Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fall chores

It's been a beautiful fall day, with some sunshine to warm things up. A great day for the sort of chores that need to be done in the fall. I pruned back the cedar boughs overhanging the driveway that, once laden with snow, would have obstructed our passage down the lane. Chuck felled a dead birch tree the other day that was poised to topple itself in the first wet snow, narrowly avoiding the plum tree and narrowly almost avoiding the garden fence. (Not a big problem -- it's just a teeny leetle section that's now in need of replacing.) So today Noah (red shirt) helped split some of the wood for the woodstove with Fiona and Sophie looking on.

In the foreground is the rink liner. We had it out today to patch any holes and to measure and stake out its position come December on the most level section of lawn. For two or three years I flooded a rink the old-fashioned way (pack the snow down, and then apply small layers of water until a seal forms on the snow, then flood more aggressively). But I found it demoralizing, because while we have cold enough weather for a rink most of the winter, we're subject to occasional days even in mid-January where the temperature heads well above freezing. And on our sloping property that means that the precious rink surface melts a little and then forms drain holes, allowing most of the rink to flow away downhill. And I'd be starting back from scratch, facing another two weeks of 2 a.m. flooding... only to face another thaw just days after we finally got a skateable surface.

So several years ago we bought a rink liner kit. It was brilliant for the first two years. You take some time to put together the edging and lay out the liner. Then you turn the hose on and leave it, come back 8 hours later and turn off the hose, and wait three days. Easy peasy. If we got a stretch of warm weather, the water would just stay put and re-freeze. It developed a few holes each season, whether from deer walking across it while it was freezing or melting, or from skates going through not-quite frozen bits. Those holes needed to be patched with white duct tape in the fall with the weather relatively warm and dry, but that's been no big deal. But for the last two years the rink has been a no-go, because of the Abominable Dog. We just knew that she'd be out there running right through the not-yet-frozen rink, making multiple claw-holes with every step. It was a sure thing, and it wasn't worth the heartache.

This winter, though, with the AD re-homed, we'll be able to flood with impunity. So today was also a day to get the rink liner out, clean it and dry it off and get the holes from the last skating season patched. Fiona is already planning her Skating Party for her 5th birthday in January. A backyard skating rink is indeed a magical thing.

Ten and one

We forgot to take birthday candles with us went we went away for the night to celebrate Noah's birthday, so we stuck the two available tea-lights on top of his ginger-pumpkin cheesecake and designated them place-value candles, denoting 10 and 1. They looked a little silly, but it's the ritual that's important, not the aesthetics, and we are nothing if not flexible when it comes to family celebrations, so they did the trick.

We went to the Villa Dome Quixote as a family to mark the occasion. The domes are right here in town, so when it turned out I had forgotten the veg-gravy at home, there was merely a short delay to the celebratory dinner. They are wacky-looking buildings, but really fun and beautifully appointed. We all had fun finding the acoustic nodes and wacky echoes inside the parabolic ceiling. Noah had wanted to invite his family (including Grandma) but no one else, being the introvert that he is, and seemed to enjoy the occasion a lot.

We had agreed with Noah that his birthday gift could consist of a 50% parental contribution to the purchase of a recurve-bow archery set. We had led him to believe that we would make a trip to purchase it the day after his birthday, but managed to surprise him by picking it up in time for the day.

After supper we spent time in the hot tub out behind the main dome complex. And then, after some more bow-admiring and our regular readalouds, we spent the night in parabolic splendour.
And then it was a quick and easy deal to pack up our books and swimsuits and leftover cheesecake and head home. So here he is, the Robin Hood of BC (merry sisters just off-camera, eagerly awaiting their turns). He's eleven. Ten and one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

First lessons

The three younger kids had their first lessons of the year today. Due to the summer disruption of schedules, grandma's fall holidays and ours, they hadn't had lessons since July. Fiona was so out of the routine of having lessons that she was very ambivalent. She had wanted to stay home with her dad, but decided to come along at the last minute, and then did finally opt for a long hard-working lesson. Like most of my kids, if she can just get started, she goes and goes.

Someone on the MDC homeschooling board was asking why children of music teachers don't teach their own, especially when they are homeschooling parents who are generally more than happy to facilitate their kids' learning on almost every other front. That set me to thinking. I prefer my kids to have weekly lessons with someone else because each lesson is a chance to regroup and focus on what's ahead as well as where they've come from. Life without lessons often feels like one of those weird stretches of hiking trail where you know, because you're huffing and puffing, that you're climbing a significant grade, but there's nothing to give you any visual clue that you're actually rising. Life with lessons feels like a trail with switchbacks and a view. Everytime you come to a switchback, you get a sense of having arrived somewhere, and turning to head uphill again you pause to notice the vast distance you've climbed and enjoy the view.

The other thing that my kids get a bigger dose of by attending my mom's studio is a sense of belonging to a community of similarly-committed children. They meet other students arriving and leaving, they hear about their friends' challenges ("this is something I was working on earlier this year with Paul, and it was hard for him at first too.... ") and feel a sense of commonality. Because music is a performing art, the sharing of it, through playing along with or performing for others, is a big part of it, and I like that my kids have a community of fellow-musicians.

