Friday, November 30, 2007

Pastor-r-r-r-r-ale

Erin's student quartet played outdoors tonight, at the opening of the "Christmas by the Lake" German-style Christmas market that our community is hosting. It runs for three days and is brand-new. Tomorrow the indoor venue with be open with the artisans' market in there. Tonight the outdoor venues were open -- 11 wooden huts selling food and souvenirs, four bonfire rings, the snow- and ice-sculpting area and the lighted ice-slide playground. At two of the bonfires there was free food -- roasted chestnuts and bannock to toast on a stick. There were lots of cups of glühwein travelling around warming people's hands and bellies.

The quartet shivered their way through a heroic 15-minute set. The temperature was somewhere at or below minus 12. By the time they were tuned and ready to play their fingers were hurting despite the fingerless gloves they were all wearing. By the time they were playing the Pastorale from the Corelli Christmas Concerto, they could no longer feel enough with their fingertips to know whether they were on the A- string or D-string or goodness knows where. I hate to think the stress their instruments suffered. The only obvious technical difficulty was a huge peg-slip by the cello that resulted in a missing bass note in the final cadence for one of the Christmas carols -- the string suddenly just wouldn't make a sound, having slipped to slack.

But they retuned and soldiered bravely on for another couple of pieces until it became physically painful for them to keep playing. The warm reception they got from the audience provided some small relief from the chill.

Absence makes ....

.... the heart grow fonder. And no, despite the fact that today is my 16th wedding anniversary and Chuck is away for a few days, I'm not blogging about my husband. (I do miss him, though, honest!) I'm blogging about this mysterious box which arrived at the post office today. Looks like it should contain whipping cream, but it's much too light. It's addressed to Chuck but a closer inspection reveals that it's not my Christmas present.

It's from Nikon Canada! It's my digital SLR, clean and with a brand spanking new shutter and aperture control unit. And a little note that says "Remarks: Less than 1 month out of warranty - repair under warranty." Three cheers for Nikon! It's been a long 10 weeks.

Supersonic smartness goggles

Okay, so your dad is away for the weekend, and so the usual 10 p.m. quietness rules don't apply. Your older siblings have just been doing algebra, amidst much hilarity, and are now bouncing on the minitramp with your little sister, making up ridiculous stories and using wacky theatrical voices. You really want to do some math too, but wow, is it ever hard to concentrate! Especially considering that you're doing a section on computing and rounding off repeating decimals from a variety of fractions and mixed numbers. Argghh.

No fear, though. A solution is close at hand. You only need to don the Super-Sonic Smartness goggles. With them on you will be able to solve any problem.

That is, provided you and your siblings can stop laughing your crazy heads off over your bizzare combination of blue nightgown and ski goggles.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Going, going ...

... almost gone. Some weeds were still waving their seedstalk flags up through the snow in our yard a couple of days ago. Now they're fully covered beneath a delicious snowy carpet.

Kids have been sledding. Skiing. Skating. Winter has come down the mountain.

In the next day or two we'll formulate our Christmas Activity Calendar. This is something we do every year before December 1st. When I read "Unplug the Christmas Machine" a few years ago one idea that really resonated with me was that Christmas can become, rather than a season of joy and celebration, a big build-up to a day or two of over-indulgence, and then a let-down "guess that's it, eh?" feeling. We're striving to find ways to create a season of special rituals and celebrations that fill the month of December, rather than saving everything for the momentous Day Itself.

Our calendar entries usually include things like the following: go to Christmas market, start listening to Christmas music, help decorate Grandma's tree, put up Christmas lights, moonlight walk in the woods, bonfire, skating party, put up garlands, make and hang treats for the birds, visit the lights in the community garden, go to the choir concert, okay to start eating baked treats, jigsaw puzzle and egg nog night, family games festival ... and so on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cruising the Aegean


It was Greek Day at Kitchen Club. One of the things I've always liked about unschooling is that it lets my kids be square pegs, in all their odd, angular glory. They don't feel a need to whittle off their sharp bits to fit into anyone's round holes. The flipside of this freedom is that when you get nine unschooled kids together, ranging in age from 3 to 15, boy, is there ever a wide range of personalities, styles, abilities and affinities!

But we seem to manage. In fact we were so efficient today with our cooking that I think some of the kids blinked and missed the entire preparation sequence of certain dishes. The Other Mom (O.M.) and I talked about this afterwards. Do we want to step into the role of drawing the kids' attention to, say, what is getting mixed together to make the tzatziki, so that they learn a bit more about the food we're preparing? We decided we didn't want to. Kitchen Club is about being together, working and enjoying interesting foods. Learning happens as part of that, but to pull the learning to the forefront would risk upsetting the other good things that are going on. It would subtly introduce a parental agenda. These kids have very sensitive antennae when it comes to parental agendas.

So there was a frenzy of food preparation and a meal appeared. It was rather miraculous, actually. In fact, we were so quick that after things were in the oven the kids went outside sledding for the better part of an hour. The O.M. and I happily cleaned up dishes, chatted and revelled in the quiet.

First up this morning was a post-script to last session's New Zealand meal. I had finally managed to track down some Marmite. Not the Kiwi/Oz variety, just the plain old British stuff, but every one of us had the exquisite, likely-once-in-a-lifetime experience of snacking on Marmite on toast.

I had some pita dough rising, so everyone got a blob of dough to roll out. We cooked them
one at a time. We got about "fifty percent puffage" which wasn't bad since we were using the electric frying pan. We didn't need perfect pockets in our pitas since we were just planning to use our pitas for dipping, not stuffing. Each child set theirs aside on a plate for lunch. In one corner we had a workstation going for preparation of a Greek Salad. We omitted the tomatoes since the local specimens were well past their prime. Fiona was thrilled with this because she dislikes fresh tomatoes. In another corner of the kitchen, some people were preparing the filling for Spanakopita. We substituted fresh cow cheese for the feta. In yet another corner, Noah and I did up the tzatziki. When this first phase was finished it was time to assemble the spanakopita and to get to work on the baklava. We had quite the filo pastry assembly-line going for a while. Then the baklava and spanakopita went into the oven and the kids disappeared outside.

Forty minutes later we had a lovely feast.

We decided that our next Kitchen Club will focus on German fare -- especially German Christmas treats. We'll do quadruple batches, share each production run between the families and each go home with lots of Christmas baking.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The four-fold way

Fiona, summer 2006On the SuzukiChat e-mail list there's been a recent discussion about the challenges of getting started with productive practicing with young beginners exhibiting resistance to the daily practice routine. Particularly children who haven't yet accrued enough in the way of playing skills to find intrinsic enjoyment in what they can do, particularly children of Suzuki teachers or other accomplished musicians who have fairly sophisticated ideas about what "playing music" really ought to mean.

Someone shared a Four-Fold Way which she's used as a touchstone for many years. I was thrilled to discover it, because it encapsulates in a few simple words the core of what I've gradually come to believe over the years I've been a Suzuki parent.

The Four-Fold Way in Suzuki Parenting:
  1. Show up
  2. Pay attention to what is good, true and beautiful
  3. Speak the truth in love
  4. Do not become attached to outcome
Those ideas are pearls of wisdom that I expect will mean different things to parents dealing with different challenges, different stages and different children. Especially to parents new to to Suzuki game, or new to parenting a young Suzuki beginner, these guidelines can seem a little detached from practicality. They beg the question "yeah, but what do you actually do when it's time to practice and your 4-year-old is lying on the floor whining and complaining and refusing to get up?"

From my in-the-trenches perspective as a Suzuki teacher and Suzuki parent to a 4-year-old, here's what the four-fold way means to me:

1. Show up. If you're teaching your own, that means something a little different than cheerfully going to lessons. It means including your child in your community of students. It means making the time each day for practicing to happen. It doesn't mean anything about your child doing anything at all. It just creates the possibility and helps nurture the interest. You just keep creating that nurturing environment. Time works magic.

2. Pay attention to what is good, true and beautiful. One way of putting this into practice is to make it a habit of reflecting on every single practice session with the question "what is one thing that worked well here today?" Become conscious of those things -- you may have to dig deep to find them at first -- and do what you can to allow them to grow. At first the "good, true and beautiful" might just be your child's strong will, or boundless energy ... something in the "mixed blessing" category. But if you can become more aware of it as a potentially positive force, and look for ways to enjoy it and turn it to advantage, you'll gradually get more and more stuff that is true and beautiful. Eventually you'll find more complex stuff that's working well, things like "when I let her choose a legato piece to play after each left hand exercise, she remains happy and focused, and her tone stays good."

