Wednesday, December 31, 2008

She's alive!

What a sweetie -- she got herself some internet time and posted just enough to let me know that she's fine. I will be shocked out of my tree if she actually spends any more than the required travel & accommodation money, but she's right about having only 0.01 clothes at home and I would be thrilled if she bought the whole city of Bangkok clothing market. One pair of pants, a bunch of T-shirts and a few warm casual shirts and that's about all she has here.

And so, I can start breathing again, knowing that she got across that first border, no flights were missed, that the notarized letters were sufficient, that she is happy and her usual self.

Tragically funny coincigoogle -- I searched up "new years eve bangkok" looking for a photo of Khaosan Rd. nightlife to include here and this was my second hit, an article that I thankfully recognized immediately as being from two years ago:

New Year's Eve Bombs Kill 2 in Bangkok

Posted on: Sunday, 31 December 2006, 12:00 CST


BANGKOK, Thailand - Six nearly simultaneous bombs exploded in the Thai capital late Sunday, killing at least two people and prompting the city to cancel its major New Year's Eve celebrations just as revelers had begun to gather ahead of the countdown.

Heh heh heh ... not exactly what I needed to read.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New paper craft toy

Someone who makes as many music theory manipulatives, violin practicing aids, gift tags, booklets, books, nametags, forms, recital invitations, programmes, brochures and sheets of origami paper as I do ought to have had one of these years ago. It's a paper cutter and you can see it beneath and behind the gift tags in the photo.

Yesterday I stopped at Michaels, in lieu of lunch, on my way back from Vancouver. Ostensibly I was looking for animal eyes for Sophie's knitted snake, but I came out with a few extras ... modelling clay for claymation projects, replacement wooden beads in case the dog chews on any more of the Colorku pieces, some scrummy origami paper and my cool new Fiskars paper cutter.

Tonight we set to work with some old Christmas cards and cardstock, recycling them into next year's gift tags. This is no doubt the first of many projects for the paper cutter.

Monday, December 29, 2008


It was a rather epic journey getting Erin and her compatriots dispatched to Bangkok -- three days of driving back and forth over various mountain passes and through various snowstorms -- but at 10:30 last night I took this photo and then left them to their own devices in the International Departures area of the Vancouver International Airport. I was nice and dropped at the door before parking so that they wouldn't have to wear their sandals and light clothes through Vancouver's almost record snowfall to get within the airport terminal.

We'd been up since 6 a.m., driven 9 hours, had dinner and hung out for 4 hours and then headed to the airport. They checked in at 10 pm for an flight leaving at 2 am which would last 15 hours, a 2-hour layover in Hong Kong and a final 2-hour hop that will land them in Bangkok at about 10 in the morning local time the day afterwards. A very long journey!

They'll be in Bangkok on New Year's Eve recovering from jet lag, acclimatizing to the tropical weather and enjoying the culture shock, before heading up north in Thailand and on into Laos. Erin will have her 15th birthday there. They'll spend time in Burma, very much off the beaten track (excellent article here) and eventually end up back in Bangkok.

I've never used a passport myself and am suffering rather extreme travel envy after spending all yesterday in a minivan with five excited travellers!

Cuisenaire Discovery Book

Someone recently brought to my attention (thank you Christine!) that when I changed ISPs and retired my old website last winter my Cuisenaire Activity and Exploration Book disappeared from cyberspace. So I've uploaded it again.

It's a booklet I made back when Sophie was 4 and begging for a math book of her own like her older siblings. Though she was very precocious in terms of her mathematical ability, I didn't want to start anything formal with her at that age, even anything as hands-on and discovery-oriented as Miquon. So I decided to create a little booklet for her that would include some math games that would get her familiar with Cuisenaire rods and with some mathematical concepts. I was really trying to slow her down, to distract her away from starting Miquon. As I recall she used the booklet fanatically with me for about 3 weeks until she felt like she'd got an understanding of most of what was in it. And then she asked plaintively "now can I have a real math book?"

I caved in and bought her the Miquon Orange book and she did fine with it. Better than fine. She was far more ready for it than her siblings had been because of the pre-Miquon work we'd done. Much of what was in the Orange book was just a matter of formalizing things she'd already mastered. So while it wasn't successful in terms of slowing down her progress through formal curriculum, I think she really enjoyed it and probably gained some foundational tools and concepts through it. Fiona and I used the booklet from time to time when she was 3 and 4. Several of the games are enjoyable and suitable for much older people and Sophie, then age 8 and almost finished Singapore Primary Math, joined us in playing them again.

If you're interested you can download and print your own copy of the package from the pdf files. You'll need both the booklet and, for many of the games, the cards. If you have a colour printer, you may get reasonable colour reproduction from the colour version of the cards. If you only have a b&w printer, or if you don't find the colours in the colour version match up well enough with your Cuisenaire rods, you can instead print out the B&W cards and colour them with pencil crayons.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Games

Several new games and activities showed up under the tree this year, all of which are very enticing. So far the one that's got the most play so far is Colorku. I'm a Sudoku fan from way back and love my pencil & numbers, but this game has tactile, social and aesthetic appeal to recommend it.

The other hit in game-land was Quixo, another nice wooden game with simple rules and great depth in the game-play.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Flammable pyjamas

What Sophie wanted for her birthday last month was pyjamas. I didn't think it would be that difficult. She wanted nice loose-fitting sleepwear in natural fibres. Something looser-fitting than the Hannas we've been buying for years. I think the Hannas are great, but Sophie prefers a looser fit.

Alas, it seemed that everything, even "long johns" and "loungewear," is now governed by restrictions about children's sleepwear flammability. Kids' sleepwear either has to be made from polyester or acrylic (petroleum-based synthetics that have a penchant for melting into a burning liquid mass when heated) treated with a flame-retardant chemical of questionable safety, or if made from cotton or other natural fibres must be tight-fitting and body-hugging. Sophie wanted loose cotton PJs. Tricky.

Children caught in house fires in the middle of night tend to die of smoke inhalation, not burns from flaming sleepwear. And I'm not convinced that an extra couple of inches of cuff width on the left side of one's leg is going to increase one's chance of catching fire. And why only children? Adults are perfectly entitled to have saggy-butt pyjama bottoms and to flaunt them near wood stoves.

I decided I was comfortable honouring Sophie's request. But it wasn't easy. I searched and searched. I was almost forced to clean the yarn and paperwork off my sewing table and set to work with needle and thread. Only lack of access to a fabric store prevented that desperate measure. Eventually, though, I stumbled across kids' yoga wear at Land's End. Cool! The colours don't look a whole lot like sleepwear, but the stuff is soft, 100% cotton and comfortable with lovely flatlock seams, and even the shirt cuffs are loose. It took until well after her birthday for me to get the stuff, but it's a perfect Christmas Eve pyjama outfit.

She even loaded the wood stove just before bed, wearing her loose-fitting flammable cotton pyjamas ... rather than the loose-fitting flammable cotton clothing she wears during the day when she loads the wood stove. Living on the edge.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday lights at the Kohan

Every year sometime over the Christmas holidays we load up the big thermos with hot chocolate and head down to the Kohan Reflection Garden late in the evening. The garden is volunteer-maintained -- we're usually part of the spring and fall work-bees -- and in December a bunch of stalwart volunteers spend hours putting up Christmas lights. It's magical being there. Not to be missed. The kids seem to have a blast. It's hard getting everyone out the door but once we're there no one wants to come home.

