Saturday, April 30, 2011

More market research

Now it's Fiona's turn. She has been persistent in her desire to create teas to sell at the market this summer. So far she's working on two blends.

The first is a tropical chai featuring organic black assam tea, red pepper flakes, toasted coconut, cardamom and cinnamon. Don't snicker: it's inspired by a boutique tea blend we love and Fiona's version 2.0, with the cinnamon toned down, is remarkably good.

The second is well on its way to being a winner. It's a Kootenay herbal blend based on wild ginger and rose hips. It needs some citrusy overtones, and so far she's used lemon peel; ultimately the hope would be to use organic lemon balm from our garden, but with the snow just barely gone it isn't exactly ready for harvest yet. I think it might also benefit from a hint of our peppermint, but we'll see. The wild ginger was fresh-picked in the forest today, but we went through the bother of drying it to test out how it would retain its flavour and release it in the tea. It works really well with the rose hips.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sophie's Sweets

The Friday Market in town will be starting up again soon, and Sophie has identified a market niche that she wishes to fill. She has been busily researching candy-making and doing various experiments. She decided that although kids would probably buy a few lurid-coloured lollipops at a dollar apiece, there's likely a broader market to be tapped into if she appeals to adults meandering around appreciating the quaintness of the market and the simplicity of its mostly natural products.

So her plan is to focus on old-fashioned hard candy, using simple and mostly natural ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, natural flavours where possible and a bit of vegetable-based colouring where warranted.

She's made three test batches so far. The first proved definitively that our candy thermometer is not accurate unless deeply immersed in large-volume recipes: some heavily carmelized (i.e. somewhat burnt) peppermint candies were the result. The laser thermometer has been perfect. The root beer flavouring produced a divine result, and though the maple she tried today was a little too subtle (add more next time!) it otherwise worked nicely. We've tried a few approaches to shaping the candy. So far the best method, in that the syrup remains workable long enough for a 12-year-old to complete production, is to drizzle it in powdered sugar, let cool slightly, then roll, twist and snip the cooling candy into individual pillow-shaped candies. The final product has a nice, rustic look to it that fits with her marketing plan.

Today she and I have been talking about and experimenting with packaging and presentation options. Kraft paper gives a nice look, I think. Wetted down it can be easily tied over old jar lids. The matching labels look lovely. The smaller 8 oz. jar shown in the photo is about the right size for a large gift jar and holds about 170 gm of candy. She'll also need smaller jars: we hope to recycle 4 oz. baby food jars. We have a pump'n'seal thingummy that does a great job of evacuating air from jars and sealing out the moisture that makes the candies get sticky and soft over time. So far the jars we've sealed have kept their candy nice and dry even in our warm humid kitchen.

Fiona's plan is to blend loose-leaf herbal teas and exotic chai blends to sell at the market. She is hoping to grow a lot of herbs and before too long we will be heading into the forest in search of wild ginger to harvest.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Festival Week at School

Last week Sophie and Fiona went to school. It was the week of the Arts and Writers Festival at the local public school, the one that umbrellas us as homeschoolers under their DL program. So they were invited to join the school classes for the week. We looked over the line-up of offerings and the girls were keen. There was felting, and pottery, and puppetry, and an aboriginal story-telling event, and an art workshop. Monday and Tuesday were fully-scheduled days. Wednesday and Thursday the festival comprised just an hour or two. Wednesday evening was the Coffee House, an exhibit of artwork and roster of music and puppetry performances and readings of creative writing. Tuesday afternoon and evening included two local performances by Corazón, one at the school and one at the hall, which we all attended of course. Soccer practice and violin lessons had to squeezed in there somehow too. It would give us a taste of the time constraints school would place upon us if they were attending full-time, though as Sophie pointed out, we we would be trying to fit school into a pre-existing homeschooling life, which would make it more of a juggle.

This was the first almost-full-time taste of school for both girls. Way back in 2004 Erin gave school a try for a couple of days in order to find out if it was something she'd like to consider for herself full-time the following year. I quietly spent a couple of days worrying that she might be keen on enrolling, but it turned out she wasn't. With Fiona and Sophie attending last week I wasn't at all worried that they'd decide they wanted to attend school. I don't really worry about that sort of thing any more. But I was curious what they would think about the whole experience.

