasionally naps at convenient times
Right down the continuum from teen to toddler, with no natural grouping of 'older vs. younger' or anything of the sort. There are two kids who don't read at all, two (amongst the oldest) who refuse to write, one who refuses to talk, one who can't yet talk, and two (amongst the youngest) who insist on keeping up with the others on everything. The other mom and I are alternating leadership of the activities, meaning she does one session, focusing on biological sciences, and I do the next, focusing on the physical sciences. We've each led one session now. So far the biggest hits have been the outdoor stuff and the social-but-independent creative-thinking activities. My on-line friend Kris Bordessa compiled a book of Team Challenges. I cribbed the Elevate an Apple challenge off her website. I really must buy the book! Anyway, while I had vague thoughts of grouping the kids into teams, it was clear almost immediately that they weren't going to go for that. I had only brought two apples, and they immediately insisted that there needed to be an apple for everyone, and Noah made it very clear that if their was any sort of competition involved he was going to refuse to participate. I ran to the store and bought more apples, the energy flowed in its own direction and the kids were creatively and enthusiastically engaged for about half an hour, trying as many different ways to solve the challenge as possible. I photographed each 'success', and some of the 'failures' that were nonetheless beautiful or particularly creative.

I confess I enjoy the planning. I can organize and plan the sorts of explorations and activities that my kids would almost certainly balk at at home, considering them too contrived, too teacherish or schoolish or just worthy of the "not right now, I'm busy" response. In the group, they tolerate them, and even seem to enjoy some of them. They're already there, they might as well get involved, I guess.

Two things have become evident about Science Club. The first is that it is a very rare activity indeed which will engage everyone. The second is that splitting the group into a variety of activities doesn't work either! The solution, alas, seems to be to try to find those 'very rare activities.' Maybe they won't be so rare if we can get the knack of this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Practicing Productivity

Noah has been really reluctant to go to his viola lessons lately. I mean, as a huge homebody who doesn't make transitions well at the best of times, he normally doesn't like to go, but usually once he gets there and gets in the groove, he's okay. But lately he's been articulating clearly a sense of not feeling adequately prepared. We talk about it a bit at his lesson this week.

"I think maybe you get to something that's tricky, or that you don't like a whole lot, and you figure you'll just sort of ignore it today, and get around to dealing with it later. And then suddenly you realize it's lesson day, and you never got around to it. Is that about it?"

"Yeah," he says. "That's it."

I mention how his practicing, which he's doing all on his own, is pretty short. I hesitate to articulate in real terms how short it is, but make a casual reference to him bashing through things in 20 minutes that maybe would take longer if he really delved in. He thinks his practicing is pretty long, but confesses that it might be shorter than it seems.

His grandma (/teacher) says that as a ball-park, she figures it should probably take a beginning-of-Book-5 viola student about 45 minutes to get through all the technique, repertoire, review, reading and orchestra work. She wonders if it might be helpful for him to use a timer to find out how long he is really spending on his viola practicing.

On the way home from lessons, I suggest a new way I might make up his lessons notes, which I always type up for him afterwards. He thinks it might be worth a try.

I type up three sections. One is the usual notes about details in pieces, assigned scales, reminders to watch the thumb here, to check the bowing at the top of the second page, to keep an eye on fingerings in the scales, and so on. The second section is a list of specific goals / assignments that I am guessing if he accomplishes, he will feel adequately prepared for his next lesson. Things like "fix bowings in bars 55-57 for once and for all" and "get comfortable with 3-octave d melodic minor scale in quarter notes" and "play first half of Telemann 4th accurately without written music." There are about eight of these.

The third and most crucial section is the calendar. Just a six-day calendar with days and dates and relevent activities filled in. So that he can see that it is Friday today (it's easy to lose track of the days when you don't go to school!), and Monday won't be an easy practice day, and Tuesday is group class, and then it's lesson day, and he can guage how his task-completion is faring against the progress of the week.

I print this out and give it to him, along with the kitchen timer. I really don't know if he's using the notes, though I think he probably is. What he is doing for sure is using the kitchen timer, and this has turned out to be a really instructive exercise.

After Thursday's practicing, he comes out and says "I did everything really slowly and carefully, and about five review pieces, and I can't think of anything else to do, and I still have 23 minute to go."

"What do you mean, twenty-three minutes to go?" I ask.

"Until I've done forty-five minutes."

Twenty-two minutes of practicing had seemed unusually long and thorough to him! I suspect his practice duration over the past couple of months has averaged around 14 minutes.

"Well," I say, "that was just a thought, not a requirement. There are things you could do to fill the time, like repeat the scales until they get easier, or do some extra work on the orchestra music, or do more detail work on the Martini review. But if you feel you've done enough, then that's fine. The idea is just to become aware of how much time you're spending at your practicing. Do you think you've done enough for today?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says, and heads off to the computer. Oy. Even his "exceptionally slow and thorough" practicing is still of the light-speed variety. I begin to wonder what the point of our discussion and change of tactics is.

