Thursday, July 31, 2008

Aikido camp report

Sophie attended the full sleep-away Aikido camp. She was eager from the first mention of the program early last spring. Noah attended as a day camper for one day, at my encouragement. Both kids enjoyed themselves immensely. And I've been so impressed with their experience ... I have to rave. Yet another stunning little secret resource in our valley. I can't believe the whole world isn't trying to move here. We have the best little multi-age intergenerational string orchestra, a dynamite student violin ensemble, a crystal clear lake with wilderness shores, mountains and glaciers all around, artistic vibrancy, community self-reliance, open-mindedness ... I'll stop now.

Back to Aikido camp. The facility is a 1600 sq.ft. strawbale dojo with living quarters of similar dimensions above. Off-grid with solar electric. The family that owns the facility lives there most of the year, but they've built the living quarters to serve as a retreat centre too, so there are bunk bedrooms that will sleep 24 and a huge open kitchen / great room with Japanese-style seating.

At camp the kids had an Aikido class to start each morning and wrap up each day's activities. Meals were vegetarian and 100% organic. The garden and the bush provided opportunities for foraging for fresh food. There was loads of creative play in the forest. The kids created and performed a play, entirely of their own volition. They journaled, drew and sketched each day. They took photos of their activities and put them together as a slide show. They cared for the dojo and the living facilities. They had mentors come to teach them about water sample testing and riparian restoration, to introduce them to aquatic insects, nematodes and micro-organisms. An art teacher took them outdoors to sketch, paint and draw. From a local naturalist they learned to identify wildflowers and herbs, and their nutritional and medicinal uses. They hiked up Mt. Gimli. They went kayaking. And they enjoyed each other's company, creativity and energy.

And all of it was carried off within an atmosphere of trust and respect for the children. Did I mention that the dojo parents are homeschooling? Though we'd never discussed our educational philosophies, after seeing them in action over the months I wasn't surprised to discover that their 8-year-old daughter is unschooled.

I have strawbale envy, though. A bad case. A music studio is taking shape in my mind.

New Book 3

The Revised Edition of Suzuki Violin Book 3 came out a couple of months ago. I like it. The pieces are all the same but the revision fixes a couple of wrong notes and introduces some new bowings and fingering alternatives. It also includes more printed supplementary exercises and guidance. The recording it comes with is nice.

I've been using it with Fiona. I figure she's my last child through this repertoire and my best chance to really delve into the changes and internalize them. Well, let me tell you, it's not easy for me to undo 30-plus years of habits. I think I've pretty much got Bach Gavotte in D down with its extra trills and re-arranged slurs (I've always taught Gavotte I with the up-bow start, so that's easy). I've nailed the note-corrections in Bach Bourrée but the bowings are still a work in progress. Old dog, new tricks and all that.

The added wrinkle is that Fiona has heard the piece all her life with the other bowings, so she isn't learning the revised bowings as easily as she normally learns bowings. While we've ramped up the listening in the last month, she's heard these pieces differently for more than five years.

All of which has led us, for the first time ever, to put the music up on the stand as a reference. I put it up because I needed it, but she was thrilled to discover that she could read along as she played and read the bowings off the page too. Those glasses are sure making a difference! We're only using the printed music for selected lines in Bach Bourrée; I can't see her becoming reliant on it. But she's feeling very empowered to have the ability to put written and aural music together in her head and in her fingers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Travels with Noah

Noah had the option of going to Aikido camp with Sophie for four days while I whizzed to Edmonton to pick up Erin, but he chose to do a day of camp instead and then come with me on the long drive. "I like travelling," he said. He certainly copes incredibly well with it. Does he like it? In some ways, I guess. I brought the camera for him. He made liberal use of it, at times. Like the engineer that he is, he spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out how the auto-focus algorithm works. Taking pictures of mirrors, through glass, of moving vs. stationary objects, large vs. small, central vs. peripheral, trying to figure out exactly what it was that told the camera "focus here."

Because we were meeting Erin's plane in Edmonton before heading to Calgary we took the alternate-route option and drove part of the way on the Icefields Parkway through Jasper Provincial Park. The last time I drove it was 2001, when Noah was a preschooler and we were on our way back from the Yukon. (Reminder to self: merge the Yukon travelblog with current blog before the former gets deleted from cyberspace.) We loved the vermilion lakes that are so plentiful in this part of the country.

I really love having Noah along. He tolerates, even shares, my weird obsessions with various music. Most lately ... Les Violons du Roy: Piazzolla and Mike Ford: Canada Needs You. (Thanks, Karen, for turning us on to the latter!) The former is sizzling Argentinian music arranged for string orchestra by a contemporary Russian composer, the latter a edifying, entertaining and humorous album of Canadian history music recorded in a variety of music styles with brilliant songwriting and production.

Not only that, but he plays along with Fiona. They tickle each other, they make fun of each other, they joke, they play games, the talk ... all of which means I have considerable assistance in providing entertainment for my firecracker of a 5-year-old. They played "I'm Thinkin' of a Number" for at least two hours. Fiona got really handy with negative numbers and deciding if -100 was "too big" or "too small" a guess for -14. I listened to Noah trying to stump Fiona with 'negative pi.' He's a great coach and explainer. She's a good sport and so is he.

There were big Rocky Mountains as usual, but they were different ones from those we normally see. The glaciers were more visible and more impressive along this stretch of highway. There were bright blue lakes rather than bright blue churning rivers.

We loved the too-blue-for-words lakes, and an hour later the too-yellow-for-words canola fields.

And there were oil wells. I tried to convince Noah and Fiona that canola oil comes from the roots of the plant, and is extracted underground by huge pumps which create negative pressure beneath fields of yellow.

They did not buy this explanation for a minute. They did, however, enjoy seeing the oil wells pumping away. As we burned gosh-knows-how-much gasoline. I don't even want to think about that.

They crashed in a crappy motel and on someone's basement floor, and ate fruit,m and Tim Horton's everything-bagels with herb&garlic cream cheese and life was just fine. Keep the Argentinian Tangos rolling and we'll be home in no time.

