Friday, August 31, 2007

It's physics

Really. It is not four children, a tree fort, a couple of climbing harnesses, some ropes and a lot of only-marginally safe crazed swinging, leaping and 'flying'. It is not an accident waiting to happen. It is not inadequate parental limit-setting.

No, it's pulleys, pendulums, mass, density, period, acceleration, distance, speed and moment of inertia.

It's physics. Really.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Over-packaging rant

I have this cute wonderful little Sony MiniDisc recorder that can make hi-fi digital stereo recordings with nothing more than the poke of a couple of buttons, but its proprietary NiMH battery finally stopped holding a charge and while I could still use the AC adaptor the device wasn't half as much use not being portable.

(Here I must confess that I had the old nasty-toxic metal hydride battery in my purse to drop off with Lee, the guy who brokers the recycling and safe disposal of nasty batteries, but for whatever reason Fiona found it a quiet diversion during Erin's piano recital in May, and when we stopped for gelato on the way home from the recital, I realized it had got left behind in the church pew. I can only hope that some Christian eco-head found it the next Sunday morning and took it to Lee for me.)

Okay, that's my confession out of the way. I resolved to do a much better job of limiting my ecological footprint with my next nasty toxic NiMH battery. And so, after coming up empty locally, I found a Canadian internet supplier of replacement batteries and ordered one. It arrived quickly and effiicently.

But oh dear. Look at that package in front of Noah. He looks appalled, doesn't he? That box is 9 x 6 x 6 inches. Inside ...

Yup, one teeny weeny battery and half a gallon of styrofoam packing peanuts. An irate e-mail to the company hardly seems sufficient. I'm tempted to mail them back their peanuts. But I know they wouldn't be at all offended by half a gallon of peanuts. They'd just throw them in the trash -- out of sight, out of mind. Gone. Who cares, right?

So they're in my garbage. I'm incensed anew every time I walk by the garbage can. How dare they inflict all those peanuts on me?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How do they pass?

Someone with a young child asked this question today. If you're homeschooling, especially unschooling, how do your kids 'pass'? Here's the response I wrote:

Imagine that there was a standardized provincial daycare program, more or less compulsory, that the government started, and it laid everything out for enrolled children and their caregivers from birth. Specially trained daycare staff would take primary responsibility for toddler and preschool milestones and they'd have government-devised plans to help them organize this. They'd put children into groups by age so that they could work on the same tasks with them at the same stage. Start solid food and age 6.5 months. At 10 months, begin one-on-one play using names of body parts in speech and sign. At 19 months introduce the potty. At 21 months, taper back morning nap. And so on. Each year of the child's life would have a whole set of learning and developmental expectations. At the end of each year, the daycare staff could provide parents with a report on how closely the child had developed and learned according to those expectations. Assuming they'd lined up pretty well, they'd "pass" their year. Otherwise, remedial interventions would be begun.

Now think again about what happens in a typical home with highly involved parents. For example, in your own home, with your own child. There's no sense that your son has "passed" his first year of life. While you've probably had in mind what typical growth and development is like, you haven't felt the need to formally evaluate your son against benchmarks, create reports or transcripts, or to label him as being "in Grade Negative 5" or whatever. From the perspective of someone who isn't involved in a (thankfully hypothetical) Universal Governmental Child-Rearing Program, the idea of doing all that seems ridiculous. Babies and toddlers grow and learn. Their parents support them and provide the resources and stimulation they need to thrive. That's all there is to it.

So let's move on up to age 7, or 12, without imposing any of the conventions of Universal Government Institutional Schooling on our child. We've got a child who is growing and learning, with parents supporting him and providing the resources and stimulation he needs to thrive -- educationally and otherwise. That's all there is to it. There's absolutely no need to utilize the trappings of schooling ... like grade levels, the idea of "being in a grade", and evaluations, and 'passing' and transcripts and reports. Obviously you can do all that if you want, and some homeschooling families do so, but you'll find that many discard most or all of that stuff and enjoy the flexibility that opens up to them.

Trees, ropes and ladders

Three or four years ago Chuck started work on a treehouse. He got the floor framing built, and that was about it. No decking, no way to get up, just an empty frame in the trees. Every year the kids would make a few wistful comments about wishing they had a treehouse, and Chuck would guiltily remind them of the other handyman- or renovation-priorities that had bubbled to the top of his list of things to do.

The past few weeks, though, the kids have been more persistent, and the salvaged lumber from the deck destruction has been looking mighty enticing. And so yesterday I chopped some 2x4's to length and we got busy nailing up a ladder. Next, a few scraps of temporary decking got nailed up on one side and some boxing-ring-style ropes as the most marginal of safety devices above that. That was enough. Suddenly the treehouse became a climbing and swinging and siege-ing play structure, and the kids have spent hours and hours there. The climbing rope and carabiners have been used to create swings and pulleys. Today I made to prussik loops and Sophie (see photo) got the knack of using them as ascenders up a fixed rope -- not an easy task, but she is a monkey, this kid! It is lovely having the kids keen to be outside right up to and even well past dark.

So far no orthopedic mishaps.

Beginner egg

Ouch! Yes, it's an egg from one of our hens, and it is really large and really weird. When they first start laying, or re-commence laying after a molt, hens often produce "beginner eggs" like this one ... extra large, mis-shapen, with "wrinkles" or extra yolks. It's great fun for the young egg-collectors in this family to head out to the coop each morning and see whether there are any eggs, and check out whether there are any particularly weird ones. But I can only think about childbirth.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Erin's Learning Plan

Erin is the most private and self-directed of my children. Not to mention that she's hardly a child anymore. She's also no longer part of the SelfDesign program which sparked our whole foray into Learning Plans. So our brainstorming session had a somewhat different flavour. I try to be careful not to get in the way of the learning she does by asking too many questions, observing her too closely, or giving voice to my own preferences and biases. A certain amount of our discussion explored ways to cope with the isolation and lack of opportunities in a town of 600 when you're 13 and can't work or travel independently. Erin is feeling the limitations of her small-town life keenly, especially in the wake of three weeks of intensive music stuff where our town gets much bigger both in number of people and opportunities. Things sure feel small and limited after all that stimluation. But reaching out for more opportunities involves big steps that she's maybe not ready for ... It's a tough place to be.

Math: She would like to finish up the Teaching Textbooks Algebra I program she worked through the first half of last June. She'd like me to be available if she needs help sorting through the word problem at the end of each lesson, but will mostly do it independently from the text. Doesn't want to aim for any particular schedule or pace.

Sciences: Will take a look at the CyberEd courses we've subscribed to (Physics, Earth & Space, Life Sciences) but since these are likely mostly below her level she'd like to investigate the high school courses that are offered in Chem and Biology. As always, most of Erin's science learning will proceed through self-directed interest-led reading from books and the internet. Will watch documentaries according to her interests.

Humanities: Willing to participate in our homeschool World Tour Co-op program this fall, especially because much of it will centre around food preparation. As always, most of Erin's learning in the humanities will proceed through self-directed interest-led reading from books and the internet. Will watch documentaries according to her interests.

Languaging: Reads and writes voraciously at a high level. Self-challenges easily. Does not want any structured learning in this area.

