Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Colour my Vivaldi

I've been a fan of Cuisenaire rods from way back. Their simple use of colour and length to convey numerical value has led my children to many mathematical discoveries. I think the colour attribute cannot be underestimated -- it enhances the identity and meaning of the rods. A brown is four reds. A dark green is two light greens. The colour is integral to how the rods are remembered, understood and communicated about.

Sophie is psyched to polish up the Vivaldi g minor violin concerto. It's a huge work for an 8-year-old to self-teach. (I confess that she has been doing the majority of her practicing without my help for almost a year now. She's way too young for this, according to the Suzuki party line, and I know she'd be progressing faster if I could be there with her every day, but she does pretty well, and enjoys her practicing more, this way. And I like to think that she's learning some problem-solving skills and diligence that she wouldn't otherwise.)

Anyway, in her lessons she's still doing polishing work on the preceding pieces, and technical work on bow-arm and tone issues. But she's been given permission to work ahead now (truth be told she's been working ahead for quite a while now, but until this week without the official sanction of her teacher) and since she's very much enjoying working at this alone, I thought I'd do my best to help her out without interfering with her sense of independence. I tried a technique that I've used before with older, newly-independent-practicing violin students and it seems to help them deal with big challenges efficiently in manageable chunks.

I photocopied the whole piece (hurray for my photocopier!) and then used scissors to chop it up into logical sections of a few lines. I glued each section onto the centre of a different coloured sheet of construction paper. Above and below and all over the sheet, with arrows pointing to the relevant notes and phrases, I wrote practice suggestions, tips and ideas. I added as much humour as possible so that my ideas wouldn't come across as an attempt to micro-manage and prescribe. Comments like "Oy, yet another 4th finger vibrato note!" or "don't let yourself be won over to the dark side!" and "first, practice 400,000 times with stopped slurs".

Then I hole-punched the construction paper sheets and tied them together in a booklet. The booklet lies flat on the stand, but you can only see one section at once. That's the whole idea. Now the vast first movement is in eight coloured sections, each with its own personality and set of challenges. I can't say for sure whether this will work well for Sophie, though it's been very successful with other students I've tried it on, and I love doing it for myself! Sophie likes the idea, so I think it will likely be helpful.

Lunch in Thailand

We have been getting two (large) unschooling families together about every week to cook ethnic cuisine, focusing on a particular country, region or culture. Last time we explored southeast Asia, with a particular emphasis on Thai spices. We had fun sniffing and tasting our way through curry paste, fish sauce, tamarind paste and the like. With vegetarians in the mix, we avoided the meat and seafood (except for a "contains fish sauce" option on the sauce) but we had a lot of fun and a good meal to boot. Here are three popular menu items from last week:

Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce

1 1/2 cups peanut buetter
3/4 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
3 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1/2 tsp. tamarind paste
1 tsp red chili sauce (more or less to taste)

Combine in blender. Whizz until smooth. Serve as a dipping sauce for salad rolls.

Salad Rolls

2 cups rice or bean vermicelli, cooked & cooled
2 cups of mixed julienned veggies (carrots, sweet peppers, cucumber, scallions, eg.)
2 cups of mung bean sprouts
1 cup cooked cooled salad shrimp (optional)
two dozen rice paper wrappers

Fill a large plate with water. Carefully immerse one rice paper circle in the water. Wait 45-60 seconds until the paper has softened to the pliable but not soggy stage. Carefully remove from water and place on clean work surface near fillings. Load your rice paper with your preferred fillings, in a vertical rectangle area in the middle. Fold up the bottom, then roll up from side to side. Serve with sweet chili sauce or spicy Thai peanut sauce.


Coconut Rice Pudding

4 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 14-oz. cans of coconut milk
2 cups jasmine (fragrant) rice
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 300 F. Butter a casserole dish. Beat eggs & sugar well. Add other ingredients
and mix well. Place in casserole dish. Rest the casserole dish in a larger pan filled with 1" of water and place the whole apparatus in the oven. Bake 20 minutes. Stir. Bake a further 45 minutes.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fun and learning

Someone on one of the TP message boards was claiming that playing learning games like Bingo and making other attempts to "make learning fun" eventually leads to educational underachievement and failure, and the loss of any work ethic. The claim was that "fun" and "learning" are two different things, that learning is grunt work that you do first, and fun is what can result afterwards when you've finished with the learning.

I disagree strongly with this dichotomy. My kids have learned tons while engaged in pursuits that are fun. The hard work of learning can be instrinsically enjoyable, particularly when it is being done in a context that is meaningful to the child and led by the child's desires and interests. In the past three weeks Noah has learned to build websites from scratch using HTML and javascript code. He learned by doing, and he had a blast. Learning is not necessarily a bitter pill that has to be swallowed in order to get to the fun stuff later.

I think an important issue was being raised, though. In a nutshell when we assume that learning is a bitter pill, and thus we always sugar-coat with games and gimmicks it to make it palatable, we risk doing three things. First we risk distracting our kids from the fact that they're learning. I think it's important for kids to be aware of the learning they're doing, because it helps them see the deeper value in what they're doing and to get a sense of accomplishment from it. Second, we are implicitly sending the message that "no one in their right mind would want to do this work without the sugar-coating on it." Or that "learning is inherently distasteful, and needs to be dressed up as something else." It's not, as I pointed out in my paragraph above, though many people grow up thinking that it is thanks to their experiences in school and elsewhere. Thirdly, we can create the educational equivalent of sugar junkies, kids who become dependent on the entertainment value of the fun and games and simply can't maintain their focus or attention without the gimmicks.