Look who's home!

I love this kid. I missed this kid while she was gone for almost 3 weeks, even though her younger sister referred to her as nothing more than a "couch prop." Lovingly so, but still... Anyway, she had fun. She misses all her friends from the program and all the excitement and the busyness. She's also glad to be home. We're glad to have her. There's a lot of laughing going on here tonight.

Some things were easy for her. Some things were hard. It was all worthwhile.

She did 86 hours of music over the two-and-a-bit weeks. Performed in something like 10 concerts.

More impressive still is the untallied but challenging roughly equal number of hours of large-group and small-group semi-organized socializing with scarcely a moment of down-time.

Somebody took a beautiful photo of her which I'm so happy to have.

Four days until our own local music programs start. No forest fires yet.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

At Grandma's again

This morning I took Sophie off to a four-day sleep-away Aikido Camp. Two and a half weeks ago I dropped Erin off in Calgary for her music programs in Alberta and Quebec. And Fiona had decided it was time for a second sleepover at Grandma's.

Between the time I dropped Sophie off (9:00 a.m.) and picked Fiona up (9:40 a.m.), I had only one child living at home. Noah was still in bed, of course, so he didn't notice he was sisterless. But still, it was rather amazing. Each of my girls had managed to find the exact right size of the away-from-home adventure that suited her.

Fiona's first sleepover at her Grandma's was what prompted the purchase of the lovely Hanna Andersson backpack she's sporting above (they're on sale again as I type). It fit all her essentials, including her newly-purchased iPod nano and all her books and clothes. As usual she packed herself and did a great job. She's carrying Blokus, a family game that she really enjoys. It was a very successful adventure.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Alphabetization Brainsmash

We came up with a new game in the van a couple of weeks ago. Sophie and Noah and I played for some time. I'm not sure I should really play while driving, as it consumes a fair bit of my mental acuity. But whatever.

It starts out with the Chooser saying "I'm thinking of a word..."

And it can be any word that you might find in a dictionary. The Guessers then suggest a possible word. "Marmot?" someone might ask.

"Too early," the Chooser says, meaning it's too early in the dictionary.


"Too late."

And so it goes. Until we gradually get down to third and fourth-order alphabetizations.


"Too late."


"Too early."


"Too early."

"Ack! What's an S-I-M word that has a fourth letter later than P?" says one Guesser.

"Well," reminds another Guesser, "it could be S-I-M-P, but just be later than the L. Like SimPro or something, if that was a word. But it's not. That sounds like an upgrade for The SIMS2."

My hypothetical word was 'simpleton,' which is of course not 'later than the L' but it is later than 'simple.' So you can see this starts getting very mind-bending. Especially if you're doing it all orally, without putting anything in writing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Part of my heart is in Montreal

Erin is in Montréal right now. She flew out of Edmonton the other day, after 10 days away from home, and arrived without incident with her exchange group. She was picked up by a family who are billeting her in Quebec. She called home to say she'd arrived safely -- tired but happy and fine.

It's supposed to be hard, this letting-go thing. It feels big I guess, but it hasn't really been difficult. Why? Because I think I am as excited as she is about her new, growing independence and her ability to cope with things I'd never have dreamt would come this quickly to her. I am so proud of what she's doing, of who she is becoming. And that parental pride is making it all feel fine.

I'm sure it's a bit of a stretch for her, being off on her own, having to cope with her own needs and the inevitable organizational glitches, having to approach people she's barely met and ask questions or make requests. But I know she will cope, I am confident that even if there are moments of stress and hurdles to overcome, she will do fine... and that makes me proud.

Can't wait to have her back, though!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

All mucked out

Oh, look at this stuff! It makes me so happy and proud!

Procrastinator that I am, I prefer to just keep adding straw to the chicken coop to keep it relatively fresh. I do one big mucking-out a year.
This was the weekend. Six wheelbarrows-full of the stuff. Amazing rich, half-composted, nitrogen-laden stuff it is, mixed nicely with half-rotted straw. Mixed in with a little bit of grass-clippings it completely filled two of our three compost bays.

For the rest of the summer we'll keep it damp and mostly covered, adding yard waste and food scraps now and then. By next spring it'll be finished and we'll have three or four heaping wheelbarrows of dark amazing compost.

Now -- off to the sun shower!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fiona's glasses

I was getting my prescription on my glasses adjusted and I figured I'd get Noah's eyes rechecked (he wears glasses for reading if his eyes start to get tired). And while Fiona had never complained of anything, I though it might be a good idea to get her eyes screened. She has been reading language for about two years and music for a good 6 months and does a lovely job with numbers and computers for a five-year-old. So I figured she was unlikely to have any eye problems. She was very excited about her eye appointment. It was going to be an interesting experience, she was sure -- even though she was sure she wouldn't need glasses.

How wrong we all were. You just assume that because you have a precocious kid who doesn't complain that everything must be okay. But from the instant she sat in the big chair and began trying to read off the chart it was apparent that something serious was up. Her vision was at best 20/100 uncorrected. Twenty-twenty is of course "normal," and 20/200 is generally equated with legal blindness. So she was basically half-blind. It turns out she's extremely far-sighted ... more than 7 diopters. With correction her vision will likely be close to normal, though she'll need to be rechecked to confirm that.

This makes sense of a lot of things that in retrospect I'm kicking myself for not putting together. Her tendency to get in front of everyone else in an attempt to see the TV or computer screen. Her inability to cope with the 2nd volume of the "I Can Read Music" book, even though it starts out easier than the first volume, which she can do easily (the second book is in a smaller font). Her ability to read almost any newspaper or magazine headline, but her disinterest in reading anything more than (large-font) easy readers in book form.

I think she looks gorgeous in her new glasses. And she is thrilled with them which is super.

Friday, July 18, 2008

At the market

The younger two girls decided to take their turn busking at the market today. The weather was great and they arrived in good time for the busy part of the market. Sophie started with her "set" and got people's attention. She played for 15 or 20 minutes and took in a lot of cash as people noticed and expressed their appreciation. Then she and Fiona did a set together and that's when the applause began happening. There were even people besides me taking pictures. Donations continued to pour in. Those girls have serious cuteness when they play together!

