Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Destruction and discovery

Inspired by Karen's LightingtheFires blog entry, Science Club this week was a big "taking apart electronics" fest. Altogether the following revealed their innards to the kids over the course of the afternoon:
  1. A CB radio
  2. A CD player / radio
  3. An inkjet printer
  4. An iron
  5. A Sony tape deck
  6. An old clock radio
  7. A cordless mouse
  8. A computer drawing tablet
The kids were entranced by the wheel-and-string pulley system for changing the tuner frequency on the clock radio and by the old-fashioned numerical wheel mechanism for displaying the time digitally without LCD or LED diodes. They harvested motors and speakers and tested capacitors, battled with tamper-proof screws, resorting to hammers if necessary, clipped wires, rattled, tapped and whacked things for interesting sounds, pulled and pried and examined tiny components with magnifying lenses.

At the end we had a lot of components, and decided to turn our imaginations loose on creating artwork from the bits. Noah managed to get the steam button mechanism from the iron to pump some air. Fiona created a 'sailboat' from odd bits of componentry, plastic and metal. There were dragonflies and weird four-legged critters. Erin and M. used all the circuit boards they could find to create a miniature futuristic cityscape, with the large capacitors and other plastic switches and the like forming skyscrapers, a capacitor suburban neighbourhood, open market squares, hundreds of tiny roadways, some odd-looking parkland and airline flyby routes designated by the colourful copper wire still attached and spidering over the whole array.

It was an enjoyable, though somewhat messy, afternoon.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Winter brush and scraps of lumber, pine bark from the wood-splitting area, a few carboard boxes to get things going, a clear but not-too-nippy early spring night, eager kids and a firebug for a dad... all the makings of a nice bonfire, the first of the year. Faces got too hot, feet and backs got too cold, but as usual it was fun just being there.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A birthday gift

We don't do traditional Kid Birthday Parties in our family. When we host birthday parties, we do them differently -- as family parties, without gifts, just as fun get-together, hosted by the birthday child, to his or her specifications and with his or her help -- that's the fun part! Mostly though the kids, being introverts, prefer just to do something special with their family as a birthday celebration, like visit the Halcyon Hotsprings, or go out for a special dinner, or even stay home for dinner. We don't believe in the whole gift-giving / loot bag racket, and make an effort to sidestep it by choosing different styles of celebration.

When they're invited to a Kid Birthday Party by another child, of course we cheerfully play by the other family's rules. But we always try to come up with a gift with some thought towards simplicity. We're lucky that most of the kids we hang out with don't hanker for wii games or Bratz dolls or sneer down their noses at simpler, more organic gifts. So we're almost always able to come up with something that doesn't involve going to a toy store and plunking down twenty bucks. Usually the gifts the kids give are hand-made, at least in part, by them... or are recycled or pre-loved.

Sophie was invited to the 9th birthday celebration of her close friend A.. She and I brainstormed a few different gift possibilities, and came up with the idea of sewing a special music bag. While going through my immense piles of scraps and cuts of fabric looking for something suitable, we came up with a 2-metre length of luscious heavy-weight navy cotton knit. Sophie's eyes got big. For the past six months she'd been saying she wanted to sew a skirt, and we'd just never got around to get to a fabric store together to pick something out. But here, right here, was what she wanted her skirt made out of! How could I not have mentioned I had this length of fabric just waiting to be used?

Well, there was enough for two skirts, one for Sophie and a matching copy for her friend. All thoughts of a music bag vanished. Sophie smiled a big smile and I knew that she was thrilled -- not only to get a skirt, but to sew it herself, and to make one for her friend A., and to have both of them end up with a matched pair! So she set to work.

She'd never sewed a knit before, so I got out my little serger and introduced her to it. She serged the raw edges. She did the endless pinning. She switched back to the sewing machine and sewed the hem and waistband casing with a zigzag stitch. For a nifty touch she sewed a buttonhole with the snap-in buttonholer and fed an adjustable elastic through for the waist. Sophie sewed the button on the waistband. She did the ironing. She tried on each skirt. She was thrilled. So was A., I'm told.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Milestone mayhem

Fiona apparently never got the memo, the one that lists the order and rate of mastery of toddler and preschooler milestones. This week has brought long-awaited achievement of two of them -- she has weaned from the breast and slept through the night in her own bed.

