Monday, December 31, 2007

Rinky hope

Over the past couple of days I've spent a lot of time and energy patching leaks in the rink. In places where the water seems to be draining I've packed snow, added a splash of water from a bucket, packed more snow down waited a few hours and repeated. Tonight promises to be our last cold night for a while, so I went out to hook up the hose and see whether my efforts had been successful.

Who cares? Look what the night looks like at our house! I'm happy just to be out there. I can't think of many places I'd rather be to welcome 2008.

As it turns out, the rink liner seems to be holding water in most places. I only added a little water, since large amounts could thaw the frozen-slush patches I've worked so hard to create. But I think we're getting somewhere. It's getting cold now and my water looks like it's freezing up nicely in the liner, before exiting and becoming part of the groundwater. I'll be happy to go out later and top things up in the glowing darkness of our winter night. Happy New Year all!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fiona's Mignon

Fiona's grandma wanted her to record her "Gavotte from 'Mignon'" over the holidays. For those who don't know the Suzuki violin repertoire, this is a piece students and parents love to hate. It brings together a whole slew of technical skills and introduces a bunch of new ones too, and puts them all together in a piece that seems to go on and on and on. Without, I confess, as much aesthetic merit as one might like.

Fiona has learned this piece pretty quickly and, while it's still difficult for her to play, she can do it with a lot of focus. You can tell this is still difficult for her -- there is a fair bit of tension in her left hand at times and her intonation sometimes suffers as a result. But all in all I think she's doing pretty well with it. Her tone quality and clarity are of course limited by the fact that she's playing on a sixteenth-sized instrument.

We recorded this in four different sections and did a couple of different takes on two of them. That helped me change views and it kept her from getting totally frazzled.

Storytellers and engineers

The world, they say, is divided into two types of people -- those who like to divide the world into two types of people and those who don't. I guess I fall into the former group. Though I will readily confess that many people don't fit clearly in one type or the other, I find the "two types" mindset a useful way of intellectualizing differences and similarities. I suppose if I were to describe my preference accurately, I'd say that I like to think in terms of two-dimensional spectrums. I'm a person who likes the conceptual simplicity of opposite poles.

With young children I often think of their natural play preferences as being either in the storytelling or the engineering camp. Story-tellers prefer toys like Playmobil where they can play with characters who develop personalities and have long, involved adventures. Engineers prefer toys like Lego, where the challenge is in assembling constructions and experimenting with different designs. Of course there's plenty of overlap. You can tell stories with Lego characters, and you can build and rebuild unique arrays of Playmobil, but overall the focus of the toys is more in one camp or the other.

Erin, Noah and Sophie spent years as committed storytellers. The Lego that we once owned was so little used that it was eventually given away. They once spent a glorious hour and a half engaged in story-based play with only a small strip of green paper and an unsharpened pencil. During one snowbound family retreat weekend in a cramped cabin they created an incredible imaginary world out of six balloons and a spiral staircase. Yes, they pulled the hair, beards and attire off the Playmobil guys, reassembling them in crazy ways, but there were always stories that accompanied the reassembly. There was some strange reason why the queen was now practically naked, carrying a sword and wearing monk's sandals.

Our toy collection is reasonably scanty for being almost 14 years into the child-wrangling racket with children who learn at home too. We have Brio train stuff (rarely used), Elenco SnapCircuits (occasionally used), loads of Playmobil (used extensively for many years, but not so much any more), K'nex (used in spurts, though less than Playmobil) and not much else. A few stuffed animals, some dress-up stuff, and a bunch of board games and math manipulatives, including the pattern blocks shown above. Noah bought himself a remote control car a couple of years ago. But other than the Playmobil and K'nex, my kids are not really very toy-oriented. They put far more energy into their imaginary world (Euwy World, which required no toys at all) than they ever did into toy play. They were very much storytellers, so much so that a couple of years ago we were able to put together an entire radio show on the topic (27 MB and non-streaming, I'm afraid, so be patient).

Eventually, though, my kids will begin to outgrow Euwy World. These days I see very clearly where Erin's storytelling predilections have moved -- into her writing and her musical expressiveness. It's harder to see where Noah is moving, and I suppose only time will tell how my younger storytellers will grow.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Fiona's cabled sweater

It took me almost 9 years. I knitted it in Child's 5/6, intended for Erin, who now wears a Women's 6. It got a little more than half finished and languished through the years when I didn't have enough arms and laps for looking after my children, let alone for knitting. A couple of months ago, inspired by the Ravelry website, I pulled it out of the depths of a closet and set to work finishing it for Fiona.

Here it is, finished well before my mental deadline of her 5th birthday. It's a little large -- perfect for my growing girl. At least, I hope she's growing, because it sure is getting to be a pain for her still to be playing a sixteenth-sized violin and closing in on Suzuki Book 3!

Sophie's sweater is being cast on tonight, and the yarn for Noah's sweater is in the mail. Let's hope I manage to maintain my knitting momentum.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Homeschool beginnings 3

The year Erin was, by virtue of her early birthday, still a pre-Kindergartener, I began a secret thought-experiment with homeschooling. I changed nothing about how I interacted with her. I did not go out and buy a curriculum or start trying to teach her according to some external agenda about what almost-5-year-olds should be learning. It was a thought-experiment. I just changed the way I thought about what was happening, not the happening itself.

Privately I did a few things. I joined the regional homeschool association. Newsletters started showing up in the mail -- tangible evidence of my interest in homeschooling. I was able to see that, while the homeschooling network in the area was mostly located an hour and a half away, it seemed to be full of innovative, free-thinking and largely unschooling families.

I read a few books. "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto was one of the first, but I followed that with "Better Than School" by Nancy Wallace and "The Three R's at Home" by Susan and Howard Richman (now best available in on-line format here) and two or three books by John Holt. And I read about 30 back-issues of "Growing Without Schooling", the now-defunct unschooling magazine published by Holt and friends.

I began journaling. I started jotting down observations about what Erin was focusing on, and what I was seeing. I began to realize that while she had long absolutely refused to perform on command, sensitive low-key observation would give me a few pieces of the puzzle of her evolving learning. I couldn't ever know exactly where she was at, but if I was patient eventually there would be a little piece of evidence that would present itself and I'd realize "well, she's somehow learned ___." Her reading was a case in point. There was a little evidence when she was a young three that she was cracking the code of written language, but there was absolutely no 'working with her' or 'watching her skills evolve.' She was totally private in her learning, until finally at age 4 and 3/4 she read one book aloud to me, fluently and with expression, and at at least a 3rd-grade level. And that was that. For eighteen months up to that point all I'd been able to say was that she had been able to read isolated phonetic words of 3 to 6 letters at age 3. Finally I was shown another piece of the puzzle. Through my journaling I saw this pattern in her, and found a way to collect puzzle pieces and put them on display for myself.

I began posting some of my musings and photos and observations on a webpage. I built the page mostly for myself. I said "What if I wanted to sell this homeschooling idea to someone like myself? How would I spin the happenings around here to make them sound like an impressive educational program?" If extended family and friends were impressed, so much the better, but I didn't make the effort to point anyone to my website. With Chuck I was casually evasive. I'd muttered things like "well, I'm starting to think maybe about the possibility of perhaps not putting Erin in kindergarten next year, because she's still so reserved."

By springtime that year we'd begun to hang out a little with like-minded families of similarly-aged children. This meant travelling to the nucleus of homeschooling activities in our region, but that was fine. There was a great group of six or eight families with kids on the cusp of school-age who were "thinking about homeschooling" and exploring social connections and activities that weren't necessary geared to school readiness. Erin connected with those kids in ways she didn't seem to as well in our community. The photo above is from a cold early spring day at the beach in 1999. She had only met those children a couple of times before. She was deadly shy in most situations, but felt comfortable enough with them to romp around in the woods and engage in joyful story-telling and imaginary play about dragons. That's her cherubic intent little face in the centre facing the camera. She's the one telling a story and the other kids are listening. What a difference from her demeanour at preschool!