Finally Fiona finished up with a set on her own. People are always fascinated by her tiny violin and the big 'real' sound that comes out of it. One of the market ladies reminded me that Fiona had begun her busking career three years ago when her siblings were playing together and she was 'playing along' on her cardboard violin, even though she wasn't yet taking lessons. Hard to believe that was three years ago, but then I look at the competent little musician she's become and of course it's been three years.

Sophie brought her cash home to apply to her ledger. Money burns a hole in Fiona's pocket these days, at least if it's the jingly kind that you can run your fingers through, so afterwards she headed straight for Morgen's market stall and bought herself a new Inkyspider T-shirt. Her last Inkyspider shirt had long been a favourite but recently met with some sort of mysterious outdoor mishap. So this was a thrilling and timely purchase from the morning's violin-generated windfall. And hurrah for shopping locally and supporting local artisans.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Another surprise piece of artwork surfaced at the end of violin lessons at grandma's. Today it was Sophie's creativity that took advantage of the sibling-lesson-time. She had spent ages with a single pencil crayon drawing tree branches. This is a detail of the tree. I love the tangled randomness of the branches and the way there's a clear sense of three-dimensional space in the overlapping of twigs. And yet there's something quite fractal-like in this art too.

The kids used to do some wonderful weekly art classes, until the teacher got too busy with her own art and schooling to offer them any more. Both Sophie and Noah mentioned today how much they miss them.

Contracting out parenting

Dear parent who asking for help finding bike-riding lessons for your 7-year-old:

There's a tendency these days to think that by contracting out what used to be basic childhood learning to 'professionals' who specialize in it we're giving our kids a better experience. Learning to swim, cook, sew, stay home alone, ride a bike, throw and catch a ball, grow a garden, develop empathy, build a go-kart, you name it and there are 'experts' offering classes and parents willing to sign their kids up.

I think this trend is a sad one, because it undermines confidence and interrupts the flow of knowledge through the generations. It undermines both parental confidence ("how can I possibly teach my child to do ____ if it's so complicated that people are paying experts to do it?") and child confidence ("mom and dad don't believe I can learn this without specialized help"). It produces a new generation of people who believe they won't be able to pass these skills onto their own kids, because they were taught by specialists themselves. And also, of course, it contributes to the rat-race of over-scheduled kids and double-income cash-strapped parents, all of which reduces the amount of time parents and kids have to spend together.

So here's my plea -- teach your own kid to ride a bike. I know you've tried. You're not done yet. Keep trying. Draw on the wisdom of other parents rather than the supposed expertise of experts. Trust that he will learn. Trust that you can help him. Spend the time with him. Make it a family event to go off to the schoolyard three evenings a week with daddy in tow so that you have the manpower to help the trike-sibling too. Stop for popsicles on the way home to make a special ritual. Create a memory of "that summer when you learned to ride a two-wheeler -- remember all those popsicles! Wasn't that fun!?" Do it with joy, trust, confidence, pleasure and time together with your child.

Playground behaviour

Recently a discussion on a parenting message board got me thinking about what I've done to equip my kids to deal with mean-spirited behaviour from other kids. You know, the sort of stuff where some young 5-year-old attacks his playmate with classic threats like "if you don't give me that, I won't be your friend" or "oh yeah? well Josh is my best from from now on, not you!"

Having kids who are older now, I wanted to offer some tried-and-true wisdom, but I realized: my kids haven't really ever learned how to deal with mean-spirited kid behaviour. That sort of stuff tends to spring up when levels of adult supervision are low and the number of kids is high. My kids don't go to school and don't end up in a lot of situations where the adult to child ratio is less than 1:4. On the rare occasions where they've witnessed a kid saying "I won't be your friend if you don't ____" they've been stunned. I've usually been a witness too, and we've talked about it as a family, either afterwards or in a quiet corner of the common space. We've talked about how some kids struggle with polite respectful social skills, perhaps because they haven't been taught how to think about others' feelings, and that's kind of been it.

But it's only happened rarely, the group of kids has usually been small, parents usually present and involved, and it hasn't gone very far. In essence my kids have avoided the vast bulk of that sort of thing. It's just how our lives have worked out. We spend time with people we like, and my kids like people who behave respectfully.

So I thought about Noah and Erin, both of whom are sensitive souls, and wondered what they've missed out on by not having to learn to deal with that garbage. How do they cope now? Well, the truth of it is that as they get older, people stop shouting "I'm not inviting you to my birthday party, so there!" as a form of retaliation over a trivial perceived slight. While there are no doubt a few teens and adults who behave almost as childishly, my kids are never going to hang out with them, because they abhor that sort mean-spiritedness.

The bottom line is that childish mean-spiritedness becomes much less prevalent and much easier to avoid when you're no longer 5 years old. So I don't think a bit of avoidance is such a bad thing at all. The schoolyard or the playground aren't really Real Life. They're rough places full of socially inept impulsive little people. Real Life is much easier to deal with in a lot of ways.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

First problem bear

The rabbits have a good hutch. Today we had a visit from the first 'problem bear' of the year. We've been extremely fortunate this year to have had only skulking, skittish night-time bear visits, and very few of those. (Evidence via scat only.) This morning Sophie was half way to the rabbit hutch when she saw a large black hulk was, er, already visiting the rabbits.

Sophie got back to the house without the bear being alerted. We went out together through our very squeaky bang-y front door and the bear didn't spook at all. He was having a good look through the rabbit-manure bin, having pulled it out from beneath the hutch. We yelled and he didn't leave. I grabbed the air rifle and started pumping it up. That weird snapping sound didn't spook him at all. He moved towards the chickens, who thankfully hadn't been let out yet. They were hunkering down inside their UPPCC being sensibly very quiet.

I'm thrilled that our animals were safe and unmolested. We seem to have really solved the large-predator problem with our secure animal housing.