She has got it all upside down, this kid. She was using the toilet independently and reliably by 14 months. She started studying violin with cheerful determination at age 2 3/4. She began reading at age 3 1/2. Performing simple subtraction and multiplication at almost-4.

And then, at the ripe old age of 4-and-a-smidge, she decided she could make it through a day without nursing, and through a night without taking up the middle half of her mom and dad's not-even-queen-sized bed.

Sibling Curriculum

Written today on a message board:

On the "how will I teach the older kids while the younger ones are demanding my attention" issue I'd like to point out something I see happening at our terrific village public school. They're spending a lot of time and energy on activities and programs designed to help kids develop a sense of community, of interdependence, of empathy, to learn the skills of sharing and appreciating each other, of getting to know people who aren't more or less exactly their age and academic level. These are innovative, worthwhile programs like a nursing home outreach program, a community service and outdoor program, a "Roots of Empathy" program that brings a mother and baby into the classroom every week or two for the whole school year, peer recognition, buddy programs between middle schoolers and primary schoolers and so on. Great stuff!

But here's the thing. My kids, of whom there are four spread over a 9-year age-range, have got all this experience, and more, simply by being at home and out and about in the real world with each other. These innovative, holistic, community-minded school-based programs are all just artificial substitutes for family.

At home my kids have garnered copious experience accommodating to the competing needs and the variety of interests and limitations of family members of differing ages and abilities, appreciating the value of relationships that span age-groups and even generations, learning the relationship skills necessary for getting along with the people they love and live with. It's all built into the "sibling curriculum" in a homeschooling family. The "sibling curriculum" is not a complication in homeschooling -- it's an enrichment course, or even a core part of the program, that many schools are eagerly trying to emulate.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Back to GRUB-bing

The Science Club kids (a.k.a. the homeschooled core of the GRUBS club) got busy planting for spring today. We planted five flats of seedlings with great gusto.

Oddly enough Fiona was most interested in planting sweet peppers; she refuses to eat them, so I can't imagine what possessed her to fixate on planting them. I think she really liked the photo on the seed packet. Noah and his friend B. planted a flat full of quirky choices like different varieties of chili peppers. Sophie and her friend A. planted lots of herbs, marigolds, tomatoes and peppers.

We are lucky enough to have an excellent relationship with the local school. The science room of the school has a huge solarium window, complete with grow lights on a timer, that is almost never used, so the GRUBS, as an inclusive club that welcomes all interested families with children, are able to make use of the space for our seedlings. They'll be installed there after March Break and will, we hope, merrily grow away until sometime around our last frost date in the 3rd week of May.

GRUBS is organizing the second annual local seed exchange in next weekend. We're gradually accumulating, and sharing, dozens of unique seed varieties. I love that our packets of traded and gifted seeds have names like "Jenny's Pretty Striped Tomatoes" and "Rosalie's Prize Drying Tomatoes." They connect us to other people and other gardens in the community. This year we decided we're going to participate in the Canadian Tomato Project, growing, observing and reporting on several recognized Canadian tomato varieties. There was some discussion today amongst the GRUBS about factory farming and the loss of genetic diversity that results; interestingly, the DVD "The Fight for True Farming" is sitting in our pile right now awaiting viewing.

We decided that our big GRUBS project for this year should be a shed. We would so dearly love to be able to leave tools, equipment and supplies safely at the garden, rather than carting them back and forth from home every week. We are looking at this Lee Valley bracket kit that would give us a simple starting point; hopefully we'll get a fair bit of salvaged and/or donated lumber and sheathing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Data Transfer Limits

On Wednesday I got a warning from our ISP that we were on a curve to outstrip our data transfer limit by the end of our billing cycle. We pay a flat rate to 10 GB, and after that an extra $3 per Gig. We had used almost 90% of our allotted 10GB in the first 20 days of the month. I know the over-use comes mostly from Erin and Noah who are high bandwidth consumers. Since we have a wireless network and can run up to 5 computers on the 'net at once (and sometimes do!), we can certainly rack up transfer. We had a quick discussion and decided that if we ran over, we should share the cost, docking allowance as required -- but that an agreement on limits should prevent that necessity. No videos, no downloads, no music listening, and a maximum of an hour of on-line gaming a day were what we decided on. I printed out a graph and posted it on the fridge. Every morning we look up our transfer summary and log it on the graph. So far we've cut our daily use from almost 500 MB to around 100 MB and are on track to stay under our limit.