3. Speak the truth in love. For me this means relating verbally to my child in ways that are less about instruction and control and more in the style of positive yet honest observations and facilitations ... always spoken in an unaffected, genuine, loving tone. So rather than saying "please try to keep your eyes on your bow" I'd say "Your sound is much more beautiful when you watch and keep your bow on the highway." I would stay clear of praise and positive judgements designed to manipulate my child, because that stuff doesn't feel "true" to me. Encouragement rather than praise. Encouragement rather than criticism, nagging or instruction.

4. Do not become attached to outcome. Oh my, this is the toughest one for parents who are also teachers. We know what children are capable of in an optimal environment. We think we've got a pretty rich environment happening for our own child, so we expect pretty impressive results. We may not have shallow expectations like "Perpetual Motion by age 5" but we have many less tangible ones. We expect our child will become focused, will be motivated and will get some goal-oriented work accomplished, learning at a brisk pace that is right for her. If you figure out how to really let go of your attachment to these outcomes, you'll be three kids further ahead of the game than I am. I am only just beginning to get this down with my fourth child ... and perhaps only because she's making it easy by having a natural affinity for the sorts of outcomes I'm trying to let go of.

When things have gone off track with my young kids, I've always found it helpful to set myself a little Suzuki parenting challenge: that of doing whatever is necessary to end each practice session with my child being happy, for two weeks. And I truly mean "whatever is necessary." Extremely short, extremely silly, unexpected turns of events, doing only things which breed a sense of delight and success. If that means playing a joke on my child where she thinks we are starting practicing, and I help her get into rest position and say "Thank you, we are all done ... isn't that funny? Let's have a bow. Yes, we really are all done. No more for today. Violin needs to be fun, so I decided to surprise you with a crazy nothing-practicing." Two whole weeks of easy fun short sessions that end with a feeling of happiness and delight.

Whenever I've tried this I've found my kids' interest in the instrument bubbles to the surface again -- usually long before the two weeks is up. Young children are so forgiving. By day nine or even sometimes day four I'll hear my child saying "No, I want to do more! Let's do it again!"
It's a detour that turns out to be a short-cut.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Immersion artist at work

Erin has always been one to immerse herself in stuff. Dabbling is not her style. From a very young age she was either into something or not -- there was never any middle ground. This month she's been into three things. Least of all, but still significant, is piano. She's polishing a Chopin Nocturne, learning the Bach Capriccio in B-flat, keeping up a Beethoven Sonata (Op. 10 No. 1), and working on a couple of four-hands duet pieces, including a long and weighty Schubert Fantasie. She's supposed to be adding the Macedonian Mountain Dance by Hovhaness and a Haydn Sonata to her repertoire. Mostly, though, since she's without lessons for a while, she's messing around, reading through reams of things, both old and new, including the last movement of the Bach E Major Concerto (she played the middle movement as a soloist with orchestra a couple of years ago, but that was much less technically demanding).

Then there's violin. She's still practicing a couple of hours a day, plus she's got a quartet, and orchestra, an ensemble, group classes and all the rest. And still she's practicing well. She's no longer loving the actual practicing, but she's loving where it's getting her, so she's pushing herself to do it. The payoff is coming in spades. Her playing has taken a massive leap this fall. The monthly lessons in Calgary seem to be giving her enough of whatever it is she needs right now.

And then, if you think that isn't enough, she's also writing a novel this month. Once she got wind of NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), she was off and running. She's got about 39,000 words now, she says, despite being sick earlier in the month and getting behind. She's writing 1500 to 2000 words a day.

Next time someone asks whether school is in the cards for this kid, I'll point them to this blog entry and ask them just exactly where she would find the time to go to school.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Look who's skating!

Look who got the hang of skating today! After her hour on the ice on Thursday (half of it on skates, half in boots), she said she had a good time and was enjoying learning to skate. She wobbled and slid and took a few steps by herself with encouragement. I managed to get six or eight feet away from her once, to snap a photo, but that was it. She felt too wobbly and didn't want to relinquish my hand most of the time. She took a few spills, allowed herself to be helped up, and kept smiling. She worked hard and giggled. But she wanted me there, helping.

Today, though, she was off and truckin'. I made a little circuit for her, maybe 30 metres long, drawing it in the dusting of snow on the ice. Round and round she went, getting faster and more reliable with each completed loop. The improvement over Thursday was palpable to her, and even better was the improvement she made over the course of the 45 minutes she skated today. She had cold toes but she didn't want to quit.

We got some snow today. The skating was still lovely, but it won't take much more snow before that's the end of lake skating for us. We're trying to get up there every day while it lasts.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Odds have middles

Generally speaking, we've got a good thing going on with math at our house. We don't have a ton of manipulatives and educational games (cuisenaire rods, base-ten add-ons, and pattern blocks, mostly) but we have kids who, at least through the K-6 levels, enjoy discovering and implementing things about numbers, operations and relationships between them. I don't quite know how we ended up with this lovely math tradition, but we did.

Photo left: the face Fiona gets when she suddenly thinks her way to the solution to an equation using an "easy path," some mental math trick that helps her solve it easily. In this case, 2 x 15 became two 5's plus two 10's, and that was easy.

Fiona's curiosity about math continues to be boundless. I swear, this kid thinks about numbers non-stop. Probably in her sleep. On our trip home from Calgary she awoke from a nap and said "I just figured something out. Nine is half of eighteen."

A couple of nights ago Sophie was doing some multi-step word problems using ratios. She'd sorted out all the conceptual stuff and was down to the final arithmetical step. As often happens once the fun of formulating the equations is done, the arithmetic was less interesting. She needed to find a fifth of ninety, but her attention was wandering. "Use the division the other way around," I prompted her. "Try to figure out how many fives in ninety. You know how many fives are in a hundred."

"That'd be twenty," piped up a little voice beside me. Not Sophie. A littler voice. It was Fiona, delighted to be "helping" Sophie with her math.

Fortunately Sophie found it funny.

And then this morning, fresh out of bed and with her math mind churning, Fiona explained to me that odd numbers are the ones "with middles." I asked her to explain.

"Well, like five," she said. "If you count five things, the 'three' one is in the middle. Same for seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one and twenty-three. All odds have middles."

This observation wows me more than any of the other clever math problems she's solved. Why? Because she's observed a property that some numbers have but not others, described it to herself, developed a hypothesis about what is common to all the numbers that have it, tested the hypothesis in her head and correctly generalized and described the pattern.

All while still wearing her favourite long-outgrown size 2T snowflake pyjamas.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ice magic

For a few years we've had the family tradition of driving to the summit of the pass near our place sometime in November to greet winter and invite him home. Today seemed to be the day. So we donned our snow gear and headed out.

As we drove the fifteen minutes up to the summit we were sad to see that despite the cold temperatures, there's been little snow at higher elevations so far this year. There was certainly some, but not great mounds of the stuff. But as we pulled off beside Fish Lake at the summit, we saw something even more exciting than snow. In the cold weather the lake had become deeply frozen, and the lack of snowfall had kept the surface pristine and glassy.


Lake-skating is a rarity where we live. The big lakes are so deep that they don't freeze, even in minus-twenty temperatures. The smaller, shallower lakes tend to be tucked in little mountain saddles where they get lots of snow and none of the cleansing winds that keep the ice uncovered. We've been lake-skating only a handful of times since moving here in 1994. A glassy frozen lake is a special occurrence indeed, one that demands you drop everything and grab your skates. And so when we saw Fish Lake frozen, we did a U-turn and zipped back home to grab our skates.

Everyone was a bit wobbly at first since last year was a non-skating year, but soon the kids were zipping around, chasing each other, hitching rides and having a blast.

Fiona, who was newly 3 the last time we were at a rink, was pretty much a beginner today. She did pretty well, and had fun. I think she's going to pick it up quickly. She's got a great attitude and is very motivated. This winter we'll do our best to put in our backyard rink. We won't start that for another couple of weeks at least, but we're thrilled to have the chance. The last couple of years we were prevented from backyard skating by the abominable dog. Now that she's been re-homed, we're looking forward to having our own little ice surface at home by the New Year.


