Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fifty Twinkles

Fiona, who began her diligent daily work on the violin about eight months ago, at age 2, is now a three-year-old Twinkler. First she learned rest position, and where to put her feet in rest position and playing position. She learned to make a bow hold. She learned to hold her cardboard violin on her shoulder. She learned to mimic the four Twinkle Variation rhythms, and to identify them with accuracy. She practiced ear-training exercises and learned about the form of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Then she got a "real" violin and learned to make a nice sound on open strings, mimicking those same rhythms with the appropriate bowstrokes. In February we started training her fingers to tap the strings. In March she learned a little exercise using three fingers on the A-string called the "Monkey Song". In April she began work on the opening part of the Twinkle variations.

Now, in late June, she is Twinkling! She can play all four Twinkle Variations and Twinkle Theme all the way through without help. She is counting her unassisted Twinkle repetitions on a counting frame and has 50 accrued. She practices eagerly, in good cheer, punctuating her practising with hugs and kisses and giggles and happy conversation.

I wrote about Expectations in a previous blog entry. Things continue in very much the same vein. My excitement at the tangible gains she's making have not yet contaminated the process-oriented work she's doing. I never expected her to be working on the violin at this age, so any progress she makes still feels like gravy to me. She is so pleased with herself and is delightedly looking forward to showing her grandmother, her aunt and the other Suzuki teachers in her life what she can now do. She will be enrolled as a pre-Twinkle student at the Suzuki Valhalla Institute this August and is thrilled. After three older children, I seem to finally either (a) have struck it lucky with an eager, easy-going child who loves to please the adults around her or (b) be doing something right!

Monday, June 26, 2006


"Periodic Unschoolers' Panic Disorder" (PUPD) is a syndrome which is receiving increasing attention in unschooling circles. Apparent prevalence is on the rise. Some might claim an epidemic has taken hold; more moderate voices claim that the disorder has always been endemic in the unschooling population, but recent media attention and publication of the cluster of symptoms has led to many new diagnoses.

Classic symptoms are difficult to miss. Otherwise sensible unschooling parents start pressuring their creative, autonomous, self-motivated, hands-on learners into producing tidy completed worksheets, or sitting through chapters of world history read aloud. They reach for their credit cards and begin spending money on structured curriculum they'll discard after a miserable week and a half.

The disorder is, by its very definition, episodic. The first episode typically occurs sometime during the child's kindergarten year, although in retrospect sufferers often identify harbinger symptoms such as overzealously directing their preschool children to magnetic letters, worrying over a 3-year-old's excess fondness for matchbox cars and mud, or being concerned about a 4-and-a-half-year-old's continuing tendency to confuse the letters Y and W.

Despite parents' beliefs that they have deschooled themselves, PUPD episodes tend to occur coincident with the public school calendar. Fifty-one per cent of episodes occur during the school year-end months of May through early July when public school parents are feeling confident and proud of their children's tangible progress from one grade year to another. Another 36% of episodes occur between late November and early March, while public school families are receiving report cards, attending holiday concerts and taping weekly spelling lists earnestly to their fridges.

Mean frequency of episodes during the child's elementary years is 9.2 months. The frequency and duration of episodes peaks when children are 7 and 8 and then tends to diminish into the pre-teen and teen years. Protective factors include (i) early age of independent reading (ii) spontaneous interest in math workbooks and (iii) unschooling-supportive grandparents.

Research into treatment for PUPD is in its infancy. Current promising research is pointing a the beneficial role for parental journaling, improvements in parental anxiety with daily family recreation, especially that which takes place outdoors, and on the self-reported benefits of internet support-groups for afflicted parents. One recent study (Hughes, 2005) confirmed that beating one's head against a brick wall is an ineffective strategy by all criteria.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Once in a while homeschooling skeptics raise the issue of teamwork. "Well sure," they'll say, "homeschooled kids learn really well and can follow their interests at their own pace and all that. But I think there's value in the kind of team-based work that happens at school. Kids need to learn to work as part of a team, to give and take a bit, to be good leaders, and to be good followers, to make collaborative decisions and problem-solve together."

Of course, to my mind, this is what families are for. Families are groups of interdependent people who work together, who collaborate, who problem-solve co-operatively, who tackle big jobs as a team, who learn from and with each other. If kids spend the lion's share of their productive hours apart from their families, then of course they'll need to be taught teamwork using artificially-contrived team learning projects. Here teamwork is learned by being part of a family.

And not just family either. Our unschooling has naturally grown to encompass the community around us, and there's plenty of opportunity for meaningful teamwork that inspired the kids and contributes meaningfully to the world around them.

My children are involved in music, and through playing in duos, trios, quartets, and community orchestra, they're involved in teamwork where "pulling one's weight" is absolutely essential, and where leading and following are both incredibly important roles.