Second Language: Wishes to review and expand her understanding of Japanese kana and kanji. Will use the SlimeForest software that she enjoyed and found so addicting this past winter. Will continue with self-structured learning of Latin using Cambridge Latin, Rosetta Stone and Latin translations of popular books. Not interested in guided language learning in either case.

Arts: Would happily participate in art classes if offered locally again by M.. Otherwise not particularly interested in doing anything to pursue visual arts in any systematic way. Would like to explore possible ways of studying music harmony without a teacher. The MIT OpenCourseware Harmony & Counterpoint I Course is something she'd be interested in looking into. Alternatively, a workbook-like program in harmony might be welcome. Will continue piano lessons on a weekly basis with her current teacher. Will continue formal study of violin, mostly self-directed but with monthly or bimonthly input from Theresa, her Calgary-based mentor. Might be willing to consider occasionally submitting a video for e-mail feedback from T., though at this point she is quite reluctant on this count. Would like to perform the Schubert String Quintet in C Major this year. Happy to continue with community orchestra and violin group classes, though she pines for more opportunity to work on challenging group / ensemble music.

Physical Education: Wants to get to know some of the challenging single-track mountain-bike trails in the area. Would love to do more rock-climbing. Gymnastics, figure skating and swimming are all pursuits in which she would love some instruction, but which would involve copious extra travel which is currently impractical.

Technology: Enjoys a high degree of comfort with information technology in general. Will enjoy working with Adobe Photoshop Elements and Adobe Premiere image- and video-editing software. Would like to do more work with stop-motion animation.

Life Skills: More interested in baking desserts than meal prep. Would like more experience with wilderness survival / camping, and kayaking and canoeing skills. Comfortable managing her own living arrangements in the little cabin, her own spending money finances via our ledger system and her own daily learning / music practicing schedule as she sees fit. Would like a job. Discussed opportunities for volunteering prior to next summer so that she might (once she's reached the employable age of 14) have references. We will investigate this further together and via networking with friends and acquaintances. Will continue with community service activities as they arise -- providing musical entertainment, helping out with Valhalla Fine Arts organizational and set-up volunteerism, volunteering with the GRUBS FruitSmart brigade to pick and process surplus fruit, participating in landscaping / gardening workbees and the Kohan Garden and elsewhere. We discussed the possibility of her taking the bus to Nelson on her own some of the time for piano lessons. This would require some rescheduling of piano lessons, a significant walk, and a test run or two with me along for the ride, and would mean she'd have to dedicate a full day to the trip rather than the half day we can fit it into if I drive her. The bus route is considered "local transit" (though the trip is 2 hours long one-way) and therefore children are allowed to ride prior to age 14.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Violin Redux

I think it's pretty unusual for a music student to persist on two different instruments at a roughly equal level of ability for more than a few years without beginning to favour one over the other. Perhaps most often it's the time pressure that gets to them, and there Erin has an advantage. Because we homeschool, she can do piano solos and accompaniment projects and recitals and the practicing and lessons and also have time for violin lessons and practicing and orchestra rehearsals, group classes and quartet rehearsals. But still, I always suspected that she would eventually discover that one of them felt like her "primary instrument" and the other her "secondary instrument." Personality-wise it seemed to me that piano was a better fit for my introverted, perfectionistic intellectual and my guess was that this was the direction she would inevitably lean. She's had the advantage of a stable, long-term good relationship with a teacher who has the expertise to carry her for a few more years yet, and most piano music is complete in and of itself, without another player or group of players to provide ensemble or accompaniment. For the most advanced student in a rural area piano looked like the best fit.

And in fact this summer, for the first time, she began expressing a preference for piano. Due to the lack of a violin teacher, I wondered if this was the beginning of the end. She has such great potential for further growth as a violinist, but the stars just didn't seem aligned to make it work. I resolved to let things lie and wait to see if she developed any passion and interest in violin throughout the summer music programs we'd signed her up for last winter before her violin teacher retired. I tried to make myself comfortable with the idea that she'd maybe just give up studying violin, but secretly I was hoping that the summer programs would fire her up about it (thus greatly complicating our lives with the need to feed her desire for further study).

Things weren't looking great in July. She was practicing a bit, but doing pretty much all review work, not trying to improve her playing of her "current piece" (the Kabelevsky Concerto 1st movement, partly learned when her violin teacher retired) or her "recital piece" (a Bach unaccompanied movement that she'd decided she'd play for the SVI recital). While I'd felt strongly that what she needed was a source of motivation from outside our family, her master class assignment at SVI ended up, by necessity, being her aunt, the only faculty member comfortable teaching at that level. When her VSSM orchestra music arrived, it turned out not to be Stravinsky or Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky or some other meaty, challenging piece similar to what the advanced students had been assigned in past years, but a straightforward Handel Concerto Grosso for the intermediate (~Suzuki book 4-7) orchestra. I asked whether she might be placed in a more challenging orchestra, and she did get bumped up, but even the "advanced orchestra" turned out to be considerably less than advanced, as unbeknownst to us the more advanced string students (Erin was enrolled in the piano program with an orchestral option) had been skimmed off for various chamber ensembles. And then, the final shot was when we got a phone call saying that there were too many violinists and not enough violists in the VIP Chamber Music Program, and would she possibly be willing to play piano in a trio sonata? Of course she agreed -- at that point she was keener on piano -- but I was inwardly disappointed. While I'd hoped three weeks of violin inspiration would fire her up, each week seemed to have suffered a serious complication.

But master class assignment aside, the SVI week really really fired her up. Yeah, the draw was mostly social, but she also enjoyed playing. Enough to begin saying that violin was now her favourite instrument. Not enough to motivate her to want to practice, but enough for her to say "I want to do that again next year, so I guess I'll have to get some lessons and practice." A sort of begrudging form of motivation.

The VSSM was a bit of a washout, both socially and instrumentally-speaking. She did love the choral stuff (is this yet a third 'instrument' she's committed to?) but both the piano class and the orchestra were only so-so.

And then a funny thing happened during the VIP week where she had to play piano with an inexperienced group of string players, amongst a sea of more advanced string players in other chamber groups. She got itchy violin fingers. She longed to be playing the music she could hear coming through the floor. She wished she could be playing their Schubert quintet music, rather than the Handel piano sonata. She was 'stuck' doing a great job of piano in a not-very-challenging ensemble, while all this interesting romantic challenge was taking place around her, but just out of reach.

The violin lesson we'd managed to arrange for her last weekend with our Calgary-based friend who had been teaching here for two weeks gave her a launching pad. She's been practicing the Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro for two hours a day in the midst of a week nominally devoted to piano, completely passionately and unbidden.

Maybe piano isn't such an obvious fit for her after all. The introversion, perfectionism and intellectualism that made piano seem like such a natural personality-fit for her have tempered a little as she's matured. Music has always been a crucial social and relationship vehicle for her. As relationships out in the world beyond our home become more and more important to her, perhaps the fact that violin is such a sociable instrument makes it more relevant now than it ever could have been in the past. Gosh, I sure do over-analyze these things, don't I? I hereby declare a three-month moratorium on obsessive analytical posts about Erin's musical issues.

But anyway, here we are, against all odds, with a kid more passionate about the violin than she's ever been. Life sure is complicated.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Summer 2007 Photo

What a nice bunch of kids we've got. Look at 'em. I figured it was time for a new sidebar photo and I think this will do.

