Saturday, February 28, 2009

Roll over!

Limpet is turning out to be a really good learner. She walks beautifully on-leash now, will sit, lie down, stay, leave it (restrain herself from eating a treat or similar enticement placed on the floor) and come. We're now trying to train her to ring a bell when she wants out.

We've been watching lots of Dog Whisperer episodes on DVD. The kids really enjoy these, and they are learning a lot about dog psychology, behaviour and training. Imagine my surprise to discover that Limpet knows how to roll over. I had no idea the girls had taught her, or that the dog had learned so readily just from them!

Brain-wrenching piano work

Fiona was assigned her first little invention on the piano this week. As inventions go, it's about as simple as they come. On piano, "invention" means two-part counterpoint, a sort of interweaving of two voices talking at the same time. She liked the sound of the piece when Sophie played it and so she asked her teacher if she could learn it. "Of course!" said Anne, her teacher.

I sat back, inwardly taking a deep fortifying breath. Anne has a very particular way of teaching inventions. First you learn a few bars of the right hand. Then you practice singing the same section. Then you learn a few bars of the left hand. You practice singing that. Your next task is to sing the few bars of the right hand while playing the left hand part. This can be unbelievably difficult, because as you're thinking about your left hand playing its notes your brain and your voice are inextricably pulled towards singing those same notes rather than the ones on the other staff. It is very difficult to sing something different from what you're playing. Essentially your brain has to simultaneously create two different tunes, one in the hand and one in the voice. Inventions are not a case of melody and harmony, so what you're singing doesn't really fit with what you're playing in the usual sense. But even that's not as difficult as the next step, which is to swap the two voices. The problem, especially for young voices, is that you are forced to sing the left-hand part up an octave, meaning that there's far more overlapping of pitches and tonalities than actually occurs in the piece as played. And, of course, our brains tend to follow the upper voice, typically the "melody", far more readily in multi-part pieces, making it extra difficult to focus properly on singing the "lower" voice.

And so you go on, phrase by phrase, through the piece. Eventually you put phrase-bits together. Only once you can do the whole piece from start to finish this way, both voices, are you to play it "hands together" as written.

I had my suspicions that this system was way beyond the developmental capabilities of a 6-year-old. I remembered Erin managing it, after a lot of struggle, at age 11 or so, albeit with more complex music, but I couldn't imagine her doing it much younger than that (she'd studied with a different teacher, with a different approach, when she was Fiona's age and stage). But Fiona often surprises me, so I reserved judgement. I figured that maybe, because this piece was simple enough, she might be able to sort of do it after a lot of practice.

So Fiona and I sat down the first day and started work on the first few bars of the right hand. Then I would sing the left hand and she would play. Then she tried singing with me. Invariably her mind and voice would get pulled into the other line, the one she was playing. But she kept trying, that day, and the next. There was one problematic bar right near the beginning, and we honed in on that and practiced it repeatedly. All she had to do was sing two A's while playing an off-beat four note passage, beginning on A -- but oh, the pull of the moving notes was so strong. She tried and tried ... and gradually she could hold her note, more or less. More practice. Soon she could hold her note easily.

And after that it came, all in a rush. To master that bar, her brain had needed to make a neat slice between two streams of focus, and once that separation was made everything else proceeded beautifully. Within a day the she could do the whole piece, both voices. This morning she e-mailed her teacher:

guess what? i can already sing one hand of QUESTIONING and play the other hand both ways. today i tride to do it hands together and it was easy.

The piece is still not polished, so she didn't want to record it yet. Every week she excitedly records a couple of short pieces for her SelfDesign Learning Consultant as part of our "Observing for Learning" anecdotal reports. I suspect Questioning will be part of next week's report. Here is this week's recording.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Goodbye February

We seem to have emerged from our February Blahs. I took this photo today because Fiona and Limpet looked cute sitting together. But there's more to the photo than that.

Look at the floor. It's still the grotty carpet, but ... it's clean, tidy, vacuumed, uncluttered, repeatedly steam-cleaned and hardly smelly at all. If you look carefully at the desk where Sophie and Noah are playing on the computer, you'll see that there is a semblance of order ... a bit of clear horizontal space, a magazine folder that actually contains the music theory workbooks the way it's supposed to. There are no bits of kleenex and cast-off socks under the desk.