Theoretically we could try to create that routine and do things to develop that sense of community without the outside lessons. But weekly lessons have been the easiest, least-contrived way of doing that for us. There's no doubt that my kids do much of their actual learning from me on a day-to-day basis (and my mom often asks me what she should focus on their lessons), but the structure of weekly outside lessons is a big help to us.

So here we are back in the swing. Almost. Next week is another week off due to my mom's travelling, but after that we're back on weekly lessons. It'll be a big help, although the resumption of lessons is the first part of the fall routine to kick in for my kids, and marks the real end of summer. So there's a "back to the grindstone" feeling, for me at least.

Noah had a really great lesson today. He played the two pieces he's recently taught himself, and played them pretty darn well. At one point my mom asked him "so, when you're playing this line here, what's the piano doing?" He's heard the recording many times, like all Suzuki students have, but it's a new piece and he's never played it with the piano. Young string students are notoriously melody-oriented and listen only to their own instrument's line when listening - the rest is just wallpaper. So I was very surprised when he knew right away it was a trick question, since the piano falls tacet there for a bar and a half or so at that point. "Nothing," he said, without even needing to think about it.

I was impressed that he knew that. I asked my mom, who has been teaching Suzuki violinists and violists this piece in the repertoire for almost 35 years "how many students get that question right?" She laughed. "None. He's the first one ever." This is typical of Noah; he gets the whole piece of music, vertically as well as horizontally.

I really think he should be a composer. Sometimes I wonder whether there's a living to be eked out of computer game and video-game soundtrack composition. That would suit him for sure. Right now he says that his favourite contemporary composer is Mikko Tarmia, who does the edgy symphonic-style scoring for Lugaru as well as several other games, including Penumbra. So I think there's at least one guy making a living at this.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hello fall

It's definitely fall. Last night we almost had our first hard frost. I can't believe we've been spared this long -- we're a few hundred feet above town and the lake, and we usually have frost by the 15th or so. We're still delightedly bringing in vine-ripened tomatoes. But soon ... very soon. Maybe tonight.

The mountain tops are wearing fresh new coats of snow. The mornings are nippy and even Fiona has consented to the occasional long-sleeve shirt or pair of long pants (but almost never both at the same time). And the QuadraFire woodstove has been used a few times now -- not out of necessity, really, but as a comfort, a pleasure, and a cozy welcome to fall.

Photo by Fiona


Still no blue eggs from our Ameraucanas, but our red rock cross, barred rock and isa-brown hens seem to be squirting out eggs nicely now every second or third day. The lack of consistency in size and shape is amazing, though. Here are two eggs that Fiona collected and weighed yesterday. A "large" grocery-store eggs weighs in at about 75 gm. Our wee one was 35 gm, and the large one a hefty 102 gm. Neither fits in an egg carton. The wee one lies at the bottom of the little egg-well and you can't easily get your fingers on it to pick it up. The large one sits on top, above the egg-well, and refuses to be persuaded to hunker down in the carton. Fingers crossed for a blue egg soon. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ten ones

My older kids seemed to intuit the concept of place value very easily. I feel like I sort of missed watching it happen. I just knew they got it. Having talked with some parents whose children haven't easily developed that firm grasp of place value, I resolved to pay more attention to Fiona's number-sense learning to see if I could catch it happening. Fiona loves numbers, but it's clear that she hasn't really got an inkling about the place value thing yet. For instance, 9+7 and 10+7 are problems of equal difficulty for her, and she solves them both by counting up.

Last night she was doing some basic addition and subtraction problems in the Miquon Orange book. When the problems stray into things like 5 + __ + 1 = 8, she likes to use the cuisenaire rods. She had a few rods upstairs, where she was working away on the floor beside her dad. But suddenly she showed up in the living room, where the main cuisenaire collection was. I asked her what she needed.

"Oh, I want to figure out how many ones make ten. I don't have enough rods upstairs," she said.

Our base-ten set, which matches our cuisenaires in dimensions and colours, is all mixed in with the cuisenaires. For whatever reason, to figure out the answer to her question she used the ten-rods to represent ones and a hundred-flat as a ten. Was this because these were closer at hand, or because they were easier to manipulate, or because she's already getting this at a deeper level than I imagined? I really don't know. Anyway, she measured them out. She laid rods side by side until they matched the length of one side of the flat, then counted them.

"Ten ones makes ten!" she announced.

"Cool, you figured it out," I said. "So can you figure out how many ones it takes to make seven?"

"Seven," she replied, not missing a beat.

"How many ones in twenty-nine, then?" I asked.

"Twenty-nine!" she giggled.

I hadn't realized that she would need to count out how many ones in ten. She seems so clever with numbers -- I thought that would be obvious to her by now. But it wasn't. It was a sudden burning question she had to test out. And it wasn't "how many 2's in 8" or "how many 1's in 7" that she chose to examine. It was that very particular relationship that our place value rests on that she wanted to test out concretely. She quickly proved to herself that there was a relationship there between units and tens. And then she correctly and logically generalized it.