The bear was not spooked by pellet zings nearby, but when I nailed him with in the flank he finally took notice. But he didn't dash off -- he just sat down and spent some time inspecting his flank. That's not a reaction I've ever had in the past. Kind of scary how unspookable he was. We yelled some more and he eventually ambled off.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Leaving the nest

Erin is gone. She's been gone for a few days. When she was 11 and 12 she occasionally slept overnight at a friend's house, but really she didn't enjoy that very much and was doing it mostly out of a sense of obligation. Eventually she decided that wasn't enough of a reason. She's been very much a homebody her whole life. Until lately.

Last Thursday morning I said goodbye as she loaded herself into a vehicle in a Calgary parking lot and headed off for almost 3 weeks many hours from home. This week she's in Edmonton. Next week she'll be in Montreal. She was convinced she was ready. I think she must have been right.

She has the cellphone and so far we've been chatting every day or two. Some things have been a bit of a logistical struggle, and sometimes it has helped for her to be able to call me and get a suggestion or two, or just to commiserate. She's in a position of being one of only two students out of 32 who are neither local nor being billeted with locals, the other such student having her mom along for the week, so she's more on her own than the others and sometimes she's slipped through some organizational cracks in the program. Coping with this has a big challenge for a kid who was 11 before she was even able to work up the courage to order for herself in restaurants. But she's doing fine. She's having fun. And working hard! She practiced for 5 hours yesterday, in addition to 5 hours of rehearsals and master classes.

This is a good test run for a kid who is planning to leave the nest to go halfway around the world for two months next winter. I'm so proud of her courage. I know how much courage is required when introverts take on these sorts of things. And yet she's finding herself capable, and finding the rewards to be worth it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sun shower

Last summer during the big power outage during the forest fire, we made a low-budget sun shower. We just linked our three garden hoses in series, filled them with water, and let them warm up in the sun. We attached a spray nozzle, tied it to a tree, and, if we timed it right, we could shower in the 5 gallons of hose water without burning our skin off, and before it turned ice cold.

We had owned a proper campers' sun shower pre-kids, and loved it, but it had been stolen years ago. This spring I bought us a replacement. It's a big 6-gallon one and has a thermometer on it which you can watch and decide when is the right time for a shower.

So now there's shampoo and soap on the window ledge by the door, and at about 5 p.m., after a long day of yardwork, the time is right. There's something about being naked outside, in the woods, surrounded by birds and breezes (and curious chickens) that makes a shower many times more refreshing than it would be indoors.

Fiona enjoys the sun shower. She especially enjoys the part afterwards when she runs full-tilt across the lawn flapping a towel cape behind her naked body, yelling "yahoo!"

So far no one has stalked me with the camera, so content yourselves with still life photos.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dear New Suzuki Parent:

A message I posted a while ago to a new Suzuki parent who was struggling with a 4yo beginning violinist who was struggling with basic lesson behaviour and practicing expectations, a parent who asked whether any other parents had been through similar struggles and found it worthwhile to persist. Other respondents suggested she bribe her child to get him to practice and behave at lessons, and those suggestions of course encouraged me to pipe up. And so I wrote...

I'm the mom of a girl who started Suzuki violin at 3 1/2. She didn't like practicing. She resisted. I gave up, temporarily. We came back when she was just past four. I had to push a little, but I also sensed that she had a really good grounding in lesson expectations and general musical awareness, and it was time to make it work. We worked really hard to find a groove together, and gradually it came. Daily practicing became a routine and for the most part it was no longer a struggle.

That little one is now 14 and has a huge fire in her belly for music in general and violin in particular. She is absolutely soaring this year, having leapt into serious advanced repertoire and begun studying with a wonderful big-city teacher. So yeah, there's at least one person who has stuck with it through the plateaus and bumps in the road and come out the other end knowing it's been worth it. No ... there's definitely more than one ... my own mother being another example.

Having said that, I have four Suzuki kids (violin and viola, ages 5-14, Suzuki Books 3 through 10+) and with the exception of the first few months with my very first child I've never used rewards. What has kept things working for me and my kid through the early months when there is almost no intrinsic reward in the music-making has been two things. First, the fun we made being together during practicing. Playing games, hugging, giggling, playing tricks on each other, counting, inventing, doing things backwards, engaging in little routines and diversions. My aim was to make a special gift to my child of myself and my creativity during that time so that the time spent would be enjoyable and special. Secondly, I used a variety of means to make my kids' work feel tangible to them. Some looked superficially like rewards -- for instance we often used pennies for repetitions ... but they were just counters, they weren't given to my child. We made Duplo towers, we made scroll-hanging monkey chains with an old Barrel Full of Monkeys game, we recorded video clips, we coloured in squares on a grid, we repeated a skill on every step in the staircase, 'winning' our way to the top.

For as much as it's tough to deal with the bumps on the road, the endeavour is worthwhile. My kids know deep deep within themselves that things that are sometimes boring and difficult can hold immense rewards over the longer term. They know that sticking with something through the rough patches can be very important. They know that grunt-work is sometimes necessary to reach a place where joy comes easily. They know that small daily gains add up to immense longer-term progress. And they know that they are capable learners of difficult things.

There are few other learning scenarios where a child can be so fully supported by caring adults as they grapple with these big life lessons over the long-term.

I would encourage you to continue work with your children and your teacher to try to solve the things that are getting in the way of your children's enjoyment of their Suzuki experience. I think that through-thick-and-thin parental commitment sends an important message too. Remember that your 4yo is still just four. It can take young children up to a year or more to "learn how to have a lesson." It doesn't matter if they don't get a whole lot of skills-oriented teaching during that phase, because they're absorbing stuff like crazy anyway ... especially if they're observing others. My now-11-year-old took two full years before he was ready to join in at group class. For two years, until he was 6 and a half, all he did was watch. When he finally joined in, it was as if he'd been there all along. He could do everything the group had been working on while he'd been sitting on the sidelines.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

At the lake

Our lake is warming up. It's still not really warm, but the air is hot enough that it almost doesn't matter. One of the great things about a huge deep lake like ours, a lake in the middle of some rural, tucked-away mountains, fed by glaciers and mountain springs, surrounded by an undeveloped foreshore, is that you can stick your face in it and know that you aren't going to get sick. In fact you can actually drink our lake. Not that this is what Fiona is doing -- she's got swim goggles on and is searching amongst the pebbles for 'special rocks' to save.