Tonight's temp: a relatively balmy -9°C (18°F).

Tight quarters

These days our house seems really small. There are a few factors. We're (yay!) taking the week off from our regular out-of-home commitments, so we're here a lot more than usual. Erin is not at school during the day. She's inside the house, rather than lingering in her cabin, because the temperatures are so frigid. We've got a Christmas tree taking up a not-insignificant portion of the living room. We've got the "sleeping part" of the house cool and closed-off during the day because it's hard for the wood stove to keep up and it's nice to contain the heat to the "living part" of the house. And it's partly that we're now sharing our home (even, I confess, our couch) with a dog.

It's full full full in here. Not just on the floor and the furniture. We've got stuff hanging on all the walls and ledges and shelves, and the ceiling is serving various functions as well. The photo from our living room is illustrative. I've cleared a swath on the mantle where I can set bread dough to rise. Beneath the mantle the mittens and gloves hang drying. Beside the woodstove hang the jackets and snowpants. Above the hearth the laundry is drying. In front of that is the exercise zone, with the gym rings. Below all this, not visible in the photo ... winter boots drying, folding chairs and small stools (since our family size exceeds our available permanent seating), violin cases, bookshelves and more bookshelves, the Christmas tree, a small couch and a couple of proper chairs, the woodstove and hearth, the TV and stereo ... and a tiny bit of open floor. And behind the camera, more up-in-the-rafters clutter -- another laundry rack, a chin-up bar, the stereo speakers.

To give you an idea of scale, that lighter wood to which the gym rings are attached is in the exact centre of the room. It's not a big space.

I have a friend who used to facetiously say "if I want to enjoy clean, uncluttered space in my home I can always lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling." Ha ha. But that wouldn't work here.

But I do like living in a space that's just big enough. At least most of the time.

(Still hoping for that cathedral for our music studio, though.)

Winter driving

We bought our minivan back when we had three kids in car seats and before Erin's previous violin teacher's husband got cancer. Back then we needed the seating flexibility of an 8-seater, and we were certainly not anticipating driving through the Rocky Mountains on a monthly basis all winter long. And so the front-wheel drive version of the Toyota Sienna made sense. Sure, we'd live on a mountain, and we'd have to park at the highway end of the lane and hike in to the house for a few weeks every year, but that was a small price to pay for a less expensive vehicle, better mileage and the full middle bench to rig our car seats up in.

Things change. Erin outgrew her first violin teacher, her second one quit teaching on short notice due to the aforementioned health crisis, children grew out of car seats or into different seats that they're able to get into and out of themselves. And now we're driving over really big nasty mountain passes to get our kids places and the 2WD van doesn't make any kind of sense any more. I found most of the driving to Calgary terribly stressful last winter. The hike up and down the driveway is getting old. The minimal clearance in the wheel-wells and below the chassis mean that we have to be very cautious about venturing places during snow. We're best hiking into aikido from the road, for instance because the snowy ruts cause us to 'bottom out' and lose traction. Chains don't really fit properly within the wheel-wells, and we have to skulk around Nelson trying to find parking spots that aren't on an up-slope to be sure we can get out again.

I've been hankering for one of these, but Chuck is unconvinced by the safety and practicality of purchasing a 13-year-old vehicle whose parts have to be ordered from Japan. Yeah, whatever. He's probably got a point, though I still want one. :-)

I was finding winter driving more and more frustrating and difficult last year and then during the first snowy month this year. Then I realized this was our fourth winter on our snow tires. I looked at them myself, decided the front ones especially looked very worn, and took them to the tire place where they measured the tread and declared them not legal as snow tires. Four mm of tread depth at a stretch. Maybe three and a half in places.

So I ordered myself a Christmas present. Four brand spanking new Nokian snow tires. Extravagant, but without a 4WD vehicle I need something serious to make me feel like I'm not risking my life and the kids' lives every time we head to Calgary. Look at that tread! A deep 11 mm. I'll be driving Erin & Co. to Vancouver next weekend, and then the rest of the kids to Calgary two or three weeks later, and I feel so much better about going now!

T minus 6 days

This is the beginnings of Erin's packing. Carry-on pack only, because they're travelling light. So far inside the pack ... mask and snorkel for end-of-trip snorkeling in Thailand, malaria pills, modest clothing for warm weather, travel hammock for camping in, waterproof case for valuables when kayaking.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


It's been at least five years since we've watched "The Grinch". Fiona had never seen it. Sophie and Noah had hazy memories.

We're not very good with TV here. If there's something we want to watch we rarely remember to turn the TV on. But we remembered tonight.

The Grinch was very much enjoyed.

Working out okay

I'd have to say that Limpet is working out okay in our family. Ya think?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reading music

At her last piano lesson before the holiday break Fiona's teacher suggested we look at the Royal Conservatory of Music Introductory (pre-Grade 1) album for a piece for Fiona to learn in preparation for an end-of-January recital. A "challenge piece" that she can work on learning over the three weeks' break and polish up through January. She was very specific that it should be something Fiona learns from the written music, not by ear.

Our piano teacher is very insistent on this point -- piano students need good reading skills from the get-go. By-ear learning is fine if you're messing about recreationally at home, but for the real work of learning to play piano students need to read from the page. Those who don't read from the beginning will never overcome their deficits. (I've been tempted to raise Erin as Exhibit A in my argument against this theory. Erin arrived on her doorstep at age newly-8, barely able to name a note outside the middle of the treble clef, but playing beautifully at an RCM Grade 4 level. Within 8 months her sight-reading had "caught up" and she now sight-reads far better than her teacher. But I've kept quiet.)

I acquiesce out of respect for our teacher. This is how she teaches, she has her beliefs, and we understand this about her and accept that it's part of the package. She's a rigorous well-organized teacher who knows her stuff and who is always willing to challenge her students based on their eagerness and ability rather than their age. I knew when we signed Fiona up with her that she was already reading music on the violin, so she wouldn't suffer unduly under the reading expectations. And Fiona's ear is getting lots of development on violin, so that is the yin to this piano yang.

The teacher wants Fiona to learn this piece every step of the way with the music, figuring it will do her good to be reliant on the written page. We play by the teacher's rules. Fiona looks through the RCM album and chooses a piece she wants to try. I don't play it for her, I don't tell her note-names, I don't point to where her fingers should go. Instead I ask her questions: what clef is that? what landmark note will help you figure out what this note is? can you clap the rhythm? how about trying just the right hand first?

It takes her a while to read her way through it the first time. It's not easy for her to read. There are accidentals and lots of hand position shifts. It takes maybe five minutes to slog her way through the thirty second piece. Did Fiona learn something from this slog? Probably a bit.

But that's where it ends. Because by the time she has slogged through those first five minutes it's in her head and she has the whole thing memorized. For the next six weeks she will be playing it by ear, by memory, by heart, even if the music is in front of her. I know her teacher wanted this piece to help her learn to read with more fluency, but she probably didn't realize that it would be internalized in a few minutes. When you were five years old you probably decoded the letters "STOP" on an octagonal sign once or twice, but seeing stop signs every day of your life after that didn't help you become a better reader.

That's the situation Fiona is in with this little piano piece. She understands it after one halting read-through and after that the decoding is beside the point. It's no wonder kids like this have to reach a certain level of complexity in their piano playing before reading is really necessary to such an extent that it begins to get the workout it needs to develop more fully.

