Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Learning Plan

Erin has decided to jump aboard an alternative program this year. Wondertree's SelfDesign Program is a hybrid homeschool / school program run through a partly-government-funded independent school with an unschooling philosophy. Erin is intrigued by the "On-line Village of Conversations" message board system that she hopes will provide her with support, friendship and inspiration. We also get some cash reimbursement for receiptable educational expenses.

As part of the documentation requirements, we are required to create a learning plan. The starting point for this plan is an "anything goes" set of ideas Erin generates of things she'd like to learn this year. Here's what I wrote up, based on her ideas, today:

Latin – she’d like to build on her basic understanding attained through perusal of Minimus, and perhaps move beyond that into more advanced study.

~ continuing violin studies with more chamber music work
~ continuing music theory study to complete RCM Grade 1 or Alfred Level 2
~ continuing piano studies with perhaps some additional emphasis on accompanying
~ wants to master Finale® music notation software, a professional-level music publishing program, for use in composition and arranging
~ she is considering joining the (adult) community choir

Math -- Singapore NMC (Secondary) Level 1 completion is a goal for this year

Cooking – meals and baking – wants to strive for more independence and competence in the kitchen

Gardening – will continue to be involved in local children’s gardening/environmental club, learning more about organic cultivation techniques, environmental sustainability in agriculture and otherwise, and about the natural world through stewardship of the garden and its environs

Soccer – wishes to be involved in community soccer next spring, after trying it out very successfully last spring

Swimming – wants to improve swimming ability

Creative Writing – wants to work on her ability to sustain her interest in particular writing projects, as she writes from inspiration and finds that when her writing gets interrupted she can’t get back into the mindset that inspired her in the first place

Erin would like to work on watercolour technique and drawing technique

Electronics – she would like to get access to a comprehensive electronics kit and work towards learning simple electronic circuitry, principles and terminology

Erin is interested in creating card games and modifying the rules for existing games that we have. She would like to create a card game (or more than one) from scratch.

Erin would like to create a website which introduces visitors to the rich and bizarre imaginary world of Planet Egypt which she and her siblings have been busily inventing over the past year.

Our "Learning Consultant" was very pleased with this list. So was I. It was nice to have the excuse to talk to Erin about her ambitions, ideas, frustrations and accomplishments. She volunteered more about her creative writing and reading processes than I've ever got out of her before. I was surprised that she suggested goals for math and music theory (even if they're very conservative goals as she's almost halfway completed both).

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Saturday - Day in the Life

Erin had to leave for her friend's by 10, so she spent the time from 8 to 10 practising violin and piano, and packing her sleepover stuff. The occasion is her unschooled friend J.'s 11th birthday. The girls have been friends since age 5 and they are yin and yang in many respects but the friendship is genuine and close and important to both of them. They live 45 minutes apart, so time together, other than on the fringes of their common musical pursuits, is precious. Today J.'s other close friend S., whom Erin has never met, will be there. The three girls will be floating down the river in inner tubes, hanging out, riding J.'s horse and spending the night camping in a tent.

Some friends of J's and ours who live in town half the year, and in Georgia the other half, were leaving today. They had some things they wanted us to pick up to return to J's family, and we had some borrowed things to return to each other, so we stopped by to say goodbye. They have two unschooled boys, 2 and 7. Picked up stuff, exchanged stuff, said 'bye'.

Then we drove to J's. On the way we listened to part of a great Naxos recording of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and Other Tales", which was one of the things we were supposed to be returning to J.'s family on behalf of the departing family. We decided to borrow it ourselves so we could finish it. Spent half an hour at J's house, visiting the horse, looking at photographs of the Suzuki institute that J.'s mom had taken (wonderful!), and looking at what they've been building this summer ... a beautiful timber-framed wood shed with a poured-concrete-and-river-rock foundation.

We left Erin, and the three younger kids and I went to our favourite little independent bookstore. We spoke to the owner for a while, browsed, and walked out with the "Eragon" sequel "Eldest" by Chris Paolini, which we'd pre-ordered, "Wee Free Men" by Terry Pratchett, and a Dover colouring book of Norse Gods and Heroes which Noah was entranced with and wanted to have to keep himself busy on the flight to Ontario next week.

Then we went next door to the funky little café for lunch. This was a little 'treat' because Erin was having fun on her way down the Slocan River in an inner tube. We had a partial family meeting, talking about Sophie's and Noah's practising (something which doesn't require everyone's participation) and having a little preliminary discussion about Erin's obstinate bedtime habits. It turns out neither Sophie nor Noah want to change the bedroom assignments, most especially Noah, who has his own bedroom now but is very much looking forward to having Fiona move in when / if she ever decides to sleep outside of groping distance of her mother's breasts . We will have to see what happens over the course of our holidays. Perhaps that break will give Erin a chance to adopt more reasonable habits without losing face over the current situation. We finished with coffee and chocolate milk and lingered in a leisurely way over our lunch.

We drove home. Fiona had been up quite early and was very tired. She fell asleep in the van. We listened to more Rudyard Kipling. We did a bit of grocery shopping when we got back to our town.

At home, I got busy baking and organizing food for tomorrow's lunch-time entertaining. The kids decided to watch a bit of TV as a 'treat' and turned on a dog agility show which made them laugh a lot. Then they watched a totally innocuous preschool show, Max & Ruby. I don't remember the last time they watched TV ... must be over a month at least. I managed to fake my way through to a nice batch of gluten-free peach muffins. (I forgot to mention that yesterday I did manage to get most of the crate of peaches washed, cut and into the freezer.) I started the rice-pasta salad. The kids had been asking for a new batch of playdough for forever, and I'd been putting them off until we had a kitchen area where they could play with it, so I started that, and they did the cooking and stirring and kneading, and then played with it for at least an hour.

