Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cranberry Hazelnut Biscottini

Yesterday we went an sorted, packed and distributed our wholesale dried fruit and nut order, bringing home a good hundred pounds to our own pantry. And thus the holiday baking has gone into high gear.

Cranberry Hazelnut Biscottini

We like these small so that they more closely match the size of our other holiday fare -- the truffles and the like.

1/2 cup softened butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. grated orange rind
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts

Preheat oven to 325F.

Cream together butter and sugar util fullffy. Beat in eggs, vanilla extract and orange zest until blended. In another bowl, stir together flour, baking power and cloves. Add to butter mixture and mix well. Stir in cranberries and nuts.

Shape into logs about 8" long and 1 1/2" in diameter. Flatten each log slightly to make a slab about 1/2 an inch high and 2 inches wide. Place on parchment on baking sheet and bake in 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.

Remove from oven and transfer to a cutting board. Allow to cool for 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Use a chef's knife (quickly and decisively!) to slice the logs into 3/8" strips. Place back on baking sheet in upright position and bake for a further 15 minutes at the lower temperature.

Makes about 6 dozen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The wheel keeps spinning

How beautiful is this?

To think that it started out as this...

Living in bulk

With a family of six, two chest freezers, a lot of pantry space and a penchant for whole foods, we end up buying a lot of things in bulk. And this is definitely the time of year when our bulk buying habits kick into high gear. Yesterday I picked up 100 pounds of locally grown organic wheat, 20 pounds of groats and 20 pounds of lentils. Today 80 pounds of citrus fruit has arrived.

On Friday we'll take delivery of 100 pounds of organic dried fruit, nuts and (for the first time ever) chocolate. At that point we'll be perfectly primed for the Christmas-treat-making marathon that takes place from late November to mid-December.

The treat-making has actually already begun. On Saturday we started with 8 dozen pfeffernuessen, the German spice cookies made with (among many other spices) black pepper. Fiona suggested I take a picture of the spices on the flour because they looked so enticing.

We'll be adding double batches of a dozen or so other recipes to our repository in the basement freezer as the weeks progress. Every year we try at least a couple of promising-looking new recipes, added to the many that have become annual traditions -- pfeffernuesse, almond crescents, the vile-but-nonetheless-required Christmas strawberries, candied fruit peel, shortbread, gingerbread, chocolate rum balls, penuche, cashew brittle, and fruit and nut balls. This year's new recipes will probably include pignoli and sesame snaps since we have lots of pine nuts and sesame seeds in our pantry.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nine Days Debriefing and Re-Assessment

Our nine day experiment with structure was up yesterday. This morning we got up and did math, handwriting, biology, physics, chores, music theory and the like just like we had for the previous nine days. The experiment was over and awaiting re-assessment, but we kept working away anyway. Hmm.

This evening we had our official meeting to talk about it. Zowee. Who would 'a thunk it? To wit, the kids' input:

  • Yes, let's keep the 11 pm bedtime. In fact, some of the kids would like to make bedtime earlier, but that's always an option, so an 11 pm rule is fine.
  • Yes, let's keep the Structured Schooling. A couple of hours a day is about right.
  • Let's buy more workbooks and DVD lectures so that there are more resources available as the year progresses.
  • No-Screen Day. It's cool. But once a week is probably too often to keep it 'special.' Let's have a biweekly No-Screen Day.
  • Things are better now. Let's keep working on this. We're getting somewhere.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nine days

We had a family meeting a little over a week ago. It was a more significant meeting than usual, because Chuck was part of it: he wanted to express some concerns he's had about how people in this house are choosing to spend their time. These are concerns I share, though I tend to see more of the 'good stuff' than he does, and have spent a lot more energy learning to look at the apparently-not-so-good-stuff through different lenses. I look at these same issues through the lens of unschooling, of autonomous learning, peering far outside the box, seeing the occasional breathtaking efficiency of learning driven by authentic engagement. I have quelled most of my concerns through years of studiously nurtured trust and big-picture viewing. But the concerns were still lurking under the surface of my mind. And so when Chuck put them into words I thought "Wow, he's expressing some interest in how things work around here, and he's saying a lot of things I've felt over the years." I figured he ought to say those things out loud to the kids -- partly so that they know he cares about their learning and growing, but mostly so that we can all understand and take into account his frustrations, concerns... and feelings.

