Saturday, August 30, 2008

Role transition

It's the time of year when there are lots of new homeschooling parents trying to find their groove. Message boards are full of questions.

Q: "How do you make the transition from being mommy to being teacher?"

A: The dichotomy between parent and teacher is an artificial one borne of necessity when parents began delegating their children's education to others. To me it's like asking "how do I make the transition between being parent and wet nurse?" That question makes no sense if the two have always been part of the same role.

Sophie's Learning Plan 2008-9

Grade 5, I guess that would be. She's still 9 for almost 3 more months, but in BC she'd be in Grade 5 starting next week. Today we went to Panini Café for lunch and tossed around some ideas and wishes. At this point, here's what looks practical:

Biographical sketch / past learning successes and challenges / goals etc.
Sophie is a 9-year-old girl who lives just outside a rural village of 600 in the BC Interior. She has an older sister, a younger sister and an older brother and a close homeschooled friend who lives nearby and shares several of her interests. She enjoys playing the violin, working with animals, reading and being a self-directed learner of academics. She is remarkable for her broad range of interests and willingness to try new things. She is very skilled as a violinist and is finding that this ability is carrying over into a remarkable ability to self-teach on piano.

Sophie has recently been very successful in learning French. She expressed an interest in French language study early in the summer. She identified a particular curriculum resource that she would like and patiently reminded her parents until it was ordered. When it arrived, during a very busy part of the family's summer, she delved in with no guidance and independently utilized various resources available around the home since her parents were not available to help. She made excellent progress through the program, improving her French and her handwriting, and felt very successful in managing all this single-handedly. This is typical of her cheerful independence in systematic learning.

One of Sophie's learning challenges has been in the realm of her violin learning this past year. While she plays very well and has very good musical instincts, she is at a level where lots of careful analytical work is required as she practices. She often finds that the more she thinks carefully about her violin playing, the more difficult it gets for her to play with fluid confidence and showmanship. Turning on her intuitiveness and energy after the tricky intellectual detail work has been done is something that has not come naturally and she has had to learn how to do this at a conscious level. It has been a struggle but she is getting much better at not letting her thinking interfere with her music once it has served its use.

Sophie has a couple of discrete learning goals. She wants to compete a review of pre-algebraic math and move further ahead in her study of Algebra this year, and wants to achieve her yellow belt in Aikido.

Sophie will continue with Aikido, a martial art that demands a lot of grace, co-ordination, strength and co-operation. She enjoys the congenial non-competitive nature of aikido and hopes to earn her first colour belt (yellow) this year.She would be very interested in gymnastics if we could find a way for her to participate in this, though it seems unlikely. She is not willing to travel to Nelson an extra day a week for this, but if there was something available on Tuesdays, or closer to home, she would be very interested. Sophie is keen to build on her swimming skills whenever the opportunity to swim in a pool presents itself. She will enjoy skating on the family's backyard rink this winter and will attend the community gym with her family on a semi-regular basis through the winter.

Sophie is a passionate reader and enjoys listening to challenging novels of a variety of genres read aloud. Both these are daily activities. She would like to improve the fluidity, ease and speed of her cursive handwriting this year. She plans to complete the Getty-Dubay Level E workbook and will then continue with copywork in a journal where she will collect favourite poems. Sophie's spelling skills are very strong and will no doubt continue to improve with her copious reading. She may be interested in keeping a personal blog, and will try to contribute a paragraph or story to at least every second O4L report this year.

Family travel through Canada's heartland and visits to museums and other sites of cultural importance in Western Canada will provide lots of opportunity for Sophie to develop interests in Canadian history and geography. Interests will be further developed using a variety of resources as appropriate, drawing on reference books, websites, documentaries and historical fiction. Sophie particularly enjoys travelogue-style documentaries as a way of learning about other cultures, and her elder sister's two months of travel to SouthEast Asia this winter will help her learn about the culture and geography of that region. She would also like to continue the family's hobby of geocaching this year, managing the GPS receiver herself as she gains experience.

Second Language
Sophie has developed a strong self-motivated interest in an academic approach to the French language this summer and would like to continue with this. She makes use of a French picture dictionary, a standard French-English dictionary and L'Art de Lire curriculum books and audio tracks. She would like to augment this learning with the more aural immersion-like approach offered by Rosetta Stone, as well as continuing with L'Art de Lire levels 2, 3 and 4. We will investigate the availability of appropriate French-language-learning podcasts.

Mathematics / Logic
Sophie's intermittent approach to math over the last year has resulted in a little less than her usual total retention of concepts from Grade 5, 6 and 7 level math. As a result, her enthusiasm for math has waned a little. She would like to win back her confidence and motivation, as she is very interested in moving ahead into deeper study of Algebra. She would like to do a brief review of fractions, decimals and percents, as well as improving her speed of recall of multiplication facts. She may do some of this as a prelude to diving into Algebra, but she may choose to do some of it concurrently. Resources will include Singapore Primary Math level 6 review exercises, AlgeTiles manipulatives, the Math in Minutes program for memorization, plus "Life of Fred Beginning Algebra" or an alternative algebra or Grade 8 math text.

Sophie continues to be very interested in the academic study of biology. She would like to gradually read through Neil Campbell's "Biology: Concepts and Connections" college-level intro biology text, using it as an opportunity to learn to make summary notes and subsequently self-assessing using the CD-ROM assessment quizzes. She may also work through the RealScience4Kids Chemistry 1 program. In addition, viewing science-related documentaries, particular those pertaining to the natural world, will be a potent source of learning, as will her participation in caring for animals (rabbits, cat and laying hens at home, as well as small and large farm animals at our neighbours' homestead) and in family vegetable gardening.

Sophie will continue to study violin, with weekly private lessons, biweekly group classes, biweekly orchestra rehearsals, biweekly Summit Strings (violin chamber ensemble) rehearsals and daily practicing. She will take part in a workshop in November designed to help young string players learn to work with an accompanist and will participate in a variety of performances of a solo and ensemble nature. She hopes to gradually move forward in Suzuki Violin Book 6 as the year goes on. She will continue to dabble in music theory study as her interests and inclinations dictate. She would like to be involved in a choir if the opportunity presents itself as it did last winter. She would like to continue self-teaching on piano, by working through the Alfred Primer 2B level. In terms of other creativity pursuits, she would like to continue to explore stop-motion animation using clay and alternative media, and she will continue to explore various arts and crafts. Currently her particular interests are in origami, folded fabric design and drawing.

Friday, August 29, 2008


In Buddhism anger is held to be one of the three roots of evil. Dr. Suzuki felt that anger was unnecessary and for a long time practiced not being angry. Our own family is a little shy on anger. The kids express hurt, but rarely anger. When they do, it's an anomaly and usually leads to a serious discussion about how things escalated that far. For a long time I thought that my inability to feel and express anger was a personal deficiency, that it meant I was a repressed person who couldn't deal with her own feelings. I'm not so sure now. Not all of my coping mechanisms are healthy, but I'm not sure anger is any healthier. What is clear, though, is that my kids are growing up in an environment where expressions of anger are very unusual.

Today Fiona and I went to Nelson to attend a Passport Clinic. One of the trickle-down repercussions of 9/11. Because the U.S. wants to be seen to be tightening border security, Canadians will soon need passports to cross the border in their cars, something half a million people do every day. And so there's been an incredible bottleneck in the passport application process. Waits of over 4 months were occurring with predictions of worse to come, though recent efforts like travelling Passport Clinics have cut the backlog.

But with Erin travelling at the end of December, we decided to use the Passport Clinic to be on the safe side and expedite the process as best we could. Fiona and I drove down to Nelson prepared to wait a few hours in line. As it turned out our arrival was well-timed and we had only an hour to wait on the street, and another 45 minutes inside.