That photo was it for me. It said to me "she will be fine if she doesn't go to school." It told me that she could still have a playful enjoyable childhood with other children for friends, that she could be happy and comfortable in groups, that there wasn't going to be anything crucial missing from her life if she didn't go to school. I guess I'm a visual learner.

We never really did make a decision to homeschool. My maybe-possibly-might-perhaps thoughts on keeping her out of school for kindergarten became probably-mostly-likely thoughts. I think Chuck likely would have gone all pale and twitchy if I'd told him we were going to have four kids and none of them were going to go school. Ever. Because I would facilitate their education organically at home. Truth be told, that thought would have turned me all pale and twitchy too. But to him, to me, and to our ever-respectful non-interfering extended family, our plan at the end of that year was acceptable. We had this super shy kid who was academically extremely precocious and we were going skip kindergarten, putting off school entry for another year. And in the meantime we'd hooked up with a network of other families with kids who were homeschooled, and we had some activities and group opportunities lined up to expand her social horizons.

I was telling people we were putting school off for another year. But by the fall of her actual kindergarten year, I no longer believed my own propaganda. I knew unschooling was going to continue to be the right thing for us for the longer term. And that year I was on a mission to make school seem an awkward, illogical and unnecessary option.

Rinky challenges

There are few things as magical as a backyard rink on a mountainous rural property flanked by mature evergreen forest. Especially late at night, with a warm fire, pyjamas, hot chocolate and a readaloud story awaiting. This I know.

This I forget: building a rink here stinks. Every year I forget.

Challenge #1. BC weather. We get proper winter here, but we don't get long stretches of deep cold that making freezing a rink quick and easy. Nights regularly get to -10 C but often days reach to or above the freezing point.

Challenge #2. Our yard is not level. Three or four inches off level would be manageable, but the 30 cm (12") difference we're dealing with from the high to the low corners of the yard is a huge challenge. We have to flood until things start to overflow, then stop, wait for a freeze, and then build up a snow-and-ice dam along the low edge. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Challenge #3. Our rink liner is full of very small holes. We try to patch them, but there are always some miniscule ones we miss. Even a very small hole can empty an entire rink over the course of a warm-ish 24 hours -- or prevent the water from staying in in the first place. Deer wander through our property every day, and they don't see the rink liner as off-limits. Deer have hooves. Even if we patch all the holes, many new ones inevitably appear each year.

Challenge #4. Our water pressure is very low and therefore water flow through a hose is insufficient for 'spraying' a rink. The water dribbles out the hose. That's it. It takes many many hours to fill a rink. We love that we're on our own gravity-fed water system, reliant on neither a public utility nor electric pump. But my oh my, the flow is slow.

Challenge #5. We have no garage. We have no 'dirty' area of the house that is somewhat protected from the weather in which to store a hose so that it remains unclogged by ice. So every time the hose is retired from its labouriously intermittent job of filling the rink, it needs to be carefully and painstakingly drained of every last drop of water.

Challenge #6. Our outdoor tap is a long way away from the rink. Meaning we have to use a very very long amalgam of hoses to reach from tap to rink. Making the draining of said hose a prolonged and not-always successful endeavour. Already this year we've had to pull all 100 feet of hose into the house to thaw an iced-up clog.

Challenge #7. Our outdoor tap is subject to freezing up. It's on a standing pipe, coming right out of the ground. There's a funky stop-and-waste valve well below ground level that you access with a long tool by reaching it down a long blind tube. Supposedly this clears the standing tap of water each time you use it and prevents freeze-up. Not always successful. Twice already we've been out with blowtorch and block-heater attempting to thaw the standing pipe.

So why do I attempt this every year? Well, because there are few things as magical as a backyard rink on a mountainous rural property flanked by mature evergreen forest. Especially late at night, with a warm fire, pyjamas, hot chocolate and a readaloud story awaiting.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Multi-tasking 101

As I sit here simultaneously blogging and roasting coffee, I thought it appropriate to share this photo of another multi-tasking feat, one I engage in every evening. On my lap is a book. The pages are held flat by a piece of plexiglass. The plexiglass has a little lip on it which has proved to be particularly convenient as it helps prevent it from sliding off the book. The plexiglass is actually from an old IKEA recipe book holder we never used -- just something that was lying around waiting to be recycled into something new. I discovered this new use a month or two ago.

Above my lap and tucked in close to my tummy so as not to obscure my view of the book is my knitting. Right now it's Fiona's sweater, now back on the front burner of my knitting life. Less than half a sleeve plus a neckband to go.

To turn the pages of the book I need to set my knitting down for a second, lift the plexiglass slightly and slip a page over. If I were reading to myself, that would be necessary too frequently to be enjoyable. But when I'm reading aloud my speed is slower and the pace of page-turning is manageable. My knitting is slower too, but that's okay. It's about the journey as much as the destination, right?

A hidden bonus of the knitting-with-plexiglass-enabled-reading-aloud is that I'm considerably less likely to fall asleep. My kids stay up very late, and often their readaloud story time is well beyond the hour when I should have found my own pillow. I used to fall asleep a lot while reading. Most of the time my words would just gradually grind to a halt. Sophie would nudge me the first few times. Then her nudges would become swats. But sometimes sillier things would happen -- I'd begin inserting words and phrases out of my hypnagogic brain salad, bizarre nonsensical things. Like I once substituted the clause "sugar and spice" for something about a meal in a serious historical adventure tale of some sort. I had no memory of actually having spoken the the words, only a fleeting memory of having heard them. Knowing it was my own voice I'd heard, I jerked myself awake and asked the kids "did I just say 'sugar and spice'?" and they said yes and start laughing their heads off.

So that doesn't seem to happen when I'm knitting, and that's a good thing. And Fiona's sweater is gradually getting finished. Another good thing. It's almost time to cast on for Sophie's, and I just ordered yarn for Noah's. Fortunately I'm sure we'll continue our nightly readaloud tradition and so the needles will keep clicking.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Foaming gizmo

I do love my coffee. I now buy Central American virtuous (fair trade, co-op grown, organic) beans, inexpensive because I home-roast them, so I appease my guilt with that. And I drink more than 50% decaf. Still, I love my coffee. Probably too much for my own good.

I had been lusting after an espresso machine. Mostly because I wanted to be able to create foamy milk. My amazing husband ferreted out a little gizmo that I didn't even know existed. Its sole purpose is to heat and foam milk for people like me. People who like the look and feel of latte-look coffee, but who don't necessarily need the extra kick of espresso shots, people who have children who love milk steamers in various flavours, people who loved playing with the magnetic stirrers in the organic chemistry lab at university.

This little device doesn't use pressured steam to foam milk like an espresso machine does. Instead it has a miniature coil whisk which spins in the bottom of a small stainless jug. The jug heats a quarter to half cup of milk in about a minute, almost silently, whilst stirring and foaming the milk via a magnet which spins beneath the inner jug. It's small and efficient and works beautifully.

Christmas gifts

I'm thinking a lot today about our Christmas gift-giving. Partly because I've been making the rounds of blogs and message boards and reading posts from people about what their kids got, and partly because I'm just thinking about whether we're going the in the right direction in our own family.

One thing that has been a source of disappointment is how little initiative my kids take in the gift-giving department. For a few years they were part of a wonderful art class and they would magically arrive home a week or so before Christmas with a bundle of secretly-made arts and crafts which they would wrap and distribute to family and friends. But art class hasn't happened for a couple of years, and nothing seems to have replaced it. Noah talked briefly about doing a couple of things (whittling, building websites for people) but nothing much transpired. Sophie knit a bunch of korknisse one night but while she enthusiastically played along, most of the initiative came from me. Fiona made a papercraft thingy for Sophie a few weeks ago, but then her standards changed and she decided she didn't like it enough and it was thrown out before it was given.

Some of the kids participated willingly in working on things I was making. And they did do some charitable giving from their allowance savings. But there seemed to be no significant self-motivated desire to create or buy gifts on their own. Maybe I'm wrong to be expecting this interest to surface naturally in children. Maybe I take too much control over family gift-giving, too much ownership of the whole event (even though what I do seems pretty minimal to me). Maybe they need more guidance rather than less? Some help with brainstorming and planning?