The main issues ... that the kids are as a group quite sedentary, fairly withdrawn, spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the computer and precious little time contributing to the well-being of the family. The creative chaos which has in the past spawned such amazing things as HTML websites coded from scratch, stop-motion animation, the vast imaginary Euwy World, deep conversations late at night about the ethics of war and how to nurture friendships, well, these days the creative chaos isn't as creative. The activities we used to do together don't happen much any more. Since the older kids have been able to stay home alone they've pretty much mostly done so. Concerts, hikes, shopping trips, errands, social visits -- once they became optional the kids stopped coming.

And overall they don't seem to really feel that good about themselves. They have good intentions and fine ambitions and solid values. But when it comes to actually doing virtuous things there's always tomorrow. There's not a lot of bubbly joy and energy in evidence around here. There's a certain amount of inward-turning and detachment from family that one would expect during adolescence. That accounts for some of it no doubt. But it seemed to go deeper than that. There was a lot of aimlessness and 'flatness' for lack of a better word. And a prevailing sense amongst the kids as well that a lot of worthwhile stuff that took just slightly more energy than playing on the computer wasn't being got around to.

I've put a lot of work into supporting the kids in self-structuring. We've gone over this ground a lot in family meetings, at learning plan meetings, in casual discussions. There's a weird paradox that often arises in such conversations. A kid would say she wanted structure, and would like me to create it for her, and administer it, somewhat forcefully, but I should allow her to decline if she really didn't want to comply with the structure. And I should also take the blame if the refusal is habitual and I eventually gave up trying to administer the structure. I feel like a pushmepullyou -- asked for structure, reviled for giving it, refused over and over, and then blamed for not giving it forcefully enough.

Collaborative problem-solving can be a great thing. But maybe there's such a thing as too much of it. Sometimes kids can listen to their parents say "do you have any ideas on how to fix this problem?" and instead hear "I'm your parent, but I don't know what to do -- can you fix things for our family?" Understandably that can provoke a lot of unease, anxiety and discomfort. Kids shouldn't have to bear the full responsibility of stuff like that. (And of course they didn't -- but I think maybe they perceived it that way on some level.) Sometimes I think the pushmepullyou response I got when trying to support the kids in self-structuring was their way of saying "Sheesh, mom, you're the parent! I don't want to have to tell you how to be a parent -- just do it."

We reached a bit of a stalemate at our family meeting. There were no lines drawn in the sand, but there were six people standing in different places on the sand not sure what to do to find some common ground. The kids didn't have any suggestions on how to remedy / appease / co-operate / change or try something new.

So I basically instituted a unilateral experiment with parent-imposed structure. The experiment would last nine days. Bedtime 11 pm. No computer time until daily responsibilities have been completed. Daily responsibilities include household work of various sorts (i.e. chores) and a selection of parent-administered tasks derived from the kids' self-designed learning plans (a.k.a. homeschooling).

There were some initial moans of protest. There were a few tears on Day 1. By Day 3 the protests were gone. The bedtime rule was lauded by the very same boy who had moaned at first about no more all-night gaming jags. By Day 5 children were saying "I like this system." By Day 7 they had all decided it should stay in place after the nine day trial. Perhaps with some tweaks, but basically as it stands.

Years ago I would read on homeschooling message boards comments like this: "I'd love to unschool, but my son really thrives on structure." Unschooling seemed to be working beautifully for us at the time, but I would chuckle and think to myself "If my kids were the type to thrive on structure, how would I know?" Maybe it was kind of like Fiona's eyesight -- she was profoundly far-sighted and couldn't see properly, and had no way of knowing it because she'd never seen anything clearly.

I'm not chuckling any longer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hug a Chicken Day

A few changes in progress around here lately, worth a few posts, but today is rushed -- more about those another time.