My kids volunteer with me from time to time at places like the nursing home or the local community garden where a crew of community volunteers does all the maintenance. There are many jobs to be done and there's lots to be learned. The kids are learning how to offer help and find places where their help is needed and appreciated, without being directed.

We also have the gardening/environmental club where we do everything co-operatively and democratically. We've built a productive organic vegetable garden from scratch and taken on a number of community service and environmental advocacy / education / facilitation projects.

The kids exist on the fringes of a number of volunteer activities that I'm involved in, and often participate in those activities themselves. For instance, I'm involved in organizing music summer school and my kids have sat in on meetings, watching how problem-solving happens, how budgets are fleshed out, and so on. And they've helped the program take shape by working with me on the tasks I've been delegated, whether by talking to someone about the use of a facility or creating an enrichment activity or laminating nametags or analyzing enrollment data and identifying trends.

The kids are also involved in our community soccer league so they get the more traditional sports team experience that way. This year we also participated with a group of families putting together a series of radio documentaries about homeschooling and how it allows families to follow their passions. While each family or pair of families put together one or more shows on their own, we all had to collaborate with each other on technical aspects, intro and outro scripts, theme music, getting oriented to the studio and learning from and with each other about the audio-editing software we were using. Our family did two shows on our own, and one collaborating with another family from the gardening/environmental club. All were aired on the region's co-op radio station, and the series then evolved into a fundraising project for the radio station.

So for my kids, involvement in family life and in our community is giving plenty of opportunity to work as part of a team, with absolutely no need for school-style "teamwork projects".

Saturday, June 24, 2006

My Chick-Pea

Lately we've been making a lot of hummus and falafel, so putting dried chick-peas out to soak overnight is a regular occurence here. I've decided that Noah is like a chick pea. He needs to be soaked overnight.

Three weeks ago I had received information about a summer Soccer Camp in Nakusp for kids 9-12. Two hours every morning for five days. Noah is a soccer dynamo, and Erin has improved greatly this year and is very keen on soccer as well, so I presented the possibility to them. Erin was keen. Noah said no outright. Erin got angry at Noah, knowing we wouldn't be driving four kids 75 minutes round-trip five days in a row if only one of them was doing the camp. Noah cried.

A few days later someone mentioned Soccer Camp again and Noah said "Oh yeah, I want to do it!" I asked him where the change of heart had come from. He said "I'd changed my mind by that night. I don't know why."

I thought of the chick-pea analogy. "You know," I said, "We all need to remember that you're a bit like a dried chick-pea, and you just need the chance to soak in an idea for a while before there's any point in asking you how you feel about it. We'd avoid a lot of heartache that way, I think."

I'm sure that whatever facet of his character makes him a chick-pea when it comes to embracing new activities is the same thing that gives him such a tough time with transitions. It's the thing that keeps him sitting at the computer all day, which leads to him later complaining that "we never do anything fun!" It's the same thing that makes him say "Naw..." when I offer almost any activity or project or excursion.

I'm putting some energy lately into building some one-on-one connections with Noah. It takes time and patience and fair warning (and often an overnight soak) but he seems a happier boy for it. I'm reading some non-fiction aloud to him ... chemistry and geography (navigation) and we're exploring those areas together with some projects. We're doing some math together again on a regular basis ... at times I'm not already working with the girls. With phenomenal fortitude and resistence-to-mounting-frustration, he mastered the concept and mechanics of equivalent fractions and reducing fractions to their simplest form in the course of one 45-minute math session. He has a penchant for shutting down completely when he has to work at something, and I kept expecting him to burst into tears when my explanations moved too fast or came from the wrong direction for him. But for some reason he was able to keep himself trying, and gradually it made sense. I think he managed because he and I have a really good relationship right now, and because, as I said, he is a happier boy. He wanted to "get it" and wanted to please me, and felt confident and optimistic enough to push himself until it clicked. We followed up the next night with a card game to review the concepts we'd worked on the previous night, and he was really pleased with how well-learned everything was.

Today the chick pea and I have built a distillation apparatus together. We are distilling fresh clean water out of the mucky soup of sugar, salt, food colouring and coffee grounds we created. This science-related stuff feels to him like his domain, separate from the sorts of things the girls are pursuing, so it's a great place for us to connect, where he can explore his interests without comparing himself to his sisters. I hope we can keep this up.

Stop-motion fun

A couple of weeks ago a tidying frenzy resulted in the rediscovery of Playmobil castle fun. Playmobil has been enjoyed in many different ways by my kids over the years, but for the past while it's been mostly the figures that have taken on Euwy World personas and served as ballast or characters in K'nex constructions or in stories. But recently, the castle stuff has been big again -- so big, in fact, that the kids decided that they wanted to pool their allowance money and buy an Evil Knight (and his evil steed) and the Rock Castle set.