I believe that good education uses games and gimmicks judiciously so as to avoid the three risks I outlined. Using them sometimes, when they're an extra tool needed to help a learner over a hump, is just fine, in my book, though it helps if the learner is complicit in the decision to opt to use them. And I believe that good education focuses on the thing Noah had when learning HTML -- a meaningful context for the learning and a child-led interest-based pathway to and through it. With those things in place children will appreciate the intrinsic value of learning -- and enjoy it, without all the window-dressing. Learning will not be disguised in fun, it will be fun in and of itself.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fine French wine

I don't quite know how or why I formed this opinion, but I decided quite a long time ago that it made sense to help my children learn to drink alcohol. I don't want them to learn their drinking habits from teens partying secretly away from their parents, or when they first move away from home. I don't want alcohol to be a tool in aid of adolescent conniving and rebellion, nor do I want my kids entering adult life without any prior guidance and experience in responsible drinking.

The law where we live (as in virtually all Canadian provinces) states that minors can be served alcohol by their parent or guardian in a private home or residence. I always assumed that sometime during their teenage years we'd be offering our kids occasional drinks. We certainly tolerated toddlers helping themselves of sips of beer in good humour, and we do allow the kids to drink tea, decaf coffee or an occasional cup of the regular coffee. And we've never outright refused to serve the kids wine; they've just never asked. So there's some context to next week's Ethnic Cooking Club event that features French cuisine.

Ethnic Cooking Club is just two families with a whole whack of kids between us, and we get together once every week or two to explore a little of the culture and cuisine of a particular nation or ethnic group. Next week is France. Today I mentioned to the other mom, who is definitely a kindred spirit in most aspects of parenting, that our family was hoping to prepare Crêpes Suzette, with flaming cointreau, which would of course burn off the alcohol, mostly. I wanted to make sure she'd be okay with that. She said that of course she would. She also joked that she was having trouble brainstorming French dishes because every time she envisioned a French meal, she got visions of fine French wine, and the wine kept distracting her from the food.

"Kids drink wine with meals in France," I said. "It would be authentic."

She got a wicked twinkle in her eye. "Would you be okay with that?"

"Sure," I said, returning the twinkle. "I wonder if we could use one of the kids' SelfDesign Learning Allowance accounts to pay for a bottle of nice Merlot?"

I was kidding about using the school money, but neither of us was kidding about the wine. Not a lot of social studies programs for middle schoolers include wine-tasting, I'd wager, but with homeschooling, anything goes. The kids think this is positively a hoot.

Werewolves in their spare time

A couple of months ago the kids re-discovered the camcorder. We share it with my mom, so it doesn't always live here, but one night it was here, and the kids noticed it, and were in a particularly crazy creative mood. They figured out the low-lux feature, got out the dress-up clothes, put them on parts of their bodies that they weren't meant for, and recorded each other dancing, howling and generally hamming it up. The resulting video was christened "What Werewolves Do on Their Day Off."

Now we've just finished installing a firewire card on one of our computers, so that our camcorder can talk to the computer and to the video-editing software therein. Noah is having a blast pairing up "Werewolves" with freaky music and hilarious titles, cross-fades and other transitions. He's suggested that this should be an undocumented bonus feature on an otherwise serious DVD of musical performances.
video

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Perfectionism strategies

Erin 2003
Erin practising piano, 2003, age 9

I've written about perfectionism before. I have to say that maturity has worked wonders with the most perfectionistic of my children, and I really don't have to think about this as an issue much any more. But I was thinking today again about specific strategies that have proved helpful to us "in the moment," whether dealing with music practicing, handwriting issues or the challenge of building a 3-D paper sculpture.

The thing I've found the most helpful with my extreme perfectionists has been to help them set very specific "imperfection expectations" before attempting a task. For instance, if we're going to work on the first phrase in a new violin piece, I'll say "This isn't the sort of thing kids get on the first try. You'll be making some mistakes. How many mistakes are you willing to make today? How many good tries shall we shoot for?" A perfectionist will be shooting for mastery on the first try, but will usually intellectually appreciate that it's going to take a few tries. By putting the focus on "five good tries" and on willingly accepting four "mistakes", I've had some success breaking down my kids' expectations that they'll master something on the first try. General platitudes like "mistakes help us learn" don't work with my kids very well because they still know that the aim is to get past mistakes to mastery, and they focus too singlemindedly on the mastery. They need help articulating specific expectations about mistakes, like "today I am willing to accept seven mistakes on this math page."

Another strategy that has been helpful has been to encourage my kids to actively monitor their emotional state -- their level of anxiety, frustration and anger. When perfectionists get anxious, they see only one solution to mounting frustration -- mastery! If they can learn to recognize small levels of frustration and anxiety before the anxious feelings get so overwhelming that they can no longer access their coping mechanisms, they'll do much better at de-escalating. We used a colour scale to monitor feelings (I actually drew it out like a thermometer on a paper plate), from "cool blue" through "intent green" to "worried yellow" to "frustrated orange" to "the scary red zone". I'd encourage my child to assess his or her feelings after every try of a piano rhythm, or every time he/she reached for the eraser when drawing, or after every word when printing. Our aim was to intervene when feelings nudged into the yellow realm, long before they hit the orange or red area. Intervention was anything from humour to a snack to a bit of physical activity or a "time in chat" or another form of break.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Overnight adventure

My littlest muffin is pretty outgoing at times, but her umbilical cord is still pretty short. She will talk to almost anyone, but she likes to have her mom nearby. Only rarely has she ever been separated from her parents, and on those occasions she's always been with a sibling or two, and she's almost always been at home. She's never been away from home without siblings, and almost never without a parent. It was only about six months ago she stopped breastfeeding. Most nights she still ends up in her parents' bed. At every personal slight or bump she needs a hug and cuddle. She always wants to come with me if I have to run an errand, or on the half-day trips to Nelson for Erin's piano lesson. She likes to be close to me, my little one. And she loves physical contact. When she joins me in the family bed at night, she invariably wraps all her limbs around me, tight.