I threw together some supper and we ate in our new dining room.

The kids spent a little time on the computer playing Age of Empires, and a little time outside with the puppy. Sophie found two pears on our pear tree that we didn't know we had! I planted four pear trees the year Noah was born, two Siberians and two very young Ure pears as cross-pollinators. Unfortunately, the Ures were planted along the border of the lawn where it meets the forest, and for the first three years, Chuck kept accidentally mowing them down. (He also mowed one of the Siberians one year :-( ). Anyway, they kept sprouting back, thankfully, and finally I got wise and caged the one Ure that looked like it might make it. While the really good Siberian has been big enough for fruit for at least the past two years, the little Ure wasn't quite big enough to set blossoms this year. But through serendipity two pears seem to have got pollinated anyway ... perhaps a bee had a bit of pollen from somewhere far afield. Next year I expect we'll get a proper crop, because our cross-pollinator has grown really well this summer.

We figured out how to play the card game "Frog Juice." I had bought it a few weeks ago, and the kids had been unable to figure out the confusing instructions, so they'd invented their own version and taken great delight in it. However, Noah asked me to help him figure out the real rules, so, after a lot of reading and laying out of cards and a trial game, we got it (quite simple, really, just poorly explained) and played a couple of games. Sophie joined in and we played again.

Noah did his piano practising. It took two tries, because he had a major meltdown the first time after knowing that there were some wrong notes in a melody he was playing but getting overwhelmed by the written page and collapsing in a fit of insecurity. He sat on the couch feeling badly for quite a while. I came in and talked to him. I explained that he seems to like to get the "big picture" of anything first before he works on the details, but his piano music is getting complex enough that he can't always do that. Now sometimes the details have to come first, before he gets the big picture, and that's hard to get used to. He nodded. He played with Fiona for a while and then I called him back to the piano. He came willingly and did some detail work on the trouble spot, picking it up with no difficulty of course. He felt better and finished his practising.

Neither Sophie nor Noah wanted to do their violin/viola, and given the late hour and my own feelings about it, I decided we'd be best to let it go. I try to make sure they miss less than one practising a week. They've done well for a couple of weeks now, so that's fine.

Noah, Sophie and I did the dishes. I offered to read aloud while they worked, but they said "dishes are too much fun, so we won't be able to pay attention." Huh? Maybe they just wanted to make sure I did a share of the work.

Afterwards they got out their math and printing. This used to be something they took delight in at least 3 or 4 times a week, but it hasn't happened in months. I realized tonight that this routine must have been inextricably bound to the dining room table, which we haven't had proper use of for months. They both did some good math work, and Noah did a lot of printing. Fiona got out the pencil crayons and paper and made F's in every colour of the rainbow. Then she started drawing "guys". A couple of weeks ago she'd begun drawing faces (circle, line for mouth and two dots for eyes). Tonight her "guys" had egg-shaped head/bodies, eyes, noses, mouths, hair, "twoheads" (what Fiona calls foreheads), arms, hands, legs, knees and feet. Noah and Sophie were entranced by her progress and very encouraging.

We read from "The Star of Kazan".

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friday - Day in the Life

I vow that I will continue day-in-the-life blogging through the weekend, since this week has been one long mess of drywall and paint. I feel like I've been ignoring the kids.

The good news is that I finished today! I got the second coat of paint on the ceiling, then both coats on the walls. I washed brushes and rollers and paint trays almost non-stop, pulled off the masking tape, cleaned up dust and splatters, put away all the paraphernalia, and prepared to move the dining room table out of the family room (where it's resided since June 19th) back into the dining area. Erin did a bit of painting with me. Noah and Sophie took apart the light fixtures and washed them and re-assembled them. Sophie helped me cut squares of old carpet and glue-gun them to the legs of chairs and tables to protect the new cork flooring. When Chuck got home we ceremoniously moved the table back and had a humble supper, luxuriating in our actual dining area. Brilliant!

In the midst of it, the kids amused themselves for most of the day. There was a lot of "Planet Egypt" imaginative play on the hammock and gym rope (these have been great investments this summer!) and on the play structure.

There was a lot of computer time. Today's game of choice in Zoo Tycoon. What the kids did with it today is typical. They use a cheat to get limitless amounts of money, and then they use that money to create an imaginary world of a type that the program was not really intended for. Today they used Zoo Tycoon to build a resort town populated by themselves and their friends, adapting all the construction options to create homes (with massive kids' bedrooms!) and grocery stores and swimming pools and hiking trails and boating lakes and a church and school and parks. All with animals roaming around. There was a moment of panic when the tigers got into the grocery store!

Noah and Erin played Carcassonne. Sophie used the Labyrinth card game to create complex mazes. There's been a real resurgence of interest in family games this week. Often they're not touched from week to week.

The day trickled away.

After supper, the kids got busy practising. The way it worked today was typical.

Erin sat down at the piano. She practices completely independently.

Noah headed off to get his viola out. I went and spent five or ten minutes with him. He has a goal chart with eight particular tasks listed that he is working towards 'making them easy'. I try to touch base with him on these goals every couple of days. We worked together on the ones that weren't 'easy' yet. We decided not to set new goals to replace those that are easy just yet... maybe in a couple of days. He does the lion's share of his practising independently these days. I wish we could work together better, but this is our compromise for now. He needs his space.

