Thursday, December 11, 2003

Christmas Preparations

I'm feeling a fair bit better about what's happening around here. We've had a bit more productive time, less sitting in front of the computer all day, less conflict over things like practising and tidying.

Fiona has cut three premolars in the past couple of weeks, so neither of us are sleeping terribly well at night, and I think that was sending me towards a bit of panic. But for whatever reason (not that we're sleeping better, but maybe just reduced expectations?) I'm doing better.

I've got all the Christmas gifts that need to be mailed into the post and most of the made gifts are finished. The kids and I have put by some Christmas baking. The kids have been drawing and painting, playing outside and playing creatively indoors.

Noah has been devouring easy chapter books for pleasure. His decoding is now easy enough to give him the fluency he needs to read longer books without fatigue. He is very pleased with himself and has joined the ranks of readers-in-bed. The Magic Treehouse and Boxcar Children books are all back on the main shelves and being loved all over again. Today when we were in Nelson, Noah mentioned that he can't not read any more. "I'm eating my lunch and looking around and the words on signs are just there, in my brain. I don't have to try to read them. They just come into my head by themselves."

Sophie can read a ton! Almost any word using basic short-vowel sounds, regardless of length, and some long-vowel words too. I first wondered a week or so ago when she read "Montana's" off a restaurant sign. I thought to myself "this kid is learning to read!" I posted in another thread about making a little book for her of words she can read. We sat down for 20 minutes and I wrote down a hundred or so words, and if she could read them we wrote them in her little book.

Erin has read the LOTR trilogy twice in the past 2 weeks. Now she's working on the Lost Years of Merlin Trilogy by T.A. Barron. We only have the first two; she's on her second time through them. Erin, Noah and Sophie spent about 3 hours one morning this week building a big snowman. It's considerably taller than the tallest of them and they were justifiably proud of it.

We don't have our rink started yet :-( . It's been either too warm or snowing. Today it's the latter. This week I met an unschooling family that is new to our area. They have 4 kids, ages 2-11 and seem really nice. For a rural village of 600, this is a terrific boon to us. We promised to have them up for some skating as soon as our rink is made. So far I've only met the parents, so it remains to be seen whether the kids "click" or not socially but the chances are pretty good, I think.

Monday this week was our regular Nelson routine, with gymnastics, grocery-shopping and piano lessons. Piano lessons were productive. Our regular teacher will be back next Monday. Sophie (all 5 years 0 months and 30 lbs of her) was asked to join the competitive stream at gymnastics. Egads! Noah was invited into competitive after last year's session. That wasn't so surprising to me... he's a boy (I guessed they wanted boys), had been attending for over a year, and was clearly very accomplished compared to the mostly older kids in his recreational class. I guess it was flattering for Sophie to be asked, but competitive at age 5, a mere 6 sessions into her gymnastics "career"? I don't put my kids in competitive situations, and the comp. stream practices on Thursdays and Saturdays, so it was a no-brainer for me. Still, I couldn't believe how quickly she was pounced upon. Maybe they need the enrollment?

For the past 4 years I've put together a CD of the kids' musical output as a gift to extended family. The first two years it was just Erin. Last year Noah was ready to play a few easy violin pieces. He hadn't really started piano, but he played some melodies for fun on piano too, and Sophie did a 15-second sampler of her violin skills (she'd just started practising violin a couple of weeks before). This year Noah has some pretty impressive piano offerings, including a couple of nice compositions, and Sophie has plenty of violin to play. Erin's piano tracks are partly collected... we have a couple more to do over the next week. In the past, finding a decent accompaniment for the violin stuff has been a challenge. I can do the simplest stuff, but by Suzuki Book 2 I'm starting to feel out of my depth on some pieces. This year we found a good accompanist for the first time... Erik, the substitute piano teacher, who plays so well, likes the kids, is an excellent and enthusiastic accompanist, and needs the money. What a luxury! Noah, Erin and I made a special trip to Nelson today in the middle of a snowstorm to spend a wonderful relaxed 2 hours chatting and playing with Erik and in the midst of it all catching enough good takes on the Minidisc Recorder. Chuck stayed with the younger two for 3 hours this morning and then my mom came up and stayed with them for the last couple of hours. Sophie apparently talked my mom's ear off the entire time she was here and read all hundred words to her out of her little handmade book.

After I collect the last of the piano tracks from Erin and Noah, and Sophie's Book 1 violin pieces (probably this weekend) I'll have to get started on the liner notes. These are always great fun for me, and this year we've got a colour printer. I compile photos, artwork, track listings and "biographies" of the kids.

Readalouds lately have been "Winnie the Pooh" (which of course we've read in the past, but it's been a couple of years), "Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger" by Louis Sachar (very weird and funny), "Eragon" (which we finally finished!), "The Golden Goblet" (author escapes me... set in ancient Egypt and very well-written and enjoyable) and we're about to start "The Thief Lord" by Cornelia Funke.

A couple of weeks ago Noah expressed some interest in the Singapore Math program. Erin has been using it for a couple of years. I've had the Miquon books available for my kids at the earlier levels, but didn't have Singapore except beyond the 2B level. Noah, who has a ton of math smarts, simply didn't seem to be moving along in Miquon the way I expected. It wasn't getting him fired up. He was seldom interested in doing formal math. That was fine with me. But he looked at a Singapore 3A book we had from when Erin worked through it and decided it looked "fun and easy". I had him do bits of the placement tests, because I figured his working level was probably more like 1B. But he tested out a solid 2A or a weak 2B. So I ordered the 2A/2B levels for him, figuring we'll use 2A for review and to adjust to the program and fill in any holes. We've had it for 2 days and has done 7 exercises and is really enjoying it. So far so good. It definitely seems to be his kind of math program: clear and logical and bare-bones with a nice presentation. Sophie's continued to do a couple of pages a week from the end of Miquon Orange. Erin, who was enthusiastically finishing up the stuff she'd skipped over previously in Singapore 5B, has given up on math for December, it seems. Okay. She's got other stuff on the go... lots of reading and crafts, most of it very private and self-directed. And she's been relatively easy from an interpersonal standpoint during the last week or two. That counts for a lot around here.

Today started with the snowy 90-minute-plus drive to Nelson, the accompaniment session, lunch and then the drive back. This afternoon is practising and a bit of play. We're having supper at grandma's house, followed by the annual ritual of a sleepover by the older kids after they help her decorate her Christmas tree. So Chuck, Fiona and I will have a quiet evening together. And then Fiona will keep me up all night again :-). Ah well.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003


I'm feeling like we're being very unproductive, so it's definitely time to start observing and documenting what's happening in a bit more detail.

Right now the three kids are improvising together on the piano. Sophie's got a bass vamp going, Erin is playing a chromatic sequence in the middle of the piano, and Noah is noodling some odd arpeggios up in the upper register. They're having a hoot.

Today was an orchestra day. Erin got a chance to play her Haydn piano concerto movement with the string orchestra accompaniment. She really really enjoyed this. In the past she'd always rather stay with the violins in string environments, rather than sticking out as a pianist. But she's quite confident and comfortable in the orchestra now and was happy to be the "star soloist on a different instrument".

This morning Chuck and I had to pick up a sofabed for my mom at a local catalogue store outlet and move it into her house. We paid Erin $5 to run interference with Fiona for the 45 minutes it took to heave it into and out of the truck and get doors at mom's house off their hinges and back on again. Erin and Fiona came with us on our errand. We let Sophie and Noah stay home alone together. I gave Noah clear instructions about using the phone if he needed to, about looking out for Sophie and about not taking risks. He did very well. He was dying for the chance to use the phone... he's really taken with the phone lately. So when the phone rang at my mom's I knew it would be him. He just wanted to tell me that he might want me to help him with one of his piano pieces later when I got home. Okaybye. .

Sophie got sick while we were gone. When I came home she was quietly sobbing in her room with a puke bowl. She'd retreated there without letting Noah know she wasn't well. It didn't seem likely that she had been worried about being at home alone, or that she was lonely, but I wondered anyway if that was it because it had come on so suddenly in the 45 minutes we were gone. But then she spent the morning vomiting bilious stuff. So she really was sick. But by lunch time she had an appetite and felt a good bit better by the afternoon.