It all went well. Except there was a man at the desk next to the one where we were being served who had waited the same 90 minutes as us. He was applying for a passport for his son, and not only was his signed Guarantor ineligible to be so according to the [new] clearly-stated rules, but his son had been the subject of an oft-revised custody agreement. The application clearly said that if this was the case the applicant was to bring "all documents" pertaining to the custody situation. He had brought nothing. And so he was angry. And while he did not explode with vicious language and vitriol, his anger was palpable. He raised his voice, he expressed loud incredulity, repeatedly proclaiming the procedure a "joke" and asking the clerk what the heck he was supposed to do now after spending almost two hours in a queue for nothing?

Fiona was not happy about overhearing this, about being within earshot of his anger. It probably didn't help that the man in question was an imposing physical presence as well. It was probably the most traumatic thing she's experienced in recent memory. And really, it was fairly benign in the grand scheme of things. If she hadn't been there I would have felt some sympathy for the clerk and then forgotten about the incident within the hour.

We talked a bit about how sometimes people feel things differently that we're used to, and sometimes they express their feelings in ways that sort of forget about other people's feelings. And I explained that I thought the clerk responded exactly the right way ... she was polite and firm and didn't get her back up and just reassured the man about what his options were.

So I think Fiona recovered. But is this a good thing, to raise children so far outside the realm of anger that they are traumatized by an irate man in a passport queue?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fiona's Learning Plan, Grade Zero

Fiona, who really likes the idea of growing up, is thrilled that she'll have moved from "Grade Negative One" to "Grade Zero" effective next Tuesday. She'll also be officially and legally enrolled as a home-based learning with the SelfDesign program that my other kids have been part of for the past two or three years. And that means that unlike last year, this year's Learning Plan is for real. It will actually get typed up and submitted and will form part of her school record. Not that that's any big hairy deal. But still, she likes the idea that she's Official.

So we went out to a café today and talked about what she'd like to learn and how she'd like to learn it. She's in the thick of a lot of stuff already, so to be honest there weren't a lot of new ideas to talk about. But we had a nice time anyway. What follows is what I've typed up since as a distillation. You may notice that I'm very vague on her current capabilities. That's intentional. The SelfDesign staff and administration are on our side for sure, but the virtual paper trail we create is in large part for the government. The Ministry of Education inspects the school's records regularly. I figure that if Fiona's learning takes some unexpected new turn and she abandons all the various fast-tracks she's on, there's enough vagueness in this plan for me to say truthfully, at the end of the year "Fiona now reads capably at a second-to-third-grade level" and be telling the truth, yet I won't be giving away the fact that she hasn't made any tangible progress in reading in 9 months. Not that I expect that to happen, but I figure there's no point in giving more than is required away at the outset.

Biographical sketch / past learning successes and challenges / goals etc.
Fiona is 5 years old and the youngest of four siblings who live outside a rural village in the BC Interior. She loves math and music, and is very accomplished at both of these areas. She enjoys just about anything that anyone else expresses enthusiasm for. She finds success in most learning endeavours, but among her recent hard-won successes has been learning to sight-read music on the violin. This was something that came gradually and had up-and-down moments but she has realized lots of success over the long term.

Fiona doesn't really have many discrete learning goals at this point; what she really wants is to engage in lots of exciting learning processes. For instance she's looking forward to participating in a number of new activities this year and to continuing with the ongoing learning she's part of already. Any learning achievements she might make are really of secondary importance to her; she primarily enjoys "doing" learning.

She has a streak of perfectionism which occasionally rears its head, but she usually recovers her optimistic motivation quickly after a short break. She has already amassed a wealth of experience, thanks to her violin studies, at breaking complex learning down into manageable component steps and working diligently through them to mastery. There's no doubt that violin has presented many learning challenges, but Fiona copes with them with simple determination and matter-of-fact diligence, so they rarely seem like major hurdles. Learning tends to come quite easily to Fiona and due to her fairly obvious precocity in several areas, she has a strong self-image as a capable learner.


Fiona hopes to participate in the Aikido for Young Children class that she was part of last spring. She is always an active girl, both indoors and out and will continue to enjoy a wide range of physical recreational pursuits. She is a beginning swimmer and wants to develop more confidence and ability whenever she has occasion to visit a pool. She hopes to improve her ice skating on the family's backyard rink this winter. She will continue to lead an active life both indoors and out, with access to a variety of equipment at home as well as at the community gym.


Fiona recently acquired glasses for a high degree of far-sightedness and now finds reading much more enjoyable. She enjoys sharing reading aloud with her mother and will continue with that several times a week. She will read from a variety of materials at a range of levels in order to build her competence and confidence with printed text. As her fluency and comprehension improve she may begin to prefer independent silent reading because this offers her more flexibility and privacy, a fact she's recently discovered. She enjoys typing entries for a personal blog and has a new interest in spelling accuracy that is being aided by her use of a computer spell-checker. She wishes to improve her handwriting facility by working through an italic handwriting workbook. She enjoys listening to challenging novels from a variety of genres read aloud.


Fiona will be taking part in an extended journey across Canada, from the mountains to the shield, largely by rail, and will be exploring some of the history and lore of the building of Canada's railroad. She is curious about world geography and will use a globe, maps and Google Earth to explore the relationship between the visible world and the symbolic world of maps. She will watch documentaries about travel, other cultures and history as her interests dictate.

Second Language

Fiona is very interested in learning more Japanese. She has learned some through her Aikido studies but would like to explore this further. Resources available include language CD's, introductory Rosetta Stone, manga kanji and kana handbooks and a Buddha Board for Japanese calligraphy practice. She is also curious about French and thinks she might learn a bit about the French language alongside her older sister Sophie.

Mathematics / Logic

Fiona is passionate about mathematics. To her, math is a delightful playground of logical ideas and puzzles. She will continue to enjoy exploring mathematical patterns, concepts and terminology through conversation and games. She also likes the systematic study of arithmetic and will make use of workbooks and guided discovery using manipulatives appropriate to her level. She would like to explore beginning algebra concepts using Borenson's Hands-On Equations.


Fiona enjoys time outside, which at her home means time amongst the forest and wildlife. She helps care for the family laying hens, rabbits and cat and grows her own small garden each spring. She will continue to watch documentaries and particularly enjoys those such as the Planet Earth series that are about the natural world. She naturally encounters scientific principles throughout her daily life and enjoys conversations that spring from those encounters, helping her further explore ideas about how the physical and biological worlds work.


Fiona will continue her Suzuki violin studies. She will have weekly lessons and a biweekly violin group class, and will practice at home daily. She'll be using her growing sight-reading skills in a seasonal string ensemble in the late fall and by participating in the simpler repertoire in the local community orchestra beginning in January. She will take part in a workshop in November designed to help young string players learn to work with an accompanist and will participate in a variety of performances of a solo and ensemble nature. She plans to begin studying piano formally in October. She enjoys a wide range of arts and crafts. She is particularly looking forward to doing more painting, origami and fibre arts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Respect for authority

That's Noah with his viola master class teacher from SVI. It was important to him that he arrange photo-ops with his various favourite teachers from this summer. He really likes his teachers! As I've mentioned, Noah is often a favourite of teachers when he ends up in a group learning situation. He's diligent, focused, cheerful and hard-working, and his manner is sensitive and humble.

Once in a while someone asks "but if a kid doesn't go to school, how will he learn to listen to authority figures and obey rules?"

There are two types of responses I can give to this. The first response is the defensive one. I pull out photos like this one and explain how my kids get lots of experience in group situations and invariably their teachers love them. I point out that they behave beautifully in classes and have been able to sit quiet as mice through chamber music concerts since they were two. They get experience creating and obeying rules that are meaningful to them and their family, and they experience social rules when they're out and about in the real world, which is plenty. And that's all true, but the more I think about it, it sort of misses the truth about respect.

The second type of response is to critically examine the assumptions behind the question. I think there are some very mistaken assumptions there. The question is really more about obedience than respect. The assumption seems to be that respect is a behaviour which encompasses obedience and "doing what is expected", and that the only reason an adult in a position of authority would be respected is because the child had experience with obedient patterns of behaviour in a wide range of circumstances.