Here it is the day after that first slog. There's lots of musical and technical work still to be done polishing it up. It's "barely learned" at this point, but what's instructive is that the reading work is over and done with. She played this without the written music. Of course.

Blogging addiction

I just glanced at my blog archive numbers over the past few years. For the first few years I wrote HTML pages from scratch, which was very time-consuming. But look at what begins to happen in 2003, the first year I used blogging software to streamline my posts.

1997 - 5 posts
1998 - 8
1999 - 3
2000 - 2
2001 - 5
2002 - 3
2003 - 18
2004 - 45
2005 - 68
2006 - 69
2007 - 278
2008 - 345

Kind of frightening to imagine where I'll be next year, isn't it?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Making her bed

At least there's one of us in this family who makes her bed. The rest of us -- well, our bedrooms are small, cold and uninhabited during the day, so we figure what's the point? But our dog has better housekeeping habits. She finds her blanket and pushes it into a little nook, in this case behind a folding chair under the loft steps. Then she spends three or four minutes using her paws and her snout to arrange it, re-arrange it, adjust it, start over again, arrange, re-arrange and re-adjust until it's deemed acceptable. Of course, by then she's usually lost interest in a nap, because we've noticed how cute she's being and all the attention makes her too stimulated and sociable to want to go to sleep.

Oh, her name is now Limpet. We hated the "Baby Girl" moniker she'd been given when picked up as a stray and placed in a foster home. A few years ago Noah went through a Runescape phase, playing the on-line game for hours a day. At one point he mentioned that he had a virtual pet in Runescape, a cat, and he'd named her Limpet. We thought that was very weirdly original, in a cute sort of a way. So when the dog declared herself as having a barnacle-like attachment to various members of this family, the name percolated to the top of the list of possibilities. And then, a week after she arrived, she developed a lame right foreleg. We rushed her off to the vet where she was deemed to be the very picture of health, the xray negative, and diagnosed with a ligament strain. She recovered quickly. But those three or four days of being a "Limping Pet" clinched the name for us. Limpet she be. She already recognizes her new name.

School girl on a roll

Erin went to school kind of giddy this morning. Not looking like this, I might add -- this photo is from another giddy moment a few weeks ago. She had no pencils in her hair when she went out the door this morning.

It's the last day of school before the holiday break. The whole school had planned to go sledding at a ghost town near here, but the weather was deemed too cold for all-day enjoyment by kids as young as 5. So instead they're having a pancake breakfast, ping pong tournaments, games in the gym and a LAN party in the Facilitated Learning Centre where Erin spends most of her day.

But that's not why she was giddy. She had decided she wanted to finish up the content and testing and main coursework for two of her three courses before leaving for Asia. And that meant an entire second writing portfolio to pull together (not officially due until the end of January) and half of her science course to complete in the last 7 days of school (the other two students doing Science 10 in the FLC are taking until June to complete it). I'm not sure why she decided she wanted to do this, but she sure was motivated. She works far better under pressure anyway. The pressure focuses her and she thrives on the excitement of a looming deadline. Alternatively I could describe her as a procrastinator, but since the December 19th deadline is one that she created for herself, much earlier than anything the school would insist on, I'm not sure the word applies to her in this case.

The pace has been amazing. To illustrate ... Her science course is divided into Ecology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences units. Last week she was doing the last chapter in the Chemistry section and hadn't even looked at Physics or Earth Sciences. Since last Friday she learned all the content in those sections and has done something like 7 chapter tests and 3 unit tests in science. Her teacher can hardly print the tests fast enough. And her marks have gone up, from averaging low 90's to almost unrelenting 100 percent scores. And then last night, after performing in three different musical roles on the evening Christmas concert, she stayed up all night pulling together her writing portfolio, writing two or three of the components from scratch in the wee hours, editing and compiling the remainder. She got a 90 minute nap on the couch with the dog before downing a coffee and heading off to school, quite giddily pleased with herself, ready to hand in her portfolio and do her last three science tests. Assuming they can find a corner of the school where she can work quietly for a couple of periods without interruption from all the revelry.

She did make sure she was there in time to participate in the pancake breakfast so that she could say goodbye to all her friends. She won't see them until March.

If nothing else I think she's proved that cramming is a very effective schooling strategy for her. I've always described her as an "immersion learner" who tends to get very locked in and focused on one thing at a time. I'm pleased that she's managed to make her school experience this fall work well for her in this sense. When she comes back she plans to focus on math, and possibly move on to another course or two.

Christmas Treats

Sophie has done most of the decadent Christmas baking this year, but this morning I decided to do up some fruit & nut balls. I had forgotten how amazingly simple and healthy (in a relative sense) these are. My recipe is essentially:

some nuts
some dried fruit
a little juice concentrate of some sort (frozen OJ works fine)
a little Triple Sec or Cointreau
some shredded coconut
anything else I feel like tossing in

Today's were particularly tasty. I used about:

2 cups of organic dates
2 cups of dried organic cranberries
2 cups of finely chopped organic baby pecans
2 - 3 Tbsp. Ribena blackcurrant juice concentrate
1/4 cup Triple Sec liqueur
1/4 tsp. ground clove
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 cup shredded unsweetened organic coconut

Chop fruit in a food processor until most of it is the size of currants. Adding a bit of rice flour may help prevent it from glomming up. Dump chopped fruit in a large bowl. Chop pecans to a coarse crumb-like size in food processor. Add to bowl. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Allow to sit for an hour or so -- any excess liquid will be absorbed by the dried fruit.

Squeeze into truffle-sized balls with hands. Roll in some extra shredded coconut. Leave to dry on a pan overnight before storing in airtight containers in a cool place.

Eat. Guilt-free.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Brass front door hinge inside the kitchen with its little white coat of frost. It doesn't often get this cold here. It's minus 22 C tonight and supposed to get colder over the next three or four days. Wow. We are spending our days in the living room area, two feet higher and lots warmer thanks to the wood stove.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Warming up at the dojo

It was the last aikido class before Christmas, the last class of 2008. The kids worked hard and had fun, most of them for the full hour and three-quarters. At the end of class Sensei spoke about his pride and gratitude in helping these students learn and in learning from them. Then each of the students spoke about what they had learned and enjoyed about aikido during the year.

Then after a last "domo arigato gozaimashita" the kids went off to get changed and have a holiday snack to celebrate. It is very cold here right now, and so the masonry woodstove in the basement had been stoked. As a special treat Sensei lifted the special mat that reveals a little trap-door hole that looks down directly over the basement stove. The kids dangled their cold feet down the toasty hole and had a lovely time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Community Choir

The camcorder went belly up just minutes before the choir concert so Chuck used his little Kodak EasyShare to shoot this. The light levels aren't great -- you can't really see Erin at all, for instance (she's fourth from the right). But you can hear her okay. Her solo kicks in in the second half of the first minute. Noah is on the far right. He's just a delight for me to watch, even in lo-res, blurry and red-lit.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Choir boy

It was the night of the Community Choir Christmas Concert and Noah was singing for the first time. He also wore a tie for the first time. He was a little stressed about the tie thing at first, but eventually decided he quite liked wearing one. He looks pretty smart in it, doesn't he?

The choir was great. Erin sang a fabulous solo. Noah sang with such obvious enjoyment and commitment.