And the dog -- she's a complacent, companionable thing, having just returned from an hour's walk in the forest courtesy of Noah.

Everyone has practiced, the laundry is caught up, the supper dishes are done, yoga is about to happen and there is even a rumour of some math happening later this evening.

Things are looking up around here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cheese please

Erin's instructions to me for the pick-up in Vancouver:

"Please bring some cheese to eat. And maybe some popcorn."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cat-doodler and slush

I'm excited. In four days I leave to drive to the coast to pick up my girl. The time has flown by for us. I wonder if it has seemed the same for her?

She is prone to doodle cats. She's not really a Cat Person, but for whatever reason she has this habit of cat-doodling. If she is ever stuck in a long piano master class which has ceased to engage her fully, she'll set to work filling the back of her note-paper with these little stylized line-drawn cats. As we've been gradually cleaning our way through the house we've found a few pages of cat doodles. They make me happy when I find them. I miss our cat doodler and will be glad to have her back.

Those guys above are two of my favourites off a page I discovered the other day. I love the way they are juxtaposed, each oblivious to the energy of the other. Which one will Erin be when we get her back? Both, probably.

I managed to dig the van out today. It had got snowed in (slushed-in, more accurately) at the bottom of the driveway again. Missed violin lessons, but not much else. Since five people are counting on me to pick them up at Vancouver International Airport soon, I figured I really needed to do the grunt work.

I was lucky -- 90 minutes of slinging slush at crucial points cleared enough of the crud that my next attempt up the hill was successful. Really lucky because that attempt chewed the whole hill up so much that I would have had to start all over with the shovelling if it hadn't worked.

(I feel certain that a Delica would have handled the hill just fine today. I practically need a category tag on this blog entitled "Delica Envy." I wonder if there's a Google Gadget for "Cumulative days stuck at the bottom of one's driveway due to lack of AWD and appropriate ground clearance"? I'd put that in my sidebar!)

Noah's FSA week

The FSA tests are a set of reading, writing and numeracy tests administered to all public and independent school students in our province during their Grade 4 and 7 years (determined by age). Because my kids are enrolled with a home-based Distributed Learning program through a wonderful independent school, they are expected to do the testing. My reasons for agreeing to the testing were clear-cut last year when Sophie was of the age. This year it was Noah's turn, and things were a little touchier. He is not as clearly academically driven; he does not read as much, he does not enjoy workbooks. He is not as easy-going a personality when it comes to perceptions of 'success' and 'failure.' And he does occasionally suffer from serious amounts of perfectionism and test-type anxiety.

This is low-stakes testing, meaning it has no impact on the student, only serving as some sort of useless benchmark for the school. Especially useless in the case of a DL program where there are as many educational approaches being used as there are students. It's nothing more than hoop-jumping for the students ... and you don't even have to jump through the hoop -- just show up and pretend to try.

Trepidation describes my feelings as we headed into his testing. I knew that if things got bad, we could get out of it by honestly conveying the issues to the understanding admin staff at the SelfDesign program. Mental anguish is not one of the things we're expected to put our kids through. But we were encouraged to set aside preconceptions, frame the testing as a learning experience, and give it a whirl. And we did.

Only it was a very slow whirl. We had planned on the second week of February. But then he got sick. After four or five days he seemed to be getting a bit better. He did the written part of the numeracy test. It went fine. One of those open-ended exercises with "show your work" and simple combinatorics. He managed. But he was feeling really drained, and still had a sore throat. By that evening he was struck by a new wave of illness. And then we were off to Calgary. And still he felt lousy. So finally this week we got around to the other portions of the test. One subtest at a time, or two. We hated having it hanging over us, so finally we dug in.

The on-line parts were fine. He had a little surge of anxiety at the start of both tests, but after being encouraged to work methodically he got past it. I suspect he did exceptionally well. The questions held little challenge once he quelled his nerves and actually engaged his brain.

The longer creative writing, written reading comprehension and persuasive writing assignments were the parts I was most worried about. It's that whole "writing to task" thing, when the task is imposed from outside and doesn't have meaning or value for the writer -- unschooled kids don't really do that. Fortunately the longer writing assignment, the story-writing, had a very open-ended choice of topics. He actually had fun on that one. And the others ... well, they went, without any mental anguish.

