Sunday, November 30, 2008

My five children

... four of them cheering on the fifth who is enthusiastically dismembering an ancient carnival stuffie. Beneath the baby grand piano, of all places.

"Get his head off! Oh yeah, his head!"

"Oooh... disemboweling..."

At 11:15 pm. Just yer average Burkholder weirdness. The dog seems to fit right in.


I'm glad this isn't how it goes when the kids have playdates.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New to unschooling

Part of a message board post I wrote to a mom new to homeschooling and to unschooling, dealing with frustration that her child is not the slightest bit interested in anything that resembles "work" or "schoolwork"...

Unschooling does not mean giving your children educational autonomy in the expectation that they will willingly gravitate to exactly the sorts of things you would have required of them in the first place. As uncomfortable as it may seem, for unschooling to work properly you need to make peace with the possibility that your child may not choose what you want him to choose -- and he needs to know that he will be valued and supported in those 'other' choices. I'm not saying this is easy! It is something I continue to wrestle with, even ten years into this racket.

It's important to realize that just because your child is making 'other' choices doesn't mean that unschooling isn't "working." Sometimes the learning is just going in different directions, or is quiescent, or is building momentum under the surface, or doesn't look like what we expect. It's going on all the same. Sometimes the learning is more holistic but more important than we can see when we're in the thick of it. My eldest spent a few months doing almost no violin playing at all ... and what she learned was that she missed it, and that she has a passion for it -- and that knowledge has propelled her to fantastic heights in the year and a half since. Another example: I used to worry quietly to myself about my son who had almost no interest in writing and spent all his time on the computer tinkering with games and code. He even began talking in internet acronyms, saying ROFL (pronouncing it aloud as "rawful") rather than laughing. But then one day I realized that he was not only learning complex physics through game programming, but he was reading bits of German (game developers' documentation) and writing some pretty cool stories and reviews in a computer-gaming vein. I was so busy worrying over what he wasn't doing that I didn't see all the learning that was going on.

So my first two pieces of advice would be to try to let go of the expectation that your child will naturally gravitate to exactly the learning that you'd have chosen for him, and to hone your observation skills so that you can see the learning that is actually going on instead.

My other advice would be to put your relationship first. Don't fuss with schooling, outcomes or academic expectations at all until you've sorted out your family relationships. It sounds to me like there's a lot he's doing behaviourally that is pushing your buttons, and that there's an atmosphere in your home of frustration and disappointment and that Some People may not be living up to others' expectations of them. Ultimatums in disguise, unhappiness and all that.

That's the first front I'd work on. I've always found that happy children who like their lives and like being with the people they love are hard-working, optimistic, motivated children who enjoy making their parents happy. I've felt like you do more times than I'd care to admit. I'd say that 99% of my despair is solved by a change in my attitude that then changes my relationship with my child. Not only do I view things-as-they-are more favourably, but my child behaves more favourably and things actually improve in a real sense.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Smudge Princess

I mentioned the other day how Erin is managing to take even the exercises in her writing class that have not been to her liking at all and make them work for her. Since she's been a tenacious, autonomy-driven (i.e. stubborn as a mule) kind of kid her whole life, I'm impressed that she is doing this.

Case in point: an illustrated children's story, to be read aloud to peers and the Kindergarten and Grade 1 students at the school. "Illustrated?!" Erin asks incredulously. "What's that got to do with writing? Your publisher is supposed to hire someone to illustrate for you! Why do we have to do stupid illustrations?"

But a couple of hours later she has finished an illustrated children's story. The protaganists are (wait for it ...)

a smudge


a dot.

The illustrations are actually quite endearing, in a seriously minimalist way.

Sit! Down!

She had clearly been taught to sit when we got her, but the learning was a little tenuous. Within a week we had firmed that up. Then Fiona and Sophie started adding a "stay" to the "sit." That started to take root. Over the past few days we've got from 1-2 seconds' stay to a ten second wait with a step or two back and turning away briefly.

And then today, all in a rush, after a few days of frustration, she got the "down" thing. At first it would only work in the family room, where she likes to lie down anyway, and only with me. But within an hour she'd generalized it to the girls as well and to locations throughout the house.

What a great dog! She is so eager to please. Sometimes slightly misguided, but always eager.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

School term 1

Apparently Erin has completed Term 1 at school. At least, a report card came home, a somewhat odd affair listing tallies for lates, absences, in-class attitude & effort and such-like, most of which don't apply to her in the usual sense. Anyway, it seems like an opportune moment to cast a glance over the experience and have a little think about how it's working.

She's "doing fine" in terms of grades. Straight A's, lots of positive comments from the teachers she's interacting with. They are very impressed by her work ethic and her focus. They seem to like having her around and feel she's a good influence in the Facilitated Learning Centre (FLIC) and the writing class. Despite the fact that when she lingers over lunch out at a local café with friends they are reprimanded for coming back late and she is not -- since she is in a 'modified program' where she sets her own hours. These are mostly Grade 11/12 students she's cutting class with, so I guess they're supposed to know better than to be led astray by a Grade 9'er who doesn't have to play by the rules.