I must say I'm thrilled to have had some external factor force the kids to put some focus on how they're using the computer, and how much. Computer use has dropped a lot, even when it comes to local (non-online) games. There's a fair bit more social interaction and creativity showing up. More outdoor time and social time. On the 25th we enter a new billing cycle. I think I will print out another graph for next month and continue plotting our cumulative transfer through the billing cycle from time to time. It has been very instructive.

While Noah has continued to make a lot of use of the computer, much more of it has been creative, rather than simply game-playing. He has spent a lot of time working on Armadillo Run (a hard-drive-installed game / toolset) and his contructions have got a lot more complex. He's building multiple interacting geared elevators, rocket-powered carousels and various things. There are also lots of Armadillo Run connections showing up. When he was outside tinkering with his bike, he looked at the spoke pattern and muttered "Ha! I want to try that on Armadillo Run! Bet it'll be strong and light." And whether coincidental or not, he got out the K'nex again this week and began, for the first time ever, inventing things rather than following construction diagrams. He built a solar-powered paddlewheel engine and in the process discovered gear ratios by attaching his 'paddles' to both the big and small wheels in his construction.

He also renewed his interest in computer graphics. He had begun to explore PaintShopPro, a Photoshop-like graphics program, last fall but lost interest as Runescape and such took over his mind. But late this week, after the ISP warning, he began to really delve in. The image above was inspired by a book about the Group of Seven and their paintings that we got at Christmas.

In addition, he's reading voraciously and practicing viola more thoroughly, and feeling better about himself in these areas of his life.

Hurrah for natural computer limits!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

How Much I Want to go Outside

The sun burned through the clouds this afternoon. We had a glorious spring day on Wednesday followed by 6" of snow on Thursday, and rain and sleet on Friday and Saturday. And then, today, slightly warmer temperatures and finally -- the sun! I was in the kitchen making rolls for dinner. The sun glinted on the muck and snow outside the freshly trimmed (yesterday!) windows.

Sophie: "I want to go outside."
Fiona: "Me too."
Sophie: "I want to go outside more than you. Lots more."
Fiona: "I want to go out twelve times more than you."
Sophie: "I want to go out twenty-four times more than you."
Fiona: "I want to go out forty-eight times more than you."

Silence. Sophie looks at me. Looks at Fiona. I look at Sophie.

"Have you been doubling things with her?" I ask.
"No," she replies.
"I wonder how she did that."

We shrug. Was it a flukey choice of number, or did this barely-four-year-old just double twenty-four?

Learning to write

It's funny the things that worry us, and the things that don't. For some strange reason, the fact that Noah (10) rarely if ever wants to write doesn't worry me. Other things worry me, sure, but that one doesn't. Maybe it's because as I was growing up in the school system I had a very strong sense that I knew how to write well in spite of the instruction I got and the assignments that were imposed on me, not because of them. Maybe it's because my father, who was a philosophy professor who spent his weekends grading essays and thesis outlines, firmly believed that "the main cause of poor writing is poor thinking."

For whatever reason, I have a lot of faith in my belief that my son, who almost never writes anything, is developing great writing skills. The family discussions we have, even the silly ones, are encouraging him to think logically and critically about the world around him and about ideas. The books he reads, and more importantly the books I read aloud to him, are growing his vocabulary and his intuitive understanding of grammatical structure and expository style. His interest-driven approach to learning is filling his brain with lots of learning, and yet he's not accumulating any negative baggage about the process of writing since he's not being forced to do it.

As I see it, good writing skills are the fruit of the plant. A plant doesn't produce great tomatoes by practicing making beginner tomatoes as it is building its root system and putting out its first true leaves. It produces great tomatoes by putting its energy into growing strong and healthy roots, shoots and leaves. The great tomatoes will show up in August.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Round and round

Wednesday was Pi Day, and we didn't notice. It was 3.14, at least according to the US convention for numbering dates. Here in Canada one more commonly sees 14 03 2007, but in any event, we didn't really notice. A day later I was reading Karen's LightingTheFires blog and I realized we'd missed the whole deal. Not that I would have purposely set out to create a celebration out of anything other than a sense of humour. My kids have a tendency to run out of the room when they perceive that I have slipped on my secret "Facilitator of Fun Projects Kids can Learn From" hat, so anything other than circular grilled cheese sandwiches would have fallen pretty flat with them.