But wait for it -- Friday's sequel.

Noah heads off to practice at the same time as Sophie. For once, she's done first. In fact, some time goes by and I realize he is still off in his bedroom playing. Finally he finishes.

"Wow!" I ask. "How long was that? It seemed like a huge number of minutes!"

"Dunno," he says. "I didn't time it. I just did everything three times. My whole practicing, three times."

He's smiling. I'm guessing it was an hour. Amazing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

By ear, inch by inch

Parents are supposed to obsess over their firstborn's milestones, but I am obsessing over Fiona's. I suppose it's because with the first three I didn't realize how fleeting all this early developmental stuff would be, and now I know it's the last chance I'll have to marvel over these tiny, wonderful accomplishments. And maybe it's because she's so delightfully observable, with none of the secretiveness of her perfectionistic older siblings -- yet! And maybe the four-year gap between Fiona and her elder siblings has made my memory hazy, but she seems the most precocious of the bunch. Who'd have thought I could still be surprised and amazed the fourth time around.

In August, I blogged about the amazing burst of progress she'd suddenly experienced on the violin as a result of discovering that she could sound out tunes by ear. She certainly couldn't nail every note at that point, far from it. But what seemed really exceptional was that she could hold the note she was searching for on her violin in her mind's ear, try out and compare several possibilities until she found a match, and then hit "play" again on her mental image of the tune and pick up where she left off. Because this "pause, compare, unpause" facility was so highly developed, she was able to experience success at a basic level in playing by ear, and her accuracy improved rapidly over the course of a week or two. By the end of August she was able to play "Long, Long Ago" the first time she'd ever tried it with scarcely a stumble.

In the six weeks that have followed, she's focused a lot on her violin technique and tone, and I moved her (a little prematurely, I confess) up to a sixteenth-sized violin since the thirty-second was essentially unplayable on the D-string or with 4th finger down, and she was learning both.

But her by-ear skills continue to accrue, bit by bit. She set to work learning to play the violin pieces she'd taught herself on piano instead. At first she played everything in the key of C. But lately she's trying out F major, and she's managing the B-flats! Today I hear her playing arpeggios up and down the piano, and she seemed to be hearing where the fourths should be. Or perhaps her ear had helped her brain memorize the key pattern ... but she did this in C first and then transferred it to F. Why F? I have no idea. She seems to "hear" C and F major as suitable piano keys. Although she was given a little orientation to middle C way back in the summer, when she was trying to pick out Twinkle, no one has taught her where F is. And she starts pieces on the appropriate scale degree without guidance, so "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" will start on A, and "Minuet 1" will start on C if she's in an F-major mood.

And then last weekend she picked out the first phrase of the Twinkle obligato part on both violin and piano. She's never heard this separate from the theme as far as I know, and she's probably only heard it as a harmony a dozen times in the past year, mostly while she's participating in "playing along" on the theme part. She has so much music in her head!

Last night she sat up in bed and sang in her sleep. It was the sweetest thing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Grand piano power

Erin has fallen in love with the Sibelius Romance Op. 24 No. 9. She heard it played by a fellow student during the summer. It's a significant step up in difficulty for her. While she has a precocious ability to play quick, bright baroque and classical pieces, the Sibelius is stretching her ability to play chordal passages. It's a piece with a virtuoso-style Rachmaninoffesque middle secttion, and boy, does she power up on our new grand piano!

This isn't an assigned piece, just something she's decided to teach herself, at least for now. She took it on about 5 days ago and is doing a pretty amazing job. She spent long enough at it the first couple of days that she had sore wrists. I love to see her working hard at her music for no reason other than that she wants to learn something.

We're hosting a dessert recital this weekend, partly because she wants a chance to play this piece. Dessert recitals are a tradition we started about 5 years ago. I insituted them one summer in lieu of Suzuki group classes, but they were so popular they've resurfaced in many different incarnations over the years. The basic idea is that one family invites other families with music students over for a musical potluck at their home. The food is generally finger food of some sort, usually dessertish stuff. Everyone is expected to bring a musical offering and a food offering to share. Parents who play an instrument are expected to play, as are their children.

We all get together to perform first. We sit on the floor in whatever room is chosen, and everyone plays one piece. Normal recital standards are not adhered to -- this is very fun and very casual, and teacher approval is NOT required. Students sometimes play pieces they "aren't supposed to have learned yet" or modified versions of old favourites, or duets with their parents or friends, or fiddle tunes or compositions. The hosting child always plays first, and then spins a bottle to decide who goes next. Each performer spins the bottle to choose the next until everyone has played. Some students have two instruments, so they play twice. At the end, we play "requests" from the Suzuki repertoire, and it always makes me feel wonderful to realize that when our little community of Suzuki violinists is together, they want to play their favourite pieces together. Even if the parents are looking longingly at the coffee and desserts, a couple of kids are sure to say "hey, we have to play Witches' Dance!"