There's no doubt she's had to play catch-up a bit in math in particular. I continue to be impressed with the depth of the understanding that's expected of regular academic-stream Grade 10's in our province. It's far beyond anything I've seen in typical American school or homeschool textbooks. And so, having done almost no math in the previous 4 years, Erin has been challenged by the math work. But she's caught up efficiently, simply by doing a bit more work, and has aced all the unit tests and such. She very much enjoys the intellectual challenge of math, a fact which was quite unexpected to me. She doesn't really "like math," but she likes that it demands a lot of her intellectually, and that her mastery is easily measured. She has worked hard and has done very well. She plans to start Math 11 once she returns from Asia at the end of February. I've no doubt she'll manage it just fine. Her "catching up" is pretty much complete now and things are rolling along quite smoothly.

The challenge in Science 10 has been in coming to understand schoolish expectations. What does a "project" or "presentation" entail? How high is the bar? How much research is expected? How closely must a definition on a test match the textbook definition in order to be awarded full marks? Is the companion student workbook a crucial or an ancillary part of the coursework? Science has offered much less intellectual challenge, but a lot of learning in terms of what school assignments and evaluation are all about. While the actual science content is reasonably advanced, there's a lot in this course that smacks of busy-work and regurgitation. Erin recognizes this and has had to find a way to balance understanding and hoop-jumping that works for her.

Writing has been the most stimulating course for her in terms of personal growth. She writes brilliantly and easily from inspiration, but writing "to task" and for a particular audience has been totally new to her. It's required a lot of maturity, I think, for her to find a groove where she can share, be creative and be herself and yet feel safe and secure. Some of the writing exercises have not been to her liking at all, yet she's rallied and found ways to make them work for her.

The fourth phantom course is Music Harmony. Her piano teacher feels strongly that piano students at her level should be learning music harmony in a formal way. For the past year or two we've pretty much swept the issue aside saying that Erin is still pretty young, and we'd get to it when she was ready. A few weeks ago she decided she would like to have a harmony textbook on hand to turn to as a break from math and science in the FLC at the school from time to time. And so she's begun working through Mark Sarnecki's Harmony 1 book on her own. It's pretty much a college-level course. We'll see how she progresses with that.

Overall she doesn't much like getting up in the morning and going to school. She finds the weeks long and tiring. She still stays up well past midnight, and 8 a.m. comes way too early. But she gets herself up, knowing I'm not going to take that on for myself. Sometimes she's "late" (not that it matters, but she has her own expectation of being there during school hours), but usually not by much. She stays in the FLC continuing to work through most lunch periods and so is revered by the school staff as an exceptionally motivated student. The bonus is that her violin practicing happens without any additional structure, because her routine is to head to her grandma's after school, where there's really only violin practicing for her to do, and then get a ride home two hours later. By the time she gets home at 5:15, all she has left to do is any self-assigned homework plus her piano practicing...

Except that then there's one choir or another three days a week, and orchestra or group class once a week. Not to mention all the other-extra things like recitals, concerts and rehearsals and family social commitments. And the monthly three days spent getting her to and from violin lessons in Calgary. And the driving back and forth from Nelson. Piano lessons. And so on. So the reality is that her life is very very full.

I think that if she didn't have the two month trip to Asia on the horizon, she'd be feeling like she was trapped on a speeding treadmill. Thanks to the trip she knows she has a big break and change of pace and a logical chance to re-evaluate her academic program. She'll return a month into the second semester of the school year, and there will be a chance to start a new slate of courses if she wants. I expect she'll continue with something similar upon her return, but the important thing is that she'll have made a conscious choice to do so. And there will only be four months remaining in the school year at that point. She hopes to complete math and writing before Christmas (technically the term ends at the end of January, but she'll be gone then). She'd like to finish Science too, but I think that's not quite as likely. It's open-ended, and she can easily leave it until her return. But overall, school has been wonderful for her this term.

And her visa for Myanmar arrived yesterday!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Erin's Mozart

La Folia

Here's my middle girl. Everyone loves her, but she's not often the one to grab the headlines. She likes to do a good job but is comfortable in a background role most of the time.

Someday, like her older siblings before her, her attention-seeking performer's persona will probably arrive on the scene. In the meantime, while she quite enjoys performing, she has to consciously put on that attention-seeking persona as a costume. It's a cloak she doesn't feel quite natural in yet and it tends to slip off her shoulders if she's not keeping an eye on it.

But this La Folia is a big step in the right direction. She kept that costume on most of the time and wore it proudly. It is not an easy piece to play, either from a technical standpoint or in the sense of putting it musically and rhythmically together with the piano. It's like 13 separate little pieces, each with it's own ensemble and technique challenges -- and it's long! When she sat after performing she looked very pleased, but said "wow, that seemed to go on forever!"

Fiona's Bourrée

Fiona has been on a bit musical plateau with violin this fall. We were without lessons from mid-August until the second week of October and that got things off to a slow start. When we got back she easily polished up the first Seitz Concerto movement from Book 4 and while she was given permission to get started on the next one several times, she just didn't seem enthused about moving ahead.