So imagine my surprise when about three weeks ago she decided that she wanted to go and spend the night at her grandmother's. I'm not sure where she got the idea. The older kids used to do an annual pre-Christmas sleepover at grandma's, but that hasn't happened in almost 2 years and Fiona clearly had no recollection of that, because she thought she was the first to ask for such an date. She was tenacious with her idea. She brought it up many times with me, and persistently with her grandma.

Grandma had a trip away, then we were away, and then Fiona got a cold. We kept putting it off. But finally this morning, with her cold tapered off into just some sniffles, she woke up and packed her backpack and announced that today was the day.

After supper I drove her down to grandma's. She suggested I could come as far as the door with her, or maybe come in for a minute, but then it would be time for me to leave so she could get on with the sleepover adventure. I said "maybe I'll stay for a couple of minutes to make sure you're feeling okay about everything." She said "well, you don't have to see how I'm feeling, because I'll be feeling fine." Such confidence!

She waltzed in with her bedraggled, too-small backpack with the broken strap. I watched as she unpacked to show off all the treasures she'd brought. She'd brought her toothbrush, a comb, two hair elastics, some lip balm, pyjamas, a tiny night light, a cuddly toy and a book. Pretty good packing for a 4-year-old, completely unaided. (She looked so sweet that immediately upon arriving home I ordered her a lovely on-sale Hanna Andersson backpack set with some of those curiously strong Canadian dollars.)

She sent me off. She had plans for "drawing, a snack, a bath, a game of cards and a story." I half-expected a call at 10:15 saying that she'd like my company overnight in the guest bedroom. But it's past midnight now, and no call. I guess her confidence was more than bold intentions. Although I never would have imagined it was so, she seems to be ready for this big jump in independence. Who'd have guessed?

Well, apparently she knew perfectly well that she was ready. I think when children are not pushed towards independence before they're ready, they know exactly when and how to lead the process.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Screen-printing

Sophie has been wanting to try screenprinting for ages. Today we started working together on a screen for our Ethnic Cooking Club. We'll do these on fabric eventually, but today we tried our hand at printing on paper. First we did a paper print by cutting a circle out of a bit of freezer paper. We printed in blue for the earth's water. Next we painted the image we wanted to print on the silk using drawing fluid (shown right). The earth's water was left empty so that the blue would show through. After that we applied screen filler, and then washed out the drawing fluid with cold water. We'll try printing tomorrow. If we're happy with this screen we'll save it for use on fabric and order up some fabric dye as soon as possible.

For some reason the prospect of making a series of identical prints appeals to both me and Sophie. There's such order in it, I suppose.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Time travel moment

This morning we had one of those moments when a few things intersected and I suddenly thought "holy moly, my life is so different from what I would have imagined 15 years ago." I felt like we needed a tourist sign at the top of our driveway saying "Living History Site."

Our friends / neighbours / unschooling sidekicks dropped by. They were picking up two hens. We''re getting so many eggs, and we know they're short on hens, so we'd offered them a couple of our red rock crosses. So there we were by the chicken coop, chasing the hens, checking for eggs, and I was passing them a dozen of our surplus eggs as well. And they were passing us a gallon of fresh raw milk from their cow. And a container of cream. And meanwhile the kids were all a few feet away watching Chuck in his leather apron pinging away on the anvil at some red-hot steel in the blacksmithy. The hens were clucking and cackling. The kids were chatting and giggling together. For a moment it seemed we could have been 19th century neighbours.

Then I noticed the pickup truck in the driveway and the computer screen glowing through the window of the house.

We made butter, yogourt and kefir today with the milk and cream. The cream got shaken up in a simple Rubbermaid shaker by various family members for 10 or 15 minutes until the butter and buttermilk separated. The buttermilk got decanted off (above). Then we rinsed the butter in fresh cold water. We chose not to salt our butter, so next I pressed it with a dinner knife to shape it into a solid mass and squeeze out any lingering water. (You can do this with fresh store-bought whipping cream too if you don't have a neighbourly cow.)

Finally I packed the butter into our butter bell (right). I'm in love with my butter bell. It keeps butter fresh, protected from cats and other critters, and at exactly the right consistency for spreading. It's a two-part contraption. The outer pot has about a third of a cup of water in the bottom of it. The inner pot gets packed with butter and is then inverted into the outer pot so that the water acts as a sort of protective moat. If you are desperate to have your own butter bell, you can order one, along with any of hundreds of lovely hand-picked books, from Chinaberry Books, one of my favourite on-line retailers.

