Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Gym

We've not had a public gym in our town until today. During WWII a Sanitorium was built here for Japanese internees who had TB. In the 1950s the San was converted to a reform school for school-refusing Doukhobor children (who were actually just being educated at home). A gymnasium was added at that point. Then when the government stopped apprehending Doukhobor kids for homeschooling, the reform school was vacated, and years later, it became the local public hospital / primary health care centre. The gym was for years a storage area for the maintenance department. Five years ago a community group initiated a plan to renovate the gym back into a gym.

This fall the renovation has been more or less completed. It's a small but beautiful gymnasium attached to a very small fitness centre. The official opening is next Monday. We are thrilled. Goodbye cabin fever! We can book it for two hours for $1/person for groups of three or more. With my four kids, so that means $5 for two hours of family gym time.

Fridays I have booked for a regular homeschoolers' gym time. Today there were thirteen of us there (short notice -- I expect there will be more on average). We brought basketball, playground ball, medicine ball, badminton racquets and birdies. The kids were ages 2 to 14. Total free play. Very fun. Everyone got very pink and thirsty.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Co-op learning

We're now four weeks into Science Club. We meet for two or three hours on Wednesday afternoon. I'm preserving my optimism with effort. We've done some fun things, from the planet walk to the 'elevate an apple' challenge, to printing evergreen foliage on clay tiles. We've touched on principles of gravitational acceleration, solar system orbits, taxonomy of trees, convection and plate tectonics. Some sorts of activities are definitely easier to do in groups.

Co-operative learning has a lot to recommend it, but I'm just not sure this group is going to make it work. I'm trying really hard to find ways to make it work, but truth be told I've never been able to imagine my kids being happy in this sort of co-op homeschooling arrangement. Erin is light-years beyond everyone else in general knowledge and although she's been polite about her boredom so far, I think it's asking a lot to expect her to stay cheerful and engaged (especially as she's in a similar situation in violin group class and community orchestra). Noah balks against anything that hints of comparativeness or competitiveness. Even just encouraging different kids to pursue the same task side by side invites a vocal self-congratulatory attitude from one of the other children, something which sends Noah into a motivational tailspin. When things get loud and chaotic, which they do, Sophie retreats into private play with her friend. Fiona gets clingy, and tends to be tired at that time of day.

If this flops, I will reassure myself that the kids are getting excellent, meaningful experience with co-operative learning and living through GRUBS, music ensembles and family life.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Fiona is reading. Not only that, but unlike my other (previous) 3-year-old reader, Erin, this one's doing so quite unabashedly, stumbles and mistakes and all. Mostly just three- and four-letter words with short vowels and the simplest of consonant blends, but she's doing it, and building on her progress as the days roll by. Her printing is almost as good as Noah's was six months ago -- and she has fewer letter reversals than Sophie had numeral reversals a year ago. She painted the most amazing duo of paintings this afternoon ... and can add numbers to twelve, and plays the violin beautifully, speaks up to acquaintances of all shapes and sizes, finger-knits up a storm, and is cute as a button. Is there anything this kid isn't capable of?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Power failure

Windy sleety day. We have Science Club scheduled. It's at our house, because the power is out at the place where we usually hold it. We go on a planet walk, pacing out the scale distance between a soccer-ball sun and the various planets. We give up after almost a kilometer of walking when we're still only at Saturn. They sure are small and far apart, and, as we head into a wicked sleet-laden wind, we comment on how it sure does get cold as you get far from the sun!

Science Club wraps up around dusk, and our fellow club-members are just pulling out when our power fails. I pull out some candles, check on the phone with neighbours to make sure the outage is more than just us, and to ensure that someone has reported it. Noah stokes the fire in the woodstove and I pull soup out of the freezer. We make space on the woodstove to heat up soup and coffee and then we settle down with books and board games. I read aloud for a while. The kids read to themselves. We play long games of Carcassonne, Frog Juice, Qwitch and Set. We stir the soup, I drink the coffee. More reading.

Chuck gets home from work and we eat supper. We'd set aside tonight to watch the last hour of a video, and we briefly bemoan the fact that if we had enough of a flicker to get the DVD out of the player, we'd be able to watch it on the laptop. But although the power does flicker on for a couple of seconds, we're too far from the DVD player to press 'eject' in time. Ah well... what's a few more hours without electronics. We do more reading and board games. Kids do their practicing. It's piano by candlelight, which seems worthy of a photo.

We all love power failures. Various kids say several times "I love power failures." The kids boo when the lights come on.

Ten minutes later they're sitting in front of the computer with their eyes glazed, unable to imagine life without their precious screen time, complaining when I suggest they ought to do something else for a while. What contradictions they are.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The All-purpose Comeback

I'm one of those people who is full of brilliant comebacks ten minutes after the situation where I needed them. I don't think on my feet very well. I'll blame it on my poor social skills, courtesy of my public schooling.

