Wednesday, December 31, 2008

She's alive!

What a sweetie -- she got herself some internet time and posted just enough to let me know that she's fine. I will be shocked out of my tree if she actually spends any more than the required travel & accommodation money, but she's right about having only 0.01 clothes at home and I would be thrilled if she bought the whole city of Bangkok clothing market. One pair of pants, a bunch of T-shirts and a few warm casual shirts and that's about all she has here.

And so, I can start breathing again, knowing that she got across that first border, no flights were missed, that the notarized letters were sufficient, that she is happy and her usual self.

Tragically funny coincigoogle -- I searched up "new years eve bangkok" looking for a photo of Khaosan Rd. nightlife to include here and this was my second hit, an article that I thankfully recognized immediately as being from two years ago:

New Year's Eve Bombs Kill 2 in Bangkok

Posted on: Sunday, 31 December 2006, 12:00 CST


BANGKOK, Thailand - Six nearly simultaneous bombs exploded in the Thai capital late Sunday, killing at least two people and prompting the city to cancel its major New Year's Eve celebrations just as revelers had begun to gather ahead of the countdown.

Heh heh heh ... not exactly what I needed to read.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New paper craft toy

Someone who makes as many music theory manipulatives, violin practicing aids, gift tags, booklets, books, nametags, forms, recital invitations, programmes, brochures and sheets of origami paper as I do ought to have had one of these years ago. It's a paper cutter and you can see it beneath and behind the gift tags in the photo.

Yesterday I stopped at Michaels, in lieu of lunch, on my way back from Vancouver. Ostensibly I was looking for animal eyes for Sophie's knitted snake, but I came out with a few extras ... modelling clay for claymation projects, replacement wooden beads in case the dog chews on any more of the Colorku pieces, some scrummy origami paper and my cool new Fiskars paper cutter.

Tonight we set to work with some old Christmas cards and cardstock, recycling them into next year's gift tags. This is no doubt the first of many projects for the paper cutter.

Monday, December 29, 2008


It was a rather epic journey getting Erin and her compatriots dispatched to Bangkok -- three days of driving back and forth over various mountain passes and through various snowstorms -- but at 10:30 last night I took this photo and then left them to their own devices in the International Departures area of the Vancouver International Airport. I was nice and dropped at the door before parking so that they wouldn't have to wear their sandals and light clothes through Vancouver's almost record snowfall to get within the airport terminal.

We'd been up since 6 a.m., driven 9 hours, had dinner and hung out for 4 hours and then headed to the airport. They checked in at 10 pm for an flight leaving at 2 am which would last 15 hours, a 2-hour layover in Hong Kong and a final 2-hour hop that will land them in Bangkok at about 10 in the morning local time the day afterwards. A very long journey!

They'll be in Bangkok on New Year's Eve recovering from jet lag, acclimatizing to the tropical weather and enjoying the culture shock, before heading up north in Thailand and on into Laos. Erin will have her 15th birthday there. They'll spend time in Burma, very much off the beaten track (excellent article here) and eventually end up back in Bangkok.

I've never used a passport myself and am suffering rather extreme travel envy after spending all yesterday in a minivan with five excited travellers!

Cuisenaire Discovery Book

Someone recently brought to my attention (thank you Christine!) that when I changed ISPs and retired my old website last winter my Cuisenaire Activity and Exploration Book disappeared from cyberspace. So I've uploaded it again.

It's a booklet I made back when Sophie was 4 and begging for a math book of her own like her older siblings. Though she was very precocious in terms of her mathematical ability, I didn't want to start anything formal with her at that age, even anything as hands-on and discovery-oriented as Miquon. So I decided to create a little booklet for her that would include some math games that would get her familiar with Cuisenaire rods and with some mathematical concepts. I was really trying to slow her down, to distract her away from starting Miquon. As I recall she used the booklet fanatically with me for about 3 weeks until she felt like she'd got an understanding of most of what was in it. And then she asked plaintively "now can I have a real math book?"

I caved in and bought her the Miquon Orange book and she did fine with it. Better than fine. She was far more ready for it than her siblings had been because of the pre-Miquon work we'd done. Much of what was in the Orange book was just a matter of formalizing things she'd already mastered. So while it wasn't successful in terms of slowing down her progress through formal curriculum, I think she really enjoyed it and probably gained some foundational tools and concepts through it. Fiona and I used the booklet from time to time when she was 3 and 4. Several of the games are enjoyable and suitable for much older people and Sophie, then age 8 and almost finished Singapore Primary Math, joined us in playing them again.