Today, though, we celebrated Hug a Chicken Day. The kids are in the midst of creating a randomizable selection of 365 special celebrations, one for each day of the year. Amongst the more peculiar days: Loose Temper Day, Feed Liquor to Children Day, Wide-Eyed Day, Foraging Day, Notice Weird Things About Your Body Day and Worship a New God Day. Zany, irreverent, out of left field these celebrations are. Just like my children.

Today's festivities were roundly enjoyed by all, with the possible exception of the chicken.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Spinning girl

We are YouTube and Google spinners, self-taught with the assistance of low-resolution videos and superior keyword choices.

Sophie as usual is intuitive with her fine-motor skills, particularly as pertaining to fibre crafts. So far we are practicing on the undyed fleece, saving our four fleecy colours for a skein of multi-coloured Noro-style single ply.

Repeat copier miracle

I bought my copier / printer / multifunction machine a couple of years ago. I loved that machine. As soon as I got it home I was questioning how all the music teachers and homeschooling parents and society board members of the past had ever survived without one.

Then it died last February. Nasty error messages concerning the toner cartridge that responded to none of my resourceful trouble-shooting. I put the thing on the floor for a month. I despaired. But after some time passed I plugged it in and tried it again -- and there was a miracle! It worked.

Until the middle of September. Same error message. I tried all the same trouble-shooting. I turned it off for a couple of weeks. I moved it onto the floor. I put it back. I turned it on. I tried everything all over again. No miracle.

I was talking to a friend today about the lack of a repeat miracle, and how I'd ask for a new one for Christmas except that I couldn't bear to landfill a great hunk of glass, plastic and metal after just a couple of years. Jokingly I said I'd try turning it on again.

A second miracle has occurred.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fleecy colours

A friend of mine re-iterated her offer of the loan of a spinning wheel today. We're getting closer ...

Unschooling is for parents too

Cedar Basket"... we are currently on the fence about sending our child to public school in a very small rural town or homeschooling ... One of my biggest concerns is wondering if I have the ability to teach my children. I don't feel like I remember/know everything and also don't know how to teach."

If the teaching/learning equation were really about the teacher knowing it all and passing her knowledge on effectively to the student then clearly the public school system failed you (since you don't remember everything!) -- and why the heck would you entrust your child to the very system that failed you?

But really, I think that's a rather misguided educational paradigm. Children are not empty vessels into which 'experts' pour their knowledge according to some pre-ordained system or method. Children are people, and incredibly capable learners at that! Given a reasonably nurturing environment and a bit of freedom they create, they invent, they question, they respond, they engage, they explore, they infer, they grow, they learn. They don't need you to know everything and dispense it to them according to a time-tested system. They will show you or tell you what they need. Because you as their parent are in love with them, you will listen to their needs. And because you are a human being too, you will do your own exploring, creating, learning and growing in order to give them what they are asking for.


(who can now ice-skate [backwards!], understand a fair bit of Japanese, weave cedar baskets, conjugate Latin verbs and dye wool thanks to the impetus her children have provided her with)

Viral trends

This is the story of our past week and a half. Lovely, isn't it? Three of the kids have been sick twice. Erin had the worst of it initially -- likely the H1N1 thing, contracted in transit back from Calgary that week. She quarantined herself quite effectively in the cabin and we essentially didn't see her for three days. She slept, I delivered fluids, and we all washed our hands after her once or twice-daily trips into the house to use the toilet.

The younger girls then got something that I'd feared might be Erin's flu, but turned out to be much milder. Erin then got sick again with cold-like symptoms which I assumed was the milder virus Sophie and Fiona had had. But then today Sophie and Fiona have come down with exactly whatever Erin now has. And Noah is in the midst of a nasty thing that's somewhere about mid-range in severity.

Two significant blessings: Sophie was in a small window of relative wellness on her birthday, and the viral trend curves of the parents in this family (not shown) are nice flat lines at the bottom of the graph.