What I loved almost as much as watching my kids sing was the enthusiasm of the rest of the choir for their participation. It's true that the soprano section would have been seriously lacking in numbers without my kids and their friend -- there are only three other sopranos this year. But they love the cheerful energy and enthusiasm the younger members of the choir bring. Choir members kept thanking me for them. Err, uh, you're welcome!

Christmas Duets

People who know about all my kids' musical pursuits often assume that they make music together all the time at home. The truth is that they are together in group classes, orchestra and ensembles, but at home they pretty much keep to themselves. They do their individual practicing and that's that. It takes a visit from an aunt or uncle or old family friend to provide the excuse to do anything together at home.

But this week at their violin lessons my younger two girls were given some Christmas Duets to sight-read together. The timing was perfect. Sophie can read comfortably in multiple keys and across all strings, and can manage harmony parts easily -- though she can still benefit from the practice. Fiona is reading well enough that she can easily follow repeats, bowings and such in melodies that she knows by ear even when Sophie is playing contrary rhythms in the harmony. And the relationship between them is such that they relish the independence of doing this collaboratively without parental help. Sophie is a help to Fiona, and Fiona appreciates the coaching.

"Take your picture and then go away," they said, when I discovered them squeezed into their bedroom reading through 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas.' So I did. They're still playing now.

Is it my imagination, or does Sophie's half-size violin still look too big for her? Last May we thought that surely she was about to grow, and could move up just a little early to this lovely instrument, because it would soon fit her fine. Um... not really. Good thing her posture and left hand are really solid!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rosetta Stone Demo

Wow, we're having fun with this. Rosetta Stone has a free 7-day on-line demo for homeschoolers. You can sign up until today only. You can choose any of 21 languages to try the demo in, with all levels available. Fiona and I have been trying Japanese, Sophie is using French and Noah has decided to check out the German program. Unfortunately although they have a Thai program, it's not part of the free demo, so Erin is out of luck.

We used to have a PowerPack sampler years ago and were mighty impressed, but the newer version is better still. I've been working hard on Japanese and am now about a quarter of the way through Level 1. Each level would be considered roughly equivalent to a one-year high school course -- not bad for three days. I had learned (and then mostly forgotten) how to read hiragana last year thanks to the SlimeForest Adventure game, and knew a few words and phrases, so I wasn't starting totally from scratch, but pretty close!

So the next question is which languages we'll buy in the new year when the next intallment of the kids' learning allowance comes through from the SelfDesign program. Sophie has had RS French on her wish list for a few months, so that's a pretty much fer-sure. We'll have to see how enthusiasm holds up for the rest of us.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


This is the best I've been able to get so far for. There's a bit of distortion in the audio. I'm running to hardware issues with video rendering. Hopefully with some (eventual) upgrades this will get easier. Anyway, I think this gives a taste of what the choir is doing. You'll see Erin in front -- she is the shorter of the two violinists.

The other choir, the local adult choir which includes both Erin and Noah, performs this week.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Christmas by the Lake 2008

It started last year and was a tremendous success. It's a European-style indoor/outdoor Christmas market and community event organized by a number of community-minded folk, in particular those who have moved here from Germany in the past couple of decades. It's held in the open area in front of a local gallery and multi-purpose building, on the large lawn which also houses the outdoor mining museum. In amongst the displays of old rock drills, Pelton wheels and tramways, they erect a sound stage, a bratwurst gazebo, an indoor artisans' market, a couple of bonfire rings with bannock and chestnuts a-roasting, an ice slide, ice sculptures and a dozen or so outdoor booths selling handicrafts, treats, hot beverages and soups.

We were away in Calgary for most of the event this year, but it was the first item on the agenda upon our return from Calgary Saturday evening. Erin and I had to take off immediately for one of her choir performances in Nelson. The kids made use of the new-fallen snow to build a magnificently huge snowman on a corner of the site. They got a little help from their dad with the mega-snowball-wielding, and then later added a straw beard and some charcoal eyes. Somehow a carrot was nowhere to be found.

Last year the temperatures were well below minus 10 Celsius (14F) the whole three days. I'll never forget Erin and her quartet trying to perform in those temperatures. This year things were really a little too balmy, hovering right around the freezing point the whole time. Still, the ground stayed mostly white and it didn't actually rain at any point.

I managed to get there today for an hour or so. I saw the snowguy in all his soggy bearded glory. The ice slide was listing a little to port but was otherwise functional -- and was being greatly enjoyed by the children. The glüwein was hot and delicious. It was a great place to bump into people and chat. The kids formed a chattering ring around the central bonfire. You can see Erin above in the light teal jacket, wearing her silk green choir shirt and black pants; she was on her way to yet another choir performance.

Last year Christmas by the Lake felt like it had the makings of an instant family and community tradition. It is now firmly entrenched amongst our December traditions. I think it represents the official beginning of the holiday season for us.

Tickle fight

Even after spending 8 hours in the van together, and then bunking down in very close quarters in a hotel for a day or more, with the prospect of another long drive through nasty winter weather the next day, they can manage to have a lot of silly fun together.

Trips to Calgary are getting pretty routine around here. We're a year into the endeavour and now have both Erin and Noah taking lessons in the big city. The hotel staff know us now and usually give us our preferred room on the top floor, this time with an informal discount just because we're regulars. I still hate the winter driving through the Rockies ... but we haven't yet had any mishaps, and now have it all organized so that I don't have to do any dusk or night driving except in places where it's easy -- like the point-and-shoot last hour's stretch eastward onto the prairie.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More hands-on equations

We don't do much that looks like "school" in this family, but every once in a while there's something that comes up that is so quintessentially academic and visual that I just have to take pictures. Hands-On Equations is certainly one of those pursuits. I can't seem to resist snapping photos of Fiona at work with this program. These are the photos I should put in a Christmas newsletter for skeptical relatives who could never understand unschooling.

Borenson describes Hands-On Equations as "Piagetian learning," in that children are learning by doing, without direct teaching of principles and theory, but absorbing the concepts all the same. It is pretty neat stuff. Fiona has easily learned the simple basics of what are considered "legal moves" and the whole thing plays out like a game for her.

The program is divided into three levels, with Level 2 introducing negative x and Level 3 introducing negative integers. We're working through Level 1 fairly systematically to ensure that the rules of play are well understood and are already almost done. We've had a couple of short sessions and a couple of longer ones. It is working beautifully for Fiona. She now often "sees" her way to the solution a couple of steps before the end. For instance she'll see that 2x + 4 = 10 means x=3 just by looking at the initial set-up of the problem with the manipulatives. I'm amazed.

We're almost ready to start Lesson 6. At this stage the expectation is that students will start working without the manipulatives, instead drawing their symbols pictorially on the page. I'm not sure if we'll do this step or not. I'm not sure a 5-year-old is as ready for this as a 10-year-old. Plus she loves the game pieces and that's much of the allure of the program. Although she writes pretty well for a 5-year-old, I also think that sketching out the problem visually would be a lot of pencil-work for her and might detract from the fun of the program. I'm not in a hurry to get her solving algebra on paper, so we might just skip this expectation.

Fiona has set up her equation and done the
preliminary simplification. She started with

4x + 1 - x = x + 13

and has simplified it to

2x + 1 = 13

It's time for the next move.
She removes 1 from both sides, leaving

2x = 12

That's easy.
x = 6!