Gift-giving here is pretty minimal these days. Maybe too minimal. The "kids' computer" (which not all of them use on a regular basis) received an upgrade to monitor and motherboard. Each of the children were given under $100 worth of gifts in addition to that (except Sophie, who got a much-needed wool mattress topper that was a bit pricier), and there was Khet, the new family game. We don't do a big extended-family gift exchange -- just a few simple things between a small number of families. In our parental gifts I've loosely aspired to the "something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read" guideline, but the "something to wear" end of things got overlooked this year, because the kids seem to have lots of clothes (mostly thrift-shop things, but still...) and seem to like to wear the same grubby things day after day anyway.

Of course there's also the issue of how much we buy for the kids during the year. And I'll admit that especially since we don't have a public library to use and we get a Learning Allowance through the homeschool program the middle kids are part of, we spend a lot of money on books. Art and craft supplies are the other big expenditures from the Learning Allowances. Birthday gifts are just as minimal as Christmas, but there are a lot of things we buy through the year without thinking twice. Last year we bought two sleds (we were parking at the top of the driveway and used them for getting groceries down to the house, but still), some skates for Erin, XC ski boots for the kids who had outgrown their old ones, a violin for the now-adult-sized violinist, a music stand so Sophie could practice in her room, a new winter jacket for another growing kid, a soccer ball, a couple of DVDs, and assorted bits of clothing.

Because we live outside most of the reach of consumer culture, we aren't subject to a lot of the social acquisitional pressures that families elsewhere are. We have one small TV, no game systems, no DVD player in the van, no cellphones (yet!), no Lego Mindstorms (no Lego at all, actually) or designer-label clothes except what happened to be at the thrift shops. It's been years since I've bought anything significant I'd describe as a toy.

I guess the bottom line is that my kids are not terribly stuff-oriented, and that's fine. Yesterday they got a book, three or four smallish gifts they liked, a family game and an bookstore gift certificate to share, and they ate lots of good food. Their computer will be happier once the upgrades are complete (and the new monitor is running now and is nice!). And they're not disappointed. Our ecological footprint has been kept somewhat in check and our bank account isn't showing any strain. I should count my blessings.

Still, I wish I had more of a sense of how to nurture the impulse to create and give in my kids, especially in the elder two who are perfectionistic procrastinators and who do not like to participate in collaborative endeavours.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Smithy sign

This is the sign the kids and I made for Chuck's new blacksmith shop. I was thrilled that I had lots of help with this endeavour. Noah researched and downloaded the font for me, and the younger two were especially enthusiastic with the painting. Fiona did a fair bit of the black edging (with masking tape to guide) as well as filling in the anvil. Sophie was mostly in charge of the flames, which you can see well if you click to view the full-sized image. For my part, besides painting the lettering, I managed both a jigsaw and a router unassisted and unmentored, with passable results.

It's double-sided, painted on cedar and spar-varnished for outdoor use, so we're hoping some sort of forged steel arm will soon suspend it over the door of the shop.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The tenth hour

Not the eleventh hour, but close. I finished Chuck's Christmas Socks at 10 pm on Christmas Eve. They're made of an alpaca blend and feel heavy and durable as well as warm and snug. Hopefully not too snug -- there's some tencel in the blend and they're not as elastic as I'd hoped.

I knit them on size 0 needles (2 mm) and they have a multitudinous 80 stitches per round. I did some math and calculated the number of stitches somewhere in the region of 14,000 per sock. At three seconds per stitch (probably not a bad estimate with all the ribbing and needle-switching and heel-turning) that works out to 23.4 hours of knitting. For a pair of socks. How silly is that?


We seem to have a fondness for family board games played in relative darkness with small sources of light part the the strategic gameplay. Khet seems destined to be another favourite. This was our Christmas Eve game this year.

Basic Khet is played with four types of gamepieces. Almost every piece shares the same two basic moves. Where they differ is in their reflective capacity. Djeds reflect the light at 90-degree angles from both sides, pyramids do the same from only one side. Obelisks block light. The pharoah is the "king" of Khet, naturally, and the aim of the game is to protect him from being hit with the laser beam that originates in the corner of the board and bounces off the various pyramids and djeds. The expansion set adds two "Eye of Horus" beamsplitters. These split the laser beam, transmitting one part of it straight through and relecting another portion just like a djed.

This game taps into visual-spatial, logic and strategic skills in a huge way. My kids all seem to have a lot of these things, so, combined with the dark and the lasers, the game seems likely to get plenty of play, both according to the rules and outside-the-box-wise.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lessons and Carols

Today was the ecumenical "Festival of Lessons and Carols" hosted by one of the churches in a nearby community. With communities so small, church congregations are tiny and church choirs almost non-existent, so aside from congregational carol-singing, the music is provided by small instrumental ensembles. For years I was part of this service. This year, apparently, my services were not required.

Erin and her quartet played instead. They did a pretty good job on a bunch of repertoire they'd thrown together with only a handful of short rehearsals. With all the candles the temperature inside the church was much more amenable to stringed instrument playing than at their last gig.

This is our little dose of formal Christianity each Christmas. The service is lovely. First there's some introductory music (Corelli's "Christmas Concerto" in this case), a welcoming poem and prayer. Then follow ten separate Old and New Testament readings which tell the story of the birth of Christ, interspersed with carols and instrumental music which relate to these specific parts of the story. Finally there is a candle-lighting ceremony, congregational singing on "Silent Night" and a last prayer. Five or six different small churches take part, with elders or pastors from the different congregations doing the Lesson readings. The reception afterwards is overflowing with yummy food -- and it's all vegetarian because it's held at the Adventist Church!

Erin is leading so well now. Her quartet needs strong leadership and she is not afraid to give it. The results are getting more and more impressive.

The only down-side was the driving. I don't generally relish driving 30 miles of lonely winding mountain highway in a snowstorm. Still, the calm and warmth of the service, and the lovely music my kid contributed, made it worth it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Homeschool beginnings 2

While I had never in a million years considered homeschooling before we moved to our little town and began watching our unique little girl grow into her own person, in retrospect I can see the seeds of the idea that were planted in my mind. People who seemed to like me and understand me began asking if I was planning to homeschool. Local teacher-friends began saying little things that made me realize Erin was not your typical preschooler and was not going to be a natural fit for the school system. And then there was my little girl herself, merrily exploring all sorts of primary-school math concepts and reading her way toward young adult literature, yet not at all comfortable with being away from her parents or opening her mouth outside her own home. She was fiercely private and autonomy-driven, but was quickly mastering the fine art of blending in in public. What an odd bundle of contradictions she was!

But everyone sent their kids to school, and school was a good thing, wasn't it? I was the product of years of mostly-successful schooling. As a 5-year-old I'd started school a capable reader at a new public school of young teachers enthusiastically thinking outside the box, still under the influence of the idealistic 1960's. I'd had a couple of great elementary school teachers, been given some unique opportunities and been magically accelerated through material and grades. Even though I would describe my junior high and highschool education as pretty dismal, I'd had my music studies to sustain me and had managed to learn how to play the game of keeping schoolteachers reasonably happy in time to graduate with a decent transcript. A switch from music performance to medicine in university stoked my interest in academic achievement and I had done well by any measure. I was a schooling success story, I suppose, and despite a certain lurking cynicism, I hadn't really ever questioned to necessity of schooling. Homeschooling wasn't on my radar.

Serendipity conspired to put it there. I had received a series of persistent and persuasive phone calls from a mom of two girls who had been Suzuki violin students until their recent move to our rural area. She'd heard through the grapevine that I had grown up a Suzuki violin student and had done some teacher-training in the past. I finally agreed to do my best nurturing them along on violin, and they began coming for weekly lessons in my living room. It turned out they were homeschooling. I was curious about it and asked what it was like and how it worked for them. "Oh it's great," S. said. "It works well for us. The trick for me is to have a schoolroom and to set time aside for it. Not like those unschoolers," she said, with a sigh and a slightly disparaging tone. It was the first time I had heard the word.