I don't believe respect is a behaviour that is learned through repeated practice. I believe that respect is a moral understanding that springs from empathy. In other words it comes from a a strongly-rooted set of moral values, not repetitive behaviour. And strongly grounded values are of course best learned through consistent caring teaching within the family ... rather than the rather random, capricious examples set in institutional settings. I believe that people who value others' feelings and who have guided experience with viewing the world from others' perspectives will naturally want to behave in a respectful manner. My children listen to their parents because their parents listen to them. My children behave well in classes, concerts, playgroups and meetings because they care about how their behaviour can support or undermine the experience and enjoyment of others. Yeah, okay, and it helps that they're too shy to do anything that would draw attention to themselves.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Flying Karamazov Sister

That chin-up bar is still being enjoyed as thoroughly as it was last spring. Fiona has discovered how to pump her legs and gain height in her swings. She's scant inches from hitting the ceiling with her toes.

Thoughts on growing up

Fiona likes the idea of growing up. She always looks forward to the next stage, to new levels of freedom, responsibility, competence, ability.

Earlier this week she said "I can't wait until I'm six. And until I'm seven."

"Why is that?"

"Because when I'm six I'll be able to play in orchestra. And when I'm seven I'll probably get out of my [toddler] car seat."

She's pretty much correct on both counts. She'll probably be able to join the community orchestra in early 2009 to play the one or two simplest pieces of repertoire. And we expect, given that she weighs maybe 33 lbs. now, that she'll be about 7 before she reaches the critical 40 lbs. and can move into a booster seat. She's not a large child. And she has always hit milestones in a funny order.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Sophie is an origami nut and has been for a long time. Fiona loves it too in her own novice way. So when I saw instructions somewhere for using fabric stiffener to turn fabric into a durable origami-like material for crafts, I knew this would be a hit. We ended up buying a book of instructions and project ideas, but really it's very easy and you can use almost any simple origami pattern.

First we paint the fabric with Stiffy. We use a rigid squeegee to remove the excess Stiffy. A credit card or ruler would work fine too. Then we hang the fabric to dry. When it's dry it's as stiff as cardstock and makes lovely sharp creases with a bone folder or even a thumbnail. We iron it to eliminate wrinkles, using a cloth over top to protect the iron. Then we cut out our origami squares, taking care to get nice 90-degree angles. Sophie made a box and lid today (photo below, box in progress).

Sides, bases and tops can be strengthened with cereal-box-board inserts. Loose edges can be tucked in and glued. Embellishments, divider inserts and contrasting liners can be added. We need to get to a craft store to pick up some ribbons and other findings. Goodness knows we have enough little scraps of fabric to keep us going for quite a while. We think that this year's hand-made Christmas tree decorations may be folded fabric stars.

I'm sure there are lots more possibilities waiting to be discovered...


As you might have noticed, I've been spending a lot of time editing clips off the camcorder lately. One of the unexpected results of having the camcorder firewired to the computer has been a sudden interest in claymation amongst my younger kids. Sophie especially has taken to it with a vengeance over the past couple of days. So far the figures and sequences are simple, which means that she is really getting a chance to explore the possibilities of the technique itself without getting bogged down with too much complexity of sets, scenes, story-lines and such.

For those who are interested, she's using Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 which we bought a year ago bundled with Photoshop Elements for just over $100. I was really interested in getting Photoshop, but the bundle was a great deal for not much more, and Premiere has turned out to contain a wealth of possibilities and tools that are serving us well.

Here is Sophie's work of half an hour this morning. Very fun!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ursine time of year

Bears are wandering through here again. We had a welcome respite from life with bears this spring, having experienced a lot fewer visits than usual. But they're back with a vengeance this fall. We picked all our fruit yesterday, though it wasn't quite ripe yet. Still the bears continue to visit. This guy wandered very close to the house at supper time and paused for a portrait. Chuck beaned him twice with pellets from the air rifle. Yesterday Noah nailed a larger brown bear at the apple tree. It would be nice if they got the message and stayed a little further from the house, at least during daylight while the kids are out and about.

Adult choir

Last year I posted a clip from the family choir that Allison directs at VSSM. Erin has usually done the Adult Choir, and this year Noah opted to join her. He had been quite inspired by listening to the local Community Choir's performance last spring and I had suggested that he might like to try the Adult Choir during the VSSM week to see whether four-part choral singing was enjoyable to him. I honestly expected him to change his mind once it got imminent but on the day VSSM began he was happy to register for choir. He ended up with a bit of a cold through the week but was still keen to sing. He was the youngest in the choir by a good bit but had the company of a friend and of his sister so it felt comfortable. And Allison is just amazing at how she works with the group, so encouraging and full of gentle humour, yet with a knack for bringing a group to a high musical level. This is just a short clip of "Minoi, Minoi," an a cappella song in Samoan. Noah is the little guy in the orange shirt. Erin is on the left, occasionally visible behind the swaying woman.

Now Noah would like to join the community choir. The director would like to have him, as she sang in the Adult Choir and was very impressed with his behaviour and ability, but is a little concerned about setting the precedent of accepting children (even Erin was turning 13 the year she joined). She's going to think about it. We'll see.

She also plays piano

Someday, she thinks, she'd like to focus on accompanying. I'm sure she'd be fabulous at it. She's actually been doing some simple accompanying of Book 1 & 2 Suzuki students since about the age of 8 and has always been a proper accompanist -- following and supporting her soloist rather than hammering through her own part. For now piano is sort of a hobby, something that gets squeezed around the corners of the violin & choral stuff she's more passionate about. Too bad she's so good at it ... people expect a certain drive and committment to it, something that's been in short supply lately. But during the VSSM week she did focus mostly on piano, and did some nice playing. Here's her performance of the Khatchaturian Toccata from the Friday piano recital.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

On fish and ponds of varying proportions

An interesting question to ponder. Do your kids prefer to be big fish in small ponds, small fish in big ponds, or some other combination? How about you?

Erin is currently a very big fish in a very small pond. She enjoys this, but also finds herself very limited by it. There's the possibility of being a sort of medium fish in a big pond -- the challenge option, which would likely require living away from home. I'm speaking here of course of music, which is her all-consuming passion at this point. Not sure which she'll choose, and unfortunately I think she's really too young for such a decision, but it'll likely have to be made within a year or so.

Noah will definitely prefer to be a small fish in a big pond, though he's at least three or four years from having to find a bigger musical pond. As a violist he likes being in the midst of great things, but not the out-front player. It's the same in other areas; he'd rather be in an aikido class or soccer program where the others are working hard and taking it all seriously, but he likes to be in the top 25%, not the top 1%.

Sophie I'm not really sure. I think she's more a medium fish small pond kind of person. She's a dabbler who likes to try different things and do reasonably well but isn't driven to the kind of perfectionism that her older siblings are. But I feel like there's a shift in maturity that's getting ready to take root in her, and she may emerge with a new self-concept that changes all this. We'll see.

Fiona might turn out to be our big fish big pond kid. She's much more comfortable with the spotlight than the others and she is driven to achieve, as much as is possible for a five-year-old. Time will tell!

Their mother is more comfortable as a big fish in a small pond, but likes to be in the reeds near the bottom of the pond where only people who are really looking can see her bigness lurking there.

Everybody's solos

The truth is, I blog for my own selfish reasons, not to provide ideas, inspiration, counter-examples or entertainment for others. And so I will shamelessly post these videos of my children playing string solos as a sort of virtual scrapbook / home movie that I can look back on in future years. I've now been blogging for over 10 years. I wish I'd had digital video capability back at the beginning. Here's one solo from each of my kids on their stringed instruments.