And what a nice place we live in. I feel so lucky.

Learning plan execution

When I went back and read through what I've posted about the kids' learning plans so far, it dawned on me that they look pretty structured and schoolish. To someone looking in from the outside it might look as though I've sat down with each child and said "Okay, what are you going to do for math this year? And what are you gonna do to improve your handwriting?" and so on. Like we've devised a plan to "cover" each area systematically.

The actual process is far from that. The real questions I ask them are basically of three types:
  1. Is there anything you'd like me to help you structure into your upcoming few months?
  2. Do you have any thoughts on how I as your parent and we as a family should be allocating time and money to help you pursue what you're interested in?
  3. Is there anything new that you're interested in that I could help you figure out ways to pursue?
When it comes time to write down the plans, especially for the middle kids who are part of the SelfDesign program, I flesh out each subject heading with things derived from the natural rhythms and interests and routines that make up the kids' lives. For instance, I know that Noah will continue to enjoy watching the science-related DVDs that we rent through the colder months, and that all the kids will continue to enjoy historical fiction readalouds. We don't need to discuss those things when we do our brainstorming. I just slot that stuff in after the fact.

As for the implementation of the plan, we think of it more as a beacon than a path or a destination. My child may end up heading for the beacon, or may wander off in a totally different direction, and that's fine. In three or four months, we'll get together and look over the plan again and I'll say "Hey, here's what you said before, but you've gone in a rather different direction. Are you still interested in this area that hasn't been pursued? Do you want to refocus on it at all?" Sometimes my child will say "nah, I don't want to do that anymore."

But one of the reason I find the Learning Plan so helpful is that often the answer is not "nah..." Often they answer is "Hey, yeah, I do want to do that. I guess I just kind of got busy with other stuff and then forgot about it. I'd really like to get busy with that now."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rewards for good behaviour

Tonight on a message board I put together a reply to someone asking for advice on a financial reward system for good behaviour amongst boys aged 4, 6 and 8. For once I managed to put together a reply in under 2,000 words. Thought I'd copy it here to commemorate my succinctness:

As I see it, the reason kids whine and fight and generally behave poorly is because they are not able to see things from the perspective of others. They don't understand why sometimes their brother needs to have an extra 3 minutes with the Tonka truck or the video game, or that a nasty word or a nasty tone of voice hurts the feelings of a parent or sibling. In other words, young children may not have developed the empathy skills that allow them to see the world through the eyes of others, so they see it only from their own, self-centred perspective.

The ultimate, mature, well-socialized reason for good behaviour is that one cares about others and how one's behaviour impacts the rest of the world. The problem with rewards, IMO, is that they put the focus firmly back on the child's selfish desires. The message becomes "don't hit your brother, because missing your reward will hurt you" rather than "don't hit your brother, because it hurts him." Rewards reinforce concern with the self, rather than promoting concern for the other.

Noah's Learning Plan

Math: Will delve properly into Teaching Textbooks Algebra 1 (began this in June, but life got in the way). May need some review of pre-algebra topics from time to time as he went through that material so quickly.

Science: Will use CyberEd Physical Science and Earth & Space Science courses. Would like a flow chart to help him track his progress through these. May also use the Life Sciences course. Will help with caring for the laying hens. Will continue to enjoy science documentaries from Would like to do some hands-on science "experiments" in a self-directed fashion at home, inspired by ideas from books.

Languaging: Will continue to dabble in the Getty-Dubay cursive workbooks. Would like reminders about this. Will try practicing cursive during readaloud time. Will continue to try to fill his "bored" time with reading a variety of print sources, rather than defaulting to the computer. Enjoys blogging and plans to continue with this, both on his private blog and on our closed extended-family blog. Will continue to listen to challenging literature read aloud on a nightly basis.

Technology: Would like to continue to explore computer scripting and programming. Wants to find an accessible C++ programming environment for motivated pre-teens. Would like to explore videography, digital video editing, DVD production, stop-motion animation and digital photography. Also curious about Powerpoint software.

Arts: Will continue with viola lessons. Wants to make more of an effort to take advantage of his mother's ability to help him with his daily practicing. May take occasional lessons with our friend, a viola specialist, in Calgary. Will play in community orchestra and Suzuki group classes. Would like to continue with string quartet, but not necessarily weekly throughout the entire academic year, which he thinks would reduce overall enthusiasm and momentum. Would like some more challenging repertoire for quartet. Will tackle some of the Alfred Complete Music Theory Course on CD with the aim of completing Level 1 and possibly 2 this year, with alto clef focus. Curious about paper maché sculpting technique a local artist friend uses and would be interested in a one-day workshop if we can set this up. Wants to continue to explore digital photography and computer graphics and photo-editing. Interested in the watercolour pencil crayons he saw his friend A. using at SVI and might like to try this medium out.

Life skills: Will continue with wood-carving. Would like to explore blacksmithing with his dad. Wants to learn archery skills and hone his air-rifle marksmanship. Wants to do some wilderness camping and practice some survival skills (fire-building, shelter construction). Wants more kayaking and canoeing experience. Still sees the need for more work on moderating his computer habits. Wants to procure some software that will allow him to set custom limits for himself on his internet use and game play, whether by time of day or hours accrued.

Humanities: Will participate in Homeschool Co-op World Tour (geography focus) on a weekly or biweekly basis. Will read or be read aloud to from historical and cultural fiction. documentaries and dramas to supplement.

Physical Education: Wants new ice skates and will help flood and maintain an outdoor rink this winter. Wants more experience with canoeing and kayaking. Will continue trail-building and mountain-biking in the woods surrounding our home.

Second Language: Has expressed an interest in both French and ASL. We will explore possible resources in both these areas. Does not want to work with a native French-speaker. Finds Rosetta Stone too immersion-like for his learning style; would be useful as a supplement, but wants a more academic approach to lay things out logically and clearly for him so that he picks up some of the basic "rules". Intrigued by the non-verbal nature of ASL and feels he might be more adventurous in this realm. We wondered whether it might be possible to learn both simultaneously -- signing while saying "je m'appelle Noah" or "passez-moi une fourchette, s'il vous plait."

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The marksman

Okay, so we have a definite Y chromosome thing going on here lately. The boy wants archery supplies -- a recurve bow and arrows -- and then this week he got all pink and trembly over the prospect of learning to fire the air rifle. Our bear problem has resurfaced. This time a bear is after apples, not chickens, but we don't want it around in any case. We have our hearts set on apple cider, and the apples need to sweeten up with the cooler nights. So we've had the air rifle out a few times to scare the bear off. The pellets are enough to give the bear a little bit of a startle and maybe a little bit of a sting, and usually it will run off, if not with the first hit, then with the second.

Noah asked to learn to use the air rifle. He's not one to overstep his capabilities; often he needs to be nudged into trying potentially risky things. So I knew he'd abide by safety rules and take the responsibility seriously. Yesterday the bear was here while I was out and the kids were here with my sister. Noah, who had just has his first instruction, loaded up the air rifle to take a shot. Alas the bear ran off before he could zing it, but he was pleased that when he blew off the pellet he managed to hit the tree trunk he was aiming for.

And then today we went out for some proper practice. He seems to be a bit of a natural. His first four shots produced one bullseye and one near bullseye, and nothing outside the orange zone. Next time the bear shows up, I'll let him take the shot. I'm not bad, but I think he's better than I am.

