Sunday, March 28, 2004

Almost Spring

As I mentioned at the end of my last entry, I'm starting to investigate the possibility of creating a children's gardening club. I really feel that gardening is a wonderful life lesson, an amazing unschooling "curriculum". But its potential has remained relatively untapped by us for a number of reasons. First, I lose my focus... I've not been a highly committed gardener. I let the weeds take over and then it's frustrating. Second, our garden was feral from the moment we inherited it, and it's been tough wrestling it back from the couch-grass. Third, our garden is far away in a lonely corner of the yard and provides little in the way of an aesthetic or social draw for the kids. Fourthly, pregnancy and parenting an infant have added to the challenge. And fifthly, we have a relatively short growing season and fairly poor soil (acidic and lacking in nutrients).

At any rate, I would love to inspire my kids to garden. And I hit on the idea of starting a children's gardening club that would have a site in town (where the growing season is longer) and some semi-structured leadership and regular meeting times. None of this can possibly fall into place this spring, so I'm looking to garden more successfully on the home front this year with the kids while getting a club up and running for 2005.

In this vein, I've been putting a fair bit of my own energy into garden preparations and trying to include any kids who are receptive. Sophie and I made little pots made of rolled & tamped newspaper, filled with potting mix. They're waiting for tomato seeds. I started some peppers in some other pots. There's lettuce sprouting in the cold frame. Sophie and I also started a gardening journal.

Yesterday I took the kids to the community garden (maintained by volunteers) for the big work party. The other workers were mostly retirees, though there was another unschooling mom there with her 5yo for a while. Erin had really not wanted to go. She was in her pyjamas, sitting at the computer, and in one of those moods. We told her to bring a book and read in the van, but by the time she got dressed and got on her new sneakers (which she's hardly had a chance to wear because of all the snow at our place) she was begrudgingly compliant. And then within twenty minutes, all the kids were totally hooked on doing real work of real value just like the grownups. They stayed for almost 4 hours and no one wanted to leave when it was time to go home for supper! They carried piles of pruned-off branches to the brush pile. They raked. They trimmed and did some simple pruning. They also did a lot of running around playing hide-and-seek, and throwing stones in the lake. But they kept coming back to work. They all want to go back on Wednesday.

Today, back at home, I did some yardwork in the places where the snow had receded. I had to spend 10 minutes digging the wheelbarrow out of a snowbank first. To say I'm pushing the envelope on spring would be an understatement. I raked a little on the paths and in front of the house where the sun has melted the snow away, put away the skis and sleds, rolled up a bit of the ice rink liner and also did some pruning. It was an amazingly beautiful day. The temperature crept up to about 10 C (50 F), the sun was warming us all, and it felt like spring despite the snow on the ground. The kids were wearing shorts, T-shirts and sandals, playing tetherball, raking, pruning, biking, running around. They haven't come inside yet, except to eat and drink.

They're going to be exhausted. It'll be tough getting the practising done, but at least they've had a happy and healthy day.

I'm feeling really optimistic about the gardening interest.

In the rest of our lives things are mostly clicking along. All three are really enjoying the additional challenge and length of their new, somewhat tailor-made, homeschool gymnastics class. Art class is continuing, with lots of drawing and painting (especially faces) and some paper maché. We went to a marionette puppet show last weekend that was mostly aimed at little kids, but Erin really liked the puppets and wants to make some. The kids performed violin at a Preschool Fundraising Dinner last weekend and briefly became local celebrities. I think that particular dinner included a lot of people who don't normally attend concerts, and so when we were running errands in town on Wednesday six different people made a point of coming up to the kids and telling them how impressed they were with their performance. Noah joined the community orchestra for a couple of the easier numbers last week for the first time. He really enjoyed himself. It's true about Erin's cursive handwriting: I saw a letter she'd written and it's beautiful!

Our main readaloud right now is Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. We've just started book 2, "The Subtle Knife". This is very good. I thought Sophie and Noah might lose interest because it's so deep and complex, but they're following it at their own levels and enjoying it a lot.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Penpals and practising

My kids are on a bit of a penpal kick right now. A couple of years ago I'd tried to interest Erin in penpal correspondence, but the enthusiasm didn't really kick in and the few little bits of effort she expended weren't enough to fire things up. This time things are different, probably for two reasons.

First, the impetus for the projects hasn't come from me, so there was no question of who "owned" the ideas. This is all about the kids, and I'm staying very much in the back seat. Second, we're working mostly with postal mail rather than e-mail. The tangible nature of letters, stamps, treats and trinkets has won the kids over big-time.

Noah has a Dutch pal who is enthusiastic and quick to reply. J.'s mom types a dictated letter in Dutch and then translates it to English and J. sends both copies. The little packets he's been sending and receiving have inspired Noah's sisters. Erin has started corresponding with a former e-pal in Scotland again, through the mail this time. And I've just got Sophie hooked up with a little girl in Japan with a Canadian mom, who wants to know more about Canada and to pick up more English.