This week, during an hour-long stint at the hotel pool in Calgary, Fiona learned to swim. She's convinced she's growing up, and is striving to make it so. She's trying to finish her current math level, working hard to finish her current book on violin, honing her sight-reading skills in preparation for joining in the community orchestra next year, wiggling her almost-loose teeth whenever she thinks of it, and has recently become the proud owner of an iPod Nano, purchased with almost two years' worth of allowance savings. And she decided to learn to dunk her head and swim underwater this week, something she accomplished with courage and determination and lots of giggling. By the end of the hour she was popping her head up to grab a breath too.

But the lake was still too cold today for underwater swimming practice. She managed one split-second dunk but that was it, and more than the rest of us accomplished. Another week and I predict we'll be at it properly.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Power out again

We drove Erin to Calgary to hook her up with the people she was carpooling to Edmonton with, and then we drove back immediately. Usually our Calgary jaunts include an 'in between day,' but this time we did a quick out and back, with an overnight in between. The weather was mysteriously cold on the morning of our return. On our drive over the first mountain pass we had another inkling of weird weather when slush started falling on us. And after crossing the inland ferry we noticed signs of high winds ... loads of tree debris scattered across the highway. We pulled into the village north of our home to buy chicken and rabbit feed and were told that there had been one heck of a nasty windstorm through the area about three hours earlier and that the area we were about to head through had been hit hard.

Before we arrived in our town we were weighing the odds of a power outage. We began peering into homes for some sign of electrical activity. Alas there was none. And when we arrived home it was as we suspected -- the power had been out all afternoon and wasn't expected to be back on until evening the next day. So we hunkered down for the evening with candles and went to bed early, which was fine since we'd got up very early for BC time.

Today was a lovely day. I worked a clinic in the morning, meaning the kids were home alone for part of the day. But they had a nice time. In the afternoon Sophie went off to a friend's, and Noah and Fiona played together, biking, playing with chickens and rabbits, playing a long game of horseshoes. They helped me with yardwork. They both practiced outside, in opposite corners of the yard, simultaneously. The chickens were at first very curious about Noah's viola, but scattered once he actually started playing.

Oh, chickens and rabbits seem to get along just fine, as you can see. They are mildly curious about each other, easily spooked by each others' sudden movements, but seem to enjoy being together on the lawn.

Power was restored in time for supper. Noah is happily back at the computer, but did take a nice long break for lots of reading aloud of "The True Meaning of Smekday," a quirky sci-fi comedy by Adam Rex which has us all laughing our heads off.

Erin will have spent a day with a group of 30 teens being showed the sights around Edmonton. We forgot to pack her a beach towel, or a daypack. I'm guessing she's making do okay without. Rehearsals start tomorrow for her.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Shiny black stools

In the medical world, shiny black stools have a different meaning, but today at our house, they mean that the short little orchestra kids will have their feet planted. We finished staining them today.I think they look great. Children were only minimally stained during the process of finishing them.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Siblings on the stairs

We've had a weekend of entertaining. Some friends were over last night for dinner and a long-overdue visit, and today my aunt and uncle from Australia dropped in.

Our dining room table seats six, so when we have guests some of us always end up here, sitting on the top of the set of three steps that separates the kitchen / dining area from the living room. Usually the stairs are the dining area for a couple of adults, but tonight the four kids decided to cram themselves in. It was crowded. They could barely move their arms to eat. But they managed somehow, and laughed a lot.

They really do get along remarkably well, my four. They have disagreements, but they rarely actually argue. Hurt feelings, when they happen, are usually inadvertent. And they have fun together.

Orchestra stools

Tiny children playing violin in orchestral ensembles suffer as a result of their diminutive size. While they can be seated on small chairs, this often means they are hidden behind a music stand that won't go low enough for them to see the conductor over. Even if the music stand does go low enough, their standpartner likely wants it higher.

The solution is an orchestral stool. It's a small footstool, painted orchestra black so as to look like part of the stage equipment. The tiny child sits up high on a regular sized chair, and sets her feet on the orchestra stool. She is up high so she can see the conductor and the music, but her feet are planted, not swinging, and her body is balanced. We made one for Erin when she was 9, on the first percentile for height, and the youngest by a couple of years playing in the "String's the Thing" intermediate orchestra. It worked brilliantly.

This year the SVI decided to procure twelve such orchestra stools for the summer institute, and a kind local woodworker / Suzuki dad donated the materials and his time. This week they arrived at our place to be stained black. So we set to work outside, a small assembly-line. Fiona will be playing in her first reading ensemble at the SVI, so she'll get to use one. And Sophie, who has been playing in orchestras for a while now, but is 9 and tall for our family but still just on the 10th percentile, is looking forward to using one of the ones she stained.

Easy money

Erin is about to head out to Edmonton and Montreal for three weeks. Wanting to pad out her credit card account with a bit more spending money, she decided to head down to the Friday Market in town with her violin. When she got there it was very busy. She hedged for a while, browsing the stalls, then cowering in a corner wondering whether she'd work up the nerve to play. She's fine playing on stage, but in that case she's doing something everyone expects. To take people by surprise, that required a bit more courage. She wished she'd brought a sibling for company.

Finally she got her violin out and squatted on the grass beside her case. She was still not quite sure she would play. "It's just the first note I can't play," she moaned. They early rush on the market had already begun to clear out a little. Finally three young children came and stood right in front of her, staring at her violin expectantly. That was the push she needed: she took the leap. And of course, after the first note it was easy.