For the record, my gentle pacifist has no interest in killing anything. But he loves handling that air rifle and would love to nail a bear with a pellet and send it running off in surprise from the sting.

Sophie's Learning Plan

I'll flesh Sophie's plan out with the obvious daily stuff, and some education-ese later. For now, here is the result of our brainstorming today.

Math: Wants to complete Singapore Grade 5 and possible Grade 6 this year.

Physical Education: Wants opportunities to continue to improve her swimming, which has really taken off this summer in the lake. Also wants to skate. Now that we don't have a dog, we can plan to flood our backyard rink again this winter. We must get the rink liner patched in the next few weeks! If skating lessons are offered locally (unlikely, since at this point there's no rink) she would like to take them. Enjoys weekly homeschool gym mornings through the cooler months. Would like to do community soccer again this coming year, and would also enjoy family gym nights from time to time.

Sciences: Will continue to explore her interest in Biology using Neil Campbell's Biology textbook and all the multimedia course support that came with it, and by working through the CyberEd Life Sciences course. She may also pursue some or all of the CyberEd Physical Science and Earth & Space Science courses. Will help care for laying hens. Wants to work towards the goal of family llama husbandry. Will continue to participate in our GRUBS gardening and environmental education club.

Humanities: Will participate in the World Tour homeschool co-op we plan to set up, which will be weekly or biweekly sessions devoted to exploring the cuisine, history, culture and handicrafts of a different geographic area or country. Supplemented by historical fiction, documentaries and general interest-led reading.

Second Language: Wishes to pursue French language learning. We have some resources, including some introductory Rosetta Stone lessons which she has been working away at. If TRS continues to appeal to her, we will purchase the entire Level 1. We'll also research books, audio materials and any TV shows that might prove useful. Does not want instruction or guidance for a native speaker.

Arts: Will continue to study violin, comprising daily practicing, weekly private lessons and alternating weekly group classes and community orchestra. Would also be interested in doing some music theory this year. Will look at the computer-based Alfred Course we have, and we will also investigate a workbook program that was recommended to me this summer as violin-friendly. Does not want piano lessons! Would like to do more clay classes. Is interested in a paper maché workshop a friend might be willing to offer. Would re-enroll in art classes locally in a heartbeat if they were offered, but this is unlikely. Enjoys painting abstracts; would like some nice acrylics to work with. (Our good acrylics are running out.) Wants to do some screenprinting and try some more tie-dyeing. Would like to explore videography, stop-motion animation and video-editing.

Language Arts: Will keep a log of novels independently read (is currently re-reading the Harry Potter series). Will continue to enjoy nightly readalouds. Enjoys magazines and newspaper reading. Will contribute a short paragraph to the weekly reports to the SelfDesign program about something notable from her week. Will continue to work on cursive handwriting using the Getty-Dubay series. Wants reminders to keep plugging away at this. Will also try out a typing tutor program on the computer.

Life Skills: Wants to do more cooking on her own. We will investigate a couple of new kids' vegetarian cookbooks. Wants to learn more camping / survival skills. Our family wilderness camping trip, planned for next month, will provide opportunities for this. Wants to continue to build her sewing skills, including work with Polartec.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fiona's Learning Plan

For the past two years various of my children have been part of the Wondertree SelfDesign program. It's a BC Independent school program that supports homelearners, particularly unschoolers. In exchange for some virtual paperwork, learners and their families are supported with a Virtual Village of Conversations, the sounding board services of unschooling-friendly Learning Consultants (known to the government as certified teachers, but playing a very different role indeed), and a thousand bucks per child for learning materials. The anecdotal reporting has been more or less onerous depending on the child, the stage of life, and the time of year, but I've consistently found the Learning Plan process to be valuable for both me and the children.

And so, with only two kids aboard the SelfDesign program this year, I'm still going ahead with the creation of Learning Plans for all four. Last year the Learning Plans were done in the back of the van during our long drive to Texada Island. This year we're at home until the middle of September at least, so our Learning Plans will be fleshed out at Panini's, a local café. One at a time I take the kids out to the café for a hot chocolate or decaf-au-latté, and we take a precious special hour to chat about their interests and ambitions for the next few months.

Today it was Fiona's turn. Because she wants to be treated like all the older siblings. Here's what we decided upon.

Physical Education: Fiona wants to work on her 'dunking head' ability in the pool and on the 'waving your arms kind of swimming.' She knows that this requires bravery, but believes she is brave. She wants more opportunity for learning to rappel. She also wants to play outside lots, now that our dog is gone, and will enjoy two-wheeling, swinging, and running about.

Math: She will continue with Miquon Orange. She is interested in formal math bookwork any time her elder siblings are, and will likely pull out her own math book two to four times a week. She hasn't touched any written math work in over 7 weeks, and it will be totally up to her whether she gets it out again. She enjoys playing with the FlashMaster electronic math drill gizmo that no one else in our family has every found any use for and will likely make use of this, as well as enjoying numerous family board games, pattern games and card games. She will continue to experiment with origami and other forms of 3D papercraft.

Reading: She will listen alongside her siblings to nightly readalouds of young adult novels and non-fiction at a challenging level of grammar and vocabulary. She would like to have read to her daily some simpler books closer to her level, and would also like to do some reading practice with her mom perhaps once or twice a week. She currently reads at an early first-grade level, but is far from fluent. We will use simple phonetic readers and home-created stories to practice as she desires.

Writing: Fiona will continue to write with pencil and paper in an interest-driven manner. She will continue to blog on a semi-regular basis.

Humanities: Involvement in home and community will provide copious real-life exposure to topics in the humanities. In addition, listening to historical fiction readalouds, viewing documentaries and participating in our homeschool group's "World Tour" geo-cultural co-op will provide additional stimulation.

Sciences: Fiona will continue to participate in the GRUBS gardening and environmental club, which meets weekly except through the coldest months. She will watch documentaries about the natural world, play, camp and travel within the wilderness that surrounds her home, and help with the tending of our flock of laying hens. She'll continue to enjoy access to a variety of construction toys and scientific tools (eg. K'nex, SnapCircuits, Brio train track, Digital Blue microscope, building blocks, marble run kit).

Arts: Fiona will continue her self-motivated exploration of watercolour and acrylic painting. She will continue with violin studies and wishes to continue to work at music theory and sight-reading skills in this context. Although she hopes to study piano formally in the future, she will not start lessons for at least another year. In the meantime she will explore the piano keyboard with the aid of Alice Kay Kanack's "Musical Improvisation for Children" book and CD set.

Life Skills: As usual Fiona will participate in family and household tasks. She enjoys increasing her capabilities with housecleaning, dinner preparation (including chopping, peeling and grating), baking (kneading, mixing) and the consumer skils involved in the weekly family grocery shopping.

There it is. The idea is that we'll revisit this plan in about 3-4 months' time and decide whether areas we've neglected need renewed focus, striking from the plan, or replacement with something else. I find these learning plans particularly helpful with my kids once they reach the age of 9 or so. I certainly wouldn't engage in this sort of formal process with a child this young if she weren't clamouring for inclusion in a family ritual (and the allure of the Panini's hot chocolate is not to be underestimated).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Family Choir

For us the highlight of the strings-and-piano program that brings 275 students and their families to our community for the VSSM has nothing to do with strings or piano. It's the choral option, and in particular the brilliant choral director.