But here's the funny thing. Lots of pi and circle things happened without us noticing.

At Science Club, or "NOS [Not Only Science] Club" as it should more properly be termed these days, D. had brought some colour mixing demonstrations and activities. One involved drawing coloured dots on circles of card and then rapidly spinning them to enable the eye to see the 'blended' colour. We used the K'nex solar motor. Given the little bit of spring-like sun we were afforded, it worked quite well. They got lovely blurs of purples and browns rather than the discrete colours they had drawn.

Later, my kids used the same motor, attached blank pieces of circular card and spun them, applying felt markers at high speed and ending up with blurred circular colour effects that they named "Amanra's CD's." They then went on their typical weird story-telling rampage, creating some sort of strange scenario whereby Amanra keeps ruining CD players because she cannot for the life of her figure out what is wrong with the beautiful and inexpensive CD's she is creating.

And then, since they were on a circular artwork kick, it was either spirograph or paint in the salad spinner next. We'd been talking about doing that latter for a while, and it seemed an opportune moment. We cut out yet more circles of cardstock, placed them one at a time in our ratty salad spinner, drizzled on blobs of watery acrylic paint, and cranked away. Clean-up could have been worse. We worked quickly and the paint hadn't really started to dry. A rinse, a quick wash with a cloth and a few scrubs here and there with an old toothbrush and we were good to go for salad again. Acrylic paint is non-toxic, right?

Finally, having finished "King of the Middle March" and "Bridge to Terabithia" as readalouds in the last few days, we needed to pick out a new novel for evening reading aloud. Noah and Sophie are enjoying Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" so much that I figured we needn't be restricted to children's novels. So on a whim I pulled down Yann Martel's "Life of Pi." Pi's real name is Piscine Molitor Patel, but when he enters secondary school, he changes it to Pi, as in π, as in 3.14159...

And we didn't notice any of this until March 15th.

Incidentally, when Erin was 6 or 7 and had taken an interest in pi, Noah, then 4, asked what we were talking about. I explained that pi was a special number that mathematicians sometimes used that was part way between 3 and 4. Noah instantly invented a number called cabbage that is "part way between 4 and 5." So stayed tuned for Cabbage Day, sometime in April. Goodness knows what weird coincidences that will bring.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Work ethic

Posted in response to someone on a forum who asked how unschooled kids, who 'get to do whatever they want, whenever they want,' ever learn to get up and deal with the daily drudgery of a job.

As I see it, the reason adults get up and go to work every day is not because it's a habit they've got into, but because they know that this is, on balance, something that is worthwhile for them in that it enables them to contribute to society and to their own well-being and that of the people they care about. Adults are able to think abstractly and say to themselves "yeah, I hate these early mornings and the drudgery of meetings at work, and the politics of my office, but my department does some good work, and sheesh, if I didn't have a job, I couldn't pay the mortgage and put food on the table and enjoy knowing that my kids are well provided for."

So the 'work ethic' that makes Chuck get up for work in the morning has everything to do with his ability to see the longer-term value of the work that he does... in terms of generating income and contributing to community and society. And I don't think it has much to do with the fact that he was made to do his homework before playing outside as a child.

Kids' ability to defer the immediate gratification of momentary pleasures in favour of long-term goals is something that grows gradually. Many would argue with Piaget's and Steiner's didacticism of the psychological stages of childhood, but I think most would agree that the capacity for abstract thought is minimal in very young children and really blossoms out during the teen years. This is part of what maturity is.

So one would expect that the ability to say "I'm gonna do this boring, tedious, prolonged, difficult work because ultimately it will produce some benefits that I value" is something that will evolve during the childhood and teen years as that maturity takes root.

As an unschooling parent I don't believe in imposing the behaviours of a mature, abstract thinker might willingly engage in. Instead, I think that it is my job to support and nurture the growth of maturity and abstract thinking so that those behaviours come to be willingly undertaken. I admit that with my eldest being just 13, I haven't followed this right through the continuum, but I see plenty of evidence of growth in this direction.

My parental 'supporting' and 'nurturing' takes many forms. It means encouraging awareness and appreciation of a living room we've just tidied. It means documenting the early efforts at things (playing the violin, soccer skills, handwriting, painting, whatever) so that in a year or two, there will be hard evidence for my kids as to how their ongoing practice has resulted in impressive long-term progress. It means encouraging persistence at long-term projects like gardening, weaving or building a fort. It means divulging my own long-term goals and struggles along the way. It means encouraging patience and persistence and touching base regularly with hopes and dreams.