If you're interested you can download and print your own copy of the package from the pdf files. You'll need both the booklet and, for many of the games, the cards. If you have a colour printer, you may get reasonable colour reproduction from the colour version of the cards. If you only have a b&w printer, or if you don't find the colours in the colour version match up well enough with your Cuisenaire rods, you can instead print out the B&W cards and colour them with pencil crayons.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Games

Several new games and activities showed up under the tree this year, all of which are very enticing. So far the one that's got the most play so far is Colorku. I'm a Sudoku fan from way back and love my pencil & numbers, but this game has tactile, social and aesthetic appeal to recommend it.

The other hit in game-land was Quixo, another nice wooden game with simple rules and great depth in the game-play.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Flammable pyjamas

What Sophie wanted for her birthday last month was pyjamas. I didn't think it would be that difficult. She wanted nice loose-fitting sleepwear in natural fibres. Something looser-fitting than the Hannas we've been buying for years. I think the Hannas are great, but Sophie prefers a looser fit.

Alas, it seemed that everything, even "long johns" and "loungewear," is now governed by restrictions about children's sleepwear flammability. Kids' sleepwear either has to be made from polyester or acrylic (petroleum-based synthetics that have a penchant for melting into a burning liquid mass when heated) treated with a flame-retardant chemical of questionable safety, or if made from cotton or other natural fibres must be tight-fitting and body-hugging. Sophie wanted loose cotton PJs. Tricky.

Children caught in house fires in the middle of night tend to die of smoke inhalation, not burns from flaming sleepwear. And I'm not convinced that an extra couple of inches of cuff width on the left side of one's leg is going to increase one's chance of catching fire. And why only children? Adults are perfectly entitled to have saggy-butt pyjama bottoms and to flaunt them near wood stoves.

I decided I was comfortable honouring Sophie's request. But it wasn't easy. I searched and searched. I was almost forced to clean the yarn and paperwork off my sewing table and set to work with needle and thread. Only lack of access to a fabric store prevented that desperate measure. Eventually, though, I stumbled across kids' yoga wear at Land's End. Cool! The colours don't look a whole lot like sleepwear, but the stuff is soft, 100% cotton and comfortable with lovely flatlock seams, and even the shirt cuffs are loose. It took until well after her birthday for me to get the stuff, but it's a perfect Christmas Eve pyjama outfit.

She even loaded the wood stove just before bed, wearing her loose-fitting flammable cotton pyjamas ... rather than the loose-fitting flammable cotton clothing she wears during the day when she loads the wood stove. Living on the edge.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday lights at the Kohan

Every year sometime over the Christmas holidays we load up the big thermos with hot chocolate and head down to the Kohan Reflection Garden late in the evening. The garden is volunteer-maintained -- we're usually part of the spring and fall work-bees -- and in December a bunch of stalwart volunteers spend hours putting up Christmas lights. It's magical being there. Not to be missed. The kids seem to have a blast. It's hard getting everyone out the door but once we're there no one wants to come home.

Tonight's temp: a relatively balmy -9°C (18°F).

Tight quarters

These days our house seems really small. There are a few factors. We're (yay!) taking the week off from our regular out-of-home commitments, so we're here a lot more than usual. Erin is not at school during the day. She's inside the house, rather than lingering in her cabin, because the temperatures are so frigid. We've got a Christmas tree taking up a not-insignificant portion of the living room. We've got the "sleeping part" of the house cool and closed-off during the day because it's hard for the wood stove to keep up and it's nice to contain the heat to the "living part" of the house. And it's partly that we're now sharing our home (even, I confess, our couch) with a dog.