Speaking of inanimate objects I love, I phoned my camera today. It is patiently sitting in Vancouver waiting for a part and expects to be home within 2 weeks. It misses me, I think. The feeling is mutual.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Work ethic, the sequel

When I wrote last May about Erin's year of being turned tightly inward, I omitted any mention my inner angst over the fact that she seemed to be doing nothing at all. I didn't mention it because I was busy telling myself to trust her, to let her spend the time she needed growing into her new practically-an-adult self. I was busily hushing up that nagging voice in the back of my head that was telling me she was going to end up an anti-social lazy slob. I didn't really believe that little voice, but there's no doubt it was there.

Also last spring I wrote, in my "Work Ethic" post: "... 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."

Did I believe it? I hoped it, that's for sure.

Erin is spending less time in her cabin lately, though when she's in the house she's not exactly a highly interactive person. The photo above is quintessential Erin. Hunkered down with music on the headphones and a book or the laptop. I really don't have a clear idea of what she's doing on the laptop, or what music she listens to, but I am comfortable trusting her. She's a smart kid who has good instincts and makes good decisions, and she doesn't live in a bubble of naïveté. If she makes a few poor choices they won't be big problems and she'll learn from them.

But she isn't going to end up an anti-social lazy slob, I know that now. That work ethic, the one that I told myself would blossom as my kids matured, is showing up in spades. These days it's all pouring out in musical directions. Since yesterday afternoon she's done:

Violin practicing (2 hours), piano practicing (1 3/4 hours), orchestra rehearsal (1 1/2 hours), focused viewing of DVD performance of upcoming repertoire (1 hour), ethnic cooking club (3 hours), violin practicing (2 hours), piano practicing (2 hours).

Her days are not full from dawn to dusk. She has loads of down time to surf, write, read and listen to music. But 7 3/4 hours of practicing in the space of about 30 hours? On top of other musical activities? For no other reason than that she loves the repertoire she's trying to master, and wants to improve her playing as much as possible from one lesson to the next? There's a lot of maturity driving a pretty strong work ethic.

In August I declared a 3-month moratorium on obsessive hyper-analytical blog posts about Erin's musical issues, and I've made it half way. But I wanted to take a minute to revel in the fact that things are going very very well indeed right now. As I told J., Erin's new teacher's husband, over dinner last weekend, I think that being left high and dry without a violin teacher last spring was possibly exactly what Erin needed. All her life, poor kid, it's just been assumed that she'd be a violin student. Sure, she liked playing violin, but it had just always been there as a part of her life, rather than being a choice, a commitment, a decision. Maybe it's really good for someone like her to be handed a situation where she has to discover for herself whether she really wants to be doing it.

Apparently she does.

First blue egg

Oh my goodness, I'd almost given up hope, but finally, finally one of our Ameraucanas has come through in the laying department. I think it must be Toy -- she was showing a fair bit of interest in the nest-boxes a couple of days ago and I had started to get hopeful again about someday seeing a blue egg. Our other hens, born the same day, have been laying for five weeks already, and I'd been seriously considering starting to do workups on the Ameraucanas for infertility.

The kids, even Noah and Erin, who much of the time just tolerate their mother's interest in living a simpler, closer-to-the-source kind of life, were thrilled. I was so excited I almost drove to my mom's to borrow her digital camera. Then I remembered that the camcorder she and I jointly own, which is currently residing at our place, has the ability to snap stills too. So I pulled out the manual, followed the directions, managed to capture to the piddly SmartCard we'd never used before, and upload this photo.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two and a half

What kind of a four-year-old misunderstands the following question in a math workbook:

1/2 of ___ = 5

and answers

2 1/2

without missing a beat? Sometimes her mistakes are the smartest things!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Mind the gaps

Someone was talking recently about unschooling her kids, but having to 'watch for gaps' in case the kids ever wanted to go to school. Whether one needs to watch for gaps, let alone fill them, is a whole other discussion, but that got me thinking about what we consider to be educational gaps. I'm pretty sure that when homeschooling parents worry about gaps, they're worrying about things like "what if he never learns about Roman numerals?" or "she might never learn long division" or "what if he gets to his first job interview and draws a blank when his prospective boss asks him for three adjectives to describe himself, because he doesn't know what an adjective is?"

I had a friend in medical school who was a bright guy, affable, good sense of humour and had led a pretty well-balanced life. He'd gone to a good high school and done very well, was involved in sports and music, had gone on to university and done even better academically, got into medical school and learned pretty well there too. In third year we started our full-time clinical rotations. Mike had a car, like most of my classmates, as we had rounds at insane hours of the morning before public transit was running, in hospitals in far corners of the city. For a couple of years Mike drove his car around. One day his engine seized. He had it towed to a garage. The mechanic asked him what he was doing when it stopped running, whether there had been any warning signs, when was the last time the oil had been checked and changed, that sort of thing.

Mike's response was a befuddled "You're supposed to check the oil?"

See, now that's a gap. While Mike was off at school all those years, his parents were dropping their cars off for oil changes. Mike was out of the mainstream of daily adult life, in school, and no one noticed he hadn't learned this critical fact of automobile ownership -- that you need to check the oil.