It's always fun to find the solution!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My five children

... four of them cheering on the fifth who is enthusiastically dismembering an ancient carnival stuffie. Beneath the baby grand piano, of all places.

"Get his head off! Oh yeah, his head!"

"Oooh... disemboweling..."

At 11:15 pm. Just yer average Burkholder weirdness. The dog seems to fit right in.


I'm glad this isn't how it goes when the kids have playdates.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New to unschooling

Part of a message board post I wrote to a mom new to homeschooling and to unschooling, dealing with frustration that her child is not the slightest bit interested in anything that resembles "work" or "schoolwork"...

Unschooling does not mean giving your children educational autonomy in the expectation that they will willingly gravitate to exactly the sorts of things you would have required of them in the first place. As uncomfortable as it may seem, for unschooling to work properly you need to make peace with the possibility that your child may not choose what you want him to choose -- and he needs to know that he will be valued and supported in those 'other' choices. I'm not saying this is easy! It is something I continue to wrestle with, even ten years into this racket.

It's important to realize that just because your child is making 'other' choices doesn't mean that unschooling isn't "working." Sometimes the learning is just going in different directions, or is quiescent, or is building momentum under the surface, or doesn't look like what we expect. It's going on all the same. Sometimes the learning is more holistic but more important than we can see when we're in the thick of it. My eldest spent a few months doing almost no violin playing at all ... and what she learned was that she missed it, and that she has a passion for it -- and that knowledge has propelled her to fantastic heights in the year and a half since. Another example: I used to worry quietly to myself about my son who had almost no interest in writing and spent all his time on the computer tinkering with games and code. He even began talking in internet acronyms, saying ROFL (pronouncing it aloud as "rawful") rather than laughing. But then one day I realized that he was not only learning complex physics through game programming, but he was reading bits of German (game developers' documentation) and writing some pretty cool stories and reviews in a computer-gaming vein. I was so busy worrying over what he wasn't doing that I didn't see all the learning that was going on.

So my first two pieces of advice would be to try to let go of the expectation that your child will naturally gravitate to exactly the learning that you'd have chosen for him, and to hone your observation skills so that you can see the learning that is actually going on instead.

My other advice would be to put your relationship first. Don't fuss with schooling, outcomes or academic expectations at all until you've sorted out your family relationships. It sounds to me like there's a lot he's doing behaviourally that is pushing your buttons, and that there's an atmosphere in your home of frustration and disappointment and that Some People may not be living up to others' expectations of them. Ultimatums in disguise, unhappiness and all that.

That's the first front I'd work on. I've always found that happy children who like their lives and like being with the people they love are hard-working, optimistic, motivated children who enjoy making their parents happy. I've felt like you do more times than I'd care to admit. I'd say that 99% of my despair is solved by a change in my attitude that then changes my relationship with my child. Not only do I view things-as-they-are more favourably, but my child behaves more favourably and things actually improve in a real sense.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Smudge Princess

I mentioned the other day how Erin is managing to take even the exercises in her writing class that have not been to her liking at all and make them work for her. Since she's been a tenacious, autonomy-driven (i.e. stubborn as a mule) kind of kid her whole life, I'm impressed that she is doing this.

Case in point: an illustrated children's story, to be read aloud to peers and the Kindergarten and Grade 1 students at the school. "Illustrated?!" Erin asks incredulously. "What's that got to do with writing? Your publisher is supposed to hire someone to illustrate for you! Why do we have to do stupid illustrations?"

But a couple of hours later she has finished an illustrated children's story. The protaganists are (wait for it ...)

a smudge


a dot.

The illustrations are actually quite endearing, in a seriously minimalist way.

Sit! Down!

She had clearly been taught to sit when we got her, but the learning was a little tenuous. Within a week we had firmed that up. Then Fiona and Sophie started adding a "stay" to the "sit." That started to take root. Over the past few days we've got from 1-2 seconds' stay to a ten second wait with a step or two back and turning away briefly.

And then today, all in a rush, after a few days of frustration, she got the "down" thing. At first it would only work in the family room, where she likes to lie down anyway, and only with me. But within an hour she'd generalized it to the girls as well and to locations throughout the house.

What a great dog! She is so eager to please. Sometimes slightly misguided, but always eager.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

School term 1

Apparently Erin has completed Term 1 at school. At least, a report card came home, a somewhat odd affair listing tallies for lates, absences, in-class attitude & effort and such-like, most of which don't apply to her in the usual sense. Anyway, it seems like an opportune moment to cast a glance over the experience and have a little think about how it's working.

She's "doing fine" in terms of grades. Straight A's, lots of positive comments from the teachers she's interacting with. They are very impressed by her work ethic and her focus. They seem to like having her around and feel she's a good influence in the Facilitated Learning Centre (FLIC) and the writing class. Despite the fact that when she lingers over lunch out at a local café with friends they are reprimanded for coming back late and she is not -- since she is in a 'modified program' where she sets her own hours. These are mostly Grade 11/12 students she's cutting class with, so I guess they're supposed to know better than to be led astray by a Grade 9'er who doesn't have to play by the rules.

There's no doubt she's had to play catch-up a bit in math in particular. I continue to be impressed with the depth of the understanding that's expected of regular academic-stream Grade 10's in our province. It's far beyond anything I've seen in typical American school or homeschool textbooks. And so, having done almost no math in the previous 4 years, Erin has been challenged by the math work. But she's caught up efficiently, simply by doing a bit more work, and has aced all the unit tests and such. She very much enjoys the intellectual challenge of math, a fact which was quite unexpected to me. She doesn't really "like math," but she likes that it demands a lot of her intellectually, and that her mastery is easily measured. She has worked hard and has done very well. She plans to start Math 11 once she returns from Asia at the end of February. I've no doubt she'll manage it just fine. Her "catching up" is pretty much complete now and things are rolling along quite smoothly.

The challenge in Science 10 has been in coming to understand schoolish expectations. What does a "project" or "presentation" entail? How high is the bar? How much research is expected? How closely must a definition on a test match the textbook definition in order to be awarded full marks? Is the companion student workbook a crucial or an ancillary part of the coursework? Science has offered much less intellectual challenge, but a lot of learning in terms of what school assignments and evaluation are all about. While the actual science content is reasonably advanced, there's a lot in this course that smacks of busy-work and regurgitation. Erin recognizes this and has had to find a way to balance understanding and hoop-jumping that works for her.

Writing has been the most stimulating course for her in terms of personal growth. She writes brilliantly and easily from inspiration, but writing "to task" and for a particular audience has been totally new to her. It's required a lot of maturity, I think, for her to find a groove where she can share, be creative and be herself and yet feel safe and secure. Some of the writing exercises have not been to her liking at all, yet she's rallied and found ways to make them work for her.

The fourth phantom course is Music Harmony. Her piano teacher feels strongly that piano students at her level should be learning music harmony in a formal way. For the past year or two we've pretty much swept the issue aside saying that Erin is still pretty young, and we'd get to it when she was ready. A few weeks ago she decided she would like to have a harmony textbook on hand to turn to as a break from math and science in the FLC at the school from time to time. And so she's begun working through Mark Sarnecki's Harmony 1 book on her own. It's pretty much a college-level course. We'll see how she progresses with that.