It's full full full in here. Not just on the floor and the furniture. We've got stuff hanging on all the walls and ledges and shelves, and the ceiling is serving various functions as well. The photo from our living room is illustrative. I've cleared a swath on the mantle where I can set bread dough to rise. Beneath the mantle the mittens and gloves hang drying. Beside the woodstove hang the jackets and snowpants. Above the hearth the laundry is drying. In front of that is the exercise zone, with the gym rings. Below all this, not visible in the photo ... winter boots drying, folding chairs and small stools (since our family size exceeds our available permanent seating), violin cases, bookshelves and more bookshelves, the Christmas tree, a small couch and a couple of proper chairs, the woodstove and hearth, the TV and stereo ... and a tiny bit of open floor. And behind the camera, more up-in-the-rafters clutter -- another laundry rack, a chin-up bar, the stereo speakers.

To give you an idea of scale, that lighter wood to which the gym rings are attached is in the exact centre of the room. It's not a big space.

I have a friend who used to facetiously say "if I want to enjoy clean, uncluttered space in my home I can always lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling." Ha ha. But that wouldn't work here.

But I do like living in a space that's just big enough. At least most of the time.

(Still hoping for that cathedral for our music studio, though.)

Winter driving

We bought our minivan back when we had three kids in car seats and before Erin's previous violin teacher's husband got cancer. Back then we needed the seating flexibility of an 8-seater, and we were certainly not anticipating driving through the Rocky Mountains on a monthly basis all winter long. And so the front-wheel drive version of the Toyota Sienna made sense. Sure, we'd live on a mountain, and we'd have to park at the highway end of the lane and hike in to the house for a few weeks every year, but that was a small price to pay for a less expensive vehicle, better mileage and the full middle bench to rig our car seats up in.

Things change. Erin outgrew her first violin teacher, her second one quit teaching on short notice due to the aforementioned health crisis, children grew out of car seats or into different seats that they're able to get into and out of themselves. And now we're driving over really big nasty mountain passes to get our kids places and the 2WD van doesn't make any kind of sense any more. I found most of the driving to Calgary terribly stressful last winter. The hike up and down the driveway is getting old. The minimal clearance in the wheel-wells and below the chassis mean that we have to be very cautious about venturing places during snow. We're best hiking into aikido from the road, for instance because the snowy ruts cause us to 'bottom out' and lose traction. Chains don't really fit properly within the wheel-wells, and we have to skulk around Nelson trying to find parking spots that aren't on an up-slope to be sure we can get out again.

I've been hankering for one of these, but Chuck is unconvinced by the safety and practicality of purchasing a 13-year-old vehicle whose parts have to be ordered from Japan. Yeah, whatever. He's probably got a point, though I still want one. :-)

I was finding winter driving more and more frustrating and difficult last year and then during the first snowy month this year. Then I realized this was our fourth winter on our snow tires. I looked at them myself, decided the front ones especially looked very worn, and took them to the tire place where they measured the tread and declared them not legal as snow tires. Four mm of tread depth at a stretch. Maybe three and a half in places.

So I ordered myself a Christmas present. Four brand spanking new Nokian snow tires. Extravagant, but without a 4WD vehicle I need something serious to make me feel like I'm not risking my life and the kids' lives every time we head to Calgary. Look at that tread! A deep 11 mm. I'll be driving Erin & Co. to Vancouver next weekend, and then the rest of the kids to Calgary two or three weeks later, and I feel so much better about going now!

T minus 6 days

This is the beginnings of Erin's packing. Carry-on pack only, because they're travelling light. So far inside the pack ... mask and snorkel for end-of-trip snorkeling in Thailand, malaria pills, modest clothing for warm weather, travel hammock for camping in, waterproof case for valuables when kayaking.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


It's been at least five years since we've watched "The Grinch". Fiona had never seen it. Sophie and Noah had hazy memories.

We're not very good with TV here. If there's something we want to watch we rarely remember to turn the TV on. But we remembered tonight.

The Grinch was very much enjoyed.

Working out okay

I'd have to say that Limpet is working out okay in our family. Ya think?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reading music

At her last piano lesson before the holiday break Fiona's teacher suggested we look at the Royal Conservatory of Music Introductory (pre-Grade 1) album for a piece for Fiona to learn in preparation for an end-of-January recital. A "challenge piece" that she can work on learning over the three weeks' break and polish up through January. She was very specific that it should be something Fiona learns from the written music, not by ear.