And so ... he's done. And it wasn't a big deal. He has emerged feeling academically quite competent and satisfied that he is capable of doing school-like testing. And those are both positive things that may stay with him. They might even prevent him from worrying, as many homeschooled adolescents do, about how he'd "stack up" in school. Clearly he'd cope just fine.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Aikido anniversay

It was one year ago this weekend that Fiona and Sophie officially became Aikido students. From the start I had the sense that we'd discovered a gem of an activity for us. It remained to be seen whether the kids would feel the same way.

Aikido has really grown on them and they seem very committed over the long term. They relish the challenge, the hard physical work, the regular routine, the work on focus and values, the sense of community, the fun.

Sundays are the big Aikido day for us, the double class. We shed our shoes or boots outside the Japanese-style building. The girls head into the change room where they unroll their dogis and change into them from their regular clothes. Students are discouraged from arriving in their dogis; to wear them outside the dojo is to treat the uniforms with too much casualness. The change rooms are cold so there's always a rush to get the belts tied properly and into the dojo where physical work can start warming them up.

Theoretically there is the class for young children (5 and 6-year-olds) first, then a half-hour of overlap where the 7- through 14-year-olds join, then the youngsters are dismissed and the older kids carry on for 45 minutes or so. But in reality there's a fluidity to it all. Three older siblings, including Sophie, are part of the Little Kids' Class as mentors and just to take the opportunity to get warmed up. And other Big Kids often arrive early and join in. When it's time to dismiss the younger children, three of them, including Fiona, often remain, as they're older or more experienced and enjoy the challenge that ramps up a bit during the final 45 minutes.

Watching these classes is to me like watching the martial arts equivalent of our small-town Suzuki violin classes. Various ages and levels are included. The pace varies -- large muscle crazyness, then quieter more cerebral tasks, then something collaborative, then work with partners or individually. Parents are part of it all too, as much as they like. The classes include a variety of tasks often designed to work on multiple skills, some of which are subtle and not taught explicitly, but part of the task nonetheless. The more I watch the more depth I see in the teaching. Here Sophie and her partner are doing a "mirroring exercise," learning sensitivity to anothers' movements, attentive focus, gentle touch, a kinesthetic awareness of movements and position in space, and taking turns being leaders and followers. There's routine, but also flexibility and creativity.

Aikido is non-competitive, but excellence is always a value, as are things like persistence, respect and appreciation of others' learning. Learning is organized to some extent into levels, but the emphasis is on the individual's learning, not on the pace of mastery or the benchmarks themselves. More advanced students are expected to support the learning of less advanced student and also reminded that they learn from those beginners too. There's a strong sense of belonging to a community of fellow-learners. It's very Suzuki-like ... another educational export from mid-20th-century Japan.

And of course they start and end with a bow.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Too much music?

As Fiona's piano learning has ramped up (she's now been studying for almost five months!) I'm beginning to realize that maybe some parental leadership is called for. Her violin and her piano teachers are very sensitive to the possibility of overloading her. However she is eager and enjoys a challenge -- and they are also very good about not being bound by age-based expectations. They will suggest she move on, try a bigger challenge, focus on some subtler details, shoot for a higher level of mastery. They won't assume she can't do it because of her age.

Fiona seems to like challenge. She wants to learn the "new Book 4 piece," the one that's been introduced with the latest repertoire revision that isn't in the book yet. When she managed to learn the three simplest orchestra pieces easily within the space of a couple of rehearsals, she asked whether she couldn't learn one of the more challenging ones too. When her piano teacher suggests trying contrary motion scales she wants to do parallel too. If her teacher says "next week we'll start this piece," or "move ahead if you like," Fiona will be gobbling up the next piece or two of repertoire within 24 hours -- plus a duet or two on the side.

The problem is that all this interest in new challenge leads to an awful lot of work. A thorough piano practicing now takes an hour. Same with the violin. She doesn't really mind practicing; most of the time she enjoys it even if it sometimes takes a little nudge to get her started. But I worry. Two hours of music practicing -- darned hard work, always pushing her capabilities just a little as she learns and grows as a musician -- seems like an awful lot for such a wee little thing.