My older three kids participated in Allison's Nelson Youth Choir program for a couple of years at least, before the choir's realignment and our scheduling shifts forced us to part ways during the regular academic year. But then she was hired to take over the choral enrichment option at the VSSM, and it was a joyful reunion for my kids. There are two choirs that rehearse each day throughout the 5-day workshop week. Erin prefers the Adult Choir which mets around supper time and includes many adult community members, senior piano students and interested parents. The singing in the Adult Choir is mostly from written music and is traditional four-part SATB choral singing. The younger three kids and I enjoy the Family Choir together every day. This includes children from the community and the music school of a variety of ages, from 2 to mid-teens, plus any interested parents. The singing here is all by rote, with some unison, but lots of rounds and descant parts too. Many of these people have never sung in a choir before. The photo shows only about a third of the choir members; we numbered a little over fifty.

There is such joy and respect in what she does. I am left in awe again and again at her incredible ability to teach, model, express ideas and manage solo and ensemble assignments in ways that leave everyone feeling important and valued. The sight and sound of little mouths and large mouths opened together in harmonic expression after five short rehearsals never fails to make me weepy. The mp3 clip embedded here is the end of an English / Latin arrangement of the well-known canon "Dona Nobis Pacem."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Who needs Febreeze?

We are not really a TV family but my kids have seen enough Febreeze ads around the edges of their dad's TV-news-watching to delightedly mock the product and its marketing.

Here's a scent solution that trumps the Febreeze scene. Go to the garden, pick a couple of good-sized spearmint leaves. Tuck one up each nostril. Make an effort to look oh-so-casual. Breathe.


But don't laugh, whatever you do. No one will appreciate your nasal air freshener detritus when it is suddenly ejected in their direction.

Audience manners

This is a photo Fiona took at the dress rehearsal for the Faculty Concert last week. I haven't been VSSM faculty for many years, but I guess like a couple of the others I get included by virtue of being a faculty member / organizer of one of the other weeks under the Valhalla Summer School of Fine Arts Society's umbrella.

Anyway, it's fun to play a more or less professional-level string orchestral performance once a year on two brief rehearsals, so I'm more than willing. But I've got all these kids. Recently some of them are happy to stay home alone, but that doesn't always work out, and certainly for many years there was no choice -- if they couldn't come along and behave well, I simply couldn't play.

They've all come along to rehearsals and performances since birth. I confess there's a reasonable contribution from temperament here. I think I've lucked into children for whom learning appropriate rehearsal and performance manners has been possible at quite a young age. But I also think that early, consistent, effective teaching has helped.

Many people are amazed by my kids' good behaviour at concerts. I've been able to leave them unaccompanied in the audience to perform short- or medium-length concerts from the age of 4 or so (a little younger with the younger two who could be supervised by their older siblings). I guess I'm so used to their dependable behaviour that I tend to take it for granted -- until I see counter-examples amongst other (often older) children, or even adults. But sometimes there are incidents that remind me. There was a concert last winter where Fiona and Sophie (newly 4 and 8 at the time) were sitting in the front row unsupervised. Just as the performance began, Fiona's paper programme slipped off her lap and did a lovely swoop on a cushion of air, landing six feet in front of her, midway between the front row and the performers (including myself). She loves to have her own written programme, Fiona does, and I just assumed that there would have to be a few seconds' delay before the downbeat while we waited for her to scoot down off her seat and grab the programme. But no, she sat there, wide-eyed and halfway between guilty smirk and mortified grimace, and neither she nor Sophie moved a muscle. The downbeat came as originally planned, and the concert proceeded. They waited through until the next applause break, when Fiona executed a discreet retrieval manoeuvre. Mind-blowing impulse control! Or there's an occasion like the rehearsal photographed above, when I happily abandon my three youngest children in the balcony of the community hall trusting them to their own good judgement with respect to behaviour, and get on focusing on the rehearsal, forgetting they're there. Then I recall the sign that was at the balcony entrance the previous week banning unaccompanied children from the balcony -- for plenty of good reasons, like the amplified noise of footsteps from that floor, legs dangling through the balustrade, things dropped on people below. At a dress rehearsal I don't worry about any of that stuff, because I know that my kids, alone up there, wouldn't do anything instrusive.

When people ask how I got my kids to be so well-behaved, I usually explain that I drug them beforehand. (I hope they get the joke.) But the real answer, beyond the temperament thing, is probably in clear expectations based in empathy for the performers, and speedy non-punitive intervention in case of transgressions. I have always been clear about exactly what behaviour is acceptable, and why. For musicians, noises, even loud whispering or rustling programmes, are distracting and annoying. Quick movements can distract the performers' eyes. Attentiveness is a sign of respect for the musician's work. Movement and whispering should occur only during applause breaks. Because my kids perform too, they understand how inattentiveness and distractions feel when you're on the receiving end.

Because they've attended so many rehearsals over the years, they've had a chance to practice good audience manners where it doesn't count quite so much. I wish all children were given the opportunity to practice being an audience. I think that with that skill nurtured, there would be a lot more interest in the performing arts by families, and less prejudice against children in the audience.

My kids know that they never have to hold out past the next applause break (or equivalent, in the case of rehearsals). If they can't be good listeners any longer, that's fine. We will leave, and I won't be angry. Sometimes there are itches, wiggles, conversations or frustrations that can't wait through an entire Haydn string quartet, and that's just fine -- that's what it is to be 2 (or 4, or...). If a preschooler swings her legs or flops down on her seat or starts a sotto voce chat with a sibling, they get one instantaneous gentle reminder (usually one finger and eyebrows raised), and if that's ineffective as soon as possible I will quietly and sympathetically swoop the child up and make a discreet exit. And outside, without a trace of annoyance (because when I think about it I am truly amazed at what my kids can do), I will explain that we can't do that while others are playing, and I try to help the child deal with whatever was interfering with "good audience manners." Biding time in the lobby or outside is always an option. But amazingly enough, my kids almost always want to work out the issue and get back in to the remainder of the program.

Thank goodness this is a skill that my children have gained. My life is so much more personally fulfilling for it.

Another music week down

The first week of August is the busiest for us, as all four kids are involved in the Suzuki Valhalla Institute. The second VSSM week is less busy, but still very hectic. Erin is fully enrolled each year as a piano student, with choral and string add-on ensembles, while the younger three attend family choir, and I work as full-time taxi driver to my kids running between two communities several times a day, rehearsing and playing in the faculty concert, and looking after various organizational and logistical duties around the music school.

Erin had a reasonably good week, considering that anything would have felt like a let-down after the heady SVI week. She reconnected with some piano friends from last year, and sang a brilliant solo with the adult choir. (Or so I'm told; she informed me that she would not agree to sing the solo on the concert unless I was out of the building, so I dutifully left.) Her orchestra experience was a bit of a disappointment. She had chosen the orchestra option in the hope of being in the most advanced orchestra which has in the past done some brilliant performances of advanced repertoire. However, this year the most advanced kids were skimmed off the orchestra to do exclusively chamber music, and so the challenge in the top-level orchestra was not to Erin's liking. She coasted through. The performance was excellent, very polished and tight, but it was of fairly tame stuff, at least for a 13yo in the second violin section -- Bartok's Rumanian Dances and the first movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Still, there was lots of busy-ness and stimulation during the week with piano friends, all the choir music to learn, and the various performances (mine, hers, the younger kids').

