Monday, June 30, 2008

Defending the homestead

All the kids are sick with colds right now -- Fiona and Sophie have almost recovered, Noah is improving, and Erin, who caught the little virus last, is still in the thick of it. So we have not been gallivanting about on hikes and to the beach or taking on new projects filled with creative energy. Instead we've been hanging out at home, and those who feel like being outside and doing stuff are doing so. Those who aren't are lying on the couch or sitting in front of the computer.

I spent yesterday hauling rocks. (Was I saying there were only 20 left? There were at least 40 ... I still have 6 or 8 to go.) I used a shovel to grade some of the soil back from the house in a little corner. I finished removing the plastic mulch and hauling away the gravel. The kids helped a little. They looked after the chickens and the rabbits.

Noah and Sophie have had the air rifle out again. We haven't seen a bear on our property at all this year, amazingly enough. Last year we had two or three here regularly, daily for a while, and the air rifle was what we eventually resorted to in order to send the bears away with a sting and teach them not to come back. We haven't needed it for bears this year, but the rifle is out and the marksmen are up in the treehouse defending the homestead. They shoot at a 4" wide garden fencepost almost 50 feet away and seem to be hitting it with considerable regularity. If you're coming to visit us, don't approach from the forest to the south without wearing bright orange. Not that you could come from there anyway ... it's a deadly steep ravine.

Everything feels very summery. The sunshower got up to 50 degrees C -- too hot to use. The rabbits were happiest in their shaded hutch, which sits beneath newly-hung smithy sign we made for Chuck last Christmas. The chickens walked around "with armpits," holding their wings a bit out from their bodies to cool themselves down every time a breeze came up.

There was some math done (math is big here lately) and some practising, and a concert to attend in the evening, and some reading aloud. We made bagels. We washed the kitchen floor.
Thankfully the house remains cool even with the 30-plus temperatures outside.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Summer Quartet

Noah plays in a string quartet. He was the one who pretty much created it, about a year and a half ago. He'd been telling me for several months that he wanted to play in a string quartet, and asking if I would please set one up. And we brainstormed who might be available to be involved and realized that if two brothers we knew of were interested, we'd likely have a pretty well-matched group. When they first started, we used simplified arrangements of short pieces. They needed help from their private lesson teachers to master their parts. Noah would sometimes veer close to tears over the sight-reading demands. Musically they were at the beginning of a big learning curve.

But they had fun together. Despite being four very different personalities, from three rather different backgrounds, with different strengths and weaknesses, the group began to gel. They bonded socially too, which was something I wasn't at all sure would happen. They genuinely like each other.

In from February to May they performed four or five times. Their biggest moment was a set they performed in May for an almost full house at the orchestra concert. It consisted of the first movement of Mozart K. 157, and arrangements of the Beatles' "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby." The latter was their favourite since they'd picked it up only three weeks earlier. After that we all needed a breather, and what with an overload of concerts, then school trips and vacation travel and summer camps and music programs, I figured we'd just wait until fall and jump into some new repertoire then. The kids all have a lot of repertoire to prepare for their summer music programs anyway, so I figured they had their plates full.

But then the 1st violinist called. She wanted a rehearsal. Even in the thick of a head cold, Noah mustered a fairly enthusiastic 'yes.' What about the other boys? Yes, they were keen. And yesterday we had a rehearsal. I brought them some Haydn/Hoffstetter and the first movement from "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and suggested they try it out.

So in the heat of a sunny summer day they all hunkered down inside and played for an hour and a half, punctuated by a snack of popsicles. They "played" in the best sense of the word. They made music, they goofed around with trills, they imitated each others' parts, they sounded out weird riffs, they'd get ready to start at the pick-up to letter B and then fall into a discussion about a computer game or somebody's cat ... and then make more music. They did a respectable job of reading their way through the new Haydn and Mozart (and Noah is now at least as capable a sight-reader as the others) and enjoyed the fact that the could delve in with success at the outset. They played through Ms. Rigby (of course), and a selection of 'gig music' from an album of folk music they'd read from in the past. And they were doing all this not because some adult expected them to be, but because they had chosen to take a summer afternoon to do chamber music with friends.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chicken dinner

We're mostly vegetarians in this family, so no, I don't mean chicken for dinner. I mean what happens when we put our leftover dinner scraps on a plate outside the front door and whistle. The chickens come and have their dinner. Chickens are, as a friend of mine is fond of saying "rather far from nature," but they can learn. They know now, for instance, that a whistle at the front door means there's likely food, and gosh do they come running! It sometimes feels like a variation on Hitchcock's "The Birds" -- "The Poultry," perhaps.

Decky putterings

The deck planning seems to be gaining a little momentum. Family discussions have shifted from avoiding the subject of the deck entirely to commenting on "when we have a deck" or "when we start work on the deck.

In the meantime, I've been using wheelbarrows and shovels to shovel off all the gravel that was beneath the old deck and get up the plastic sheeting beneath that. The gravel has gone to the driveway to fill some mighty big puddle holes. The plastic sheeting? Well, it's all in a nasty pile around the corner of the house. Don't tell.

Because this has left only earth under the eaves which lead to our front door, and we have been getting some lovely night-time hard rains, I decided it would be a good idea to rescue some flagstones from the old herb garden and build a little pathway through the dirt. Fiona and Sophie helped. It looked so nice, we moved our solar lights over alongside the path. Then we lined it with potted herbs salvaged from the herb garden which will be under the new deck someday. We hope. The resulting pathway looks very sweet from the right angle.