So that leads me to think what sorts of gaps schoolkids the ages of mine might have. I wonder if a typical 8- or 11-year-old would know these sorts of things:
  • how to change a diaper and participate with a baby in Elimination Communication
  • how to package parcels for risk-free shipping in ways that minimize cost
  • how to make Nanaimo bars that will make anyone want to be your friend for life
  • how to start with natural raw ingredients and end up with a loaf of whole-grain bread
  • how to grow a garden
  • safe food preservation and water-bath canning
  • the embryology of the hand
  • how to build and tend a bonfire
  • how to change a tire
  • what kind of supervision a 3-year-old needs in a playground, at the beach or in a parking lot
  • how to create a hyperlink in HTML
  • how to sight-sing and improvise a harmony line
  • how to check a circuit-breaker
  • how to trouble-shoot a malfunctioning networked printer
  • how to retrieve a comb from a toilet trap
  • how to hem jeans
  • why Schubert died so young
  • how to run a snowplough, lawn tractor and a snowblower
  • how to design and organize a kitchen renovation
  • spreadsheet use in the administration of a large buyers' co-op
  • accounting procedures for non-profit organizations
  • the name of the elements numbered 1-89 on the periodic table
  • how to write a grant application
  • how to shop for furniture and appliances
  • the name of every Norse, Greek and Egyptian god and goddess
We all have our gaps. What's more important, knowing what Roman numerals are all about, or that you need to check the oil?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Snowflake fractal

Here's a fractal Sophie and I worked on together, guided by the "Calculus by and for Young People" program we've been dabbling in. If you click to go to the full-size image, you'll see that we actually began the insane task of drawing in the 6th iteration in the lower left corner.

Sophie hypothesized that the series that defined both perimeter and area of the fractal through successive iterations would diverge. In fact, we were able to work out that only the perimeter diverged, while the area converges.

You can see that I have been having fun with the "scan" function on my new copier.

Copier rapture

About 18 months ago I talked my mom into buying a photocopier. I said "in a couple of months, you'll wonder how you ever lived without one." I was right.

But I was still copierless myself. I knew it was only a matter of time. I do so many things that would benefit from copier access -- Valhalla Summer School of Fine Arts stuff, my violin teaching, homeschooling, music arranging, directing the community orchestra, and so on. But I had a functional laser printer already, and a scanner, and a copier was an extravagance I couldn't quite justify.

One of our printers stopped functioning and we had to do some swapping around. The "workhorse" printer that ended up being our main one needed a new cartridge. And my 8-year-old scanner had finally given up the ghost. A friend had to drive an hour from a town 'over the hump' to get me some order forms for our bulk fruit & nut order that needed to go out that day, because I didn't have a fax machine.

So in Calgary I went out shopping for a printer cartridge, knowing full well that I was ready to be pushed over the edge on the copier front instead. It was just a matter of the right machine and the right price. I had my heart set on the Canon ImageClass MF4150, the newer version of the one I talked my mom into buying. The regular price had dropped from $349 to $299. If that printer cartridge was over $100, I was SO going to buy a copier instead.

The copier was on sale for under $200. I couldn't get my credit card out fast enough. I am one happy camper. Additionally I bought three Staples Easy Buttons. These are a sure hit for violin-teaching and home practicing. Practice a problem passage as many times as it takes until it starts to feel easy. Then, hit the Easy Button. A cheerful voice says "that was easy!!"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Second Calgary trip

Our second trip to Calgary occurred this week. We headed out Thursday afternoon and drove the majority of the way, holing up in an empty, inexpensive, and completely adequate motel in Canmore (an hour from Calgary) around 9 pm. The weather was great, and until the sun set the views of the Rockies were fantastic -- clear, blue skies with puffy white clouds, tons of fresh snow on the mountains, but a blaze of birch and cottonwood yellow amongst the pine, spruce and cedar of the lower elevations. The kids talked and read until they got bored, then put a LOTR movie on the laptop and watched that. Before it was over, we were at the motel.

We did the usual deal of a bit of Discovery Channel, some packed-along leftovers for a very late dinner, and then some bedtime story reading aloud.

The next morning we had breakfast and drove the last hour to Calgary. We went directly to the zoo. The weather was beautiful again and we spent a great half-day exploring about two thirds of the zoo. We had a long up-close encounter with the new baby Asian elephant Malti and everyone especially enjoyed the spider monkeys. This was our first time at this zoo. We liked it a lot, especially the fact that the walking distances were small and the animals easy to see -- in comparison to our "gold standard" in zoos, the Toronto Zoo. Unfortunately, but of these are due to the fact that in Calgary the animals have much less acreage at their disposal in their exhibits, which is a little sad. They're not overtly cramped, but I kept thinking back to Toronto and remembering all the space those animals have to live in. Ah well, we had a great time.

Then we headed to T. & J.'s for Erin's lesson. Erin & T. worked together for about an hour and a half before supper, then another hour after supper. T was amazed by all the work Erin had done and really raved about the progress she had seen in the space of a month. In the last month since her last lesson, Erin has polished the Kreisler Praeludium & Allegro, renewed the Beethoven F major Romance, worked up two Kreutzer studies (one easy, one hard), learned the Gavotte en Rondeau from the Bach E Major Partita and learned the first movement and cadenza of the Haydn C Major. The Kreisler is mostly set aside for now, and the new addition is the Preludio from the same Bach Partita. Erin loved her lesson(s) and is looking forward to making something out of the new teaching she's got.

We ate take-out together, and finished up with the Nanaimo bars Sophie had made at home and brought along for the occasion. All the kids are feeling very comfortable at J & T's now. When J. helped himself to one of the scoops of ice cream that Fiona had deemed "too many" on her plate, she grinned and said "tonight you're my daddy!" and wasn't the slightest bit self-conscious about it. We had just been explaining how Chuck is always good to finish whatever Fiona can't.