I do worry about the musical and intellectual demands of a 5-year-old working at this level, so I would never want to "assign" new repertoire to her. I've always waited until she's really feeling ready for a new challenge before helping her move ahead. And she seemed happy just to percolate away at her current repertoire level. Instead this fall she's been working hard at learning orchestra music and honing her sight-reading skills -- and of course she's been busy diving into piano lessons, reading novels and starting new challenging stuff in math. She finally launched into the next piece a couple of weeks ago and learned most of it, but then sort of set it aside as she prepared for this weekend's recital.

She was going to perform the Bach Bourrée at the end of Book 3. A week ago she told me quite cheerfully that she was a little worried about playing it badly. Since she was playing fine, I told her that and did my best to reassure her, telling her she'd have lots of rehearsal time and would probably feel less worried after she'd had a chance to play with the accompanist. The first rehearsal went pretty well, so I figured she'd feel better. The only difficulty she'd had was with remembering the final repeat before the 'da capo.' The final rehearsal she had some of the same difficulties. The piece has four separate repeats, plus a final 'da capo' of the first two sections, this time without repeats. And it's five minutes long. It's quite normal for the repeats to be a bit of a problem. She seemed little "tryish"1 but otherwise fine.

Most of the time she's outgoing, a delighted and enthusiastic performer with very high standards for herself but a resilient roll-with-the-punches kind of attitude. Maybe she was overtired from piano recital the night before. Maybe her perfectionism is looming closer to the surface as she gets older and more intellectually sophisticated. Maybe whatever violin aimlessness she's had this fall was at the root of it. But when it came time to stand up and perform, she was sure she was going to forget repeats and somehow that wasn't acceptable. Her chin started quivering about 8 bars in and by the time she began the repeat of the first section she was starting to cry. I scooped her up and out of the performance space. She hugged me and asked "do I have to play?" Well of course not! I hugged her back plenty.

Later she said she was a little disappointed that she had not played. She would have loved to have played something "without nasty repeats." (If only we'd known how she'd been feeling about this -- there were plenty of other things she could have played!) But it was okay. She knew she'd made the right choice at the time. There will be plenty of other recitals, and she's already looking forward to them.

So the video above is of her rehearsal, not her aborted performance. You can see where her "repeat worries" were already looming. But I think you can still get a sense of how she's playing these days. I'm sure that when she's ready her "zoom" will return.

1 tryish adj. trī-ish
The state of being highly focused on an outcome and susceptible to potential frustration.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Number 5 Dance Guy

Noah chose two contrasting pieces to play on the recital. One was tender and sentimental, the other rollicking and showy. It was only when I saw the written program that I realized both were Number 5 Dances. Meaning he had chosen the fifth of six short pieces in the Beethoven "Country Dances" suite as well as that well-known Hungarian Dance #5 by Brahms.

His Brahms finished the concert for us. There's no way anyone could have played anything after this finish!

Big music weekend

It started on Friday evening. We hosted a 2-hour workshop / rehearsal with an accompanist. Saturday brought three more such workshop sessions for my various kids and students.

Then at 5 pm that day we headed off to Nelson. To mark Canada Music Week there was a piano recital featuring all Canadian music. Fiona performed out of her (Canadian) primer book, and Erin did a minimalist Alexina Louie piece called "Changes." I think she would rather have done the much more challenging François Morel Concert Etude she's been working up, but it wasn't quite ready, being quite new to her. Fiona was terminally cute, the tiniest participant by far as you can see in the group photo. That's Erin positioned directly above/behind Fiona. Anyway, it was a fine recital, Fiona's first on piano, and we got home at bedtime.

Today we got up in time to begin the schedule of dress rehearsals in preparation for today's local string recital. Rehearsals ran throughout the morning. Then there was a short break and the afternoon performance.

So that has meant two recitals in the space of 20 hours on two different instruments in two different towns. The kids are going to just hang out tonight. I have to make an out-of-town trip this evening to pick up some fundraising stuff, but they are just going to hang out, maybe watch a video and eat popcorn.

It turns out there are only four more performances until Christmas -- one for the local choir that Erin and Noah sing in, two for Erin's youth choir in Nelson and one for the orchestra. Fiona, who is totally into playing Christmas tunes on the piano, would like to participate in a couple of informal 'living room recitals,' but preparation for those is minimal so they don't really count. So I think we can handle the rest of the performance slate easily. Most years it's been busier than this. But I'm still glad to be done with all the busy stuff from this weekend.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Both the piano room and the music-teaching room in our house are carpeted with low 7-foot ceilings covered in acoustic tile. "Acoustic" as in "none." Meaning they're totally sound-deadening. In addition the rooms are carpeted and too small to begin with. Making music in one of these rooms is like playing into your pillow. If there were a way to modify the rooms, I'd do it. But the ceilings can't be moved up a foot, because there are rooms up there, nor can the exterior walls be moved. Hardwood flooring may help -- it's on my wish-list -- but I'm not sure it would help much.

I mentioned that as soon as we arrived in the Great Room of the cabin we stayed at on our holidays my kids chirped excitedly about the acoustics, ran and grabbed their instruments and played their hearts out. I guess I was lucky growing up. We had medium-sized rooms, but they had high turn-of-the-century ceilings. The acoustics were pretty okay in the carpeted living room, and even better in the kitchen over the smooth floor. Guess where I always ended up when practicing?