And then we eat and socialize and play and laugh and chat. The social end of it is probably the most valuable part of the evening. Music is the excuse that brings us together, we play and enjoy that, but the fun and food afterwards are what cure the mortar of our musical community into something strong and stable.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Computer programming

Noah has been agitating for a while about wanting to learn to program games on the computer. I know enough about programming to know that programming a decent game, by contemporary standards, is an incredibly complex task requiring years of experience and months of code-writing. So I confess I didn't do a lot to encourage his interest, not wanting to put him through the disappointment of realizing the task was beyond him.

One day I realized he was modding. Writing new parameters and relationships into one of his favourite games, WXSand. He was researching how to do what he wanted on the Modders' Forums, opening script files, copying, pasting, modifying, fixing syntax errors. He spent weeks creating a huge inter-related set of elements that would interact in ways that he defined to simulate life systems, geological events, chemical reactions, electrical circuits, water cycles and so on, all things that the program was never really intended to do. I was amazed.

"I want to learn to make my own games, though," he said. "Not just modify someone else's. I want to build the program itself, rather than just adding onto it."

So I pointed him in the obvious directions -- Squeak, GameMaker and StageCast Creator, all graphical game-building tools. He was intrigued by GameMaker... for a day or two. But he made it clear that he wanted to write code, and wanted a language that would be suitable for 3D games. A couple of years ago I'd heard DarkBasic suggested as a good language for aspiring young game-makers, and I muttered something about it one night before bed.

The next day, when I got home from work, I discovered Noah sitting at the computer with a demo of DarkBasic, creating gosub routines, fixing line-wrap with semicolons, moving animated sprites back and forth across the screen. Amazingly most of my facility with Basic from my 1985 experience with a Commodore C64 came back. He showed me what he'd been doing. Together we worked through most of the tutorials that came with DarkBasic and had a blast. He has taken off on his own in the days since, and is working with PaintShopPro to build his own animated sprite.

I'm not sure if he'll stick with it, but he has certainly displayed an incredible amount of serious interest to date, has done a lot of research, taken a lot of initiative, and learned a lot about computer logic, routines and programming conventions.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Harvest Festival

The GRUBS held their 2nd annual Harvest Festival last weekend. It was a chance to celebrate another successful growing year, to have a feast, to have fun together and to thank the community at large for its support. We churned butter, made herbed garlic butter which we slathered on French bread and warmed beside the bonfire, we prepared a massive harvest soup, we laid out samples of our sweet and dill pickles, our sundried tomatoes and dried prune-plums, our fresh tomatoes and fresh carrots and beans. We made herb tea. We demonstrated our new fruit press by producing a yummy pear/apple/grape juice that everyone tried. And we gave tours of the garden which now sports the foundation of a nature plantscape marsh garden (the digging, lining and backfilling are complete). The weather was beautiful.

That's me in the front with the turquoise butterfly shirt on. Fiona is standing on my right in the stripey pink getup. Noah is in the "22" shirt behind us. Sophie is two to Noah's right in the light green shirt. Erin is back row left in the navy, with the willow-and-flowers crown.

Good fun! It's been a pretty good GRUBS year. We were disappointed that it turned out to be a terrible year for fruit and so our fruit press has been of limited use. Bears by the dozen turned up in our little town of 600 by the end of July because there were no huckleberries up in the alpine areas for whatever reason, and because reproductive rates over the last 2 or 3 years seem to have been higher than normal. Seven bears were shot by wildlife officers in early September, but the fruit was pretty much picked clean of the trees in July and August, long long before it was ripe and ready for the press. Normally the bears show up in late September and timely harvesting is (excuse the pun) fruitful. This year was weird. So the press has only been used 6 times, three times by us and three by other community members. Ah well, it's sure to get more use in future years.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Chez Noah

True to character, Noah wanted a birthday celebration that was "family only". Fine. But he wanted to do something memorable too. So we decided upon a formal restaurant meal -- at home. With the parents waiting on the children. Very fun!

We moved a table into the living room and covered it with our best (read: only) tablecloth. We added napkins and full place-settings for four. The kids arrived and were given menus. They had a choice of drinks (un-margaritas, unbeer, apple cider or milk) and appetizers (they ordered both choices). There were choices of main dish and side salad, and red or white no-alcohol wine with dinner. Followed by the obligatory cake for dessert, with optional ice cream and caramel syrup, and gift-opening.

We all had a blast. Chuck played the maître d', I was the cook, and Fiona was loud and demanding, to choruses of laughter from the rest of us. The kids drank their "wine" and ate their meals until they thought they would burst, and tipped their chairs and talked with their mouths full and dribbled lasagna all over their chins and Chuck and I said things like "would the young lady like some assistance finding her napkin?"