Assigning schoolwork and imposing routines and concrete expectations is one approach to building a work ethic. This is an extrinsic approach -- the motivation comes from outside the child, and I guess the hope is that through creating habitual behaviours, the drive will eventually become internal. I've chosen a different path that nurtures the factors that motivate a person from within. I've chosen a path that relies on maturity and the capacity for abstract reasoning, the ability to defer gratification, be patient and do what is necessary for the greater, more long-term good.

For me this latter approach is more productive, since extrinsic expectations tend to result in resistance from my children, the elder two especially -- they "have very strong autonomy needs" (i.e. can be very stubborn and resistent). Yet if I help them hone and work with their own desires and dreams and abilities, if I help them to notice, validate and appreciate their own efforts at patience, diligence and such, there is no resistence; we are on the same side.

It seems to work for us.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wood and clay

Sophie had been asking about a clay class since last summer. We tried to slot her into a class before Christmas, but it happened on the 'wrong' day for our schedule. We tried to create a class for her on another day but couldn't find enough kids. Finally in February the stars aligned and we ended up with the right group of kids on the right day. Sophie eagerly jumped aboard. Erin shrugged and figured she'd sign up too; she'd enjoy the social time at least.

The classes proved to be a seriously fun time with six girls, age 8-13, all of whom were serious about doing some work with clay, and who greatly enjoyed each other's company. A lot of silliness went on, but it didn't get in the way of the work.

The classes lasted a month and we just managed to pick up the stuff from the final glazing. Here are a few of the items. Clockwise from upper left. (1) Sophie's lion, detail of head. This is quite a small figure with the head about the same size as an adult's thumb and was all done freehand with fingers. I'm impressed with the cat-like snout and jaw. (2) Sophie's mug. Alas, it leaks from an invisible gap in the seam at the bottom. She was so disappointed not to be able to drink hot chocolate from it. Suggestions for repair are welcome. Epoxy, perhaps? She is keen to try using the wheel next time she does some pottery so as to avoid the risks inherent in seams. This mug was made from two sheets of clay, much like a tin can, with the cylindrical sheet embossed with stamps the girls made. (3) Erin's bird. I love love love this piece. Photos don't really do it justice. She has created something that so captures the curiosity, vulnerability and pensiveness of a young bird in a nest. (4) Erin's praying nun. There were a few Euwy figures created, and this is one of them, though it doesn't seem to be either of the types mentioned in the article linked. Very simple shape, with almost no surface detail, but there's no doubt what it is. (5) A pinch pot by Erin with some funky rim detail.

Erin enjoyed the class a lot but doesn't feel it's something she wants to pursue at this point. Sophie, on the other hand, fully intends to go back for more classes the next chance she gets. She really loves working with clay.

Noah has been interested in wood-carving for a while. He whittled with no particular aim in mind with his Swiss Army knife for a year or so, and expressed an interest in doing something with his urge to use sharp blades. For Christmas he got this beginners carving set from Lee Valley, and we followed that up with Chris Lubkeman's "Little Book of Whittling". He's been merrily whittling hazelwood boughs on and off during readaloud time for the past couple of months. Mostly he likes the meditative effect of knife on wood, of shaving and shaping. But he has created a couple of useful items, like this beaded campfire hotdog fork. I have commissioned a conducting baton which is gradually taking shape. Where else but in the Slocan Valley would an orchestra conductor use a hand-whittled hazelwood baton?

I love to see my kids making things with their hands. We're really missing the art class the three older ones have enjoyed in the past -- it's not being offered this year. So I'm glad that some crafts are filling the void a little.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Boy oh boy

Txmommy recently asked about the gender mix in our family and how Noah feels being the only boy in our homeschooling family. I went looking for a photo of him doing a 'boy thing' for this post. I looked through the soccer pictures of him aggressively stealing the ball or diving for saves in goal. I looked through photos of him carving wood, climbing trees, diving off the raft into the lake, legs flailing, leaping off picnic tables, using the Dremel to grind symbols into beach-rock 'runes', pictures of him laughing maniacally whilst maneouvering his RC car into dirt piles, throwing things for the dog, swinging like a monkey on the 20-foot rope we have hung between the trees in our yard, driving the snowplow tractor, crouched at the computer playing Runescape with a friend, shooting hoops with the teen boys at homeschool gym day.