Noah and Erin were outside on the driveway hill sledding with the new snowsled for about 4 hours. Erin had trouble doing her piano practising because she kept wanting to sight-read through the new Grade 6 repertoire album. She did some practising, but skimped a lot.

I hope we can get some of the things on our "to-do" list done in the next few days. Gingerbread houses, the rink set up and flooded, some Christmas gifts made, maybe get back at some math games, historical fiction, painting, crafts. We shall see. I feel myself getting frustrated and short-fused about the aimlessness and wasted time... I feel the clock ticking down towards Christmas and want all my ducks in a row before then. I think I'm spending too much time on the computer myself. That's part of it. The laundry is piling up, the toy room is a mess. These are my issues, not the kids'.

Monday, December 01, 2003


Town day. Gymnastics and piano lessons with "Eric", the substitute. Eric worked both kids a good bit harder than he had the first time they met. Good, productive lessons. We had extra time at lunch after grocery-shopping, so I read a chapter of "Eragon" aloud to the kid on a bench in the mall. We bought fixings for gingerbread houses. Erin has discovered the Neopets site and wants to join a homeschoolers' guild. We talked a bit about the fact that the site serves a marketing purpose and decided that so long as she was aware of that, the educational value was worthwhile. So I printed out the parental permission form to give her access to message boards. She'd love to spend hours a day on the neopets site. Fortunately we have a dial-up modem, a single phone line and a dad-guy who needs access to the phone line when he's on call. That will hopefully keep things in balance.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Weekend in Kelowna

Chuck had a medical conference in Kelowna (a small-to-medium-sized city) on Saturday and we decided to tag along. Originally we assumed it would be Christmas shopping weekend, but I worked really hard to simplify our Christmas gift-giving this year and am making almost everything and cutting back, so there was no shopping to do. We decided to go anyway, because the kids have been dying for the chance to swim, and we know a good motel with 2bdrm suites and a nice pool.

So on Thursday we picked Erin and Noah up at art class and headed out. Chuck just got himself a laptop with a DVD player, and we plugged it in in the back of the minivan so that the kids could watch "Blue Planet" episodes throughout the 4-hour drive. This was a huge hit.

True to predictions, the kids spent 3-6 hours a day in the pool. Noah went from being a "barely swimmer" in the shallow end to doing proper dives in the deep end on the first day. Erin was a little frustrated that it took her longer to learn to dive but she managed. This has definitely been Noah's year to shine. Lots of things are coming easily to him all of a sudden, including piano, composition, reading, gymnastics and now swimming.

We did the usual juggling of needs and priorities when it came to choosing venues for meals out. We spent a great couple of hours in a mega-bookstore. Sophie got lost, though, which was sad. She wandered out of the children's section when she lost sight of me around a bookshelf. I thought dh, who had gone off to wander through adult non-fiction, had her. Then I got paged. She was a little teary but none the worse for wear. We had a reiterative discussion about rules for staying together and about what to do if you think you're lost. I'd forgotten to go over that one in a while. Noah and Erin know it all, but Sophie's still just barely five. She needs to hear it regularly. Anyway, I tried to stay low-key. She was a bit upset and already knew she'd made some mistakes.

We got some great books. Can't wait to get started on Cornelia Funke's "The Thief Lord".

I went shopping consignment clothing. I stopped at the music store to get Grade 6 level books for Erin and Grade 1 stuff for Noah. They were both very excited. They're being "promoted" this month by their piano teacher. We bought some dishes and did a warehouse store stop.

On the way home the kids watched LOTR "The Two Towers" on DVD (a new purchase).

Friday, November 28, 2003

Piano takeover

Recently our home has been taken over by the piano. It has crept up on me but it's quite astonishing, and is perhaps the most persuasive argument for a monolith of a real, acoustic piano rather than a more portable digital one. It's always there, en route between the bathroom and the computer, between the toys and the kitchen, between the dining room and the bedroom. It's always on. It has an inviting two-person bench, good lighting and the warmth of the woodstove radiating from across the room. You can't miss it, and it wants to be played.

My guess would be that it gets played at least once an hour by someone in our household. Noah probably sits down and tinkles away on it at least four or five times a day. He's there for a couple of minutes playing through a new piece he's working on or running through an old one, or dabbling away at improvisation or sight-reading for ten or fifteen minutes. Sophie is often right there, or taking turns with him, trying out melodies, imitating what she's heard the other kids do. Erin is there at least two or three times a day, often for long stretches of playing through old pieces or sightreading through supplementary stuff. Then there's the daily practising.

It's a delightful state of affairs. I feel so lucky. We have a lot of violin music around here too, and sometimes the violin catches a bit of momentum from piano, but piano is definitely a different kettle of fish. It's relaxing and sociable and inviting by its physical presence in the living room, and maybe because I'm not a pianist, the kids are free to have a greater sense of "ownership" over the piano than they do over their violin studies.

Sophie and Noah participated in the regional Suzuki Group Class last weekend. Noah was the more reluctant of the two, but he was fine once he got going. They were the two littlest kids there and held their own very well indeed. The event was mostly for the benefit of a group of 11-18-year-old violin students who will be participating in a youth exchange program to Ottawa, Canada, this spring. They've been meeting to rehearse for a couple of months already. This class was their chance to include, and also show off a little to, the younger students who aren't doing the exchange trip. Because Erin hasn't been involved in the (competitive) music festival or the youth orchestra in Nelson (she does our community orchestra in New Denver instead), she'd had little to no contact with these "older, more advanced" students. It was nice for her to have a chance to play her more advanced repertoire in a group. In our local group classes we focus on the Book 1-3 repertoire because we have so few students beyond that level. Anyway, there was a lot of ogling and pointing at all my kids, but Erin especially, because she's considerably more advanced than many of the teens who thought they were the "senior students" in the region. And she's so petite. Fortunately she was having fun during the snacktime afterwards with some of the younger kids she knew, and seemed pretty oblivious to the attention. I hate hearing "yeah, well, they homeschool, so that's why" muttered defensively by other parents and students. Honestly... yes, she practices more than she would if she went to school. But on the other hand, we chose to unschool in large part so that our kids could delve deeply into things (like music) that inspire them. And just because she has more time to do more work doesn't negate the fact that she actually does more work. It's not an "unfair advantage"... anyone else is free to homeschool for the same advantages. (Sorry about that little rant.)

It's snowed a fair bit here this week. There's been lots of outdoor play and lots of great discussions. Olives aren't a good choice for a snowman's eyes, because their salinity melts the snow. Who would have thought that a snow day would lead to "science lab"? Well, I'm sure it comes as no surprise to those of you reading this board. We have about 15 cm of nice fluffy stuff on the ground, with more falling today. We've starting packing snow and levelling a surface for our annual outdoor skating rink. If the weather is cold enough after the weekend, we might start flooding then.

Today we're heading to "the city" (Kelowna) for a whirlwind weekend. We'll be there Friday and Saturday, returning Sunday. Chuck is doing a medical conference part of the time we're there. The main reason we're going is to do a holiday-stockpiling bulk grocery shopping, get to a big bookstore (where Cornelia Funke's novels are at the top of my list) and to hang out at a nice motel where the kids can swim in a pool for 8 hours a day! Chuck will have the vehicle Friday and part of Saturday, which is just fine since I don't relish packing the kids around department stores and malls by myself. I hate shopping anyway.

Our current readalouds are "Eragon" (finally almost finished! and it's great!) by Chris Paolini, "The Golden Goblet", set in ancient Egypt, and "Winnie the Pooh" (which we last read in its entirety when Sophie was too little to remember much of it). Bedtime has been slipping later and later as the kids demand more and more reading. We have to start sooner in the evening! I'm falling to sleep by the time we get to the second chapter in the third book!

Noah has become a "read in bed reader". So I guess he's quietly crossed the threshold into "independent reading for pleasure". He still prefers stuff with pictures but is comfortable with smaller and smaller fonts and more words per page as the weeks roll by. He's feeling really good about his skills.

Must go pick Erin and Noah up from art class and head across the mountains to the big city!