We ordered it on-line (the kids researching prices, shipping and taxes and finding a good deal) and it arrived this week. They've been up in the under-the-roof-peak space of the loft playing with it for hours.

Now the video-camera has come out and the kids are creating stop-motion video shorts using the frame-by-frame record setting. Most of the vignettes seem to involve beer and drunk & disorderly behaviour (a catapult set purchased years ago came with three or four steins of beer overflowing with froth -- how can three silly kids resist?) and lots of giggling.

Maybe some day they'll come up with something they're happy to share, and I'll figure out how to create MPEG video on-line.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Today the three older kids and I got up before daybreak (at 4 a.m.) and drove up to the pass near us. From there we watched the sky lighten in the east. To the west the snowcapped mountains turned pink and then orange as they gradually received sunlight. The mist on the lake at the pass swirled and vapourized.

We came back home by about 5 a.m. and had a breakfast of hot cocao, sunny orange fruit punch, toast and eggs ... sunny side up, of course. :-D

After a long lazy morning punctuated by Second Breakfast, we headed down to the beach. There we created the sun-themed, Andy-Goldsworthy-inspired natural installation pictured above.

The kids' big communal Playmobil order arrived this afternoon so they happily played all afternoon. Tonight we had grandma up for a late dessert just around dusk ... the sunny round yellow cheesecake we made yesterday.

It's 9:15 pm and I'm going to try to chase them off to bed soon. It's been a long but very fun day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Today I learned....

Today I learned:

1. That 12-year-olds who haven't had their child-like-ness "socialized" out of them at school will still contribute large amounts of their own spending money towards the purchase of communal Playmobil castle stuff with their younger siblings.

2. That unschooling moms who leave their small business and medical practice accounting until three days before their adjusted-year-end Canadian tax return is due will, for the 7th or 8th June 14th in a row, curse their procrastination tendencies.

3. That a brand new copy of Rosetta Stone Latin will keep four unschooled kids, aged 3-12, rapt at the computer for almost 2 hours.

4. That moms who are punchy from too much accounting work cannot help commenting "Sex?? He said sex!!" every time the Rosetta Stone narrator counts to six.

5. That it is possible for a mother to embarrass a 12-year-old by shouting the word "Sex" repeatedly.

6. That "old woman" in Latin is "anus."

7. That three children, aged 7 to 12, can get very good at chorusing back at their mother in voices dripping with playful condescension "oh my, it seems she never outgrew the potty joke phase."

8. That "you learn something new everyday" posts are a welcome diversion from tax-return preparation.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Speed Stack Mania

I help run the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, a week-long summer music workshop for Suzuki families. Last summer I came up with two fun optional activities for families to participate in during their spare time. One was a sort of community treasure hunt, the other a collaborative art & ideas project that took shape in the lounge area during the week. I've been trying to come up with some different ideas for this year.

A couple of weeks ago I heard, on a parenting message board, about Speed Stacks. They're plastic cups (special ones, just the right size, and with holes in the bottom) that are used in sets of 12 to stack in a variety of pyramidal arrays. It's a wacky fad-like thing that has taken many school phys. ed. programs by storm, not so much in Canada, though it's apparently starting here too, but all over the US. I was hearing from parents how much their kids loved stacking, and how much fun it was. I wondered if it might be a kind of fun novelty activity to have available in the lounge area at the Suzuki Institute.

I bought four Speed Stack sets, one for each of my kids, to try them out. I am amazed. The kids, Erin and Sophie especially, have taken to them in a huge way. They have spent hours and hours a day with them. They took them to soccer yesterday and also showed them to some friends who were over for a visit, and they were completely taken with them as well.

For my kids learning to stack quickly and efficiently was an interesting lesson in learning styles. They were very aware of the different options for learning (verbal instructions read from the instruction booklet, enhanced by diagrams, visual guidance in the form of the accompanying DVD, and hands-on trial-and-error). Each of my kids preferred to start with one strategy, and they all found different paths to mastery. Temperament issues have been at the fore as well. Noah preferred to watch and then practice in private. Erin delved in with single-minded, almost obsessive repetitiveness. Sophie jumps in when there are two or more other kids working with cups and chatting and laughing. Teaching Fiona the 3-6-3 stack was a great exercise for the older kids in breaking things down into their simplest components and communicating and instructing in ways that allow for mastery.

Erin has been frustrated by how rusty her skills get after even a short break. After an hour of stacking, her time for the complete cycle is in the range of 15-17 seconds, but after lunch or the next morning, she's back to 24 seconds and has to work her way down again. So we've had some discussions about how physical skills usually require consistent daily work over a period of time to gel securely, and how warming up really is necessary to reach optimal efficiency. These are of course things she should understand from practicing violin and piano, but sport stacking makes it very easy to quantify and examine these effects in a tangible way.