After they've finished, they switch tasks. Erin heads out to practice her violin, and Noah comes to the piano. I hover a little bit, working with him for about half of his practising. Unless he's in a really receptive mood, I try to limit my input to suggestions I give him just before he starts to work on something. If I suggest something while he's already working on it, he takes it as a criticism and bursts into tears. This is true no matter how non-critically I frame things. Even if I say, cheerfully, "Hey, here's an idea I heard about once. I don't know if it's totally out to lunch, but I once heard someone practice staccato chords like this [demonstration]. Don't know if you think that's too weird." He'll likely start crying or tell me to get lost and leave him alone and sit "on strike" at the piano for 5 minutes trying to recover from this afront. So I try to catch him just before he starts the Arabesque and remind him of the three places that probably need extra work (based on what I heard yesterday) and suggest some ways of doing that work.

Once Noah finished his piano, Sophie went and pulled out her violin. Fiona began insisting on practising too (typical). So Fiona and I got out her cardboard violin and bow and spent three or four minutes, with Sophie patiently watching, working on bow-hold, on setting her own violin-hold, and on the rhythmic-motor pattern of the first Twinkle rhythm. Then Sophie and I started to work together on her violin work. We did about half an hour of good work together. Sophie is learning really well the past month. She's learned "Two Grenadiers", "Theme from Witches' Dance" and almost all of "Gavotte from 'Mignon'" in the past six weeks. Her bow direction and bow arm mechanics are much better. She is feeling more confident and is almost ready to get back to some sight-reading work (she's very good at reading, but it is hard work to do sight-reading practice, so it's the first thing she gives up when she feeling a bit discouraged, as she was this spring).

After practising I had a bath with Fiona and got the drywall dust out of my hair and the flecks of paint off her. Noah and Sophie played outside with the puppy until well after dusk. Erin went off to bed early-ish, because she's off to a friend's early tomorrow, and knows she needs to get her practising done first thing. That solved the issue of Sophie getting to bed at a time that suits her easily.

We read the last chapter of "The Bad Beginning". We'd lost the book in the family room about three weeks ago, and it had been excavated out of the chaos when we moved the dining room table out. Then we read aloud from "The Star of Kazan." I went to bed right away because I'd been up until past two the night before painting (and blogging!).

Thursday - Day in the Life

Another fairly useless day.

I finished my pre-read of "The Ruby and the Smoke" this morning. Neat book.

Fiona and I did the morning chores (chickens and puppy duties). I did the last of the sanding and mudding and sanding and then did my best to start cleaning up the drywall dust.

A photo of my natural dyed fabrics. Top to bottom: madder (1st bath), onion skin, madder (2nd bath), woad, rhubarb root. I definitely need to find a green. Surprisingly, deep greens are hard to create from nature; chlorophyll is not a useful dye chemical.

A friend phoned about a homeschooling/public-school hybrid program they're trying to start in our town. Although I'd love to support the local school by letting them collect funding on my kids' behalf, it sounds to me like the administration either don't have all their ducks in a row yet, or they're trying to pull off some sort of scam with the government. There's a meeting on Monday -- a firm proposal is being tabled. I feel like a killjoy, but I think I'm going to have to be grumpy and refuse to sign on. We'll see. I spent about an hour on the phone discussing the intricacies and my concerns with my friend.

I made oatmeal for breakfast with nectarines because we had about four tablespoons of milk in the house and no bread products. We eked out the milk and managed to all fill our tummies.

I made four loaves of bread. Masking-taped the wood trim around the walls.

The kids worked away cleaning up the family room. I could sort of tell something positive had happened but it certainly didn't get clean.

Sophie and Noah did their practising(s). Erin did her violin practising.

Everyone played outside for quite a while. Then they wanted to go to the beach. I relented, since I needed to buy latex primer and milk anyway. We took the puppy along. Picked up the mail (just boring stuff). Bought the paint. On the way to the beach saw the fruit guy had his stall up so stopped and bought a case of peaches, knowing at the time that I was being really silly -- those we can't eat will need to be processed and frozen within 36 hours and it's not like I have time to spare.

We spent most of the afternoon at the beach. We got the puppy to swim to the raft, and to jump off the raft and swim to shore again (that was much more frightening for her). Erin and Noah, who are fearless and adventurous in the water, invented a game called AquaSumo. It's a best-of-21 wrestling match where you try to push your opponent off the raft into the drink to score a point. My favourites were the two-pointers when they both went in.

Returned home. Remembered to buy milk. Spent almost two hours putting the primer on the walls and ceiling of the dining area. Where were the kids during this? What were they doing? I have no idea. This isn't much of an unschooling blog, more of an enumeration of the ways in which I've been ignoring the kids.

I made pasta for (late) dinner. The kids were outside playing with the puppy and doing imaginative games on the play structure. Fiona is getting to the age of beginning to engage with the other kids in their 'stories'. The contributions she offers up are often outrageous and rather out in left field, but she's trying to be funny, so everyone laughs really hard.