Fiona is now almost ready to start Suzuki book 4 but at the SVI she performed a piece she learned quite a while ago, "Two Grenadiers" by Schumann from Book 2. It was a chance to enjoy playing different articulations, rhythms and musical feelings, and to exercise her vibrato and intonation skills.

Sophie's performance is from late last winter, the first movement of the Vivaldi a minor. It's a "golden oldie" for her (really the best kind of performance piece for young students, I think), but I especially like this performance because she managed to project confidence and energy when she played, a capacity which has waxed and waned over the past year.

Noah's Allemande is all about heart and musical sensitivity. Technically this piece is not a big challenge, but in terms of musical subtlety and sensitivity it will take as much as a student can give. Noah has so much in the way of natural musicality and I think that really shines in this solo performance of the Allemande from the Bach Solo Suite in G Major.

This is Erin's performance of the Bloch Nigun. She had polished this up last winter but unfortunately was not able to perform it accompanied until late this summer. It was nice to finally get the chance. It's not quite as polished in this performance as it was a few months ago, as she'd been working mostly on a couple of new concertos all summer long, but it was nice to have the piano.

Mendelssohn Quartet

It's just video after video around here lately, I know. There are probably a few more to come, but it won't go on like this for much longer; it's just that it's mostly during three weeks in August that my kids get the opportunity to perform in ensembles and with accompanists.

This week Erin was involved in the Chamber Music class at the Valhalla Intensive Performers' Program. For a couple of hours a day, teens meet in groups to rehearse assigned chamber music works. They are coached by a couple of different teachers each day for short stints and work independently for about half the time. The program has a nice collaborative, supportive atmosphere.

This is Erin's third year in the program. Last year she played piano instead of violin due to instrumentation challenges within the program -- the usual dearth of violists. This year by request she was back on violin. Her quartet (three teen girls plus Erin's teacher / coach playing viola) was given a simple Mozart movement on Monday to work on. The girls, it seems, were less inspired by the prospect of polishing up the Mozart than they were by the challenge offered by the Mendelssohn quartet movement they given were given on Tuesday as 'a reading exercise for fun.' On Wednesday they decided to focus on the Mendelssohn and discard the Mozart entirely. Thursday and Friday were devoted mostly to pre-performance and performance run-throughs, so they didn't actually get a whole lot of rehearsal time. There are some intonation and ensemble issues in evidence in this recording of Friday's performance, but all in all I think they did a great job of pulling together a big work in very little time.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Absent from school

We're an unschooling family. We don't normally do much in the way of structured schooling. When Sophie expressed an interest in L'Art de Lire French early in the summer I forgot all about it. She asked again. "Oh," I responded, feeling guilty, "were you expecting me to buy it for you -- like sometime nowishly1?" Well, yes, she said. So I ordered it.

And though I'd forgotten all about it, it turned up in the mail. Right during one of the busy music school weeks. Fine. I figured we'd get to it some day. After all, like most curricular resources we own it would be more for inspiration and dabbling, not diligent study.

Sophie didn't get that memo. She tore into it. There's a teacher's manual that I suspect lays the whole curriculum out and guides the parent in introducing the language. I haven't yet peeked inside the cover. But that hasn't stopped Sophie from working blindly through the student workbook with ongoing enthusiasm. Last evening when I got home from rehearsal she asked me a question about conjugating irregular verbs and I realized she'd actually been working at it pretty darn effectively. She's making good progress.

Today I was gone all day again. Work, lessons with the older kids, chamber music rehearsals. I got home at 7 pm and Sophie was again working on French. She'd been stumped for a while, working only with the student book. But eventually she'd dug around and found an old French-English dictionary and done a bit of gap-filling by herself. "It's okay," she said, when I apologized again for not having spent a moment with her over the past couple of weeks on it. "Dictionaries are fun. I can do it myself."

It's only very rarely that I'm called upon to be a teacher to my homeschooled children. You'd think I could find at least a few minutes to sit down and look at the French program and then offer her a little guidance. Unfortunately I seem to be accumulating a string of unexcused absences from school. Fortunately Sophie doesn't seem to be suffering too badly.

1. nowishly [nou-ish-lee] adverb
at the present moment, more or less, though with some wiggle-room to allow for inertia, procrastination or disorganization, or all three.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Viola shift

That's an old photo, from 2005. Noah got his first Sabatier viola about a year before this photo was taken. He's since outgrown that 1/4-size instrument and recently has outgrown the replacement 1/2-size. His 3/4-size (13") will arrive within a week or so.

He's also getting a new teacher. Sort of. He and T (in the photo) have had something of an ongoing teacher-student relationship since the summer this photo was taken. They've had at least a few lessons every year. She lives in Calgary and is one of the teachers Erin studies violin with. (Violin and viola are pretty similar technique-wise, but the more advanced you get the more the repertoire diverges on the two instruments. T knows a lot of the advanced violin repertoire, so she's fine with teaching Erin the pieces she knows well, at least for now. T & her husband J, a violinist, team-teach Erin.) But now that Noah is outstripping his grandmother (a violinist who hasn't studied viola as well) in learning the viola repertoire, it seemed like a good time to shift the primary directing of his studies to a violist we're visiting every month anyway.

Since T is in town for all the local summer music school stuff, we're putting the two of them together a few times so that they can build a foundation for ongoing less frequent work together in the fall and onwards. Even though they know each other pretty well, every year Noah is a year older. Funny how that happens. It means that when they do work together they kind of have to shuffle around a little to find where to meet in terms of challenge and expectations. Sometimes they don't quite meet up at a first pass.

Case in point. Last week they had a brief lesson together. Somehow in the space of about 25 minutes they worked on three brand-new challenging bowing techniques: richochet, collé and sautillé (string players will be nodding, wide-eyed, at this point -- it's a huge amount of technique). All three have potential application in one of the Beethoven Dances Noah has just learned, and it was a very productive lesson I thought, given the time constraints. Lots of enticing new things to experiment with over the weekend, and the promise of more lesson-time this week to follow up on this stuff. Noah was really happy about the lesson.

But the next day he got extremely frustrated during his practicing. Somehow he had got it in his head that these bowing techniques, each of which typically takes an intermediate-advanced student months to master, should be learned immediately. He and I had a talk about it, and I reassured him that this was a slow gradual process. He seemed happier. The next day he was thrilled that his sautillé worked for 3 or 4 seconds on an open string note. The following day he reported that his ricochet was getting easier as he stiffened his bowhand a little. His expectations now seemed more realistic and he was happier.

Today was his next lesson. T asked him to play his Beethoven Country Dance to start out. He'd picked the tempo up to what she'd suggested and had clearly done some excellent work on it. But he struggled with the advanced bowing techniques; they weren't nearly ready to be inserted confidently into the piece and suddenly his realistic expectations were out the window. He was upset, really upset, that he hadn't mastered all three techniques to the point that they were easy and flexible and usable in his repertoire at performance tempo.

It was a case of his perfectionism and high standards not being held in check with an explicit enough declaration of expectations. If T had said "don't worry about the new bowing technique -- just play the piece," he probably would have been fine. Or "try the ricochet if you like; I know it's a bit of a gamble at this point -- no big deal." But as it was he decided as he played that she would only be satisfied or pleased if he nailed it all. And he didn't. And he veered perceptibly close to tears.

T reassured him that this was all just optional stuff for the Beethoven, and of course he wouldn't have it all down pat in four days. They moved on. Noah's feelings seem to recover. They moved on to start work on a new Brahms piece (Hungarian Dance #5) and did some really good work on it.

This evening I chatted with T about how Noah's lesson had gone. She said how badly she felt about how she'd handled the bowing stuff in the Beethoven and how sorry she was about upsetting him ... and she hoped he would be able to feel okay about her and about the viola.

This evening I also chatted with Noah about how his lesson had gone. He said it was "totally the awesome-est!" and that he'd come home and practiced yet again, for the third time today, and had tons of fun trying out the ideas he'd been given.