Saturday, November 22, 2003


Tuesday night was orchestra. Erin is playing very well now in the first violin section. It took her a while to feel comfortable there (she was a 2nd violin last year, a 3rd the year before) but now she's got confidence and is playing nicely. Wednesday was violin lessons. I mentioned the difficulty I've been having getting Erin started on her practising, and her occasional categorical refusal to practice. My mom (her teacher) asked her what the trouble was and Erin said "It takes too long." So my mom, bless her, made up a little schedule for this week's practising that has every minute mapped out, and is so completely bare-bones that it only totals 20 minutes of practising (Erin's been expected to do ~an hour a day for the past 2 years, at least on "good days"). She drew 6 circles at the bottom of the schedule and said "Fill one of these in every day you practice. But only do 20 minutes! And come back with all circles filled."

So since Wednesday, Erin has done two twenty-minute practicings a day. She's quite delighted at the idea of surprising her grandma with the extra work. Hurrah! Something is working on the practising front this week!

It snowed here this week, and the snow has stayed on the ground. The kids have been outside for long hours every day, sledding, throwing snowballs, playing games. Perhaps the added light and activity have helped make Erin a more agreeable member of the family.

We've been teaching Fiona to say "cat". She now says "gha!" or "kha!" with considerable delight when she sees our cat (or, I confess, our dog). She knows it's a crowd-pleaser. She says "Kha!" and then looks for a sibling or parent with a big grin on her face, waiting for the smiles and squeals of approval. Our little performing seal. Way fun!

Art class this week was paper maché. We've done lots of that at home, so it was less exciting than usual, but Erin was pleased with how much faster she was getting her layers on than the less experienced kids.

Erin read "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" (2nd and 3rd books of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) in less than 24 hours. She slept about 6 hours, had a violin lesson but otherwise read almost straight through. Then she wanted to watch LOTR1 on video again... twice. So more screen-time than usual this week, but with all the outdoor play that seemed okay. We've agreed we'll buy LOTR2 on DVD while we're in the city in a week and watch it on Chuck's new DVD-equipped laptop. Erin also wrote a neat opening paragraph for a novel. I can't remember every word exactly, but it was more or less this:

My name is Esel Isingdorot and I am the last of my kind, the race from which all others are descended. Father used to tell me I had the courage and strength of the dwarves, the beauty and spirit of the elves, the wisdom of the wizards, the caution and speed of the horses, the humour of the hobbits and, when provoked to anger, even the firey temper of Sauron himself. And well it may be so.

I laughed at the temper bit. Yup, that's Erin . The nice thing was that she hand-wrote this in a spiral notebook. Her handwriting is finally getting to the stage where it doesn't derail her creativity. She did some dedicated work on handwriting a year or so ago which I guess gave her enough of a foundation for further gradual improvement. (Her printing was extremely primitive before that, especially for a kid who had all sorts of strong literacy and fine-motor skills.)

Noah asked about starting Singapore Math. He found Erin's old 2B workbook and loved the pictorial stuff. He's been struggling a bit with Miquon at the Red Book level. We went through a Singapore placement test. I was expecting him to place somewhere around 1B since Miquon hadn't touched on a lot of the stuff in the placement test, but he got almost every questions and is easily at a 2A level. Not only that but he loved the way the problems were presented and really grasped them easily. So I wonder if Miquon, much as I love its manipulative-based "fuzzy math" approach, isn't the right program for him. He never wanted to use the rods, and I think sometimes Miquon's efforts to make the computation simpler (through manipulatives or patterns or arrays) stymied him; they were like clutter in the way to him. He seems keen on bookwork lately... sits down with a music theory book all on his own every day ... and is asking for Singapore 2A so I think I'll order it for him this week.

Erin's making envelopes out of recycled orchestral scores. Together we made a trace-around template (discarded X-ray films from the hospital are great for this!). She's cutting, scoring, folding and gluing. We found a recipe for licky-sticky paste on the internet. It uses white glue, vinegar and oil of peppermint. I thought "eww... licking white glue?" but when we mixed it up it smelled (and tasted!) just like the real thing. So she's using it. Our white glue is non-toxic, after all. These will be a Christmas gift for her grandma. She's made a dozen or so. The pages we're using are from nicely yellowed 50- to 70-year-old orchestra parts, the last page in each part, which is blank on one side. The music is printed on the inside of the envelope; the outside is blank for the address and stamp. They look really nice.

Sophie's done some really hard work on violin with me this week, practising getting the double-up-bows in "O Come Little Children" working consistently, as well as the bow division and finger independence. She's doing so well! She's taught herself the upcoming few pieces by ear. It surprised me when Erin did this, at about the same stage. But now I've watched all three kids suddenly "click" with the by-ear learning on violin, and it's no surprise. Still it's fun to see it happen. She feels confident and happy about what she can do.

I dyed some wool that I'd drop-spun earlier this month... my first foray into both ventures. It turned out fine and I didn't accidentally cause it to felt up. I'll try to knit Fiona some mittens and maybe a hat for Christmas. I'm not so great at finishing knitting projects, but this one is small enough to be achievable I hope.

Tomorrow is a regional Suzuki violin group class out of town. It will be interesting to see whether Sophie and Noah are interested in participating. They've both become comfortable in our home group classes only relatively recently.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Canadian Composers

We had a Canadian Composers Workshop this past weekend and it went fine. Noah played very very well. In some ways he's shining brighter than his ever-so-precocious sister these days. Erin played fine but Noah's compositional skills and his cute extra-small size won a lot of hearts. (He's not as small for his age as Erin is for hers, but being almost three years younger he is still a good bit smaller than she.) There was a game-show-like format to the "learning about Canadian composers" component, and that made Noah a little stressed. He hates winning-losing games. But he coped okay... in some ways better than Erin, because he is willing to speak in public. He asked a question or two out loud. His team "lost" but he liked the losers' prizes better than the winners' anyway, and he found that funny. It was only very gently competitive (sit down if you get a right answer, keep answering if you don't, team against team, no score kept, a fair bit of silliness) and I think it was probably a good demonstration for him of how competitiveness doesn't necessarily have to be emotionally toxic.

Sunday was the composers' dessert recital we were hosting in our living room. We cleaned the house like crazy, made some food and got everything organized. Lots of people came and the kids and grownups all had fun. Afterwards Sophie "composed" a little piano melody and wanted me to transcribe it into written form. I did and she was pleased.

Everyone was really tired for our regular Nelson drive the next day. But we made it to gymnastics and once we got there we were all glad we went. During the little kids' class, a few of the older kids (7-13) got a little rowdy in the waiting area and on the floor of the gym. I wasn't really comfortable with the social stuff that was happening. There's one rather high-energy family of three kids who have been bringing a couple of cousins with them to hang out. The older brother and sister get into verbal sparring (words like b%&ch and f*%k come up as well as gestures) and they draw a number of other kids into a boy vs. girl thing. At one point the older boy told Noah that he was going to punch "his girlfriend" (i.e. Erin) in the face when she came out of the changing room. Noah came and told me this in tears. I went to find Erin and she emerged grinning like she was enjoying this fun boy vs. girl game. The boy had run off somewhere with his buddies and was probably totally unaware he'd upset Noah. I asked Erin if she was having fun and if it was all "just kidding" and she said yes. I told Noah that he was right to be upset, and right to come and get me, but that he didn't need to worry about Erin getting punched, because it was just a bad joke.

Afterwards we talked about the aggressive energy and the lack of respect for others' feelings. Erin didn't feel strongly either way... she was just playing along with the running and chasing and thought it was "sort of fun", but clearly it was too much for Noah. Some of the other parents weren't comfortable with it either. As a family we're going to make an effort to prevent the pack mentality from taking root... step back or take a walk outside if things start getting rude or aggressive or disruptive. Sophie (who is in the gym in her class during this time) is now comfortable enough that she doesn't need me in the gym, so we are free to leave if that proves most sensible. This is the first time this has happened. Mostly the social time has been very respectful and positive in the waiting area at gymnastics.

Piano lessons were fine. Sophie played her composition for Erin and Noah's teacher. Noah taught his teacher how to use the recording feature on the digital piano she has in her warmup room. She was pleased to have someone show her how it worked. Erin had a very good lesson, having pretty much mastered her new Grieg Waltz in one week, and "passing her Grade 5 technique test" (a little formality her teacher likes to use before moving into the next repertoire level).

On the way home we got talking about the roots of English words in Latin and Greek and what English and French share with each other and with these classic languages. We tried to tease apart the meanings of classical roots by brainstorming words that shared those roots (eg. television, teleport, telephone, or contract, tractor, traction, intractable). I told Erin about the Rummy Roots card game and she expressed a lot of interest. Might be a birthday present.