We played some family games ("Smart Mouth" was a new one the kids especially liked), Fiona performed her "Handel Bourrée" for J & T, and after a little bit of hanging out (but not much, because it was getting late!) we headed to the motel we'd checked into that afternoon. There was time for a short swim, then story, bedtime reading, a bit of internet and a late bedtime.

Today we drove home in more glorious weather. Easy, quick driving ... 7 and a half hours almost to the minute.

With the late-ish start on Thursday, I realized that we could do this same trip after I get off work on the in-between weeks, when Chuck is off call, and Noah and Sophie could stay home with him. They'd only need to be "home alone" during the 4-5 hours he's at work on Friday (and he's only 5 minutes away even then). Well within their capabilities. I mentioned this possibility to them. Surprisingly neither jumped at it. Sophie decided she'd rather come to Calgary. Noah's not sure what he'll decide. So all in all it seems like they're not suffering too badly from the trips.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Back in the swing

We're back in the swing of activities now, I guess. Erin's been doing community choir for a few weeks. This morning we made our first trip of the year to Nelson for weekly piano lessons. This afternoon the other three kids had their violin or viola lessons. This evening violin group class started, and next week it'll be community orchestra. The following week Erin's (new!) student quartet starts, and Noah's student quartet gets back to regular rehearsing. And Erin's piano teacher is teaching an exchange student from Japan who happens to live in New Denver, and is going to put the two girls together on some challenging four-hands piano duet repertoire. Erin is thrilled about this -- on the way to her lesson she was bemoaning her lack of contact with other advanced pianists.

Tomorrow I teach, then there's a farewell potluck for Chuck's colleague of 13 1/2 years. Thursday the kids and I head off to Calgary for another set of violin lessons for Erin. Chuck is back at work full-time, and my clinic work kicks in again next week.

In the works are a few new activities. We're going to try an ethnic cooking club with a group of local homeschoolers once a week. (First up: Thai food.) Sophie is hoping to join a children's choir that may be starting up locally.

And while it's not really in the works, Fiona is agitating for piano lessons. I'm not sure what to do about that. There's no obvious choice for a teacher for her. If she were 7 or 8, it would be a different matter. Somehow she's convinced she should be allowed to start lessons after her 5th birthday. We may have to "homeschool for piano," though I confess I don't have the experience and expertise I should.

Monday, October 08, 2007

If I had a camera

If I had a camera I'd post a picture of my living room. It's spotless. Really. There are no bits of yarn scattered all over the floor. Nope, every math workbook we own is not lying in a metastasizing heap beside the hearth. Fiona has not left two pairs of tights wadded up beside the couch and there is no quilt in a heap, no whiteboard and set of markers scattered near the bookshelves. The mantel is dusted, as are the tops of the bookshelves if I could see them underneath the heaps of books and papers, and there's no unharvested laundry hanging from the airer over the hearth.

If I took a photo of the kitchen you'd see absolutely no evidence of yesterday's (Canadian) Thanksgiving mayhem. My viola would not be lying on the side counter, nor would a book on hemp bracelets be on the kneading counter. None of my houseplants show the slightest sign of drought stress, and all the recycling has been tidily removed from the counters and taken to the bins in the carport. The floor is evidently beautifully swept, and shiny clean because I have most certainly washed it since August. (I have so!!!)

If I could I'd take a photo of my kids, and you'd see that they are all clean and well-kempt. Fiona's three shades of pink and brownish-pink all match, they really do. Everyone's hair is shiny and neatly combed, especially Sophie's long straight blond mane. It is most certainly not looking anything like a string mop. Erin's pants are not way too short, you'd see that in the photo too. And Noah has had a haircut and looks ever so smart, and he is not wearing the clothes he put on two days ago after I shamed him into changing out of his concert black-and-white attire which he also wore to as pyjamas for a couple of nights. If Fiona took a picture of me you'd see me to be the epitome of personal grooming, and you'd see that it did not jump out of the shower this morning and head out to an all-day music school board meeting without managing to locate a comb or brush.

Really, truly. I'd show you the photographic evidence if I could.

I have to say that not having a camera has its advantages.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

We won!

To put some context to it, you need to understand a little about my kids' attitude to competition. They are beyond being non-competitive. They are in fact quite anti-competitive. Noah refused to play soccer this year because the games are competitive and, while the winning and losing with his team during the previous season was something that he could pretty much choose to ignore, he found it very very difficult to watch his team-mates get all riled up over wins and losses. Erin has thus far chosen to totally avoid auditions and competitive music festivals. All the kids have a tendency to turn family games into co-operative endeavours rather than win-lose situations. Our Suzuki group classes often involve activities and exercises that nurture peer support and absolutely discourage any comparative, competitive focus. At home we've had long discussions about awards and recognition programs and the ethics and value (or not) of awards -- and it's clear their anti-competitiveness runs deep.

Last night six of the most advanced local Suzuki students (my three plus three others) plus my mom and I performed as part of the "Voices for Hospice" fund-raiser event in our area. Unlike most such concerts, ours isn't totally or mostly choral. Being a rural community with a population of a thousand or so depending on how you count, an event such as this requires contributions from lots of different performers. The community choir (including Erin) sang three numbers to open the event, but the bulk of the concert was made of of a series of small ensemble or solo acts. The Suzuki string group was the final such act. The music was terrific and all very appropriate to the occasion -- contemplative, beautiful, mildly spiritual in mood, though not overly sombre. There was Fauré, Satie, Elgar, some wistful folk songs, spirituals, flute, cello and piano contributions.