Aren't kids funny? You just can never tell what they'll take home from an experience. Noah's feelings are sometimes strong and close to the surface -- but as quickly as they're out there, they're dealt with and he's moved on. And there's still plenty of time in an hour to have "totally the awesome-est" lesson ever.

It's clear, I think, that the shift in primary viola teacher is going to work beautifully. Noah's a resilient, hard-working kid who takes his music very seriously. I can't imagine a better teacher for him. And I think the two of them will work through any bumps along the road just fine. I think they'll probably find a flow and a set of expectations that will work for both of them. In between monthly-ish lessons with T, Noah will still have his grandma available to help him structure and guide his practicing.

Somehow we just have to entice J & T to move to our area. Then everything would be perfect.

Jovano Jovanke

I'm not quite sure how this took shape. Two of the students (one being my eldest) had performed this at another institute with the ringleader-faculty-member. They decided between them that there should be a Valhalla version as well. So they conned, coerced, encouraged and brokered deals to get a couple of other students and a bunch of faculty members playing too. They performed it as an "entr'acte" between the cello and violin performances at the final concert. Amidst all the chair-shuffling, chaos and noise, they had a lot of fun. My first try at rendering this produced a lot of distortion from the tambourine; I think this version is a bit better.

Monday, August 18, 2008

There it is -- gone!

Finally! It was too late in the evening to call her two favourite [adult] friends to let them know, but you can bet we'll be hurrying around in the morning to show off the hole where Fiona's first missing tooth used to be. I've never seen a kid so happy-excited to see her own blood as this one was when she realized she'd knocked the thing looser yet and it was now only hanging by a thread. It didn't take long after that.

The other big news in Fiona's life today is that we've secured her a piano teacher. She's been waiting for this for almost a year. She'll be studying with Erin's piano teacher. I expect she'll do well with this teacher's approach, as she's already reading music reasonably well on violin. She starts in October. Perhaps she'll have lost another tooth by then.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Full moon alpine hike

It's not very often that the full moon falls on the one day between two music school weeks when we actually have time to go out and take advantage of it. There's this amazing famous alpine hike a few miles from where we live. You can drive up and up a hair-raisingly-precipitous logging road to a parking pull-out in the alpine and from there take a short easy 45-minute hike to the highest peak in the region. At the top you are ringed by all the other high peaks and ridges. It's an amazing 360-degree view, with the lake visible way way down below. For reasons that aren't clear, it's called Idaho Peak. Perhaps you can see Idaho from the top -- it's less than 90 miles, after all. It's the hike to do in the area. You always ask the tourists whether they've "been up Idaho yet." The snow is gone from early July to early September, and the alpine wildflowers peak in early August.

We've been up half a dozen times. The drive is not to be taken lightly, so it's not a trip we do every year. It had been four years since we last went, and yesterday I decided that the time had come to do a night hike in the full moon.

As it turned out Noah had a nasty cold and didn't feel up to going, so he and I stayed home. Chuck took the girls, which was convenient, because our 4WD vehicle only seats four (the van has ground clearance so low as to be problematic on this drive). They took a flashlight, but they didn't use it because the moon was so bright. And they didn't take a tripod, as you can see from the photo above, but the obligatory photos at the peak were taken anyway. The temperature was perfect and it was sooooo quiet up there. They arrived home exhilarated three hours later.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

SVI Photos

Orchestra in action. This year the senior students did chamber music but also participated in Orchestra 2. They loved the fuller slate of daily music programming, and the other orchestra kids appreciated the leadership and added 'oomph' of the senior students.

A wonderful silly breaking-the-ice game at Music & Movement class. Based on cards handed out, participants had to scramble to form "family portraits" as quickly as possible. This family has luckily ended up with Fiona being the Baby on Grandma's lap. As often as not the sizes were reversed, leading to much hilarity.

The Flawless Four in rehearsal. I believe that they were Flawless by Tuesday, so I'm not sure what they were rehearsing in this Thursday photo. They must have just been entertaining their coach with another perfect performance.

More orchestra. Erin, Noah and Sophie were all in the same orchestra, and you can see them in a line here. Noah (orange shirt & glasses) is closest to the camera, Erin's head is immediately above his, and Sophie is a little above and behind Erin.

Fiona's master class. She worked on left hand dexterity for trills, and on left thumb relaxation. She's such a focused, responsive kid in master classes -- it's easy to forget she's only five. These two had a really nice rapport all week long.

I mentioned the string games before. They really took over. Every day the kids learned more and the knowledge was viral. By week's end kids were sharing tricks and games and strings with anyone they met.

Lots of red shirts on the merry-go-round. The two playgrounds adjacent to the school were great for burning off energy and making friends. What a nice bunch of kids!

Family Dance was Tuesday night. It was massive. Almost a hundred and fifty participants. Everyone had a blast. Because the kids had had two Music & Movement classes already by then, many had learned some of the dances. It was time to share them with the older kids, siblings, faculty and other parents. Enthusiasm was infectious. There's something about adults dancing with five-year-olds they've never met, and passing them on around a huge circle, that makes everyone happy.

The ice cream social. Our faculty were pretty happy most of the time I think, but especially with ice cream in hand.

This is where it all happened, and this is the weather we had the whole time. Glorious clear skies and sun, hot enough for multiple trips to Fat Kat's for ice cream and for swimming in the lake but the non-air-conditioned venues stayed at a comfortable temperature even through the afternoons.

Breathing space

Look at what my half-a-terabyte new hard drive has done to relieve my old C: drive of its overload. I moved My Documents over to my new drive and life's good here again. I can download photos off my camera and get new podcasts for my iPod. My computer is much happier. It's still a bit of a dinosaur in terms of processing speed and all that, but it has the Windows memory it needs to open Firefox without me needing to take a coffee break while it does its stuff.

Pink hard drive is a good thing. Photos to follow.

Shoe-guy piano quintet

Erin received her violin part for her string quartet in Edmonton & Montreal and her piano part for her piano quintet back home here for the VSSM the same week. The former was a Schubert piece, the latter a Schumann work. So we talked about the Shoe-guys she was playing this summer. Because she was on her own in Edmonton and Montreal I don't have a video of the quartet performances. But tonight, after being corralled as a page-turner for my kid, I handed the video camera off to Chuck and he recorded the Schumann.

It was a dynamite chamber group she was in this week. At the first rehearsal on Monday when she saw the 1st violinist's cue for the downbeat she realized "holy ___, this is going to be fast!" and her eyes lit up and her adrenaline started pumping and her fingers started their happy fast dance across the keys. She'd been working on the music as the situation allowed for the month or so prior (a challenge given that she was in the midst of scores of hours of string music programming away from home), but she didn't realize who was going to be in the ensemble. When she arrived and saw that these were the students who had been at the top end of the VSSM a year or two ago, it was clear she'd been placed in a rather different league. She ramped up the tempo and thrilled at the challenge.

I think she did a phenomenal job. I hadn't heard any of the rehearsals, so I was as awed and thrilled as everyone else at the performance. And I was right in the thick of it, turning pages, wondering how this kid of mine could possibly be playing all those notes! I am not a pianist, which increases my awe many-fold.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The choral bug

After Erin's Community Choir performance last spring, Noah piped up on the drive home "I think I'd like to sing in a choir like that some day." He'd spent a year in a children's choir in Nelson, and a year in the offshoot boys' choir, until the choral program had evolved into something different on a different day with a different director. But he was making a very bold (and brave, for him!) statement about his dreams and ambitions. Erin immediately launched into a mock rant about how Noah was in no way allowed to join HER choir, at least until his voice had changed and he could be relegated to the far male end of the choir from the first sopranos. Thankfully Noah didn't take her too seriously, and so when I suggested he might sign up for the summer VSSM Adult Choir with Erin, he jumped at the chance. The VSSM Adult Choir is made up of many of the same community members as comprise the regular-season Community Choir. There's a different director and a more intensive 90-minutes-a-day, every day, rehearsal schedule. But otherwise it's your standard 40-voice four-part choir and I thought it'd be a nice challenge for Noah.