In the midst we managed to (mostly) participate in the Baroque Dance workshop, and to perform at the Baroque Concert. Tomorrow brings a Remembrance Day quartet performance for the middle kids at the local school. I'm hoping they'll be able to play during the laying of the wreaths, even if we have to wheel them in and prop them up.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Baroque Dance

This is fun! We have a visiting clinician in the area this weekend running a set of workshops for music students, teaching them about baroque dance. For years these kids have been playing minuets, bourrées, gavottes, sarabandes, gigues, courantes and the like. Now they're learning about the historical roots and kinesthetic forms of the dances they were meant to accompany. The afternoon was the session for kids under 12, during which Fiona learned to dance a minuet. In the evening, and continuing tomorrow, is the session for older and more advanced kids and adults. They learned the minuet, gavotte and sarabande tonight. Tomorrow will bring a bourrée as well, and a few other fun movement games and no doubt a lot more interesting background on the social conditions and traditions these dances evolved in.

Music students are such cool kids. There were about a dozen and half in the school gym on a Friday night, pretending they had frock coats and frilly shirts on and pointing their toes in stately steps -- focused, attentive, having fun, getting to know each other, learning, laughing, being totally respectful of the teacher, each other and the space they were in.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Five hundred

I was putting on about 100 miles a month through the summer and would have finished my 2009 goal of 500 miles by mid-September if I hadn't been injured. But I was about 30 miles short when I had to take a long hiatus. Finally this week I managed to jog my way to my goal.

Today's goal-reaching run fit into a warm spell which has melted most of the snow, so I ran what will likely be one of the last trail runs of the year. My route took me over a carpet of yellow and brown leaves, along a trail deserted by the fair-weather tourists. Just me and my dog, the sounds of our feet and our breathing, and of the forest itself. The hip still bothers me a bit, and oh, I've got slower for the long break. But I am so much happier to be running again.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Carding jag

Thanks to a borrowed drum carder, this phase is going reasonably efficiently. But it still takes ages. We've spent hours at it over the past couple of days.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Fall and fibre

It's fall. Every fall for the past few years I am struck by the urge to get out yarn and needles and start creating things. The kids have all got sweaters and hats, countless Christmas gifts -- socks, hats, mittens, scarves -- have been knitted for various people. And it starts every fall, sometime in late September or October. I think it has something to do with the wood stove. Its cozy glow invites knitting.

And now it seems that Fiona and Sophie share my annual awakening of knitting passion. Sophie even has her own Ravelry account which she diligently updates. I suspect Fiona will want her own before too long. I'm working on a cardigan. Sophie is finishing up the back of a felted cushion for which she did the fair-isle top last year. She's also gone into production with korknissen. She can finish a hat and sweater, and do the gluing to the cork in the space of about 20 minutes. Yesterday she made four. Her ambition is to create enough of the cute little guys that she can assemble a battalion for a surrealistically sinister effect. Her demented sense of humour invades even this.

Fiona has begun work on some leg warmers which will match some of her Lands' End outfits. Yesterday she successfully reviewed the knit stitch, then learned the purl stitch and did the two inches of 2x2 ribbing at the top of her first leg-warmer. She was thrilled with the success.

This sketch shows Ms. Knit with her furry-collared coat and Mr. Purl wearing his scarf. It was my attempt to show Fiona the difference between the appearance of a knit and purl stitch on the needle, so that she could more easily keep track of her ribbing. I drew the yarn pattern, then the faces got added by Sophie and we went on embellishing until we had little friendly-looking characters. It's fun to see how much more capable the girls get in their knitting from year to year. Fiona is much faster than she was last year, when it took her the better part of a month to knit a bean bag! And she makes fewer mistakes. Even better, when she makes little mistakes, Sophie is incredibly capable at helping her fix them by un-knitting, picking up dropped stitches, undoing accidental loops and the like. So I don't even need to be around.

We're also busy with washing, carding and dyeing fleece. Our fleece adventures are moving slowly but relentlessly forward. Most of the immense bag of raw fleece is now fully washed. About half has been carded. Dyeing has begun. Spinning, well, we're still thinking about that.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Math mornings

Two of my kids have caught the school bug. The last few mornings have looked like this. At 8:30 a.m., no less! Sophie likes to be a night-owl, but she is pushing her bedtime back and is now up by 8 in the morning.

Unfortunately Sophie and Fiona also seem to have caught the flu bug from their big sister, so I doubt tomorrow will look like this.