In the evening I finished my first bookbinding enterprise. My first book looked brilliant but Erin noticed that page 2 came after page 5, so I had to pick apart the sewn binding and re-do it. Grr. Ah well, a good lesson in comfort with mistake-making.

Today we spotted the weasel that's eaten all our hens :-(. Except he seems too big to be a weasel. So we're thinking fisher or mink. Now that we've looked in the guidebook, we need another peek through the binoculars to figure out exactly what we were looking at.

Chuck had a long housecall to do this morning so he wasn't able to take Fiona for the hour or so we normally count on in the mornings for "getting stuff done". So we've been very unproductive. I should get off the computer now and help get the last of the practising going.

Saturday, November 15, 2003


Erin's been wanting me to practice with her on violin the last couple of nights. She's feeling really mired down in her violin study, and it's really affecting her motivation. Last spring she discovered she could sight-read and play all of Suzuki Book 6, even though she was only technically "studying" the first couple of pieces at that stage. With her grandpa's death and her grandma's travels, she only had a handful of lessons between April and October. She continued to bash through all that Book 6 repertoire but without guidance, without thought. So now, six months later, she's still working on the same 8 or 10 pieces. They're challenging, but she's tired of them because she's been playing them forever. She wants something new. But they're not up to snuff - she hasn't really mastered them with the kind of control and musicality she needs.

So anyway, I told her the other night that her grandma (a.k.a. her teacher) would feed her appetite for new pieces, but only if she was willing to eat what was on her plate first. It's now cold and unappealing, but it really has to be eaten before dessert... it's healthy stuff. I offered to help her organize her practising and make it a little more efficient so that she can more easily get that sense of progress through her meal. And she agreed! She really wanted my help! We've had two practices together. I've tried to be very gentle. Today she balked just once, we took a break and came back and worked together well again.

Her piano teacher is making noises about moving her up a 'grade level' by next month. (She uses the Royal Conservatory of Canada's graded syllabus.) Erin is pleased about that. She really loves these benchmarky things. I'm sure glad she's not in school. It's just full of them. I think she'd lose touch with her own reasons for doing anything.

Sophie decided to join group class this week. She's five now, I guess she figured what the heck. She took the plunge. She played everything she knew (up to O Come Little Children, for any of you Suzuki violin types) even though I'd suggested just trying some Twinkles. She'd never played in a group before and I thought she should step in gently. But there was no holding her back. She smiled, she played, she raised her hand, she offered ideas. She loved it. Wow! Noah played a lovely solo at group class (Musette by Bach). Erin was disappointed she didn't get to play any Book 6 repertoire. But with a group class that covers ages 5-48, from O Come Little Children to intermediate concertos, it's tough to fit something in for everyone every week.

Sophie is writing and really making connections. Today she wanted to write "shaky" on some sort of list of toys or things she wants to buy. Don't ask me what it's about; I have no idea. She wrote


Noah said "that's shake. If you put a Y on the end, it'll be shaky." So she added a 'y'.


Then she wrote


Translation: "Machine, bubblegum, sleeping bag." What I like is how she took what Noah suggested about adding a Y to an E to make the long-E sound and used it in "SLEYPEYNBAG". Isn't that neat?

Noah is working on a more challenging left hand accompaniment for his composition "Achilles' Death." He has it all worked out, but because he's a beginning pianist he's finding the playing a bit of a challenge. So he's practising like crazy, playing through it six or eight times a day, because he wants to play it at the Canadian Composers Workshop he'll be attending on Saturday. He is, as his teacher rightly pointed out, a Canadian Composer. He'll also be performing a piece by Canadian composer David Duke. Erin's doing a Jig by Violet Archer. It's from "Habitant Sketches." She read a bit of Canadian history after being prodded a bit by her teacher to find out some background information on the composition. Habitants were essentially feudal serfs in New France in the 1600's. I had long forgotten this fact.

Every Tuesday David and Jaya come for supper. They're a father-daughter team, and they come for violin activities from way out of town. They have a lesson before supper and group class alternating week by week with orchestra afterwards. We enjoy visiting with them. Jaya is unschooled as well, a smidge younger than Erin and everything that Erin isn't (extraverted, socially gifted, extremely verbal, vivacious, non-academic). They get along great! David wanted me to scan some photos for him. They're photos of his sand sculpture. Sand and snow are new for him. He's a self-taught sculptor who has taken up sand sculpture in the past year. He's applying for jobs and needs an electronic portfolio he can send out by e-mail. The kids spent a long time looking at his photos, including some amazing snow sculpture, and asked to come and watch the next time he's doing a big snow project in our area. (For photos of his sand work, you can go here: and click on Photo Gallery Doubles and Solo.) Erin played lots of piano while David and Jaya were here. I think she did this to show off, but she just matter-of-factly sits down and starts playing in the background and doesn't demand attention, so I guess that's fine.

Time to go read stories!

Friday, November 14, 2003

School math

Wednesday was violin lessons. I was so wrapped up in the fun of bookbinding that I lost track of time and we almost forgot to go! I'm hand-making some hardcover picture-books for Christmas and was having a delightful time seeing my first one take shape before my eyes. I also made some little "jelly-bean books" for the kids. These are about the size of a teabag packet and have 32 tiny pages and a decorative fold-and-tuck softcover. They're bound with hemp or embroidery floss, decorated with beads or baubles on the binding string. I'm using leftover scraps of decorative cardstock from my scrapbooking. I made one each for the kids and suggested that they keep them in their violin cases for lesson stickers.

Their violin teacher, who happens to be my mom, knows how I feel about rewards and incentives, but she's had this ritual of giving the kids a little sticker at the end of every lesson. Because it's not contingent on anything except showing up, and even watchers/listeners can have stickers if they want, I'm okay with this. It's a nice way to keep track of how many lessons they've had, to make the weekly work a bit more tangible. But we always lose the stickers, so now they each have a tiny booklet to stick them into.

Violin lessons went well. Sophie had her second lesson ever, and it was a hard-working 20 minutes or more! Noah had a fairly ordinary lesson, and did some hard repetition work on some of the sixteenth notes in his new piece ("Hunters' Chorus"). Erin had a good lesson where I think she felt some tangible progress had been made and was being recognized. That's great, because she and I had actually worked together on some of her assignments this week, and her being interested in my help was a real departure. She's planning to record the Handel F-major Sonata No. 3 in its entirety (four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast) for our annual Christmas CD in early December. It's well in hand and she's doing serious polishing work on another piece.

Noah has mastered the playing of the new left-hand pattern in his composition, so he's planning to play the "enhanced version" at the Canadian music workshop tomorrow. He's worked hard at it. Another piano task he's worked really hard at this week is doing a simple invention the way his teacher asked. An invention is like a conversation between two people where they're both talking at the same time saying kind of the same things but at different times. His teacher wants him to be able to play one "voice" while singing the other, and then switch. It's *exceedingly* difficult to do. Noah was in tears a couple of times, not so much over it being too hard, but because he hates to sing and so couldn't even bring himself to try. Finally we hit on a solution. He whistles the singing part. It's coming.

Art class was a big hit this week. Erin and Noah got to cut lino blocks with real lino blades. The lino blocks were actually "Safety-Kut" blocks, softer and easier to work with. They printed on paper, cardstock and fabric, using small square stamps, and creating repeating patterns. When they came home they expressed enthusiasm for the idea of doing more at home. Erin spent some time designing decorative monogram rubber stamps she could carve as Christmas gifts. We haven't had time to do any of this, but we will next week.