I knew having a penpal would provide some learning about languages and cultural and physical geography, and give some writing practice. However, it's also providing some neat opportunities to practice particular types of social skills: some perspective-taking based on limited information ("from what we know about him, do you think he's the type of kid who would enjoy ____?" or "let's be careful not to send so much that she feels she has to live up to our example") and to work on the responsibility of nurturing and maintaining a friendship ("Since we're not going to get around to sending our packet until next week, maybe we should send an e-mail to let him know").

It's been a transitional 2 or 3 weeks for Erin's practising. She hit a big lull in motivation at the beginning of March. For years I've known that she wants to be in charge of every minute aspect of her life. But when it came to practising, although she hates me "making her" practice, she hasn't wanted to take responsibility for it herself. She's ten now, in Book 7, and has occasionally in the past year demonstrated brilliant analytical and problem-solving skills in her self-directed practising. Given that we're always battling over getting the practising done (started, mostly) I really felt it was time to give her not just independence in practising, but responsibility for ensuring it gets done. Yet she seemed to want to refuse to take responsibility. She preferred to stay embroiled in a power struggle with me

Then I thought about it: I try to hand over responsibility when I'm at the end of my rope. I'm saying "I've had enough of this! I am not putting up with it any more! You are in charge, and you can sink or swim."

Invariably, she sunk. And blamed me. She was already in a cycle of resistence, feeling frustrated and discouraged, and of course she viewed my quitting as her practice cop as a withdrawal of support.

Now, for the past week, things have been on an upswing. Conflict is at a minimum. We're in one of those too-rare phases when there isn't much resistence. And I said "You're doing well. I don't think you need me to boss you into practising any more. I'm sure you can handle this."

She's swimming! I've not quit as her practice cop... I've been offered, and accepted, early retirement.

I'm sure there are rough patches in our future. I'm sure she will begin to sink from time to time. But this is the first time I've made any progress in getting her to "own" her success or failure in regular practising.

I have a feeling this is an lesson I should try to learn well and get comfortable applying to all parts of life before ushering four kids through adolescence.

Noah has discovered that he can read the text in reference books, rather than just browsing pictures and captions, and is delighted to be able to teach himself all sorts of interesting stuff. His reading confidence is taking off in a big way with this discovery. He sits near me in the family room and explains what he's just learned. He's reading the "Usborne Illustrated Guide to Greek Myths and Legends" lately.

Sophie is reading quite well now too, simple picture books, easy readers. It was on December 1st that she first read an unfamiliar word ('Montana') aloud and I thought "yikes! she's starting to read! how'd I miss that till now?"

Suddenly I've got three kids reading for pleasure, not just one!

Erin, who has been writing daily in her (locked) journal, tells me her cursive writing has improved a lot. I found a computer cheat code on the desk done in cursive and I have to say it's true. Noah has just about finished Singapore Math 2A and I've just realized I'd better hurry up and track down 2B for him (2A was just an "experiment" to see if Singapore would suit him). Erin is gradually patching up holes in 6A before moving ahead into 6B. She's slowed down with her math again. Sophie has lost her Miquon Red Book, so she hasn't done any formal math in a week or two. She's doing lots of self-directed piano work (setting out rhythmic reading flashcards and clapping them, reading ahead in her first primer book, practising and improvising).

I've made small blank journals using some of the kids' marbled paper for the covers. Now I'm restoring a Beatrix Potter book I read as a child, just for fun. I feel like Mo in "Inkheart". I've also been doing a bit of organizational / feasibility work on possibly creating a Junior Organic Gardeners' Club in our town. And I'm creating a brand-new website from scratch. It must be my spring rush of creativity, arriving early.

Our big readaloud right now is "the Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman. Must go read now.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Communicating and a new month

I've been remiss in posting blog entries the last couple of weeks, so I'll try to start the new month off on a better note.

Fiona is communicating like crazy. "Nine-nine" means she wants something, and she'll now point or take you by the hand and lead you through the house to show what she wants. "Gah" and pulling up her shirt and patting her tummy means she has to use the potty. She says a few real words, too. But the delightful thing is this recent discovery of purposeful communication: she knows that she can explain to us what she wants. She's also developed a fondness for sitting with me reading and looking through board books.

Sophie is doing some almost-daily preparatory piano work in joyful anticipation of starting piano lessons "soon" (probably not until the fall). She's writing long phonetic notes for "purposeful communication." Left on Chuck's laptop the other night was a piece of paper saying


The kids pooled their allowance for the last four months and found a good deal on a USB steering-wheel-and-pedals control device for their computer, along with "Midtown Madness 2", a simulation of no-holds-barred nutso driving through London and San Francisco. They'd seen it at a friend's house. It arrived about 10 days ago and has taken a lot of their time. The initial obsessive enthusiasm has finally almost burned itself out. Noah has displayed very high levels of intensity. I'm sure I've mentioned before how he hates competitive, score-keeping situations and avoids them at all costs. MM2 allows you to unlock cool new vehicles for winning races. Twice I've found him hyperventilating, red in the face, and in tears trying desperately to win a race to unlock a specific vehicle. He understands intellectually that he's too tightly wound, that he needs a break, that the game is affecting him too strongly, but he gets to the point of emotional crisis without sensing the need for a break.