Our piano teacher is very insistent on this point -- piano students need good reading skills from the get-go. By-ear learning is fine if you're messing about recreationally at home, but for the real work of learning to play piano students need to read from the page. Those who don't read from the beginning will never overcome their deficits. (I've been tempted to raise Erin as Exhibit A in my argument against this theory. Erin arrived on her doorstep at age newly-8, barely able to name a note outside the middle of the treble clef, but playing beautifully at an RCM Grade 4 level. Within 8 months her sight-reading had "caught up" and she now sight-reads far better than her teacher. But I've kept quiet.)

I acquiesce out of respect for our teacher. This is how she teaches, she has her beliefs, and we understand this about her and accept that it's part of the package. She's a rigorous well-organized teacher who knows her stuff and who is always willing to challenge her students based on their eagerness and ability rather than their age. I knew when we signed Fiona up with her that she was already reading music on the violin, so she wouldn't suffer unduly under the reading expectations. And Fiona's ear is getting lots of development on violin, so that is the yin to this piano yang.

The teacher wants Fiona to learn this piece every step of the way with the music, figuring it will do her good to be reliant on the written page. We play by the teacher's rules. Fiona looks through the RCM album and chooses a piece she wants to try. I don't play it for her, I don't tell her note-names, I don't point to where her fingers should go. Instead I ask her questions: what clef is that? what landmark note will help you figure out what this note is? can you clap the rhythm? how about trying just the right hand first?

It takes her a while to read her way through it the first time. It's not easy for her to read. There are accidentals and lots of hand position shifts. It takes maybe five minutes to slog her way through the thirty second piece. Did Fiona learn something from this slog? Probably a bit.

But that's where it ends. Because by the time she has slogged through those first five minutes it's in her head and she has the whole thing memorized. For the next six weeks she will be playing it by ear, by memory, by heart, even if the music is in front of her. I know her teacher wanted this piece to help her learn to read with more fluency, but she probably didn't realize that it would be internalized in a few minutes. When you were five years old you probably decoded the letters "STOP" on an octagonal sign once or twice, but seeing stop signs every day of your life after that didn't help you become a better reader.

That's the situation Fiona is in with this little piano piece. She understands it after one halting read-through and after that the decoding is beside the point. It's no wonder kids like this have to reach a certain level of complexity in their piano playing before reading is really necessary to such an extent that it begins to get the workout it needs to develop more fully.

Here it is the day after that first slog. There's lots of musical and technical work still to be done polishing it up. It's "barely learned" at this point, but what's instructive is that the reading work is over and done with. She played this without the written music. Of course.

Blogging addiction

I just glanced at my blog archive numbers over the past few years. For the first few years I wrote HTML pages from scratch, which was very time-consuming. But look at what begins to happen in 2003, the first year I used blogging software to streamline my posts.

1997 - 5 posts
1998 - 8
1999 - 3
2000 - 2
2001 - 5
2002 - 3
2003 - 18
2004 - 45
2005 - 68
2006 - 69
2007 - 278
2008 - 345

Kind of frightening to imagine where I'll be next year, isn't it?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Making her bed

At least there's one of us in this family who makes her bed. The rest of us -- well, our bedrooms are small, cold and uninhabited during the day, so we figure what's the point? But our dog has better housekeeping habits. She finds her blanket and pushes it into a little nook, in this case behind a folding chair under the loft steps. Then she spends three or four minutes using her paws and her snout to arrange it, re-arrange it, adjust it, start over again, arrange, re-arrange and re-adjust until it's deemed acceptable. Of course, by then she's usually lost interest in a nap, because we've noticed how cute she's being and all the attention makes her too stimulated and sociable to want to go to sleep.

Oh, her name is now Limpet. We hated the "Baby Girl" moniker she'd been given when picked up as a stray and placed in a foster home. A few years ago Noah went through a Runescape phase, playing the on-line game for hours a day. At one point he mentioned that he had a virtual pet in Runescape, a cat, and he'd named her Limpet. We thought that was very weirdly original, in a cute sort of a way. So when the dog declared herself as having a barnacle-like attachment to various members of this family, the name percolated to the top of the list of possibilities. And then, a week after she arrived, she developed a lame right foreleg. We rushed her off to the vet where she was deemed to be the very picture of health, the xray negative, and diagnosed with a ligament strain. She recovered quickly. But those three or four days of being a "Limping Pet" clinched the name for us. Limpet she be. She already recognizes her new name.