He loved it. The 1st violinist from his regular string quartet was also in the choir, and he, Erin and D. had a lovely time. They learned the music well and sang brilliantly. Noah is now vying for the chance to join the Community Choir. Erin is okay with the idea, but we're not sure if they'll have him. He's very young. Even Erin was almost-13 when she first joined, and very much an adolescent and someone who had always naturally gravitated to adults in a social milieu. D. will be the other under-30 person in the choir this year -- but she's 13, a teenager. Noah is still an 11-year-old pre-adolescent kid and while the director knows he'd do just fine, to have someone his age join might set an awkward precedent. So we're not sure whether they'll have him or not. Fingers crossed. If not, maybe by next year.

Erin will also be doing the teen choir in Nelson. She's thrilled. I think we've managed to rearrange our weekly schedule to make this possible. Shifted orchestra to Wednesday, rearranged all the kids' violin and piano lessons, shifted all my mom's out-of-town students to different days so that they can still participate in orchestra.

And Sophie and Fiona and their mom loved singing in Family Choir. It's been a wonderful week, chorally speaking. Largely thanks to Allison, the VSSM choral director, who also directs the Corazon ensemble Erin is joining.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

On gaps

We're still waiting for Fiona's first dental gap to appear. She has a very wiggly lower incisor that she is determined will fall out before the Olympics are over. I'm not sure why this time-line is important to her, but she's shooting for it anyway.

This post is about a different type of gap, the kind that happens when you blissfully ignore the curriculum outcomes by grade and allow your children to learn by way of curiosity, passion and serendipity. When you don't teach your Grade 5 kid all about Canada's pioneers and the solar system, instead allowing him to delve deeply into the history of science, physical and organic chemistry, ancient worlds and the origin of man. I wrote this on a message board in response to a parent who was asking "What if your homeschooled child ends up entering the school system at some point? What do you do to ensure he doesn't have serious gaps?"

When you read those scary studies about what school students actually know (like that 60% of American high schoolers can't find Japan on a world map) you start to appreciate that most of what is taught at school is not actually learned in any permanent meaningful way. There may be all sorts of impressive things on the curriculum outline, but only a portion of that is actually taught by the teacher, only a portion of what's taught is actually absorbed long enough to produce an acceptable unit-end test result, and most of that which is regurgitated on the test is not retained for longer than a few weeks at most. So to my mind it makes absolutely no sense to fuss with "what they're supposed to be learning" according to the school curriculum outcomes. If my kids only learn 80%, or 50%, or even 30% of what's on the Grade 5 science and social studies school curriculum, but they truly learn it because it's stuff that has meaning for them and is motivated by their own interests, they'll probably be farther ahead in the long run, with fewer 'gaps' than kids who supposedly covered it all in Grade 5 but then had most of that learning fall out of their heads after the chapter tests.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A very small celebration

Yesterday Fiona made brownies. Today she decided to use her allotted brownie to celebrate the fact that she gets to start the Dark Green math book. We stuck a candle in it and called it breakfast, since she'd finished the last review exercise in the old book right after rolling out of bed. After getting all sugared up, she dived right into the new book. That was the best reward of all for finishing her first math book -- more math!

(For the record I should say that I don't really believe in early academics. But this particular kid is so enthusiastic, easy-going and joyful in her pursuit of academic skills that I've had to bend to her way of doing things, and I don't really worry about it. After all, it's about her, not me.)

This week is a lot about Erin and Noah, because of their more extensive music program involvement. So it's nice to have a little moment at home to put the focus on Fiona and what she's doing. Now, where is Sophie .... ?

A pocket-sized institute

This was the Suzuki Valhalla Institute. Eight cello students, three viola students, 70 or so violin students. Pre-Twinklers to post-book-10 level. Two orchestras, three string quartets, a couple of reading ensembles, half a dozen group classes a day. An intimate master class for every child every day. Twelve amazing faculty with wide-ranging skills and interests. And the most amazing group of parents -- friendly, caring, flexible, helpful, understanding. Suzuki families, like homeschooling families, are a select bunch. The parents have made a big commitment to being actively involved in their children's learning and holistic growth over the long term. And that means that in the space of just five and a half days an incredible sense of community can spring up.

We didn't get quite everyone for the group photo. I think about an a quarter of the students and parents are missing. But it's still a great representation of the size and the good cheer. I've been to lots of big institutes, and a few small ones. There are advantages to both. This is the loveliest small one I've ever been a part of, though. And I'm not biased!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

VSSM back and forth

While the SVI is circumscribed within the local K-12 public school, the VSSM week currently taking place is a metastatic entity infiltrating two adjacent villages. It is almost three times as big, with string players, pianists and choristers, adult amateurs, music appreciation enthusiasts and young children looking for a first exposure to musical activities. Lessons take place in the school, the nursing home activity room, a variety of community halls and buildings, private homes, vacant storefronts, a firehall, churches and a dental clinic. You may be wondering what becomes of the dentist during the VSSM week. He takes the week off of dentistry and instead drives the courtesy shuttle bus back and forth between the two villages. Everything here is transformed for the week. Music pours out of open doors everywhere.

Erin is enrolled as a piano student during the VSSM week. She'd really rather have focused on violin, but at VSSM for a variety of reasons the piano program is a better fit for her. And it's really her only opportunity to put the primary focus on her 'second instrument.' This year she opted to do chamber music on piano rather than picking up her violin in the afternoon to do orchestra. It turned out to be a lucky choice -- she's been placed in the most advanced piano chamber group with a bunch of very advanced string students and is being coached by some pretty dynamite Winnipegers. She's doing a full six-hour a day program which includes 90 minutes of Adult Choir. Fiona, Sophie and I are just singing in Family Choir -- no string stuff at all for us. Noah opted to sing in the Adult Choir, his first foray into sort-of-sight-singing and four-part arrangements. (I say 'sort of' because the director does help the weaker readers by giving some by-ear help.) He's loving that. And he's also managing to squeeze in private coaching on viola and is doing the "lower advanced" orchestra, playing the Holst "St. Paul's Suite."

All of which means a lot of back-and-forthing. Today, for example, went like this. New Denver at 9, then home. New Denver at 12, then home. Silverton at 12:50, and New Denver at 1:00, the back to Silverton at 2:30, back to New Denver at 2:40, then home. Silverton at 3:45. Home at 4:30. Silverton again at 5:00 and home again. Silverton again at 6:30 pm and home one last time. We opted to give the 7 pm concert in Silverton a miss tonight, after going to last night's. In between driving back and forth I cooked meals, made bag lunches, dealt with the garden and the animals and pulled noxious weeds. The usual stuff.

Is it worth it? After the SVI week the VSSM often seems a bit too chaotic and impersonal for our liking. If we had to go away and pay lots of money to do it we would just stick with the SVI. But here are all these great players and teachers in the midst of our tiny rural villages, and so we can treat it as a smorgasbord and simply pick and choose the classes and teachers that suit us. We don't have to do the full-meal deal. And even considering the taxiing back and forth, it works really well for us.

For instance, Erin's having a heck of a week. Tomorrow she's being coached as a pianist in her chamber quintet by the concertmaster of the Winnipeg Symphony alongside some phenomenal young string players. And about an hour later she's having a violin lesson from the same woman. The advanced piano teacher / coach (the aforementioned violinist's husband) has apparently been quite impressed with her so far this week. And today she was invited into an amazing teen choir based out of Nelson by the director of the Adult Choir. Invited isn't exactly the word. Erin confessed an interest and Allison seemed almost in raptures that she'd be willing to come all that way to sing with them. ("Gone for two months right before the spring tour? Don't worry ... we'll find a way to make it work!")