But I settled on this one, because this is, at the heart of it, who he is. He is a philosopher. While he loves all the things he does in the physical and social realm, he has a gentle peacefulness within him that shines through. It is always there. We all see it. He senses it. And sometimes, almost inadvertently, like in this photo taken as part of a series depicting the activity of the GRUBS kids at the garden, I capture it with the camera.

Our home is certainly overwhelmingly female in gender. Three sisters, a mom, a female cat and dog ... even our chickens, when we keep them, are laying hens. Noah's dad is the only other male in his home realm, and he doesn't exactly work simple 9 to 5 hours.

But, like age, gender doesn't seem to loom large in our homeschooling family as a defining characteristic. My kids don't view themselves based on age and gender in nearly the same way that most kids seem to. Erin, for example, has three people she would likely consider her most important friends. One is 19 and female, one is 14 and male, and the other 12 and female. The girls in our family are not particularly 'feminine.' While I bake bread and sew, I also split wood and clear snow. Sophie and Fiona enjoy wearing dresses, but they play basketball and climb trees in them. Erin is obviously and delightfully a young woman, but without any of the affectations so many teen girls try on.

When I was a new parent I read "Reviving Ophelia" and felt it to be an incredibly important book about raising girls, a book that would help me be sensitive to the myriad issues that girls face entering adolescence. But as my daughters have grown, the book has seemed less and less relevent. The gender culture stuff hasn't been a part of their lives.

Every year or so I try to soldier my way through "Real Boys," figuring that since I read "Ophelia", I should cover the boy issues through something complementary. I read a chapter or two and enjoy what Pollock has to say, feeling that his points are valid and important, but that the "boy code" simply isn't a part of Noah's realm of experience.

There's no doubt that Noah is a true boy and that there are things about him that result from his Y chromosome that make him different from the girls. But my kids are all unique in so many ways, they are each their own people, and are treated as such, and which differences are gender-based and which are temperament-based, or interest-based, or learning-style-based, or whatever ... it really doesn't matter where the differences come from.

Noah does lots of boy things. His two closest friends outside the family are boys. B. is 14, and is also Erin's friend, but probably plays more with Noah. They see each other at least three or four times a week. P. is 16, a fellow-violist whom Noah identifies with as he would with a big brother. Noah is physically adept with amazing gross-motor intuitiveness. He likes machines, and computers, and things with sharp edges and electricity in them. He likes building, and taking apart. When he is learning something, he needs the big picture first, rather than the background information or the details. He likes power, and he likes speed.

When I think about it, he has lots of contact with other males. We haven't had to make an effort in this direction -- it's just happened naturally. In the last 48 hours, for instance....

  • The phone rings. It's C., wanting to talk Runescape with Noah. They chat for ten minutes or so. Noah spends a few minutes talking to C.'s 18-month-old little brother as well -- very sweet.
  • Homeschool gym. Noah hangs out with four teen boys, though he also plays four-squares with his mom and his two littlest sisters for a while. Mostly he shoots hoops and whacks badminton birdies around with the boys, and talks computer games with them.
  • I teach violin on Friday afternoons. Three of my students are male, and two of them always spend some time playing with my kids after their lessons. Noah is inside and outside with these boys, aged 5 and 14.
  • Quartet rehearsal. Noah's quartet is made up of three boys and a (not-at-all-girlish) girl. The other boys are 10 and 13. Noah has known them as acquaintances for a few years, but they are new friends. Quartet rehearsal and its aftermath are very much social occasions. The kids have a lot of fun. Gross body noises are involved.
  • Noah chats on-line with two (male) friends
  • and there's conversation and other interaction with his dad
There's a lot of male contact that occurs naturally in Noah's life. But honestly, while he tends to form friendships mostly with other boys, he is pretty unaware of gender. He did an art class last year and for two years before that. There was one other boy in the class for the first year. When the participants shuffled and reassembled for the following year, Noah ended up being the only boy. It took him the better part of a year to notice!

In our family-that-has-always-homeschooled, gender culture doesn't seem to play much of a role. The kids cross gender boundaries in their friendships and their play, blissfully unaware of the fact that gender could ever be considered a boundary. Life seems to naturally allow the opportunity for Noah to experience plenty of social contact with other boys. And yet he is not held to the standard of the 'Boy Code' as Pollack calls it. Despite his need for speed and his aggressive soccer-playing, he is a gentle, contemplative soul, empathic and introspective, and would never see himself as "not a real boy" for that.

