Friday, June 14, 2013

Fiona's "Grade 4" year

When the kids were younger, our natural homeschooling year was kind of upside-down. Winter would see us spending a lot of down-time in front of the fire, energy and creativity at a bit of an ebb. Once the longer days and warm weather began in spring, learning would explode. The summer fun of outdoor activities, community special events and music workshops would propel things forward. In fall any scheduled activities would start anew and there would be lots of enthusiasm, all of which would end in a big crescendo leading into holiday celebrations, performances, crafting and gift-giving. After that a couple of months of fallow time felt natural and healthy.

We also didn't really have a difference between weekdays and weekends. We were as likely to take a "nothing day" to just stay home and chill on a Wednesday as on a Saturday, and a history of Canada book was as likely to get pulled out on a Sunday evening as a Monday morning.

Once we started adding school to the mix, though, we kind of fell into a more traditional school year. This year Fiona's homeschooling has been even more strongly ruled by the school calendar than in the past since she opted to do a course at school and had both her live-at-home siblings in school full time.

She wanted to do a fair amount of bookwork, but she decided she would only do it on weekdays, and only until school let out in June. Sounds a lot like school-at-home, doesn't it? So be it: that's what she wanted. She started out with some tentative plans to do some handwriting workbooks, some curricular novel studies, to graze through a math enrichment book (Challenge Math) and to dabble in a bit more of the TOPS chemistry program. She also wanted to continue with gymnastics and to participate in homeschool art classes, to take Spanish in the classroom at school, and to continue with the Law and Government workshops in Nelson. She also decided to continue on with violin lessons even though that meant studying with her mother as her teacher -- definitely not her preferred structure, but the only option for continuing formal study at this point. We wrote all this down as a plan for our DL program so that we could revisit it, regalvanize our efforts and/or amend the plan as needed.

So how did it all play out?

The handwriting books arrived in the mail today. Long story, three complicated chapters with one long intermission. So that didn't happen, not yet anyway. TOPS chemistry .... well, she did a bit early in the fall, but then she seemed to not want that structure, and science just meandered off on serendipitous tangents according to whatever experiences and interests came her way -- volcanos, DNA, natural history, astronomy, all very loose and led by whims. No textbooks, no output, no plan, whatever goes. During the fall her interest in math bookwork seemed to have pretty much fizzled. I don't think she did anything much until the end of November when, at the back of the classroom where her art classes are held she encountered the school's Grade 8 textbook and fell in love. We borrowed a copy and she continued to really enjoyed it, finishing the whole course by the beginning of May. She even chose to write the same final exam the schoolkids wrote, albeit in the comfort of her own home (she's finishing it up as I write this post). The curricular novel studies? She did one, enjoyed it because it was something new, did another and wasn't feeling the love any more, so that was the end of that.

Law and Government was awesome, finishing with a great moot court experience. Gymnastics has been great; she was asked to move up to the most advanced recreational class for her age and we had to ask the Corazoners for some concessions on their transportation to make the schedule work, but it was definitely worth it as she's much more challenged. Spanish worked out as a second-semester course and she roundly enjoyed it, fitting in well and even taking on a natural leadership role with the older kids in group project work.

Violin has been not entirely successful. When she studied with an "outside teacher" the implicit expectation by that teacher (even if it was "just" her grandmother)  of regular practicing was enough to ensure that she did her half hour of practicing most days. She also tends to be socially motivated by things that family members are busy with, and this year neither Noah nor Sophie have teachers (they're well beyond a level that I or other teachers in the area could teach at) so she hasn't had that family momentum to get caught up in. And she suffered the fate that all the other local students suffered: a shared master class of 90 minutes didn't offer them nearly enough individualized guidance to progress optimally. So she's struggled with motivation, and has practiced rather minimally -- briefly two to four times a week on average. We've managed to recruit a teacher to the area for next year and she's decided there's enough chance that that will help that she's willing to carry on through the summer. She's also looking forward to SVI of course, and will get a chance to do some chamber music there.

So that's it for the planned stuff. There's been a lot of pretty great unplanned learning ... the Vi Hart videos, the snorkelling in Hawaii, the XC skiing, the fascination with maps and globes, the conversations, podcasts, documentaries, encounters with interesting people, books read, computer games played, TV shows inhaled, community events, family expeditions, friendships, performances and volunteer activities.

She did have a low point in late winter where she began talking about going to school next fall to fix whatever she was seeing as the problem. There was some social stuff behind it I think -- perhaps she had been slightly excluded at a social function by the clique of girls who dominate the class she would be in at school. I was in the process of setting up a trial week for her at school when the ground shifted again and she told me not to bother. She spent a morning with the Grade 4/5/6 group at a theatre workshop and found herself very frustrated by the time and energy that had to be spend on behaviour management. "Not worth it for me, at all," was Fiona's verdict. For what it's worth, I think the teacher is amazing, she's one of my best friends, and most years her classroom would be a lovely place to spend some time. This particular group of kids, though... well, things are a little over the top, even for her.