Erin's life seems rather charmed lately for reasons I don't entirely understand. Don't get me wrong -- I love her dearly and think she's amazing. But I'm stunned that so many other people feel the same way about her when she's so reserved and seemingly difficult to get to know. But people seem to like her ... and these days she seems to actually like people back. She's looking for challenge and adventure and it seems to be finding her.

Monday, August 11, 2008


The senior repertory class at SVI is small, as is the whole institute (80 students), so we have a range of ages and levels and the violins and violas are combined. This year they spent half of each hour-long class working on this very fun composition by Michael MacLean, his "Csardas." They had a lot of fun, in large part because it's such a fun piece. Erin is second from the left, Noah is second from the right, and Sophie is the tiny little thing more or less in the middle. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Flawless Four

I was a little apprehensive about Noah's quartet placement at the SVI. Due to a dearth of violists he was the most experienced chamber music player enrolled this year on viola. When we needed someone to put in a quartet with his vastly capable older sister and another dynamite young violinist, there was really no more logical choice than Noah. I thought, though, that he might be intimidated and lacking in confidence. I turns out I needn't have worried. The quartet, though not ideally matched on paper in terms of levels, experience and maturity, was beautifully cohesive in reality. Noah's musicality, Erin's experience, Nicole's sensitivity and confidence and Nick's all-round balance of good humour and work ethic made for an ensemble that, it was clear from day one, was going to be impressive. Five hours of rehearsing later we ended up with four kids calling themselves "The Flawless Four."

They were set up in a very 'open' configuration for performance due to the constraints of the stage, playing more or less in a row rather than a cluster. The result was that Noah's hard-won habit of communicating visually with his quartet-mates ended up involving a lot of rubber-necking. Watch his head during the last few chords .... oh my, we laughed when we noticed that on the video.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Black bear in a cherry tree

Bears are a fact of life where we live. Black bears mostly; grizzlies thankfully stay in the alpine. Once the cherries are ripe, and until the last of the frost-ripened apples are gone, bears are simply part of the fabric of rural life. We don't see them every day, but often for stretches of several days in a row there will be a bear or two in the neighbourhood, and that typically happens several times over the course of late summer and fall.

The Suzuki Valhalla Institute venue is in a lovely area in the centre of town. Classes are held in the local K-12 school. Parents and children practice outside beneath trees, children roam freely to and from the playgrounds at either end of the school, wander over to Fat Kat's to buy themselves ice cream cones, or down the little hill through the orchard area to Nuru for Italian sodas.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, 'bears in the neighbourhood' meant the neighbourhood that surrounds the Suzuki Valhalla Institute venue, during the actual institute week itself. There was a 2- or 3-year-old black bear chowing down in the cherry trees directly across from the school. Maybe 40 or 50 metres from the lobby, beside the laneway to Nuru, right next to where everyone parks and unloads their children and instruments.

So we put up a sign. "Bear in area. Parents please supervise your children." We encouraged children to walk to and from the playgrounds only on the sidewalk directly in front of the school building. Most of the institute participants were able to see the bear and enjoy watching him for a few minutes. The main concern was a few folk from cities who were desperate to get too close and take photos, but they were easily redirected. Mostly people stayed back and watched respectfully. A few people asked whether the Wildlife Officer should be called. Locals chuckled and said no. Here we only call about Problem Bears, and just being in a cherry tree enjoying an extended dessert is not a Problem.

One young child came out of his 2 pm class and read the warning sign in the lobby of the school.

"Look mom!" he exclaimed. "It says 'bear in area, parents please surprise your children!'"

The bear was there for most of the afternoon. It was quite the event for many of our institute participants. When we headed out to the community hall for our final concerts in the late afternoon he was still there.

The performances were stunning. The quartet Erin and Noah were in (photo above) did a phenomenal job. Video to follow, I hope.

So finally we understand the significance of this year's T-shirt colours ... black bear in a cherry tree.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Observing for learning

My younger kids are enrolled with a wonderful Distributed Learning program (DL) through an independent school here in BC. This is a government-funded program which provides support (financial and otherwise) in exchange for reporting. Once a week for 34 weeks a year we submit an anecdotal report called "Observing for Learning" or O4L. Noah often contributes some of the content of his report. Sophie hasn't begun to do so yet. The idea is to report not on what was done but on what was meaningful to the children. Our particular DL is wonderfully holistic and unschooling-minded, and they don't want to just hear "did lessons 17-19 in Singapore Math 3B." They want to gradually develop a picture of why and how different types of learning are occurring and how the child feels about them -- and how they are relevant in terms of overall growth of the child.

While it's difficult to give a good portrayal of the reporting style with a snapshot, I thought I'd pull a random O4L from the archives and share it here for the heck of it. People are always asking me what O4L's are like and maybe this will help them understand.

First, a proviso. Most of the time I actually like writing O4Ls because they are a chance for me to reflect on what's going on, to celebrate changes and progress, and to create a sort of virtual memory book of my kids' learning. So I tend to write very thorough reports, more than most parents write. My impression is that most parents write about half this much. (If any of you are lurking, please feel free to comment on this!) So if you're a prospective SelfDesign parent and can't envision doing reports this lengthy, do not be scared away. I think I probably go way overboard.

Sophie finally finished knitting one of her mittens. The thumb, with its fiddly four-needle knitting, had been waiting to get finished for ages. She's since cast on the second mitten. She's also started a little purse for herself and is adapting a pattern in a knitting book (using stocking stitch rather than garter stitch).

We arrived early at aikido this week because Fiona wanted to watch the little kids' class that precedes Noah's & Sophie's (which she loved and joined on the spot). When the sensei needed an assistant for a game, she asked Sophie to help out, which she did quite comfortably and confidently.

Sophie and Noah both did very well and enjoyed themselves a lot in their own class. They were extremely focused, which is something the rest of the class is working on. Sophie commented afterwards that it's good to have at least two people in your family doing Aikido, so that you can practice the attack/defence movements at home with a partner. Noah said he likes how much thinking there is in Aikido. They both seem to be learning a lot about how they learn and where their strengths and comfort zones lie. I am particularly enamoured of how competitiveness is handled by the two sensei; it seems totally consistent with what we do at home and my kids are comfortable with it.

At home after aikido this week, the gym mats came down from the loft. Since the living part of our house is concrete slab floors with just a thin layer of no-underlay grotty carpet, no one would want to go ka-thunk-flop on them as-is. But with the mats practicing aikido is terrific fun. They are thrilled to have them. They've been working like crazy on their rolls, helping each other, coaching Fiona, refining their skills, and the mats have made all the difference.

The kids' aunt in Winnipeg, who is a Suzuki violin teacher herself, needed some help figuring out how to do internet video-conferencing, as she's trying to help teach a bunch of kids in the Yukon at a distance. So we reinstalled our webcam, fired up a Skype account and rang her up. The kids had a hoot waving, talking and being goofy. We were specifically wanting to test how well it would work for music, so Anna asked if they would play their instruments. Sophie was happy to play a Bach Gavotte from the beginning of Suzuki Book 5 and did a nice clean job. (The image quality is of course quite poor, but with good-quality mikes we could actually get pretty decent sound.)

Aikido has got the kids interested in Japanese again. They need to learn to say a few short greeting phrases, to count to ten or twenty and to recognize the meanings of words for certain moves, stances and body parts. Sophie has been enthusiastically counting and revisiting kana and a few kanji.

I had bought two sets of Professor Noggin trivia cards a couple of months ago to help deal with boredom during long van trips. This week's trip to Calgary was the trip when they seemed to catch the kids' interests. We had the Science set, which the kids did very well on. They only missed a very few of the hardest questions the first time around ... and they correctly noticed two errors! And their mistaken answers were 100% correct the second time around. There were plenty of offshoot discussions and all told I think the kids spent about three hours with these cards.