Still, for as long as it lasts, this is the type of skating we'll be doing. How can you beat this beauty and freedom?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No need for the rack

Fiona is playing a sixteenth-sized violin. It was once a better-than-average-quality Suzuki Nagoya sixteenth, with a repaired belly crack, but the crack has opened up a bit and some of the tone quality has slipped. The fingerboard alignment and curvature needs an adjustment, as it's too flat (and so the bridge is too). And all told our luthier figures it's hardly worth putting the couple hundred dollars in that would be necessary to fix it up properly, especially since we're hoping she'll outgrow it before too long.

Erin was very petite, even more so than Fiona, and she was 6 1/2 before she moved up a size from this instrument. But even at that age she wasn't quite at the level in the repertoire as Fiona is now at 4 3/4. We're hoping Fiona will grow into the lovely tenth-sized instrument we have waiting for her much sooner than age 6 1/2. I had been jokingly instructed to put her on a rack to stretch her every night so that she could move up around her fifth birthday.

Why the urgency? Well, this teeny violin is really tough to get a decent sound from. It's really difficult to build an instrument this small that has any tone or playability. The upper two strings of a sixteenth-sized violin often sound kind of okay, but when you move to the D and G the physics just doesn't work. The strings are so short that they need to be very slack to make the required pitches. And the result of a fuzzy, inconsistent sound and almost no projection. Fiona's violin works fine for A- and E-string pieces in the first half of Book 1, but gosh, the late Book 1 and Book 2 pieces have been a struggle in terms of tone quality. She's learning quickly and playing well. It seems such a shame that no matter how hard she works, the sound quality is so poor. Even I can't get much decent tone out of it. Full slow bows on the middle strings are the toughest. The only solution seemed to somehow get the kid to grow.

But in the last couple of weeks, Fiona's managing to get more out of that violin than I thought was possible. She's getting a consistent rich long-bow sound that's mostly free of creaks and squeaks and meandering pitch and timbre. Her "Two Grenadiers" is sounding really polished, and now the tone quality is matching the technical ability much better. Even the nasty finger twister passage in "Gavotte from Mignon" is sounding like it should. Last night at group class she performed a nice clear "Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus" for our local Suzuki community.

Maybe we don't need the rack. Maybe she doesn't need her limbs surgically elongated. Maybe it's not impossible to get a half-decent sound from the lower strings on this tiny instrument. I'm so impressed with what she's doing on it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

History Bites

Thanks to Debbie for turning us onto this show. We're not really a TV family, so we had no hope of catching it on the airwaves. But when the fifth season was released on DVD I decided we had to check it out.

The premise of the show is "what if TV had been around for the great events of history over the past 4,000 years?" Each show examines a historical event or personality by applying the subject matter to the format of modern day ads, talk shows, call-in shows, sitcoms and the like. Some informative background is given, and then the history is realized as comedy through terrific satirical sketches spoofing modern-day television.

Familiarity with television makes it all the funnier; there are spoofs of everything from 20/20 to Seinfeld to All in the Family to Martha Stewart Living. But the comedy stands alone too, so that my kids, who have never seen any of those shows, find it very funny. And if they ever do see Martha Stewart Living, I think they'll recognize it from History Bites.

The intended audience is probably teens on up. There's a fair bit of adult humour in here. But my older three kids are really enjoying it. And so are their parents!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pursuit of excellence

Today I attended a meeting of regional string teachers with two of the members of the board running the regional Festival of the Arts.

For years I've skirted around becoming involved in the festival. It has a competitive mandate written right into its statement of purpose, and I'd heard stories about kids humiliated by adjudicators and parents and students lording "victories" over others. I've worked very hard to instill in my children and the local violin students the idea that music is a gift performers share with their audience and with fellow performers. It is an art, not a sport, and should not be competitive. Even the hint of a competitive mandate at the music festival was enough to turn me off.

The people running the festival are at a bit of a watershed and want to adapt and re-build the strings division according to what the local string teachers want, which is clearly and resoundingly a non-competitive focus. If this were to take place, I'd feel good about whole-heartedly supporting it.

It was a good meeting and I think our concerns were taken to heart. It looks like changes will be made, and immediately. There were a lot of fairly mundane issues discussed, but the big issue was how to implement a non-competitive focus while still allowing the festival to serve its role in funnelling the students demonstrating exemplary mastery into the Provincial Music Festival.

One of the suggestions floated by a couple of the other teachers was to separate the children who were willing to be considered for recommendations to the Provincials from those who wanted a non-competitive atmosphere. I couldn't figure out why this was sitting wrong with me. Eventually I figured out what didn't jive for me. Being willing to be considered for recommendation to the Provincial Festival does not necessarily mean that one is competing. Competing is a mindset, and it is one I don't want my kids to have in the context of their musical performances until they're well through adolescence. But I'd really have no problem with them accepting an opportunity they're being offered based on the quality of their performances. How does their willingness to accept an honour make them competitive? I don't think it does. Being willing to be recognized for your excellence is very different than "trying to be better than everyone else."

So eventually we hashed out what I think are some excellent solutions. I'm feeling good about supporting the festival.

But the whole discussion made me realize that people often confuse the pursuit of excellence with competitiveness. They're not always the same thing. Sometimes they can be very distinct entities. At this stage in my kids' musical lives I'm trying to encourage their pursuit of excellent, and discourage their competitiveness. The distinction between these two seems very clear to me. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Real Mozart

Noah's string quartet first met, thanks to his persistent requests, last January. In less than a year, with the summer off, they've made a lot of progress. In the past few weeks they've taken on their first non-student edition of a real string quartet -- the first movement of Mozart's Quartet in C Major, K. 157. There are, shall we say, some 'issues' with rhythmic transitions, and some small technical challenges in the violin parts, but overall they're handling the music well, and it's not too much of a stretch, either in terms of technical skill or ensemble-playing ability. The growth in this ensemble is very impressive!

They're doing an eclectic mix of repertoire, from Beatles to folk tunes to Christmas music to Schubert and Mozart. Noah's sight-reading has really kicked in over the past few months, and he's holding his own well in the group even when he's never seen the music before. His musical instincts are dead-on as always -- the new thing is that he now has the confidence to trust them.

Earlier in the afternoon we rehearsed a couple of movements arranged from Vivaldi's "Winter" from "the Seasons" with a slightly different group of seven mixed-age violinists and violists. The Largo is arranged for soloist and concertante accompaniment by four other players. Noah is playing what is, in the original, the basso continuo line, the foundation of bass notes on which the whole thing rests. He's all alone on that part and he just waltzed in, put it up on the stand, and played it beautifully, with the perfect amount of vibrato, the right bowstroke, and the musical sensitivity required to follow the soloist's rhythmic inaccuracies and complement her dynamics. It's so nice to see his reading skills catching up to all his other musical skills. He's now a very big asset in our student ensembles.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Happy traveller

Proof positive that Fiona doesn't mind all the driving she's being subjected to these days. This photo was taken a little more than 11 hours into the 14 hours of driving we did last Thursday-Friday-Saturday. Still comfortable and still smiling. She likes to be a part of whatever is going on in our family, even if that's interminable driving. She can keep a lively conversation going almost single-handedly. For hours. What a kid.

And yes, I admit I held the camera over my own head, pointing backwards, while driving, to take this shot. You can see through the window, though, that I'm still staying nicely out of the left lane.

Tomorrow morning: Nelson again! Will it ever stop?

Seven hours on the road

I'd love to complain about driving Erin to Calgary for violin lessons every month. I could come up with a lot of reasons to complain -- the time, the money, the environmental cost of all that gas, the white knuckle drives over the Rogers Pass at night in rain or snowstorms. The doughnut and coffee stops that leave us all feeling worse than we did before. The bare bones motel rooms with cinder block walls. The time I left my wallet behind and had to do a 4 and a half hour backtrack to get it, the stress that time I thought we'd missed the last ferry across Upper Arrow Lake.

But the truth is, the trip has a lot to commend it. A couple of days off cooking. Clean rooms and clean sheets, nothing to do before bed but read and watch motel TV. No laundry to be folded, no kitchen disaster zone that ought to be dealt with. When we arrive we are welcomed as if we're family at Erin's teacher's home. There are hugs all around for and from my normally unhuggable kids. There are meals and stories and jokes shared, things shown off and appreciated, and a wonderful sense of connection all around.

