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.


  1. Thank you for your posts! You inspire me and give me encouragement in so many ways. Sophie, that is a fine looking mitten!

  2. I really enjoyed reading that, and it gave me some ideas as to how to keep better records for myself than simply jotting down pages and chapters.

  3. What a wonderful post. I remember you writing about the creativity that springs forth on car trips before and it makes me curious you see that creativity as a result of the way you've parented your children? Could you elaborate sometime. I don't remember ever having that sort of self-entertainment ability. And, I fear my son won't without some guidance on my part. However, I have no idea how to help him.

    How does long-distance violin teaching work, do you think? We've been thinking about where to move next (as per my previous post) and would love it to be a remote spot, but worry that we'll regret the distance from big-city resources. It doesn't seem that your family has, but they have you! :-) And, their personalities seem suited to your small, somewhat remote town. DS loves action, so we fear moving too far from the city unless, of course, he learns to play creatively on his own. Eek! Long post, sorry!!

  4. We participate in the exact kind of program here, just with different cutesy names. I too wrote the over-detailed reports because I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed having the record for myself.

    More power to you!


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