Overall she doesn't much like getting up in the morning and going to school. She finds the weeks long and tiring. She still stays up well past midnight, and 8 a.m. comes way too early. But she gets herself up, knowing I'm not going to take that on for myself. Sometimes she's "late" (not that it matters, but she has her own expectation of being there during school hours), but usually not by much. She stays in the FLC continuing to work through most lunch periods and so is revered by the school staff as an exceptionally motivated student. The bonus is that her violin practicing happens without any additional structure, because her routine is to head to her grandma's after school, where there's really only violin practicing for her to do, and then get a ride home two hours later. By the time she gets home at 5:15, all she has left to do is any self-assigned homework plus her piano practicing...

Except that then there's one choir or another three days a week, and orchestra or group class once a week. Not to mention all the other-extra things like recitals, concerts and rehearsals and family social commitments. And the monthly three days spent getting her to and from violin lessons in Calgary. And the driving back and forth from Nelson. Piano lessons. And so on. So the reality is that her life is very very full.

I think that if she didn't have the two month trip to Asia on the horizon, she'd be feeling like she was trapped on a speeding treadmill. Thanks to the trip she knows she has a big break and change of pace and a logical chance to re-evaluate her academic program. She'll return a month into the second semester of the school year, and there will be a chance to start a new slate of courses if she wants. I expect she'll continue with something similar upon her return, but the important thing is that she'll have made a conscious choice to do so. And there will only be four months remaining in the school year at that point. She hopes to complete math and writing before Christmas (technically the term ends at the end of January, but she'll be gone then). She'd like to finish Science too, but I think that's not quite as likely. It's open-ended, and she can easily leave it until her return. But overall, school has been wonderful for her this term.

And her visa for Myanmar arrived yesterday!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Erin's Mozart

La Folia

Here's my middle girl. Everyone loves her, but she's not often the one to grab the headlines. She likes to do a good job but is comfortable in a background role most of the time.

Someday, like her older siblings before her, her attention-seeking performer's persona will probably arrive on the scene. In the meantime, while she quite enjoys performing, she has to consciously put on that attention-seeking persona as a costume. It's a cloak she doesn't feel quite natural in yet and it tends to slip off her shoulders if she's not keeping an eye on it.

But this La Folia is a big step in the right direction. She kept that costume on most of the time and wore it proudly. It is not an easy piece to play, either from a technical standpoint or in the sense of putting it musically and rhythmically together with the piano. It's like 13 separate little pieces, each with it's own ensemble and technique challenges -- and it's long! When she sat after performing she looked very pleased, but said "wow, that seemed to go on forever!"

Fiona's Bourrée

Fiona has been on a bit musical plateau with violin this fall. We were without lessons from mid-August until the second week of October and that got things off to a slow start. When we got back she easily polished up the first Seitz Concerto movement from Book 4 and while she was given permission to get started on the next one several times, she just didn't seem enthused about moving ahead.

I do worry about the musical and intellectual demands of a 5-year-old working at this level, so I would never want to "assign" new repertoire to her. I've always waited until she's really feeling ready for a new challenge before helping her move ahead. And she seemed happy just to percolate away at her current repertoire level. Instead this fall she's been working hard at learning orchestra music and honing her sight-reading skills -- and of course she's been busy diving into piano lessons, reading novels and starting new challenging stuff in math. She finally launched into the next piece a couple of weeks ago and learned most of it, but then sort of set it aside as she prepared for this weekend's recital.

She was going to perform the Bach Bourrée at the end of Book 3. A week ago she told me quite cheerfully that she was a little worried about playing it badly. Since she was playing fine, I told her that and did my best to reassure her, telling her she'd have lots of rehearsal time and would probably feel less worried after she'd had a chance to play with the accompanist. The first rehearsal went pretty well, so I figured she'd feel better. The only difficulty she'd had was with remembering the final repeat before the 'da capo.' The final rehearsal she had some of the same difficulties. The piece has four separate repeats, plus a final 'da capo' of the first two sections, this time without repeats. And it's five minutes long. It's quite normal for the repeats to be a bit of a problem. She seemed little "tryish"1 but otherwise fine.

Most of the time she's outgoing, a delighted and enthusiastic performer with very high standards for herself but a resilient roll-with-the-punches kind of attitude. Maybe she was overtired from piano recital the night before. Maybe her perfectionism is looming closer to the surface as she gets older and more intellectually sophisticated. Maybe whatever violin aimlessness she's had this fall was at the root of it. But when it came time to stand up and perform, she was sure she was going to forget repeats and somehow that wasn't acceptable. Her chin started quivering about 8 bars in and by the time she began the repeat of the first section she was starting to cry. I scooped her up and out of the performance space. She hugged me and asked "do I have to play?" Well of course not! I hugged her back plenty.

Later she said she was a little disappointed that she had not played. She would have loved to have played something "without nasty repeats." (If only we'd known how she'd been feeling about this -- there were plenty of other things she could have played!) But it was okay. She knew she'd made the right choice at the time. There will be plenty of other recitals, and she's already looking forward to them.

So the video above is of her rehearsal, not her aborted performance. You can see where her "repeat worries" were already looming. But I think you can still get a sense of how she's playing these days. I'm sure that when she's ready her "zoom" will return.

1 tryish adj. trī-ish
The state of being highly focused on an outcome and susceptible to potential frustration.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Number 5 Dance Guy

Noah chose two contrasting pieces to play on the recital. One was tender and sentimental, the other rollicking and showy. It was only when I saw the written program that I realized both were Number 5 Dances. Meaning he had chosen the fifth of six short pieces in the Beethoven "Country Dances" suite as well as that well-known Hungarian Dance #5 by Brahms.

His Brahms finished the concert for us. There's no way anyone could have played anything after this finish!

Big music weekend

It started on Friday evening. We hosted a 2-hour workshop / rehearsal with an accompanist. Saturday brought three more such workshop sessions for my various kids and students.

Then at 5 pm that day we headed off to Nelson. To mark Canada Music Week there was a piano recital featuring all Canadian music. Fiona performed out of her (Canadian) primer book, and Erin did a minimalist Alexina Louie piece called "Changes." I think she would rather have done the much more challenging François Morel Concert Etude she's been working up, but it wasn't quite ready, being quite new to her. Fiona was terminally cute, the tiniest participant by far as you can see in the group photo. That's Erin positioned directly above/behind Fiona. Anyway, it was a fine recital, Fiona's first on piano, and we got home at bedtime.

Today we got up in time to begin the schedule of dress rehearsals in preparation for today's local string recital. Rehearsals ran throughout the morning. Then there was a short break and the afternoon performance.

So that has meant two recitals in the space of 20 hours on two different instruments in two different towns. The kids are going to just hang out tonight. I have to make an out-of-town trip this evening to pick up some fundraising stuff, but they are just going to hang out, maybe watch a video and eat popcorn.

It turns out there are only four more performances until Christmas -- one for the local choir that Erin and Noah sing in, two for Erin's youth choir in Nelson and one for the orchestra. Fiona, who is totally into playing Christmas tunes on the piano, would like to participate in a couple of informal 'living room recitals,' but preparation for those is minimal so they don't really count. So I think we can handle the rest of the performance slate easily. Most years it's been busier than this. But I'm still glad to be done with all the busy stuff from this weekend.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Both the piano room and the music-teaching room in our house are carpeted with low 7-foot ceilings covered in acoustic tile. "Acoustic" as in "none." Meaning they're totally sound-deadening. In addition the rooms are carpeted and too small to begin with. Making music in one of these rooms is like playing into your pillow. If there were a way to modify the rooms, I'd do it. But the ceilings can't be moved up a foot, because there are rooms up there, nor can the exterior walls be moved. Hardwood flooring may help -- it's on my wish-list -- but I'm not sure it would help much.