She played for almost an hour -- Eccles, Mozart, Bach, more Bach, Veracini, Handel and more Bach. There was sixty-four bucks in her case when she finished. Easy money. She probably wishes she hadn't waited to start the Friday Market gig until a few days before she's due to leave. Next week her siblings are keen to open their cases up in her stead.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The other piano girl

Sophie has been messing around on the piano a bit lately. She's been adamant that even if she might possibly happen to want to learn to play the piano, she'd like to learn without a teacher, thank you very much. So when we were in Calgary last month I picked up a couple of primer books that looked simple enough for some self-teaching (a 1B and 2A level book). Sophie reads well on violin, but has never met the bass clef, nor has she had any orientation to the piano keyboard. But yesterday she pulled out the 2A primer and set to work figuring out how the notes on the page connected with the 88 keys in front of her. Before I really noticed what was happening she was playing with both hands together ... and sight-reading her way through the book.

She spent a lot of time at it yesterday -- maybe almost three hours. And she was back at it this morning. She's almost mastered the entire 2A book. I'm amazed that she can read "hands together," even if only at this basic level. As a violinist she's only ever had to play one set of notes at a time. I guess I'll look for a 2B book next week when we go to Calgary again.

We're using the Alfred books for now. If any of you lurking piano teachers have suggestions for alternatives, I'd be happy to hear from you. She already reads well with a strongly intervalaic approach. She doesn't need any help with rhythm or ear training. I looked at a couple of "Older Beginner" series, but they seemed to focus on a lot of teaching of basic music theory and musicianship -- stuff Sophie already has in hand. She just needs unintimidating incremental practice at reading on the piano. I wish the Alfred books weren't stuck in five-finger position on the white notes so much of the time, but perhaps she'll consent to me teaching her a few "all across the keyboard, with black notes too" pieces partly by ear.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Computer self-regulation

In amongst the "all my kids are doing math" and "summer music challenges are so much fun" posts I feel the need to confess something about the dark underside of our family life. We have a frightening degree of computer addiction in our family. It's a Saturday afternoon in July. Look what my children are doing:

(Okay, all of you who are silently posing the rhetorical question "and just what is their mother doing on a Saturday afternoon in July?" can just go off and read some other corner of the webiverse, thank you very much. I've spent the afternoon steam-cleaning carpets and dealing with unmentionables in the mudroom. I deserve this time.)

So anyway, I've been told by radical unschoolers (am I one? I don't feel 'radical' but I guess the label fits in a lot of ways) that children given free access to media will learn to self-regulate. That it will lose its power over them. This has worked beautifully for us in the realm of television. But on the computer front I have a harder time seeing the success.

The kids have free access. I've provided guidance in helping them learn to self-regulate. And yet my two older kids, Noah especially, are totally addicted to the computer. Sometimes they'll be on different computers for the better part of the day and night, up to 14 hours a day, always many hours a day ... for weeks and months and years on end. When they lose interest in whatever they're doing, they dig around until they can find a new game to capture their attention for another two-month obsessive blitz. Or they hunker down at YouTube and watch videos. They don't suddenly get up and say "enough computer ... I'd like to build a fort outside now!" or "think I'd like to call up a friend" or "where's that novel I was going to read." Instead they say "I need a new game ... I'm bored with all these ones." Or "wonder what's on YouTube?"

They decline social opportunities they later regret missing. They stay up later than they want and feel lousy the next day and miss out on fun time at the beach or the productivity they had resolved to undertake. They make resolutions to self-limit, and break them. They resist in-home and out-of-home activities they willingly and eagerly committed to. On several occasions they've asked me to help them self-limit (i.e. they want me to restrict their use) but I don't like being the heavy and they inevitably resist the limits that they want me to enforce. That's no fun for me.

I think that Erin has actually decided to go to school next fall in large measure because she can't deal with her computer addiction. She needs to get out of the house, to where she can't play games and surf the internet. I guess in a way for her this is the ultimate radically-unschooled solution to screen-time self-regulation: school. For better or for worse.

I think that Sophie self-regulates pretty well. She plays games in spurts, but she also leaves the computer to do other things. Fiona has had periods of obsession, but mostly doesn't bother with the computer much. These younger kids are more people-oriented, so perhaps that explains why they've been more able to self-regulate. Other things going on, people chatting, activities and projects being begun ... these things all hold a certain attraction for them. For the older two there seems to be little that will draw them away from staring at a computer screen.

I also think that these older two kids have always displayed a tendency to get "locked in" to various pursuits. They are the kids who would spend hours upon hours with Duplo, or digging in the sandbox, or reading a book. Just last night, after I tore Noah away from the computer for readaloud time and left him, presumably to go to bed, he got hooked on a book, and then another, and another, and didn't fall asleep until almost dawn. At age 6 Erin often read for more than 12 hours a day. Obsessiveness is a temperamental thing with these kids. It just doesn't burn itself out with the computer the way it does with other things.

So I'm not sure where I stand on this. It seems to me that some kids, in some families, with some media, don't learn to self-regulate naturally or well. Sometimes, yes, self-regulation, as with my kids and TV, or with my younger girls and the computer, works just fine and it's easy to feel smug and secure in one's non-coercive no-limits approach. And yet sometimes, with the same approach, even the children end up feeling that it's a failure.

There are silver linings. Noah is doing amazing things out there in cyberspace. He's learning lots about gaming and scripting and problem-solving and writing and reading and virtually socializing. He's managing his own domain and message board system, forming opinions, communicating, creating artwork, modifying code, dealing with graphic design issues. I think Erin has done some creative writing and research on the computer, though I suspect that most of what she's done, other than playing games, is browse pop culture sites with voyeuristic intent.

The funny thing is that Noah especially loves "screen-free days." These happen sometimes because of power failures, but sometimes we've declared them just for the heck of them. And he usually rediscovers interests and inclinations he enjoys. But where does it all go once we boot up the computers?

Friday, July 04, 2008

A diminutive kayak

Usually the big kids are the ones who get to paddle the tandem kayak. At our picnic at the beach yesterday, though, we had brought the inflatable winter sled to use in the water. It went from being a shallow water floatie toy to an expedition kayak for a five-year-old pretty quickly. Paddling it with the kayak paddle involved doing the twist with your lower body, as the 'coracle' swivelled almost 90 degrees with every stroke. Fiona got the knack of it very quickly though, and had a riot scooting around like a floating bumper car.