From the wrong angle it looks like this:

Ah well, if you stand in the right place, close one eye and hold your head the right way, it is pretty nice. And that's all I care about.

So that's the big swath of gravel we've been hauling away. The plastic mulch has almost all been removed. Over on the herb garden side I've been removing the landscaping boulders and bricks, and digging up herbs. I think I must have been stronger, or at least less prone to tendonitis, when I built the garden. Removing the rocks is a lot of nasty work. But it's coming along. It's now a minefield of giant holes disguised by overgrown mint, lemon balm and oregano. Fiona and I were examining the lawn near the herb garden. There's now an area about 20 feet by 30 feet that is mostly oregano, mint and thyme, mown short by the regular lawn-mowing, but looking lovely and smelling lovely underfoot. These herbs are hardy things.

So about 20 last rocks from now, the herb garden will have officially been deconstructed. Then it remains to dismantle the old cold frame against the house, and then call someone with a mini-excavator to grade the area. That part we're not doing by hand! We'll need to pull the soil level down about 10-12" up near the house, and we'll probably push the excess out to make a somewhat level area where the old deck used to be, where perhaps someday a garden will arise.

It's hard to look at this and call it progress, but at least the driveway is smoother!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Healthy deer

A couple of months ago I took a photo of an emaciated whitetail deer eagerly filling his tummy with the first green munchings from our lawn. What a difference now! This fellow is sleek and muscular, with a gleaming red-brown summer coat. Absolutely the picture of health.

Rooster mourning

Aww, we have the worst luck with roosters. Our beloved Ameraucana rooster was nowhere to be seen after free-ranging with the ladies all day Monday like usual. He was just ... gone. I had some faint hope he'd gone into the trees to roost, though he'd never done that before. He usually stays out later than the girls do, but it wasn't dark yet. Alas there's been no sign of him. Wonder who the predator was? We are all very sad, Fiona especially.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Fiona is determined to start piano lessons in the fall. Lately she's been gravitating to the piano more and more. She plays around, sounding things out by ear, something which is pretty easy for her, thanks to all her good listening and violin ability. A month or so ago she asked to learn how to play "things with two hands." So I showed her how to play a simple triad to accompany her melodies. And hour by hour, day by day, her explorations gained momentum.

Sophie has been exploring the piano too, though she says she only wants to learn piano "without a teacher, without lessons." So I'd been showing Sophie a few more complex things, like I, IV and V7 chords in C major. Fiona watched and listened.

Before long both girls were capably harmonizing a range of simple folk tunes. Every time Sophie figured something out, Fiona was hot on her heels, listening, watching, imitating, asking questions. One morning before Fiona was up I casually suggested Sophie add a B to her F-G to make her V7 'chord' into a three-note chord. Fiona noticed the new note within an hour and inserted it in her playing.

In the past couple of days both girls have taught themselves to use an Alberti bass pattern rather than block chords. And this morning Fiona figured out how to insert a contrary subdivided rhythm, the familiar Twinkle Variation A, into the right hand -- with the Alberti bass. You can click on the photo above to hear a brief MP3 recording of what she'd figured out after about half an hour.

It's synergy of the best kind, synergy between violin and piano and synergy between sisters who so far seem to be enjoying the ride together.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review groups

The best thing happened at Fiona's lesson a couple of weeks ago: she was given a sheet of paper listing all the pieces she knows, divided up into six Review Groups. The idea was that she would play one group each day when she practised, as preparation for the Suzuki Valhalla Institute she'll be attending in August.

When Erin was a young violinist, I used all sorts of creative lists, charts, games and gimmicks to spice up practicing. I didn't realize how far I'd strayed from that style until Fiona was given this single rather ordinary list by her grandma. She was absolutely thrilled having experienced nothing of the sort in recent memory.

She loves her review groups, even Group 2, which made her cry the first time she played it. (Dare I confess how long it had been since we'd reviewed Minuet 2, Gavotte from Mignon and Hunters' Chorus? I honestly don't think she'd played one or two of those since getting her new violin in January.) But even if she was mad about the bowing corrections and the reminders to count repetitions of motifs, she could soldier through the piece by ear, and by the second time through things were tripping along just fine. And she's now rollicking along in the third cycle through the review groups, revelling in the fact that she has thirty-three pieces in her Suzuki review repertoire, thirty-three pieces that she can play well, thirty-three places to try out vibrato.

The thing I like the most about practising with Fiona is how much she cares to utilize the guidance she's given. She really thinks hard about the little things that are mentioned to her. This is apparent when I mention a small correction in form. She will continue to attend to a little posture point all the way through to the end of a piece, often spontaneously applying it to other pieces without any further mention. And it's apparent from the comments she sometimes blurts out at the end of a piece. While my other kids would finish Musette and then blurt out things like "I want a nectarine when I'm done" or "do we have soccer tomorrow?" Fiona will say stuff like "I've noticed that the really hard part of a bowhold is having a strong thumb, but keeping the fingers on the top relaxed."

I had the other three children first ... and so I guess I was owed one like this.

Another Calgary trip...

... another animal transport. Last time we went to Calgary we picked up Khatchaturian the chicken on the way home. This time around we picked up Charlie and Lola.