Erin doesn't normally like practicing in the public areas of the house. Today, though, we held one session of a workshop with an accompanist here and so she was already playing in front of the rest of us. Afterwards, stoked by the opportunity she'd had to play three different concerto movements with a good accompanist, she gravitated to the kitchen, where the acoustics are slightly better. And she played and played, thrilled to have a more resonant space to play in.

The other kids were getting pretty ticked off, though. A violin is very loud, especially if Erin is playing it. The living part of our house is all open-concept ... kitchen, dining area, living room and family room all connected. You can't even think with that shrill two-octaves-above-middle-C Mozart cadenza stuff ringing in your ears. Let alone hear anything on the computer, listen to a readaloud story, work on math, watch a video, play a board game or have a conversation.

Erin would like us to build a cathedral on the property somewhere. A smallish cathedral, I guess, but one with enough open resonant space inside that there is joy in filling it with music. I suspect all of us would find more intrinsic reward in practicing if we had one. I admit the idea intrigues me. A dedicated resonant acoustic space, large enough to host Suzuki group classes, quartet rehearsals and chamber music concerts. With hard floors and walls and a high vaulted ceiling. We can dream.

Old house, new house

Our house consists of two distinct parts. These can be variously described as:

Old house and new house
Log house and framed house
Day-time house and night-time house
Wood stove house and furnace house

And now, to this we add ...

Dog house and cat house

The cat and dog do not get along. It's mostly the cat's fault. She has made it clear that she does not like the dog. She lies in ambush behind doorways. She initiates spats. She's like the conniving older sibling, baiting the younger sister with subtle jibes until the little one explodes, then acts all innocent.

Gradually they are working out the details of a ceasefire. It appears the cat is claiming the new house, the part that contains beds, comforters and silence. The dog is claiming the old house, the part with the wood stove, the kids and the unguarded half loaf of banana bread.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hot rod in the garage

Excerpted from a message board post:

Much about institutional schooling exists not because it's the best or the only way to learn but because it helps with the management issues of a mass-education system. Testing, standardized curriculum, chopping learning up into subject areas and grade levels, homework, science labs, report cards, credits, the top-down model of teacher dispensing learning to student and so on. All this stuff is, in my opinion, part of the school system merely because it makes for a semi-efficient factory model of education. The deeper you get into homeschooling the more you realize that education can really look like anything you want it to. If you're building a single hot rod in your garage you don't need an assembly plant, CEO, union reps, robotic assemblers, ad execs, fiscal planners, lawyers and a mission statement, right?

Same deal with homeschooling.

Dangerous book for grown-ups

For the past couple of years the "Dangerous Book for Boys" and its companion the "Daring Book for Girls" have revived interest in some of the lost arts and traditions of childhood. We don't actually own either of these books, but I think our family tends to gravitate to many of these pursuits anyway. I have kids who can whittle swords and marshmallow sticks, tie secure knots, knit, build a wattle fence, rappel out of a treehouse, build an igloo and fold a mean paper airplane.

Recently on a message board I came across a post from someone who was having trouble getting her wood stove to heat up quickly in the morning. Her procedure sounded onerous and time-consuming. I posted my standard procedure:

"I start out with two medium sized logs, one on the left and one on the right. In between I put paper or birchbark. On top I put kindling. On top of that, like a roof built between the two large logs, I put a couple of pieces of smaller dry wood. And on top of that I put one larger log. So I basically have three large logs in already when I light the match. I touch the match to the paper and that's that. The paper lights the kindling, the kindling lights the smaller wood, and the smaller wood lights the logs. Doing it this way the stove only takes 10 or 15 minutes to start to really crank out heat."

It seemed like a really basic no-brainer technique. I've been laying fires outside and in fireplaces and woodstoves since I was a little kid and it never occurred to me that people would need to be taught this as adults. But several people wrote back and said that my explanation was a revelation to them, that they could now light a hot fire in no time and with a fraction of the fuss that they'd been experiencing before.

So I wonder if we need a "Dangerous Book for Grown-ups" that has instructions for basic 'simplicity' type skills that have nearly got lost in the past couple of generations. Things like baking yeasted bread, laying a fire in a wood stove, beating a rug, darning a sock, splitting firewood, changing an oil filter, building a backyard skating rink ...

What else do you suppose would be in such a book?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Algebra for breakfast

Oh happiness! Fiona's long-awaited Hands-On Equations kit finally arrived. Breakfast today is therefore cheerios and algebra.

Shown here: x + 8 = 3x.

And cheerios.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Aikido and crochet

They play a game at aikido to work on their rolls where the kids run one at a time towards the sensei. He tosses a hackey sack towards them as they near him. The idea is that they'll catch the hackey sack in one hand and do an aikido roll over that shoulder. Then they toss the sack back to the sensei, who tosses it to the next runner. The more capable kids are encouraged to alternate sides. Less advanced kids just do whatever comes most easily, and the important thing is the roll, not whether you catch the hackey sack or not.