Noah recounted a conversation he had with a rather condescending older girl at art class. Upon finding he was homeschooled, she asked him if he knew his colours and numbers. (Noah's newly 7, though he looks a bit younger... like maybe a young 6, so I suppose this question wasn't quite as "out there" as it might seem.) He answered yes. She asked him his favourite number ("nineteen, because it's a pretty big prime; prime numbers are my favourite") and his favourite colour ("green, because I really like Greek mythology, and it's the colour of the Greeks in 'Age of Mythology'" and then proceeded to quiz him on simple addition questions. When she lost interest and couldn't fool him with the typical "two thousand plus three thousand" stuff, she lost interest in further questions. So he asked her what 8 - 20 was. She said "you mean 20 - 8?" And he explained no, 8 - 20, and that it was negative 12. I think that shut her up for good. She said she only liked "school math, and that's not school math." Okay. Noah recounted all this as just an interesting social diversion. He's so easy-going and tough to ruffle. It's refreshing. He's also, I'm coming to realize, just a delight in a classroom. He's eager but polite, compliant and patient. He speaks up appropriately, offers up ideas and suggestions where appropriate. He smiles a lot, uses his manners, initiates friendly conversations, offers to help clean up. He's just full of social graces and picks up social cues naturally. It makes me wonder where we went so wrong with Erin. Many of these things are a significant challenge for her.

Noah, who a year or so ago, would matter of factly talk about his expectation that he would "probably go to school when [he is] older" has almost zero interest in school at this point. Today we were packing and sorting dried fruit and nuts for a music fundraising project. We spent most of the day at our friends' place. They are two teens and two schoolteachers and of course weren't home until about 4 or 5. Noah spent the day anxiously awaiting their arrival home. He commented on what a pain it must be to have to get up and right away go to school, and be there so long every day. The fruit and nut sorting was fun. We had a small work party. The kids helped label, weigh, carry and sort. They now have a pretty good sense of what constitutes 2 lb. and 5 lb. and 25 lb. and they know their nuts!

Tonight we watched two episodes of "Blue Planet", the excellent BBC documentary about marine life. We deserved the break because of all our fruit-and-nut work, and this kids had all done their practising first thing in the morning. Erin read a very clever short story an adult friend had sent her, written about a woman writer with a non-functioning key on her computer keyboard, a missing vowel, the one "attached to the hungry self", who decides to try to write around the letter. The whole story is written without the letter 'i'. Very clever!

Tomorrow is an extra "town day" because of the music workshop Erin and Noah are attending.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

More and more

The more I write, the more I realize there is to write. Yesterday Noah was noodling around on the piano while Sophie was noodling on her violin in the other part of the house. Noah started playing the horn solo melody from the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, a haunting theme he’s played many times on piano. It’s on the Naxos Jr. Audiobook version of the Illiad that we have, just a few seconds of it, and he loves it. Anyway, he happened to be playing it in the key of A. All of a sudden I heard Sophie trying to sound it out on the violin, and she managed just great. So Noah ran off and got his violin and the two of them played the four-bar theme together over and over, wandering around the living room giggling. Then Noah went back to the piano and started trying to harmonize an accompaniment.

Noah’s harmonizing ability is quite impressive. After only 6 spotty months of piano lessons, he’s able to harmonize simple melodies from the Suzuki violin repertoire in A major. He does other tunes too... Christmas carols, nursery songs. He uses tonic triads and dominant seventh chords very capably in a number of keys. No one has taught him to do this, though he has learned the I-V7-I chord progression by working through the Dozen-a-Day technique exercises. Subdominant triads and their inversions are a bit more hit and miss, but I’m sure they’ll click in the next month or so.

Tonight we finished reading "Abel’s Island" by William Steig. What a great story! One of those that's definitely as much for the parent as the children. We still have on the go: "A Single Shard" and "Eragon".

Erin finally finished the last couple of incomplete bits in Singapore Math 5A today. She’s been dabbling in 5B and level 6 stuff a bit for a while, but now she’s enthusiastic about starting to go through 5B systematically and filling in any holes there too.

Sophie helped bake muffins today. She made some neat observations about the array of 3x4 muffin cups. Her math abilities impress me... not so much her conceptual awareness, but how willing and capable she is when it comes to translating observations about mathematical patterns in the real world into arithmetical symbols. She continues plugging mostly self-directedly through the first Miquon Math book. She’s into multiplication now.

Noah is definitely less of a "wow!" kid in academic areas. He has tons of conceptual mathematical smarts, especially of the visual-spatial sort, but he’s actually finding the end of Miquon Red reasonably challenging. A year or two ago I thought he’d be done the program by now (six books; he’s only on the second). But things are clicking like crazy for him in other areas right now, so that’s fine. His violin sight-reading is going great guns, and of course I’ve written at length about his phenomenal piano composing and the leaps he’s taken in his playing ability in the last couple of months.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Sophie's Birthday

Lately Erin, a horribly picky eater who says she'd like to be cook when she grows up (go figure... maybe she wants to develop new ways of putting cheese and bread and rice together?) has been doing lots more cooking. I was making baked beans the other day and doubled the amount of beans I prepared and turned half over to her. I showed her two or three baked bean recipes (none of which she'd ever be caught dead eating) and let her start improvising, adding ingredients that appealed to her to her pot. She came up with something that was not only palatable (though pretty salty!) but which passed her own standards. She ate some! So did the other kids. I opted for Mary's Curried Apple Baked Beans myself, but I tasted Erin's and they were pretty good.

Yesterday was Sophie's birthday. Since most of her buddies live an hour and a quarter away (where we do homeschool activities) and her grandma was away, we did our typical low-key nuclear family birthday celebration. I had made her a skirt to go with an eBay sweater/tights combination that I had bought for her. I also bought a Ravensberger "Mandala Maker" kit, sort of a cross between plastic stencils and spirograph. We have a family tradition that one birthday gift is for all the kids, and this one was a sure hit with all three older kids. There was a book and a soft doll from Grandma. Erin made her a hemp-and-bead anklet. Noah gave her a piece of art he'd made at art class, repeated black and gold patterns on rice paper. I did (if I do say so) a nice job of mounting it on foamboard as a checkerboard array. He had five 9x9 arrays each with a different pattern but the same process, and I made a 3x3 array of arrays (a centre square, then four more at each corner) with cardstock "matting". Noah was really pleased with how professional it looked and wants to take it to art class next week to show his teacher what it looks like all mounted.

The funny thing was that he had a big meltdown over how many gifts Sophie was receiving. His birthday was 6 weeks ago and in retrospect I think maybe he was disappointed with the pile of gifts placed in front of him. He'd chosen to open the one from his Grandma a couple of weeks early, and it was just one of those birthdays when we didn't go overboard. We had a long discussion about why we give gifts... I said that the proper reason for giving is because it gives us pleasure to give to people we love. We don't give because we'll get in trouble if we don't, and we don't give "in order to show how much we love someone". I pointed out to him that if the gift-giver knows that the person getting the gifts expects a certain amount, or might be angry if the gifts don't meet his expectations, that's going to reduce the pleasure the gift-giver experiences, and so it sort of interferes with the right reason for giving.

He got a little angry about that and ran away for some cooling off time. I guess it came across as a lecture, or a threat that I wouldn't give him stuff if he acted the way he was. I was clearly taking the issue very seriously, where I think he'd just felt a bit whiney as a result of the attention being on Sophie. He came back in a few minutes and said he'd changed his mind and he was okay about it all. I pointed out part of the reason Sophie was getting "so many gifts" was because he was offering her a gift. I don't know whether I should have just let it go, or whether it was an important teachable moment to grab. I have strong feelings about gift-giving taking precedence over gift-getting and have put a lot of thought into maintaining the focus on giving through the holiday season. But I'm sailing in uncharted waters here.

The funny thing was that at supper, Chuck explained to Sophie that "we give gifts because we love you" which sounded a lot like the opposite of what I'd been trying to explain. We both had to kind of backpaddle around that one. What a mess. We decided the crucial phrase was "how much". We don't give to show "how much" we love you. We give since, because we love you, it gives us pleasure to give.

I have an on-line friend who had asked if anyone had infant girl clothes for her aunt who has a new baby girl and no money at all. I had offered some of Fiona's outgrown clothes, and while I was packing them up yesterday afternoon I remembered that Tina has an almost-4-year-old herself who is facing a very financially-strapped Christmas, so the kids and I ran around collecting gifts for him to tuck into a shoebox. I didn't realize until I was typing this that this was a well-timed coincidence... a little exercise in giving on the heels of a meltdown over getting. Anyway, Tina's son is getting lots of craft materials, books, finger-puppets, a sprout-growing kit, some Canadian stamps and coins, a music story cassette, a glass prism, some other nice little things.

