(Two) New wheels

I bought myself a new bike. It’s a 2005, so it’s already middle-aged as bikes go, but it is in great shape and is a world apart from my 1989 Terry Symmetry, which was decidedly elderly and decrepit. The Terry was my first step up from the world of chain-store bikes and it has stood me pretty well. But it has a steel frame (which is dinged and a bit bent) and I realized a few hundred miles in that it was probably a size too small for me. I was still happy with it for a really long time, but in the last couple of years I just haven’t been able to keep the necessary parts moving well. It has reached the point where it needs the whole drivetrain replaced. Last winter I realized, while browsing around eBay looking for good deals on parts, that the parts were going to cost a couple of hundred bucks at the least, and in the end I’d still have a bent bike that didn’t fit me well.

Unlike our home up the valley here, Nelson has a couple of pretty awesome rolling routes for road-biking. I was enjoying biking along the North Shore and down on towards Castlegar, except for the inevitable back pain from being squeezed up over a short little top tube and the grinding resistance of an aging bottom-bracket.

So I started scouring PinkBike for small used road bikes. There was nothing suitable in my size on the used market for under $1000 in the Kootenays. I hoped I’d find something in the Vancouver area when we visited Noah in March, but no, not then, nor when I drove out again at the end of April to pick him up. I looked in the Okanagan, knowing I was picking Erin up there in early May, but alas that came up empty too.

But then I found the right bike at the right price in Calgary, and because I knew I’d be taking Erin to Alberta for a rehearsal with her pianist in late May, I begged the seller to hang onto it for me. I did a kind of stupid thing and sent her a deposit, sight-unseen, and not knowing her as anything other than a username on a website. But I got a good vibe from her, did a little bit of sleuthing (or creeping, depending on how you look at it) and decided she was a good person I could trust. I had a good feeling about the whole thing.

I thought it was the right bike. I had been vacillating back and forth between a road bike and a triathlon bike. (What’s the difference? Road bikes are like the traditional “ten-speed” bikes that started being mass-produced the 1970′s with the curved drop-handlebars and gently angled frames. Though of course there are much smoother, lighter, better-engineered versions available now than a generation ago. Tri-bikes on the other hand look similar to the uninitiated, but the downward-pointing tubes of the frame are closer to vertical, and they have those dorky aerodynamic handlebars that are made for kind of lying your upper body down on your bike, resting on your forearms with your hands out front like they’re the prow of a two-wheeled ship. Triathlon bikes are generally considered to compromise comfort for decreased wind resistance, and to “save the glutes for running” in that the more vertical push by the legs favours the use of the quadriceps. ) IMG_2068

I had more or less decided that it was safest to stick with road-bike geometry because that was what I knew. But The Bike, the one that was the right size and the right price and that was being sold by the woman who I thought was lovely and honest, it was a triathlon bike. My tri-bike experience was limited to a 60-second test-ride of a similar-but-overpriced bike a few weeks earlier. I liked the aero-bar posture in that moment, but I also knew that most people find road bikes more comfortable.

The price for the new bike was only double what fixing my old bike would cost. It was almost 2 sizes bigger, yet it weighed less. And it was orange! It would (sorta) match my car! I had a really good feeling about it. So yup, even though it’s a triathlon bike, with all the pretentiousness, misplaced ambition and/or dorkiness that implies, I bought it.

I took it for a first ride in Canmore out the Legacy Trail towards Banff. I felt like I was flying. Such fun!

I should confess that I had driven alongside the Legacy Trail many times and had always scoffed: “Is that what Albertans think a trail in a National Park should be? A flat paved strip that runs beside a major highway? How lame!” But now I get it: it’s not that kind of trail, it’s a gently rolling highway-for-bikes and other self-powered wheely things, and it connects Canmore and Banff along the only corridor that doesn’t have mountains in the way. It’s smooth and fast for cycling and there’s no motorized traffic. It’s not a lame hiking trail, it’s a road for road-biking, one that doesn’t have cars and has lovely views of the Rockies. Now that I’ve mentally recategorized the Legacy Trail as a cycle path, I get it. It’s awesome.