I think we'll all remember this birthday.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Fiona was the only one who wanted to come to the GRUBS garden with me this afternoon to do a bit of digging. I wanted to make some progress back-filling the marsh-garden-in-progress. She watched, and dug, and scrabbled around a bit, got hot, sat in the shade, came back, got bored and asked to go home.

"Yeah, okay," I said. "In a few minutes."

I finished levelling out the rim where the liner lies. Then I looked over at the sunflowers. They're immense, and gone to seed, and the birds were having a heyday plucking the seeds out.

"Hey Fiona," I said, sitting down on the picnic bench a couple of metres from the nearest sunflower, "look at the birds having a feast."

She came over and slid up onto my lap. We sat there, entranced, for half an hour or so. We whispered to each other, noticing the chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches lining up on a series of perches and taking turns. The nuthatches were "bossier". The chickadees were "crazier." They went back into the forest for a few minutes and had "a bird party" with lots of calling back and forth. We listened to the competing calls of the two species. We noticed differences in their flight patterns and in how they attacked the sunflower seed heads. We speculated about where they were putting all the seeds. We tried to count the birds. We just sat together and tried to notice everything we could.

"I like doing this," Fiona whispered. "This is my favourite thing. I want to stay here forever."

Well, we didn't. Eventually we decided it was time to go home. But it was an absolutely magical half hour for both of us.

Knitting a learning curve

Sophie started knitting this week. Almost a year ago she learned a basic knit stitch and was keen for a week or two, but never really developed the skill and stamina to find it gratifying to continue. This week she decided, on her own, that she wanted to do a practice project just a few stitches wide, so I cast on 10 for her and she set to work. By the end of three days of on and off work, she had a narrow "scarf" done in stocking stitch that was a wonderful illustration of a learning curve. The first thirty rows are wild, with dropped and picked up stitches and mis-turns of the project. The next thirty rows seemed better. The next thirty were not really much better, but this was the stage at which she was figuring out how to correct her own mistakes... and the last fifty rows were beautiful! What an object lesson in persistence and practice and gradual improvement!

I have to add a recommendation for Melanie Falick's Kids Knitting while I'm at it. This is the ultimate knitting book for beginners of all ages, with beautiful illustrations, sensible varied projects, excellent instructions and wonderful knitting-related ideas and projects like felting, finger-knitting, making wooden needles, adding embellishments and the like. Sophie has moved onto a hand-puppet project now.

Structure and confidence

Sometimes you know things but you just need a nudge. I know Noah has difficulty creating structure and consistency for himself. I know loses confidence very easily when he falls short of his own expectations -- expectations that can only be reached with some consistent application to the task. And I know that when his confidence ebbs, his motivation bottoms out in ways that begin to affect all areas of his life. When his confidence level is down he tends to sink deeper and deeper into a whole of self-blame and lassitude. He feels stupid and useless and stupid and useless people don't suddenly decide they are going to master arithmetic with fractions. He needs someone to say "you can do this, and I am going to stick with you and make sure that you prove it to yourself."

Nudges from mom are not always welcomed, nor do they come naturally to this mom. However, this fall Noah and I had to work together to come up with some sort of plan for his self-designed homeschool program and in a fit of optimism he said "Yeah, I'd like to get ahead in math. I'd like to work at math almost every day." The nudge was coming from the opportunity the SelfDesign program offered him to create some structure. We looked at where he was at (he's done almost no math in the last three years, moving at glacial speed through Singapore Primary 3) and he decided he'd like to finish Primary 5 this academic year. All fine and good while we're driving in the minivan en route to vacation. I wasn't sure how it would pan out when we got home and he actually had to do the work.

But here we are a couple of weeks later and he's not only begun level 4, but he's a day away from finishing the first workbook (4A part 1, which is nominally "a quarter of a school-year's work"). Not only is this great progress, but he's developing great confidence and pride in where his efforts are getting him. We're monitoring the pace and comparing it with his goal and he's carefully making sure he's "ahead of schedule".

He's eager in other areas too. I see the enthusiasm and confidence beginning to grow over into music, language arts, science and the rest. He's ten in a few hours. It's a great place to be on the cusp of two digits, riding a wave of confidence and accomplishment. Happy birthday, Noah. Let's both of us remember how gentle structure -- nudged into your life by external circumstances, thoughtfully considered and willingly undertaken -- helps you learn and feel good about yourself.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Nursing and Allegro

On the SuzukiChat List a year or so ago someone posted about nursing a toddler who was predisposed to hum Suzuki's "Allegro" whilst nursing. A similar post had been made three or four years before. Having had a similar experience with both Sophie and Fiona, I commented that the group of moms who have nursed to the humming of "Allegro" by a nursling was a very special and exclusive club.

Now I'm the parent to a nursling who not only hums Allegro while nursing, but hums Faure, Debussy and Chopin piano pieces as well as Book 5 viola repertoire. But I wonder if I'm a member of the most exclusive club of all -- the club of moms who are nursing children who can play Allegro on their violins.