I can't help but think that this little exercise she was driven to carry out is going to form one of the keystones in the foundation of her place-value understanding. My, it is such fun watching children learn!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Medals all 'round

When planning our canoe trip down the lake, I took the 34 kms and divided it out to get a comfortable 3 days, knowing that the wind blowing from the south can really slow a boat down. Then I doubled that to give a conservative estimate of what the pace would be like with four kids and all the extra getting-ready time, the pee breaks, the lower tolerance for sitting in a boat, the need to run around and explore, the extra payload and the extra bodies.

We finished in about 48 hours. It turns out we have powerhouse kids. They paddled hard and they paddled long, through wind and waves and cold rain that left the mountain-tops wearing bright new winter sweaters of snow. They helped set up and tear down camp, and honestly, they came very close to being a net asset in terms of efficiency on the trip.

With all the necessary vehicle-shuttling, we got off to an anticipated late start on Tuesday, hitting the water at about 4 pm. We paddled only about an hour, to a lovely forestry campsite called Wragge Beach. The wind had come up by the time we got there and spray was getting us wet, so it was nice to pull in to a nice campsite and get a fire going. We had a leisurely dinner and read aloud through dusk.

Wednesday was a beautiful paddling day. The water was calm, the sun came out for part of the day, and there was almost no wind. We easily passed both New Denver and Silverton by early afternoon and pulled in at a sandy beach point while the sun was still high. We bravely managed a swim and some play on the beach, then hunkered down around the campfire as the temperature dropped with the clear skies. We had put on some serious mileage, and began to talk about paddling the rest of the way the next day. The kids were really pleased with how much we'd accomplished.

Thursday morning was cold and overcast and it began raining almost as soon as we got up. We managed breakfast in the cold and rain, and packed up a soggy sandy bunch of gear and set off. Our one gear oversight was the lack of a waterproof jacket for Sophie. I had looked everywhere in the week before we left, in the local used-clothing place, at the high-end sporting goods place, at all the new and used kids' clothing places in Nelson. There were tons of windbreakers, and tons of fleece jackets, of which she already had both, but nothing waterproof. We could have ordered a GoreTex jacket in, but there wasn't time. So that morning at the campsite we had Sophie encased in a few layers of warm stuff, with a tarp-like thing in reserve. But we'd missed the boat ... she was already wet and cold. She paddled quietly and stoically for a while, then stopped paddling and was quiet, and gradually her "no, I'm okay's" got quieter and quieter until she was silently sobbing. We paddled on, into a bit of a headwind, with the chop picking up, looking for any flat area where we'd be able to put up a tarp and get a roaring bonfire going to warm her up and dry her out a bit. At the crucial moment we rounded a point and found a tiny cove, and above the cove was an old cabin. There are a few of these in the park, but this was one we didn't know about. We went in, lit a fire in the wood cookstove, put on water for hot cocoa and began stripping off layers of clothing to dry out. Within half an hour we were all cheerful again, and Sophie was cracking silly jokes and eating cheese. Within a couple of hours most of the clothing was dry and we were thinking about heading out on the lake for some more paddling, rather than spending the night in the cabin.

Then Sophie fell into the lake. The rain had eased to the point that the kids were happily exploring the rocks around the cabin. Some were very slippery. Poor kid. Fortunately she had one change of clothes, and the pants and shirt had been among the things I'd managed to get dry over the stove. We did some squeezing and spinning and wringing and it took only an extra hour to get her fleece and windbreaker dry. And so by mid afternoon we were heading out again, with the bluffs of Cape Horn in sight and the promise of a glimpse of Slocan around the corner. It was drizzling, but the wind had settled down, and it seemed like we were making good time. The monstrous bluffs were deceptive though ... it seemed like we weren't moving at all for the longest time. But we were, because suddenly there was Slocan. We saw the first other boats we'd seen on the lake the whole time -- six or eight canoes at the one obvious campsite between us and our eventual destination. Six or eight canoes makes for a pretty crowded creek mouth campsite, so there was no question of pulling our day's paddling up short. We kept our bows pointing towards Slocan and paddled hard. We pulled in just before supper-time.

What did I learn about my kids? Erin is strong -- as strong as many adults, and with a work ethic to match. Noah is strong for a 10-year-old, but more importantly has gained the ability to pace himself well for sustained activities like paddling. What a treat! He and I paddled together through the worst of the last day and he was a great partner. Sophie is stoical almost to a fault. She did not utter one complaint, despite all that frozen misery. And resilient. She bounced right back into her cheerful old self very quickly -- both times she got soaked to the skin. And Fiona is just a trooper. She sat in the "jump seat" (middle, rear-facing) in the kayak for all those hours of kayaking and looked around, kept up commentary, or nodded off to sleep, despite wind and rain and cold and boredom. And never a complaint.