After dinner we did a major dishwashing together. Chuck got home at about 7:45. Erin practiced piano. She was feeling really snarky. It started with her complaining over her piano teacher's suggestion that she spend the rest of this month working on two or three post-romantic lyrical pieces, which she was claiming to 'hate'. She asked why Anne always suggested those types of pieces (she doesn't... Erin spent the spring doing Bach and Haydn and Kuhlau and Mozart) and I said that apparently Anne felt she still needed to work on phrasing and voicing singing lines, something which doesn't come as easily to her as rapid precise playing. Erin got really testy at this, which she no doubt heard as an enumeration of her pianistic faults. Things had already been circling the drain and my 'explanation' didn't help. After reading through an Oscar Peterson Waltz that she complained loudly about because it's got lots of tenths, she quit in a huff and went to the computer where Sophie and Noah had been happily playing "Age of Mythology" together and started saying rude things. Sophie began crying. Erin said she was going to stay up really late so that Sophie wouldn't be able to come to bed for ages, because Erin wouldn't be done her private readaloud until after midnight.

I asked Erin to find somewhere where she could be without upsetting everyone in the room she was in, and reminded her that she was not to ban a tired 6yo room-mate from her own bedroom. Erin started all sorts of silly twisted logic arguments about how late she used to stay up when she was 6 and why it makes no difference whether you or someone else decides on your bedtime and why Sophie shouldn't complain because ...

I just ignored her and eventually she went off to bed. It was about 10:30, very late to bed for Erin, so clearly she was trying to inconvenience Sophie. She came out two or three times after that to where Noah was setting up a modified solitaire version of "Settlers of Catan" on the floor of the living room and told him he was stupid and that his game was idiotic. She did this quietly, so that I couldn't hear from the next room. Noah didn't react. He just sighed and told me about it. He speculated about why Erin was being so hurtful. I said I didn't know, but that she was hurting about something and lashing out trying to hurt other people because "misery loves company". Noah responded "she sure doesn't love my company" and went happily back to his game.

I read aloud to Sophie and Noah. Fiona dropped off to sleep in my arms. I put her to bed and came back downstairs to do a first coat of paint on the ceiling. Sophie stayed up and chatted with me for a while. Thankfully Erin had gone to sleep, so she was able to head off to her bedroom without incident when she got tired. Unless we can find a mutually agreeable solution to the bedtime thing very soon, I think we must consider rooming Sophie with Noah. So far Erin will not budge willingly, and if I force her to budge, she will make Sophie's life miserable. I don't want poor Sophie to feel intimidated when entering her own room, and that's the way things are going the past couple of weeks. We'll take another stab at this issue at our next family meeting. Unfortunately everyone, including Chuck and myself, has made it abundantly clear to Erin that we think what's she's doing is utterly wrong -- and that's sure to put her in an uncompromising frame of mind. I am not hopeful we'll sort this out.

I finished up the ceiling and sat down to write this. Off to bed in a minute.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Wednesday - Day in the Life

Useless day. I'm sure you'll be glad to hear I have days like this. The kids spent too much time on the computer. The day seemed to trickle away down the drain. I'm not sure what happened to it.

I woke up at 7:30. I'm pre-reading "The Ruby and the Smoke" by Philip Pullman for Erin. I love it; I'm not sure she will, because it's a mystery. But maybe, since she loved the "His Dark Materials" trilogy so dearly, she'll cut Phil some slack and give this one a go. I think she'd have to read with more attention to detail to keep track of the characters and the plot, which would probably be good for her.

Got out of bed at 8:15, with a chipper Fiona in tow. Erin of course had been up for a while. Noah and Sophie got up about the same time. Chuck had meetings this morning so he'd been off early.

I folded and sorted laundry for what seemed like forever. Erin played one-on-one with Fiona in a lovely way for about an hour.

Fiona and I took the dog to the vet for a well-puppy visit. She's doubled her weight in the month since her first visit. I thought so!

I went out to the garden and harvested the madder I've been growing for 3 years. Sophie and I washed it and chopped it and set it to steep. I set up an alum mordant bath for some unbleached hemp/silk fabric I've had in reserve for a year or two. Sophie and I talked about mordants and what they do.

Noah and Erin spent a good part of the morning writing on two different computers. Noah's building some sort of calendar in his journal, so he wanted to know how many days in each month. I taught him the "knuckle trick" for figuring out which months have 31 days. [Put your two fists together so that the eight knuckles line up in a row. The knuckles are the long months (with 31 days), the "valleys" between knuckles are the short months (with 30 or 28 days).] Erin seemed to be making a long list of descriptive opposites but I would never confess that I peeked.

I looked for gluten-free muffin recipes for a friend. I responded to some e-mails. I think the kids fended for themselves for breakfast and lunch. Sophie and Noah played some Blokus.

I did a little more drywall mudding. I put the fabric into the madder dyebath. Sophie and Fiona stirred for a while. It started to go a nice dark red. Put another bit of fabric in the mordant.

The kids asked to go to the beach. I told them to forget it, because I had asked them repeatedly to do some housecleaning to help prepare for our holidays and our house-sitter/locum, and no one had yet lifted a finger. I felt lousy about saying that, but I can see a last-minute housecleaning marathon settling onto my shoulders and I'm already feeling resentful about it.

I folded more laundry and cleaned out the fridge. Wiped the kitchen counters more often than was strictly necessary. Have I mentioned how much I love my almost-complete new kitchen?

Erin's friend called to invite her to a birthday party on Saturday/Sunday (tube-floating down the river, then sleepover). Erin decided to sew a little carry-bag for hair fixings or jewelry for her friend as a gift. She chose a funky print from the fabric scrap bin and a contrasting aqua colour. I cut the circles out because we couldn't find the good lefty fabric scissors. I walked Erin through the construction (she'd helped with one of these before, but it had been a long time). She did almost all the sewing, all the pinning and ironing. She even used a protractor to divide the circle into eighths for the pocket seams. It took about 90 minutes from start to finish and looked really nice. Basically it's a circular drawstring bag which when opened reveals a largish central compartment and eight small pockets arranged around the sides. Very simple to make but quite elegant to look at.