Fiona is now simultaneously working on playing D-string Twinkles (in preparation for Allegretto and Perpetual Motion in D), on clean finger-hops and string-crossings in "Song of the Wind", on a 4th-finger exercise, on nice staccato tone in the first phrase of "Perpetual Motion", on the phrases and up-bow starts in "O Come, Little Children", on saving bow on the half-notes in Long, Long Ago, and on the A-major arpeggio that opens "May Song." Along with flat bow-hair and a relaxed "banana thumb" in the left hand. Her appetite for picky detail work is insatiable -- tonight she chose to do thirteen repetitions of each of the five exercises we decided to do. While I've never seen anything like this, and have been forced to turn much of my teacher training on its ear to cope with Fiona, I'd hesitate to call her musically gifted ... because she works so hard (and with such easy-going pleasure) at what she does. Still, there's no doubt she's frighteningly unique, and has earned me a place in an exclusive club that doesn't even exist.

I keep waiting for the bubble to burst. So far it just keeps growing. I keep waiting for her interest in breastfeeding to wane. So far she's holding steady. Good heavens, what a child!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Siblings and ownership

Lately I've been thinking a bit about our family approach to the ownership of the "stuff" the kids have and how it plays out in their relationships with each other. I didn't set out with a particular policy in mind, but I have four kids with a fair bit of "stuff" accumulated over the years, almost no sole ownership, and almost no sibling rivalry. I can't help but wonder if these things are related. Thinking back to my own childhood ... most stuff was shared, and my three siblings and I got along pretty well overall.

I also think it's important to understand that young kids' conceptualization of ownership is a very different thing from ours. For a young child, having control of something in one's own hands means owning it. I think that when we ask kids to "lend" or "share yours with her" they are really thinking "it'll be hers for a while and then it'll be mine again." And in our family, I guess we've really not got fussy debunking that fluid sense of ownership. The kids grew into children who just accepted that ascribing sole ownership, within the context of the family, wasn't really something to get one's knickers in a knot over. I've found that my kids do not use possession or ownership as a pawn in situations of rivalry -- I never hear them claiming "no, it's mine and you can't have it!" I might hear "no, I want it right now and you can't have it!" The important difference between these two is that the latter de-escalates as soon as the emotions abate because no one has claimed eternal control over the object. In the former, even once the emotions have calmed, the child still assumes the object falls under his or her control, to things could flare up again at any point. Over the years, in playgrounds and parks, on playdates and out and about, I have heard so many children using the fact of their ownership of something as a weapon against other children. It doesn't seem to happen in our family, thank goodness.

My kids have special things that they treasure, things that they refer to as "mine." These are generally things that have special meaning to each child rather than things that have value in general to all. With the many shared items of value that our family owns I prefer to encourage in the kids the value of responsible custodianship (caring for something well while it is in your possession) rather than the value of pride in ownership.

As I write this I realize that while I didn't set out with a particular policy in mind, the fact that I put more value on custodianship than on ownership has been a guiding principle.

My kids each get their own allowance. For the past three years they've chosen to pool almost all of their allowance to make joint purchases together. I guess that speaks highly of their comfort with our family tendency towards joint, rather than sole, ownership.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fiona's violin week

Fiona's had an amazing week on violin and she knows it. Last week at about this time she was showing an interest in teaching herself some of the upcoming Suzuki repertoire. I attempted to redirect her into non-Suzuki pieces, since the Suzuki repertoire is usually approached with very specific teaching goals in mind and with specific sorts of emphasis. I wanted her to leave that music to be taught "properly" later. Instead I suggested she teach herself "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She rose to the challenge. It took her only a couple of days of persistent trying to get the whole thing worked out.

But far from distracting her from the Suzuki repertoire, this success gave her an appetite for sounding out more and more pieces by ear, and of course the pieces she knows and loves best are the Suzuki pieces. And so the next day she devoured "Go Tell Aunt Rhody." And the next day it was "Song of the Wind." And the following day, "May Song," "Allegro," "Long, Long Ago" and the first part of "Perpetual Motion."

She has no difficulty getting the endings right. There's always a "long tail" on the first phrase of "Long, Long Ago" and a "short tail" on the second phrase. She never gets the wrong number of note repetitions in the off-kilter descending scale passage in "Song of the Wind." She already knew about the bow retakes in "Allegro" and did them without any direction. It's not like she's been watching and hearing endless daily repetitions of these pieces -- her siblings are working on Book 4+ repertoire. [Confession: I can't remember the last time we played the Book 1 CD.]

She plays a lot. Lately she's been taking her violin out two or three times a day, and not always just for ten minutes. Sometimes she's at her music for up to an hour! While she loves playing through new stuff best of all, she's also content to do some picky focused work on technical issues. She thinks hard about the things I ask her to focus on (eg. 4th finger placement, a relaxed left thumb, using a particular part of the bow for certain notes or placing her fingers on the string on their inside corners). If she makes a mistake or an awful sound, she laughs and says "Oops! I'd better try again" rather than getting angry, frustrated or mortified and shutting down. She loves getting guidance and input and loves the time she spends doing hard work on the violin.