Around the same time I also got involved in a string quartet. The violist's 11-year-old daughter was often at our rehearsals. It turned out she was homeschooled to. It didn't come up for discussion much, but ultimately her daughter was exhibit A in the case for unschooling. She was shy but self-confident, had unique interests, and was clearly knowledgeable, curious and optimistic about the world. She was her own quirky self, and felt absolutely good about it. Her mom, my quartet-mate, was also beginning to teach Suzuki violin at the time, and we had a few discussions about the Suzuki approach. I think she recognized that the things that I believed so strongly about the Suzuki philosophy were the same things that made me an undeclared unschooler -- a strong belief and trust in every child's ability to learn, the importance of a nurturing environment, the primacy of the parent-child relationship in learning, and the ultimate goal of education -- the development of a fine and sensitive human spirit. The only time I recall homeschooling coming up as a topic for discussion was when she quipped "oh Miranda, you're a dyed-in-the-wool unschooler, you just don't know it yet."

Erin had an early birthday, barely into the New Year, meaning that she had just missed the cutoff (Dec. 31) for kindergarten the fall she was four-and-a-half. She would be a solid five-and-a-half years old before she was eligible for public school. More serendipity. I was given an extra year for the seeds of the homeschooling idea to germinate.

I had no idea that they'd even been planted, those seeds, but they had clearly been germinating for a while because one day one of them popped up through the soil of my consciousness, green and eager. I'd become part of an motley classical music ensemble that was calling itself a Community Orchestra, and one of the members, a french horn player, was a female GP from a neighbouring community. I had worked a couple of very short-term locums for her over the previous year or two, and she was continually working on her plan that I would begin working some regular part-time hours at her clinic, thus allowing her to cut back on her own drastically over-stretched clinic schedule. She had taken to teasing me about my layabout stay-at-home mom lifestyle. "Come on Miranda," she said, "those kids will be in school soon, and then what will be your excuse?"

"Actually," I retorted, "have I mentioned I'm hoping to homeschool them?"

Where did that come from? I wondered to myself as soon as the words popped out. Was that a flippant comeback to Diana's teasing? Maybe it was that, but I knew it wasn't just that. It was a secret wish that had been growing inside me that I wasn't yet brave enough to speak aloud except in jest. It marked the beginning of a realization -- I was indeed thinking about this, and seriously.

Somewhere over the course of the next couple of months I began to think of Erin's Extra Bonus Preschool Year as a secret thought-experiment I was conducting. I would pretend to myself that this was actually her Kindergarten year, and that we were unschooling, and I would see how it went. Maybe if it went well, I'd start feeling comfortable about sharing my secret thoughts.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I love these guys

Only the video camera managed to get to the school Christmas concert, and it only managed to peek through a few heads in the audience for half a minute or so, so this is the best photo I have to share, but it'll suffice. This is the Slocan Community Intergenerational String Orchestra -- or part of the second and third violin sections. Allow me to enumerate the ages of the players shown from left to right here: 12, 70+, 60-ish, 8, 80+ and 9.

How privileged I feel to be the one waving a stick around at the helm of this ship! The orchestra began about 12 years ago, initially as an undirected inclusively symphonic ensemble of a dozen or so players, including tenor sax, a cello, three or four violins and a couple of brass instruments. Gradually interest grew until we were up to twenty or more, and experiencing a vast leadership void. We tried taking turns conducting and arranging and making repertoire choices, but eventually I somewhat reluctantly took up a semi-permanent residence on the podium. The music-arranging was a nightmare, with far too many brass, far too many treble-clef instruments, with transcriptions required for E-flat, F and B-flat instruments. There were totally insurmountable issues of balance. After a hiatus year I declared around the time Sophie was born, I reconstituted the orchestra as a string ensemble, thus saving my sanity. I was sorry to have to exclude our half dozen loyal and enthusiastic brass / wind players, but in the years since a community band has sprung up in a neighbouring community and that's a good thing.

So starting about 8 years ago, our rural community of 1000 has built up a string orchestra. Up and up. It's getting a little bigger every year, and better too! We have adult amateurs getting their instruments out of their closets and dusting them off, serious adult students, lapsed professionals, string teachers and kids of various ages and stages from about 8 on up.

Generally speaking the shorter people sit closer to the front, and we try to put less experienced members beside someone who is more secure. We always play some easier pieces and some more challenging ones, rehearsing in ascending order of difficulty, allowing less experienced members to slip out part-way through the rehearsal, once the music is over their heads. We try to offer solo opportunities around, including the chance to perform concerto movements with orchestral accompaniment.

There are now three of my own children in the front row of the orchestra. My mom sits in the next row. There are a couple of retired schoolteachers and a couple of current schoolteachers, homeschoolers and schoolchildren. And miscellaneous adults of all description.

We have such fun. There's a friendly rivalry that goes on between the violinists (especially Erin and her stand-mate J.) and the violists (principally Noah these days). There's a similar bit of banter that goes on between the cellos and the rest of the orchestra -- we pretend to be sorry about saying that the cellos are too loud and there are too many of them, but make it clear we aren't really sorry! There are times when the Burkholder kids pick on their mom, sometimes aided and abetted (or even led) by their grandmother. There are times when I tease my mom, poking fun at her uncompromising musical standards, and her students young and old enjoy this as much as she enjoys helping them gang up on me. There are no egos at stake in this orchestra. We leave our hang-ups at home and we are all there to have fun by learning to play together to higher and higher standards. We have found an amazing balance between silly fun and hard work.

What I love most is that there is no divide between the children and adults, between the less advanced and more advanced, between the school-types and the confirmed unschoolers. We are all there as musical peers to support each other and the cohesive growth of the orchestra. I couldn't dream a better community musical endeavour to be part of. I am in awe of this lovely group of human beings.

We have the full support of the local K-12 school, rehearsing in the evenings in their lovely open library area and being invited year after year to be part of their Christmas concert. Last night we opened the show with and arrangement of the lovely contemporary Jewish New Year tune "Bashana Haba'ah". Next we played a terrific setting of the Wexford Carol by Anne McGuinty, and finished up with the Pastorale from Corelli's Christmas Concerto. The local audience of school-parents, school-children and grandparents aren't the ones who tend to come to other string performances, so this is our chance to impress them, and we seem to do that just fine. They are very appreciative and we always feel very supported by our community public school. For a confirmed homeschooler, I sure love our local school a lot.

A pretty good math-er

Erin had a friend, another young unschooled teen, staying over last night after our community orchestra performance. In the late evening we were all sitting around the fire reading, chatting, knitting, whatever. Fiona decided to do some math. She's almost done the Miquon Red book now and was working through a page of combined multiplication and division. There were a lot of answers that were 12 in the first half of the page. She noticed how many there were and counted them up. "Wow, that's a lot of 12's. Ten 12's."

The general conversation around the fire went on for a moment. Erin's friend J. was talking about something or other.

"That's ten 2's more than a hundred," a little voice piped up. J. stopped talking and looked at Fiona.

"Ten 2's is twenty," continued the little voice. "So, a hundred plus twenty, that's a hundred and twenty."

J's eyes bugged out. "Wow," she said, "I could do that easily, but I'd still have to think about it. And I don't know anyone who could have done that when they were four."

"Well, I'm a pretty good math-er," explained Fiona.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Seed crackers

These were originally a plainer twice-baked seeds-and-grains cracker modelled on Lesley Stowe's Raincoast Crisps by an on-line friend of mine who lived in California and couldn't buy the originals there. I took her recipe and adapted it several times over, creating different variations. My favourite variation has the green pumpkin seeds and also adds dried cranberries for a festive red for Christmas time, combined with rosemary. The second baking takes time and oven space, but really, it's a blissfully easy recipe. I often make great batches of these crackers at this time of year for potlucks, Christmas gifts, or post-concert receptions.

Don't overwhelm these crackers with a zesty cheese spread or antipasto. They're great on their own, though they'll keep good company with mild cheeses. They also work really well as a gourmet accompaniment to fairly bland potato-vegetable type soups.