School girl on a roll

Erin went to school kind of giddy this morning. Not looking like this, I might add -- this photo is from another giddy moment a few weeks ago. She had no pencils in her hair when she went out the door this morning.

It's the last day of school before the holiday break. The whole school had planned to go sledding at a ghost town near here, but the weather was deemed too cold for all-day enjoyment by kids as young as 5. So instead they're having a pancake breakfast, ping pong tournaments, games in the gym and a LAN party in the Facilitated Learning Centre where Erin spends most of her day.

But that's not why she was giddy. She had decided she wanted to finish up the content and testing and main coursework for two of her three courses before leaving for Asia. And that meant an entire second writing portfolio to pull together (not officially due until the end of January) and half of her science course to complete in the last 7 days of school (the other two students doing Science 10 in the FLC are taking until June to complete it). I'm not sure why she decided she wanted to do this, but she sure was motivated. She works far better under pressure anyway. The pressure focuses her and she thrives on the excitement of a looming deadline. Alternatively I could describe her as a procrastinator, but since the December 19th deadline is one that she created for herself, much earlier than anything the school would insist on, I'm not sure the word applies to her in this case.

The pace has been amazing. To illustrate ... Her science course is divided into Ecology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences units. Last week she was doing the last chapter in the Chemistry section and hadn't even looked at Physics or Earth Sciences. Since last Friday she learned all the content in those sections and has done something like 7 chapter tests and 3 unit tests in science. Her teacher can hardly print the tests fast enough. And her marks have gone up, from averaging low 90's to almost unrelenting 100 percent scores. And then last night, after performing in three different musical roles on the evening Christmas concert, she stayed up all night pulling together her writing portfolio, writing two or three of the components from scratch in the wee hours, editing and compiling the remainder. She got a 90 minute nap on the couch with the dog before downing a coffee and heading off to school, quite giddily pleased with herself, ready to hand in her portfolio and do her last three science tests. Assuming they can find a corner of the school where she can work quietly for a couple of periods without interruption from all the revelry.

She did make sure she was there in time to participate in the pancake breakfast so that she could say goodbye to all her friends. She won't see them until March.

If nothing else I think she's proved that cramming is a very effective schooling strategy for her. I've always described her as an "immersion learner" who tends to get very locked in and focused on one thing at a time. I'm pleased that she's managed to make her school experience this fall work well for her in this sense. When she comes back she plans to focus on math, and possibly move on to another course or two.

Christmas Treats

Sophie has done most of the decadent Christmas baking this year, but this morning I decided to do up some fruit & nut balls. I had forgotten how amazingly simple and healthy (in a relative sense) these are. My recipe is essentially:

some nuts
some dried fruit
a little juice concentrate of some sort (frozen OJ works fine)
a little Triple Sec or Cointreau
some shredded coconut
anything else I feel like tossing in

Today's were particularly tasty. I used about:

2 cups of organic dates
2 cups of dried organic cranberries
2 cups of finely chopped organic baby pecans
2 - 3 Tbsp. Ribena blackcurrant juice concentrate
1/4 cup Triple Sec liqueur
1/4 tsp. ground clove
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 cup shredded unsweetened organic coconut

Chop fruit in a food processor until most of it is the size of currants. Adding a bit of rice flour may help prevent it from glomming up. Dump chopped fruit in a large bowl. Chop pecans to a coarse crumb-like size in food processor. Add to bowl. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Allow to sit for an hour or so -- any excess liquid will be absorbed by the dried fruit.

Squeeze into truffle-sized balls with hands. Roll in some extra shredded coconut. Leave to dry on a pan overnight before storing in airtight containers in a cool place.

Eat. Guilt-free.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Brass front door hinge inside the kitchen with its little white coat of frost. It doesn't often get this cold here. It's minus 22 C tonight and supposed to get colder over the next three or four days. Wow. We are spending our days in the living room area, two feet higher and lots warmer thanks to the wood stove.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Warming up at the dojo

It was the last aikido class before Christmas, the last class of 2008. The kids worked hard and had fun, most of them for the full hour and three-quarters. At the end of class Sensei spoke about his pride and gratitude in helping these students learn and in learning from them. Then each of the students spoke about what they had learned and enjoyed about aikido during the year.