But we had the kids. They played a lovely three-part arrangement of "Londonderry Air" (Danny Boy) and then the old stand-by, Pachelbel's Canon in D. The group wore their white and black attire and played with obvious affection and joy. They blended beautifully, with dynamics and phrasing and a mature, robust sound. I think it's the best they've ever played. And the audience loved them. Two bows, a bit of a standing ovation, and many many enthusiastic comments and compliments afterwards.

After the reception, we headed home. The kids are always especially boisterous and witty after a performance, especially a successful fun one like this. They spilled out of the van and into the living room, where their dad was waiting.

"How'd it go?" he asked.

"Really well," said one kid.

"We won," said another, giggling.

"Yeah, we won!" the others agreed, laughing. I couldn't help it. I laughed too, shaking my head. Yup, they did win, they sure did.

Imagine an image

I am totally and utterly camera-less right now. My beloved Nikon digital SLR is off in the netherworld of Nikon Service Canada. ETA unknown, but I'm mentally bracing myself for a couple of months. This is what I always do when I'm distressed about something: I imagine the worst, work my way into dealing with the worst, and then I am usually happily surprised when things turn out a little better than that.

I fell back on the 1998 Canon Powershot. Its one redeeming feature was that it fit in a Ziploc bag, though I really needed a Ziploc bag to keep track of all it's falling-off and falling-out bits. The main control dial had long ago ejected the little disc that enumerated the functions, so one had to work by guess and feel and memory. The battery compartment door was broken, held in place with duct tape, but eventually just missing, meaning that one had to insert the battery and press it into contact with a thumb while taking a picture (1.2 seconds after the shutter release is pressed) and then hold it in while the image is being processed and written to the memory card. But still, it was a camera, and better than nothing. So I took it camping, and then thought I hadn't taken it camping because it got hidden under a brick of cheese, and didn't take any pictures, but at least I still had the thing. But then the display screen started showing snow, and then nothing, and then the camera no longer turned on at all. So it's gone.

And my Pentax ME Super manual focus SLR, my workhorse film camera from way back when, well, the demise of its shutter release mechanism was what sent me looking for a digital SLR in the first place two years ago.

So I am utterly camera-less. And the funny thing is that I'm finding it really hard to blog. Even if I have something I want to write about, I find it hard to really dig in and get the flow of words started without that left-justified image at the top of my post. How pathetic.

We spent the better part of today at the GRUBS Harvest Festival. There were all sorts of delicious images there waiting to be captured -- children around the bonfire, 4-year-olds and 15-year-olds romping together in silly games, children working in teams of two cranking the apple press, more kids chopping vegetables, smiling and sampling grape and pear juice, stirring the soup, engaged in deep conversations in little nooks in the woods nearby.

But you'll have to imagine those images, because the whole time they were flitting by in real time I was mourning the fact that I couldn't hold on to them.

But here is a little one from last year, just for good measure. This year was much the same, though with less sun, and kids all one year older, stronger, smarter and more capable. Funny how that works.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I'm thinking of a number

The big kids all played this at some stage too. Fiona wanted to give it a try today while she and I were taking an extra trip to Nelson. It goes like this:

"I'm thinking of a number that's bigger than 5 and smaller than 10."

"Is it 7?"

"Too small."

"Is it 8?"

"Yep! You got it!"

The variations are endless and when the parent is doing the "thinking of a number" the game can be used to stretch a child's understanding and interest into new areas. I've been known to try to "trick" my kids with fractions, negative numbers and irrational numbers. When played as a "multiple guess" game it's a great one for helping kids develop rational strategies based on probability. For instance, if the number is known to be between 50 and 100, 75 is a good guess, while 51 is not. It often takes kids practice to get the hang of that sort of problem-solving.

Today we played some "multiple guess" rounds, but I also tried pushing towards the limits of Fiona's conceptual understanding to see where those limits are. Among the questions she got:

"I'm thinking of a number that's how old Daddy will be in two years."

"I'm thinking of a number that's half Sophie's age."

"I'm thinking of a number that's two after 12 on a clock face."

"I'm thinking of a number that's one less than 0."

"I'm thinking of a number that's how many days there are in two weeks."

"I'm thinking of a number that's how many days there are in two weeks if you don't count the Saturdays."

"I'm thinking of a number that's double 8."

"I'm thinking of a number that's one less than two tens."

Among those she didn't get:

"I'm thinking of a two-digit number that's less than 11." (I don't think she really understands the difference between digits and numbers.)

"I'm thinking of a number that's halfway between 3 and 7."

Fiona is positively driven in the area of math lately. She's pouring just as much passion into this as she did into violin last spring and into painting through last winter. She's now almost three-quarters of the way through the Miquon Orange book, and this isn't half the math she does -- she's always peppering people with questions and announcing numerical relationships she's been working out. I thought Sophie was wild about math at this age, but she wasn't half as obsessed as Fiona.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Digging into HTML

Click on image for Rocky Hall FanSiteI've written before about Noah's interest in Lugaru and his ability to get himself taken seriously by fellow geeks on game development message boards. Earlier this week someone he knows on the Lugaru message board suggested he create a FanSite for the game. He took the suggestion to heart -- his wheels began turning.