Cranberry-Rosemary Seed Crackers

2 cups (500 ml) whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp. (30 ml) flax seeds
2 Tbsp. (30 ml) sesame seeds
2 Tbsp. (30 ml) millet
1 cup (250 ml) pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup (125 ml) sunflower seeds
1 tsp. (5 ml) salt
2 tsp. (10 ml) crushed dried rosemary
1/4 cup (60 ml) brown sugar
2 tsp. (10 ml) baking soda
2 cups (500 ml) soured milk
1 cup (250 ml) dried cranberries ("craisins")
1/4 cup (60 ml) molasses

Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir the milk and molasses together. Pour the wet stuff on the dry stuff and stir it up. Turn into two very small greased loaf pans. Bake at 350 F for 50-60 minutes. Cool slightly, remove from pans and cool almost to room temperature on rack. Wrap cooled loaves in waxed paper or foil, or else place in a sealed container, and refrigerate overnight.

Unwrap the next morning and preheat oven to 250 F. Slice the loaves as thinly as you can manage using a bread knife. Lay the slices on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with additional salt to taste and bake/dry at 200F until crisp (about 45 minutes, depending on how thick your slices are: turning them over halfway through the drying time may help speed the process).

Store in sealed containers in a cool dry place for up to 3 weeks.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Baking

Our family seems to have developed a strongly entrenched tradition of Christmas baking. There's an expectation that we'll spend the weeks from late November to mid-December putting by double batches of at least six or eight recipes. There were years early on when I actually had the time. Lately I've been very grateful for the kids' assistance. This year it feels like we've cut corners. We haven't yet got around to the cashew brittle, and we've entirely dispensed with gingerbread and fruitcakes. But yesterday Sophie had trouble finding an empty tin for the last of the almond crescents, so I guess we've done okay . Here's what's in our cupboard:

Chocolate truffles
Chocolate rum balls
Chocolate-coated mint nougat
Christmas Strawberries (these are so gross, but the kids insist)
Candied fruit peel
Almond crescents
Orange shortbread
Seed crackers (these are divine -- I'll post the recipe soon)

Today was our Ethnic Cooking "Kitchen Club". We decided to visit Germany in the Christmas spirit. With vegetarians amongst us, focusing on Christmas baking whilst learning about German cooking seemed a good hedge. Schnitzel was unnecessary. We threw together an ordinary soup and salad for lunch, and spent the morning making our treats. Of course, we needed some glühwein to go along with it:


2 bottles of inexpensive dry red wine
3 cups of water
1 cup of sugar
1 lemon, thinly sliced
20 cloves
7 sticks of cinnamon

For full alcoholic punch, add the wine at the very end, just before serving, and just warm gently. If alcohol isn't the point, as it wasn't for us, mull everything together in a pot for 45-60 minutes, at a gentle simmer. Serve in mugs.

Pictured above, clockwise from right are Pfeffernuesse, Basler Leckerli (actually Swiss-German, but close, right?) and [Italian] chocolate almond biscotti, which we renamed biskotten in honour of the day. We doubled the black pepper in the pfeffernuesse and wished we'd added a bit more still. But they're very yummy and may join our roster of annual Christmas baking. We finished up with marzipan, made from fresh raw almonds, lovingly blanched and hand-peeled by Sophie and me last night, which was utilized by the kids mostly as edible playdough.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Homeschool beginnings 1

Erin, age 4, reading from an Eyewitness bookTonight Fiona's reading is showing evidence of having jumped some significant hurdle. She is on her way to fluency I think. When she figures out a word, whether on her own or with help, the learning sticks and she generalizes it to similar words. It's a snowball effect. Last week the first set of Bob books suddenly became easy for her. This week she's making her way through "Frog and Toad". A huge jump. And that got me thinking about the first time I had a little [even more] precocious reader. There is Erin in the photo, at age 4 3/4, reading her way through a DK Eyewitness book. Nine years ago, almost to the day.

I had no intention of homeschooling my kids. We moved to our little town when Erin was born in part because we'd heard great things about the school and it was my assumption that she would go there. Other people knew better. Two different people, both of whom were new friends but people I felt a real affinity for, asked me out of the blue when she was about a year or two old "so, are you planning to homeschool?" I had absolutely no idea where their questions were coming from, and they couldn't really explain other than to say "well, it just seems like the sort of thing you might do." I thought that was ludicrous. There was a terrific school in our town. Why would we homeschool?

So we put her in preschool. She was shy. This was supposed to help her come out of her shell. She learned to smile and keep a stiff upper lip and was mutely co-operative and sweet-looking. She followed directions and was quiet and predictable. She seemed bright enough even if she didn't talk, and the staff loved her. When I asked her what she thought of it, she said it was fine. Her only complaint was that "it takes up too much of my learning time." By this she meant the time that she liked to spend at home reading, doing various projects (she was in the midst of a geography obsession) and practicing violin. Oddly enough she told me that her favourite time was circle time. That was an unexpected choice, since I knew she mostly preferred to be by herself and disliked large-group anything. It wasn't until months later, after she'd stopped attending, that she explained that she liked circle time because it was the last part of the preschool routine before outside play, at which point she knew she could expect me to arrive for pickup at any time. It indicated that her misery and stress would end soon, that was all. But she didn't tell me that at the time, because she knew she was supposed to be liking preschool. Gosh she tried hard to do so.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. She seemed to cope just fine and I didn't have a clue how difficult it was for her to go and appear cheerful and comfortable and to try to do as expected. In retrospect the one good thing that came out of preschool was that I saw she could cope with school if she had to. And so if we chose not to have her there, it wasn't because she "couldn't hack it," it was just that we'd chosen something different.

Because gradually it became clear that she did not truly enjoy preschool, even though she was trying hard to make it look like she did, because she knew she was supposed to. She had a terrible phase just before her fifth birthday. Stuff was falling into place like crazy in her brain and there were lots of changes -- she'd suddenly leapt to reading at a very high level with complete fluency, her violin playing had taken off in a big way, she'd learned to ride a bike, and she had a new baby sister. She was staying up very late, getting up in the middle of night, listening to music at 3 a.m., even when I asked her repeatedly not to. She was testy and volatile during the day. Preschool, which she'd endured uncomplainingly for more than a year, suddenly didn't seem worth enduring any more. She complained more and more about going, about the time it took up, about the unpredictable and aggressive behaviour of the other children.

As a mom of three kids under five, getting a reluctant four-year-old night-owl out the door for 9 a.m. preschool began to slip to the bottom of my priority list. She attended less and less, and became more and more reluctant. What she really wanted to do was read and read and read. At preschool they were concerned that all she did during her time there was look at books. I pointed out that she was reading fluently, hence her interest in books, and their response was to bring in a set of alphabet letters and attempt to test her mastery of the alphabet. She stared them down, stony and mute. At home she was delving into the second Harry Potter book but she didn't want to perform for anyone.

That same fall we went to have a social dinner with the family of two of my Suzuki violin students. He was principal of the local K-12 school and she was the Grade 2 teacher there. They knew Erin from Suzuki group classes. "My gosh," they commented, after listening to her talk, watching her read and then seeing her assemble some of their son's Meccano by following the schematics. "What are we going to do with a kid like this? Do you ever wonder?" We, meaning the school.

I hadn't wondered much, but I began.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Laundry day

Arghh, I've used the clothes-dryer twice in the past month! Once was almost excusable -- it was the first major washing of all our yummy-soft but oh-so-linty new organic cotton bath towels. But the other time was nothing more than poor planning, laziness and a case of old habits dying hard.

So today is laundry day and I will use the airers. If I'm careful, I can get the better part of two extra-large loads hung indoors. The piano and the stringed instruments like the extra humidity, and with the wood stove things dry quickly.

Two and a half years ago I installed my first laundry airer. I bought it from 1898 House, though there is now a Canadian source of these as well. I've been very happy with that first airer, but when I decided to expand my indoor drying capacity I opted not to spend $100 a second time. Instead I spent $10 on two pulleys, and $12 on some nice walnut-finish wooden hangers. I used a scrap of trim wood, a drill with a 1/4" bit and in no time I had a shirt-dryer with a pretty large capacity for its size. Shirts seemed to take up a disproportionate amount of space on the rack-style commercial airer, and dangling hangers off it turned it into an unwieldy monolith. So my second airer is entirely home-made and dedicated to shirts.