Fiona is doing part of the bigger kids' classes these days, and this week she got frustrated by her inability to catch the hackey sack. She really just needs someone to play toss and catch with her at home. Coincidentally that morning I had woken up and decided to try to teach myself to crochet. I had spent aikido class practicing a single crochet stitch with the only tools I had on hand -- a DK-weight wool yarn and a finicky 2.5 mm crochet hook. Kismet or something. Clearly a hackey sack was meant to materialize from my yarn and little hook.

I frogged out my practice work and went home and googled. I'm not nearly good enough at crocheting yet to follow a pattern, but I did manage to figure out increases and decreases and working in the round, which really isn't rocket science in the crochet realm. And today, with the addition of some rice and a bit of the toe of some old tights, we have a hackey sack.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we were beginning to realize that we needed a dog again. The rest of the family was all for it, and had been for some time, but I guess I had borne the brunt of the grief and guilt over our dog-from-hell experience a couple of years back so it took me longer to come around. We'd had a wonderful dog before that, but that great guy had been trained when Chuck and I had no kids except our puppy. It was very different trying to train an immense dog in a household with small terrified children. Once bitten (or, should I say, head-butted), twice shy.

Enter Baby Girl. She had been in the shelter system for over a year. Picked up as a stray and unclaimed, she's about three years old and had been living with a particular foster family for the past year. They'd pretty much decided to keep her because they enjoyed her so much. But then health problems and hospitalization of her caregiver got in the way, and I happened to be searching the on-line listings of dogs for adoption a day or two after she got actively listed for adoption again. Her size sounded about right (Staffordshire Bull Terrier / Lab cross, with a likely helping of mutt) and she had such glowing recommendations concerning her temperament ("she is one of the best dogs they've had (they've had hundreds)") that we immediately decided she was someone we'd like to try out.

She loves us. We love her. She's mellow most of the time, but with a healthy dose of rambunctiousness when encouraged to play.

Everyone assures me they'll help this time. Though I notice I'm the only one so far who has taken her out in the sleet and dark to do her business. But she loves me best, and with this girl that's some compensation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Extending patterns

Fiona and I were waiting for Sophie's Aikido class to finish. We were hanging out in the van. She had brought along her math but after a couple of minutes decided she didn't want to do any more of that, but would like to do some "different math." On a paper I drew pictures:

square, triangle, circle, triangle, square, _____

She easily drew a triangle to continue the pattern. We used to play games like this with pattern blocks. No big deal. I decided to up the ante. I gave her:

5, 7, 9, 11, ___

which she got easily. Told me it was too easy, it was just odd numbers, and could she please have something harder. Next came:

102, 213, 324, 435, ___

and she got that one too. I was sure of stumping her with:

1/2, 1, 2, 4, ___

but she examined it for a minute, said "I can't explain it, but it's 8." I had failed to outwit her again, and she thought this was hilarious. So in a final attempt to challenge her I wrote out:

0, 1, 3, 6, 10, ___

and she looked at it for about 5 seconds and said "oh! it just steps up and up!" and laughed and told me the next one was 15. I put my face in my hands and wailed aloud about my inability to fool her. She laughed and laughed until she was giddy.

I just love it when kids can take a rudimentary understanding of something, and extend and extend their learning, moving from what they know into what they don't know with enthusiasm, pushing the envelope bigger and wider with every new challenge.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Felted cushion top

Sophie has finished the top of her cushion, and felted it. Wow, felting sure is magical! In the photo the piece is blocked out for drying so that it will be a flat circular disc that will hold its shape.

Isn't the pattern amazing? She did it almost entirely without help. Now it remains to knit the back (in solid grey) and the sides ... a patterned circumferential strip yet to be designed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Christmas carols

Fiona had her sixth piano lesson today. We'd had a week with very little practicing due to our Calgary trip, but she had a terrific lesson in any event. She'd learned three new pieces, mastered counting aloud while playing and reined in her tendency to rush towards the end of her pieces. She'd also done a fair bit of the theory bookwork in her second primer. She hasn't quite finished all the theory in the book, but she's close.

And so she's been moved into her third primer book, the 2A book from the Celebrate Piano series. I don't think we've quite found her instructional level yet, but we're getting closer. Thank goodness her 'substitute teacher' has been happy to vault her along.

After her lesson was over, just as Erin was sitting down on the bench, the teacher passed her the sheet music for a simple Christmas melody ("Now Sing We All Merrily") and suggested she should learn it in preparation for a mid-December sing-a-long party at her regular teacher's house. She plunked herself down at the electronic piano in the waiting area and taught it to herself, and then memorized it, in about 5 minutes.

When we arrived home she said she wanted to learn more Christmas music, so I pulled out an old Bastien Christmas Primer book with some simple hands-together harmony worked in here an there, as well as dotted rhythms, ties and accidentals. She set to work. Now, a couple of hours later, she's figured out most of the dozen or so pieces -- almost entirely on her own. She's not learning by ear, either, something I know she can do easily like any good Suzuki student if she knows a tune. I can tell she's not learning by ear, because she wouldn't recognize some of these tunes, and even with the ones she might be familiar with she asks me to play through after she's sight-read her way through successfully, because she's been so focused on the reading that she hasn't recognized them.

So her reading on piano is really starting to click. That will make her regular teacher happy.