Everyone feels justifiably proud. I think the kids deserve medals of some sort. Paddling the lake, especially in not-entirely-welcoming nippy fall weather, seems like a sort of rite of passage.

That little Canon Powershot camera looked like it got left at home in its Ziploc bag. I was ticked off at myself for forgetting it after all that. But when we got home, we found it in the bottom of the cooler under the last couple of bricks of cheese. Sheesh! I've uploaded a photo taken from the east side of the lake several years ago instead. Our second campsite was on the shore just off the right-hand edge of the photo. We continued left across the photo on the next day and on off the left end of the photo to Slocan.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Heading out on the lake

I spent today using way too many Ziploc bags. The last time I packed for a backcountry trip of this length, it was pre-kids. That would have been for a trip in Temagami Wilderness park in Ontario, or along the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, or the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit in north-central BC. This time, though, I'm packing food for six, not two, and the stakes are higher, because any misery or risk involves my children. Lots of Ziplocs. A really full Rubbermaid bin. Really really full.

In the bin are a lot of unmentionable chemicals which I'll mention anyway. Knorr pasta sauce, Simply Asian Teriyaki noodles and sauce, instant hot chocolate, Taco Time Fajita Seasoning, hydrogenated-oil coffee creamer (in the decaf-mocha mix), tang-like drink crystals and Quaker instant oatmeal. There's also some healthy stuff ... home-baked Canadian Trapper Bread, organic home-roasted coffee, organic dried fruit and nuts, buckwheat-and-whole-wheat pancake mix and bannock redi-mix with home-ground flour. There's a small cooler that will be coming as well, containing mostly cheese -- immense amounts of cheese!

The plan is to paddle the length of the lake along the western shore. If you have installed Google Earth, you can click on this bookmark and take a look at the lake we'll be travelling. The western shore is pristine wilderness, comprising the edge of Valhalla Provincial Park, a huge park of wild lakeshore, massive granite peaks, glaciers and dense old growth forest. We'll pitch our tents at various stops here and there along the shore as we progress down the lake and hopefully end up safe and sound in Slocan in a little under a week. Weather looks pretty good for this time of year -- night-time lows around 2 - 5 Celsius, daytime highs in the mid- to high-teens, a mix of sun, cloud and rain.

Yesterday Fiona knocked my beloved Nikon D70 digital SLR off the desk. While I cushioned its fall with a quick-thinking left foot, it's no longer functioning. It's two years and 5 days old, and I believe the warranty is 2 years. I am suffering immense grief, and will see what I can do to have it fixed after we return. I put the odds at 50:50 -- it is doing many things just fine (metering, focusing, flashing, opening the shutter) but won't close the shutter and process a captured image. So I'm using the old Canon PowerShot again, the one with duct tape holding it together, with a heady three quarters of a pixel resolution. It was a good camera in 1998, but that was eons ago in the digital world. The one really good thing about it, though, is that it fits in a Ziploc bag.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Digital video kid

Noah spends a lot of time at the computer. Too much for my comfort. He sees it as an issue, too, since he tends to miss out on doing other things that would make his life feel fuller and more interesting. I do my best to support his quest for more balance in his life without exuding snide, judgemental comments, though I confess I don't always succeed. ("Hasn't it been, like, days since you used your legs as anything other than a cushion under your butt?")

But the upshot of my discomfort with his computer use is that I tend not to put a lot of attention and enthusiasm towards what he's doing there. And so sometimes I suddenly get rather blindsided by what he's got on the go. The other evening, for example, he was slow getting to the dinner table.

"I was doing something for David and I had to wait and save it before I came," he apologized.


"Oh," he said casually, "yeah, David, the programmer of Lugaru."

I know about Lugaru, because he's been playing it for weeks. It's quite a game. Combat rabbits, impressive graphics, intuitive controls. Neat stuff. Trust Noah to go into the support and development forums and get to know the developer.

"He's working on Lugaru2 and he wants to put out a little trailer showing some of the new effects, but he's going to college, so he's pretty busy. Besides, he doesn't have the right software to put together a video. So I said I'd do it. He needs it by the end of the week."

He has an uncanny knack for getting himself taken seriously on game development and game support forums. Perhaps it's partly that geeks don't seem to have any age-based prejudices when dealing with other geeks. Maybe most of them were once precocious 10-year-old geeks like Noah.

Now, Noah doesn't have any experience with video-editing, but he had expressed an interest in it, such that we'd put it on his learning plan last month. And I'd since managed to track down an inexpensive bundled version of Adobe Premiere Elements. But I hadn't even got it fully installed and registered before Noah was at it with his Lugaru project. He'd taken the audio files into Audacity and worked out the trims and fades, then exported the files and transferred everything over to the other computer and dived into Premiere. He'd figured out titling, transitions, cross-fading the audio files, slide shows, timing controls and how to meld the soundtrack and video.