Once this is full of damp shirts, I hoist it to the ceiling and the laundry is out of sight as it dries. I should probably go and do that right now, but I'm savouring my coffee-and-computer time. Yesterday was declared a Screen-Free Day and I missed my morning ritual. Instead yesterday I had to knit, read to myself ("The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups" by David Ansel) and aloud to Fiona ("Squids Will Be Squids" by Jon Scieszka). The rest of the day somehow filled up with flour-milling, bread-baking, soup-cooking, more knitting, family games, practicing, more reading aloud, mathematicking with Fiona and attending Sophie's children's choir concert. No laundry got done though. Must go fill laundry airers.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas choir

We all went to the concert and listened to the first half dozen songs. Then I left. She sang. I returned. Under the floodlights she'd been unable to see whether I'd left or not. I could have stayed. Ah, well, I did the honourable thing. Anyone in the audience who saw me leaving likely thought I was being a terribly unsupportive parent, but there you are. I'm told she sang beautifully. I could hear a little through the wall. It sure didn't sound like my kid, but there's no doubt it was. A big strong confident voice. From the one who didn't speak more than a few words in public until she was at least 8. Afterwards there were lots of hugs from fellow choir members and the director. My unhuggable kid. Not so much anymore.

Choir resumes mid-March. "What will I do with my life until March?" she asks. Her friend S., the only other teen in the choir, commiserates. S. will graduate from the local high school this spring and return to Japan. I know Erin will miss her, but I also know that she has many other friends in the choir and she will still love it.

Last night Erin played the Preludio from the Bach E Major Partita for my aunt and uncle who are visiting from Australia. My mom and I had to agree after hearing her -- she now plays it better than either of us do. And I think it's official now that she has more friends in this little town than I do. She's got the whole danged choir for starters. I think I'm going to have to start to get used to being known as Erin's mom, rather than as myself.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Musical form

Fiona has done all the picky work on Gavotte from Mignon and has most of the teaching points mastered. She can do the slur before the repetitive sixteenth-notes in the D-Major section and the separate bows before the repetitive sixteenth-notes in the B-flat-Major section. She can "tunnel" her F-natural finger on the E-string beneath the D & E-flat 3rd- and 4th-fingers on the A-string, and she can pizz. the chords at the end.

But one of the disadvantages of working through a piece in bits, though this is very necessary in the case of a piece with as many technical points as the infamous "Mignon", is that it can be tough putting all the bits together into a cohesive whole that flows from one bit into the next.

Nothing some scissors and construction paper can't fix, though.

"What colour does the first section make you think of?" I asked, fanning the pad of craft paper for her. She chose a light green. I cut out some rectangular bits. "See, pointy corners for the staccato bows," I told her. "And two sections for the first bit and the last bit," I remarked, notching the larger rectangles, "because you play the section twice, with two different endings those times."

Next we moved on to the D-major section, for which she chose a blue-green paper shaped like a triangle. And the B-flat section was a red circle, because the circle reminded her of a tunnel, and that's where the tunnel-fingers come. I cut a hole in the last green section to represent the surprise bar of rests. I can hold it up and poke my finger through the hole when she reaches the rests in the piece and it makes her giggle every time.

We put the sections in order on the floor, talking about what each one meant. Then I switched two around and challenged her to fix the mistake. Another game involved me holding up a random section's paper symbol and she would be challenged to play the first two notes of that section. At first when she played the piece in toto, I would stop her at the end of section and hold up the cue for the next, reminding her what it stood for and what to think about. Soon she was able to put the sections in order by herself without help, and to play through the piece referring to them visually as she went, without pauses. And slowly she developed a mental image of the sections in order, and could play the piece without actually using the physical objects as a guide.

At her lesson this week we shared our system, and her grandma/teacher decided that we needed something to denote the "coda" on the end of the last section. "It needs a tail," she said. I was, of course, knitting at the time, and Fiona and I knew right away that taping a piece of yarn onto the last piece would do the trick. So our Gavotte from Mignon is now complete with its tail.

With beginners I often use full sheets of paper for this exercise and treat them as stepping stones. The child plays the section denoted by each 'stone' while standing on it, and then pauses and moves to the next stone to play the next section. The pause required for the step gives the parent or teacher the chance to slip in a verbal reminder or a sung cue.

Fiona has finished putting together Lully Gavotte now. She learned this piece much faster, not surprisingly, as it's more straightforward, and is having much less difficulty sorting out the musical form. But I suspect that when we get to Martini Gavotte we will be back to using visual aids. I believe Noah had animal cards for Martini. Erin had an entire necklace of custom-made FIMO beads for all the bits and pieces and repeats for the Gavottes in D that begin book 5. I once did an entire group class focusing on musical form, using Duplo (the giant Lego stuff) to represent sections. Representing musical form in visual symbols, especially when the child's own input guides the process, is fun and very helpful.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Get out of my life

For years I've been claiming that we're not doing adolescence in my family. (Okay, stop snickering.) Now that Erin's almost 14, I'm taking a moment to look at how things are going.

Are we doing adolescence yet? Well, not in the traditional way.

Some things have changed. She showers regularly. That's quite a shift from four years ago when it seemed the only time her body saw water was when we drove to Nelson and used the swimming pool. (And we made a point of going often for that reason!) She does her hair, wears some simple jewelry. She has some nice clothes that make her look like a teen and she wears them comfortably and looks beautiful. She has an iPod loaded with pop music. (As well as Beethoven Symphonies.)

Erin has always had a high need for private time, and she's been given that in spades over the past year or two. And yet she still wants to carve out even more for herself. She wants me "out of her life" in a particular way. What it boils down to is this:

I cannot join "her" choir. It's the community choir, an amazing talented group of adults singing complex four-part choral arrangements, groomed to a high degree of musical polish. I'd love to sing, but she would never let me. It's her thing. They're her friends (one teen, the rest being mostly over 50). She sings her heart out. She giggles with her fellow first sopranos. She loves rehearsals. She enthusiastically memorizes all the music before anyone else. She has been assigned a solo and apparently sings it beautifully -- so they all tell me. But I cannot join her choir. I cannot even arrive early to pick her up, lest I hear some of her rehearsal or see her singing and enjoying herself. In fact, it's much better if I let her get a ride home with Kay or Pat or Kathy and don't pick her up at all. And while I can come to the performance, I must leave during the song that she sings solo in.

The Christmas concert is tomorrow night. I will dutifully absent myself during her solo, just as I did during her solo in Adult Choir at the summer school. I would love to hear her sing. But if this is the sum total of her "get out of my life" rebellion, carving out this lovely social and musical role for herself in a wonderful strong choir of adults in our community, I shall live with the disappointment.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Quoth the homeschoolers

Sometimes I wonder about the socialization my kids are getting. Not that they're not picking up decent social skills, or that they don't get to hang out with other kids, or that they aren't happy. But sometimes I hear things that make me wonder ... they just don't seem like kids their age.

Case in point #1. A 9-year-old girl is unwinding after community orchestra, playing a computer game with her brother. She warns him against something that's likely to cost their character a life. You'd think she'd say "look out, we'll die!" but what comes out of her mouth is

"Beware! We shall perish!"

Stranger still, the warning is not spoken but sung, starting on middle C, with "perish" jumping up the octave to C-above.

Case in point #2. An 11-year-old boy comes into the house from a viola lesson. The minivan was chilly, there's snow blowing between the carport and the house, and on the way through the mudroom he grabs a chilly grapefruit for a snack. You might expect him to be a bit cold, and maybe to say something like "man, I'm cold!" But no, instead he announces, with a dramatic flourish:

"Oh, what coldness life possesses!"

Monday, December 10, 2007

Winter rehearsal

This rehearsal was from a couple of weeks before our performance, not entirely polished, to be sure, and heavily edited in the interest of bandwidth, but it gives you a taste. In the "Largo", the camera pans from Noah to me to my mom Daphne on to Erin and then to J., Erin's close friend and fellow unschooler, who plays this solo. When the Allegro starts, we gain Sophie and two other violinists in the ranks, and Erin takes over solo duties.