What serendipity! Fiona was the first to mention wanting a pet rabbit. I think it was almost two years ago. It wasn't a passing fancy either. And eventually Sophie became her serious ally. This spring they managed to cause a hutch to be erected by their dad. And Fiona's pestering resulted in the accoutrements being purchased as well ... a book on rabbit care, a water bottle, even a bag of pelletized feed.

But still no rabbits. Our friends down the road are breeding rabbits like ... well, like rabbits. But those are massive New Zealand meat animals, definitely not what the girls had in mind. What they wanted were a non-breeding pair of dwarf rabbits ... Netherland Dwarf or MiniRex or similar, the sort of animal that a petite 5- or 9-year-old could pick up and cuddle in the crook of an arm.

So we've kept our eyes on the Pennywise ads here, and every time we've gone to Calgary, we've scoured kijiji. We had a couple of leads, but always the rabbits were gone by the time we connected with the people.

This trip, though, the ad seeking a new home for Charlie & Lola showed up just before we left and I e-mailed right away. We were lucky enough to get in touch at the right time, and this pair are perfect for us. Their first family is returning to the UK and just couldn't take them. They're a brother-sister pair, beautiful to look at, used to children, just the right size and, to put it delicately, no longer of the baby-bunny-bearing persuasion.

And so there were rabbits to cuddle all the way home. This photo was taken at the summit of the Salmo-Creston pass, at about 5830 ft.. That's snow you can just glimpse near the lake in the background.

We arrived home and set them out on the lawn where they merrily leapt about and nibbled grass and met the chickens, who weren't terribly impressed and headed off to do their own chickenish things. Charlie (she) and Lola (he) seem to be settling in very well indeed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

First beach day

It was not really a prime day for the beach, but we'd planned it into a very small window in our week so we went anyway. It was about room temperature and breezy, the sun was here and then gone again a few times. The water was of course freezing, but we took the canoe and kayak out for a bit of a paddle and then came back for a ceremonial first watermelon of the summer.

How cold was the water? Well, really cold. The wind circulates the cold stuff out of the deeps, where the temperature hovers year-round in the low 50's Fahrenheit. I'd guess it was 60 degrees, max, and the cool air didn't help us feel warm enough for a swim.

My kids decided to prove that they were born and raised here by being brave enough to get in for a swim. Erin was first in. She has serious will-power, that girl. She was in for the better part of half an hour (we managed to get her out before she began gibbering nonsense). Sophie was next in. She was more than willing to admit that it was a painful process getting cold. It took her a good 10 minutes to expose her armpits. We have a family myth that the seat of the soul is in the place where it most disturbs you to get wet in cold water. Sophie's soul clearly resides in her armpits. She could get in up to her shoulders, but it took her forever to unclamp her arms from her sides. Click on the photo to zoom in on her facial expression -- classic!

Fiona was next in. I think she intended to go in up to her waist and then think about it, but she stumbled and had to run deeper to catch her balance, so she was in easily, if accidentally. Noah, who had been up too late last night, spent our beach time lying under a towel musing aloud about when we'd be going home, expressing no interest whatsoever in going for a swim. A kid after my own heart. I grew up in Ontario with access to warm shallow lakes. I was on photo duty and the girls knew better than to try to encourage me into the lake this early in the season.

After the girls came out of the lake, pale and trembly, we all sat together on the pebbly beach chatting about nothing in particular. Suddenly Noah threw off his towel, shouted "yeah!" and plunged into the lake, executing an aikido roll that had him completely immersed before we even realized what was happening. He was out again almost as quickly. Oh, did we laugh!

So there you have it -- I have four slightly insane abnormally hardy children who relish dunks in glacier-fed lakes on cool windy days in spring.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Imaginary deck

About a year ago we wrecked our deck. It was rotting and a danger. We needed any salvageable lumber to save the chickens from the bears. And it was ugly, badly positioned and too small. I also figured that wrecking it might facilitate the appearance of its replacement. Alas this was not the case, at least not so far. Our house remains deckless:

Blech, don't you think? This photo was taken at about 4:30 pm, and here you see the stupidity of the previous deck, which sat upon the mound of gravel on the right. While it gets no sun in the morning, that area is an exposed oven all through the afternoon, right up until supper time. And by contrast the area to the left gets warm morning sun and lovely afternoon shade.

Today, with the taxes done and the reward of a clear day, one of the things I got busy on was deck-pondering. I'd had a year to allow ideas to float by, to notice things about the empty space and the shape of the house, and the view and the grade. But serious thought started today. I sat down with a pencil and graph paper and recalled Pythagorus. I went outside and paced a few dimensions out. I came back in. I drew some more. I took some photos. I measured, staked, flagged, pulled things up, re-staked, measured dining space for six or eight, re-staked.

I had a general idea of what I was looking for and eventually it came together in about the right proportions. I staked it out to make a walk-through in front of the house, and then I had freehand fun with PaintShopPro. I now have an imaginary deck, which is a good sight better than no deck at all. You can all imagine with me ....



After what, though? After when? Who knows........

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Unschooling at high school

A little update from the unschooling via high school saga.

The principal said "yashure!" Well, I don't suppose she really said that. She's a fairly straight-laced school administrator who doesn't exactly effuse. But she said she'd like to make the Facilitated Learning Centre option work for Erin on a part-time basis. She's still not totally sure how the funding will work, but she's sure it will work. In a tiny school within a district suffering from chronic declining enrolment, any student, no matter how outside-the-box, is welcome.