We tested out our nut milk recipe (which is great with cashews and macadamias and walnuts) with hazelnuts and almonds and decided we either need to win the Vitamix we're bidding on on eBay or strain the pulp off when using harder nuts. We're spearheading a music education fundraiser this fall. We've taken orders for organic dried fruit and nuts and ordered wholesale. When we repackage the orders, we're going to include a set of 4 recipes. We wanted to test how flexible the nut milk recipe is before sending it out.

After supper Sophie opened her gifts and we ate cake and the kids drew and coloured mandalas and then watched a video.

At bedtime we're reading "A Single Shard" by Linda Sue Park, set in medieval Korea in a potters' village. My kids are asking about working with clay. We have clay but no kiln. Our town has a number of skilled artisan potters, one of whom is a really excellent teacher of children. Erin did a workshop with her about 4 years ago. I might see if I can get another 4 or 5 homeschoolers interested in a morning workshop or two.

Today we're doing more fruit and nut recipe testing.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003


The last week has felt rather unproductive but I'm sure some useful stuff has happened. We had a day or two of Hallowe'en costume preparations. I had great fun doing Dobby's eyeballs. I had made a paper mache mask anchored on paper plates and bits of cardboard, and left two round holes for those "tennis-ball-like protruding eyes". I plugged a loonie into one of those gumball machine things that gives you a prize in a plastic bubble, and used the bubble for the eyeballs. On the inside of the plastic half-spheres I masked two concentric circles, one for the pupil and one for the iris. Then I painted the pink arterioles, and the white sclerae. I unmasked the first circle and used a combination of gold, green and iridescent paint for the iris, using radial brush-strokes. Then I unmasked the last circle for the pupil which I left clear (and therefore "black") for Sophie to look out through. The effect was terrific!

The kids went trick-or-treating. Erin had a medusa head-dress with immensely bobbly wobbly snakes with googly eyes and forked tongues, and only one person knew she was a gorgon. The others had never heard of the creature or the myth, or only nodded with vague recognition when we explained what she was. Sometimes I wonder if these little brushes with "mainstream" society make the kids aware of how unusual their interests are. Noah's decided he wants to be a "mythology teller" (i.e. storyteller) when he grows up because there are clearly so many people who don't have a clue about these stories that have become such a part of the fabric of our family life. I don't know if he's planning to go door to door or what.

Everyone came down with a cold on the weekend. Blech. Lots of laid-back freeplay and computer time and not much else.

On Monday we went to Nelson. I probably would have cancelled except that Sophie was totally well and really wanted to go, and we had a lesson scheduled with a substitute piano teacher whom I didn't have a contact number for. And I had agreed to courier a violin down to someone, and to drive a kid 2 blocks to her house after gymnastics. So off we went.

It was Sophie's 3rd class and she was in from start to finish, even playing tag, something which had felt a little intimidating to her. Erin decided to do her class. Noah was feeling not so great so he sat part of the class out but joined in for the latter half. He managed a chin-up-pullover at the bar, the first in his class to master it. Erin's next closest to getting it (I think maybe small size helps?) but she didn't quite. This is the first time there's been such a stark and public reversal in their relative mastery of something. Usually Erin is better, quicker, more able and Noah does his best. I was interested to see how Erin would react. She asked why he could do it and she couldn't (a good sign, because when things bother her she doesn't talk about them) and I just said that he's really strong for his size and picks physical skills up very easily. She was fine with it. There really isn't a shred of competitiveness between my kids.

Piano was interesting this week. Our regular teacher, a straight-laced 60-ish woman who is quite a stickler for clean technique and carefully thought-out playing, was off being a spectator at a music competition. So we had "Eric", a recent university grad, cuurently trying to pull together a meagre living through piano accompanying in the area. The Wayside School stories we'd read recently had three Erics in the class: Eric Fry, Eric Ovens and Eric Bacon. Noah wanted to know Eric's surname to see if it was Ovens, Bacon or Fry , which it wasn't, but it turned out piano-Eric had read the books as a kid and loved them, so that was a connection right off the bat.

Eric was amazing... everything that our regular teacher isn't... young, male, silly, an amazing performer, and full of musical spunk and drive. As a regular teacher I'm sure he wouldn't have the vision and organization necessary to build solid skills, but as an occasional substitute, he's certainly got a refreshingly different spin on piano lessons. He had the kids improvising and sharing their compositions. He had them "driving" and "crashing" the piano, reaching deep inside themselves to find excitement and momentum in their music. He (like everyone else) told Erin she needed to slow down when practising, but rather than explaining that it would help her fix her stumbles, he told her that it would help her play faster... that appealed to her. Then he played a Beethoven sonata passage as he's been practising it... a lyrical contrapuntal thing, and then he played it at his target tempo... prestissimo, about 8 times faster. The kids' eyes just bugged out as they watched his fingers.

Eric will be teaching them for two weeks in December when their regular teacher is in Hawaii (her husband is the semi-retired owner of a travel agency... must be nice!). I've also booked him to accompany the kids for their violin selections for the annual recording of musical output we put together as a Christmas gift for relatives. I think the contact is really inspiring for the kids. They have lots of violin role models in their lives (family members, older students they play in orchestra with, etc.) but little in the way of piano ones. Eric will fit the bill very nicely indeed. I hope he stays in the area.

The other day all three kids were sitting on the couch giggling and reading Harry Potter 2. Sophie read the first two words ("Not for"). Noah read the first half page, fairly fluently at times. Then Erin took over and read a couple of pages. It was pretty cute, and a very informative illustration of their relative reading abilities.

Erin and Sophie made cookies together yesterday with no help except for getting the sheets in and out of the oven (we have a wall oven which, because of its cramped access, requires very long arms to reach into it from the side... if you saw our kitchen you'd be amazed that anyone can use it!). That was a first. Usually I help, and I'm way too controlling, micromanaging how they're pouring the vanilla, scraping the peanut butter, etc.. So I just got the heck out of kitchen and I'm sure they learned a lot more doing it all alone.

I'm scrapbooking like crazy, making a big memory book for mom for Christmas of our big musical family reunion before my dad's death. It's coming along wonderfully. Erin's making hemp bracelets and chokers for Christmas gifts.

The kids have been playing with Duplo a lot again (the chunky "toddler Lego"), because it's safe for Fiona. They're using elastics with it to make strange seige weapons that fling or bash. Over and over I notice that my kids are far more creative and happier when the raw materials they're working with are simpler. I think they'd be blissfully happy playing with a piece of construction paper and a stone. Give them a pile of K'nex or Lego and they muck around for a while and then leave it all over the floor. Nothing much happens except mess.

Today's plan is to make pumpkin pies from a pumpkin and to finish a couple of little gifts for Sophie's 5th birthday this weekend.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Learning in the Flow

Noah was using the text-to-speech synthesizer on one of our old programs (DK Children’s Encyclopedia) this morning, practising spelling that could be properly pronounced by the computer. He discovered the use of periods in creating sentence breaks. He wrote: "Age of Mythology is a game of heros and montsters. You build reinforsments. You create beasts." He had help with ‘build’ and ‘create’ and ‘beasts’. It was a useful exercise for him from the standpoint of reading and spelling. He also got some practice at putting thoughts and explanations into writing.

Erin asked for a chance to "do school". By this she means a game and a schedule whereby she and I outline a bunch of semi-structured activities (a lot of them bookwork) for her to do through the day. She asked for some "research questions" as one of the activities. This was a new idea for us. I put together the following list:

What is a "pixel"?
Who was born first, Brahms or Beethoven?
What's the capitol of El Salvador?
What do iguanas eat?
What is "6!" (6-factorial)?
Where does the word "tesselate" come from?
Who said "we have nothing to fear but fear itself"?
Who wrote "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"?
What does chlorphyll do?
Who was Marie Curie and what did she do that was so important?
Where is the magnetic north pole located?
What is a "bearded dragon"?
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Where does the word "bonfire" come from?
What is the origin of Hallowe'en?
What is a menorah?
Draw an isoceles triangle:
She got about 6 of these in half an hour or so and is saving the others for another day (or two, or three). She quite enjoyed it.

Noah was right into group class this evening. It was the second group of the year. Last spring he started participating, after a long period of saying he wasn’t quite ready. Boy, is he ever ready now! Other parents were pulling me aside to ask if he was always this "attentive and full if joy" or always "such a model student". He had lots of grins and laughs, lots of ideas to contribute, tried hard at everything and obviously loved the class.