Then after a last "domo arigato gozaimashita" the kids went off to get changed and have a holiday snack to celebrate. It is very cold here right now, and so the masonry woodstove in the basement had been stoked. As a special treat Sensei lifted the special mat that reveals a little trap-door hole that looks down directly over the basement stove. The kids dangled their cold feet down the toasty hole and had a lovely time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Community Choir

The camcorder went belly up just minutes before the choir concert so Chuck used his little Kodak EasyShare to shoot this. The light levels aren't great -- you can't really see Erin at all, for instance (she's fourth from the right). But you can hear her okay. Her solo kicks in in the second half of the first minute. Noah is on the far right. He's just a delight for me to watch, even in lo-res, blurry and red-lit.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Choir boy

It was the night of the Community Choir Christmas Concert and Noah was singing for the first time. He also wore a tie for the first time. He was a little stressed about the tie thing at first, but eventually decided he quite liked wearing one. He looks pretty smart in it, doesn't he?

The choir was great. Erin sang a fabulous solo. Noah sang with such obvious enjoyment and commitment.

What I loved almost as much as watching my kids sing was the enthusiasm of the rest of the choir for their participation. It's true that the soprano section would have been seriously lacking in numbers without my kids and their friend -- there are only three other sopranos this year. But they love the cheerful energy and enthusiasm the younger members of the choir bring. Choir members kept thanking me for them. Err, uh, you're welcome!

Christmas Duets

People who know about all my kids' musical pursuits often assume that they make music together all the time at home. The truth is that they are together in group classes, orchestra and ensembles, but at home they pretty much keep to themselves. They do their individual practicing and that's that. It takes a visit from an aunt or uncle or old family friend to provide the excuse to do anything together at home.

But this week at their violin lessons my younger two girls were given some Christmas Duets to sight-read together. The timing was perfect. Sophie can read comfortably in multiple keys and across all strings, and can manage harmony parts easily -- though she can still benefit from the practice. Fiona is reading well enough that she can easily follow repeats, bowings and such in melodies that she knows by ear even when Sophie is playing contrary rhythms in the harmony. And the relationship between them is such that they relish the independence of doing this collaboratively without parental help. Sophie is a help to Fiona, and Fiona appreciates the coaching.

"Take your picture and then go away," they said, when I discovered them squeezed into their bedroom reading through 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas.' So I did. They're still playing now.

Is it my imagination, or does Sophie's half-size violin still look too big for her? Last May we thought that surely she was about to grow, and could move up just a little early to this lovely instrument, because it would soon fit her fine. Um... not really. Good thing her posture and left hand are really solid!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rosetta Stone Demo

Wow, we're having fun with this. Rosetta Stone has a free 7-day on-line demo for homeschoolers. You can sign up until today only. You can choose any of 21 languages to try the demo in, with all levels available. Fiona and I have been trying Japanese, Sophie is using French and Noah has decided to check out the German program. Unfortunately although they have a Thai program, it's not part of the free demo, so Erin is out of luck.

We used to have a PowerPack sampler years ago and were mighty impressed, but the newer version is better still. I've been working hard on Japanese and am now about a quarter of the way through Level 1. Each level would be considered roughly equivalent to a one-year high school course -- not bad for three days. I had learned (and then mostly forgotten) how to read hiragana last year thanks to the SlimeForest Adventure game, and knew a few words and phrases, so I wasn't starting totally from scratch, but pretty close!

So the next question is which languages we'll buy in the new year when the next intallment of the kids' learning allowance comes through from the SelfDesign program. Sophie has had RS French on her wish list for a few months, so that's a pretty much fer-sure. We'll have to see how enthusiasm holds up for the rest of us.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


This is the best I've been able to get so far for. There's a bit of distortion in the audio. I'm running to hardware issues with video rendering. Hopefully with some (eventual) upgrades this will get easier. Anyway, I think this gives a taste of what the choir is doing. You'll see Erin in front -- she is the shorter of the two violinists.