So we went to talk to the Guidance Counsellor together, Erin and myself. Fiona came too, of course. She comes everywhere, because she likes to get out and about, and this is a small town where anything goes, so that was fine.

It became apparent that the school's main hesitation, if you could call it that, was that the FLC is mostly used by older teens, those in Grade 11 & 12. There was a disastrous experiment 6 or 8 years ago where the whole high school (all 45 students) was put on an FLC model. Many students, particularly the 14/15/16-year-olds, crashed and burned. With the sudden freedom to self-direct and self-pace, they slacked off and failed course after course. Since that time the FLC model has been mostly reserved for older teens seeking courses not available locally. While there was a general consensus that a homeschooled kid was likely better equipped to handle an individually directed and paced coursework approach (whoot! hear that?!!), they were a little concerned that Erin might feel intimidated or out of place working independently in a room populated by mostly older students.

Umm, no. She's not used to spending her days with 13 & 14-year-olds. She has never ever been in an age-stratified group learning environment. All three of her friends in the high school happen to be 18-year-olds. The group social environment she currently relishes the most is the community choir, full of adults.

Once Erin reassured the GC that she was just fine with older teens, thank you very much, and I pointed out (gently) why that was so, there was the sense that we'd put that concern to rest and could now get on with the nuts and bolts.

Erin had been interested in a writing course (because that's one of her passions), a math course (because that's not) and a science survey course just because she doesn't do much systematically in the science vein and thought it might be nice to fill some gaps. The GC actually teaches a classroom-based writing course that is multi-age and multi-level and seems to be quite popular amongst a range of students. She clearly wanted Erin to be a part of that class and honestly I think it would be wonderful for her. But it's a classroom course, with three hours of scheduled class time a week. "But students don't need to attend all the time," the GC said. "If she was gone some days, or some weeks, and wanted to just carry on electronically, that'd be fine." The on-line writing course, at the Grade 12 level, looked pretty sterile. Erin has decided to try out the classroom course. I figure one to three hours a week until December won't cramp her style too much.

She'll be meeting with the FLC teacher in a week or so to try and figure out appropriate math and science placement. I don't get the feeling that they need her to prove on their terms that she's ready for Grade 9, but that they want to put her where she'll be challenged according to her liking -- and that it's fine if that involves a combination of levels to patch holes and send her forward. The FLC teacher is a math and science specialist, and everyone seems to think he's wonderful and very open-minded (he and his wife have been coaching Sophie's soccer team and he seems like a nice guy). I think we'll just take the math texts that Erin has completed and let him have a look-see at those and suggest something.

On the science front things may be a little trickier for him to call. Erin has done nothing systematic in science -- she's just grown up in a sciencey family, been privy to lots of conversations, had lots of resources around her and lots of exposure. My own sense is that Erin will find the early high school courses a bit of a disappointment in terms of difficulty. But that may be something she and the FLC teacher have to figure out by trying. Nothing will be cast in stone.

My only slight reservation is that if she gets a few weeks into this and decides that all or part of it is not serving her needs, that the required hoop-jumping is too much considering what little she's learning and she decides to drop part of all of it, that the people at the school -- students and teachers -- will think to themselves "yeah, a homeschooler who tried school but couldn't hack it." But I will not let my concern about political perceptions interfere with my own kid's right to direct her own education in ways that make her happy and keep her productive.

After our appointment at the school we went and got Erin and UnDriver's License. In BC the motor vehicle license people have a card they offer that's as official as a driver's license, being a signed, provincially-issued, birth-certificate-backed, parentally-co-signed plastic photo ID, but is intended for non-drivers, especially teens who for whatever reason need a piece of valid photo ID. If we're sending Erin across Canada and overseas, we thought it might be helpful to have a piece of photo ID besides a passport. Especially to back up a credit card. She'll be having to pay for occasional hotels, both in Edmonton and Asia, to share out the costs with the adults she's travelling with, and I know from experience that they often like photo ID.

Then we stopped next door at the credit union to ask if it was possible to get a credit card for a 14-year-old. I was pretty sure it was possible, as was the teller, but she wasn't sure exactly what type of card would be best, who would need set it up or how it would be done. She said she'd have her supervisor call us. No problem. We headed home. Almost as we came in the door, the phone was ringing. It was the teller calling to say that actually it turned out it was no problem, and she'd already set up the credit card account for Erin and she and I just needed to come in and sign, and choose a credit limit.

Wow, that was easy. Who'd have thought? Well, it was easy because Erin and I already have a joint credit union account together, and adding a subsidiary credit-card-based debit account to that primary account was just a matter of a few mouse-clicks. Cool!

So many firsts for this kid, so quickly one upon the other. Cross-Canada travel. Self-directed coursework with the senior kids at the local high school -- on her terms. Passport, UnDriver's License, parking lot driving lessons, her first credit card. Overseas travel with friends. I always said that we're not doing adolescence in this family, or that we'd at least try to compress it into a brief transition rather than let it ooze out at both ends into a decade-long period of not-quite-adulthood. It seems like it's actually going as planned so far.

Smiling at soccer

I'm the official SLCS photographer. This means I'm someone from our community with a half-decent camera who stands half a chance of making the odd trip to Nelson (where there are a couple of photofinishing joints) in the middle of June. So I take the posed team shots and then I do individual portraits of each player in uniform. There are always a couple of kids I have trouble tracking down. Yesterday was my last chance to corner the last two, so I took my camera to the soccer game.