Her appetite for violin is gluttonous and I worry about her burning out. I come home from 5 hours at work and she meets me at the door: "Yay! Now we can do violin!" I have to offer her a treat before bedtime so that she will stop practising. She seems so driven and focused that it almost doesn't seem right in a 3-year-old. So yesterday I started gently encouraging her into some off-instrument music learning that is more playful. I got out some of the beginning music theory materials I'd made up a few years ago. She took to them instantly. She's building "snakes" out of musical alphabet letter-names, and clapping and saying simple rhythmic patterns built from groups of eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes. She's making scale and arpeggio patterns with the note letter-names, and enthusiastically reading off "takataka ti-ti TA takataka."

What an amazing little sponge she is. The joy that radiates about her while she is engaged in music learning is amazing to behold. With the other kids I've seen veiled evidence of such joy at regular intervals but I've never seen it as unselfconciously oozing out of a child's pores as it is with Fiona these days.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Why is most high school science so dry and uninteresting? Why do students lose interest in science? Why is science achievement in North America (in the US especially) so poor? Even when the courses are rigorous, why do students retain so little and feel such scant excitement?

Well, first, I'm not sure that most higher level science requires as much mathematics as is commonly assumed. I think that especially in nations where mathematics achievement is relatively poor, taking a mathematical approach to middle- and high-school science is not such a great strategy. The approach seems to be to mention a concept, teach the higher mathematical model that formalizes it, and then to attempt to consolidate the learning of the concepts by providing kill & drill paper-and-pencil practice with the formulae.

I'm thinking of my Grade 10 Chemistry course which focused chiefly on molar equations, balancing valences, and calculations based on Boyle's Law. I did well in it, as I'm good at math and logic, but for the majority of my classmates the math acted as an obstacle to the understanding of chemistry. I assumed that was the way it had to be. I went on to study chemistry at university and found the subject very interesting at that level. I assumed that the slog through high school level stuff was just the necessary prerequisite learning.

But then recently, Noah (9) has asked me to put together a chemistry "program" of sorts, as he has developed rather an interest in the subject. We started with "The Mystery of the Periodic Table" by Benjamin Wiker, an entertaining narrative about the history of chemistry and of the discovery of the elements. From there we went on to explore conceptualizations of atoms and to study of the Bohr atomic model and how it informs our understanding of chemical bonding. Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Guide to Chemistry" has provided some ancillary information and entertainment. Then we got our hands on a semi-space-filling molecular model kit and had an amazing time building molecules of all sorts (ethanol looks like a puppy dog!). From there the concept of valences was naturally explored. And then we watched a set of four lectures from a college course entitled "The Joy of Science", intended for non-science majors, which explores chemistry history and concepts in a fair bit of depth, and to a chemistry curriculum for youngsters (Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry I) which again puts concepts ahead of higher math, exploring all the basic chemistry concepts from subatomic particles to covalent bonding to polarity, pH and various reactions, polymerization, basic techniques for chemical analysis, and on to biochemistry, the form and function of DNA and DNA polymerase, etc.. He's learning some of the stuff that I only got into at the university level and, like me, finding it thrilling. But the difference is that he hasn't had to spend hours calculating the number of moles of CO2 contained in a balloon that expands by 3.2 L when heated by 14 degrees C at atmospheric pressure to get to the interesting stuff. Why shouldn't all children get to build ethanol doggies? Why does this nifty pastime have to wait until after the mastery of Boyle's Law arithmetic?

I think that if science was taught by people who really loved it as a subject area, who were passionate about the effective and inspiring teaching of it, who loved the concepts and the theory and the beauty of cogent unifying theories, rather than who simply have somewhat of an aptitude for the mechanics of it, we would get science teaching that excited students at all levels rather than filtering out those without the tolerance for big doses of the mathematical mechanics. One of the things that struck me when reading Liping Ma's wonderful book "Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics" was how passionate Asian elementary school mathematics teachers were about their subject matter and pedagogy -- how it is standard practice for them to meet regularly to share teaching strategies, to garner advice on conceptual challenges particular students were facing, to trade tricks, to share their passion and experience with other teachers. Can you imagine a Canadian public school teacher saying to his colleagues "hey, let's meet once a week to talk about how we're doing at teaching math to our students and to trade ideas"? The sort of teacher who would suggest that here would be exceptionally passionate and considered an oddball -- yet the practice is de rigeur in China.

Here in the west, we seem to think that a systematic science education should start with the smallest, most tedious details, and build gradually outwards and upwards to the more interesting and more elegant parts. In fact, scientific exploration tends to proceed in exactly the opposite manner, starting with observations about interesting stuff, and only gradually finding its way into the kernel of fundamental mathematical relationships. Why should we expect our 12-year-olds to maintain their interest any other way?