The other choir, the local adult choir which includes both Erin and Noah, performs this week.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Christmas by the Lake 2008

It started last year and was a tremendous success. It's a European-style indoor/outdoor Christmas market and community event organized by a number of community-minded folk, in particular those who have moved here from Germany in the past couple of decades. It's held in the open area in front of a local gallery and multi-purpose building, on the large lawn which also houses the outdoor mining museum. In amongst the displays of old rock drills, Pelton wheels and tramways, they erect a sound stage, a bratwurst gazebo, an indoor artisans' market, a couple of bonfire rings with bannock and chestnuts a-roasting, an ice slide, ice sculptures and a dozen or so outdoor booths selling handicrafts, treats, hot beverages and soups.

We were away in Calgary for most of the event this year, but it was the first item on the agenda upon our return from Calgary Saturday evening. Erin and I had to take off immediately for one of her choir performances in Nelson. The kids made use of the new-fallen snow to build a magnificently huge snowman on a corner of the site. They got a little help from their dad with the mega-snowball-wielding, and then later added a straw beard and some charcoal eyes. Somehow a carrot was nowhere to be found.

Last year the temperatures were well below minus 10 Celsius (14F) the whole three days. I'll never forget Erin and her quartet trying to perform in those temperatures. This year things were really a little too balmy, hovering right around the freezing point the whole time. Still, the ground stayed mostly white and it didn't actually rain at any point.

I managed to get there today for an hour or so. I saw the snowguy in all his soggy bearded glory. The ice slide was listing a little to port but was otherwise functional -- and was being greatly enjoyed by the children. The glüwein was hot and delicious. It was a great place to bump into people and chat. The kids formed a chattering ring around the central bonfire. You can see Erin above in the light teal jacket, wearing her silk green choir shirt and black pants; she was on her way to yet another choir performance.

Last year Christmas by the Lake felt like it had the makings of an instant family and community tradition. It is now firmly entrenched amongst our December traditions. I think it represents the official beginning of the holiday season for us.

Tickle fight

Even after spending 8 hours in the van together, and then bunking down in very close quarters in a hotel for a day or more, with the prospect of another long drive through nasty winter weather the next day, they can manage to have a lot of silly fun together.

Trips to Calgary are getting pretty routine around here. We're a year into the endeavour and now have both Erin and Noah taking lessons in the big city. The hotel staff know us now and usually give us our preferred room on the top floor, this time with an informal discount just because we're regulars. I still hate the winter driving through the Rockies ... but we haven't yet had any mishaps, and now have it all organized so that I don't have to do any dusk or night driving except in places where it's easy -- like the point-and-shoot last hour's stretch eastward onto the prairie.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More hands-on equations

We don't do much that looks like "school" in this family, but every once in a while there's something that comes up that is so quintessentially academic and visual that I just have to take pictures. Hands-On Equations is certainly one of those pursuits. I can't seem to resist snapping photos of Fiona at work with this program. These are the photos I should put in a Christmas newsletter for skeptical relatives who could never understand unschooling.

Borenson describes Hands-On Equations as "Piagetian learning," in that children are learning by doing, without direct teaching of principles and theory, but absorbing the concepts all the same. It is pretty neat stuff. Fiona has easily learned the simple basics of what are considered "legal moves" and the whole thing plays out like a game for her.

The program is divided into three levels, with Level 2 introducing negative x and Level 3 introducing negative integers. We're working through Level 1 fairly systematically to ensure that the rules of play are well understood and are already almost done. We've had a couple of short sessions and a couple of longer ones. It is working beautifully for Fiona. She now often "sees" her way to the solution a couple of steps before the end. For instance she'll see that 2x + 4 = 10 means x=3 just by looking at the initial set-up of the problem with the manipulatives. I'm amazed.

We're almost ready to start Lesson 6. At this stage the expectation is that students will start working without the manipulatives, instead drawing their symbols pictorially on the page. I'm not sure if we'll do this step or not. I'm not sure a 5-year-old is as ready for this as a 10-year-old. Plus she loves the game pieces and that's much of the allure of the program. Although she writes pretty well for a 5-year-old, I also think that sketching out the problem visually would be a lot of pencil-work for her and might detract from the fun of the program. I'm not in a hurry to get her solving algebra on paper, so we might just skip this expectation.

Fiona has set up her equation and done the
preliminary simplification. She started with

4x + 1 - x = x + 13

and has simplified it to

2x + 1 = 13

It's time for the next move.
She removes 1 from both sides, leaving

2x = 12

That's easy.
x = 6!

It's always fun to find the solution!