I mentioned that as soon as we arrived in the Great Room of the cabin we stayed at on our holidays my kids chirped excitedly about the acoustics, ran and grabbed their instruments and played their hearts out. I guess I was lucky growing up. We had medium-sized rooms, but they had high turn-of-the-century ceilings. The acoustics were pretty okay in the carpeted living room, and even better in the kitchen over the smooth floor. Guess where I always ended up when practicing?

Erin doesn't normally like practicing in the public areas of the house. Today, though, we held one session of a workshop with an accompanist here and so she was already playing in front of the rest of us. Afterwards, stoked by the opportunity she'd had to play three different concerto movements with a good accompanist, she gravitated to the kitchen, where the acoustics are slightly better. And she played and played, thrilled to have a more resonant space to play in.

The other kids were getting pretty ticked off, though. A violin is very loud, especially if Erin is playing it. The living part of our house is all open-concept ... kitchen, dining area, living room and family room all connected. You can't even think with that shrill two-octaves-above-middle-C Mozart cadenza stuff ringing in your ears. Let alone hear anything on the computer, listen to a readaloud story, work on math, watch a video, play a board game or have a conversation.

Erin would like us to build a cathedral on the property somewhere. A smallish cathedral, I guess, but one with enough open resonant space inside that there is joy in filling it with music. I suspect all of us would find more intrinsic reward in practicing if we had one. I admit the idea intrigues me. A dedicated resonant acoustic space, large enough to host Suzuki group classes, quartet rehearsals and chamber music concerts. With hard floors and walls and a high vaulted ceiling. We can dream.

Old house, new house

Our house consists of two distinct parts. These can be variously described as:

Old house and new house
Log house and framed house
Day-time house and night-time house
Wood stove house and furnace house

And now, to this we add ...

Dog house and cat house

The cat and dog do not get along. It's mostly the cat's fault. She has made it clear that she does not like the dog. She lies in ambush behind doorways. She initiates spats. She's like the conniving older sibling, baiting the younger sister with subtle jibes until the little one explodes, then acts all innocent.

Gradually they are working out the details of a ceasefire. It appears the cat is claiming the new house, the part that contains beds, comforters and silence. The dog is claiming the old house, the part with the wood stove, the kids and the unguarded half loaf of banana bread.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hot rod in the garage

Excerpted from a message board post:

Much about institutional schooling exists not because it's the best or the only way to learn but because it helps with the management issues of a mass-education system. Testing, standardized curriculum, chopping learning up into subject areas and grade levels, homework, science labs, report cards, credits, the top-down model of teacher dispensing learning to student and so on. All this stuff is, in my opinion, part of the school system merely because it makes for a semi-efficient factory model of education. The deeper you get into homeschooling the more you realize that education can really look like anything you want it to. If you're building a single hot rod in your garage you don't need an assembly plant, CEO, union reps, robotic assemblers, ad execs, fiscal planners, lawyers and a mission statement, right?

Same deal with homeschooling.

Dangerous book for grown-ups

For the past couple of years the "Dangerous Book for Boys" and its companion the "Daring Book for Girls" have revived interest in some of the lost arts and traditions of childhood. We don't actually own either of these books, but I think our family tends to gravitate to many of these pursuits anyway. I have kids who can whittle swords and marshmallow sticks, tie secure knots, knit, build a wattle fence, rappel out of a treehouse, build an igloo and fold a mean paper airplane.

Recently on a message board I came across a post from someone who was having trouble getting her wood stove to heat up quickly in the morning. Her procedure sounded onerous and time-consuming. I posted my standard procedure:

"I start out with two medium sized logs, one on the left and one on the right. In between I put paper or birchbark. On top I put kindling. On top of that, like a roof built between the two large logs, I put a couple of pieces of smaller dry wood. And on top of that I put one larger log. So I basically have three large logs in already when I light the match. I touch the match to the paper and that's that. The paper lights the kindling, the kindling lights the smaller wood, and the smaller wood lights the logs. Doing it this way the stove only takes 10 or 15 minutes to start to really crank out heat."

It seemed like a really basic no-brainer technique. I've been laying fires outside and in fireplaces and woodstoves since I was a little kid and it never occurred to me that people would need to be taught this as adults. But several people wrote back and said that my explanation was a revelation to them, that they could now light a hot fire in no time and with a fraction of the fuss that they'd been experiencing before.

So I wonder if we need a "Dangerous Book for Grown-ups" that has instructions for basic 'simplicity' type skills that have nearly got lost in the past couple of generations. Things like baking yeasted bread, laying a fire in a wood stove, beating a rug, darning a sock, splitting firewood, changing an oil filter, building a backyard skating rink ...

What else do you suppose would be in such a book?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Algebra for breakfast

Oh happiness! Fiona's long-awaited Hands-On Equations kit finally arrived. Breakfast today is therefore cheerios and algebra.

Shown here: x + 8 = 3x.

And cheerios.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Aikido and crochet

They play a game at aikido to work on their rolls where the kids run one at a time towards the sensei. He tosses a hackey sack towards them as they near him. The idea is that they'll catch the hackey sack in one hand and do an aikido roll over that shoulder. Then they toss the sack back to the sensei, who tosses it to the next runner. The more capable kids are encouraged to alternate sides. Less advanced kids just do whatever comes most easily, and the important thing is the roll, not whether you catch the hackey sack or not.

Fiona is doing part of the bigger kids' classes these days, and this week she got frustrated by her inability to catch the hackey sack. She really just needs someone to play toss and catch with her at home. Coincidentally that morning I had woken up and decided to try to teach myself to crochet. I had spent aikido class practicing a single crochet stitch with the only tools I had on hand -- a DK-weight wool yarn and a finicky 2.5 mm crochet hook. Kismet or something. Clearly a hackey sack was meant to materialize from my yarn and little hook.

I frogged out my practice work and went home and googled. I'm not nearly good enough at crocheting yet to follow a pattern, but I did manage to figure out increases and decreases and working in the round, which really isn't rocket science in the crochet realm. And today, with the addition of some rice and a bit of the toe of some old tights, we have a hackey sack.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we were beginning to realize that we needed a dog again. The rest of the family was all for it, and had been for some time, but I guess I had borne the brunt of the grief and guilt over our dog-from-hell experience a couple of years back so it took me longer to come around. We'd had a wonderful dog before that, but that great guy had been trained when Chuck and I had no kids except our puppy. It was very different trying to train an immense dog in a household with small terrified children. Once bitten (or, should I say, head-butted), twice shy.

Enter Baby Girl. She had been in the shelter system for over a year. Picked up as a stray and unclaimed, she's about three years old and had been living with a particular foster family for the past year. They'd pretty much decided to keep her because they enjoyed her so much. But then health problems and hospitalization of her caregiver got in the way, and I happened to be searching the on-line listings of dogs for adoption a day or two after she got actively listed for adoption again. Her size sounded about right (Staffordshire Bull Terrier / Lab cross, with a likely helping of mutt) and she had such glowing recommendations concerning her temperament ("she is one of the best dogs they've had (they've had hundreds)") that we immediately decided she was someone we'd like to try out.