Maybe it's been the lingering effect of the virus we've all taken forever to kick. Maybe it's just the February doldrums. But it seems to me that she's got less energy for other things lately. Sure, she's always game for an extra aikido class or to listen to some extra bedtime story. But she seems less interested in the intellectual stuff lately, especially math and reading, and that's unusual for her. Maybe she's spending too much of her mental energy on music.

So this week I've been trying to help her cut at least one of her practicings short every day. She's always a little taken aback when I suggest stopping. But she doesn't complain.

Since I helped her pull back a little on the practicing front she does seem more balanced. She's been reading a lot more -- up to a book a day (short novels, mostly). She's back to doing both Singapore Math and Hands-On Equations. And she's having lots of fun with trivia cards and non-fiction books as well.

I'll let her pull things back in the other direction in a week or two if that's really where she wants to put her time and energy, but for now I'm nudging her a little towards moderation so she can decide if it feels better.

From Erin

We haven't heard much from Erin lately. First she was in Burma, where telephone and internet access are very difficult at best. Then a fleeting transit through Bangkok to head to Ko Adang, an island national park in Thailand, similarly removed from the global digital information network. But it's kind of fun to get these little financial reports documenting her travels. Here's January's bank statement from her joint account with us. I've never got a bank statement this exotic before.

I'd prefer a postcard, but I suppose this is better than nothing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Climbing out of the pit

We had a mammoth family meeting the other day. It had been a long time coming. Months, I think. We used to have them weekly. Then our informal café dates became a place for discussion and things got looser... and progressively less effective. Sophie said, out of the blue the other day, "we need a Family Meeting." I thought about my February pit of despair and realized she was right. Things felt like they were in decay. Perhaps a meeting would help us climb out of the pit were were in.

We planned afternoon tea at a local café, at a big table where we could linger and talk. Alas both our favourite cafés were closed, one taking longer than we expected for renovations, the other just inexplicably closed. So we bought milk and cookies at the grocery store and headed home to our very own kitchen table. The little Danish cookies were a bit of a novelty and did lovely crumbly-crunchy things when dipped in hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and caramel sauce. It was a good place to start a meeting.

It took us ages to discuss all the stuff that had been piling up. The agenda included the standard five items or so, but each had to be explored in depth. Our agenda normally includes:
  1. music practicing
  2. balance of out-of-home vs. stay-at-home time and activities
  3. achieving a healthy balance on the physical front: sleep, nutrition and exercise
  4. general learning needs / desires / expectations
  5. sharing of household work
And we often have a couple of extra items that we add to these, and this week was no exception, but those five core items are the ones we always touch on, even if (especially if) they're not problematic. It's really nice to get to an agenda item and realize that it's working really well and we're all doing fine. A bit of mutual back-patting occurs and we make a point of noting exactly what we're doing that's working so well -- in case things slip off the rails. But we didn't have much of that this time! Everything needed serious discussion.

So anyway, we sat there with whipped-cream-and-cookie-crumb moustaches and talked our way through a ton of stuff. And everyone seemed to feel about a million times better afterwards. And here's what is changing as we climb out of the pit of our winter doldrums:
  • Sophie is keeping the kitchen absolutely totally spotless. Amazing!
  • Fiona and I are progressively blitzing our way through various clutter spots in the house, excavating our way through months of accumulated junk and producing tidy shiny surfaces.
  • Noah is keeping the living room tidy and clean. This is our relax-together-place, so it's extra appreciated that it now has a comfortable calm aesthetic appeal to it. (Except for the carpet. Don't look down.)
  • The practicing is getting spaced out throughout the day a bit more so that I don't have to spend my entire evening under 10 pm engaged with one kid or another on one instrument or another.
  • Noah is proceeding optimistically and efficiently through the standardized testing he's kinda supposed to do because he's a DL-enrolled Grade 7 kid.
  • The dog is getting a 45 minute walk a day -- and it's not always me doing it!
  • Dog-training is back to being a collaborative venture.
  • Clear academic priorities have been expressed and plans will be implemented in the upcoming weeks.
  • Resolutions concerning regular physical activity have been made.
  • Noah has decided to push himself a bit into a new thing and do a series of choral-singing workshops with a new local choral guy.
  • Even the hens have caught our momentum -- they've begun laying again.
Things are looking up around here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Naughty Stool Memory

I was about eight years old. I had done something deemed wrong or inappropriate. I have absolutely no recollection what it was. That part of the memory faded very fast, and it was really beside the point. There had been some conflict and I had lost and was now subject to my parents' authority. I was sentenced to what was in 1972 a fairly progressive form of punishment. Not a spanking, but a ten-minute time-out on the Naughty Stool. It was bar-stool height, wooden and painted bright orange with many chips out of the paint, and while it had other uses around the house most of the time, when placed in the laundry room beneath a misbehaving child it was the Naughty Stool.