I went into Noah's room, looking for more fabric in his closet, and found him lying on his bed. Asked him if he was tired, planning a nap. "Nope, just having a think," he replied. He's so sociable these days that it's easy to forget he's an introvert.

We played Pre-Rummy Roots and Rummy Roots 1 & 2. Erin and Sophie went off to their bedroom to play more games.

Chuck came home and we had supper. The kids played outside for a long time. I had to remind them about practising, which they all did without protest, all except Sophie, who whined "No, I don't want to." I responded without missing a beat by asking "Are you saying you're not going to practice, or are you pretending you're not going to, because you're having trouble getting started right now?" She looked at me, grinned, and said "Pretending." Fifteen minutes later she began practicing happily with me and did some good work on her bow arm and on the nasty fingering passage in "Gavotte from Mignon."

I pulled the first fabric out of the madder dyebath and put the other one in. The first is a lovely variegated but deep red. Well, pretty deep for a natural dye. The next will be a pale salmon or peach, I think. I acidified the bath to make it a little yellower. I've been saving vegetable-dyed fabric for a while: now I have a greyish-tinged pink made from rhubarb root, a medium yellow made from onion skins, a pale blue made from woad, and my red and light orange from the madder. I feel a quilt coming on. What I'd like to do is get the kids to make mandala-like print blocks that we'd use to create repeating images in black fabric paint on various squares of vegetable-dyed fabric. We'll see what evolves. This is a project I began almost 3 years ago when Erin and I dyed the first fabric with onion skins.

More drywall sanding and mudding before bed. Then the obligatory 30-40 pages of "The Star of Kazan".

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Tuesday - Day in the Life

I woke up and read for an hour in bed, since I figured Fiona would pop up as soon as I left bed, and I was relishing a quiet hour of R&R. Erin was up and about, playing with the puppy. The wind was blowing outside. Fall is blowing in.

By the time I stopped reading and I got up (with Fiona popping up immediately as predicted), Sophie and Noah were also up. Chuck was up too and making the coffee. I left the kids to their own devices and went upstairs to clean the big bathroom. In 10 days we have to turn the house over to a locum-cum-housesitter, so I have to get it out of health-hazard status. One room at a time. Fiona helped with the bathroom-cleaning. She was actually more help than hindrance, though I did run her a bath at the end to keep her happily out of the way of my work.

Then I came down to the dining room to do another smidge of drywall mudding. With Fiona around I rarely get to do more than a little bit. I washed dishes. Noah dried.

Sophie and I played a game of Rummy Roots. Noah joined in and we did another game. Erin was writing on the ancient laptop. She was using some sort of code to keep the text illegible to passersby, but she was very serious and prolific in her output. Her touch-typing is very fast these days -- probably 40 wpm, I'd wager. I hadn't even really noticed until just recently that she was totally touch-typing.

I had to go to the bank, and to the medical clinic to get caught up on some paperwork. Fiona came with me. I'm not really sure what the kids did while I was gone. Chuck had the morning off and was working on finishing carpentry in the kitchen. I picked up more drywall mud while I was out.

We ate the last of the cinnamon buns for lunch, among healthier fare.

Did a big sanding of the drywall mud after lunch. As I was cleaning up as much as was possible, a friend showed up. She was dropping her 10yo off for a much-desired playdate with Erin. My friend and I chatted about this and that for 20 minutes or so. Sophie and Fiona showed off their piano 'skills' for my friend.

After my friend left, I sat down for a stint at the computer and to nurse Fiona into her afternoon nap, which she seemed to be needing today.

The friend who was here for the playdate changes the play dynamic here for the better, but in an unexpected way. She tends to sit at the computer and play games the whole time she's here, being rather controlling and demanding of Erin. So Erin tends to move off into another room to avoid being ordered about (some assertiveness would not be amiss here, but Erin is who she is). Anyway, what often transpires is that my three older kids play together beautifully, very imaginatively and without the games, gimmicks and technology that live in the family room, because of their desire to get a little distance between them and M.. So Erin, Noah and Sophie had a wonderful giggly time together in the living room, and M. played on the computer ten feet away in the next room, and then complained at the end of the afternoon that Erin hadn't spent any time with her. :-P Oh well.

At 4pm M.'s brother and her dad came for the brother's violin lesson. I went to the basement to teach B. for what ended up being almost an hour. Afterwards I chatted to the dad, B. played with Noah, M. continued on the computer and Sophie flitted around, sometimes watching M. on the computer.

After they left I cooked supper. Chuck came home. We ate supper. The three older kids did the dishes. Then they all did all their practising. Sophie and I in particular had a wonderful productive session together. Noah cut his viola short because his 4th finger had been injured while wrestling with Erin. After practising, the kids continued the work/play they'd started during the afternoon on the "Euwy Folder". This is a loose-leaf binder that they've started which contains information, notes, cartoons, humour pieces, background, stories and pictures of the characters that inhabit their imaginary "Planet Egypt". Today they added a restaurant menu from a restaurant called "Brown Teeth of the Ukraine" which consisted of various overpriced inedibles with hilarious descriptions. They did it in Microsoft Works after discovering the publishing wizards there.

Noah and Sophie spent some time in the late evening browsing through the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalogue which had arrived earlier today.