And the drive ... well, I think to myself "where else would I rather spend 7 hours driving?" Today we started on the prairie. Cattle, horses, haybales, gold on the ground and a huge blue sky.


As the first hour of the drive ends, this is our view: continental divide -- due west.


And then, before we know it, we're inside the mountains. We pass through Banff National Park, Yoho National Park, Glacier National Park and Mount Revelstoke National Park. In fact, we're inside these parks more than we're outside them on the way home, and the scenery outside them is really not any less spectacular. The highway varies from the tame four-lane valley-bottom driving through Banff NP to the wild and wooly two-lane Rogers Pass section with its avalanche-protection tunnels, claustrophobic gullies and sharp curves.


Today the weather was almost perfect for driving. Partly cloudy, with big snatches of blue sky. Several times we passed through the small clouds that were all that hung between us and the sun. The experience of being inside a small top-lit cloud on a mountain pass is far different from being trapped on a foggy highway somewhere else. The sky is was not overcast above the highway-hugging clouds today, so they were lit up bright, every molecule of water vapour acting like a potent sun-diffuser. Light was everywhere. It wasn't shining from somewhere, it was captured within the cloud, and we were positively drenched in it. Everywhere around us was such brightness that it was almost blinding.


We stopped at the hot springs an hour north of home and rolled in pretty late despite an early start, but what a drive! This was Erin's fourth set of lessons in as many months, and our third drive to Calgary. While I expect it'll all seem a trial before too long, it's not getting old yet.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Kitchen Club

Last year I fair near tore my hair out over our first co-op learning venture, Science Club. With the incredibly wide range of ages, abilities and social and educational needs, it was a challenge from the get-go. We did some really neat activities, and for the most part it wasn't painful, but it was always a challenge to even partly engage the half of the group that didn't fit within the age-7-to-12 kinda age-range.

This year we toyed briefly with the idea of doing a world geography co-op learning group. The more I thought about the things that didn't work in Science Club the more I realized that they'd be even more problematic in a geography co-op -- factual information, researching, pencil-and-paper things, crafty stuff. What worked well in Science Club was experiential stuff like walking a scaled-down solar system distance along the road, and digging an avalanche pit, and saponifying vegetable oils to create soap, and holding cups of water without spilling them on a playground merry-go-round. Crafts tended to flop with most of the older kids. Pencil and paper things meant the younger non-readers couldn't really participate at all. Factual information was typically old news for two or three of the kids and totally over the heads of three or four of the others. Out of nine.

So after re-examining the challenges of Science Club, and discussing a Geography Co-op with my kids and getting a resounding "uh, no thanks," we ditched it. Instead my kids were surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea of having a weekly ethnic cooking co-op. If it happened to stray into a little bit of cultural education, that would be fine, but the focus needed to be on cooking and eating. And socializing.

I talked to the other mom. She talked to her kids. They were all enthusiastic. So we decided to give it a whirl. If you've been following this blog you'll know that we've now had three sessions (Thailand, France and New Zealand).

Nine kids from 3 to 15, and two moms, in one kitchen for three and a half hours. It's a little nuts, but it's going fine. The kids can be wild. Sometimes there is whining (someone hasn't yet got a turn grating the ginger...). There always seems to be a kid or two wandering around repeating "what can I do?" We're probably short one or two adults. My kitchen is a fair size, but it's certainly not large enough for 11 people to work in. We spread out into the dining room and it's still mighty crowded. Sometimes we'll lose three or four kids into the remainder of the house. They lose their interest in the cooking and they're gone to play for a while. But they always come back, which wasn't always the case with Science Club. Strangely enough it seems to work.

The preparation is minimal for me. I Google a few recipes and add a few items to my Monday grocery list. There's no fussy planning to try to engage the teens and tots in equal measure. I'm forced to clean the kitchen on Tuesdays, but I should be doing that anyway, and the kids are actually being great about helping get it spotless and uncluttered. But the main reason I'm happier with Kitchen Club than I was Science Club is that I'm not really seeing this as an Educational Activity. Primarily it's about working together, enjoying each others' company, and having a meal. That's education too, of course, but I'm just not focused on the Educational Value -- and that makes it so much easier for me. For me the issue is "is everyone happy?" not "is everyone engaged and learning?" It seems so much less to worry about, and so much easier to achieve.

Kitchen Club seems to be helping with a separate issue as well. We have a bit of a social needs mismatch with the other large family of unschoolers who live down the road, the ones who collaborate with us on Kitchen Club. For much of the past three years, the other family's kids have been hankering for more social contact with my family and my kids than we are really comfortable with. We've ended up saying no a lot, and drawing some clear limits, and while it's never been awkward or hurtful, some delicate discussions have been necessary to prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Kitchen Club is providing a nice compromise -- a scheduled weekly social time, a meal shared, and three and a half discrete hours carved out of our week. It seems to make the other family's kids happy, and because it is discrete and predictable (and over at 1:30 pm), my kids actually seem to enjoy the time.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Virtual physics playgrounds

Noah loves physics and engineering right now, provided they're of the virtual sort. He's been picking away at the CyberEd Physics course online, but is more enamoured of physics "playgrounds" or "sandboxes" which allow him to create or play with virtual manipulatives within programs governed by physics engines of various sorts. He's listed several of his favourites on his website Games Page.

In particular he is taken with RigidChips. This one is unique in that you use text-based scripting to create definitions for physical objects which are subject to forces like gravity and wind, travel on land, by air and/or by water, and have attributes like mass, braking, rockets. Pictured at the right are two of the scorpions he created.

Here is just part of the code he wrote to define the scorpion:

Key{
 0:Engine(step=100)
 1:Engine(step=-100)
 2:Steering(step=-2),Lean(step=-2),Tail1(step=1),Tail2(step=-1)
 3:Steering(step=2),Lean(step=2),Tail1(step=-1),Tail2(step=-1)
 4:Weapon(step=10000000)
 5:Sidestep(step=5)
 6:Aim(step=-3)
 9:Aim(step=3)
}
Body{
 Core(Color=#AAFF00){
  S:Chip(Color=#0000FF){
   S:Weight(Color=#111111){
    S:Weight(Color=#111111){
     S:Chip(Color=#111111,Angle=Tail2){
      S:Trim(Color=#111111,Angle=Tail1){
       S:Chip(Color=#111111,Angle=-41){
        S:Chip(Color=#111111,Angle=Aim){
         S:Chip(Color=#0000FF,Angle=-43){
          S:Arm(Color=#AAFF00,Angle=-15,Power=Weapon,Option=20000){}
         }
        }
        N:Trim(Color=#AAFF00,Angle=Sidestep){
         N:Chip(Color=#0000FF){
          N:Wheel(Color=#AAFF00,Angle=Lean,Power=Engine){}
         }
        }
       }
      }
     }
    }
   }
   E:Rudder(Color=#AAFF00,Angle=Steering){
    E:Wheel(Color=#0000FF,Angle=90,Power=Engine){}
   }
   W:Rudder(Color=#AAFF00,Angle=Steering){
    W:Wheel(Color=#0000FF,Angle=90,Power=-Engine){}
   }
  }
  W:Trim(Color=#0000FF,Angle=25){}
E:Trim(Color=#0000FF,Angle=-25){}

Colour me impressed.

A year or so ago he was spending many mindless hours playing Runescape. I couldn't get him off the computer in any consistent way. I didn't want to resort to limit-setting and a coercive environment. I have done my best to help him learn to monitor and balance his computer use with other uses of his time. But I gave up any serious effort to get him to reduce his computer time, and instead started putting effort into encouraging him to spend his computer time at things that really made him use his brain, whatever he decided those might be. That was a real turning point. He's gravitated towards "modding" and other types of programming / coding, on-line communication through forums and e-mail, gameplay that continually stretches his knowledge and problem-solving skills and publishing and maintaining webpages.

I'd still rather he spent more time in social and active pursuits, but I have to say I am thrilled with where his self-motivated computer learning is taking him.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Knitting bug

The knitting bug has bit hard and long this time. Normally it bites, I start a project, and that's as far as it goes. But in the past couple of weeks I've completed two projects, and am soldiering towards the completion of a third, the cable-knit sweater I started for Erin but now hope to complete for Fiona. When I rediscovered it in a closet, it was about half done. I've now just got a little over one sleeve to go.