Lettuce and Dirt

Fiona and I are having a really enjoyable week practicing. We seldom have problems practicing, but over and over again this week she has volunteered "I like this way of practicing. It's really fun."

Here's what's working for her right now. First, the tools of the trade. A ten-sided die and a miniature teacup, made by the older girls' pottery instructor, and given as a gift to Fiona. The die fits perfectly into the teacup. Fiona 'pours the tea' and it falls out and rolls across the floor. When it comes to rest, we see what number is showing. She then turns to the whiteboard. There I'll have written ten practicing tasks. She can now read well enough to show off her reading for me, and reads aloud. Then she comes back, picks up her violin, and works through the task. She chooses whether to do it 2, 4 or 5 times. I choose the point of focus, the posture or technique point that I want her to attend to. One of our frequent technique points these days is "table-top fingers," left-hand fingers that stand up tall and curl over the fingerboard nicely so that the middle phalanx forms a little horizontal "table-top." If they are really good, those fingers, the mini teacup might just come for a visit on her table.

She completes the task, and then heads to the whiteboard to erase that entry. Erasing is great fun for Fiona. She always comments on whether this erasure is tricky or easy or fast or far apart or messy or what-all.

Then she places the die back in the teacup and pours again. As she completes more tasks, there are more and more numbers missing from the whiteboard. If she rolls a number that's already been completed and erased, she can (a) make a crazy face (b) lie down for a rest (c) hug me or (d) just roll again. In practice, she will take one or two quick lie-down or hug breaks, and enjoy pulling a few quick faces, but by the time we have only one or two tasks still left, she is eagerly trying to roll the numbers in question so that she "wins!" and gets to do the last task or two. It's so fun to see her eagerly trying to "win" the privilege of playing the D-sharp exercise from Minuet 2 six times.

Her practicing takes a long time this way, with all the rolling and deciding and re-rolling and hugging and reading aloud and face-making and erasing. What normally gets done in 20 minutes takes up to 40 or 45 minutes. But she loves it -- both the work she's doing and the time it takes.

I've always said that the real advantage of starting children young on an instrument is that it builds the parent-child relationship ... but not until my fourth child has that relationship-building process been such an unrelentingly joyful thing for me and my child. Edmund Sprunger reminds us in his wonderful book for Suzuki parents, "Helping Parents Practice," that "lettuce has dirt." In other words, that in producing this positive growth, in creating this positive experience through music education with a young child, there's some messy stuff that's part of it. I'd always found that to be true in the past. Ain't no dirt on Fiona's lettuce, though!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bye bye buying club

For the past three or four years, my kids have chosen to pool half of their allowances in a common ledger. They called this "Buying Club." I wrote in this post about ownership how their fluid sense of ownership and our family focus on 'responsible custodianship' rather than 'pride in ownership' contribute to comfort in sharing gifts and purchases. They never had difficulties deciding when and how to spend the Buying Club money, or sharing whatever it was after the purchase was made. Most of their joint money went to Playmobil, but there was some that went into an electronics kit and some for some outdoor play equipment and software. I was amazed how natural and comfortable the whole thing was for them. If I'd been asked I would have predicted Buying Club would end up being a source of conflict and hurt feelings. It never did.

For the past year or two their interests have been drifting apart, and the Buying Club money was continuing to accumulate, with no consensus on what it should be spent on. No controversy, really, but there didn't seem likely to be anything much they all wanted equally, so the money had just been sitting there, accumulating for two years. They had over $350.

A couple of weeks ago they all agreed to disband Buying Club. The next question was whether to leave the money there, or to divvy it up, and if so, how, since the contributions have varied in proportion to age. I was amazed that they were very gracious and easy-going about splitting up the cash. They decided that $100 each made sense, with the remainder to Fiona (who hasn't been getting any allowance of her own until this month). I asked the older kids whether they were comfortable with this, and whether they understood that they had contributed more than Sophie (and certainly more than Fiona, who had contributed nothing!) and they said yes. In fact, they said that they weren't entirely sure it was fair that you should get less money just because you're younger, so redistributing some of the money this way made sense. So that was that. Easy decision! Now they're all wealthy individuals.