Fiona joined the Grade 3/4's for the week. With her January birthday she's "old" for Grade 2 and a much better match socially and intellectually for the 3/4 class than the K/1/2 group, and fortunately the teachers knew her well enough to recognize that. She got along famously with the group and had a lovely time, especially enjoying the puppetry and pottery. She would love to attend something like that every week but recognized that normal school is not like the Festival week. She said "If I ever did school it would definitely just be for the socializing." While in the past I've tried to keep my kids out of most grade-levelled curriculum materials, in some ways it is nice that Fiona is aware that she's doing Grade 6 science and math content: she realizes that a regular school classroom would not allow her the flexibility to pursue these areas of passion at a level that challenges her.

Sophie and her best bud (also unschooled) joined the Grade 5/6/7's for the Festival week. They had fun together, typically working side by side and pairing up for collaborative projects. I'm not sure Sophie would have enjoyed it as much without her friend there. The social dynamic in the older portion of that classroom has a strong peer-oriented girl culture running through it, and Sophie doesn't resonate terribly well with those kids. Still, she had a good experience with the activities, though not compelling enough to pine for even the social and enrichment-activity-related perks of school.

The coffee house was long, crowded and tiring after a number of long days, but it was a nice way to cap off the week. And I admit that it is nice to feel a bit more connected to the community of other families and children. Fiona followed up with a playdate on the weekend with a new friend, and I saw a lot of nice people I don't see very often.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Children and computer use

Written in response to a mom of a 5-month-old who was asking for advice on how much and how early to encourage computer use by her child as she grows up:

I love what technology does for us, but here's the thing: its pull is relentless. There is no way bright kids today with computer-literate parents and even basic technology in the home will not grow up frightenly capable with computers. What I fear they may lack is the sense of connection to the real. I don't mean this in a spooky Ender's-Game-like sense of living a virtual life. I mean that I think that humans are hard-wired to learn from direct experience with the physical world, and that if especially when they're young (say, under 12 or so) they don't get copious experience with the direct consequences of their actions they will not develop fully as empathetic, responsible, moral beings. So I think it is pretty cool to play with virtual farms and learn how protecting a breeding stock of poultry will promote strong meat and egg production over the years. But I think that this is not nearly a substitute for incubating eggs in your laundry room, carefully monitoring the heat lamp to nurture those chicks through their tender first weeks, hauling water out to the henhouse twice a day in the depths of winter, and cooking the eggs and meat you harvest. (I realize this is just an example: most urban kids won't have the opportunity to raise hens like mine have. But I hope you get my point.) In the real world if you mess up you don't can't click "Menu>>New Game" and your characters don't automatically respawn after 20 seconds. Your mess-ups result in dead chicks, or time-consuming and exhausting damage-control, or stress on relationships and loss of trust that needs work to be put to rights.

It's tempting to think that you can have both: the clean and easy virtual experience and the chicken-poop-on-your-boots type. And I do think you can. I'm trying to create a balance for my kids that allows them to have both. But what I've seen over the years is that the virtual, disconnected-from-the-real-world experiences have much the greater attraction for kids (and, I confess, for parents) because they're so tidy and readily available and easy and low-risk. And so in keeping a balance for my kids I've found that my parental effort needs to favour the real-world experiences. I need to work very hard to keep my kids engaged in the dirty, messy, risky, hard-working business of real life, and I need to do absolutely no facilitation at all, and if anything sometimes create obstacles, concerning their engagement with the virtual. When I do that the balance seems to come out about right.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Falling Sand

Way back in 2006 Noah discovered Owen Piette's "Falling Sand Game." These silly little desktop diversions were quite the rage at the time. You sprinkle virtual coloured sand in a little window on your desktop and it falls, slowly or quickly, depending on which colour you choose. Lovely zen-like patterns form in the heaps at the bottom of the window.

WXSand, Piette's version, was the first open source game that Noah started tinkering with. The script containing the definitions of the various types of sand was infinitely modifiable. We went on a lovely computer-free vacation to Texada Island that fall and the whole time we were there, tide pooling and kayaking and playing family games Noah's little 9-year-old brain was turning as he amassed ideas for new elements he intended to code for WXSand.