Ravelry is definitely my cup of tea and my membership invitation arrived at just the right time. It's a place on the web for knitters to set up personal databases and share them with each other. Databases of yarns in their stashes, of projects on the go, of projects completed, of favourite designs, of patterns, heck, even obsessively detailed records for every needle of every size, length and configuration you own. All shared, cross-linked, friendly-like, accompanied by social networks, message boards, profiles and integrated with Flickr photo accounts. I find it so funny that there are thousands of other people out there who take pleasure in this sort of obsessive virtual cataloguing and organizing that, at least in my case, bears absolutely no resemblance to any real-life organization. Whatever. I like entering my needles and yarns and project dreams, and I like updating the little slider beneath my current project to show my estimated per cent completed. Maybe it'll all translate into some sustained interest in knitting. Who knows?

If you're enough of a knitting geek to have signed up at Ravelry, and have made it to the top of the invitation waiting list, you can find me over there as moominmamma.

There's a charming little yarn shop in town here that carries a lovely selection of natural yarns. Many are artisan spun and/or hand-dyed. It's called "The Inner Ewe" and is tucked in the back corner of the lotto outlet / newsstand. But the lady who runs it is retiring at the end of the month and the shop will be closing. So you can imagine the urgency with which I headed down with my chequebook in hand. I think I might even have to go back again. If I keep up the knitting there will be a lot of mittens and socks in my future, and Sophie's sweater is going to be lovely.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kiss the cook

... especially the dessert cook, especially when she's this cute!

Sophie is becoming a highly motivated and highly competent dessert chef. I'd always allowed her to be included in whatever cooking I was doing, and once in a while I'd try to actually teach her something, but it was apparent that this wasn't what she wanted. Cooking with me was pretty boring, more like housework than adventure. She wanted free rein in the kitchen, and she didn't want any help. And she especially wanted to make desserts!

Well, this is a family of people who like to eat desserts, so that worked out pretty well. I'm amazed at how she is just figuring this stuff out on her own, without any help. She figures out what size or type of bowl, pan or utensil to use. She understands all those cooking terms like sauté, fold in, mix, whip, simmer and cut in. She doesn't need to ask "how 'gradually' do they mean?" or "should I just put all these in at the same time?" She seems to be able to figure all this out on her own, and she's not worried about messing things up. She's adventurous, but logical and organized. Lately she experiments a little now that she's learning how ingredients interact and what their respective roles are.

Last night for example she was making flapjacks/oatcakes. After they were in the oven she told me "I used about 25 grams less butter. You said that recipe was really buttery, and there was a hunk of butter that was just a little smaller than they asked for, so that was all I used. The oats were sticky enough to hold together, so I just tried it that way." They were delicious, and not too greasy. Better than when I made them.

A couple of weeks ago we bought the Williams Sonoma Dessert Cookbook, and I am spending some ridiculous amount of the grocery budget on chocolate, butter and sugar. This is not an inexpensive interest. But Sophie is having a blast, and we are all reaping the benefits. Vanilla cheesecake with fruit topping. Amazing rich chewy brownies. Chocolate torte to die for. Not to mention the many other recipes she's become competent at, like the Nanaimo bars we all love.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

NovaNoah

These days internet domains are so inexpensive that 11-year-old kids can buy them with their allowance. Noah recently took the plunge. For the past month he's been busily teaching himself web-publishing, and has been pushing up against the limits of my ISP's web-hosting offerings. He also didn't like the fussy long URL he had to use to publicize his site.

So for $77 a year he now owns NovaNoah.com and has a generous value-added web-hosting package to support it. This past weekend he spent hours transferring the two main divisions of his website over to the new host, tweaking all the links and media files, fleshing out some more pages, integrating it all with the look and feel of his blog, adding a home-website-menu HTML widget to his blog and adding a few new bells and whistles to his personal site.

I built my first website from scratch in about 1997. Noah would laugh if he could see what I put together as my first effort. I used a primitive gif and an imagemap for a menu. I don't think I figured out tables for formatting until I'd rebuilt the site a couple of times. He's been able to benefit here and there from my knowledge, but there's no doubt his climb up the learning curve has been far swifter and more natural than mine was. If any kid deserves a domain in which to exercise his web-publishing ability, it's this one.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Welcome to New Zealand

Pavlova

6 egg whites *
1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. corn starch

1 1/2 cups whipping cream
3 Tablespoons of granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 cups chopped kiwi fruit
2 cups chopped strawberries
1 cup chopped passion fruit

* use surplus egg yolks to make coffee gelato

Preheat oven to 250 F. Whip egg whites until stiff. Mix together the corn starch, cream of tartar and sugar. Add gradually to egg whites until everything is glossy and well-mixed.

Spoon the meringue onto a baking sheet that has been lined with baking parchment. It's easiest to make a narrow mound and then insert a spatula into the centre to encourage the mound to spread slightly whilst creating as deep a well as possible in the mound. Bake for approximately 75 minutes in the oven, until meringue is just beginning to turn yellowish in a few places.

When finished baking, open the oven door and allow to cool gradually.

Whip the whipping cream, adding the remaining sugar and vanilla. Chop the fruit and mix in a separate bowl. When the meringue is cool, spoon the whipping cream into the well, and ladle the fruit over top.

Citrusy Ginger Beer

Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons
100 gm (~3 oz.) grated ginger root
1 kg granulated sugar
5 litres of water
1 Tbsp. yeast

Place lemon juice, rind, ginger, sugar and 1 Litre of water in a saucepan and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Let stand 10 minutes. Dissolve yeast in a half cup of the remaining water.

Into the final bit of the remaining water, strain the lemon/ginger syrup, then pitch in the yeast. Stir well. Decant into clean sterile bottles, cap and leave for 1-3 days. Refrigerate after no more than a week. Treat gently and open slowly. These bottles are prone to volcanic effects! Ready to drink after 3 days.

This will yield a gingery beverage with a sharp ginger "bite" and an undetermined, though likely small, alcohol content.

Spaghetti Pies

New Zealanders eat more tinned spaghetti than any other nation. Almost half of Kiwi kids eat it once a week. A fifth of them eat it twice or more per week. My kids were appalled, though they have their own vices. Although we opt for the Annie's organic brand, they do like their convenience-packed pasta & cheese sauce, known colloquially in Canada as KD (Kraft Dinner). After discussing this they were a little more willing to cut the Kiwi kids some slack on the tinned spaghetti thing.

1 can of spaghetti in tomato sauce
12 slices of bread
butter
12 slices of cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut the crusts off the bread. Above, Fiona demonstrates the fun and kid-friendly way to do this. Butter one side of each slice. Place each one butter side down in the well of a muffin tin. Bake for 10 minutes, until lightly toasted. Remove from oven.

Line the well in the centre of each slice of toasted bread with a cheese slice. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of spaghetti over top. Return pan to the oven and bake a further 10-15 minutes.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Coffee gelato

In our eggy universe, it's important to have delicious ways to use up extra eggs. Here's one that is useful when baking meringues or macaroons, meaning that you have just the yolks left over. It's also insanely easy to memorize, meaning that you never have an excuse not to make it. And it's a cinch to halve or double or multiply by one-and-a-third if you don't have exactly the right number of leftover yolks.

Coffee Gelato

half a dozen egg yolks
1 cup of milk (or a milk/cream mixture)
1 cup of strong coffee (decaf for the kids?)
1 cup of granulated sugar

Whisk egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl to blend. Bring milk to a simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Gradually whisk hot milk into egg mixture, then whisk in the coffee. Return mixture to saucepan. Stir over medium heat until custard thickens (do not boil). Refrigerate until cold.

Process custard in ice cream maker.

Megga egga

One of our hens set a new record today. That egg weighs 107 gm. A medium egg, like the blue egg on the right is about 50 gm, the one behind it is a large, and the one behind the megga egga is an extra-large. The megga egga is in a class all its own.

We tried to figure out which hen was responsible, but none of them seemed to be waddling about in agony.

It was, of course, a double-yolker, which didn't surprise us. We were half expecting a triple yolk.