So I flew along the Legacy. So sweet! I powered up gradual grades, never needing the low gears. I averaged well over 30 km/h without even pushing myself.

And then I came home and remembered that I live on a mountain. If I was going to ride around my primary home, I was going to have to cope with 10% grades. The 30-metre elevation gain over the entire 28 kilometres of the Legacy Trail? I get that in my 2k “warm-up” here! My first ride up the highway was not an experience with flying. I made it up, but it wasn’t pretty. My old Terry had what is called a “granny gear,” a third, smaller chain-ring that gives a range of extra-low gearing. I’m a stamina-not-strength girl; give me a low enough gear and I can spin all day, crawling up steep slopes like a caterpillar, but eventually getting there. On the other hand, ask me to summit Highway 31A in 1st-gear-is-the-new-7th and I grunt and sweat and want to throw up and the next day my quads begin 36 hours of whinging about what I’ve put them through …. ask me how I know.

At the summit

At the summit

The easy solution would be to swap out sprockets, or down-size my smaller chainring. Even before I bought the bike that’s what I assumed I’d end up doing. But today I rode again. I took it easier on the easy parts, saving myself for the nasty bits. My legs had recovered, and hey, I did better! I made it up beaver-pond rise without a break, and not once did I feel like throwing up. In fact I had a grand time. Also: no back pain! Tired shoulders after a while, but I can tell I’m still a bit too tight and hunched in the upper back in the new low position. But no back pain at all. Sweet!

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Building Rat Park

Screenshot 2015-05-16 14.58.28

Image credit: Stuart McMillen Stuart McMillen

At a recent unschooling workshop, the issue of technology use came up. Some parents expressed concern over the potential addictive nature of technology. With unschoolers having far more autonomy over their lives, the risk of excess use seems much higher, particularly without the natural time constraints of school attendance and homework.

“Video games and social media are as addictive as drugs,” someone said, to nods of agreement from other parents “They’re designed to reel kids in and keep them hooked.”

I thought immediately of Rat Park. Because if we accept the parallel between drug addiction and technology addiction, we need to do so while understanding the implications of Rat Park.

We all know the story of rats in little lab cages demonstrating severe addictive behaviour when offered drugs like cocaine and morphine. Experiments like these supposedly proved the biologically-driven nature of addiction, and helped spur the entire war on drugs. But then there was the Rat Park experiment. I’d encourage everyone to read the story on Stuart McMillen’s site. It’s beautifully explained there, but in essence a researcher at SFU named Bruce Alexander wondered whether the severe environmental deprivation of the experimental rats in their lonely cage-and-drug worlds might be playing a role. He provided similarly tempting drug cocktails, but instead of solo cages he put the experimental subjects in Rat Park. It was a larger complex of interesting play-things, various terrain, hidey-holes, and other rats. The rats were able to do normal rat stuff. They could climb and run about and play, engage in ratty social lives, hunker down in a private place if they wished, and then return to engage with others.

While the rats in Rat Park did drink some of the drug-laden solution, they avoided it until it was made so sweet that they couldn’t resist, and yet still their intake was minimal and they didn’t exhibit hallmarks of addiction. The drug just wasn’t a problem for the rats of Rat Park: it had no demonic hold on them.

Maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe the problem was the cage as much as, or even more than, the drug.

The take-home message for me? If you have a child who has an apparent addictive relationship with technology, don’t demonize the technology. Instead look at his environment. Has he unwittingly ended up in the human equivalent of a little wire cage? Does he need meaningful, self-actualizing activities and variety of social relationships? Does he need someone to help him build his own Rat Park?

Posted in Parenting, Thinking about learning | Leave a comment

A foot in both places

Yesterday we went to court. Thankfully we ended up being spectators only. The occasion was the seeking of approval by a foreclosing banking institution for the sale of a real estate property to us. A property in Nelson, comprising an old home with four bedrooms and a bathroom, a lovely lawn, and a walkability score of 83%.

The foreclosure process is odd. Our offer on the place was accepted over a month ago, but our offer price is publicly available and at the point the court is asked to approve the sale, anyone is free to submit a sealed, unconditional bid to out-price us. We can submit a further bid. Then all bids are unsealed and the court awards the sale to the bidder who has placed the most attractive offer.