Fast forward to this year. Noah has been attending Community Gaming Night, a biweekly open session at one of the community halls where several computers and a gaming console or two are set up and kids, teens and adults are welcome to drop in and play and learn and socialize. I practically had to drag Noah to the first session last fall (he's still incredibly resistant to new things) but he quickly became Gaming Night's biggest fan and a major motive force. The organizer has increasingly put him in charge of portions of the evening. He's now choosing most of the games for the children's portion (the first three hours, devoted to games suitable for all ages) and providing input for the teen/adult session that follows. He's been granted admin privileges on the computers and does much of the installing and configuring.

And because he's providing software for the younger set, recently he has been pulling out some of the really old games he enjoyed when he was 8 through 12. They're mostly available for free now, which is great for a community program running on a shoestring budget. They run on old machines. And some of them are remarkably unique and clever, considering the limited computing power they require.

For old times' sake he pulled out WX Sand a couple of weeks ago. And he decided it would be fun to do some scripting for it again. He discovered that he's many times more efficient and effective at coding than he was back then and is much more adept at devising logical workarounds for conceptual problems (like, trying to use a game devised as a pretty diversion made up of falling pixels into a simulation of a steam engine, or an electrical circuit).

He had such fun creating funky new elements to perform weird functions in the game that I suggested he take the script in to show our liaison teacher at our monthly meeting where we report on what the kids have been busy learning. According to the DL course structure that we set up for Noah this year, he's enrolled in high school courses in the InfoTech subject area. I figured it would be useful evidence of learning, and Noah agreed. He loaded up is thumb drive with the game and his home-made script, and headed into the school.

You need to understand that our DL teacher is a science and math guy. So this was right up his alley. Using code and mathematical parameters to simulate physical and chemical reactions between various substances? Couldn't have been more his kind of thing! Noah loaded the program and the script and started explaining, demonstrating, tweaking code on the fly, commenting on his approach and logical problem-solving strategies, highlighting, using metaphors and simplifications to describe for his DL teacher how and why he had used certain approaches. They huddled together, talking and trying things out. The teacher was clearly very impressed.

Finally, after about twenty minutes, it was lunch time and they sat back to kind of wrap things up.

"Do you want a copy of the coding I did?" Noah asked, unsure as we all are about how much hard evidence of learning this new DL program is required to amass.

"Actually," the DL teacher confessed, smirking conspiratorially ... "I'd kind of like a copy of the whole game."

And so Noah loaded WXSand and his vastly appended script file of physics elements on the school laptop. I am pretty sure this has nothing whatsoever to do with Evidence of Learning. I think it has to do with one pretty nifty DL teacher whose gaming and scientific interests were genuinely piqued by what Noah had showed him.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Car Free Day

I wonder why we haven't done this in forever?

The Sienna gets a day off to enjoy the spring-like sunshine.
Our biggest challenge in trying to reduce our environmental footprint has always been in the realm of transportation. We live miles (or depending on how you define it, hours of miles) from anything. There is no public transit to speak of here. One day a week, which is the wrong day for us for any number of reasons, if you have the entire day to spare, there's a bus that will get you to Nelson and back. But we've never been able to use it. Buses to Calgary, which Erin does make use of regularly, require us to make a 6-hour round-trip drive just to get her to or pick her up from the bus station: and cost almost double the price of gas to drive the whole distance in the van. And even the short distance to town (3.4 kilometers to get to the top of main street) is along a winding mountain highway with scanty shoulders, with a 6-8% grade. It's not a walk for the faint-of-heart.

As anyone who reads this blog will know, our village of 600 has a lot going for it, but when it comes to several of the things that my kids are interested in there simply aren't the numbers and activities here to support them. So we travel a lot. Playing a soccer game against another team requires a 40-minute drive. The aikido dojo we were a part of was 30 minutes south. Corazon Vocal Ensemble rehearses 90 minutes away. And of course violin and viola lessons for the older two are 8 hours away in Calgary.

So we drive. A lot. Thirty thousand kilometres a year, at least. And feel guilty about it. Six years ago we bought our minivan with an eye to fuel efficiency. (Passing on the 4WD model was a probably short-sighted choice made primarily to reduce fuel consumption.) But it's a minivan nonetheless and it runs on fossil fuels.

Today we didn't drive. Today we decided to be car-free in order to remind ourselves how much we depend on the vehicle, how much we appreciate its convenience and instant gratification it affords. (Out of milk? Wondering if anything interesting came in today's mail? Drive to town! Go back later for something else...)