The lake is much warmer now. Even I got in for a swim fairly easily.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Math night times four

In our house homeschooling is often inseparable from life but occasionally the kids parcel off little parts of their lives to dedicate to some sort of formal learning. Currently all four kids happen to be studying math somewhat formally. Most everything else occurs with only peripheral parental involvement, but for whatever reason the kids relish my involvement in any formal math they want to do. At times like this I begin to get a sense of what the days of "school at home" style homeschooling moms are like.

Here "school at home" starts at about 9:45 p.m.. Fiona wants to do some math. I sit on the couch with her and she cracks open her current Singapore book. She's usually good for two or three lessons, though lately there's been so much practice in triple-digit subtraction that she's slowed her pace a little. She especially likes to have help with the writing component. Her little five-year-old hand just isn't ready for the smallish arrays of numbers expected of Singaporean 2nd-graders. So she gives me verbal instructions ("cross out the 8, make it a seven, put the extra hundred with the tens, beside the 3 to make 13...") and I dutifully scribe. Sometimes I purposely misinterpret her instructions and make a silly error. She loves this. She laughs a lot while doing math.

Within a few minutes the other kids have realized, because Fiona's started math, that it's getting late, and they begin staking out their claim on my time too. It's unusual to have all four interested in math during the same month or season, so I get taken aback by the cascade of requests. Sophie is there, book in hand, before Fiona has finished. For a few minutes each girl is a little irked by the interference of the other. I manage to make Fiona feel like she is done at the end of a page partway through a second exercise. She moves down the couch and lies her head on a cushion.

Sophie is wanting to be done with Singapore and move on to something different. We've taken a few diversions this year in an attempt to feed her math interest without moving her too quickly to the end of Primary Math, but she definitely feels it's time to move on now. She's working in the last book now, working with geometric formulae. She is happy doing some of her work without me involved, so once I help her get started, she moves to a corner of the couch and carries on.

Noah sidles over next. He's working steadily through Life of Fred Beginning Algebra now. Most of it's review, but he loves the presentation and it's helping increase his confidence. He's now coming up with humorous Fred-style answers to the practice problems (which we do orally mostly, with the whiteboard on our laps in case we need it). Sophie and Erin both enjoy eavesdropping on the stuff from Fred. By this time Fiona is asleep.

Now it's after 11 p.m. and Erin wants a turn. She brought home the MathPower9 textbook from the school a couple of weeks ago and is now about half way through. Like with Noah, most of this new book is review for her, but unlike Noah she's fairly confident in her ability to make sense of unfamiliar things so she's pushing herself through it quickly. She does about half an hour on factoring polynomials and fussing with exponents and roots.

Math finishes up a little after 11:30 pm. And so our readaloud starts not very long before midnight. I read two chapters, but my deal with the kids is that if I'm to read any more than that (which will take me past my preferred bedtime) they must comb my hair. This helps keep me awake, and makes me happy too.

After four chapters I finally snap the book shut, my hair thoroughly free of tangles, my scalp tingling happily, my eyes drooping. I carry Fiona to bed, say goodnight to Sophie and encourage Noah and Erin to go to bed before too long. They're on the computers; who knows when they'll hit the sack.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The summer she asked for

Last summer, after the last of the music school weeks was over, Erin sighed wistfully and said "I wish I could do that all year long." Of course she recognized that intensive music programs are really only possible during the summers, when kids are out of school and teachers and coaches are free of their regular teaching schedules. "Well, all summer long, at least," she said.

This year we've managed to get her 5 1/2 weeks which is the majority of the summer. It's a lot, it turns out, because each program assumes that students will have time to prepare music in advance. She's discovering that week by week that adds up to a lot. She's currently preparing music for five different intensive weeks of music.

For the first week-and-a-bit, in Edmonton: A solo performance (Bach, already learned, but needing re-polishing). Two suites of string orchestra music (Bartok and Tchaikowsky). A Schubert string quartet movement. A new Kreisler violin piece for group class (La Gitane).

For the next week-and-a-bit, in Montreal: A solo performance (Bach, a re-run). A lengthy suite of string orchestra music (Frank Bridge). Ongoing work on the Schubert string quartet.

For the SVI week: A Haydn string quartet movement. Michael McLean's "Csardas." A Richard Meyer orchestra piece. The Bloch Nigun for solo performance (has never performed this with piano).

For the VSSM week: A piano solo to polish. Two relatively new working pieces to have at the ready for piano master classes. A fairly weighty Schumann piano quintet movement to learn.

For the VIP Program: Some sort of major string chamber work to learn -- this has yet to arrive.

It's a good thing she learns new music quickly. The piano work in particular will be a challenge because she won't have access to a piano for much of the month prior. She's cramming as much of the Schumann as she can this week.

That VSSM piano week will represent a bit of an opportunity for Erin, in that she'll get the chance to work with a couple from Winnipeg (pianist and violinist husband and wife) who are "people to know" in music education in Canada, the sort of people about whom it is said "___ is an expert in the development of young talent in Canada." Since Erin's aunt lives in Winnipeg, ultimately she might be interested in spending some significant time living and studying away from home there. I don't think she has any clear aspirations towards a career in music, but if she does develop such inclinations, these would be the sort of contacts she'd need to make that happen. If she wants, she can rise to the opportunity, turn on her responsive hard-working musician smarts, be sweet and charming in her shy way, and maybe open some doors for herself. People definitely seem to like her when she acts like the brilliant eager musician she is. But who knows what she really wants. There's a world of possibilities out there for her future -- musically and otherwise.

Oooh!! Ahhh!!

Canada Day fireworks. The weather was fine, unlike yesterday when evening brought a humongous thunderstorm and wicked whitecaps on the lake. Tonight was calm and balmy, though overcast. The whole town, plus all the current tourists, gathered in the park near the waterfront. The volunteer fire department set of the fireworks over the lake. We oohed and ahhh'd and applauded. The cracks and booms echoed off the mountains around the lake over and over, for at least 10 seconds after each volley.