I think that in North America there is too much focus on rigor at the expense of passion. Teachers' creativity and passion are discouraged by the top-down approach to curriculum design and by systemic problems that disempower teachers. And that focus on rigor at the expense of creativity and passion trickles directly down to students. I'm really happy that my own kids are free of all that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Our New Baby

On Day 4 of the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, the pianos arrived at the school for the following week's piano summer school. They come on loan from a piano store, but are all on sale while here. Two of them were nice used baby grands with nice sticker prices, further discounted and with free delivery. Out of the blue, my mom came up to me and said "I think you need one of those grands." Not only that, but she offered to pay for it!

For years I'd been trying to get advice on when a student would need a grand. My mom has a good friend who is a Suzuki piano teacher who has significant success at convincing the parents of her 4yo beginners to purchase baby grands at the outset, who believes that all students should have the best instrument their family can possibly afford -- even if that means a second mortgage. At the other extreme, several of the piano teachers I talked to sighed and shrugged and said "I'm just happy when I can get parents to upgrade from an electronic keyboard to an acoustic instrument." Some teachers suggested that students working at a Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 9 or 10 level (Erin is a solid Grade 9 now) should be on a grand, but when asked for their reasoning, they said that because RCM exams at that level are done on grands, students should be practicing on the same. Since Erin has no interest in doing RCM examinations, that reasoning doesn't really apply to us.

I realize now that throughout all my research, I was looking for someone to give me a good push to go out and buy a grand. Thanks for the nudge, mom!

There were a few little issues. First, of all families, ours probably could afford to buy one outright. Eventually we agreed to go halves with my mom, and she would take her gift out of our inheritance :-).

Secondly, where the heck would such a beast go? Our house is already too small! But six months ago I had given away the couch in the "computer room" (family room), looking for more floor space and a reallocation and redefinition of function and space, a project that was still on "pending" status. Together with Chuck, I thought things through and realized that with the upright gone from the living room, that room could finally take on its intended use as a family gathering space, while the computer room could take on more of a learning / music / creativity function. We would move the TV out of this room (perhaps into the living room, or perhaps to the tiny basement room that is my teaching studio) creating more useable space and more storage space. And we decided to remove the three cubby desks that are so cute and fun and useful in theory, but have mostly served a clutter-collecting function for the past five years.

Finally, the really fun issue was "the Yamaha, or the Kawai?" We had lots of help with that one, since Erin's piano teacher, our piano tuner, and the two advanced piano faculty from the summer school whom we've known for a number of years were all in town, and in contact with both pianos throughout the following week. The Yamaha had a lovely bright sound, but had some global mechanical quirks, a lot more cosmetic dings, and would have required the purchase of a humidifier given the wide temperature and humidity fluctuations in our wood-heated home in the winter. It also cost a little more. The Kawai wasn't totally free of mechanical issues, but these appeared to be relatively minor things, and it came with a Dampchaser humidifier/dehumidifier.

So Elmer and Wilf from World of Music delivered it the day after the piano school, took away our nice Klingerman upright, and we christened the 6-foot baby grand Kawai that night with a performance for my mom of the Lento from the Telemann G major Concerto for 2 violas with Erin accompanying Noah and me.

The arrival of the piano has precipitated a number of changes:

  • Fiona has declared that she wants to be a piano-ist, and that she is no longer willing to wait until she is six to start learning, and she wants "real lessons from a teacher" and now would be a good time to start.

  • Noah has pulled out some of the books he was working on a year or two ago and is trying to "heal" his piano skills. He may consider lessons after he has completed that process.

  • Sophie is working through some early primers on her own, though making no noises about lessons.

  • Erin has resurrected much of her favourite repertoire and albums she never quite got around to mastering to her satisfaction and to my surprise was very receptive, dare I say even enthusiastic, about the prospect of recording an album of modern impressionistic pieces as a keepsake and gift to friends / extended family. On the hypothetical play list -- Robert Starer's "Colors" suites 1 & 2, Seymour Bernstein's "Birds" and "Birds 2" suites, and Robert Benedict's "Watercolours for Piano" suite.

  • The spot in the living room where the Klingerman once sat has been vacated to reveal a grimy, much scratched and dented wall seriously in need of repainting. We intend to paint this week and then move the bookcases over to that wall ... and then we'll shop for a matching entertainment centre for the stereo and buy a second chair, and repaint the other two walls (the fourth wall is log & brick).

  • The piano music has all been organized and filed in the wall cupboards.

  • Erin has a cubby desk in her little cabin.

  • Horseplay and food are no longer permitted in the computer room.
All good changes. Hurrah for nudges!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Maturity and pseudo-maturity

Someone wrote on a message board about an acquaintance who was banning her newly-5yo from watching "little-kid TV" or playing "little-kid computer games." I think that this parent's approach is indicative of a serious misunderstanding of what maturity is. She wants her daughter to grow and mature, but she's using assumptions about maturity that are very shallow, and is in fact getting the whole thing backwards.