Sophie told me it was time I took some pictures of her playing. I hadn't taken any really good ones of her yet this year, so she was right. Alas I only had the short lens with me, for the portraits, so I was reduced to taking long shots. I took plenty of photos, but I couldn't really see her face, or the expressions of the kids around her. Wish I'd had my zoom. I bought a camera bag not too long ago to avoid just this sort of thing. I ought to have used it. My photos were pretty random.

But the funny thing was going through all those shots later and zooming in on the faces. Sophie is always smiling. The other kids' faces sometimes look intense, aggressive, bored, frustrated, tired, cheerful or just blank. Sophie, in every single shot where her face is showing, is smiling.

I think she enjoys herself out there.

The view from taxes

I do not relish the tax deadline for self-employed Canadians, which comes around on June 15th every year. I am always about 12 months behind on the accounting. So I have to catch up on that. And then there's the actual tax return stuff, including separate self-employment schedules for my medical 'practice' (such as it is), for Chuck's, and for my music teaching. It just about kills me. This year, as usual, I opted to do it in a painful blitz just before the deadline. May feels way too busy for me, what with all the end-of-year musical stuff intersecting with soccer season. So I work like a maniac at data entry and number crunching for hour after hour after hour for about three days straight leading up to June 15th. I sit inside under electric lights while a world like this beckons from beyond my window.

The trees are a million shades of green. The sun is out. It's warm. The rhododendrons have finally bloomed. You can see them in the lower left corner of the photo, red in the foreground and lavender a little further back, partly hidden by the stacked firewood around the window. That's next winter's firewood, which has been seasoning since last fall. We keep in under the eaves to help it dry out, while we take our current wood from the woodshed.

Firewood attracts curious poultry. Look who is peeking in to double-check my capital cost allowances! See the other lady up high, peeking in from about 6 feet up? Please don't poop on our firewood, ladies. Note to self: Remember to check under the eaves for eggs.

Curious poultry attracts curious cats. The outdoors is the hens' territory, and when she's out the cat, who has been mostly an indoor cat since the two years we owned the dog from hell, normally just lets the hens be. But when it looks like they have designs on the interior of the house, the cat does start to get a little irked and territorial. Double-glazing prevents bloodshed.

I really do try to stay focused on the taxes, but with inter-species dramatics going on at my window it's tough.

Urgent note to self: Quit blogging and finish the damn taxes!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Orchestral aspirations

Fiona wants to play in orchestra. Our local orchestra is a motley collection of 2 dozen string players, aged 8 to 80+, levels from early Suzuki Book 3 to former professional. All three of Fiona's siblings play in the orchestra, as do her grandmother and most of her [older] friends, while her mother waves the baton. Fiona has been coming to rehearsals since she was born. She comes now completely by choice, even on nights when her dad can stay home with her. She likes the music, the bustle, the friends she sees and the chance to feel a part of it.

At the orchestra concert last month several sub-ensembles from the orchestra played, including a couple of string quartets and the Suzuki orchestra members. Since the Suzuki students had chosen to play a four-part arrangement of a piece that Fiona is very comfortable with, and she had played it in that arrangement at other venues, we decided it would be nice to allow her to play with the orchestra kids, as a way of thanking her for her cheerful presence throughout all our orchestra rehearsals.

It turned out she had the necessary components of "orchestral dress" in her closet ... the black pants, black shoes and white button-down shirt we all use. Perfect! She was happy to be invited, and felt like she was getting a special chance at the big time.

Here's what she looked like performing with the group. Dimensionally challenged, you might say. She certainly stuck out as the little one, but took it so seriously and played so beautifully that she fit right in otherwise.

I have as much as promised her that she can play a couple of the simpler pieces in the orchestra next winter. She's reading almost as well as the two kids behind her in this photo, and is more advanced than at least one of them. It'll be time. We'll have to build her a footstool so that her legs aren't dangling.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A rest is as good as a change

Fiona took the better part of a week off practicing when she broke her collarbone. Then she had a week of "takin' it easy," playing mostly easy review stuff in the middle of the bow. Then about 10 days ago, mostly healed and totally pain-free, she got busy on the violin in a big way again, and it was as if she'd been learning all through her break, with the learning just waiting to be realized.

This is why I am not a big fan of "hundred day clubs," whereby children try to practice for a hundred consecutive days, often many times over, come hell or high water. I think that while daily practicing is a great goal to hold in mind, it shouldn't take precedence over illness, injury, relaxing in a hotel room or playing with cousins at a family reunion. Or over just taking a couple of days off to come back at things in a refreshed state of mind. Fiona was clearly integrating some important violin learning during her 'break,' and she obviously came back to it refreshed and enthusiastic. At her first proper lesson after the injury she was given a list of all her previous repertoire, divided up into groups for daily review work; I have never seen a kid so excited about digging into review groups!

Anyway, things are clicking. Her left hand is lovely, her tone and articulation clearer, and as of tonight it looks like she has a usable vibrato. It's subtler and more musical than it was before the break, it's easy for her to throw in, even on 4th finger, and it no longer necessitates her making her vibrato face -- in other words, like everything else, it's getting easier.

The other marker of ease is in her review repertoire. The two long Minuets at the end of Book 2, with their multiple repeats, trios and da capos, have always exceeded her 5-year-old stamina. Back when she was polishing the Boccherini and Beethoven Minuets, I used to ask her every day "do you think this is the day you'll have enough energy to play the da capo?" She would say "maybe," but then when she got to the end of the trio she'd sigh, sit down and say "maybe tomorrow." I eventually stopped asking. But first time she played these pieces after the break she played all the repeats and the da capo and it wasn't until I pointed out that she'd done the whole piece in one go for the first time ever that she even thought about it. "It's not that long!" she exclaimed. "I didn't even notice I was doing the whole thing!"