I wish I'd used the camera to capture Fiona's face. In past years fireworks have been fun and exciting but also somewhat terrifying to her. This year they brought pure excitement. Her face was priceless, lit up by a maniacal grin and the red and gold of the explosions of light.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Math programs

Life of FredAt various ages and stages my kids have gravitated to formal math programs. Capriciously, for the most part. Erin and Noah didn't touch anything of the sort until after age six. Noah only dabbled until about age 10. Erin worked in bursts up until the age of 10 and then turned other directions. Fiona and Sophie, in bids to do everything their older siblings were doing, started programs around age 4 1/2. Sophie's been on and off, though on a fairly short cycle. Fiona's mostly been 'on', but has it's all still pretty new to her.

For the early years we've found Miquon (to begin) and Singapore Primary Math (added or substituted later) to be a great progression. But as the kids neared the completion of Singapore Primary Math by age 9 or 10, we haven't really found a logical next step.

Singapore's secondary programs were awfully college-like in presentation for such young pre-teens. Erin eventually got through a book and a bit of New Math Counts, after a long break, but it really didn't seem 'friendly' enough.

Eventually we decided to try Teaching Textbooks. The presentation looked really good. It's a 'friendly' program with fun word problems and an engaging style. My main reservation was that, being an American program, it stops teaching many areas of mathematics for a year or two, focusing on algebra at the expense of geometry, probability/statistics and trigonometry. But we dived into Algebra I anyway, with both Erin and Noah. Erin progressed quickly, Noah, having moved directly into it from Singapore 6B at age 10, less quickly.

But oh my, the pace was deadly. So much explanation, so much practice, so little in the way of new concepts. Noah especially tended to get bogged down by the over-explanations, worried that he didn't understand, only to discover after periods of intellectual panic that the exhaustive explanation of an entire lesson was in order to help him understand something that had long been patently obvious to him. We began alternating "book sessions" with more free-form sessions, the latter being much more enjoyable to us, following tangents and exploring things together. But our free-form nights were taking us well beyond the scope of Algebra I, which was in the long run going to make working through the book even more painful. We stopped using the book entirely two or three months ago. He just didn't seem to be getting anything out of it; everything he was learning he was learning from the other stuff we were doing, but I didn't feel I could continue to lead him forward into more advanced algebra and other realms of mathematics without any sort of framework. Erin too had ground to a halt in a slough of boredom in Teaching Textbooks.

On the recommendation of our LC at the Wondertree SelfDesign program, a woman who knows Noah's penchant for story-telling and imagination, we purchased Life of Fred. It's still an American program, so it's algebra-only for the first book, but it's refreshing anyway. Noah dived in and is thrilled. Life of Fred has him grinning, laughing, screwing up his face and rolling his eyes. It is totally his style ... narrative in style, quirky, philosophical, with random bits of weirdness, unaffected and filled with humour. So far everything is review, and it will be for a while, but he's so engaged by the humour and personality of the book, as well as by the mind-bending questions and discussions in the "Home Companion" book, that he is loving working through everything.

Erin, who has decided she would like to take Grade 10 math next fall, wants to fill in her gaps with respect to the Grade 9 curriculum this summer. So she borrowed the Grade 9 standard academic math text (MathPower) from the school and asked me to help her skim through and find the gaps to fill. In the past week we've got through about a third of the course, which is about the pace I expected. She'll easily be on track to start Math 10.

But about the text. It's pretty darn good. The mathematics is robust, way beyond the level of Teaching Textbooks or even Life of Fred, more in line with Singapore's secondary programs. There are a lot of silly tangential 'brain-buster' stuff and hokey full-colour illustrations which we both find visually distracting. But all that stuff aside, it's darn good math, far better than any of the American programs I've seen. Who'd have thought? Right here, in our own BC backyard.

Evolution of a Twinkle

I wrote before about Fiona's piano experimentation, which is impressive in an absolute sense, but what has fascinated me most is how it illustrates a playful learning curve so beautifully. It's a learning curve I can hear ... and notice, and document. So here's how it's gone.

Melody in C: Since she was quite little, Fiona's been able to 'sound out' the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. At first she wanted to play it in A, because that's the key of the violin, but that was confusing because of the 'black notes', so I suggested C as an easier starting place.

Melody with simplified chords, in C: She wanted to play "hands together", so I taught her a C-E-G triad, a C-F-A triad, and an F-G second, with which to accompany the Twinkle. I didn't tell her which chord to play when... that she figured out by ear.

Melody with three-note-chords, in C: Because I wanted to encourage Sophie to figure out the Alberti bass pattern, I gave the girls a B-F-G chord (instead of the F-G).

Other melodies with 3-note chords, in C: Next came "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and a few others. Accompaniment chords fitted with the melodies by ear.

Alberti bass pattern in C: She worked out how to turn each chord into an Alberti bass pattern (i.e. a three-note chord became a set of four eighth-notes played in the order low-high-middle-high).

Twinkle melody with Alberti bass pattern in C: Soon she had the melody paired up with the new left hand pattern.

Modal melody with Alberti bass: Now she moved the whole thing into different modes by starting on different white notes.

a Minor melody with Alberti bass: She figured out how to use the Aeolian mode (natural minor) plus a G# to put the piece into a minor key

C Major Rhythmic variation A with Alberti bass: This is the one I recorded last week.

Dissonant versions of the above: She began playing around doing things 'wrong' on purpose, playing the version above, but with one hand playing a half or whole step above the other.

Novel rhythmic variations: Instead of the standard Suzuki rhythmic variations, she began playing her own, like "Canada Canada Stop Stop" and others.

Transpositions to different major keys: G major, then F major, then A major.

Transpositions to different minor keys: d minor and e minor

What blows me away is how logical the sequence here has been. She has bumped up the level of challenge in such sensible ways. G major and F major are the next-easiest major keys after C. How did she know? The other thing I love is the playful diversions into things that are intentionally 'wrong' (like the dissonant version). This is such a hallmark of self-directed mastery learning ... learn the rules, and then have fun breaking them, so that you experience the results of not following them and really understand why they're there. Learning is such a fascinating thing.