After that brief flirt with the idea of school Fiona's spring energy kicked in, and ever since she has seemed really happy with what she's doing and where she's at. She has loved the independence she's had this year during my teaching time, taking on some volunteer work, some small bits of paid housekeeping at an apartment, a bit of mother's-helper type babysitting, she likes the crazy fun drives to Nelson with all those teenagers, her friendships with various older and younger kids, the travelling we've done and the "chill" time she gets at home. For most of the year there's been little structured learning other than the math two or three times a week,  and the Spanish class, but there has been lots of other stuff and she's curious and creative and full of enthusiasm.

Winters, especially late winters, are always hard here. Perhaps if we plan ways to cope with that nadir ahead of time next year we won't suffer for it.

And so ... onwards into summer and beyond.

Another year of school

Rose and the Doctor at school on Fictional Character Day
Classes have ended at the local high school. Sophie and Noah are in the midst of exams. This represents the completion of Sophie's second and Noah's first year of full-time school. They've also just completed course selection for next year. It feels like a suitable time to reflect and look ahead.

It's a tiny high school and it seems to be getting tinier all the time. There are some compromises that are inevitable, but of course there are some tremendous advantages. Chief among the advantages is the fact that at a school this size each student becomes the co-author of an unofficial Individualized Education Plan. The teachers know the students very well indeed. The teachers are few enough in number (five!) that they communicate and co-operate extensively and naturally so that they can each get a holistic view  of the student and his or her interaction with the courses. At a school of this size no one ever says "we can't make an exception for just one student!" It is a school made up of exceptions. And so my kids have found it a comfortable place to be.

Despite Noah's incredibly strong written English abilities (he scored perfect marks on all three of his final English essays and his History 12 teacher thinks he's amazing), his jaw-dropping musicality on viola and his deep affinity for choral music and Corazón, he seems to be leaning towards sciences at this point. He took both Biology 11 and 12 this year, and Pre-Calc 11, and seems to have done very well. Next year will be his senior year and he'll fill in the rest of his pre-university science roster, as well as taking a Programming 12 course. I hope he'll continue to be happy at school next year: a lot of the social interest and challenge this year came from sharing classes with five fairly academically-minded Grade 12 students. But they're done now, and at this point there are no other students in 11th grade planning post-secondary studies.

Sophie is still registered in her age-grade, but this year ended up in accelerated courses for pretty much all her academics. The level of challenge is a better fit for her, especially in English (she was already ahead for math and science) and she is looking forward to sinking her teeth into more specialized sciences next year. She too is more interested in sciences than anything else. Because they held her actual declared grade level back in keeping with her age, she has three more years of high school, which is a lot of time to fill. We'll have to see how that plays out as she gets older.

Next year will bring a further evolution of the high school program. Students will get very little traditional classroom time. Each month will include the option for one week to be spent in non-traditional "immersion electives," most of which are out of the classroom, focused on things like agriculture, back-country survival skills, sports, ethnobotany and a variety of other possibilities. Students who choose not to do a particular immersion elective will be in school but with fewer teachers about. They'll have tutorial time on Mondays, where they meet with a teacher one-on-one to keep tabs on their goals, planning and progress through various courses. They'll get one or possibly two "seminar" classes per core course each week, where they will explore that subject in a multi-grade group-based manner -- possibly with some direct teaching, by doing labs or a group project or exploring ideas through discussion. And for the non-core courses, and for all the rest of the learning in those core classes, they'll be doing self-directed study. A lot of the content comes from textbooks, but increasingly many of the courses are based on-line.

During non-elective weeks, the schedule will be similar, but with a little more classroom/seminar time. So there's almost none of the traditional "sit in your desk with your age-mates and be taught by a teacher" stuff left by next year. The school has been experimenting with non-traditional learning for a long time, but it feels like this is the tipping point. Essentially traditional classroom-based learning is gone.

I like the model. The electives capitalize on the passions and expertise of the teaching staff and on the unique things our valley has to offer by virtue of its environment. The in-school model of seminars and self-directed course-work seems like an efficient way to use 5 teachers (most of them part-time) to administer over thirty different courses to fewer than forty different students. It also allows highly capable students to theoretically move ahead quickly and in their own directions. I say theoretically, because they will also need the motivation, the work ethic and the organizational skills to make that happen. I think my kids, because they've been self-directing and self-structuring throughout their lives, will probably do just fine. Certainly Erin did well with a very self-directed model through this school, and Noah has managed pretty well this year with his self-paced math course. Sophie is diligent and organized and I think she'll make it work.

But I'm not sure it's going to work for a lot of kids. Will a brief weekly tutorial with a teacher be enough to ensure that they actually do that self-directed work throughout the week? Even the Grade 7 and 8 kids will be part of this model to a significant extent. I hope there's a good safety net to catch the kids for whom the personal responsibility for self-direction is too much too soon.