No wonder the geeks take him seriously.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The math bug

Today Fiona got up, had her oatmeal, and headed straight for her Miquon Orange book. I'd be worrying about her being too young for a formal math program, especially Miquon which is conceptually quite advanced, if it hadn't been for Sophie, who picked up exactly the same book at almost exactly the same age. She's doing really well with it. She's about 40 pages in, and is full of enthusiasm. She uses cuisenaire rods easily but rarely, preferring to do most of the arithmetic in her head. She's easily intuited concepts such as 4 + __ = 9 essentially being a 9 - 4 subtraction question. Miquon is so brilliant -- no one has had to teach her this, it just grew out of the guided exploration.

My kids use a fair number of structured academic resources, with a particular consistency in the area of mathematics, and sometimes I look at what they've chosen to do and wonder if we're really unschoolers. I know that many people would look at the fact that my kids do all these things and figure that I must subtly be coercing them. Sometimes I wonder myself. So when we reached the end of our musical summer and no one had touched any math for months, I paid very careful attention to what I said and did, and to whether math resurfaced as an interest.

Sophie was the first to start hankering for math. She mentioned a couple of times that she wanted to start doing math, and complained one evening that I hadn't got around to working with her yet. The next evening she chased me around with her book, and so we sat down and delved in. Then we went away to Calgary, and the book got set aside. But a couple of days after we got back, she again pulled it out. She's been quite consistent with doing a little bit of work every evening.

About three days after Sophie established a routine of nightly math, a routine that in the past all the kids have really relished, Noah started his "thing". Noah resists new things, and challenges, but seems to enjoy being nudged into them most of the time. He actually asks for nudges by doing this "thing" where he complains loudly about starting to do something no one has suggested he do. He looked at Sophie eagerly doing multidigit multiplication review and said "I hate math." I reacted conversationally. "Really? That's funny, I remember you loving algebra last spring when we started working on it." He was unimpressed. "Not any more. I don't like that Teaching Textbooks thing. It's too hard." Recognizing the pattern I responded "Well, you always feel that way about something you aren't used to. Usually you feel really differently about it once you get going." He shrugged. That was the end of it.

The next night when Sophie pulled out her book he made a similar disparaging comment about math. I rolled my eyes and reminded him that there's always a bit of a hump to get over when he wants to start in at something. "Do you want to just sit down and try some and see if you can get over this hump?" I asked. He sighed and sat down and pulled out the book. (I guess that was a "yes"?) We backtracked 3 or 4 lessons from where we'd left off in the spring and talked our way through a bit of review.

I shouldn't be surprised any more by the pattern, but the next night when Sophie decided it was Math Time, Noah was there, eagerly vying for some time with me to do his work. He likes it! And so he's off and at it again, and feeling good about himself. It has only taken about 3 days of review to get him back on track and tackling new material with confidence.

And as usual, Fiona has got swept up by all the activity and is at least as enthusiastic as Sophie and Noah. So her Miquon book came out and she's been working in it, often with Sophie's help.

Erin marches to the beat of her own drummer as always. She worked herself halfway through the first Teaching Textbooks Algebra level last spring but hasn't caught the bug this fall. Noah is catching up (she's only about 50 lessons further into the same program he's working in) and I have no idea whether she'll be spurred to action by that closing gap. He has never come anywhere close to her in intellectual pursuits before. She's really focused on violin right now and I'm thrilled that she's working so hard at something. Whether she catches the math bug remains to be seen. I have my doubts, but she did seem to enjoy TT last spring, so we'll see.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

No screen day

We used to declare No-Screen Days pretty often, as much as once a week for a while. But it has been a long time since we imposed one on ourselves. And what were we thinking, choosing a lazy, at-home day with nothing much planned?

Since we got back from Calgary, the middle two kids have been practicing enthusiastically during the day, rather than waiting for the evening, and have developed the habit of plopping themselves in front of the TV each evening. It was weird and a little frightening to watch these kids, who normally go weeks or months without ever thinking to turn the TV on, zoned out for hours on the living room floor. The one thing that has given me some peace with the high levels of computer use has always been the fact that the kids, despite no parental limits, rarely watch TV. But there they were ... zoned ...

We talked about whether it was becoming a habit, rather than a choice. Somehow our discussion turned to the idea of trying a No-Screen Day. I suppose to see how addicted we were. So yesterday we got up and didn't turn on the computers.

Erin was fine. She practiced ... at least 3 hours of violin, and a good bit on piano as well. Sophie was fine. She practiced, she communed with the outdoors, checked on the chicken-and-egg situation regularly, and read. Fiona was fine. She'll happily do whatever anyone else is doing. Chuck was fine -- he was at work, of course, and exempt from the no-screen rule by virtue of necessity. Noah and I had our challenges, though. Both of us tend to default to the computer at moments when there's nothing more pressing or enticing. For me, those moments are not constant -- I have all the houseworky things that I do try to keep up on. (I try, I really do...) But I kept thinking "aha! bread's rising in the pans, and I've got the laundry on the line, now I'll just put these jars in the basement and then sit down for a few minutes at the computer." Or "gotta use up these eggs -- I'll just have a look on the 'net for a good quiche recipe." Or "ah, that's a good hour of viola practice. Now I get a few minutes to relax on the computer." I had to pull myself up many times through the day. I confess it was a challenge.