We normally have a rule that there's no Christmas music in our home until December 1st ... except for any necessary practicing of ensemble pieces undergoing rehearsal. But we'll make an exception for Fiona in this instance, I think.

Schools and rules

A Grade 6 class is expected to read a book of their choice per week at home independently and submit a book report for each. They should read a range of genres. Multiple books from the same series are not acceptable. Non-fiction books are not acceptable. The aim of this home reading program can only be inferred. Presumably it is to encourage students to read regularly, to enjoy reading, to broaden their exposure to authors, styles and genres. Book reports are to likely to gauge comprehension and provide proof that the book has actually been read.

A particular student has chosen "The DaVinci Code" as his current novel. He is not a voracious reader, but is a strong enough reader that he enjoys the book and the challenge it presents. But the book is many times longer and more complex than the books his classmates are typically reading. He does not want to choose lightweight books instead or in addition to this one. He would like to continue challenging himself with The DaVinci Code over the longer term, and instead of weekly book reports, submit weekly summaries of chapters he has read. He says that if he's forced to abandon DC and pick up shorter, less challenging books that he's not currently interested in, he simply won't do the reading and reports. He's happy with DC and the challenge it's giving him, and wants a compromise.

Many parents on the message board where this issue was being discussed seem to feel that the rules given by the teacher are hard and fast, and it would be disrespectful and defiant to even ask for a compromise. "You can't tell your boss that you don't like the work so you won't do it," they say. "Children shouldn't grow up believing that the rules don't have to apply to them." They also believe that this is not a place for a parent to support and facilitate the request for a compromise. "Any kid old enough to understand The DaVinci Code is old enough to deal with this himself." Or "I would tell my kid to buck up and get with the program. The school should not have to bend their rules because some kid thinks he has a better idea." Other parents suggest "School is a kid's job. He has to do the work."

I am left shaking my head in bewilderment. School cannot be likened to a job. When you work for an employer, the work you do is for your employer's benefit. In exchange you are given a salary which compensates you for doing work for your employer's benefit. It's an economy. And you have choice. If you find the work is making you miserable, you can seek a new job. You're presumably an adult and have control over your life and your choices, as well as the maturity and experience to make tough decisions.

When you work at school, the work is for your benefit -- to educate you. No money changes hands because the benefit (supposedly!) accrues to you. And most kids have zero choice. If school is making them miserable they can't quit and find another way to learn. They're also young, inexperienced and immature.

So the situations are different in fundamental ways. There are, in my opinion, a number of very good reasons why the school should be the party that is flexible and accommodating in situations like this.

I also bristle at the suggestion that reading level can be equated with social-emotional maturity. Fiona, for example, has quite a lot of social-emotional maturity for her age. She is gracious, respectful and assertive. But I am quite sure that now that she is (brag!) reading at a Grade 4 level, her social-emotional maturity still does not keep up with her reading level. No matter how you slice it she is not a 9-year-old. When I think back to Erin the asynchronicity was extremely stark. She had been reading her way through books at the Harry Potter level and beyond for a full four years before she had the confidence and maturity to open her mouth and speak to an adult she didn't know intimately.

For the record, in the scenario I describe the teacher has not yet been approached. It is certainly possible that the teacher will be receptive to the compromise the boy is suggesting -- I hope that's the case. What dumbfounded me was the resounding consensus among most parents contributing to the discussion that the child's role is to toe the line, even when the line makes him miserable and he has a compromise to suggest which it seems is likely in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule.

It seems that most parents have bought the premise that children serve the curriculum rather than the other way around. I think they've got it totally backwards.

Edited to add: A follow-up post from the mom makes it clear that the teacher has been wonderfully accommodating. She would love the boy to read The DaVinci Code and report based on that. The requirement that he read from a variety of genres is one made with a year-long view, not week by week. I'm not surprised that the teacher has been flexible; I've seen lots of great examples of flexibility in the school system. What surprises me still is the response of so many parents to the original dilemma as presented.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Double digits

It's turning into a tradition -- birthdays in hotels. Fiona will be the only family member to be at home for her birthday this year. Sophie had her 'hotel birthday' this past weekend in Calgary. We were able to get our two favourite Calgary violin/viola teachers to join us for a restaurant dinner, and retired to their place afterwards for cake and silliness.

We got home last evening and today Sophie set off for her day-long aikido gasshuku. Two hours of class in the morning, lunch, an outdoor activity and two more hours of aikido in the afternoon, with belt-testing and the presentation of colour belts and certificates at the end.

Sophie was thrilled to be awarded her yellow belt. She earned it by attending forty-plus classes, having a positive attitude and strong skills mastery. She's been patient, hard-working and cheerful since she began as a student last February. I think she's in it for the long haul.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Here and There Slocan

Sophie, Fiona and I have started a Daily 'City' Blog, in case any of you who follow this blog are interested in daily glimpses of our community and environment as the seasons pass. It's called Here and There Slocan. I'll add it to the sidebar too.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Fiona has enthusiasm for everything. She's not quite the youngest at aikido, though she's the smallest by a long shot. But she is just so happy to be there. She loves that the younger kids' class now overlaps with the big kids' class for half an hour or so. She gets more aikido that way, with more people and more skills and harder work. She can't wait until she is old enough to do the all-day seminars and the three-day sleep-away aikido camp.