She loves us. We love her. She's mellow most of the time, but with a healthy dose of rambunctiousness when encouraged to play.

Everyone assures me they'll help this time. Though I notice I'm the only one so far who has taken her out in the sleet and dark to do her business. But she loves me best, and with this girl that's some compensation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Extending patterns

Fiona and I were waiting for Sophie's Aikido class to finish. We were hanging out in the van. She had brought along her math but after a couple of minutes decided she didn't want to do any more of that, but would like to do some "different math." On a paper I drew pictures:

square, triangle, circle, triangle, square, _____

She easily drew a triangle to continue the pattern. We used to play games like this with pattern blocks. No big deal. I decided to up the ante. I gave her:

5, 7, 9, 11, ___

which she got easily. Told me it was too easy, it was just odd numbers, and could she please have something harder. Next came:

102, 213, 324, 435, ___

and she got that one too. I was sure of stumping her with:

1/2, 1, 2, 4, ___

but she examined it for a minute, said "I can't explain it, but it's 8." I had failed to outwit her again, and she thought this was hilarious. So in a final attempt to challenge her I wrote out:

0, 1, 3, 6, 10, ___

and she looked at it for about 5 seconds and said "oh! it just steps up and up!" and laughed and told me the next one was 15. I put my face in my hands and wailed aloud about my inability to fool her. She laughed and laughed until she was giddy.

I just love it when kids can take a rudimentary understanding of something, and extend and extend their learning, moving from what they know into what they don't know with enthusiasm, pushing the envelope bigger and wider with every new challenge.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Felted cushion top

Sophie has finished the top of her cushion, and felted it. Wow, felting sure is magical! In the photo the piece is blocked out for drying so that it will be a flat circular disc that will hold its shape.

Isn't the pattern amazing? She did it almost entirely without help. Now it remains to knit the back (in solid grey) and the sides ... a patterned circumferential strip yet to be designed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Christmas carols

Fiona had her sixth piano lesson today. We'd had a week with very little practicing due to our Calgary trip, but she had a terrific lesson in any event. She'd learned three new pieces, mastered counting aloud while playing and reined in her tendency to rush towards the end of her pieces. She'd also done a fair bit of the theory bookwork in her second primer. She hasn't quite finished all the theory in the book, but she's close.

And so she's been moved into her third primer book, the 2A book from the Celebrate Piano series. I don't think we've quite found her instructional level yet, but we're getting closer. Thank goodness her 'substitute teacher' has been happy to vault her along.

After her lesson was over, just as Erin was sitting down on the bench, the teacher passed her the sheet music for a simple Christmas melody ("Now Sing We All Merrily") and suggested she should learn it in preparation for a mid-December sing-a-long party at her regular teacher's house. She plunked herself down at the electronic piano in the waiting area and taught it to herself, and then memorized it, in about 5 minutes.

When we arrived home she said she wanted to learn more Christmas music, so I pulled out an old Bastien Christmas Primer book with some simple hands-together harmony worked in here an there, as well as dotted rhythms, ties and accidentals. She set to work. Now, a couple of hours later, she's figured out most of the dozen or so pieces -- almost entirely on her own. She's not learning by ear, either, something I know she can do easily like any good Suzuki student if she knows a tune. I can tell she's not learning by ear, because she wouldn't recognize some of these tunes, and even with the ones she might be familiar with she asks me to play through after she's sight-read her way through successfully, because she's been so focused on the reading that she hasn't recognized them.

So her reading on piano is really starting to click. That will make her regular teacher happy.

We normally have a rule that there's no Christmas music in our home until December 1st ... except for any necessary practicing of ensemble pieces undergoing rehearsal. But we'll make an exception for Fiona in this instance, I think.

Schools and rules

A Grade 6 class is expected to read a book of their choice per week at home independently and submit a book report for each. They should read a range of genres. Multiple books from the same series are not acceptable. Non-fiction books are not acceptable. The aim of this home reading program can only be inferred. Presumably it is to encourage students to read regularly, to enjoy reading, to broaden their exposure to authors, styles and genres. Book reports are to likely to gauge comprehension and provide proof that the book has actually been read.

A particular student has chosen "The DaVinci Code" as his current novel. He is not a voracious reader, but is a strong enough reader that he enjoys the book and the challenge it presents. But the book is many times longer and more complex than the books his classmates are typically reading. He does not want to choose lightweight books instead or in addition to this one. He would like to continue challenging himself with The DaVinci Code over the longer term, and instead of weekly book reports, submit weekly summaries of chapters he has read. He says that if he's forced to abandon DC and pick up shorter, less challenging books that he's not currently interested in, he simply won't do the reading and reports. He's happy with DC and the challenge it's giving him, and wants a compromise.

Many parents on the message board where this issue was being discussed seem to feel that the rules given by the teacher are hard and fast, and it would be disrespectful and defiant to even ask for a compromise. "You can't tell your boss that you don't like the work so you won't do it," they say. "Children shouldn't grow up believing that the rules don't have to apply to them." They also believe that this is not a place for a parent to support and facilitate the request for a compromise. "Any kid old enough to understand The DaVinci Code is old enough to deal with this himself." Or "I would tell my kid to buck up and get with the program. The school should not have to bend their rules because some kid thinks he has a better idea." Other parents suggest "School is a kid's job. He has to do the work."

I am left shaking my head in bewilderment. School cannot be likened to a job. When you work for an employer, the work you do is for your employer's benefit. In exchange you are given a salary which compensates you for doing work for your employer's benefit. It's an economy. And you have choice. If you find the work is making you miserable, you can seek a new job. You're presumably an adult and have control over your life and your choices, as well as the maturity and experience to make tough decisions.

When you work at school, the work is for your benefit -- to educate you. No money changes hands because the benefit (supposedly!) accrues to you. And most kids have zero choice. If school is making them miserable they can't quit and find another way to learn. They're also young, inexperienced and immature.

So the situations are different in fundamental ways. There are, in my opinion, a number of very good reasons why the school should be the party that is flexible and accommodating in situations like this.

I also bristle at the suggestion that reading level can be equated with social-emotional maturity. Fiona, for example, has quite a lot of social-emotional maturity for her age. She is gracious, respectful and assertive. But I am quite sure that now that she is (brag!) reading at a Grade 4 level, her social-emotional maturity still does not keep up with her reading level. No matter how you slice it she is not a 9-year-old. When I think back to Erin the asynchronicity was extremely stark. She had been reading her way through books at the Harry Potter level and beyond for a full four years before she had the confidence and maturity to open her mouth and speak to an adult she didn't know intimately.

For the record, in the scenario I describe the teacher has not yet been approached. It is certainly possible that the teacher will be receptive to the compromise the boy is suggesting -- I hope that's the case. What dumbfounded me was the resounding consensus among most parents contributing to the discussion that the child's role is to toe the line, even when the line makes him miserable and he has a compromise to suggest which it seems is likely in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule.

It seems that most parents have bought the premise that children serve the curriculum rather than the other way around. I think they've got it totally backwards.

Edited to add: A follow-up post from the mom makes it clear that the teacher has been wonderfully accommodating. She would love the boy to read The DaVinci Code and report based on that. The requirement that he read from a variety of genres is one made with a year-long view, not week by week. I'm not surprised that the teacher has been flexible; I've seen lots of great examples of flexibility in the school system. What surprises me still is the response of so many parents to the original dilemma as presented.