Noah did some writing / journaling in "YeahWrite".

I scrubbed the dining room ceiling to get it ready for painting.

We read three more chapters from "The Star of Kazan", which I highly recommend, BTW. Erin was already asleep tonight before Sophie headed for bed. Phew!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Monday - Day in the Life

This week I'm blogging as part of my moment in the 'spotlight' on the iVillage Unschooling Board I help moderate. I'm doing a very "Day in the Life" style of blogging, since that's the sort of thing new homeschoolers are often hungry for at this time of year. I figured I'm doing all that writing, I might as well get double credit for it. So I'm going to copy and paste it in here.


Erin was up early as usual and had looked after the puppy. She was reading a science magazine when I got up. I checked my e-mail and made coffee, and before I knew it Fiona had woken up. She and I went out and played with the puppy, refilled the dogfood container, watered and fed the chickens and collected the eggs.

When we got back in, Noah was awake. He and Erin spent some time playing Age of Empires II - the Titans together. I started making cinnamon buns.

At 9:15 am I awoke Sophie and made sure everyone was out of their pyjamas and fed. I rolled up the cinnamon buns.

At 9:45 am I packed the van and we headed off to our 10:00 GRUBS meeting. GRUBS is our gardening/environmental club. There were four other families there, with a total of 9 other kids. We beachcombed and found another piece of driftwood suitable for a couple of fenceposts. The kids foraged for blackberries and we all snacked. Everyone weeded and tended their individual plot. Together we pulled all the gone-to-seed lettuce and spinach out of two of the communal beds, mixed a bunch of manure in, and every child planted a couple of short rows of fall crop (cool-crop lettuce, spinach, arugula, radishes). We made plans for our fall harvest festival and talked about plans for upcoming meetings. The club broke up at about 12:15.

We came home and had lunch, followed by cinnamon buns. I did some drywall mudding in the dining room while the kids amused themselves on the computer and with the board game Blokus. They also went outside for some bike-riding and swinging and climbing on the rope. They played with the puppy.

Sophie did her violin practising with my help. Noah did his piano practising and refused my help but did a fantastic job with some challenging new repertoire. He got very annoyed when I commented on his hard work, but recovered enough to carry on. Erin went off to her room to read and write.

I made supper. I had thought I was on the schedule for work in the evening, but when I called to confirm, it turned out someone else was taking the clinic, so I had a unexpected free evening.

We did the dishes together. Erin went off to practice violin and piano. Noah did his viola practising. I did more drywall mudding. Sophie went to her room to read for a while.

As it got close to bedtime I pulled out our current readaloud "the Star of Kazan" by Eva Ibbottson and began reading. Erin, who has already read the book, listened to a chapter and then went off to her room. Once there she writes in her journal, and then reads aloud very privately to herself for about half an hour. While she's reading aloud she won't allow Sophie into their shared bedroom.

So I finished reading three chapters of "Star of Kazan" and Noah and Sophie headed off to bed. Noah put on a mythology story CD and crawled into bed, but Sophie turned up in the living room again because Erin wasn't done her reading aloud and had banished her. Sophie is always tired, mildly annoyed, but very accommodating when Erin does this. I've recognized that this unfair treatment by Erin bothers Chuck and me more than it bothers Sophie. So I tried to do something more constructive than just getting angry at Erin on Sophie's behalf, and invited Sophie to come up to the master bedroom and lie down with me and Fiona (who had long since fallen asleep on my shoulder). We had a lovely talk about this and that for about 20 minutes.

Erin had finished reading, so Sophie was allowed into her own bed to go to sleep.

Confidence and challenge

Three or four years ago I used to write about Erin all the time. I felt a little guilty about this. I worried that maybe I had an unhealthy preferential focus on issues I faced with her. But there just seemed so much more to write about with her.

Now it's Noah's turn. And he's about the same age she was at that time.

Noah has had, all told, about 18 months where he's had a rough, un-motivated, frustrating time of it on piano. After the VSSM, which he enjoyed, but didn't find particularly motivating, I took some time to discuss with him what he wanted to do with his piano studies. I suggested it might be a really good time to take a year off and just focus on viola, since he seemed so excited by viola. He protested loudly. I suggested that he might consider a change of teachers, or a change of approach. Again he protested.

So I figured we'd forge onwards. Since we're here at home for 2 1/2 more weeks, and then taking our traditional September family vacation, I wanted to capitalize on this little window of opportunity to get a toe-hold on something new on piano. I know that what Noah is lacking on piano is confidence; he feels he's not progressing, he panics when faced with written notation, he cries when he plays a note wrong more than once. Grappling with the alto clef this past year has not helped his piano reading skills any, and he really isn't sight-reading very well. I wrote to his teacher, whom we won't see until October, and asked her if it was okay to try to perk him up with some Grade 2 work, since he's felt very "stuck" at the Grade 1 level. She agreed, basically saying "anything that gets him interested in playing piano is okay at this point".

Pushing him ahead a little made sense to me, since on viola and in academics I've noticed that while he shies away from leaps in difficulty and complexity, and rarely seems properly ready for them, when they're thrust upon him he usually makes great progress as a result. It's as if he only breaks out of his methodical 'beginner mindset' when the complexity of the task requires that he chunk his learning down and internalize it so that he can take in the new stuff. I had an inkling that moving him up a notch in difficulty on the piano might result in the same leap. It seemed really odd, really counter-intuitive, to consider curing a lack of confidence with an increase in challenge, but I figured at this point anything was worth a try.