What did my parents think the time-out would accomplish? They no doubt believed it would give me time to cool down, to think through my misbehaviour, to internalize their behavioural expectations and to emerge contrite and apologetic, less likely to misbehave in the future. And if I perceived the time-out as harsh and punitive, well, a little negative reinforcement for poor behaviour isn't a bad thing, is it?

As an adult I now understand all this about my parents' choice to utilize time-outs. As a child, though, I remember having a very strong sense that a time-out was to try to make a child feel rotten and cry, a kind of tit for tat. "You were mean to your brother, so now we're going to be mean to you. You will endure this humiliating acquiescence to our control over you. And it will make you feel powerless, indignantly angry and hurt. Exactly as it should."

Truly. That's what I thought they were doing. Trying to hurt me back.

So there I was, sitting angrily on that painted orange stool in the laundry room when I had my eight-year-old's epiphany. Since the point of the time-out was to make me feel hurt and angry, I could trump the whole thing by sheer force of will. I would not become angry. I would not feel hurt. I would breathe deeply and remind myself that I was right, that my parents were idiots, that they could not control me. I would matter-of-factly continue to believe that I was justified in my (mis)behaviour and I would jolly well not feel contrite. And then I would feel cheerful and I would have won! They would have failed to hurt me!

I sat. I did not cry. I breathed calmly and deeply and smirked quietly to myself. And I basked in the newfound knowledge that they could not control my feelings, nor could they ever truly control me. I was too smart and determined.

It's one of my clearest childhood memories. As a young adult I pondered it plenty; I was beginning to sense how badly I had misinterpreted my parents' intent with this relatively benign punishment, but I was also beginning to believe that this memory of my 8-year-old thought processes was something important I wanted to hang on to so that I would understand my own children and how punishment would affect them.

It is no wonder I have chosen the path of positive discipline as a parent.

Oh right, it's February

I have not been much inspired to blog lately. I prefer to blog about growth, novelty, progress, discoveries, creative energy and fresh ideas. There hasn't been much of any of that. Lately I have felt mired in a swamp of boredom, stagnation, frustration, brick walls, lassitude and sickness.

And then it dawned on me. It's February! That explains everything. It's the traditional nadir of our upside-down learning year. Everything is always grey and ugly in February.

I hereby give myself permission not to sweat that Fiona is not interested in Hands-On Equations anymore and rarely even touches her Singapore Math. Not to fret over Sophie's increasing interest in computer games. Not to wonder why we're two weeks from having Erin home and I can't really point to anything tangible that has come out of the increased time I've supposedly had to devote to the other three kids. Not to tear my hair out over various string ensembles that have barely rehearsed since before Christmas, or if they have, have made little apparent progress. Not to look at the ever-present stinky disintegrating carpet and the absent deck. I won't worry that Noah can't tell you the name of the notes he can play so beautifully on viola, or that Sophie has begun complaining about going to aikido. I will set aside the feeling of impending doom I get when I think about the fact that test-anxiety-prone Noah is supposed to have completed the BC Grade 7 literacy & numeracy achievement testing by the end of the month. I will not get angry and depressed about the fact that my formerly-wonderful Canon ImageClass copier/printer seems to be dead. The heaps of laundry, the cobwebby ceilings ... I won't look, and I won't feel guilty. Picky eaters, slothful slovenly children, hens that are supposed to be laying hens but are actually just layabout hens, a dog that likes to sneak to the basement and poop in dark corners, days that seem simultaneously fleeting and interminable.

It's February. It will end.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Car ferry discussion

On the way to Calgary we take a small car ferry. It's so routine now the kids hardly take notice of it, except to enjoy the opportunity to take their seatbelts off for a few minutes and grab a snack from the back of the van. Today, though, Fiona started asking if there were other kinds of ferries besides car ferries. What would they carry?