The other set was Canadian History, something we've barely touched on in the past three or four years. Before we left home for Calgary there was a general consensus from the kids that "we know a lot about general history, especially ancient history, but not enough about Canadian." We had Pierre Berton's set of books for middle-schoolers sitting on our bookshelf so I pulled them out and they picked the "Canada Moves West" set to start with. I grabbed the first one to take with us to Calgary. I read the first half of it while we were on our trip and it turned out to be a great coincidence that this book was about surveying BC for the CPR, and tons of the places and people being discussed were part of the geography we were driving through. The whole beginning of the book was about Walter Moberly, whom I'd never heard of ... and while we were driving through Golden we saw signs to Moberly Mtn, and Moberly Bench Road and the Blaeberry River and all these places that were in the book. And trains chugged by our motel and our minivan the whole trip.

The kids didn't do very well with the Canadian history Prof. Noggin cards, though they memorized a lot of the answers. It's very neat to have the interest in filling some gaps coming from them. We have a lot of resources (Erin went through a fair bit of Canadian history when she was about Sophie's age) and I was just waiting for some interest. We'll see where this goes...

Imaginations run wild in the van during long trips. With nothing more than a bit of food and a box of kleenex, the kids managed to amuse themselves for hours with wild stories and entertainment of various sorts. Here's a sample of the entertainment during today's 8-hour drive:

Photo: Moaning Myrtle in her kleenex wedding gown, with her fiancé the Water King, wearing his fetching toilet-paper tuxedo, dancing as finger-puppets. Costume assembly took quite some time, with the tuxedo proving the main challenge. Sophie was the costume designer for the Water King.

Erin and Sophie spend an hour or more doing dramatic readings from the juice and milk cartons, inventing many vitamins in the process and explaining that good sources of Vitamin S are squids, snails and slugs, and that it's not a coincidence that these are all "S" animals, because before scientists name new species, they put the animal in a blender and then do a vitamin analysis of the liquefied remains, and name the animal with the letter of the most prominent vitamin.

It is explained that cows are actually birds, not mammals, and that the apparent presence of mammary glands is due to blocked oviducts. The eggs are massive and internal, and as they build up inside they inflate the poor bird to bovine proportions. Leaking eggwhite can be 'milked' from the oviducts. Sophie expresses disgust that cows are not in any of our bird-watching books.

At least two hours are devoted to the mastery and continued embellishment of a rhythmic chant of Harry Potter character names, in the style of this Potter Puppet Pals production. Rather than 6 characters, my kids' version has over two dozen, and they spend a long time notating them, discussing which beats are syncopated, which come after the beat, how many repetitions in each bar, and so on. More rehearsing ensues. I get recruited to help. They manage to keep four or five contrary changing rhythms going at a time, despite much giggling. They christen it the Potterbel Canon....

Finally this week we got some time set aside to get back at math. Sophie was working on percentages & bank systems in word problems, and then on to some basic work with averages. We had a discussion about the role of savings vs. loan interest in allowing banks to make money. Averages are easy and intuitive for Sophie. She in a Good Math Zone right now, feeling comfortable and confident, and interested in discussions that extend the ideas we encounter in the book.

At violin lesson Sophie played her best Vivaldi a minor ever. Despite her good intentions, she had declined to work with me during her practicing two of the three times I offered. And the Corelli ensemble part we'd started to work on hadn't got properly mastered in time for her lesson. So she was reminded to get cracking on it. (It's not bad, but she is still playing it slowly with lots of hesitations.) Maybe she'll choose to work with me more this next week. She's been asked to work on some subtle little refinements in her bowhand to round out the big gains in bow direction, balance and point of contact that she's made over the last few months. She focused on this really well and did well trying some exercises out at her lesson.

So there you have it. What is, for me, a fairly typical O4L report.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hump Day

Wednesday is usually Hump Day at Suzuki institutes, the day many people feel a little tired and drawn. Since we had a humongous Family Dance and Ice Cream Social last night which dragged on until dark, there was an extra reason for everyone to be tired. But most of the kids were still riding high today. Mine certainly were energized.

Fiona is loving her master classes. She's working on left hand dexterity and relaxing her left thumb. Her recital performance of "Two Grenadiers" was a huge crowd-pleaser yesterday. She's in just slightly over her head in "Violin Orchestra" where most of the other kids are over 10, many with sight-reading experience on other instruments, but the more beginnerish reading group wouldn't schedule for her because being in Book 3 she has a group class conflict. But she's so quick to pick stuff up by ear that she quickly catches on and she's not feeling unduly frustrated. In group class she's dwarfed by the teens, but she stays pretty well on-task and is enjoying herself.

Sophie did a confident solo at recital yesterday too with big tone and nice open bowing. Her master class has missed the mark a little; she's a bit of a tough nut to crack, this kid, as she gets more and more inhibited in her playing the more she thinks and the more she's talked to. She needs more of a slappin' about kind of encouragement ("sorry, not enough, give me more... no -- more ... no, twice as much ... getting there, now double it again!") rather than the gentle cautious stroking that her size and body language suggest she needs. She's a tough kid and she'll open up but only if she's ordered to, but you'd never guess that to look at her. Anyway, she does seem comfortable and motivated by the week. She's really enjoying orchestra and the Csardas she's doing in violin ensemble and is opening up her playing there.

Noah is riding high in all his classes. He's in the most advanced quartet (with Erin) and is doing fabulously. Master class is going well. Teachers always like working with Noah; he's quiet, sensitive and extremely musical, and responds very well to suggestions. He's enjoying orchestra, quartet and violin/viola ensemble and getting lots of just the right sort of challenge.

Erin is not getting much musical challenge, but is getting a good helping of time with her two closest friends and a fair bit of opportunity for leadership. Together with some of the faculty she a her friends have also engineered a 'special feature' ensemble, working up a rollicking Czech folk song featuring keyboard, percussion, accordion, voice and strings. Six faculty, four senior students, lots of foot-stomping energy!

While our institute is too small to offer lots of added value for advanced kids, we do allow and even encourage this sort of boundary-crossing, with senior students hanging out with and jamming with faculty. Erin and Noah and four of the other senior kids played in the faculty orchestra at tonight's "Tutti Night" event, for instance. They also took on the pseudo-faculty role of leading groups of violinists in some of the concerto movements they played. Good stuff.

So as we slide down the other side of Hump Day there's lots of good stuff happening. We're already dreading the end of the week.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A stringy week

This is how full my hard drive is. The pink bit is all that's left for my poor Windows XP to work with. Things are slow as molasses here and I certainly can't put new things on my computer right now. You'll have to be patient if I don't upload a lot of photos or videos just now. There's a bottleneck in the data flow. A new secondary hard drive is on the way. When that arrives my iPod will no longer have more memory than my desktop computer.

Today at the Suzuki Institute my elder two kids performed on solo recitals. They both blew me away. Noah's Bach Allemande was so sensitive and clean, musical and unrestrained, but yet still rhythmic and flowing. Erin's Bloch was a technical wonder full of power and passion. I did manage to squeeze a low-res still shot off the video camera. Somehow a tie-dye T-shirt doesn't fit with "an improvisational scene from Hasidic life," but you can trust me that the music fit the mood the composer had intended.

Once my hard drive arrives and the institute wraps up I'll have time to upload proper photos and videos. I'm taking them -- they'll just have to reside on tape and memory cards for a little while yet.

String games have taken the institute by storm. Cat's cradle and a zillion more. We have two faculty members who are experts, one of whom is teaching the kids tricks as part of their movement/folk-dance class and the other who is sharing freely of her expertise outside of class time. The stuff has caught on like wildfire and the faculty seem as caught up in it as anyone else.

Here's a typical scene from the lobby area ... kids eagerly watching, learning, sharing, waiting a turn with Marian, string loops in hand. They delightedly tried out string tricks on each other, on their parents, and on other faculty members.

There was a brief polite reminder necessary before the recital started today ... "strings in pockets, please." I love it when something this simple catches on like this, especially when it crosses generational boundaries and brings assorted dyads and triads of people together for fun and eager learning.