The megga egga went into our strawberry-kiwi pavlova today, as the Ethnic Cooking Club went to New Zealand. We also brewed up and bottled some ginger beer, made sweet potato soup, and some "spaghetti pies" made with (eughh....) canned spaghetti. It was a big challenge finding kiwi fare that didn't involve meat.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lunch on the doorstep

This morning there was an inexplicable loud bang from the kitchen. Chuck eventually discovered the source of the ruckus. A grouse, presumably the same one that's been lurking under our apple tree many afternoons for the past couple of weeks, had got into its wee brain that it ought to fly right into our house very fast. I suppose it mistook the window reflection for sky.

Boy are grouse stupid birds. We quite often startle one on our driveway upon returning home in the late afternoon. When you startle a grouse it just sort of stands there, and then very slowly starts to walk some direction or other, usually taking the longest route possible to get out of the way of the vehicle. Then, a minute or so later, when it has finally walked off the driveway and is well out of harm's way, it will suddenly launch into flight and in a noisy flurry of wings takes off into the woods, as it should have done from the start.

Well, this particularly brainless grouse broke its neck when it hit our house. There it was, dead but quite stunningly beautiful, right on our doorstep. We discussed eating it. Someone had expressed curiosity not too long ago about what game birds taste like. Fiona was all for eating it, though she suggested we cook it first, and not eat the feathers. She also volunteered that "if we don't eat it, daddy will." That's true of most of the stuff that's served up to the kids as meals around here, but I really didn't think it would be true of a rapidly stiffening feathery carcass on the doorstep.

We opted not to eat it. Heck, most of us are vegetarians, so it really wasn't remotely likely that we'd actually pluck and dress the poor thing. Instead, for lunch we had our newly favourite soup.

Ramen Noodle Soup with Virtue and Kick

2 packages of instant Ramen noodles
4 cups of water
2 tsp. of "Better than Bouillon" vegetable soup stock concentrate, or two veggie bouillon cubes
1 tsp. Thai red curry paste
juice of half a small lime
2 tsp. vegetarian Thai-style fish sauce ("phish sauce"?)
3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed (yeah, lots!)
medium-sized handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 - 3/4 cup of any diced veggies on hand (carrot is our fave)
1/2 tsp. sesame oil

Open the ramen noodle packages and discard the flavour packets. What is that stuff? I'm not sure, but I think it's nasty, particularly if it's the only ingredient in the soup other than the noodles. Toss 'em, and good riddance.

Sauté garlic in sesame oil in small saucepan. Add water, bouillon, curry paste, fish sauce, lime juice and water. Bring to boil. Add ramen noodles and veggies, cook until just tender, then toss in cilantro.

This takes about 5-8 minutes to prepare, and only dirties one pot, a garlic press, a carrot peeler and a chef's knife. Funny that my kids are incredibly picky eaters, but love this soup.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Making paper

Erin and Noah and I did this years ago, but Sophie was too young to be involved, and Fiona wasn't even on the planet yet. So today the younger two girls and I got out the little paper-making kit and had some fun.

We loaded paper scraps in the blender. We added a bit of this and that, and some warm water. Then we took turns whizzing the stuff to a pulp. We tossed in some vegetation and whizzed a bit more.

Then we put the screen in a sink of water, so it was partly submerged, and poured the pulp onto it. We swirled the pulp to distribute it evenly. Then we lifted it out of the water. Much of the water drained out immediately, leaving a thin layer of pulp on the screen. We placed another piece of screen over top and pressed down, sponging out most of the remaining water.

Then we came over to the table and began gradually 'couching' out the remaining water with rolling pins and blotter paper, eventually peeling the paper off the screens. Then we let it dry.

Leftmost paper is a combination of recycled copier paper, saffron, dryer lint and coffee bean chaff. The right-hand sample is recycled paper, coffee chaff and marigold buds.

We won't be able to write on this stuff without treating it with sizing (gelatin & water works pretty well) but it'll be great as an accent or a matting for other papercraft stuff. I love the deckle edges.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Self-portrait with uvula

My mom has graciously lent us her camera. Sophie took this photo of herself to commemorate her ninth birthday. She was quite happy, really. Just awfully silly.

It's been a rotten week of family colds, so we missed the window of opportunity for the hot springs trip she'd asked for and have had to delay until next week, when her dad is no longer on call. Too bad. She took it in good grace.

She baked the entire luscious celebratory vanilla cheesecake herself from scratch. Her birthday gift to herself was to do reams of fraction and ratio bar-diagram problems in her Singapore Math book the night before so that she'd be able to move into the geometry section on her special day. What a funny kid!

And also on her birthday she read, she cleaned, she played on the computer, she goofed around with her siblings, she went to children's choir practice, she prepped a silkscreen for tomorrow's printing, she knitted and listened to readalouds of biography and historical fiction. Birthday gifts were a few small packets of nice origami paper and a thick inspiring omnibus of challenging origami patterns & instructions (something she's been wanting for ages), a cookbook and a funky wooden clock she'd also had her eye on for some time. An enjoyable, low-key day.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rolling group class

Gosh, do I struggle with group class. How do you teach a Suzuki group class of a dozen and a bit that includes children from 4 to 15, from early Book 1 to beyond Book 10? How do you ensure that the 6-year-old with the limited attention span feels included for most of his class time, and that the 14-year-old who is working at the same level as the 4-year-old (that's Fiona) doesn't feel self-conscious? What to do with the competitive 11-year-old in early Book 3 who isn't reading or playing well enough to join the more advanced cohort (mid-book-4-plus) for ensemble playing? What do you do with the lone violist (that's Noah) who can't play any of the post-book-3 repertoire with the violinists? And how in heaven's name do you give the two girls in Books 6 and 10+ (that's Erin) anything meaningful to do? (The photo I've uploaded is not actually our group class, though it includes four of our group's members and is in the same location. Our group is, as you'll no doubt now realize, much less homogeneous than the 2006 institute group class photographed.)

There are about 15 students (a couple of whom are "play-along parents") and they all clearly thrive on the sense of community that group class engenders. They pretty much all feel that the classes are worthwhile and "fun." So I continue to try to teach this motley crew, once every second Tuesday.

Every year, in fact more like every class, I try something a little different. I take consolation by reminding myself that anything is probably better than nothing, but sometimes I don't even quite believe that. This year, though, we've moved to a sort of "rolling group class" that spans about 100 minutes and includes different students at different times in different activities, depending on their ages and levels.

We start out all together. This is when we do the regular rituals. We start with an all-together bow to say hello, and a Twinkle or two. If there are any organizational announcements we deal with those, and then I go through the "Questions" (which I forgot last night, because Fiona was having a sad spell and I was a little distracted, but normally we do them). They're things like whether anyone has had a birthday, or got a new instrument, or had any notable musical experiences. There are a few silly questions ("Anyone get married? Divorced? Change their name?") that are just part of the routine.

And then we do some work on "basics." Maybe focusing on a posture point or technique point that more or less everyone can participate in working on. Or maybe rhythm or ear-training exercises. I try to include brief snippets of repertoire from Books 1 & 2, and maybe one snippet from Book 4 - 6, in order to apply or develop this skill or concept. I alternate early Book 1 with more advanced stuff so that the beginningest kid doesn't get antsy. Last night we worked on tapping and clapping and saying and stamping main beats and beat subdivisions, splitting the group into two halfs so that one would keep the beat and subdivisions and the other would play a piece. It kept everyone involved; the Book 1-2 students played an early piece while the Book 3+ students kept the beat. Then the Book 3+ students played a Book 3 piece while the less advanced ones kept the beat. And we did a little bit of an ear-training game, guessing intervals, mostly off-instrument. In this "all together" part of the class we'll often have a solo performance or two. Most children will do one or two solos during the year. Last night J. (late Book 5) played a beautiful rendition of the first piece in Book 3 with some impressive and hard-won musical expressiveness and technical clarity. After each solo, the audience of fellow students applaud, the performer bows, and then hands go up to contribute to a brief round of comments. I ask "what did you especially like about that performance?" Gradually the kids are getting more perceptive. Instead of saying "he had good posture" they'll now say "I really liked how it had a dance-like feeling and his body moved a bit to make the music come alive." Even Fiona is getting better. Last year she would say "I liked his bowhold." Last night she said "I liked the quiet parts, and his bowhold." :-) And she was right -- the dynamic contrasts were notable!