I told her there were passenger ferries, for foot passengers. Of course car ferries carry passengers too -- in the cars. We speculated that we could call the one that doesn't carry cars a foot ferry, rather than a car ferry.

"No, that's not a foot ferry," piped up Noah, from where he was lolling against his seat, seemingly half asleep. "A foot fairy comes when you lose your foot. You put it under your pillow and she takes it and leaves money."


My kids are weird.

Adolescent responsibility

Somewhere I read that the shift to night-owl-dom in adolescence once had a biological imperative. Young teens in tribal times were the ones who were given spears and left to guard the encampment from enemies and predators by the fire all night long. Now that's meaningful responsibility -- life and death stuff! By contrast today's young teens are given the responsibility of finishing their social studies essay on time.

People often ask me how I am handling having Erin off on the opposite side of the earth, having adventures I know next to nothing of, travelling with a loose itinerary I can't possibly keep track of, out of reach of telephone and internet. Honestly, I don't find it hard. Partly because my parental pride at her courage and adventurousness offsets the worry. But mostly because I think this sort of independence, responsibility, self-sufficiency and risk is an absolutely crucial part of maturing towards adulthood. I did a lot of really stupid things as a teen, trying to test my mettle. I hope that as they grow through adolescence all my kids will find smart ways to test their mettle. Erin is having her turn now.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Before breakfast

Fiona got up half an hour ago. She has already taught herself to play parallel hands-together 2-octave C-major scales with the correct fingerings on piano, and to tie shoelaces. She certainly doesn't waste much time!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Adolescence rant

Copied & pasted from a discussion board where it was being argued that young adults from 18-25 ought to be cut a little slack by the justice system when they do stupid things like engage in credit card fraud -- because science has shown that their frontal cortexes are still developing. "There is good reason why we now consider adolescence to last a dozen or more years," it was argued. "It's because the brain is still maturing all that time."

The prolongation of adolescence has nothing to do with knowledge of brain maturity and everything to do with keeping inexpensive pools of labour out of the workforce by maximizing educational and economic dependency. As we expect less and less of our young people, they live down to our expectations. Yes, most 18-year-olds are immature and irresponsible -- because we haven't given them to fodder of life experiences, freedom, autonomy, meaningful involvement in family and community life and other forms of responsibility that they need as catalysts for the development of maturity. We treat them like children far too long. I'm not putting the blame on parents here so much as on society. We don't let teens make decisions for themselves, live self-sufficiently, drive, sign legal documents, travel, get married, leave school, drink alcohol, have sex, work during certain hours of the day, vote ...

Robert Epstein and John Taylor Gatto have a lot of interesting historical perspectives on adolescence. It is indeed a relatively recent invention -- and they make a very good case that it is an ill-conceived social construct that contributes to the problem it purports to solve, that of immaturity.

The real agenda is economic, as it is for most things. The business world has traditionally wanted compliant willing workers who have been trained through years of schooling to conform. Trade unions have traditionally sought to prevent young people from entering the work force because they put a downward pressure on wages. On this one issue they have been united -- keep young people out of the work force and apart from the real workings of society.

I agree that the brain continues to develop into adulthood. But it continues to develop and change throughout adulthood as well. At some point we have to afford our citizens freedom and responsibility as full members of society. Shifting that age of majority later in the teens and well up into the 20's will save a few immature individuals from the consequences of their irresponsible choices for a few more years. Is it worth the cost to the rest of our young people -- infantilizing them far beyond the age when it is healthy for them.

Neurophysiological development is not the explanation for immaturity. No doubt my 10-year-old has the neurophysiology of a 10-year-old -- but she's not stealing, engaging in reckless behaviour or making other stupid choices. Neither are my 12 or 15-year-olds. Maturity is something rather different from neurophysiology, and in my opinion we're setting kids up for arrested moral development if we assume they're the same thing. At some point we have to start giving young people responsibility -- including the responsibility of living with the repercussions of their mistakes. They need responsibility as a catalyst for the development of maturity -- and a few more years of pre-frontal-cortex synapse development alone won't give it to them.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Our piano beginner performs

I wish I had caught the announcement too. She's the only one of my children who has ever stood up proud and confident at a recital and told everyone her name and what she is going to play. Okay, Erin does announce just fine now, after years of being pressured into it. But she certainly didn't prior to age 10. For Fiona it was like it was second nature. No big deal.