By contrast the third week is much tamer. Only one of mine (Erin) is involved, and only in the evenings. There's only one concert. Wow, piece of cake!

So this weekend really represented the end of the craziness for me. It feels great! And how did we celebrate? We invited two of our favourite faculty members over for brunch and then they and the kids washed their car.

It was a lovely fun time. The car-wash was by necessity, but has the feel of an annual tradition. I wouldn't be at all suprised if next August 16 finds us all washing that white Toyota again.

Erin also managed to squeeze a lesson in with T., who has, I think, given her a little to go on in her Kabalevsky concerto and made suggestions for one or two new pieces -- like the Kreisler Praeludium & Allegro which I'm sure Erin will love.

Where has the summer gone, though?

Friday, August 17, 2007


Look what we bought. Shiny, spanking new and with an 11-hour run time. It will easily power a freezer or a fridge, and a computer. We got through Y2K without succumbing to the paranoia and purchasing one, but the time has come.

The first weekend we moved into our house in '94 we had a power and telephone outage, and things haven't improved much since then. Winter and its snowstorms usually brings us several significant outages, lasting the better part of a day or two. Spring and fall rainstorms can do the same as trees fall on power lines anywhere along the miles and miles of remote power grid here.

Mostly we greet power interruptions with an enjoyable sense of adventure. The kids grab board games and books and we hunker down together in the living room to enjoy the simpler pace of life off the grid. We're pretty well set up for most outages. We have a wood stove that keeps our house warm even in the depths of January. The stove has a small cooking surface. Our water is gravity-fed, not relying on a pump. We have corded telephones. We have plenty of lanterns and candles, and a wind-up radio.

But we've never, until this summer, had a significant (i.e. more than a few hours) electrical outage at the peak of summer. Food was the main issue, especially with all the music school busyness and entertaining we had just been preparing for. With the temperature well over 30 Celsuis, we couldn't just put a cooler of food outside once our refrigerator warmed up, which it did, fast! There wasn't ice and snow all over the landscape with which to keep things in the chest freezer frozen. We certainly weren't about to build a woodstove fire to heat up hot water for dishes and bathing. We managed, thanks in large measure to the goodwill of a friend with a generator. Lesson learned.

So our little blue friend has joined the family as a form of insurance and peace of mind.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Noah's Nina

Noah was assigned to learn the "Nina" by Pergolesi in late June. It's a viola rendition of the Italian song "Tre giorni son che Nina." Intensely passionate lyrical stuff. His teacher heard it at his lesson two weeks later. We had been away at camp, and he had missed a few days of practicing, but it was obvious when he played it for that first lesson that it was His Piece. It was a piece he loved, that he had learned well and easily, that fit him like a glove.

Whenever he performs it, the last note is invariably followed by "ahhhs" of rapture from the audience. I thought he stole the show at his SVI recital in a way he's never really be situated to do before. He was left feeling, quite rightfully, that he'd cast an exceptional spell with this piece.

Today the younger three kids and a friend had agreed to provide some musical entertainment at the "Art at the Kohan" event. The stunning Kohan Garden provides the setting for a two-day festival of visual arts. Local artists work and display their work. They worked out a set of two- and three-part arrangements of simple tunes, and the oldest two also agreed to play a solo each. Noah chose the Nina of course. Afterwards, riding high on the "ahhhs" of appreciation, he lingered with his viola at the ready. I had planned to rifle through some unaccompanied Bach on my own viola, but after I played one movement, I realized Noah was still eager. He decided to play a couple more pieces, and he and I did one movement from the Telemann Double Viola Concerto together.

Tomorrow is day 2 at the Kohan, and Noah is keen to perform again. This is new for him, this interest in being in the spotlight and pouring out his musicality with pleasure. We'll do three movements of the Telemann together, and I think we'll save Nina for the end.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Easterly connections

Is this where things are leading? I cannot imagine a person with more goodness in them than this violin teacher. Not only that, but she's experienced, gentle, funny, compassionate, effusive and talented. She likes teens. She likes Erin. Erin likes her (no one gets this physically close to Erin unless they are very very much liked). Unfortunately she lives 7 1/2 hours away, across the continental divide.

Whatever. I guess we'll deal with it.

She's here right now and she and Erin, who have known each other a few summers, are going to get together for a lesson or two in the next couple of days. And then we'll go to Calgary for some violin shopping in September and we'll try to hook them up again. She may not end up being Erin's Teacher in any long-term formal sense, but maybe Erin will come to see her as a mentor. Maybe she'll help give Erin another violin connection that will help her keep going.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Violin issues, chapter 2

As I wrote last March, Erin's violin teacher, with whom she had been studying for just a few months and had been just beginning to gel, retired unexpectedly, leaving her without a teacher in the region. She's not a self-structuring "driven" music student at this point. Heck, she's thirteen -- it'll probably come, but she's young. She works consistently when she has a teacher-student relationship she's comfortable with and committed to, but it takes her a while to get to that stage with someone new. To find her someone experienced at her level would require a minimum 3 1/2 hour drive, something we'd be unable to do on a weekly basis. Maybe monthly, but at that frequency how long would it take her to get comfortable, and how often would she practice? I resolved to wait and see how her inclinations panned out over the next six months or so, especially after the music summer school weeks that we're now in the thick of. Since then she's been coasting along, practicing every once in a while, playing with the community orchestra or the Osprey String Quartet at rehearsals and performances, but not really doing any work to speak of. She began, for the first time, to express a preference for one instrument over the other: piano over violin.

I've had a long time to mull this over and have reached a few conclusions. First, this kid is a musician right down to her bones. Not just because she's been steeped in it, but because of who she is. She's bright, intense, intuitive, passionate, and music has become her voice and a strong part of her identity. On the other hand, she does have the piano still, and has reached a level on violin where she can continue to play easily at a recreational level -- and that would be okay. But the biggest realization has been that if the violin drops off her horizon, it will be simply for the lack of a musical relationship with someone significant outside the family. She has everything going for her on violin, this kid -- technique, instincts, astonishingly efficient sight-reading and note-learning ability, a love of chamber music, brilliant ensemble-style musical responsiveness, musicality oozing out her pores. All that's missing to carry her to a very high level is a relationship with someone out there, some musical commitment or pursuit that is not organized or directed or taught by a family member -- not by her mother, not by her grandmother, not by her aunt -- to inspire her to make this area of study her own. Just one long-term connection wit hone teacher or mentor, and she would jump right in with both feet and get on with it with a high level of commitment and exceptional ability. Almost every other violin student has this. Is it really so much to ask for?

Her Beethoven string quartet playing last week was jaw-droppingly brilliant. Her coaches and teachers were raving about her abilities. She had a wonderful time musically and socially and told me that she wants to come back to SVI in 2008 so badly that she figures she'd better find herself some violin lessons. She also said that violin is now her favourite instrument.