Singing the praises of choirs

This is part of the soprano section of Corazón, the youth choir that Erin sings in. They have guys -- broken teen male voices -- a real rarity in North American choirs. Over the past three years this choir has become a powerful draw in Nelson. It has energy, and a reputation, and teens want to be part of it. Even young men. There is very little tradition of choral singing here, so a dynamic choir director starting a youth choir is pretty much starting from scratch. When Allison started Corazón about five years ago, it was just a small handful of teenaged girls who had grown a little too old for the children's choir. I heard them back then just learning to sing in parts and thought "that's nice."

I hear them now and I think "wow!" This year they are sixty strong, and building each year on the pinnacle of the year before. They are singing complex four- and five-part traditional choral and world music arrangements. Here's a rather poor-quality YouTube sampler from their concert a year ago -- and believe me, they're bigger and better and stronger now.

Erin, who had had to give up the children's choir program in Nelson after a couple of year due to scheduling issues, heard them last spring and decided on the spot that she wanted to join. I knew it was going to be a scheduling nightmare, but I realized that I have a kid who is absolutely passionate about music who has no peer-group of similarly-afflicted teens. The couple of local teens who are also violinists are nowhere near her level. The one who is within two or three years of her level lives almost an hour away. Her experience this summer, travelling and performing with musical teens, made it clear that getting her into contact with other teens who "do music," a given for most music students anywhere else, should be a priority.

We managed to work it out by doing some pretty brutal re-arranging of piano lessons, violin lessons, my teaching schedule, orchestra and group class. It was rather a domino effect in our weekly schedule and the schedules of our local music students, but sometimes there's something pretty special going on that you know is so perfect for your family that you just have to make it work. As it turns out Erin and D. and her friend S. are all doing Corazón, so all three come out of school at noon on Tuesdays and I drive them down to Nelson for the afternoon. My girls do their piano lessons while D. and S. hang out downtown and have a lovely time, and then we all meet up at the church for rehearsal and head home together, grabbing a ritual decaf or chai on the way and arriving back at 7 pm.

So far it's been amazing. There's additional strength in the bass section now and the quality of the choir's sound is maturing as these kids gain experience. They're planning a big swanky tour in March. There are concerts next month and more in the spring. Rehearsals are hard-working affairs and they're down to the nitty-gritty now. Erin has of course learned the music very easily and feels comfortable. The girls are all having fun. We're all enjoying the carpooling.

I have no choir background. Except for the summer family choir which I do for 5 days each August with my younger kids, I haven't sung in a choir since elementary school. The local community choir has always been something I dreamed of singing in one day, but its rehearsals conflict with my work, and now my kid have claimed it as theirs.

Which brings me to the local community choir. They're a bit of a diamond in the rough. I'm not sure why our town should have such a great choir, but people drive from neighbouring towns to be part of it. Erin, Noah and D. are the three under-40's now singing in that choir -- giving Erin and D. a double repertoire of music that they're madly learning. This is Erin's third year and the other kids' first. Noah got swept up in choir euphoria this summer and I made a quiet diplomatic request of our local choir director. It's an adult choir. She had made an exception for Erin the year she was 13, and had occasionally welcomed older high school kids in the past. But asking her to take in Noah, at age 11 -- well, I knew she had once tried to develop a kids' choir and had decided she never wanted to do that again. So I asked quietly and carefully, fully expecting her to say no. But he had proven himself in the summer school choir with a bunch of adults, and our local director agreed.

So he's loving it and is doing well. He comes home from Monday evening rehearsals bubbly and energized. I wondered if it was mostly that he enjoyed being there with Erin and D., if he liked the banter and humour of the rehearsals. But then a couple of weekends ago due to illness and conflicting schedules, he ended up arriving at a first-soprano sectional rehearsal where he and a 40-something woman were the only singers there. The director was there as a coach, and she is someone he knows, sort of, as a peripheral family friend and I think he likes her -- she's a fun retired lady with a sense of humour and a knack for putting people at ease and a nice manner with my kids. So I just left Noah in the little back room of her house, assuming another soprano or two would likely show up late. I worried a little about how he'd feel being there without Erin, without D., with perhaps only three or four people to sing with. But I figured worrying wouldn't do any good, so I shrugged and headed home.

When I picked him up an hour later I asked how rehearsal had gone. It turned out there were just two sopranos, him and the other lady, plus the director. "It was good," he said. "Erin wasn't there, so I felt comfortable asking a few questions I wouldn't have otherwise. We got some good work done."

Well. Who would have guessed. My shy homebody of a little guy, comfortable as anything singing away, almost solo, in a room with two women of his mother's generation and beyond, and coming home pleased with the work they'd accomplished and not giving a thought to the demographics of the social mix.

This is what I love about choirs, that they're great social bridges, that musical cohesion can be achieved despite vast mismatches in age, musical training and social roles. They're so accessible. Under the right director an incredible amount of synergy can develop in a very short period of time with no more raw material than motivated people. Choirs have a kind of grass roots energy that is alive, that springs directly from human bodies with nothing else in the way.