Boo for breaks of bones, but hurray for occasional short breaks from violin.

Homeschooling envy

On a homeschooling message board, we were invited to post a general overview of our homeschooling. I wrote about what my kids do, what the rhythms of their days and weeks is like. I was reminded again that when we post the notable aspects of our homeschooling, we give a warped view. We don't post about hours spent in the minivan doing nothing, or about our kids playing interminable computer games, or about the weeks and months our teens seem to spend doing little besides sitting on the couch with the laptop. We don't post about the things we can't do, the things our kids are uninterested in, the kids they're not very good at. Instead, when I post I mention all the music, the community activities, our garden, our friends' farm animals, the math programs the kids enjoy, a favourite science resource. I talk about what's in our lives, rather than what's not. And that can provoke a certain amount of homeschooling envy I guess, if the reader doesn't recognize that this is the notable 5% in lives that are 95% ordinary and unimpressive.

So here's a paragraph about the other 95%, the stuff that's boring, or doesn't happen even though it should, or happens even though it shouldn't, or is worthy and vaguely interesting but no one cares enough about to make happen, or just can't happen because we don't have the resources. We don't have zoos, swimming pools, a recreation centre, a science centre, ethnic restaurants, children's museums, a nature centre, a symphony orchestra, a ball park, public transit or even a public library. My kids can't do gymnastics, children's choir, science fairs, dance, park days, art classes or T-ball, they can't attend swim lessons or be part of a science co-op or church group or 4H or scouting or any of that. In our bilingual country they have no ready access to French instruction or native speakers. My kids don't like to do the things I suggest for the most part, so I've all but given up suggesting. They're difficult to 'teach', even when they ask for help. They often burst into tears at the first suggestion of difficulty. They spend way too much time on the computer, playing games that are too violent for my liking. They spend private time surfing through shallow pop culture sites for reasons that aren't clear. Most of them can't manage a cursive signature, let alone handwriting a simple story.

But it's really all in your perception. Not too long ago on the discussion board of our unschooling-friendly, outside-the-box DL program a mom piped up and said "I figure almost anything is worth reporting on as a learning experience, except maybe a trip to the mall, LOL." And coincidentally I had just reported the week before on my middle kids' first eye-opening experience at an upscale shopping mall during a trip to Calgary, and how their eyes had been as big as saucers and we'd got involved in a huge discussion about consumerism, environmental considerations, cultural values, rurality, personal space and so on. So I described this, and then pointed out that there's no way I would report on my kids collecting the eggs and feeding the hens as a notable learning experience, because to them it's really no more notable than brushing their teeth or putting their dirty clothes in the laundry hamper. Whereas for her kids, tending and collecting eggs from a small organic chicken flock would probably have been a highlight of their learning week.

So yeah, it's important to remember that any time you read about another family's homeschooling life you'll tend to be struck by the things they are doing that you're not. You'll be envious of the opportunities, skills and inclinations they have. But it can just as easily go the other way ... the aspects of your own life that seem ordinary, unremarkable and banal can strike others as amazing and impressive. It's important to recognize that while others families can inspire, there's absolutely no reason why we should aspire to, or measure ourselves against, any other family's example. That's the best thing about homeschooling -- it can look like whatever we want, and whatever that is, is just fine.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Field trip to high school

Because two of Erin's friends are graduating from the local K-12 school this year, she was invited to the grad ceremony, and her interest was piqued by talk during the awards part of the ceremony of the Facilitated Learning Centre. The FLC offers a wide range of high school courses in a very loosely structured computer-lab / self-directed classroom environment, individually paced and open-ended, with no attendance requirements. In a high school of ~40 students, classroom-based course offerings are, as you can imagine, very minimal. The school offered no Grade 12 science classes this year, for example. So the FLC fleshes things out by providing students with pre-packaged self-directed courses.

Erin has decided she would like to try taking two or three courses next year to add some structure to her week. She'd set up a schedule for herself of what days/times she'd go, and use some nearby space to practice her violin during the same away-from-home stint. She's trying to replicate for herself the kind of environment that she's thrived in during summer music workshops ... a university-like set of expectations without high levels of teacherly control, situated in a learning environment apart from home. She finds that this motivates her to apply herself during the specific times she's carved out for herself from her day.

We went for a tour today. The teacher's aid who showed us through assumed a Dogwood (BC governmental high school diploma) was the goal and was first astonished and then delighted to hear that Erin is not interested in a Dogwood and yet still has confidence that her future/post-secondary academic prospects will be wide open, that anything is possible via a self-directed, learner-motivated, off-the-beaten path track. He seemed really open-minded.

Next I called the guidance counsellor to discuss the possibility. I explained Erin's disinterest in jumping through the hoops required for a Dogwood and the possibility of her taking, oh, say, Fiction Writing 12, Biology 11 and/or Psych 11 as a Grade 9'er by age, without any previous schooling. And coming and going at will, missing all of January & February, every Tuesday, and every 4th Thursday & Friday, and any other day she has something more important to do. Amazingly enough the counsellor was receptive, even enthusiastic. Part-time enrollment is not legally provided for by the Ministry of Education, so Erin may either be a full-time student with copious 'excused absences' or else advanced to Grade 10, from which point part-time enrollment is allowed. The principal, as is normally the case, is the rule-stickler. We'll have to see what transpires as this proposal moves up to the next rung on the approval ladder.