So where, where oh where do we find her this relationship with a teacher? Oh, and she also needs a full-sized violin if she's going to carry on. She's pretty much outgrown her wonderful three-quarter size. If only life were simpler!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

After the institute

How cool is this?! Here's my family and our friends from Scotland. We 'met' them about 7 years ago when Linda and I connected via the SuzukiChat e-mail group. Over the years we've shared a lot of conversations, ideas, book recommendations and musings about stages along our kids' musical journeys -- but all at a distance, through e-mail and the post. But finally, finally, we met in real life when they made the intercontinental trek and joined us at the 2007 Suzuki Valhalla Institute.

I had feared that with the full-on busyness of the week and all the organizational and social demands on myself during this heady week that we wouldn't get a chance to connect properly. But connect we did, and it was as comfortable as if we'd been living in the same town all along. The kids got along brilliantly. No surprise there, as all six of them belong to the neatest-kids-in-the-universe club.

Here we all are together -- Ewan, Megan, Linda, Erin, Charles, Sophie, Fiona, Miranda, Noah and Alex -- after the brilliant final concert at the community hall. Now it's all over. The next few days will constitute a period of mourning for us as we try to get used to not having all our Old-New friends around. How does life go on after a week like this?

Tutti Night

Here is the SVI event I enjoy the most of all. We call it "Tutti Night." It happens in the early evening on Wednesday, and it's just for fun. Faculty, teacher-observers/trainees and community members come together to create the core of a string orchestra. Our students come and play together on the solo parts of various Suzuki repertoire pieces, chiefly concerto movements like the Telemann Viola Concerto and the Bach "Double" Concerto in d minor for Two Violins -- though we also play a selection of simpler repertoire for the youngest students. The children play whatever pieces they know, and watch and listen as the more advanced students or cellos or violas take their turns. The children love playing with orchestra backup rather than simply a piano accompaniment. They also enjoy seeing their teachers playing together under the direction of our conductor. The parents love watching and listening. For an unrehearsed event, the quality of the music is pretty darn high, because the 'soloists' know their parts exceedingly well and have learned through years of group classes how to play well together on the fly.

But there's a lot more magic that happens beyond that. The orchestra members have a blast, making mistakes, bantering back and forth between sections and with the conductor, and the sense of humour and good fun permeates. The children enjoy the orchestral blunders a lot, because they are pretty bomb-proof on their parts. It all feels real and collaborative, and not the slightest bit 'top-down.' We're all in it for the fun together. Erin was thrilled that the Bach Double solo lines were played by two student groups without any adult leaders playing along -- and they sounded great!

And this year, the most senior violin, viola and cello students began drifting into the orchestra when they were not needed on the solo lines. It started with Erin and a few of her violin cohorts padding out the violin section during the cello solos. And then, after the cellos and violas had had their moments of stardom, while Erin and her buddies pulled off their lovely Bach Double, Noah drifted into the viola section, quickly followed by the rest of the brilliant quartet of advanced student violists. In no time we had eight violists playing together -- and then the senior cello students joined the orchestra too, and the teen violinists drifted back in as we moved to repertoire for the less advanced violinists. Our orchestra got bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger and there were the kids playing alongside their teachers and mentors, sharing stands, being part of the same good-humoured banter the adults were sharing.

And why did we all rush our suppers and hurry back after a full day of classes for an optional event that involved yet more music playing? Just for the sheer pleasure of playing together. What an amazing experience the week was. Tutti night epitomized the joy of the week for me.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What it's really about

Yeah, they're working on technique. They're refining their ensemble-playing skills. They're polishing their shared repertoire, getting the input of new teachers, performing, sharing ideas and inspiration. But this, this is what it's really about.

It's about the pleasure of being in the same place at the same time, and doing the same thing as a bunch of like-minded families and their amazing kids. It's about the chemistry between kids like these, who are having the most fantastic week getting to know each other. Hurrah for trips to the beach, for picnics and barbeques, for time off between classes spent playing on the teeter totters in the children's playground, hurrah for improv class where they tease each other both with words and by playing musical jokes on each other with call & response improvised riffs, and hurrah for the amazing faculty who clearly love working with teens.

A P.S. for those wondering about the fires. The major fire nearby seems to be burning itself out against some rocky bluffs in the high country. A single lane of the highway re-opened this morning with pilot-car shuttling. Half-hour delays to wait for the convoy, but that beats a three-hour detour hands down.

In like a dirty shirt

A year ago I wrote a post about the 2006 Suzuki Valhalla Institute experience for my kids. About Fiona, then three, I wrote:

"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."

Different year, totally different kettle of fish. She is so into the whole institute experience. She doesn't need me to help her unpack her violin, get tuned and get lined up in class. She doesn't need me in view, nodding and smiling to reassure her. Heck, she doesn't need me in the room at all. She cares not one whit that she's in different classes from her siblings, or that she'd never met her master class teacher before. She is smiling, keen, and totally rapt. She even commented tonight that she thinks her master class lesson is shorter than that of her classmates' (it isn't!) and she wishes she could have a longer lesson -- that she would like to work even harder.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The touch

That's Noah, bottom right, playing first chair in the two-viola section of the 'mini-orchestra' at the Suzuki Valhalla Institute. They're working on a few movements from the Warlock Capriol Suite, a fantastic challenging work for an orchestra of this level. For most of his viola career, Noah has been able to ride on the coat-tails of his elder, more experienced buddy P. But P. is doing quartet as his ensemble this week, leaving Noah in a leadership position in the senior orchestra.

He knows his part -- his sight-reading has improved dramatically in recent months. And he plays with confidence and most especially musicality. He got the detached brush stroke intuitively. Over and over again the director was heard to say "listen to the violas -- they've got the touch! The violas have it -- the touch." He felt pretty good about that, I could tell, though he probably wouldn't admit it.

He's brilliantly placed in his classes this year. In viola master class and viola repertory class he's not quite the least advanced student in a group of pre-teen and teen boys, wonderful kids, all of them very likeable. Super role-models, all fairly close in playing level, the oldest ones just the right amount more advanced than he. They're playing four-part and two-part viola pieces together, revelling in their chocolatey viola sound. In orchestra he's confident and a leader. And in the Exploring Musical Styles (jazz/fiddling/improv) class, he's in with his older sister and several of his friends and managed to survive some improv, which he was dreading, and emerged in good humour.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

They came! They came!

Despite the road closures, the power outages, the wildfires and evacuation alerts. All these amazing kids and all their amazing families came to our Suzuki institute. Eighty-one students and their families. Friends from Scotland, SelfDesign friends from all over BC, locals, SVI friends from last year and the year before, faculty who are like second family to my kids. Kids who can play Seitz Concerto No. 5 1st movement without being forewarned at the opening "play-in" with polish and aplomb. Kids who can make parents get teary-eyed with their big unison sound, playing the international Suzuki anthem "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to finish off the Sunday afternoon welcome. Kids in mixed-age groups who run and shriek and play together on ropes and lawns and playground equipment as if they've known each other for years when it's been just a few minutes. It's going to be a great week.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Martin Mars

The magnificent Martin Mars water bomber was working the Springer Creek fire here on the lake yesterday. It can scoop and drop 60,000 pounds of water in a single drop. Its aerodynamics defy belief -- how can that thing stay aloft at such slow speeds?

It's not just air tankers they're bringing in. There are a lot of people being brought in from the outside to help out with fire and emergency services. Tonight we were driving to the Kohan Garden for a walk along the lake, and to take photos. We got stopped by a highway flag-person whose job it is to inform people of the road closure 10 km south. He was standing at the main highway intersection in New Denver. I rolled down my window to reassure him that we weren't heading that way.