I have mixed feelings about this game. I think the kids have spent too much time at the computer, BUT they seem to have reached the point of self-regulation without my interference. I think the message about driving like a maniac being fun is not a positive message BUT it's so much less toxic than games of human violence and really, they're many years from learning to drive and harbour no illusions that it's anything like this. It seems to have precious little educational merit, BUT then again their map-reading skills, visual-spatial memory and multi-tasking skills are growing to amazing levels. I'd love to set limits, BUT I know they'll backfire and create conflict, and cause the kids to miss learning to limit themselves. So we carry on.

Noah, who likes to learn in a "Gestalt manner" (getting the whole picture first) has struggled with taking problematic bits of piano pieces apart to work on them slowly, hands separately and in small chunks. He doesn't want to work this way, and his initial difficulty with figuring out exactly what the little chunk feels and sounds like in isolation leaves him complaining that it's harder to play parts than the whole. "I can't start there, it's too hard!" (Of course I know that it's precisely because these little bits aren't well-learned in isolation that he can only get the whole piece to "almost-fluid" status and not completely there, but it hasn't helped hearing it from me. On reflection, it seems like maybe we need a good metaphor here. For instance "when your bike tire kept getting just a little bit flat, we tried just adding air, but every morning it would be flat again, so eventually we had to fix it right: turn it upside down, loosen the nuts, slip off the chain, remove the wheel, pry off the tire, check the tube and patch the leak. Reminder to self to try this explanation.) Anyway, this week at his lesson, thanks to some leading comments from me, he was given clear, unwavering directives that he must work this way in order to continue to progress at this level. I hope this helps.

Noah and Erin have been doing paper making and marbeling and collage at art class. The marbling is really neat. I'd like to use their marbled paper for book covers. I have marbeling supplies at home but I haven't yet got courageous enough to try it here (the mess... the mess...).

Erin has read the Harry Potter books in entirety twice in the past 10 days. She's going through a challenging time. She stays in her bedroom reading until noon, emerges to eat and complain about everything. And she's been adamant she doesn't want to be bugged about doing her practising, so her practising has not been happening at all regularly. Her last two lessons (one each of violin and piano) have consisted principally of just sight-reading duets with her teachers, since it was obvious she hadn't done her assigned work and there was not point in revisiting the same problems. She has an agreement with her piano teacher to practice every day this week at 7 pm, with a maximum of two simple reminders from me. The type of practising that's been assigned this week is right up Erin's alley: lots of playing through easier repertoire for fun. So I imagine we'll have better luck with piano at least this week. I hope she'll discover first-hand that if she wants to progress to new levels rather than coast at her current level, she needs to return to the kind of work she doesn't always enjoy.

On a positive musical note, Erin did a great performance of the Clementi Op. 36 No. 4 Rondo movement last Friday at an honours recital. She'd learned it very quickly and easily and it shows off her speed and agility very well. She even spoke to announce her piece: a first and a real surprise for me. And she's also asked to do a chamber music option this summer on violin when she's enrolled as a piano student at the music summer school. She seemed positively enthusiastic about that possibility.

We still have 14 inches of snow on the ground, despite above-freezing temperatures and lots of rain and melting lately. So, while it's staying light until supper time and we are beginning to think about gardening, it isn't exactly spring yet. It's that icky in-between season. I started germinating some sweet pepper seeds on the window ledge.

We had a great cross-country ski a week ago with some friends. The conditions were great and there were snow fleas (springtails) all over the snow, which was very neat. Afterwards we went to a friend's place and held an informal music-sharing recital in her living room with a bunch of other kids. Lots of food and fun afterwards.

Erin has finished up the last gap in her Singapore 5B book and, despite my suggestion that we might set the formal math aside for a while, has decided to continue filling in the gaps in the 6A book (she's grazed ahead in the past on the topics that interest her the most). Noah and Sophie continue to plug away at their books (Singapore 2A and Miquon Red respectively), probably asking to do math about every second evening on average.

Our current readalouds are "Bud, Not Buddy" by Paul Christopher Curtis (excellent story of an orphan kid during the Great Depression), "Return of the Indian" by Lynn Reid Banks and "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame. We've also been reading sporadically from "Nibbling on Einstein's Brain" by Diane Swanson, a book about thinking critically about scientific claims.

I've been working hard this past week on a couple of website revisions, VSSM and, so I'm less "available" to the kids and I should acknowledge the role that's playing in their lack of creativity and self-discipline. I'm hoping for better this coming week.