And I'm not sure how it might play out for Fiona. She had thought of doing Math 9 at school next year for the collegiality of being in classroom with fellow students. But if "doing math at school" consists of a weekly multi-grade seminar and a lot of self-study, is that enough of what she wants to warrant having to abide by the school's time-line, the testing and grading, the constraints on her out-of-school activities? We'll be thinking and talking about that.

At any rate, the year seems to have been very successful for both kids, and they're happy with where they're at. With the two of them there full-time I kept expecting to feel some wistfulness about the end of their homeschooled educations. But it hasn't felt like that at all, and it didn't with Erin either. That's because I've never really thought of homeschooling and schooling as being two competing choices for us. They're just two possible equally leitimate answers to the questions we've always asked the kids and let them have full autonomy over: how much structure do you want for your learning, and how and where do you want to get it?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Delica

Remember way back in 2008 when I was driving Erin and Noah to Calgary once a month for lessons, and was pining for a Mitsubishi Delica? It would hold our family and instruments and groceries, and would transport the Corazon choir kids, and would get up and down our driveway, and be reliable on our mountain roads during the winter. At the time, Chuck talked me down. We needed a reliable vehicle that could be serviced locally, not an ancient Japanese monster that no one had a clue what to do with.

So what changed? Well, we eked four and a half more years out of the Sienna and although I'm still driving seven kids to Nelson once a week, we're within spitting distance of no longer needing all that passenger space. Two of those teens are graduating and moving away, which brings us down to 5 passengers and a driver, and in a year and a half Noah will likely move on too. So we still need a minivan, but only for another year or two.

The other thing that changed is that there's now a service station in Nelson that is specializing in working on these things.

I wrestled with the fuel economy issue. I feel no end of guilt over the fuel we burn for transportation. While living rurally allows us to cut our carbon footprint in several important areas, transportation is definitively not one of them. Part of me really wanted to hold out for a hybrid Toyota Highlander. But we had to buy Erin a violin this year, and a Highlander would have meant making a big long-term (financed) investment. Would we be kicking ourselves in a couple of years, making payments an expensive near-new Highlander when our passenger needs had diminished to Prius proportions?

And really ... by owning a minivan we are saving the need for a second vehicle to drive all those kids to Nelson every week. Our minivan is certainly not burning as much fuel as would be required to get two smaller Kootenay-winter-worthy vehicles to Nelson and back.

Besides, the Delica gets remarkably good mileage for a 4WD vehicle. It's almost as good as the Sienna 2WD which is right near the top for 7+ passenger vehicle fuel economy. No, it's not a Prius, not a Leaf. But those aren't realistic for us right now.

We've owned the Delica for a little more than a month now. No nasty surprises so far from a mechanical standpoint. Driving it has taken a bit of getting used to. Mostly for the high, truck-like feel. The right-hand drive was surprisingly no big deal. The kids absolutely love it: the modular seating and sun roof makes for a sociable living-room feel in the passenger seats and the rides back and forth to Nelson are quite lovely.

Bokashi experience so far

Last fall we started using a bokashi waste system. All food waste, including meat, bones, dairy and small amounts of oil and fat, went into a plastic 5-gallon bucket with a lid, combined with sprinkles of a microbial starter. We used a potato masher to pack down the waste as it accumulated, creating a fairly anaerobic environment. Once a bucket was packed full, we sealed it off from ambient oxygen and left it for at least a couple of weeks and started a new bucket.

After 2-4 weeks, the bokashi fermentation would be complete, Todd the Bokashi Guy told us. We took him at his word, but having seen the stuff coming out of the community bins at last fall's Harvest Festival it was hard to believe that much had actually happened. The food looked almost the same as when it had gone into the bucket. It smelled worse, to be sure -- a combination of vinegar and vomit, maybe? -- but the colour and structure was pretty much preserved.

Really, Todd? I thought. Well, let's work on the assumption that you're right. We'll assume that some sort of invisible process has occurred, and this stuff is really mostly digested like you say, appearances to the contrary. If you're right it'll turn into fully finished compost in days rather than weeks once we get it into the garden.

So all winter we fermented our food waste. When all three buckets filled we emptied the oldest of them in the compost area beside the garden to await spring. We piled on some dried leaves, and hoped beyond hope that once the pile warmed up in the spring we wouldn't end up with a party of bears and cougars feasting off a massive yummy pile of table-scrap soup.

And so now the weather is warm. And the verdict?

Todd was right!

Today I took the fork out and probed through the heap which has received a total of about forty gallons of food waste over the past seven months. The two most recent five-gallon additions to this pile were 4 weeks ago and 3 days (yes, days!) ago. I haven't done much mixing other than piling on some leaves, so I expected to see Monday's food sitting right below the top layer of leaves in all its colourful slimy glory. But no: there is an occasional recognizable bit of citrus fruit rind from the most recent addition, but other than that the pile is black gold.

And ... this has been our best spring in recent memory when it comes to bears. As far as I know we haven't had a single ursine creature lingering on our property. The dog agrees.

So yeah, bokashi for the win, I say!