And Noah. He's the kid who sometimes finds the 5-hour-a-day computer limit he's set up for himself on WatchdogPC to be painfully restrictive. He didn't cheat or complain, but there was a fair bit of theatrical and amusing wailing and gnashing of teeth. He really had to push himself to find things to do to fill his time. He actually napped, twice. He read a book. And he wandered around, throwing himself in chairs and couches and doing goofy time-wasting things. Like lying on the couch playing Fiona's sixteenth-sized violin for the better part of an hour. (see above)

If nothing else, having a No-Screen Day has brought the issue of balancing our sedentary/electronic and active/non-electronic activities back onto the front burner. Which is where it needs to be for a while, I think. There's been a big empty space in our lives since all the intense summer busyness of music workshops ended.

Speaking of summer music workshop intensity, Erin commented yesterday that she'd like to attend music workshops all year long, not just three weeks of the year. Her ideal, she said, would be a boarding school that was Suzuki-music-based. But no, that wouldn't work, because it would still be a school, so they'd make you do essays and algebra homework and multiple-choice tests on 20th century European history. So it would have to be an Suzuki Music Boarding Free School. A boarding school because obviously we don't have the population or faculty to support such a school here. An Free School so that you could just do music, and whatever else interested you, but nothing more, all day every day. For advanced Suzuki students from the age of 12 on up who are firmly committed to an educational environment free of cooercion. Maybe in Calgary. I think if we can sign on 300 other students, we could make this fly. Any takers?

A new rooster

Our friends came and took the roosters off to slaughter the other day. Finally! Things are much quieter around here.

Today, though, a new rooster showed up. It looks a lot like the barred rocks that just left, and it too enjoys chasing hens. Its crowing is a lot softer though.

A child's potential

Over the years I've totally abandoned the idea of potential in any practical sense. I believe that human beings, all of them, have almost boundless potential. My area of expertise is music. Back in the 1950s, children were considered too young for formal music instruction until the age of 9 or so, and then they began to study (usually piano first) using an approach rooted in sight-reading. These days if you took almost any young Suzuki student and transported them back to 1950, they'd be considered exceptionally gifted. I mean, even the "slower-learning" 4-year-old Suzuki beginner will be playing Gavottes and Minuets in tune and with a nice tone years before a typical child of the 50's would be considered capable of learning to play an instrument. So I think that music is an area where we've become considerably more adept at nurturing potential ... and that for all those many generations before the Suzuki approach took root, children had orders of magnitude more music-learning potential than anyone suspected.

As I was watching my kids grow through the early years, I faced many of the same issues you raised in your post. At ages 3-10, as basic pre-academic and academic skills are being laid down, everything has a 'benchmarky' feel. Does he tell time yet? Can she write cursive? Does he know his timestables? Long division? As parents who are sensitive to the enormous potential that our children have, who know that our children are capable of learning almost anything, it's tempting to get caught up in the idea that there's some merit to hurrying our children through those benchmark skills.

But those benchmark skills are so superficial. When a child is 15, no one is going to care whether he learned to tell time at age 4 or 7. What will matter will be whether he's confident, optimistic, creative, a good problem-solver, open-minded, interested in the world and in learning, empathetic, persistent, responsible and with strong personal values. That's the 'potential' I want my kids to live up to. And really, the more I think about it and the more I observe, I see that a parental focus on accelerated transit through particular academic skill sets can actually work against that type of deep, abiding potential. Why? Because it puts approval and attention preferentially on shallow, intellectual achievements. Because it puts the parent more in the driver's seat of education. Because it focuses on areas where things are right or wrong, with no grey areas, no subtlety. Because it puts the mastery ahead of the meaningfulness to the child and its connectedness to real life.

I think there is value in the some of the things that can be exercised by the pursuit of accelerated learning -- the development of persistence, diligence, tolerance for mistake-making, problem-solving skills and a good work ethic. I know that when I was in school I found the academic work easy and it took me many years to develop the personal resilience, persistence and resourcefulness to cope with things that I couldn't instantly do well. But with my own kids I much prefer to nurture those traits in ways that don't put preferential emphasis on the speedy mastery of superficial academic skills. Learning to play a musical instrument, growing a garden, caring for animals, helping a sibling grow and learn, grappling with the organization and work of running a household, working long-term to develop a community resource. Things like that are of more lasting value, and more worth emphasizing to me than, say, "doing Grade 4 math at age 5."