Maturity is about knowing deep down inside who you are and what you stand for, and acting according to those values. Pseudo-maturity is trying to act like people who are older than you. Pseudo-maturity, because it's play-acting one's values and interests, actually interferes with the development of real maturity. If you are trying really hard to act like you're interested in A, B and C, how can you possibly figure out what your real affinities are?

I think that there are many pressures in our culture trying to turn children into adolescents long before their childhoods should be over, and then work to keep them that way long past the time when they should be fledged as adults. Two hundred years ago a thirteen-year-old girl was likely to still play with dolls, and a sixteen-year-old girl might very well be getting married and starting a family of her own. A thirteen-year-old boy might be playing with sticks and balls, while a fifteen-year-old might be going off to war or apprenticing as a cartwright. While I think full fledging into adulthood was often too soon and too brutal in those days, I do think it's important to note that adolescence, or "not-quite-adulthood", was a brief transition from childhood to adulthood, not a way of life.

Nowadays adolescence is a cultural identity of at least 10 (or maybe even more than 20) years of taking your values from the peer group and mass media, of acting as grown up as you can, but without taking any real responsibility, of pushing limits while still wanting to be bailed out if real mistakes are made. Ten to twenty years when you are neither a child nor a parent, neither an adult nor a kid, when "family" does not form the core of your universe. An entire generation of people, from age 8 to 30, are in a state of suspended personal development, trying to "find themselves" and work out who they are and what they ought to be doing with their lives while socially disconnected from their families and those they ought to be taking their values from.

I think it's done some terrible things to western culture, as it's created a massive demographic of people who are concerned primarily with themselves without reference to their inter-relation with family and society. People like the parent described above are out at the leading edge of this phenomenon, not just swept up in it with a sense of vague unease, but helping actively promote it in the lives of their own children. What a shame.

I've always said, half-jokingly, that "we aren't doing adolescence in our family." I've tried to help keep my children children, to help them develop real maturity in a strong sense of self and values before they run the risk of getting swept up by peer culture and losing their bearings. I half-feared that I would have to eat my words, but so far so good. Erin is still interested in playing with Playmobil and being home with her younger siblings, while at the same time she is gradually learning to take on adult-type roles and responsibilities. What she is not doing is pretending to be more grown up than she is by adopting the trappings and outward behaviours of an older group. Hurrah!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

SVI 2006

We just finished our main week of music summer school. I'm heavily involved organizationally and had all four of my kids enrolled in the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, a family-based week-long music workshop for Suzuki violinists, violists and cellists in our little town. Last year the program attracted 41 students, this year 69 with a waitlist, so things were busy! Erin had 5 hours, Noah and Sophie 4 and Fiona 3. Each student had (a) a master class where individual instruction was shared between three or four students in turn (b) a group class of 10-18 students playing common repertoire together (c) an Orff / movement / singing / improv class of 10-18 agemates with a wonderful energetic leader and (d) a chamber music ensemble (this last hour omitted for Fiona and the very youngest beginningest kids). In addition each student had a rehearsal and recital performance, two or three group performances and a variety of social and musical evening events. And of course, time for individual practicing. Add in all the organizational stuff and loose ends like faculty social events, custodial work, and hospitality-type tasks for all the out-of-towners and it was an incredibly full week.

Amazing, though!

Noah's first string quartet experience thrilled him. I think he is in love with his coach, a young, creative, fun and very talented cellist of Chinese-Canadian descent who grew up a Suzuki student and also happens to be an accomplished Flamenco dancer.

Erin became a real leader-by-example this week, as the most advanced student. She did a super job of her Beethoven String Quartet 1st violin part, exuding personality and joy in her playing and never ceasing to smile and chatter (this? my kid who would once have met the criteria for Selective Mutism?).

Sophie had to join the older two in being an independent student for most of the week and did a great job of keeping track of the time and her schedule and getting herself to her various classes, to the lunchroom and rehearsals promptly and correctly.

Fiona was stretched in ways I didn't anticipate; for at least a year she's been eagerly joining in on her siblings' lessons and group classes, but I didn't realize how much it was their presence that drew her in. In her own class of 3-to-6-year-olds, without her siblings there, she was much more reticent. She was the youngest but almost the most advanced in her group class, but struggled to leave my lap at times. Still, by the end of the week she had made big gains in group participation, and of course had eagerly performed solos and in larger groups (where her siblings were playing also) as always. She soaked up lots by observing and was cheerful throughout.

Tellingly, the kids spent yesterday checking their watches at intervals and commenting wistfully "I'd be finishing up in Joanne's class right now," or "my quartet would just be starting," and demanding that we make the institute 2 or 3 weeks long next year (ain't gonna happen in my lifetime!). How amazing to come through an exhausting week like that dying for more of the same!