Wild turkeys, seen crossing the highway yesterday
The three younger kids and I had a meeting at the school with our DL program liaison teacher this morning. We had a bunch of projects, books and bookwork to bring and show off, so we packed them in a backpack and headed out. There was snow on the ground at home, but out on the highway things were clear and dry. We had hoped we might run into the turkeys again today but alas while Sophie heard some gobbling in the woods, they weren't out in plain sight.

We arrived perfectly on time, the walk taking about 43 minutes (downhill being much the quicker direction). While Noah was finishing up his part of our meeting, the girls went to the Post Office and picked up the mail. We went to the bank and then to our favourite café for lunch. Then we headed home, which took about an hour.

After we got home, Erin, who had stayed home practicing for the morning, went to the gym. She jogged down, did her couple of hours of working out, and then power-walked and jogged back home, for a total of about three hours of exercise.

In the meantime the three younger kids had eaten supper and we had given their bikes a spring tuning. They rode off to Gaming Night, a Friday night occasion not to be missed. Held at one of the community halls, this is a chance for kids and adults who enjoy playing computer and video games to get together and play in real time and real space in a social atmosphere. There are 4 or 5 reconditioned computers, plus the organizer's own couple of machines, plus a console game platform or two hooked up to a TV (most recently the Xbox Kinect which my kids love). For the first three hours the games are all rated "E" for Everyone and all kids are welcome. After 9 pm it's mature gaming time targetted at teens and adults (slightly younger kids can stay with parental permission) so all the younger kids leave and the older ones stay on or drift in. Noah attends the entire six hours if he can manage it, and has become kind of the Assistant Tech Guy, granted full admin privileges and recently taking most of the responsibility for selecting and installing games for the pre-teens.

So the kids rode their bikes down and have ditched them at grandma's house for retrieval tomorrow. I'll head out in time to pick Fiona up at 9 o'clock. I'll bring four head-lamps and some water and leave half of my supplies with Sophie and Noah. I'll walk home with Fiona. At a few minutes before midnight, as Gaming Night is shutting down, Noah and Sophie will don their own head-lamps and start hoofing it up the hill. They are have pointed out that according to their logic Car Free Day ends at midnight and that therefore I will be there in the minivan to pick them up before they get too far up the hill. Depending on how cold and spooky my walk home with Fiona between 9 and 10 turns out to be that may indeed be the case. Then again Fiona will have self-transported a total of 15 km today, most of that on foot; should Noah and Sophie really be rescued after 11.5 kilometres? We shall see how benevolent the owner/operator of Mom's Taxi Service is feeling at midnight.

All in all they've taken to it without complaint and with the spirit of adventure and appreciation that it was intended to nurture.

Oh, and Chuck is off at a conference for a few days. We had a feeling he wouldn't have been willing to play along (as his lack of appreciation and respect for No-Screen Days in the past has suggested), so this Friday was chosen strategically to avoid the issue of paternal non-compliance.

Dvorak Symphony

Last weekend Noah, Erin and I, together with another long-time local student and friend, headed off for another weekend at with the Symphony. Noah had done one previous program with this group, Erin and I had done two and it was J.'s first. The program was bigger and meatier this time, though, with two big works by Dvorak: the Symphony No. 8 in G Major and the Cello Concerto.

On Friday we took the terrific and free Osprey ferry across Kootenay Lake, meeting up with a few other orchestra members on board, and then continued to drive on eastwards to Cranbrook where we checked into our truly lovely motel room and headed out to the first of three rehearsals at the theatre. We had a performance on Saturday night in Cranbrook, and then on Sunday headed west and home again, convening that evening at the theatre in Nelson for a second performance. It was nice to play for the "home crowd." Chuck, Fiona and Sophie had never heard the orchestra so this was their chance. 

I put together the above video as part of Noah's virtual portfolio for his Orchestra 10 high school credit through our DL program. Unfortunately you can't see either Noah or Erin in the video; Chuck, who manned the camcorder, was in Row 2, eyes at stage level and with a very minimal view of anyone other than the front-row players. You can see me from time to time (playing 2nd violin next to the white-haired violist in the front row) and I did my best to intersperse some other video and stills of Noah with the concert footage. At least you get to see him in his suit and tie, purchased especially for this orchestral gig! And hopefully you get a taste of how exciting it is for kids who have mostly cut their orchestral teeth in a tiny entry-level community string orchestra to have a first rehearsal on Friday and play a performance like this two days later!