I've only ever pushed my kids in academic areas when I sensed that they were becoming demoralized by their inertia, or frustrated by their inability to do something they badly wanted to do. Not necessarily when they were "behind" or "stalled" by any conventional measurements. Just when they wanted very badly to be somewhere that they couldn't manage to get without support and/or structure.

copied & pasted from a message board post

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Waltz face

This is the face of a girl who has worked cheerfully at preparatory exercises for two weeks, at first not sure how they fit into the piece, eventually figuring that out, but patiently working on open strings anyway. The face of a girl who worked really hard on the little details of string-crossings and bow divisions, who worked on the two-string-blocking of her third finger and the on placing the ornament right before the bow-change. The face of a girl who must have somehow got the impression from her mom that this piece was going to be "hard", perhaps for no other reason than that she hadn't got around to playing it by ear before her mom started teaching her the technical skills she'd need to play it well. The face of a girl whose mom said tonight "Come on, you try it. You don't need me to do the left hand. You know this piece. It's inside you. Go for it." And so she tried it, not quite believing what I believed, which was that she already knew how to play it, from start to finish, even though she'd never tried it before.

Oh my she was amazed! "I already know it! I did the whole thing!" she laughed and laughed. Yup, right down to the ritardando - decrescendo at the end. Oh, this Suzuki thing, and its Sibling Effect, is something else.


One of the things the GRUBS do is offer to pick surplus fruit for people who don't have the time or the ability to deal with their own. That includes non-residents, the elderly or infirm, or people who are suffering under some sort of bumper crop their yard has produced. This year there's been a fair bit of the latter, and last Saturday had us out picking plums off three trees that were breaking limbs under the weight of their fruit.

We brought home about half of the harvest. The trick is now to process it before it rots, and to then distribute the processed fruit to community groups, save some for the GRUBS Harvest Festival and return some to the donors. The rest will probably end up being consumed here. So far some has ended up as juice, a fair bit has been frozen in cubes for use in smoothies, and a lot has been combined with cherries, similarly harvested and frozen in the early summer, and made into low-sugar jam using Pamona's pectin.

There's something about a row of canning jars on a window ledge that makes me feel amazingly capable, accomplished and proud. Breaking open a fresh jar and enjoying the flavour of that lovely fruit doesn't compare. It's looking at the orderly long row of jam jars that I find so satifying. Generally speaking they have to remain on the window ledge for the better part of a week before retiring to the pantry so that I can enjoy the self-satisfied feeling they give me.

Siblings and travel

We've been wrestling lately with whether, and how often, to make a trip to Calgary so that Erin can have a violin lesson with the teacher she's chosen. While there are teachers 4-5 hours away who could teach at her level, Calgary is the logical choice (7-8 hours away). First, because it's a place that people who might be able to give her rides often go, and it's along a bus route that she'll be able to use once she turns 15 (Greyhound rules being what they are). But most importantly because the teacher-student relationship there is a sure thing, and represents the first time Erin has really been passionate about doing as instructed by another human being. And truly, it's passion, rather than achievement or potential that we're trying to support here. Finally ... well, there's the person she's chosen, someone who epitomizes the goodness and grace of spirit that music and the arts should really be about.

I say "we've been wrestling," but really it's me. To the kids, it's a done deal. We'll be going to Calgary, about once a month. They assumed this, and they seem fine with it. Erin and I had hatched a tentative deal: 100 hours of practicing for one Calgary trip, and it just remained for me to talk to Theresa about the possibility of intermittent intensive lessons and a bit of a shift in her role, from cheerleader to guide. Which I've done. But I felt I needed to think through in a serious way what I was expecting of the younger three children. Fifteen to twenty hours in the minivan over the course of 2-3 days, once a month? All to get their elder sister to something she was asking for? How could anything possibly compensate them for that?

Well, they do travel very well. We have some nice conversations in the van. They read. They nap. They watch a DVD or two on the laptop. They listen to music. They're not high-energy kids, and what they do in the van isn't that different from what they spend a good portion of their days at home doing. Being pretty introverted, they like time spent with family, rather than, say, going to a friend's place for the day or for a sleepover.

They like doughnuts, and bags of chips, and motels, and especially motel pools and hot tubs, all rare treats during trips to Calgary. And of course there are other perks, like trips to Chapters, or maybe a stop at the zoo, or the Tyrrell Museum. And the wonderful opportunity for a social visit with Theresa and Jeff.

Some day before too long Noah will probably benefit from monthly lessons with Theresa too. He's not nearly as advanced as Erin, but he's learning viola repertoire that will pretty soon be stuff neither my mom nor I have ever taught. My mom doesn't really play viola (it precipitates her tendonitis) and, while I could easily keep ahead of Noah in learning the repertoire, he doesn't really want me to teach him.

Then I imagined that we lived 10 minutes from the school, and Erin was going to school, and I did the math on the drop-off and pick-up driving that would be necessary, siblings in tow, to get her there ... and it worked out to 14 hours a month spent in the minivan -- almost exactly the driving time to Calgary and back. And I realized that the amount of time wasn't really at issue -- many families unthinkingly subject younger siblings to this sort of time. It's just that it's all at once. But my kids hate transitions more than quiet time. I really think the school-and-back driving would irk them a lot more than a trip to Calgary with all its doughnut-type perks.

