Thursday, July 27, 2006

Influence and control

I've been thinking about the relationship between influence and control for a while now. I have a feeling that this must be one of those fundamentals of human relationships, especially between parents and children. Parents and children are of course not equal participants in their relationships. Parents have more experience, more knowledge and more ability to control the world around them. But I think it's simplistic to portray the relationship as being hierarchical. I do not want to be the boss of my children. I want to raise them to be good bosses to themselves.

So I have never wanted to control my children. I've wanted them to learn to be "under control" in that they understand social/behavioural expectations and can control themselves within acceptable limits. I have felt, though, that exerting control over them is not the most effective way to nurture that self-control as I have been very aware in my own personality of the tendency to push against controls exerted from the outside. Neufeld and Maté call this a rousing of "counterwill." It's part of the human drive towards autonomy and independence.

Instead I have tried to create a family environment where I have the ability to influence my children. The medium-term result may be the same (children who do what their parents would like them to do) but the psychological climate, I'm convinced, is different. The bigger the element of control gets, the smaller the amount of influence. The greater the influence, the less control is required.

I feel fortunate that the combination of temperaments, parenting style and homeschooling approach have created a family climate where Chuck and I seem to be able to influence our children where we feel it is important to do so. And as a result we seem to have been able to get away without exerting a great deal of control. This has been rather a necessity with the elder children, as they seem to have counterwill reflexes that are, er, rather easily elicited. I once made the mistake of telling Erin that she ought to, on no uncertain terms, say "sorry" to her brother. It was about 6 years later that I finally heard her express a verbal apology. My kids seem to have been dealt heaping portions of counterwill. For better or for worse. At times I despair about this, but then I realize that I have been forced to relate to them in non-controlling ways and so instead I have managed to nurture my ability to influence them.

As they get older and closer to adulthood it becomes increasingly important to know that even in the absence of any controlling forces they will behave in safe, respectful and ethical ways.

Today I feel quite happy about the fact that I can't really "make" my children do things :-).

Beakman Motor

Noah and I made this little motor the other day after he had impressed me by taking apart the dyno-generator flashlight that had broken, repairing the switch and then described in rudimentary terms how the magnet was creating electricity when the device was shaken. We talked about electromagnets and the reciprocal relationship between generators and motors. Then we hit on the idea of searching the internet for a simple model of a motor. This one fit the bill perfectly, and the amazing thing was that we had all the supplies on hand at home thanks to Chuck's packrat tendencies in the shop. It uses half a metre of magnet wire, a ceramic magnet, a battery, two large paper clips and two metal shelf clips (the type pushed into pre-drilled holes in wooden bookcases with adjustable shelves). Very cool. Instructions here.

Planning Our Learning

For many years in our homeschooling journey I tried to keep my eyes on the horizon ("I want my children to be happy, moral, confident and productive adults when they grow up") and not on the day-to-day stuff ("Plan? We're supposed to plan? I'm too busy [deschooling, folding laundry, wiping noses] to plan!"). But last year the independent school program Erin signed on to forced us to participate in a planning process that I thought would be artificial and pointless.

I was rather surprised to find out that the planning process, and the gentle regimen of revisiting that plan three times a year, was extremely helpful, both to Erin and to me. So helpful, in fact, that it was a big part of why I signed Sophie and Noah up for the same program for 2006/7 -- though I fully intended to go through similar planning with them, whether they were interested in signing on or not.

The crux of this planning is that it is directed by the child (though facilitated to a variable extent by the parent). It starts with a "mind map", which is really just a no-holds-barred "inventory of interest"... a list of things that intrigue my kids, that they're interested in learning a bit, or a bit more, about, or want to continue pursuing. Right now I have lists for each child. Anything they express an interest in goes onto the list. We just started these latest lists last week and they're only just beginning to accumulate ideas. Sophie has taken to the process with enthusiasm. Noah is less forthcoming, although when, in the course of life, he expresses an interest in something and I remind him that it could go on his list he is always agreeable. Fiona's list is all about doing what the older children are doing, this being the grand theme in her life! Erin is quietly, independently, developing her own list.

As the summer progresses, lots (too much!) will get added to those mind-maps, or "learning wish lists". At the end of August, we'll sit down together one-on-one and each child will decide what directions they want to move first. We'll likely set about half of the ideas aside for later. And then we'll investigate resources for the ones we're tackling first.

In December, March and June we'll look back at the original learning plan. We'll discuss what has been accomplished, how things have shifted, where the momentum lies, and decide whether to add or remove items from the learning plan.

I've found, over the past year, that's it's been really helpful to (a) go through that mind-mapping process to come up with ideas and inspiration and (b) to revisit the fluid plan on a periodic basis to decide whether the gaols and plans that were devised a while ago still have relevence even if they've been neglected so far (often they are -- and that re-orienting back to the ideas generated a few months ago has been really invigorating for Erin and me).

Our learning plan is like a beacon. We are not required to stand in its shadow. We are not required to follow a specific path in its vicinity. But starting from that beacon and checking in from time to time on where it is, and deciding based on that whether we are where we want to be, has been helpful.

When I first encountered the SelfDesigning process it seemed very "out there" and contrived. I'm sure my description seems a little the same way. So I'll add a few specifics to attempt to make it a little more concrete and useful.