For whatever reason this doesn't feel at all momentous to me. It doesn't feel like the end of an era, or a shift away from homeschooling, or unschooling, or like 'sending her off to school for the first time', or anything of the sort. It feels like a fairly natural progression -- a case of applying some of the format that works well for her in her music studies to a couple of academic areas, on her terms. At this point it's tentative, but I think it'll be good for her if it works out. But not the end of the world if it doesn't.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


As I wrote a couple of days ago, our natural learning year is just kicking into high gear now. This isn't a time I normally sit down and reflect on progress and changes over the longer term. But on one of the homeschooling message boards I frequent we were invited to brag about our kids' accomplishments this year, and so I did. Here's what I wrote.

Erin has grown brave and is branching outwards into the wide world. She's extremely introverted by nature and mostly prefers to be a homebody, but she's now taking on the world. She did a competitive audition for a summer music program which will take her for almost three weeks to two major Canadian cities, being billeted with people she doesn't know, flying between the cities with a group of teens she's never met. And next winter she's going to be trekking for 2 months in SE Asia with some adult friends of hers/ours. They'll be travelling 'in the rough' through Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos. She's greeted these opportunities with enthusiasm and courage.

Noah has become a performer. He too is very introverted and reserved, but he has developed confidence as a musician and has discovered that he enjoys turning on stage presence and musicality when performing. He's become a major head-turner when he plays in ensembles or as a soloist, and while he doesn't relish all the attention he garners after a performance, he does love sharing what he loves in the moment. I'm also very proud of him for joining an aikido program; he has lots of anxiety about joining new things, but was able to work through his anxiety and get involved in the program, where he is thriving.

Sophie is my jack of all trades. She is enthusiastic, resilient and willing to try all sorts of new things. She's accomplished a lot in all areas of her life, progressing well in soccer, violin, math and aikido, among other areas, but I'm especially grateful for her progress with chocolate. She's become a baker-of-chocolate-desserts extraordinaire, turning out tortes, bars, puddings, cheesecakes, brownies and cakes completely unassisted. We just buy butter and baking chocolate and keep the eggs coming and she churns out delectables. What impresses me most is her can-do, problem-solving mentality which serves her so well in the kitchen, as well as in all areas of her life.

Fiona has made grand strides in both math and music. She's now at a mid-2nd-grade level in math with some skills more advanced than that. On violin she's advanced to the mid-Book-3 level in the Suzuki repertoire, is reading music, shifting and using vibrato. Definitely my most precocious musical kid -- and with a cheerful resilience and optimistic self-motivation that is so refreshing after years of raising perfectionists.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bedroom nooks, after

We finished! It looks fun. I think I'd like one of my own. Sophie is pleased and looking forward to sleeping in her new nook. Though tonight she's having a sleepover in the basement teaching studio with a friend (there's more room in there for a guest).

Ultimately I'd like Sophie to have the basement room for her own. I'm dreaming of a studio space, about the size of a school classroom, for the piano and for teaching, and for group classes and quartet rehearsals and solo recitals. With a small loft area at the back to put up guests. It will be made from strawbales or cordwood and will be set off in the woods with a view of the glacier in the distance.

I'll keep dreaming. In the meantime I'm thrilled that Sophie is happier with her bedroom arrangement.

Bedroom nooks

I like our house, I really do. It's not too big, it's not too small, though by 21st-century standards most people would think of it as very small for a family of six. It's short on storage space (there were no closets when we moved in) and there are, shall we say, some decorating issues. Forty-year-old carpeting and all that. But overall I like our house. It's basically in two halves, the milled-log-walled Old Part, which is fairly open and contains living room, family room, kitchen/dining area and a very small bathroom, and the frame-walled New Part, which contains the bedrooms, the laundry nook and a bathroom with bath/shower.

The master bedroom is a fair size but the kids' bedrooms are very small, as you can see from the photo, and this lack of bedroom space is the main thing I'd change about our house if I could. When we moved in we had one wee baby. Now we have a teen, a pre-teen and two more children.

The photo on the left shows the bedroom that Sophie and Fiona share. It has a loft bed arrangement with Sophie on top and Fiona on the bottom. The left wall is visible at the left edge of the photo (that's a tiny wall-mounted storage container, not a bureau, on the left). The photo is taken from the doorway, and the near wall can be seen protruding into the lower right corner of the picture. Tucked into that wall is, thankfully, a small closet. There's enough space in this room for the loft bunk unit, plus a narrow L-shaped pathway around it and that's it. The carpet you see is almost all the floorspace there is.

Sophie would love her own room ... for a bit more space, but mostly for a bit more privacy and the excitement of having her own space. There's a little space in the basement, but I use it as my teaching space now as it has a separate entrance. The kids often practice there, Erin especially. Until I can find somewhere else to teach, or build a music studio, Sophie can't use that as a bedroom.

So we decided to make the best of the existing bedroom. First we replaced the curtains on the windows, from the existing medium-toned animal print to something a little 'older', brighter and more open. The curtain you see above is the new fabric. The room definitely felt bigger after that change.