It's been quite a while since I've needed to cope with a rude almost-stranger criticizing our homeschooling, but I've got one more "one size fits all" response in my armory, besides the classic Bean Dip one. It goes like this:

"What exactly do you mean by ______?"

In the blank goes whatever the obnoxious person has just raised as an objection. "Social misfits," "qualified experts," "socialization," "overprotective," "independence." It doesn't matter what the noun is -- throw it in there! The beauty of this one, just like the Bean Dip response, is that you don't really have to think on your feet to pull it off.

The typical reaction is a sort of double-take, followed by some backpedaling as the person realizes that they haven't actually thought about it, and probably you have. Suddenly they're on the defensive.

"Well, you know, getting along with different people."

"What do you mean by different people?" [see ... for all you technology geeks, this is a recursive function in our algorithm!]

"Umm, you know, kids who come from different backgrounds, or, well. .... "

"Different backgrounds? What exactly do you mean by that?" [another call to the recursive function!]

"Well, aboriginal kids, or poor kids, or kids who..."

(By now you're thinking, and enjoying as the obnoxious person is madly digging holes and stumbling into them.)

"You don't find any of those out in the community?"



We were in a concocting mood, and stumbled on the recipe for "gak" or "elmer's slime", which just happened to require two ingredients we had on hand -- 225 ml of PVA glue (Elmer's Glue-all) and 1 tsp. of borax. Actually, we have about 1000 tsp. of borax on hand, but we only needed one.

We mixed the glue with an equal amount of warm water, added some food colouring and then stirred in a solution of 1 tsp. of borax in 125 ml of warm water. VoilĂ , non-Newtonian fluid!

It became everything from masks to clothing to balls, tongues, snakes, pianos, 'octopus leather' and 'inflated goatskins'. The kids really enjoyed playing with it during readaloud time. It's amazing stuff. Packed into a large ball, it can be bounced or broken in halves. Gently encouraged, by gravity or fingers, it becomes an amazing fluid.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Singapore 5B at age three?

Fiona has been busy writing lots of letters and numbers lately. Today I found a 'spent' Singapore Primary Math workbook which she had commandeered for her own uses. She made me take an eraser to most the previous pencil work a couple of weeks ago and has been having her own way with one of the word problems. This page was lying open. She had used enough appropriate numbers and symbols that I did a double-take. Did she really try to write 40 P(ercent) for the answer to part A, do you think? Okay, it's probably a backwards 4, but who's to say? And where did she come up with the idea that decimal points and percent signs were part of this solution?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Science Club

First it seemed like a great idea to continue to get the homeschooled core of GRUBS together for a weekly co-op learning venture during the cold months. I talked to the other mom-of-many about it and we talked to the kids. Everyone thought it was a good idea. Then I got cold feet. I didn't want to be saddled with the organization of yet another weekly activity that my kids ended up feeling was more my deal than theirs, fighting them to get ready and at least look interested, dealing with their complaints about having to leave whatever they're doing at home.

So I tried to bail. But then, in public, in the presence of their friends, my kids swore up and down that they wanted to give it a try, at least for a month. They really wanted a science club, they said. Every week, even, rather than every 2 weeks as I'd suggested.

So here we go. Surprisingly, it's going sort of okay. We meet for 2 - 2 1/2 hours on Wednesday afternoons, in a comfortable but somewhat neutral place (i.e. not at either family's home). The age range is of course immense:
  • 13-year-old boy of an anti-academic bent
  • a 12-year-old girl of a hyper-intellectual bent who probably knows more about a lot of this stuff than both moms put together
  • a 11-year-old girl who tends to gravitate to anything the 12yo does
  • a 10-year-old anti-competitive perfectionistic boy who doesn't do "anything with points"
  • a 8-year-old girl who is pretty tight with...
  • a 7-year-old girl, who enjoys the tight little dyad
  • a 5-year-old boy who has very strong ideas
  • a 3-year-old girl who thinks she can do anything a 12-year-old can
  • a 2-year-old girl who is at a pretty 'busy' stage, though occasionally naps at convenient times
Right down the continuum from teen to toddler, with no natural grouping of 'older vs. younger' or anything of the sort. There are two kids who don't read at all, two (amongst the oldest) who refuse to write, one who refuses to talk, one who can't yet talk, and two (amongst the youngest) who insist on keeping up with the others on everything. The other mom and I are alternating leadership of the activities, meaning she does one session, focusing on biological sciences, and I do the next, focusing on the physical sciences. We've each led one session now. So far the biggest hits have been the outdoor stuff and the social-but-independent creative-thinking activities. My on-line friend Kris Bordessa compiled a book of Team Challenges. I cribbed the Elevate an Apple challenge off her website. I really must buy the book! Anyway, while I had vague thoughts of grouping the kids into teams, it was clear almost immediately that they weren't going to go for that. I had only brought two apples, and they immediately insisted that there needed to be an apple for everyone, and Noah made it very clear that if their was any sort of competition involved he was going to refuse to participate. I ran to the store and bought more apples, the energy flowed in its own direction and the kids were creatively and enthusiastically engaged for about half an hour, trying as many different ways to solve the challenge as possible. I photographed each 'success', and some of the 'failures' that were nonetheless beautiful or particularly creative.