On Erin's learning plan last year were a combination of tangible goals and whimsical thoughts of possibilities to explore. Lots of the elements of that plan were revisited with a sense of purpose. Although she didn't touch math until after Christmas, it was revisiting her goal of completing her current grade level book that helped spur her (happily!) back to math bookwork. As she had expressed an interest and it was there on the plan we did manage to gradually put more priority on chamber music and she got lots of new experience there. ... and so on. Some adjustments, some re-alignments, some discarding of elements of her plan ... but always upon due consideration, never just because she sorta forgot about something or got busy with something else and didn't bother.

We will see how the process evolves with the other children.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

One Hundred Twinkles

Sometime a week or two ago Fiona surpassed the 100-Twinkle mark. She is now a "Twinkler" rather than a "pre-Twinkler" and can play all the variations (even the diabolical off-beat Variation B) and theme with the piano part almost up to tempo.

Last night the kids played their instruments in informal performance for my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt-in-law (visiting from Alberta and Ontario) and my mother. They each played a solo, Noah playing the first movement of the Telemann viola concerto with Erin accompanying on piano. The grand finale was a simple arrangement of "Blue Bells of Scotland" in three parts that the older three have done together before, but I hit on the fact that open string playing of the D and A strings would fit nicely with the harmonies and set Fiona up playing as well. She was thrilled at the idea, and stood cheerfully in playing position for the three or four minutes it took the older kids to get their instruments out and their sheet music ready. She bowed the open strings enthusiastically but musically and it was a very touching moment ... the first quartet performance my kids have done together. Small beginnings.

Fiona is very excited to be an enrolled student at the upcoming local Suzuki institute. Two weeks and counting!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A chemical reaction

Three weeks ago I wrote about some progress I felt I was making with Noah at establishing a positive, optimistic outlook. By taking into account his need to let ideas sit for a while before accepting them, and offering him a bit more one-on-one in things that seem to be uniquely his interests, I felt our relationship with each other and his relationship with his learning were moving in a good direction.

Now I'm wondering if this subtle change was more than the natural waxing and waning of interests and relationships and was perhaps instead the beginning of a whole new chapter in his education. It's starting to feel like he's found his academic self.

It started with Benjamin Wiker's "The Mystery of the Periodic Table", a romp through the history of chemistry targetted at 8-to-12-year-olds. I can't remember why we chose to start reading it aloud, but as is often the case, one of the kids enjoyed the book a bit more than the other. This time it was Noah who was keen. The night Sophie was heading off for a sleepover, I asked if she'd mind if I kept reading ahead with just Noah, and she shrugged and said that was fine. Noah and I delved in together and read a few more chapters, just the two of us. The next day I printed out and laminated a nice copy of the periodic table for Noah "because you like chemistry."

Somewhere amidst those couple of chapters read to him aloud and the presentation of the periodic table, Noah seemed to gain an identity as Someone With an Interest in Chemistry. Chemistry is something Erin has never really explored, so Noah was able to take it on as his thing.

We've done a little bit of kitchen chemistry inspired by Wiker's book, and have talked a lot about covalent bonding, molecular models, the Bohr atom and other various and sundry chemical concepts. I've put a lot of money and energy into gathering resources, because he is keen on them and I really feel like this is an important shift in his educational life. The Teaching Company's Joy of Science lectures on chemistry have been very helpful and surprisingly well-comprehended. We've got "Real Science 4 Kids" Chemistry Level I on order, as well as a nice (though pricey!) molecular model kit. I often find Noah poring over Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Chemistry. To find Noah poring over anything academic is a very novel occurrence. I have just started an "inventory of interests" on the fridge for each child, to help us plan and prioritize learning for the next school year, and Noah instructed me on no uncertain terms to "put chemistry up there on my list".

It's not just chemistry anymore either. In the past couple of weeks, his interest in math has taken off for the first time in ages. He's asked for a cursive handwriting workbook.

The glasses may be the other half of the equation. We knew he was far-sighted, but as he wasn't complaining about eye strain when focusing up close, we hadn't pursued glasses at his 2005 eye appointment. But this year it was apparent that he was struggling with close work. In May I made an appointment for July 4, and over the few weeks before the appointment I mentioned Noah that I thought a lot of his disinterest in reading, music sight-reading and bookwork was probably due to the fact that it was a real bother for him to focus up close. I knew he was keen on the idea of glasses, and also that he was feeling a little down on himself for the fact that he hadn't been reading five novels a week and roaring ahead through math workbooks like his sisters. The eyesight thing, whether a big factor or not, gave him a way of saving face over his lack of academic interest.

He really likes the glasses (which he just wears for reading and other close work) and they seem to have had a very positive effect on his interest in academic work and reading. Perhaps it's a placebo effect, but we'll take whatever we can get. I was happy to see him playing his viola, playing soccer, imagining, thinking, asking questions and having great conversations, but he was beginning to feel inadequate as Sophie's math and writing skills had threatened to overtake his, with Erin's academic ability always so far beyond his that she seemed to reside on another planet.

Noah's reaction to chemistry, his taking ownership of this interest and this learning for himself, has been a wonderful thing for a late-blooming (by m00minfamily standards) academic. And for the late-blooming academic's mother.