The next thing we did was install a curving track on the ceiling around the upper bunk. You can see the first half of it in the picture at the right. It's an IKEA rig, a little like the shower curtain rod you might use for around a freestanding clawfoot tub.

Today we are sewing the remaining curtains. Fiona of course wanted her own bedroom nook, and luckily we have enough fabric to make her a single panel to close off the space beneath the upper bunk. Stayed tuned for "after" photos!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Evening at the lupin garden

We were actually heading for the gymnasium and fitness centre, but there was some sort of Thing happening there, with lots of people. The space is small, and we knew it would be crowded, so we gave it a miss. Instead we took the speedminton sets and created a court on the grassy meadow near the lakefront, behind the gymnasium / health care complex. We had a lot of fun.

As it began to turn dusk, we decided to take a short walk over to the lupin garden. Every year around Father's Day the lupin garden erupts. It's not really a garden. It's a low-lying area of shrubs and cottonwoods near the lake, between the health care facility foreshore and the community garden. It doesn't have any pathways in, and to get into the heart of it you have to brave the jungle of thorny wild roses. [This is an amazing place to collect rose hips in the fall.] At the height of summer the lake level drops and you can walk along the beach to get in, but when the lupins are in bloom you have to go the hard way. Through the rose bushes.

I forget how we found it the first year, but we've gone back every year since. For a few years the full flush of the lupin garden coincided with our end-of-year Suzuki recital, and I will forever associate the smell of armloads of lupins in giant vases with my kids' violin performances -- especially "Humoresque" which was performed by my three older children at three of those lupin-infused recitals.

Someone must have broadcast lupin seeds there years ago. There's no other explanation. The colours are too varied. There are purples, pinks, whites, fuschias and even yellows. We don't see yellows in the wild much. We must have had our own Miss Rumphius at some point. There are hundreds and hundreds of flowers. They overflow onto the gravelly lakeshore, and fill the half acre of brushy area behind the cottonwoods too. When we went last night it was still a little early. Only the purples were open. Spring is late this year. We'll go back next week.

Fiona is polishing Humoresque now. Perhaps she'll play it to the scent of lupins too.

Back at 'er

Clavicle girl did her first soccer practice since her injury today. Half of it; she skipped the scrimmage at the end in case it was too rough. She's still a little hesitant -- a big bang or a fall can make her collarbone really hurt. But she was happy to be back doing a bit of soccer.

Her team is made up of 5- to 7-year-olds and she's the second-youngest. Maybe it's because most of the other kids are at school all day, but gosh, 3:15 rolls around and it's soccer time and you'd think they'd be happy to run and kick and shriek with their awesome coaches. But no, they are standing there with bottom lips stuck out and arms crossed, or crying because they don't get to be partnered with Liam, or yelling angrily at each other because someone else kicked the ball past them rather than to them, or stomping off the field because they had to line up.

And then there's my tyke. I am blessed with children who are absolute dreams in group activities and classroom situations. She's always cheerful, always on-task, always paying attention to instructions, and willing to roll with things when they get weird. She explained today's practice to me, with giggles:

"All the kids were fighting. And yelling at each other and getting mad. And I was just standing there, waiting, with my foot on the ball. And they were all mad and fighty. I waited and waited, just standing there with my foot on a ball. And finally I got my turn to do the passing drill. I was waiting, like, forever!"

She still likes soccer. It's worth waiting through the fightyness.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Our upside-down school year

As schools are gearing down for the end of the school year, things are moving the opposite direction in our lives. Typically our natural learning year begins shortly after the photo on the right was taken in March. From January to March we're in cabin fever mode, in a routine with a few activities, but mostly suffering the post-holiday, cold-Canadian-winter-in-the-mountains doldrums. It's the time of year when we go to the fitness centre a lot (and encourage Fiona to hang upside down to shake out the beans she's full of!) because otherwise we start to go a bit squirrely. We get by. We watch a lot of video documentaries. We wait for spring.

Then in April, as the weather (supposedly) starts to warm up, we start to poke our little noses out. We get outside more, we take walks, we work on the garden, we get the bikes out. Spring rituals like installing the hammock and hanging the laundry outside for the first time are enjoyed. Soccer starts. There's a flurry of busyness as the concert season washes over us like a tidal wave. Pretty soon there are rehearsals and concerts filling our weeks.

And then once that tidal wave has ebbed away ... the academic year really starts. Intellectual vitality emerges. The math books come out for the first time in weeks or months. New project ideas surface. New materials are purchased. Music practicing often ramps up a notch. Curiosity ignites. Energy bubbles forth. Children are discovered reading dense thick novels in the hammock or treehouse, painting, drawing, pulling out handwriting workbooks or diving into CyberEd courses on-line. They begin volunteering statements that begin with "I'd really like to get better at... " or "I'd really like to learn about..." My job is just to feed the fire.

All through the summer things are in high gear. The culmination of the summer consists of the three weeks of music camps in August. The intensity and stimulation leaves them begging for more.

September typically brings some travel or holidays, full of learning opportunities of course. And by early October we have dug into the fall's slate of activities -- orchestra, group class, lessons and classes. Holiday preparations kick in gradually over the next month or so, especially the Christmas concerts and craft-making. Things remain busy as we accelerate towards the holidays.

And then we are done. I suppose it's not surprising that January through March represent our down-time, the season of the year when we are just putting in the days, getting testy, feeling unmotivated and uninspired. Now that I recognize this natural cycle of our learning, I rest easy during our homeschooling nadir each year. I know that spring will come again.