So the next day I went to pull out the Grade 2 books, but couldn't find them. After a long and fruitless search I threw up some Grade 3 pieces. And wouldn't you know... he had absolutely no more difficulty learning them than he'd had with any of the Grade 1 repertoire. Not only that, but once he realized he was getting it, and that these were pieces nominally two grades more advanced than he thought he was capable of, he began smiling. He began searching the written music for clues and cues. He began teaching himself, working through problems, sticking with difficult work, rather than collapsing in tears.

The next day we found the Grade 2 books under the couch, and he chose a couple of representative pieces from them too, though his favourites are the two Grade 3 pieces he's decided to stick with. He's working hard on his sight-reading. He's using his strong by-ear skills and lovely touch and dexterity. He is sounding terrific, and he knows it. What a breakthrough.

Today, after he'd finished working his way through the Grade 3 "Arabesque" hands together, brilliantly and all on his own, I wandered through the living room and told him how proud I was of him ... not that he was managing this repertoire, which I'd had my suspicions he could do, but that he was working so hard and doing his own problem-solving from the written score. "You're really working hard at the piano, and at the reading. It sure shows!" I said. He burst into tears, told me I'd wrecked it, and that I should go away.

I apologized and left the room. Sheesh. You just never know what's going on in this kid's head.

After a few long minutes of silence he started working again. He even did some hands-together sight-reading, something I'd been trying to work him gradually back into.

Funny kid.

For those who are wondering what's happened with his request for an incentive system, he hasn't, thankfully, mentioned it again. We've been working together reasonably well on viola, and I've changed my vocabulary from "fixing things" and "polishing up" and "working on issues" to "practising to make things easier". He seems to like watching the chart I set up for tracking the ease of various tasks progressing towards "easy as pie". No candy has been necessary yet.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Help me out here, Alfie Kohn

As a child I felt a deep discomfort with rewards, incentives, bribes and punishments. When rewarded, I felt like I was participating in some sort of dishonest scam, because I was either selling myself out or reaping benefits I didn't truly deserve. When punished I felt drawn into a power struggle, determined to win the next skirmish through deviousness or sheer force of will.

So as a new parent, I instinctively veered away from behaviourist approaches. During the early years I certainly wouldn't have been able to articulate in a philosophical sense what I was doing, but I knew that it felt right to wait for my newly-3-year-old to decide to use the toilet, rather than bribing her into it with jelly beans.

Then I read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards". Kohn's extremely convincing book spelled it all out for me. It articulated why I'd felt an almost visceral aversion to rewards as a child, and why as a parent they just didn't sit right. Now I had a philosophy and a policy to go with my instincts. For many years I delightedly shared these ideas and worked at refining this style of educational and parenting guidance.

But now what? I've run up against a curious phenomenon that I can't figure out. I've got a child (Noah, 8) who has grown up in an environment that is virtually rewards-free. Most kids whose parents swear off rewards and incentives meet up with occasional reward systems in school or extra-curricular activities. Even Erin endured 2 years of getting treats every week for having logged 100 minutes of piano practising. Not Noah, though. Thanks to a combination of timing, parental design and blind luck, he's grown up 99.9% free of behavioural manipulators. I was firmly committed to non-coercive parenting by the time he was out of babyhood, and all of his extra-curricular activities have been in similar environments.

Yet lately he is asking for reward and incentive systems. When we discuss the state of his practising, ways to overcome the hurdles he's facing, he suggests I give him candy or money for his work. I voice my concern over rewards, enumerating through clear examples the types of potential downfalls I see in these situations. He still wants to try them. When he asked for a dollar for completing a week's worth of detailed practising work, I suggested that if he wanted more money, I could just increase his allowance. No, he said, he wanted the money contingent on his practising. What if he decided it was easier to busk at the market for 45 minutes and make $30 than practice 45 minutes a day for 30 weeks for the same financial reward, I asked. No, he'd still want the reward, he said. What if he was really rich, and a dollar didn't seem worth it any more? What if he had $10,000 in the bank? Surely a dollar wouldn't seem worth practising for? Sure it would, he said. What if he decided he wasn't particularly interested in money, or in buying anything, for a while? Wouldn't that make him feel like he didn't need to practice? He looked at me like I'd grown another head. Could I just give him a stack of loonies or a big box of candy and get him to dispense one to himself every week for the work he's done? I really would like to get myself out of the position of judge and enforcer, I said. I want to be his helper, not his boss, I explained. No, he told me -- someone else has to do the dispensing, and that would be the way I could best help. I suggested using more games and gimmicks, instead of rewards, to make his practising more palatable. He didn't think this was a good idea -- games are silly, and they take charge of the work and take up time. What about using a chart or a value-less token system to keep track of the work done? No, this wouldn't work, because "it has to be something I'd like to get."

I said I'd think about it some more, and we'd talk about it again. My inclination at this point is to agree to what he's asking for, on the assumption that the toxicity of rewards is the result mostly of their unilateral imposition by adults intent upon controlling the recipient. Of course there's the sticky issue of what I do with the other kids. If Noah's getting extra money or candy through his reward system, how do I prevent that from affecting their interest in a reward system? Do I just hand out candies to them? Do I give them the option of a reward system? What happens if Noah fails to 'earn' his reward? Do the girls get a dollar or a candy anyway? What a mess.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A tale of two weeks

Last week's Suzuki institute was a heady experience for all. The structure of daily classes and activities was school-like, but there was so much respect for the children and their needs that it wasn't particularly stressful for my introverts. They thrived, loving the challenges they met and the friendships they made. They came out of the week absolutely psyched over the violin and viola. Erin practiced like a maniac all week and three separate times the day afterwards. Noah and Sophie are begging for more lessons and for next year's institute to roll around again really fast.