Anyway, she had a lovely time performing. The students drew lots for performance order and she was 29 out of 31, but most selections were short and she was not at all impatient.

This week I noticed what was written inside the cover of the book this little piece is published in. It says "Erin April 2000." It took me back to my first year as a piano parent. Erin had started piano the October before, when she was almost six, the same timing as Fiona. Erin's progress on piano at that age had startled me. She went very quickly through her first primer book ... and then her second, and third, and eventually on into this book, the Royal Conservatory Introductory (pre-Grade-1) album. I was an shocked and delighted observer of all this rich musical learning. It was the first time I'd been in that situation and I was surprised almost every week by how she was gobbling up the learning.

Fiona's piano learning since starting lessons last October is something I've been quite proud of, but it hasn't surprised me the way Erin's did. Maybe over the past nine years I've become jaded and much harder to surprise. Because it's clear from the date inside the front of the book that Fiona has covered the same ground Erin did but at double the pace. Double a pace that stunned me 9 years ago.

I don't think I'm jaded, though, not really. I think I just appreciate children's amazing learning as natural and inevitable. It's different for each of them, of course. Pace, depth of mastery, direction of interests, creativity, intuitiveness, temperament, learning style, all these things vary from child to child. But the process of a child learning is always amazing. And I'm no longer suprised, nor as prone to make comparisons with others. I take it all in happily, enjoying the journey, but not fussing over the speedometer.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Step 1: Publish long rant about carpet on blog. Check.
Step 2: Bring home the only currently available sample of engineered flooring from the local building supply place, put it under leg of piano stool and take photo. Use imagination. Admire shiny reflection and smoothness even though the colour doesn't work with the rest of the room. Check.
Step 3: ?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Family trait

In this family we have a tendency to get locked into one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else. Sometimes it's stuff like practicing, math, touch-typing or reading, the sort of stuff that as a parent makes you say "it's great to have a passion!" And sometimes it's stuff like playing on the chin-up bar, or computer games, or making up rude lyrics to musical theatre songs, the sort of stuff that makes you quietly lay off blogging about your kids for a while and remind yourself that This To Shall Pass.

My kids often get so focused on something that they can't bear to take a break for mundane things like socializing, nutrition, hygeine or sleep. There have been many many nights when midnight has rolled on by and I've had some kid still madly working away at whatever the pursuit of the week is ... playing Mirror's Edge, finishing a piano composition, breaking 40 words per minute on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, doing three more music theory lessons, finishing every last card from the Yoga Deck of poses. "Soon, I'll go to bed soon, I just want to ... " When they do finally go to bed, it's with plans to get up as early as possible and get back at it.

Well, the dog's got the same thing, and she's got it bad. The Kong Seek game is what she's fixated on. She cannot see that toy but she is frantically whining to go outside and have it thrown, over and over again. The obsessiveness begins when the first human shows up in the living room in the morning. It runs for hours through the day. She stays outside in the snow for three, four, five hours at a stretch, shivering, hungry and tired, whining for another toss. Finally we pull the toy inside and hide it. She follows it in. A frantic hour commences. "My toy, my toy... I need my toy!"

Finally she relaxes enough to eat. And drink. And then she falls asleep.When she wakes up it starts all over again.

We hid the Kong for a long time today. She caught up on a lot of missed sleep and turned into a really nice dog. This evening we relented and brought it . And here it is almost midnight and she's on the stoop whining "Kong? Toy? Throw toy? Please throw toy!" She's shivering. She's tired. She's hungry. She can't let go of an obsession, though.

At least I know where she gets it from.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Kong seek

We have a very popular game here these days. We throw the Kong dog toy somewhere out the front door. Limpet, who has a great nose but isn't very clever yet about following aerial trajectories with her eyes, then goes out to try to find it -- running off madly in all directions.

She's amazingly persistent. She will easily spend half an hour furiously digging test holes, frolicking about trying to sniff the thing out. So far she's found it every time.