Then it's time for the two most advanced violinists to depart down the hallway to another room. The local non-Suzuki cello teacher coaches them for an hour in a string quartet with a local cellist and violist. The remaining group finishes up with another early Book 1 piece and then we have a bow to say goodbye to the students who don't play past early Book 2. These less advanced students have had 35 or 40 minutes and haven't been excluded from much.

Our next phase is ensemble work in mid-Book-2. We're currently working on a four-part arrangement of Handel Bourrée. The Book 2-3 students play the Suzuki melody. The remaining students (from mid-Book-4 to late Book-5) have harmony parts that they've been assigned. We work on ensemble and "fitting-togetherness". Because of the part-reading and harmony-playing, this is reasonably interesting work for the Book 4/5 kids. For the Book 2/3 kids, it's a great pre-orchestra experience, playing by rote but having to fit into a four-part ensemble. We spent 10 or 15 minutes on this.

Then we dismiss the four Book 2/3 kids with another goodbye bow. They've had almost an hour of class. The Book 4/5 kids pull out their parts for the non-Suzuki ensemble work. Right now we're focusing on an arrangement of two movements from Vivaldi's "Winter." In the recent past they've also worked up a four-part arrangement of "Danny Boy" and the original version of Pachelbel's "Canon in D." Last night we went for about half an hour and then hunkered down in front of the laptop to watch a BBC DVD recording of Julie Fischer and the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields performing the same movements, and reading the poetry that Vivaldi based the suite on. We discussed some musical interpretation issues based on our observations.

By then the big girls were finished with their quartet (they're currently rehearsing Haydn's "Lark" quartet and Corelli's Christmas Concerto) and they sidled back in. They have been assigned the solo parts for the "Winter" movements. We ran through one of the movements with solo, and then had a final bow.

All told we ran for just over 100 minutes. I think that most of the crew are getting something interesting and with a bit of challenge. There's enough mixing and matching that the older less advanced students aren't left feeling like they haven't quite "made the cut." This feels like about the best arrangement we can hope for.

As ages and levels and interests shift, this particular set of solutions won't work as well. By next spring, or next fall, we'll have to come up with different solutions. But for now it feels like we're doing pretty okay, given the immense range in our group.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Punctuation

Last spring I wrote a post about Noah's intangible path to becoming a writer. This fall he's been writing like crazy on blogs, message boards, in e-mails and on his website. He's much more confident (and surprisingly capable) as a speller, but he recognizes that he has some issues with punctuation and capitalization. No one has said anything much, but he knows he's just winging it on these issues.

Last week I mentioned a "Bravewriter" course to him. I said "There's this set of readings and exercises based on novels and biographies that come out once a month and they help you learn things like punctuation and capitalization and other stuff about writing." My totally unschooled, anti-book-work, autonomous learner said "hey, that'd be cool -- it'd help me with my website writing. Sign me up and I'll try it for a couple of months."

Thanks to Karen for recommending this program so highly. We're looking forward to giving it a whirl. And I'm giving myself a pat on the back for not pushing a worry-fueled agenda on my kid before he was really ready.

Monday, November 05, 2007

And on her head...

... is the hat I was (rightly!) sure I'd finish soon. It just about killed me. I made it with an inexpensive odds-and-ends pack of wool I'd bought eons ago that was a good bit heavier than what the pattern called for. So I adjusted the number of stitches, and used slightly larger needles, and did my best to replicate the general design. If only I'd known how tough it would be to wrestle with this over-heavy yarn on over-small needles for the piping-detailing down the brim. It certainly gave my hands a workout!

But finally I got through the seventh and last tubed-stripe this afternoon. The hat is now drying, being stretched and shaped so that it will fit Fiona's cute little noggin perfectly.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

On my feet...

... are my new hand-knitted socks. Just in time, since it snowed last night and the ground is still blanketed. My socks are made with Zwerger Garn Opal Elemente, a type of computer-painted self-patterning sock yarn. Its cunning colour variations are responsible for all the nifty banding. I discovered the Generic Sock 101 template by Kate Atherly at Knitty.com and used that. I've got it memorized now, so theoretically I could become a sock-knitting machine.

This represents the second time in a year that I've finished a knitting project. And the second time in almost a decade, which gives you a more accurate idea of my track-record. I also have a complicated little hat from a book called Folk Hats that is 95% done. I am very pleased to have actually completed something and am almost sure I will finish the hat in the next few days.

In Noah's closet I managed to unearth a lovely wool sweater about half completed in a Child's Size 5 that was intended for Erin. She's now a Women's Size 6. Where have the years gone? If I manage to finish it this time, it will be perfectly oversized for Fiona and should last her two or three years.

Inspiration has come to me by way of Ravelry. If only I had my camera I could be making better use of it (the above image again captured on the measly resolution camcorder. I phoned my camera again yesterday and it is still pining away in Vancouver waiting for a part. It has promised to phone me within 24 hours of its part arriving, and to then head back my direction immediately.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Lonely soldiers discouragement

Fiona has been veering close to violin resistance lately. This is new for her. Mostly she has been very happy to practice. There have been a few times when she hasn't been eager to practice for a few days, and I've found that if I don't push, her enthusiasm returns. This time, though, there's been more to it than that.

She's a monkey for learning ahead, this kid. She has all that Suzuki repertoire in her head, thanks to her older siblings (I confess we rarely play the CDs prior to Book 5), and an amazing intuitive sense of intervals and the geography of the fingerboard. She can sound out anything she has in her head, and she has a lot in her head. So for most of the past few months I've been periodically confessing to my mom, Fiona's official violin teacher, that "she's already been playing that one." But for whatever reason she didn't learn ahead for "Two Grenadiers" before it became assigned learning. I did some prep work with her. Was that the problem? Did presenting little bits first as preliminary steps give her the self-fulfilling impression that it was going to be hard?

For whatever the reason, though she quickly mastered the last third of the piece and the first couple of phrases, the middle third became a source of frustration. I saw her learning curve as normal; most students struggle with the bowing and rhythmic unpredictability of that middle section. So much so that I almost invariably do something with this piece that I don't with any other: I teach the words as a mnemonic (the "lonely soldier" words, see below). But to Fiona the fact that she perceived a learning curve that had to be climbed through ongoing work was frustrating to her. She's grappled really well with learning challenges before, but never in the new-piece-learning arena.

I didn't realize she was getting frustrated. What I saw was that she was less interested in practicing, and tired of it quite quickly when we did get started. It took mea few days to realize that it wasn't that she'd had a poor night's sleep, or an overloaded social calendar, or two colds back to back. She was frustrated.

Yesterday I got it. And, good Suzuki parent that I (occasionally) am, I realized it was my job to create the environment and experiences that would get her past that. I gave her the haircut she'd been asking for for a while and we had a nice time combing her hair and chatting. Not wanting to lose my attentiveness, she readily agreed to practice. She managed a nice warm-up. I pointed her to the pile of pennies we keep handy.

"Get whatever number of pennies you want, for practicing a little bit of Witches' Dance."

She delightedly ran over and retrieved six pennies. Normally we use pennies to count, or flip them for heads or tails to decide whether she or I get to choose the next task. I needed something different this time, though.

She played one repetition. I put a penny on her bare left foot. She giggled. She played another. The next penny went on her right foot. More giggling. The next penny went between her toes. Then next went up her left sleeve, the fifth one went in the hood of her hoodie and the last one went on her head. She was in hysterics by the time all six pennies were doled out.

Naturally she wanted to do it again, so we picked a different section of Witches' Dance. Repeated the endeavour, with more giggles.

Now that she was riding high, I figured it was time to put her to work on Two Grenadiers. First she did the beginning and the ending sections, which haven't given her any grief. Then it was time for the problematic section. She wanted some visual guidance over bowing, so we worked out a signal. And so she played through the troublesome section (from the B-flat to the key change, for those of you who know the piece) with my signals for the hooked bowings. Bouyed up by her relaxed optimism, she did remarkably well. There was one bowing missed, and one little rhythmic glitch that seemed mostly due to the fact that her bowing was backwards by then. I didn't say a word to correct. This practicing was about restoring optimism, not about fixing Two Grenadiers. The whole aim was to quit while things were happy, so that tomorrow's practicing would be more welcome. I just said "It's getting better! Most of the bowings were right that time."