Erin spent some time writing today (on the computer). She says she’s got farther with this latest story than she ever has with a story before. I didn’t press her on details. She’s intensely protective of her writers’ privacy.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Nelson Day

Nelson day. Sophie was right into gymnastics today... only hung back for a couple of minutes right at the start. I’ve never had a kid so young who partipicated so eagerly. Maybe we’re getting incrementally less introverted kids as we keep at this racket. She’s the youngest kid by a good 6 months and the smallest by far, but is doing great at skills and following directions.

Erin and Noah are doing well in gymnastics too. Noah is feeling strong and capable. He’s the youngest in his (7-to-10yo) class and is definitely in the more able half. His listening skills (and Erin’s too) are exemplary. Erin was actually keen to do some math problems during Sophie’s gymnastics class. She’s feeling quite comfortable with the current work and she always does math willingly when it’s interesting but relatively easy.

Grocery shopping. I left the older two to eat in the minivan and join us in the store when they were done. Just before that we dropped off a friend at her house after gymnastics. She’s older than Erin, and I laughed when I realized it was less than 2 blocks that she’d have had to walk, in a safe little Canadian town. Why don’t people give their kids this kind of responsibility? I had fun shopping. We weren’t in a rush, and I bought a few special little things for the kids for Hallowe’en. Bought them another Garfield book of comics. Noah reads them repeatedly for reading practice and pleasure, so they’re worthwhile. Erin devours them.

At piano lessons, Noah got a lot of positive feedback about his latest composition "Achilles’ Death". His teacher was really impressed and that was clear to him. He was very pleased. Composition seems to be the area Noah has chosen to be comfortable with recognition, much as Erin is with performing.

I had to work tonight. Because Erin agreed to drop Youth Choir this year, I had time to cook and eat supper after getting back from Nelson and before heading out to Nakusp (in the opposite direction). The kids watched the second half of a miniseries on the Halifax explosion of 1917. We have a short historical fiction book about it, which I hope the kids will be interested in hearing aloud soon, but we’ve got so many novels on the go right now it’ll be a while.

No violin practising today. Sometimes a surprise holiday is a good thing. I announced at supper that I thought it was a good day for a break. The kids agreed.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Life is Music

Music composition is in high gear around here. Noah has two or three pieces on the go and Erin the same. They noodle around on the piano until they have something they think is worth keeping and then they play it for me to transcribe on the computer in Finale format. They’ve each got notebooks of compositions printed off to save and share. Noah is planning on hosting a "living room recital" for composers and their fans. Since all of his pieces are under about 30 seconds in length, I thought it might be kind of short, so I suggested I could write arrangements for small violin/viola ensemble to try out. He’s keen on this idea. We’ve done "dessert recitals" in the past and have a cluster of friends both young and old who are familiar with the format and would probably enjoy coming. We do potluck snacks and social time afterwards. We're tentatively planning this for November 16th or thereabouts.

Violin and piano practising have been easier lately all around. Both Erin and Noah have settled into the weekly lesson routine now. It was a bit of a shocker to be having lessons once a week on both instruments for the first time in six months. Both kids felt the expectations going up and balked a bit. But they love their lessons and are now comfortable with the routine again. Erin is now having her lessons and practising violin completely independently now. She played the most amazingly musical, careful, clean, stirring rendition of "Humoresque" last week at her lesson. I thought it was her grandma/teacher playing at times, it was that beautiful. She continues to struggle with the diligent attention to detail necessary in the heap of Book 6 repertoire she’s taught herself. But hopefully it will come. She just needs to slow down her tempi, but finds it impossible to exercise that self-discipline. Noah’s violin work is trudging along. Last week he was polishing up "Gossec Gavotte". This week he’s learned "Musette" and is doing a great job. He continues to really balk at any situation where he feels he’s being tested. Score-keeping and note-name quizzes make him very uncomfortable at his piano lessons. He’s asked me to tell his teacher this.

Last week Sophie played her violin for her grandma and prospective violin teacher (the same person) at the family lesson time for the first time ever. She played Twinkle Theme and Lightly Row and felt quite pleased with herself.

Life isn’t all music, though it sometimes seems like it. Erin and Noah are doing an art class and working with patterns. They’re making some connections with mathematical patterns which is neat to see. Yesterday I made some stamps using a lino cutting kit and safe-T-cut blocks and used them to make wrapping paper out of a roll of kraft paper. I’d hoped to entice Erin and Noah into some pattern-making of their own. Noah noticed "that’s like what we’re doing in art class" but that was the extent of the interest. I finished the wrapping paper on my own.

Hallowe’en is next week. Noah’s "Grim Reaper" costume is done. He was inspired in this choice by his grandpa’s death last summer. We’ve talked a lot about whether the GR is evil or not. I think this is Noah’s way of working out whether death is bad, evil, fearsome. We talked about "fate" and the GR as the messenger of fate, not a murderer. He seemed happy with that explanation. He was quite intrigued by a "Far Side" cartoon I pointed out to him last week too. "Unbeknownst to him, Herb has a brush with death." Herb has just bumped into the Grim Reaper in a crowd on a city street and yelled over his shoulder "hey buddy, watch yer elbow, willya?"

Erin is planning to be Medusa. I’m cutting and sewing snakes out of a discarded sweater. Sophie will be Dobby, the house elf from Harry Potter. Her mask is mostly done (paper maché) and the costume will be simple (bright socks and a ragged pillowcase over some dark clothing).

This afternoon the kids have been out working on their tipi in the woods. I have no idea how or what they’re doing. At one point I helped them measure off a 3 metre stick and suggested they needed to find a bunch of others and cut them to length. They have a saw, a hammer, nails, goggles and ear pro. They tell me they now have three sticks that are standing up supporting themselves, without any rope or nails. They used the fork in one stick to hold another and then used the fork created by those two to hold the third. Erecting it must have taken some good teamwork! The days are getting shorter and the snowline is drawing lower, and they’ll not get much more done before winter settles in, but they’re planning this for spring mostly. They’ve had great fun trying on their snowsuits in the past few days.

Erin has latched right onto the "Royal Diaries" scholastic series. She read one or two a year ago but didn’t get smitten then. Now she’s reading and re-reading the ones she owns or has borrowed. She’s been on-line and dumped about 20 of them into my "wish list" at . I haven’t read any of them, but I understand they’re pretty decent historical fiction. I was impressed that Erin has been researching the series offerings, comparing authors, checking publication dates, and deciding which ones she’d like first. She explained to me that Katherine Lasky is the writer she likes the best, and that hers especially are the sort of book that is worth reading repeatedly.

It’s Sophie’s 5th birthday in a couple of weeks. Noah said he might give her one of his art class projects. Erin hasn’t thought of anything yet. I’ll be investigating bookbinding as part of a Christmas gift project, so I’ll see if she’d like to make a little personalized easy reader for Sophie (who is sounding out the simplest of phonetic words these days), using the new colour printer. It’s been hard to lead her into new interests in the past year or two, though... she wants ownership over her hobbies, and if I’m interested that seems to interfere with her ownership.

Saturday, October 25, 2003


An introduction. We are a family of six living in the rural southeastern interior of BC, Canada. We have a dog, a cat, some laying hens, a vegetable garden, some fruit trees and a million-dollar view of unspoiled mountain wilderness.

Chuck is a local small-town GP. He's also a DIY guy who enjoys mucking around in his shop, building furniture and looking after the property.

I'm Miranda, a violinist, violist, Suzuki violin teacher and occasional small-town GP.

Erin (who will be 10 early in 2004) is bright, stubborn, introverted and intellectual. She reads and writes at a very high level and has for years. She's also a talented violinist and pianist.

Noah (recently turned 7) is sensitive, creative and easy-going. Though somewhat less achievement-oriented than his older sister, he has an incisive mind and excels at seeing things from multiple perspectives. He's a rapidly progressing violinist and pianist and a passionate composer.

Sophie (who will be 5 soon) is cheerful and full of imaginative energy. She's recently taken to the violin like a fish to water. She is showing some of the same intellectual precocity as her older sister, but thankfully without much of the "spiritedness".

Fiona is 9 months. She's already doing everything she can to keep up with her siblings. The older kids have amazing relationships with her.