Erin has spent all her windfall at iTunes, her current addiction. Noah and Sophie, who have
been the family's big(ger) spenders in the past, are sitting on their money. Sophie has iPod dreams, but although she has enough money, she's waiting for now, to see if an iPod will still be as attractive an item in a few months. Fiona is just using her money to help her think about "big numbers" (i.e. >30) and perform small feats of addition as she accrues an extra $2 each week. Her big addiction is clothes -- especially long-sleeved shirts with hoods or pink or both -- and she thinks she might spend some of her money on that some day.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Recital Day

Sunday was recital day in New Denver. Fifteen of the local students, and both their teachers, performed pieces they'd been polishing over the previous couple of months. We had an awesome accompanist drive over from the Okanagan for the weekend. There was a little ad in the local paper, so lots of local people not directly involved in the kids' musical endeavours showed up to hear them.

Fiona played "Long, Long Ago." She's currently polishing Minuet 1, so LLA was a confident well-learned choice for her. She was able to focus on playing with beautiful straight long* bows and on varying her bow speed for the various notes. * long being a relative term, since her bow and violin are sixteenth-sized. She gave a great cue at the start and played with as big and beautiful a tone as her violin will allow. She loved performing, and asked if Sandra (the accompanist) would be back next week, or at least next month, to perform with her again. Alas, Sandra won't be back until the SVI in August.

Sophie played "Seitz Concerto No. 2, 3rd movement". She had done a lot of detail work on this piece over the course of the winter. When it came time to pull all the details together for performance, it didn't happen magically. We realized belatedly that when encouraged to think carefully, Sophie tends to overthink. When it came time to rehearse for performance, she ran into some issues of tempo instability and stumbles that had never happened before. Fortunately some extra practice at home and encouragement to stop thinking and "just play!" got her over the hump pretty quickly. On recital day she cranked out a terrific, stable, confident performance, definitely the most mature and secure performance she's ever done.

Noah had, against all odds, been practicing the Presto movement of the Telemann Viola Concerto in G Major slowly and carefully for the past week or two and it paid off -- both his rehearsal and performance were jaw-droppingly gorgeous. His stylistic sense was bang-on, and he shaped the phrases and terraced his dynamics with such affection and musicality that I was very proud. He came home quite bouyant, despite the fact that he was coping with a massive head cold.

Erin chose to play the Meditation from "Thaïs" by Massanet, a 'safe' choice for her technically, but one where she could turn on a lot of syrupy sentimentality and get all the grey-haired ladies in the audience sniffling appreciatively. She pulled it off very nicely, and turned on her stage presence in a way that just thrills me. To see her playing these days you'd never imagine that she is shy and socially reticent ... she puts herself out there with charisma and smiles and oozes enjoyment and confidence.

Mostly, though, the recital was fun. The kids enjoyed playing. The accompanist was great. The audience enjoyed everything. Every single performer did beautifully; so many important gains were in evidence. It was wonderful to see the entire spectrum of performers, from tot to teen, beginner to advanced, playing for each other and enjoying each others' contributions. The warm social atmosphere of the reception was a treat in itself.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Noun Talk

After today's recital I helped do the last bit of tidying and packing up. The kids, full of reception cookie-and-punch sugar, had gone outside to burn off some energy, then packed their instruments into the van and hung out there waiting for me. When I was ready to drive home I got into the van where they were giggling.

"We've decided to communicate using only nouns," Erin informed me in a quiet aside.

The conversation went something like this.

"Home. Bread. Stomach. Hunger."

"Children. Nouns. Weirdness."



"Store. Milk. Buns. Sloppy Joes."




"Driveway. Dog?"

"Absence. Dog."



"Death? Daddy? Gun?"


(Yeah, the kids don't like our 85-lb. over-eager dog very much.)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Buddha Board

I don't know what it is that makes the Buddha Board so entrancing, but entranced we are. It fell into the midst of family interest in Buddhism, watercolour painting and Japanese script. Perfect. It wasn't cheap, but somehow, for no particular reason, it just cried out to be part of our family. It comes with a simple bamboo brush. We supply the water. The laptop version travels beautifully and flips open like an easel. You dip the brush in water. You paint a few simple strokes. Within a couple of seconds, the wetted strokes turn black. There they hang, for a couple of minutes, in their stark simplicity. And then they begin to fade. Going, going, gone.