I never cry at string performances, but I inevitably cry at any choir performance where young people are singing.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Knitting a cushion

Sophie decided to knit and felt a cushion. It was to be a round cushion, about 15 inches across, grey background with something else producing a pattern on the grey. At our Local Yarn Shop she settled on these colours.

At home she dithered around trying to come up with a design she liked. Finally she decided she liked the fair-isle in-the-round pattern from the fall issue of Vogue Knitting magazine, intended as a dreamcatcher motif for the side of a purse. She changed the colours, adapted it to a cushion and cast on.

She's never done anything close to this complex with her knitting, but all she required was a little bit of verbal instruction for the second row, the sort of pointers I could give while I was driving and she was knitting away in the passenger seat. Now she's finished ten rows and the pattern is really starting to show. I'm at least as excited as she is to see it evolve. She does a great job with the tension of the stranding and doesn't seem to have any difficulty reading and following the complicated irregular chart.

She's waiting for her Ravelry invite to show up in her e-mail in-box and then I suspect she'll be as addicted to the site as I am.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The larch

What an amazing tree the larch is. All summer long it behaves like any ordinary coniferous tree. It is tall and pointed with branches and needles just like its evergreen neighbours in the forest. You wouldn't be faulted for mistaking it for a pine or spruce, though the odds are that you wouldn't have noticed it at all. It blends right in.

But then as the senescence of autumn takes firm hold something startling happens. It becomes apparent that the larch is not just another conifer. All along, appearances aside, it has been something quite different. Suddenly it turns brilliant yellow and prepares to discard its needles for the winter. It is obvious that it is not like all the other trees. It never was ... but you couldn't tell before.

For most of my younger years I felt like a larch in summer. Perhaps that's why "Reviving Ophelia" resonated so much for me. As I get older my yellow shows more. Do you suppose we are really all like larches?

Math passages

Sophie finally got back to work and finished the final two review exercises in Singapore Primary Math. She's been mostly-done for a while, but we agreed that it was a good idea to do all the revision to kind of wrap it all up and make sure her retention is good. It was a long slog -- I think there are 7 long revision sections in the last workbook. But she did them, and did them well.

Over the past year we've enjoyed little mathematical diversions in an attempt to broaden and enrich her primary math education without moving forward too fast. But now she's truly on the cusp of secondary math and we're investigating possibilities. Teaching Textbooks is too slow and repetitive. Singapore New Math Counts is too college-like in its presentation for a 9-year-old. Life of Fred is under the exclusive ownership of Noah for the time being. We've looking into some of the Canadian school textbooks, since they seem mathematically fairly robust and don't partake of the odd American practice of giving kids nothing but algebra for a year or two at a shot, and then nothing but geometry for a year after that. Now we're looking into some other more esoteric fare. I think we'll find something fun eventually that will challenge her keen mathematical mind but not overwhelm her with dryness and density.

While I wasn't looking, Fiona finished Singapore 2B. She started level 2A last February I think, and after a bit of an early summer hiatus moved to 2B in August. She finished the first half in mid-October, was feeling the mathematical wind in her sails and ran with it through the second half. She still has a revision exercise left to do, but the content is all mastered.

A couple of weeks ago we were at our friends' place for dinner. Fiona was sporting her analogue wristwatch. Our friend asked her what time it was. (It was 6:15.) Fiona glanced at her watch. I expected her to say "3 after 6" or "6 to 3." She said "six-thirty." Well, close.

The reason we'd gone to the trouble of rehabilitating the hand-me-down little watch she was wearing was that I knew the Singapore unit on time was coming up, and figured she had half a chance at getting it this time around. And it was the very next night that she turned the page in the 2B book and encountered time. And it clicked. Just like everything else at this level has clicked. She's very much ready for the learning she's been doing and that makes it a very successful, motivating experience for her. So we'll move ahead, I guess, though I'm also going to make an effort to do some less curricular math exploration with her. My other kids have enjoyed Penrose and others of Theoni Pappas' books for children, and I think Fiona is probably ready for some of these.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Shower steam math

If Fiona's the first one up she usually comes for a cuddle in bed with me. When I get up for a shower she usually likes to follow me and hang out in the bathroom, chatting. This morning was no exception.

When I came out of the shower, I discovered she'd drawn in the condensation on the window. Not a smiley face. Not her name. Nope, with this kid it's math she doodles, as often as not.

Lower line: -2 + 6 = 4
Middle line: -4 + 10 = 6
Upper line: 1 + 6 = 7

Nastier than usual

The bears are busily bulking up for their winter hibernation at this time of year and as the cold deepens they get more desperate. A year and a half ago I built what I hoped would be a predator-proof chicken enclosure. So far we haven't lost any chickens from it.

Chuck has since adopted this out-building as his smithy. It's a strong building built with proper frame construction on a robust concrete slab. But last night a bear seemed to form the misguided impression that the way to the chicken coop, attached to the back of the smithy, was through the front door of the smithy. This morning this was the scene...

Stack of boards knocked over. Five pieces of cedar siding torn off. Bottom corner of door scratched and gnawed. Flagstones dug up. Electrical cable wrenched through the particle-board sheathing on the exterior wall.

We are beginning to realize that we need a dog again.