Well, she wanted to try it again, because she sensed that she was improving, that it was getting easier. But this time she didn't want bowing guidance. I figured we had to risk it, because she was motivated. Amazingly she got all the bowings, except for one (different) one. Without any reminders. She was delighted. I sent her over to hit the Staples "Easy Button." I pointed out to her how much more fun she was having now that she had "made it easier" for herself to play this section by practicing. I said that I guessed her practicing felt fun now again. She smiled and agreed.

Never one to quit while she was ahead, she decided to play the whole piece through. Alas, this time it fell apart right at the end of the nasty section. She stuck her bottom lip out, set her violin on the floor and sat down.

I explained that if we'd had the written music handy, I would have put it on the floor for her to jump on and call it nasty names. She smiled. I commiserated -- it's really frustrating to hit a glitch like that. She must be really mad at that piece. She nodded.

"Oh well," I said. "You're really frustrated with it, but at least you know from playing it the first and the second times that it's getting easier. Even though you're mad right now, you know you've made a lot of progress, right?"

She nodded.

"Want to do the penny thing again?"

She jumped up, giggling. I put a penny on an odd part of her body every time she played gentle stopped up-bow quarter notes in Brahms' Waltz.

Afterwards she asked "what now?" and I said "nothing!" She looked at me quizzically.

"Right now you're happy, right?" I asked. She nodded. "So, practicing should start happy and end happy. Let's stop now to make sure. That way you end up feeling better about your practicing -- not only today but tomorrow. Me too."

We had a cuddle and that was that.

Maybe I'm a better Suzuki parent than I was with my younger kids. But maybe I just have a wonderful, resilient kid the fourth time around. When I do reasonably creative things to deal with a situation, they actually work the way they're supposed to with Fiona.

Lonely Soldier Mnemonic for "Two Grenadiers"

Words begin with the pick-up to the B-flat in line 2. Every "lonely" represents a dotted-quarter hooked in the same bow to a subsequent eighth-note.

Two lonely soldiers I did meet,
Two lonely, lonely soldiers,
Yes they were so lonely, sad and lonely
Tired out and lonely soldiers.
Those lonely soldiers had a story,
They told me their tale of glory!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Four different nudges

My four different children require four different types of nudges. They gravitate to many things on their own, but sometimes they get distracted, or are unaware of an interesting possibility, or suffer from traits that lead them to resist new things -- social anxieties, difficulties with transitions, perfectionism or whatever. So sometimes it's helpful, and worthwhile to them, for their parents to give them nudges. A sort of "thought this might interest you -- want to give it a try?" nudge. But each of my kids requires a different flavour of nudge.

For Erin, nudges have to be oblique and offhand. If she gets the slightest hint that something might be my idea, she'll lose interest. So if I think "A" might interest her, I might say "I was looking through such-and-such today, and really wanted to check out B, so I started looking through all the different entries, you know, the ones where they list A and C and D, and then finally I found B. " And sometimes that little passing mention of A will stick in her mind and she'll quietly investigate it later, and it'll grab her. And I have to pretend not to notice or care that she's hooked. I'm getting good at looking like I haven't noticed, so much so that it's not really pretending any more. She's interested in what she's interested in, and I don't have to watch her every move or worry or obsess or over-analyze whether stuff has "taken" or not.

Noah's nudges are very different. They're clearly parent-led and almost controlling and progress through three phases. Phase 1 is the "testing the waters" phase. I'll say something like "I think A would be pretty interesting to try sometime. What do you think?" When something is presented with no imminence and no expectations, I'll usually get a good sense of whether he thinks it would be interesting or not. If he's not interested, that's fine, but if he's interested I'll start quietly setting some stuff up, getting resources organized, setting aside time. Once things are ready, I'll say "Hey, I've got some of that stuff for A. We should get that happening." This is Phase 2, the fair-warning phase. A couple of hours is all that's necessary to prevent him from feeling blindsided, and up to a week or so is okay, but really the sooner the better, before he starts stressing over it. Then we move into Phase 3, the big nudge.

The Big Nudge for Noah goes like this: "Noah, I've got stuff for A all ready. I need you to come with me in 15 minutes, because it's time to give it a whirl." This sounds awfully parent-led for an unschooling family, but the alternative is days, weeks, months of him balking over things he actually really wants to do. With the Big Nudge he may moan a bit and roll his eyes for a minute, but he's generally smirking in a self-conscious way while he's moaning, and despite this posturing, he almost always agrees to get to work on whatever A is without any real resistance. (If there is real resistance, we won't pursue it, but that rarely happens.) Usually within 5 or 10 minutes of starting in on whatever-it-is, he is happy as a clam. Discovering Noah's periodic need for a Big Nudge has made both of us happier.

Sophie's nudges are easy. She is less spirited and intense than her older siblings, so I can be both honest and low-key with her. "Hey, I think A would really interest you. Let's give it a try sometime. Want to set some time aside tomorrow after lunch?" She may say no, or "not yet," but most often she shrugs and agrees and all is well.

And Fiona, well, with Fiona the nudges generally go the other direction. She nudges me. "Mommy, I want to do A. Why are you always forgetting I want to do A? Let's do A right after supper."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Le déjeuner français

Yes, there was wine to be tasted, not to mention cointreau. Many tears were shed, thanks to the copious onion-slicing. Overall, French cuisine was pronounced by the children "okay, but not as yummy as Thai." Here are the two recipes our family contributed. Several of us (those who like onions, not surprisingly) absolutely loved the soup.

Soupe a l'Oignon

3 large sweet onions
1 1/2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/3 cup vegetable stock
2/3 cup apple cider
2 cups of water
bouquet garni (parsley, thyme & bay)
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
rounds of fresh French bread (declared "mega-croutons" by the kids)
1/2 cup of Swiss or Gruyere cheese

Cut onions in half, then slice thinly. Melt butter in skillet until sizzling. Add onions and salt in alternating layers. Leave on medium heat to "sweat" the onions for fifteen minutes. Then stir and cook, stirring occasionally, a further 45 minutes or so. Onions should be a medium brown. Add wine, turn up heat and cook down to a syrupy consistency. Add stock, cider, water and herbs, simmer 15-20 minutes. Add pepper and additional salt to taste.

Toast one side of French bread under broiler. Serve soup into oven-proof bowls, leaving at least 1" of head space. Place bread toasted side down in bowls, top with grated cheese. Broil briefly to melt cheese to bubbly consistency.

Serve with the rest of the bottle of white wine, of course.

Crêpes Suzette

(One of my friends growing up lived part-time in France. Her French mother used to make crêpes on Saturday mornings, and when I arrived for a visit there would always be a great stack sitting on the kitchen counter under a damp towel, waiting to be put into the fridge for consumption throughout the week. My friend and I often used cooled crêpes as kitchen frisbees. Serious fun.)

For crêpes:
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. grated lemon rind
1-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
6 eggs, well beaten
2 cups of milk
3 Tbsp. melted butter

Mix all ingredients together until smooth. Pre-heat griddle to hot but not smoking, dotting with a little extra butter. Pour 3-4 Tbsp. of batter into pan, tilting to create a very thin layer. When crêpe has solidified through (60 seconds?) turn and cook briefly on the other side. A slight golden brown in patches, at most, is all you need. Remove from pan and place on warmed plate. Can be refrigerated in stacks for a couple of days.

For sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup sugar
Juice of 5 oranges
Juice of 1 lemon
Grated rind of 1 orange
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1/3 cup Cointreau
A little extra Cointreau for flambéing

Melt butter, add sugar, then juices, 1/3 cup Cointreau and zest. Bring to a boil and simmer a few minutes. Add folded-in-half crêpes to pan two at a time and tilt or flip as necessary to soak in sauce. Fold into quarters, remove from pan and place on a warmed plate. Repeat with pairs of crêpes until all have been soaked. Place remaining sauce, warm, in a heatproof ladle, add an ounce of additional Cointreau and ignite with a match. Pour extra sauce over the stacked, quartered plate of crêpes at the table.

Those of you who are bloggers yourselves might appreciate (or not!) a nudge towards NaBloPoMo. I think I'm going to try to meet the challenge, though it'll be tough without a camera!