Noah is no stranger to websites. For a couple of years he's been doing rudimentary website work using PostNuke's content management system that I set up for him and his siblings for their Euwy World website. He also started a blog a couple of months ago. But that type of web publishing relies on a user interface which makes the process awfully user-friendly. There are ready-made templates and you just insert your content and click a few things. When it came to actually understanding the code that was behind the formatting and templates, Noah was as much in the dark as most of the rest of internet users.

So two days ago he told me that he thought he would like to run with his buddy's suggestion and create a Lugaru FanSite from scratch, "not like a blog -- building it the way I want, from nothing." And I was suddenly really grateful for all the HTML-based web-publishing I've done over the past decade and a bit. I knew that working with the HTML code would come easily to Noah, and I knew I'd be able to help him over most stumbling blocks.

We looked for a simple HTML editor with a built-in browser preview and downloaded EasyHMTL, a piece of bare-bones freeware. I took about 5 minutes to explain to him basic coding of tables and to type in a generic image tag and parameters. I showed him a couple of tricks (eg. temporarily setting a table border of 1, so you can see your cells outlined) and headed off to make supper.

He set to work, capturing and editing screen shots, using PaintShopPro to create menu buttons and title graphics. About an hour later he called me back to ask how to create a "mouseover" effect on menu buttons. I confess I don't know javascript, but I do know how to copy, paste and modify other people's scripts from their pages, so I quickly copied in a script and showed him which parts he had to modify and replace. He merrily carried on working away. (Little did I know exactly what mouseover effect he was working on -- you'll have to check it out for yourself!)

By this morning he had a functional website called Rocky Hall ("Rocky Hall is sort of the White House of Lugaru" he tells me). He's cribbed some of the text content from elsewhere, but still... I'm amazed. He had absolutely no help on the graphics, or on the menu organization, and only 15 or 20 minutes of help, total, with the HTML and file management. If he could only have seen my first attempts at HTML-based website publishing!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sophie's Calculus

A few weeks ago I ordered a copy of "Calculus by and For Young People". I had hoped to get it in book form, but it turned out to be the CD version of it that I got -- the product description said it was a book, so it was misleading. It also isn't the main book, it's the worksheets book. That's actually the bigger, thicker book (300-plus pages, rather than less than 200 for the text), and it's the one with the activities and exercises all nicely laid out, so I guess if I'd known that and had decided to order only one of the two components, I would have chosen this part. But I think I want the text too. I don't want to pay shipping if I don't have to, so I've got the author looking into the possibility of selling downloadable copies. It's only about a 15-20 MB pdf. We'll see. Anyway, it only seems to be available in electronic format, so my printer is getting a bit of a workout with the worksheets and instructions, and I'm looking forward to getting the textbook at some point.

Sophie (8) did first unit with me, with Noah gravitating in towards the end, his interest piqued. This is a section exploring fraction series like...

3/5 + (3/5)^2 + (3/5)^3 + (3/5)^4 + .... (3/5)^n

(with the ^ indicating an exponent). When I thumbed through to the end of the section I thought "there's no way my kids will get this!" but when we actually worked through it a step at a time, they did. It starts out with a colouring exercise ... colouring in half of an 8x8 grid, then colouring half of what's left, then half of what's left now, and so on, until you see that almost every last speck, but not quite, of the original area, is coloured in. Then we plotted the cumulative sum at each step on a graph and so how it got closer and closer to 1.

Then we repeated the exercise with (1/3) and (1/4). In our case we used our calculator to compute the cumulative sums, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to do otherwise. The program is clearly not about arithmetic (i.e. computation), it's about mathematics (i.e. mathematical concepts) and if one tried to work the computation out with kids of this age, or any age, really, it would get very very onerous. So I think liberal use of a good calculator is essential. It allows you to quickly see the patterns arising. At a minimum I'd suggest a 2-line calculator that handles fractions as fractions and y^x exponents. We have the TI-34II and find it works well. It's not programmable, which might be nice, but for $25 rather than $175 we'll deal with the (minimal) limitations.

There are some computational and notational skills that need to be taught unless the children have already learned those skills. For instance, the concept of exponents, the short-cuts for computing, say y^2 multiplied by y^4, use of parenthesis, order of operations, negative numbers and the factoring out common factors in equations. While the program says that kids from 7 on up can use it, not all of these little bits and pieces are actually taught in the program. The parent would need to be able to fill in any gaps. So, for instance, I had to teach Sophie how to recognize that ...

9/5 + 9/25 + 9/125 + 9/625 ...

could be re-written as

9 (1/5 + 1/25 + 1/125 + 1/625 ....)

and how recognizing that factoring pattern was crucial to solving the series (which, in case you're interested, is equal to 2 1/4).

Sophie is really really loving the conceptual challenges she's finding in this program, as well as the introduction of enticing advanced arithmetical skills like working with negative exponents and so on.

So I would say that so far our experience has been very positive. But I'm not sure 7 is really a realistic age guideline for the program. Sophie is 8-almost-9, and doing Grade 6 math, has a math-savvy parent to help her fill in the gaps and a keen attitude -- and she's doing fine with it, though it's stretching her a lot. I think ages 11 and up would probably be a more realistic guideline ... and the parent would still need to help fill in a few gaps if the child hadn't done, say, Grade 9-10 level math already. We're looking forward to exploring the program further in the future. It's a really enjoyable diversion that I hope will give my math-smart kid some opportunity for lateral growth in her mathematical understanding, rather than just continuing to plow forwards through a sequential curriculum.