I confess I enjoy the planning. I can organize and plan the sorts of explorations and activities that my kids would almost certainly balk at at home, considering them too contrived, too teacherish or schoolish or just worthy of the "not right now, I'm busy" response. In the group, they tolerate them, and even seem to enjoy some of them. They're already there, they might as well get involved, I guess.

Two things have become evident about Science Club. The first is that it is a very rare activity indeed which will engage everyone. The second is that splitting the group into a variety of activities doesn't work either! The solution, alas, seems to be to try to find those 'very rare activities.' Maybe they won't be so rare if we can get the knack of this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Practicing Productivity

Noah has been really reluctant to go to his viola lessons lately. I mean, as a huge homebody who doesn't make transitions well at the best of times, he normally doesn't like to go, but usually once he gets there and gets in the groove, he's okay. But lately he's been articulating clearly a sense of not feeling adequately prepared. We talk about it a bit at his lesson this week.

"I think maybe you get to something that's tricky, or that you don't like a whole lot, and you figure you'll just sort of ignore it today, and get around to dealing with it later. And then suddenly you realize it's lesson day, and you never got around to it. Is that about it?"

"Yeah," he says. "That's it."

I mention how his practicing, which he's doing all on his own, is pretty short. I hesitate to articulate in real terms how short it is, but make a casual reference to him bashing through things in 20 minutes that maybe would take longer if he really delved in. He thinks his practicing is pretty long, but confesses that it might be shorter than it seems.

His grandma (/teacher) says that as a ball-park, she figures it should probably take a beginning-of-Book-5 viola student about 45 minutes to get through all the technique, repertoire, review, reading and orchestra work. She wonders if it might be helpful for him to use a timer to find out how long he is really spending on his viola practicing.

On the way home from lessons, I suggest a new way I might make up his lessons notes, which I always type up for him afterwards. He thinks it might be worth a try.

I type up three sections. One is the usual notes about details in pieces, assigned scales, reminders to watch the thumb here, to check the bowing at the top of the second page, to keep an eye on fingerings in the scales, and so on. The second section is a list of specific goals / assignments that I am guessing if he accomplishes, he will feel adequately prepared for his next lesson. Things like "fix bowings in bars 55-57 for once and for all" and "get comfortable with 3-octave d melodic minor scale in quarter notes" and "play first half of Telemann 4th accurately without written music." There are about eight of these.

The third and most crucial section is the calendar. Just a six-day calendar with days and dates and relevent activities filled in. So that he can see that it is Friday today (it's easy to lose track of the days when you don't go to school!), and Monday won't be an easy practice day, and Tuesday is group class, and then it's lesson day, and he can guage how his task-completion is faring against the progress of the week.

I print this out and give it to him, along with the kitchen timer. I really don't know if he's using the notes, though I think he probably is. What he is doing for sure is using the kitchen timer, and this has turned out to be a really instructive exercise.

After Thursday's practicing, he comes out and says "I did everything really slowly and carefully, and about five review pieces, and I can't think of anything else to do, and I still have 23 minute to go."

"What do you mean, twenty-three minutes to go?" I ask.

"Until I've done forty-five minutes."

Twenty-two minutes of practicing had seemed unusually long and thorough to him! I suspect his practice duration over the past couple of months has averaged around 14 minutes.

"Well," I say, "that was just a thought, not a requirement. There are things you could do to fill the time, like repeat the scales until they get easier, or do some extra work on the orchestra music, or do more detail work on the Martini review. But if you feel you've done enough, then that's fine. The idea is just to become aware of how much time you're spending at your practicing. Do you think you've done enough for today?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says, and heads off to the computer. Oy. Even his "exceptionally slow and thorough" practicing is still of the light-speed variety. I begin to wonder what the point of our discussion and change of tactics is.

But wait for it -- Friday's sequel.

Noah heads off to practice at the same time as Sophie. For once, she's done first. In fact, some time goes by and I realize he is still off in his bedroom playing. Finally he finishes.

"Wow!" I ask. "How long was that? It seemed like a huge number of minutes!"

"Dunno," he says. "I didn't time it. I just did everything three times. My whole practicing, three times."

He's smiling. I'm guessing it was an hour. Amazing.