And she'll repeat the exercise over and over for three or four hours at a stretch. We end up with a healthy, well-exercised exhausted dog who is pretty well-behaved inside and enjoys cuddling with the kids in front of the fire.

She's not a total idiot when it comes to retrieving. This is the landscape we pitch the Kong into. It is vast and white, and in this stuff the Kong doesn't bounce. It lands with a single quiet 'thwoop' somewhere out there, creating an entry hole about 4 inches across and at least a foot deep in the very-much-deeper snow.

Must go. I hear whining outside the front door again. Kong and dog have returned. Time for another round.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

I have no advice

Not too long ago someone asked me for advice about helping kids learn to read. I must confess it's something I feel totally unqualified to offer advice on. Look at my kids in these photos. Fiona (top left), since she got her glasses last summer, can read anything, right up to a pre-teen/teen level. The lower right photo is of Erin at age 4, devouring some big thick reference book. She spent hours and hours a day reading, and no, I don't mean just two or three -- sometimes she read for 12 hours a day ... to the point that I seriously worried about her "reading addiction." I did nothing to instruct either of them. I answered their questions ("why does the C in 'ICE' make the S sound?" or "what does p-r-e-s-s spell?" or [cringe] "mommy, what's a ghennokyde?" [no, sweetie, that's pronounced genocide]). Anyway, I answered questions. I think we owned a couple of alphabet puzzles, and went to the library regularly. That was all.

The other two kids were similar. They read "on time" or early -- rather blindsiding their mother who hadn't really got around yet to thinking about how to help them learn. So really, I'm not the person to ask for advice about getting kids reading.

I am thankful that one of Erin's close friends throughout her childhood was a great counterexample to her early spontaneous reading. The whole time Erin was reading and reading and reading, J. was not yet reading. At all. The years rolled by. She was not reading at 7. Or 8. Or really much at age 9.

And yet it was clear that this kid was brilliant in so many ways, and was not struggling with a learning disability or other challenges. She simply had other learning on her plate, and reading was not up yet. She was socially incredibly confident and adept, was the perfect Waldorf-style unschooler, weaving and painting and caring for farm animals and with an incredible affinity for nature and beauty and music and art.

Erin's friend helped keep my mind wide open. She single-handedly prevented me from becoming smug and self-congratulatory about my kids' easy mastery of literacy. I taught J. the violin throughout those years, and loved everything about her -- and it was clear to me that the only difference between my kids' precocious literacy curves and her different path was that my kids were wired differently from her. I hadn't done anything right -- I had just been given children who were destined to learn literacy first (and hopefully catch up in the social adeptness department later!) while her parents had been given an equally brilliant amazing kid who was following a different path.

So not only did I not do very much to nurture my kids' early achievement of literacy, but what I did do was probably almost beside the point. It's mostly in the wiring, modulated by issues of temperament. Sure, an impoverished learning environment can cause delays in literacy learning. But a reasonably supportive nurturing environment? It's in the wiring. The ages when perfectly bright non-learning-disabled unschooled kids will learn to read is all over the map. To put it in mathematical terms I'd say "a mean of 7 years, plus or minus 4 years." Any age from 3 to 11, with some kids hanging off the ends of the bell curve and still perfectly normal for themselves.

Unschooled kids are not beholden to an age-levelled curriculum, so if they're later-readers, they don't suffer the side effects that their schooled peers do. They don't spend their 7th year feeling befuddled by the letters that seem to be making so much sense to their peers. They don't spend their 8th year feeling like failures at learning. They don't spend their 9th and 10th years struggling with other areas of learning, like math and science, being increasingly dependent on literacy skills they don't have in hand yet. And they don't spend the rest of their childhood trying to recover from the effects of those first four years when they simply couldn't learn what was being taught.

So here's the lovely thing. Erin's friend learned to read just fine. Quite easily, as it turned out, when it happened. She was almost 10 when she became fluent and passionate as a reader. And within three or four months she and Erin were sharing novels back and forth, talking books whenever they were together, secure in the fact that they were both strong, passionate readers. How cool is that? The six years, from age 4 to 10, while Erin was reading her eyeballs out, J. was busy learning lots of stuff in other ways. Suddenly we had two lovely bright 10-year-old girls, both reading very well and passionate about reading, both confident and happy, both having learned incredible amounts in the previous 6 years in their own ways.