Neurologically Sport Stacking has all sorts of things to recommend it. It involves hand-eye co-ordination and speedy reaction time, and the movements, when done 'correctly', cross the midline repeatedly in three dimensions, something which BrainGym research has shown improves learning. For a bunch of young string players who have to do a lot of learning and lateralized movements, these seem like worthy side benefits.

Mostly I was interested in the social aspect, the novelty and the fun. The cups seem to be winners on all three fronts. I had to play the heavy and get Sophie to put her cups away yesterday at soccer because the kids were all losing interest in the soccer game!

My kids are now talking about using their pooled allowance money to purchase a "stack mat" with a regulation timer.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Prioritizing outside activities

Many kids these days are over-scheduled. Children and parents are constantly faced with tough decisions, trying to prioritize their many outside committments. Our family isn't under quite the same pressure to prioritize, because by virtue of not going to school our kids have 6 extra hours a day for scheduled activities. Activities are also of added importance to homeschooled kids because they're often their sole opportunity for group learning. By some standards my kids do an awful lot. I counted a month or so ago and discovered that with all her various musical ensembles Erin was participating in eleven different activities. That's dropped away a fair bit now that the seasons have wrapped up for some of them, but still ... it's a lot.

However, despite our all the extra time we have, and the added importance of group activities in our lives, there's no doubt that we still need to prioritize to some extent. I think one has to find the principles that fit with one's family and work from those. For us, the principles are:

  • travel -- minimizing travel expenses, environmental impact, risk and time
  • efficiency -- ensuring that what travel we do serves more than one child in more than one interest, or that the activity can be arranged to require minimal sacrifice from other family members in terms of taxiing, waiting, etc.
  • affordability -- can we afford this activity over the longer term?
  • growth -- is this the sort of activity that will potentially allow for long-term healthy growth in mind / body / spirit
  • commitment -- can I foresee my child and myself becoming;remaining committed to this activity over the long term?
  • balance -- does this activity provide or maintain a balance in the life of our child and family? balance between down-time and activity, family time and 'other'-time, physical and sedentary activities, etc.

We discuss these principles as a family and make collaborative decisions. We take this decision-making process quite seriously. Involving the children helps them understand all the considerations and what the trade-offs are when a new activity is added.

I know that a lot of parents believe that sampling a broad range of activities as a young child will awaken the child's particular interests and aptitudes and provide a range of experience. Personally I've found that we don't need structured activities for my kids to sample the vast majority of things. I tend to believe that it's better to sample broadly in a casual sense, as a family, without signing up for structured activities, and to reserve the structured activities for activities I deem exceptionally important and valuable, for which my kids seem to have an affinity, and then to expect long-term commitment and follow-through. ("Expect" as in "I fully expect that this is something that will continue to inspire you and fulfill your needs over the long term", rather than as in "Young lady, I expect you to continue with this, and that's that.")

Generally speaking I like each of my kids, by the age of 5 or 6, to be involved long-term (meaning from year to year) in something creative and artistic, and something concerned with physical/athletic skill development. Even without school, we find it works best if each child has at least two, and preferably three, days a week with no outside activities scheduled (though rarely, due to overlapping seasons, we've wiggled around that guideline a little). We find that without a minimum of 3-4 hours of "down time" per day creativity, emotional resilience and family relationships begin to suffer. We don't pursue competitive-track activities because (a) I believe competitive situations are risky for children because they haven't yet formed a secure sense of their own identity and because (b) I know that such activities tend to escalate rapidly in terms of their demands for money, time and travel as the child becomes 'successful' -- I'm leery of that 'slippery slope'.

So those are our principles and our practices. For the most part this works for us.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Glowing mushroom stories

This is my morel mushroom lantern. It's made by a local artisan. I'd coveted this lantern at markets and in a gift shop for almost two years. There it was, on sale, a couple of weeks ago. I bought it. It's become part of our evening tradition. We light it every night when I read stories to the kids.

A year or so ago Erin began declining our readalouds. I think my attempts to encourage (er, nag?) her into getting herself ready for the nightly readaloud in a timely fashion raised all her oppositional tendencies and she announced that she didn't like readalouds and had read almost all the novels anyway. She deigned to join us in holiday readalouds, but that was her sole concession.

Since the mushroom arrived, though, she's back on board. She mostly pretends she's not listening, but the books we've been reading lately have interested her and I guess she's no longer seeing her non-participation as an issue of personal autonomy. She situates herself in the vicinity and busies herself with something manual and relatively mindless like origami or a computer game. I do her the courtesy of remind everyone that I'll be starting our readaloud in a few minutes, and I casually wait for her if she hasn't finished her practising quite in time.

It's nice to have her back.

Right now we're working our way through Madeleine L'Engle's "Time Quartet", having just finished the light but fun "Peter and the Starcatchers" by Dave Barry. Both great reads that appeal to the 7-12 age range of my older three.