Would I, will I, make sacrifices of similar order for the other kids? If they have this kind of passion, yes, in a heartbeat. Of course, things will be different, because there likely won't be a bunch of younger siblings who have to come along. If I was taking Sophie to Vancouver once a month, the other kids could stay home, since Erin's old enough to manage. And heck, by the time Fiona's wanting her own Calgary lessons, Chuck will be retired and Erin and Noah will be off living on their own. Our threshold for these types of sacrifices will likely be lower if anything.

If you're a younger sibling, you win some and you lose some. You get toted along to things you're too young to participate in, but you get exposure to the example and stimulation of family life that, in part, revolves around older children. That can be a pretty rich experience -- witness, for example, how easily Fiona can sound out the violin pieces she's been hearing for years, or what she learned about ropes and harnesses and climbing even when she couldn't participate in the homeschoolers camp. By contrast, for much of her life, Erin's opportunities have been limited by the abilities and tolerances of three younger siblings. She certainly did not get to go rock-climbing at 4!

So it boils down to this: we'll try it. We'll play it by ear, month by month and keep evaluating whether it's all working okay for everyone.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Sophie specializes in seeds. Typically her aim in her garden plots, both at home and at the GRUBS community garden, is to grow a lot of stuff that will produce a lot of seeds. She could probably start a radish seed business, for instance. And she had absolutely no interest in eating her lettuces. Now they are going to seed and she will carefully harvest the seed and save it for next year ... presumably to grow more seed.

Last year Sophie won a door prize at the local Voices for Hospice event. The prize was a hubbard squash. Although she did eventually allow us to eat it, it was very important to her that we save the seeds. This spring she encouraged Fiona to plant one of them in her garden plot. Here is the result. Fiona's hubbard squash is now eight inches long and growing an inch or so a day. She's thrilled, and so is Sophie, who is like a doting grandmother watching Fiona raise the next generation of her vegetable progeny.

A room with a view

Noah takes some beautiful photographs these days. This is the view from the treehouse. I love how he's framed the mountains in cedar boughs, and partially eclipsed the sun. And I have no idea how he managed to get the garden look somewhat tidy, organized and productive.

Treehouse workcrew

Work has begun in earnest on the treehouse. We had some GRUBS work to do in the morning, and then again in the afternoon. Noah stayed home in the afternoon to help his dad frame up treehouse walls. When the girls and I got back, it was just in time to share in the banging of a few more nails. Then it was time to start moving the framed wall over to the platform in the trees.

Lugging the walls over to the treehouse was easily managed by the jobsite crew. It was a perfect day for building -- sunny but with a little bit of fall crispness in the air, so not too hot. The bears know that fall is here too, and they have been busily cleaning our fruit trees, 'processing' the fruit with amazing efficiency and leaving copious plummish deposits all over the yard. The jobsite crew members had to watch where they stepped.

Up went the walls, to be nailed in place. It's starting to look like a real structure. The window will have an amazing view. Rumour has it the framing will be finished tomorrow sometime. The kids are thrilled.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Callegari from Calgary

It's full-sized. The size that adults play. My kid has grown into an adult-sized violin ... and how fitting, since she's also grown into an mature appetite for guided challenge and an adult-sized work ethic.

It's a 2006 Salvatori Callegari, actually Chinese in origin but with an Italian vanity label. She's its first owner, so it'll likely "break in" and grow its sound, due to the beneficial effects of vibrations on the acoustic properties of the wood. It has a very balanced sound, big but not overly bright, and it'll be a fine chamber music instrument (very important to her!) as well as giving a good soloist's sound. She chose a very very nice wooden bow to go with it.

And the case, oh my! Not that there was much selection at the lower end, but a featherlight red-black-and-silver Bam oblong with a combination lock, cushioning air suspension inside, and matching bits and pieces in the pockets? Zowee! This parent in jealous!

Once a year

Once a year, whether we need to or not, we make a pilgrimage to a big-city bookstore. This time it was in Calgary. Our resulting stack (most of which is shown here) was about 16 inches tall and included some humour, some fluff, some sequels, some enticing new fiction and a bit of non-fiction for good measure.

All the kids were thrilled with this bibliophilic visit, even after a long day of driving and violin-shopping. I loaded them up with decafs and they spent a blissful couple of hours browsing, as did I.

The cashier laughed when we went to pay ... partly I think at the size of our stack, but also at the eager faces of the four kids.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Deep in 'sent items'

I changed my e-mail client software to Thunderbird the other day. It felt like moving house. I packed all my e-mail folders and had them moved to my new home. The movers were terrific; they didn't break or lose anything. But as I was unpacking everything and getting it organized, I discovered stuff I had that I had totally forgotten about. Stuff that, had I been actively blogging at the time, I would have posted here. But I wasn't truly in the blog habit back then. I was mostly just writing about the kids' musical learning. So I found a few of these old messages, and figured I'd post them where they belonged in my blog archives. In case you come to this blog via the main URL rather than an RSS feed, and you'd appreciate a pointer to these new-old posts, here are quick links:

A day in the life (1999)
Transition challenges
Unschooling apologetics
Parental deschooling