In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd say that the kids' reaction to the week was an indication that they might really thrive in a more structured, school-like setting full-time.

But then on Sunday we had to switch gears and get prepared for the piano summer school. It's not going very well. Partly I think the kids had just had their fill of long structured days away from home and needed some down time. Partly it's that they're feeling so stoked about their stringed instruments that it's hard to set those aside and get centred on piano. But partly I think it's the format of the two different summer programs.

This week's program is mostly large-group-based. There are almost no intimate small-group experiences (with the exception of piano duet coaching -- which the kids really enjoy - but it's just 10 minutes a couple of times a week). In groups of more than 6 or 8, my introverted kids have a hard time forming comfortable relationships quickly. They cope with the master classes of 8 to 14 fellow students, teacher and onlookers, but they don't feel the comfortable sense of intimacy, of bonds forged, that they get easily in Suzuki-style masterclasses of 4 students and teacher. Also, because this week is a "drop 'em at the door and pick 'em up later" style program, the kids are kept in class for basically the whole time, with breaks limited to 15-minute teacher-supervised recesses. There's little time to forge friendships. During the Suzuki week there were hour-long breaks interspersed during the day for practising and socializing or just curling up in the corner with a book.

The other real difference with this week is how product-oriented it is. With three kids involved in various different levels and components of this week's program, our family is involved in almost every student concert, and everything during the week is focused on those end-of-week concerts. We'll be sitting through parts of two concerts on Thursday evening, totalling almost 3 hours, and three separate concerts, including a 3 to 4 hour sweltering marathon final concert, on Friday. This is without taking in any of the discretionary concerts. By the end of the week (this is our fourth year) my kids are inevitably swearing that they hate concerts and don't ever want to be involved in another one. Not really the desired sentiment at the end of a music summer school. And then, to top it off, because all the energy is focused on concert preparation, once the concerts are over there's little for the kids to take home with them to spur their learning forth after this week.

Back to my thoughts on structured group instruction and whether the kids would thrive in school. Interestingly, the things that are bothering my children about this week's experiences are things that they and I would find difficult about school -- the sheer length of time spent there, especially time sitting and waiting for things to happen, the focus on product rather than on ongoing learning and its motivation, the preoccupation with specific learning rather than with the big-picture growth and development of the child, the separation from parents rather than inclusion of them, the large-group nature of the teaching -- and the competitiveness and territoriality that seems to arise in the absence of any cohesive philosophical vision of education.

I know that some schools are able to answer to some of these issues -- while others are just the nature of institutional schooling. It makes me wonder what a school based on the Suzuki institute model would look like. Pie in the sky, I know.

At any rate, this year's music summer school experience has proven to me that while my kids love occasional doses of a certain style of group-based structured learning, and can cope with other styles if need be, unschooling is definitely the place for them to thrive.

Noah came home this afternoon, discovered that the computer mouse wasn't working properly, tried the standard dust-bunny-banishing procedure which failed, shut the computer down, found a non-magnetized screwdriver, took the thing apart and discovered, deep within the wheel mechanism, a hidden wad of lint which he dug at and blew at until it was gone. He spent some time curiously examining the remaining circuitry and mechanics, then reassembled it, confident that it would work properly. And it did. He's beginning to see himself as mechanically adept, to have confidence in his ability to figure out how to fix things. A little snippet of unschooling on the shoulder of a very school-like day. Nice to see.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Institute Vignettes

It's the week of our first-ever local Suzuki Institute. Total enrollment: 42 (about 30% from our region, the remainder from far afield).

Erin and her quartet-mates in flamenco poses, practising hand-spirals, courtesy of their many-talented quartet coach, as part of the quartet's stretching routine mid-rehearsal.

Noah, smiling and self-satisfied after playing through his latest piece with a couple of teen violists in viola group class. He confesses later that he really likes viola group because for a change he's back-row material (not tall enough, really -- actually the shortest in the class -- but as the third most advanced violist, he's in the back row with the big guys).

Sophie, holding hands with Hana, a fellow 6yo, a friend from her master class, all the way through family choir.

The sound of the Bach Double first movement, being played at top speed (and surprisingly competently) by two violinists in a windowless practice room. It turns out the violinists are Erin and her close friend J., who generally retreat to windowless rooms to giggle and goof around -- but here they are practising like maniacs.

Fiona, showing her beautiful bowhold to Sophie's master class, after being offered a special treat -- her own 2-minute 'lesson' at the beginning of the class. She is further-spoiled by being given a colourful "assignment sheet", which she spends much time folding and unfolding and carefully placing in her case beneath her cardboard 'violin'.

Erin's nametag now reads "Erin Burkholder -- the Gypsy", courtesy of her master class teacher. She's working on the Czardas by Monti, a new piece and a real departure for her in terms of the flamboyant assertiveness required. I've been banished from the master class by my independent 11yo, but I'm told by those who are allowed in the room that she has transformed her playing this week. The nametag addendum is the only tangible evidence I've been given so far.

Sophie (6) and B. (12), taking a few spare minutes before class to play through their ensemble music together, side by side, mutually encouraging.

Noah, with his trademark self-conscious almost-smile, acknowledging the applause of his master class after managing to play his minuet with the assigned "fanatical bowing".

It's been a great week so far.