Tinkering with code

About a year and a half ago Noah began expressing a persistent desire to learn computer programming. I'd taken some Basic and TurboPascal courses in the past, and done a fair bit of programming back in the 1980's. What Noah wanted to do (make games and in the process come to understand the logic of computer code) was so far removed from the sorts of course-like approaches to line-by-line coding that I had experience with that I didn't quite know where to start.

I found Logo for Microsoft Windows and a free e-book for kids to go along with it. That didn't turn his crank. The book was too cutesy and slow-paced, and the limitations of the programming language were way below what he wanted to be able to do. Next we looked at a number of more robust programming languages. We downloaded demos of things like DarkBasic, which would allow him to build games from scratch using code. The problem here was that the tutorials required going through laborious course-like steps to learn the commands and syntax. This was not, it seems, how he wanted to learn. He didn't want to spend an afternoon reading tutorials so that he could learn how to code a purple square and make it rotate 270 degrees clockwise on the screen. We then looked at a number of game-programming environments. Things like Stagecast Creator or GameMaker, which allow users to create games using a drag-and-drop interface, without the necessity of learning a programming language. A couple of these looked pretty promising, and Noah spent some time tinkering around, trying to decide whether he liked them enough to buy the full version. Apparently he didn't ... most of his interest ran out before the demos did. He reverted to game play on the computer.

There were so many demos and trial versions of so many programs I honestly can't remember most of the names. To him the ones that used drag and drop modules felt like cheating -- they weren't real code, even if they were fun for a while. But the computer languages were too far removed from game play to be motivating for him. He wasn't ready to start at ground level and work his way incrementally up through systematically learning syntax and recursion procedures. I couldn't really find the right approach for him. I had sort of resigned myself to the fact that he needed to be older, to have the self-discipline to take on a course-like approach to learning a language over weeks or months, and then maybe he'd be able to start to get at what he wanted.

The funny thing is that he found his own path a month or two later. He got intrigued with a couple of computer games that had "development modules", in essence places where he could take apart bits of a fully developed computer game and tweak them to modify things. Gradually he learned enough by deconstructing and reconstructing that he could build his own modules. The first such program was very simple, Owen Piette's WXSand. He build up a huge system of alternate elements that he could create unusual scenarios with. Among the next was Clonk Endeavour (much more complex, and this sent him off to do some graphics work in PaintShopPro). And then on to things like Lugaru, RigidChips, HTML and installing his own Linux-based web message board system.

Oddly enough, this deconstructive tinkering is exactly how, 13 years ago, I taught myself HTML. I used the View>>Source option on my web-brower's menu to figure out how other people had built web features that I wanted to know how to construct and I copied & pasted and modified and guessed and tweaked. I guess Noah takes after me in the 'tinkering' department.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Today Sophie learned to purl. She took up knitting a couple of years ago but only just got around to doing anything other than endless garter stitch scarves. I showed her the stitch and she tried out a little sampler of garter stitch, stocking stitch, 2x2 rib and 1x1 rib. And then I showed her some pictures of korknisse and she was entranced. After quickly doing one myself in the round and very quickly deciding that the big needles /small number of stitches combination would be deadly for a beginning knitter, I wrote the pattern out in a schematic for her, to be knitted flat on two needles. She was able to follow the pattern, her first ever, easily. In case you have a neophyte knitter yourself who can cast on, cast off, knit, purl and knit 2 together, I've uploaded a pdf copy of the pattern here:

Korknisse schematic pattern

I expect a few more of these cute little fellows will grace our tree by Christmas.

Christmas music listening

My kids turn the Christmas music on on December 1st every year. It seems we are at home a lot, even with all the rehearsals and concerts and the usual activities, because I feel like I'm listening to our Christmas CDs 36 hours a day. We're actually not much in the way of music listeners. We're not too fussy about background music, at least I'm not. I dislike 'clutter' in my auditory sphere, and enjoy silence, rather than layer upon layer of background sounds. When I put music on, I want to listen to it, I don't want it to be wallpaper for the rest of my life. My children seem to falling into step with my inclinations on the issue.

Except once it's December. Then the music is on constantly. Over and over. It begins to drive me a little batty, but I guess the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without this. For the past couple of years I've been buying new albums in self-defence, just to provide more variety. Our collection is heavily choral, and overwhelmingly classical, even though I try to nudge the kids in broader directions. (This year I've won Noah over on some of the Celtic stuff.) Here's what's on the roster:

The John Rutter Christmas Album
The Mystery of Christmas by the Elora Festival Singers
A Celtic Celebration by the Night Heron Consort
A Renaissance Christmas Celebration with the Waverly Consort
On Christmas Night by the Guelph Chamber Choir*
See Amid the Winter's Snow by the Menno Singers
O Come All Ye Faithful by the King's College Choir
A Classical Kids Christmas by Classical Kids
The Messiah by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists

That's about 12 hours of music. I really think we listen to just about everything every day. In the past two years Erin has become a strong member of our very good community choir. She loves part-singing, memorizes her music at the drop of a hat and has a strong voice that blends well with the soprano section. I wonder if all those years of obsessively-listened-to Christmas choral music is what created this place in her heart for choral singing.

* This one is our all-time favourite, and it honestly has nothing to do with the fact that my dad sang on this CD. It's just a great collection, great arrangements of slightly eclectic Christmas carols beautifully sung.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Structured formal instruction

The other day I got thinking again about some ideas I'd picked up reading the Gordon Institute for Musical Learning website. Gordon talks about different types of instruction and how they're appropriate for children at different ages. I think the distinctions he makes get at something very fundamental. Here's how I interpret his ideas.

First comes the stage of readiness for informal unstructured learning. The adult presents things (or "creates a rich environment") in an unstructured fashion and expects no particular response from the child. This is the closest to unschooling, and it is all that most children are ready for prior to the age of 3 or 4, regardless of their IQ or academic level or whatever. You might liken this to a fallow field that is scattered with wildflower seed and then carefully watered and protected from wind. Amazing things may very well grow, but it's pretty serendipitous.

Next comes the stage of readiness for informal structured learning. Here the adult presents things in a structured fashion -- sequentially or in a way that is contrived to hopefully produce certain types of learning. But again, no particular response is expected from the child. Some examples of this type of learning might be offering to play math games, presenting opportunities for playful literacy learning, or demonstrating for a child as he tries to learn to tie his shoes. Some children will be ready for this type of learning by age 3 or 4, others not until 5 or 6. You might liken this to a fallow plot in a garden into which the adult has planted specific varieties of flowers in carefully designed rows or beds. The important thing is that no particular response is expected from the child. All you can do is create opportunities. At most you give guidance -- a metaphorical gentle touch at the elbow. Whether the child learns or performs or participates is entirely up to him and as the adult you need to be okay with that. I think that the beauty of the Suzuki method of music education, when properly applied, is that it capitalizes on this stage of readiness.

The final stage is that of readiness for structured formal learning. Children will be ready for this between ages 8 and 12. Learning is presented in a structured fashion and particular responses are expected from the child. One might liken this to a commercial market garden, where specific crops are planted, with thinning and pruning and fertilizing taking place in order to maximize yield.

Now, Gordon believes structured formal instruction ought to start at age five. I think that's far too young for most kids, especially boys. But even more fundamentally I disagree with Gorden in the "should." He believes that chronological / developmental readiness for a particular instructional approach obligates its use. I believe that autonomous motivation is also required. The child should be requesting (whether with words or actions) a shift into formal learning before that shift should take place.

The difference between informal and formal structured learning is chiefly in the expectations of the instructor. The instruction is given in a structured format in either case, but in the latter case certain responses are expected. It's all in the adult's attitude and expectations!