"We're staying in New Denver," I said. He nodded and started to wave us through.

"Wait!" he said, second-guessing himself. "New Denver ... that's the town on this side of Silverton?"

"Um, yeah," I said. "It's here. You're standing in it."

"Okay," he replied, not even looking sheepish.

Wonder where they find these people?

Saturday evening wildfire update

Nothing of note to report since this morning. People are arriving for the SVI. The air quality remains pretty good. There are no new evacuations. The highway, which runs just below the bright orange spot in the photo, is not going to be open for a while yet obviously. The fire has grown a lot in the last 24 hours, but most of that growth has been in an upwardly, easterly direction. (This photo looks due south.)

This year's SVI T-shirts are white and orange on dark green. Fitting, somehow, don't you think? We won't be repeating that colour scheme in future years, let me tell you!

Saturday morning wildfire update

Our power has stayed on. There was a community meeting last night. With just three hours notice the word got out and the school gym was packed. The good news is that if the phone line goes out, there will be an alternate line linked up within a couple of days -- they're already working on it. More good news -- there are two routes into our community that are not threatened. They require large detours (up to two or three hours) if you're coming from the south, but they're open. And our power is not in jeopardy. The back-up system they've placed is functioning fine, and there are back-ups for that back-up.

The bad news is that whether the fire grows aggressively towards homes is entirely dependent on weather and geography. The firefighters are throwing lots at the fire -- the magnificent Mars waterbomber has been working here, as well as four helicopters and over two hundred firefighters.

The meeting certainly displayed an interesting cross-section of our community. Our emergency co-ordinator, a middle-aged lady who runs the natural foods store, proved herself clear-headed, resourceful, witty, diplomatic and incredibly efficient. The village mayors were their regular common-sense nice-guy selves. Most people were very respectful, understanding and willing to offer help and do what was necessary if things should deteriorate. And then there was the lady who asked why no one was organizing an effort to help wild animals like birds that might get injured by the fire. And the other woman who suggested community prayer circles and a rain dance.

The fire is 10-12 km south of us. A few homes have been evacuated. No homes have burned. About 200 people have been placed on evacuation alert. The town of Silverton, 5 km south of New Denver, is not on evacuation alert. There are two big creeks between us and the area the fire has spread to so we do not feel at all threatened.

We certainly feel a bit guilty about the fact that we're in a sense responsible for bringing almost 200 people into the area tomorrow for a week's music workshop. But it's too late (and would be incredibly costly to an organization that has no financial reserves) to cancel the institute. Our faculty are already arriving, thousands of dollars of accommodations costs and honoraria are payable. The skies are clear and the whole situation will likely just gradually resolve over the next few days.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Wildfire update

The sky is almost clear of smoke today, but the fires are behaving badly. The one to the south has jumped the next creek, the highway has been converted into a firebreak (meaning they've bulldozed rubble onto it) and is closed indefinitely. Friends are being evacuated up towards us. Our phone line out of the community is threatened by this fire. They've brought in the big water bombers but winds were picking up this afternoon and the fire is still 0% contained. We're safe, 12 km north, but feeling increasingly cut off.

We're told power will be off again within the hour. I only got 6 of the 10 dozen muffins & squares done, but we'll make do -- and hopefully this is a briefer outage. Take note of the things I've done since getting a call twenty minutes ago: put the Nanaimo bars in the fridge, melted some cheese on corn chips for "supper", run through a pot of coffee, run the load of laundry with my new shirt in it, and posted on my blog. Now you know what's really important in my life. Pathetic, isn't it?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Burned off the grid

On Wednesday we had a (rescheduled) piano lesson, so we planned that trip to be our major grocery expedition. We have three intensive weeks of music school coming up and I know from experience that there is no time to shop. I'm also hosting about 35 kids and parents of SelfDesign families attending the Suzuki institute here for a barbeque on Sunday. So to say this was a major grocery shopping trip would be an understatement.

On the way to Nelson we drove past the forest fire south of us. It's about 15 km south, no threat to us, but the smoke and flames have been visible from town, so we were interested to see what the fire was like as we drove south. It was pretty impressive. The sun was an orange disc that would could look directly at through the smoke. The fire was within about 150 metres of the highway in one spot. The photo above is SOTC (straight off the camera, no digital editing) at our place. The yellow-orange cast is on everything and it's really obvious at a casual glance in real life.

Piano went well and we did our grocery shopping and headed for home, with a pit-stop for lunch at a café we like that's closed on our usual Nelson day, and to check out the little archery supply place at Noah's request (he's now eagerly counting his pennies).

When we arrived home the house was dark. We discovered that a small fire 50 km west of us had burned through the sole power supply lines to our region and power was off to our entire region. It seems beyond comprehension that there is only one line supplying our area. Isn't it called a "grid" after all? I mean, doesn't grid imply interconnectedness? Well, apparently we're on a power spur, not the power grid. There are areas to the east, south and west of us that have no electrical supply, in other words, they're off-grid areas without power poles and transmission lines. I knew this but I hadn't thought it through. One line -- gone. Estimates were that depending on the fire conditions, restoring power could take as long as a week or two in a worst-case scenario.

Well, my worst-case scenario involved $400 of rapidly warming groceries, an empty gas tank, a Suzuki institute with 81 students starting next Monday, 12 faculty to provide for, the aforementioned BBQ and a heck of a lot of computer work left to do before the institute starts. Not to mention children and laundry and dishes and cooking and bathing and all those mundane things. One to two weeks???!!!!

Things are never as bad as they seem, though. The big faculty welcome dinner happens to be in the restaurant at a backcountry resort that is off the grid anyway and has their own power-generating system. The dental clinic had a generator they were willing to let my mom hook her photocopier up to in order to churn out the last few hundred pages for the registration packet. Around the 24-hour mark our friends offered us their generator for a couple of hours to re-chill our freezer and refrigerator. I made a solar shower out of garden hoses and found the camp stove and the bulk propane adapter. I managed to send a bulk e-mail out to the institute registrants via the hospital computer system, as they have an emergency generator. And one of the local gas stations had generators running on their pumps and despite long line-ups and a lack of cash, I managed to dredge up enough small bills and coins to purchase a third of a tank of gas, enough to get us through the institute at least. I had just purchased some solar garden lanterns last week, and they screw off their spikes nicely and come indoors at night, providing ample clean-and-green lighting. Our wind-up radio has been terrific at keeping us informed.

The kids played outside, and with each other, and practiced their instruments. Noah and Fiona played numerous games together this morning, totally self-motivated and with great enjoyment of each other's company. Erin and Sophie counted, sorted, folded and labelled the 80-something SVI T-shirts. Kids did chores, read fiction and history, made their own fun and hardly complained at all.

And then, amazingly enough, the power came on late today. They say it's temporary, that there will need to be more significant interruptions for a definitive repair, and likely some brown-outs as well. But life is good. I'm madly trying to get 10 dozen muffins and squares baked for next week before the power goes off again, but since I know people have been wondering (our valley has made the national news on CBC radio today!) I thought I'd post an update.

We have lots of ash drifting down, but the smoke isn't bad and the fires are still far away. And we're so thankful for friends with generators, and our cold deep-freeze.