The kids have never been to school and have no interest in it. We enjoy the support of most of our extended family and of a fairly non-judgmental local community.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Unschooling apologetics

This is a message I rediscovered four years after it was written, deep in my "Sent Items" folder in my e-mail client. I wrote it in response to someone's questions and experiences. I've dated the blog entry to match the original date I wrote it:

I think you've probably discovered through experience that non-coercive education (unschooling is way down this end of the spectrum) tends to be linked to non-coercive parenting. Non-coercive parenting sometimes means kids are rowdy and poorly behaved, though at its best it really shouldn't. I'm into "as non-coercive as I feel is realistically possible" parenting, and my children are, by all reports, exceptionally well-behaved. It helps that they're introverted and thus don't like to stick out in public. But I readily intervene to enforce my standards if the rights and feelings of others are at stake and I am unable to come up with a mutually advantageous alternative.

It's unschooling, not unparenting, though sometimes the two do get muddled up together a bit.

"If I wasn't mandated into having to take that class for my degree requirements, I never would have thought about everyday situations with a 'physics-slant' which alot seem to have. The subject seemed totally off the wall and unrelated to my 'real' life until I actually thought about specific situations in 'physics' terms."

This is a great pro-unschooling example, as I see it. Because, you see, you weren't mandated to take physics. You refused to take it through high school because it wasn't meaningful to you. You didn't study it until you decided that on balance it was worth it to you. You chose to go to college and to pursue a degree which required physics credits. You could have quit, or changed your degree focus at any time, and no one would have "given you heck" or told you that you couldn't. Physics was an means to and end to which you had voluntarily committed yourself. Were you harmed by avoiding physics as a high-schooler? I doubt it. In fact, I'd wager that by not being forced to take it "just because", by waiting until it was meaningful to you as a means to a specific end, that you probably approached it with less negative psychological baggage and also, at the college level, received a more skilled, inspiring and relevent form of physics education. (I have a very similar story about my own physics education.)

Unschooling doesn't mean "only doing what is inherently fun and enjoyable". It means "only doing what has relevence and importance within one's own frame of reference". My 9yo dd has just spent a couple of days going through help files and tutorials on using a spreadsheet program. I asked her at one point if she was having fun and she said "no, this is boring, but I need to find out how to _____ so I can ______." I think this is typical of children who haven't had adults make the decisions concerning what's good for them. They are willing to do the spade-work to get where they want to go. No one needs to "make them".

"How will the children 'grow' in areas that they have no interest in if they are not even exposed to these areas because they didn't 'feel' or 'want' to study them?"

Personally I think it is the unschooling parent's job to provide opportunities and exposures. Not to drag a kicking and screaming child to piano lessons or math workbooks or anything, but to offer different possibilities over the years, model interest, to gently point out places where knowledge or skills are relevent, and so on. It's an 18-year plan, this unschooling thing, so if your child isn't interested in learning to work out the area of a triangle today, you've probably got another decade or so for the interest to arise.

But if your child never develops an interest in the formula for the area of a triangle, what's the big deal? If he needs to calculate it at some point in the future, being a self-motivated, can-do unschooler, he'll know how to teach himself. He'll grab a geometry basics textbook at the library, or type into Google and have it sorted out in ten minutes.

"I simply cannot trust that my guidance is not needed."

Guidance is needed in unschooling, of course! It's needed every time your child asks for help in learning something, or expresses an interest (even implicitly) in pursuing something but doesn't know where to turn. You need to model active learning, interest in and curiosity about the way the world works, work to inspire interests, to strew interesting resources and opportunities in your child's path. And somehow, in this culture that prefers to partition children into a separate reality, you need to create for him the kind of lifestyle and range of experiences that allows him to intersect with meaningfully with real life. The parent has a huge role to play in the education of unschooled children, at least as big a role as in the education of children homeschooled in a more traditional fashion. It's more of an art than a science, though.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

Transition challenges

This is a message I discovered deep in my "Sent Items" e-mail folder. I've posted it with the original date, but almost 3 years after the fact:

My two older kids especially have always had a hard time with transitions. Left to their own devices they will be found at noon, starving and cranky, still in their pyjamas and still engaged in whatever was the first thing they started doing when they rolled out of bed. They're 10 and 8.

But it does get better. They will now often allow themselves to be pried away with just a nudge or two. Gradually I find them setting their own limits and making small efforts to manage their time effectively. Hard-won progress, let me tell you, and definitely related in large part to maturity. And just in the last 2 weeks I find my 10yo doing some starkly mature time-management things. I hope it's maturity and not just a fluke.

I still sometimes resent not being able to go places, do interesting things, visit friends. I sometimes resent the time wasted on long transitions. But when I find myself disappointed by expectations that weren't realized, it's time for me and my kids to re-examine things. Invariably when we talk about it it turns out they're disappointed too. They'll complain "why do we never do anything fun?" (Well, maybe because you refused to leave your marble maze to go to gym night, and didn't want to get out of bed to go to Bob's place, and didn't manage to get your coat on in time to get to the community garden, and....).

Resentment is a call to communication and problem-solving. Sometimes it's me who needs to be more realistic in my expectations. Sometimes there are things my kids need to allow them to make transitions more easily.

Here are some things we've discovered:

Mealtimes are natural transition-times. If I can get my kids to the table with a meal and some conversation, I can usually get them headed somewhere afterwards.

A rhythm to our days is a big help. Not a routine, just a gentle predictability. A dance, not a march. Things are offered, not compelled. Often the kids decline most of my offers, but I continue to make the offers every day anyway and sometimes, out of the blue, they decide to take me up on things quite consistently for a while. They seem to appreciate me acting as their sundial, subtly reminding them what time of day it is.

We talk the night before about our upcoming day. We run through the time-management stuff... what will need to get done, and when, if we're to do such-and-such. Last night I said "Tomorrow is Holly's memorial service at 2, and then you're invited to Grandma's at 7 for a sleepover. I'm busy with a rehearsal so you'll have to get dressed by 1:30 in something nice, and also get your overnight stuff packed on your own before supper. Do you think you can do that? Do you still want to go to both those things?" We write stuff on a family notice board, and my three older kids (6, 8 & 10) have watches to make it easier for them to keep track on their own. I don't expect them to manage this stuff without reminders but it helps them to have the knowledge and the tools anyway.

I am consistent in making sure the kids follow through on things where their absence will affect others. To me this is a matter of respect. Going to the park is discretionary. Going to art class is not, because the teacher buys materials for every child, and plans projects that run over 2 or 3 classes. If you commit to something like that, you go unless you have a very good reason not to. I am quite clear with my kids about this, and they know where I will give and where I will not. Occasionally I will have to say "it's okay if you don't want to participate when you get there, but we need to go, because they're expecting you." Transitions are the problem for us, not participation, so the reluctant child always enthusiastically joins in when s/he gets there.

I'm a dawdler by nature and I know that vague and remote deadlines are the worst for us slowpokes. If I catch myself saying to my kids "you need to start getting ready soon" I know we're all in trouble. Around here "start" (to get ready) and "soon" are not good words to use. "Do it" and "now" are much more effective. While my slowpoke kids benefit from warning that deadlines will be arriving, when the actual deadline is presented, it needs to be firm and immediate. If we're headed to piano lesson or art class or gymnastics and need to be out the door by 3 pm, I tell them "It's 2 o'clock. We're going to be leaving in an hour. Just so you know." At 2:55, I'll get right in their space and make eye contact and say "It's time to get ready. You need to stop what you're doing. Here is a sweatshirt. Put it on. If you don't want to wear this one, I will take you to your room and you can pick out another. Then you will need to put your shoes on and get in the car." And I will walk the child through the getting-the-shirt-and-shoes step by step and with physical guidance if necessary, never giving him the chance to wander off-task.

If you haven't been doing it this way, it may take a while until your child adjusts to the fact that there's no "wiggle room" any more. Explain to her that you've changed tactics, and why, and she'll probably get it. "When I give you half an hour to get ready and leave it up to you, you get lost along the way. So I'm going to give you five minutes, and help keep you from getting lost. That way you get more play time, and I get less aggravation. What it means, though, is that you have to come now. Understand?"

I have to say that we have remarkably little difficulty these days getting to non-discretionary appointments and activities. So maybe it does get easier.

On the other hand I still sometimes despair that my children could sweep the Olympic medals in Procrastination.