We're back in a phase of fairly enthusiastic math bookwork in our family (that's Erin in the photo above enthusiastically doing extra algebra). Sometimes I sit back and think "How can this be? How can I have children who are perfectionistic, private, highly autonomous learners with strong aversions to anything that smells of school-like expectations, and yet who actually like sitting down with their mom to do math bookwork?" I wonder if the secret is that I am not really attached to outcome. What we do at the kitchen table looks a lot like what school-at-homers do, but my quirky, anti-schoolwork, oppositional kids actually enjoy math bookwork because I don't expect it of them. If they decided not to do any (as most of them have, for long periods lasting up to two or three years at a stretch) they know that's okay.

Music instruction has been structured in our family from a young age, but I think that in some sense there's a suspension of specific expectations there as well. I believe they have the ability to do very well, and that ultimately, if they want, they'll be very fine musicians. But I don't expect mastery of anything in particular on any particular timetable. I only expect that if they want lessons, they will make a reasonable effort to use the teaching they've been given at their previous lessons, because to me that's a matter of respect. But specific mastery, specific types of practicing, specific amounts of work, no, I provide guidance but if they aren't interested in following it, that's okay.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Family bed fall

She joins her mom and dad about half the time in the middle of the night. She's warm and cuddly, so who can resist? But maybe there just isn't enough room for her any more. I swear I didn't push her out. She was there and then she rolled over and suddenly - kathunk - she was on the floor. She cried a bit, hopped back in bed and that was that, or so we thought.

But by this morning she'd developed quite a shiner. She clearly clipped the bedside table on the way down. Poor mite. But she doesn't remember any of it! A good thing, I guess.

Into the pantry

Here's our portion of the 104 cases we hauled, sorted, weighed, packaged, labelled and organized. Four full cases and a lot of 5-pound bags.

I had a crew of six homeschoolers working with me and Baby Scale (Mr. Scale was deemed too fussy, so we opted for his sleek digital offspring). We were amazing if I do say so. It took about 5 hours for us to get all the sorting & packing done. We only made a few small mistakes, recognized quickly and corrected, and overall the 'flow' of the operation was excellent -- the best of any year yet. Normally there are at least 5 adults involved in this operation, but this year, though the order was bigger than ever, we managed fine with a crew of kids.

I must say, though, that I am getting really tired of carrying these same hundred 25-pound cases over and over again -- first from the skid into the truck, then from the truck to the carport, then from the carport to the living room, then around the living room and kitchen as they were sorted and labelled, then out to the shop to await pickup, then into the various vehicles that arrive to pick stuff up. That's over a ton of fruit and nuts carried six different times.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Candied fruit peel

Here's what we're doing with the peels from some of the citrus fruit we bought in bulk. This is a recipe I first used as a child myself. It's a double recipe to start with and we doubled it again this year. It's a very simple recipe. The results are delicious, though with a characteristic slight bitter bite of an aftertaste that leaves you reaching for another delicious sweet piece of peel to quell it.

Candied Fruit Peel

Peels from 8 oranges and 8 grapefruit, quartered
water to cover
4 cups of sugar
yet more sugar

a large heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan
candy thermometer

Place the peels in the saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer 30-45 minutes, until tender. Pour off water, reserving 4 cups of it. With a spoon, remove the soft inner white part of the rind. You don't have to be obsessive about this, though you'll find less bitterness in the final product the more of the white stuff you get off. Honestly, though, the stuff is darned yummy no matter what you do.

Slice the peel into strips. Set aside.

Place the 4 cups of sugar and 4 cups of reserved cooking water in the saucepan. Heat on medium until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil and boil on moderately high heat for about 45 minutes (though this is hugely variable depending on stoves, saucepans and elevation) until a candy thermometer indicates that you've reached the soft ball stage (238 F or 115 C). Add the peel and simmer for 15-30 minutes, until as much of the syrup as possible has been absorbed and the peel has a semi-translucent appearance. Drain in a colander. Then while still warm, toss, a few strips at a time, in a container of a cup or so of additional sugar.

Because we made such a big batch, we had a fair bit of syrup left over and couldn't bear to waste it, so we brought it up to the hard-crack stage and poured it on a cookie sheet, making the largest hard candy we'd ever seen just for fun. We sometimes make little bits of colourful hard candy to use as the windows for gingerbread houses, but I can't image the gingerbread house that would require a window this big!

Fruit and nuts

You may be familiar with the base level of mess that my house suffers from. Imagine the usual mess compounded by a weekend of rehearsals and performances, meals on the run, and then two days of full-on Christmas baking. Got the picture?

Now, on top of that add 75 bulk boxes of dried fruit, seeds and nuts. Here's Fiona in the midst of the portion that is now in the living room. The remaining two thirds of the order is in the kitchen-dining area. The $10,000 order arrived today, finally, almost two weeks later than we expected, thanks to a series of unfortunate events. But it's here, and the order seems to be complete, and we're thrilled.

It's not all ours, not by any stretch. It's a fund-raiser for the regional Suzuki Assocation. We pre-sell a selection of products in 2- and 5-pound bags, and we order from Rancho Vignola in caselots. Then we pack and weigh the smaller amounts for distribution. That's a job for tomorrow and Thursday. We'll be using "Mr. Scale," an ancient but bombproof hardware store scale (once used for weighing out five-penny nails, I think). Because this year's order is so big, we thought it would be helpful to have another scale. So we borrowed "Baby Scale" from the medical clinic. Baby Scale is meant for weighing babies, but we also think it might be Mr. Scale's baby.

We also pre-sell a lot of whole cases, on which the markup is much smaller, since there's no packing and weighing involved. In this respect we almost operate like a buying club. Several of the return customers have orders over $500. I confess we count our own family amongst this group.

This year our family order consisted of hickory smoked almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, dried cranberries, chocolate covered almonds, shredded coconut, walnuts, cashews (all in 5 or 10-pound amounts) and caselots of almonds, lemon pineapple fruit logs and pecans. Last week we took delivery of 80 pounds of fresh citrus fruit, and a week or two before that we got over 100 pounds of grains and beans. Our pantry overfloweth!

I love buying in bulk. It means we never have to worry about having staples around. It means
we can get wholesale pricing, which means fresh delicious organic food that is often cheaper than its grocery store counterpart. And the packaging ... I just love getting 25 pounds of almonds in nothing more than a single cardboard box sealed with two metal staples and a single strip of packing tape.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Winter performance

Gosh, I hope this happens every year. Our community held a dramatic reading of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" on Saturday. Local actors and literati (both defined in typically broad, earthy Slocan way) read the various stages. Some of the readings were truly excellent.

The performance was a fund-raiser for a decrepit community hall that is gradually being renovated and is now somewhat functional. The local Suzuki string ensemble was asked to contribute a little music to open the program. We chose to do an arrangement of two movements of "Winter" from Vivaldi's "The Seasons." We arranged it for soloist, 1st, 2nd & 3rd violin sections, and viola sections, not having any celli or bass players amongst us. The two senior violinists, Erin and her also-unschooled friend J., played the solos for the two movements. In the above photo they're coming forward for a bow. Left to right: Erin, her grandmother, D., Sophie, J., W., Noah and myself. Noah and Sophie are naturally mostly hidden behind their music stands, being the most vertically-challenged of the group.

There was a wild and wooly devolution into a few strange harmonies just before the recapitulation of the Allegro movement due to the 3rd violins skipping a few repeated quarter notes, but I was proud at how everyone, especially my own kids, responded and recovered the required togetherness with total professionalism. We finished with a four-part chorale arrangement of "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming."

I have a video of a rehearsal which, if I can download the right software, I'll be able to capture, edit, compress and post here.

"A Christmas Carol" was very much enjoyed by my kids. Oddly, though they've seen the Alistair Sim movie version several times, I've never read the story aloud to my kids. They all suggested that it would be nice if the community reading was an annual thing. Here's hoping!

Sunday, December 02, 2007


You just can't call a kid dressed in a combination of orange, turquoise, gold, green, purple, two shades of pink and navy blue a "blacksmith," now can you? Nor her candy-apple-red sister, for that matter.

It was the kids' day to make twisted-S-hooks in the smithy today. They got to hammer on the anvil, watch the forge heat and re-heat the steel to red-hot, and even do some of the twisting on the vise. My kids are superkids. They can bend steel!