Foreclosures here are not usually priced much below market value, because they are sold through the same realtor process as any properties. This sealed-bid process is a slight deterrent to interested parties though, and I can certainly see why. It would have been demoralizing to have the whole thing fall apart weeks after an accepted unconditional offer due to failed strategizing under a few minutes’ pressure in court. It almost happened to another property that morning: the original purchasers got the property, but had to raise their offer on the spot to outbid another party. They went up by 10% only to find out when the bids were unsealed that 5% would have sufficed.

2015-03-27 11.17.51So anyway, we have approval of sale, with a closing date of June 20. So from that point forth we will have properties in both New Denver and Nelson. The Nelson place is something we’re looking at as a five-year investment. We got quite a good deal on it, probably because it needs quite a lot of work to bring it up to the standards of the neighbourhood, but the inspection we had done didn’t point to any nasty deal-breaker type structural issues. It was built in 1901 in a neighbourhood full of similar houses, many of which have seen extensive gentrifying upgrades in the past couple of decades. It will need a new roof, and it will benefit from having a second bathroom installed. It needs some help with water drainage to solve two leaks into the basement, but we’re pretty clear on what needs doing, and it’s not going to be expensive. The walls and flooring could use an upgrade. An exterior makeover will probably be worth doing before we sell it.

It’s got checkmarks in all the right places as an investment property that we can fix up whilst living in and likely make some money on. And given that otherwise we’d likely end up paying $1000 rent a month for the next four years to keep Sophie and then Fiona challenged and engaged by their opportunities, I think we’ll definitely come out ahead.


The common living space is in pretty decent shape

We’ll have the summer to get it comfortably liveable for three of us for next fall, hopefully with three separate functional bedrooms, a situation which will improve everyone’s state of mind immeasurably. No doubt we’ll be living in a state of ongoing renovation for a while, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Having work to do on the Nelson place will help keep me busy, and will give Fiona a bit more to be involved with besides just the internet. Noah’s summer job may be “labourer” for the first few months of this endeavour. We expect that Chuck will be able to spend his every-other-weekend-off working away with us throughout the year as well. And we’ll hire contractors as needed, of course.

For now I need to get busy finding good deals on used major appliances and furniture.

Posted in Family Matters, Moving on | Comments Off

The data-driven runner

Screenshot 2015-04-16 21.17.01


Look, data! Running data! I admit I readily get too obsessed over this stuff, to the point where I forget why I run. (Note to self: I run for the happiness it brings, to clear my head, to learn how to be in the moment, to stay strong and fit, to be out in the natural world, to challenge myself physically, to improve my physical and mental stamina.) In the interest of not distracting myself with data I’ve given away my Fitbit and retired my ancient Garmin; I don’t even own a functional watch. I confess that sometimes I still run with my iPhone tracking my route and my pace, but I make sure I don’t check my stats until after I’m done.

But now I have this little runScribe device I’m beta-testing, and it is pretty awesome. It gives the standard kind of feedback about pace, speed, splits, number of steps. But then, oh, but then…!



It tracks detailed kinematics of my running gait, step by step. Above is a hilly run I did yesterday in my New Balance Minimus Trail shoes. The hills add a lot of variation to the information, which makes for a very complicated but interesting data set. You can see the hills most clearly in the orange line, which shows linear deceleration due to braking. Where that line is high, I’m running downhill, putting on the brakes. The green line shoes my stride rate which slows considerably below the optimal 90-ish per minute during and for a while after the downhills — not surprising. And the yellow line, which is my contact time with the ground, is roughly inversely proportional to the stride rate, meaning the more quickly I’m stepping, the shorter my contact time with the ground: no saggy, exhausted shuffling showing up. In general I think things look pretty good, which probably because I’ve paid a lot of attention to my running form over the past five years. It’s nice to see some evidence of the good stuff. The blue line shows that I’m clearly a mid-to-forefoot striker rather than a heel striker, and my cadence/stride rate on the flats is pretty close to 90.

RunScribe was a Kickstarter project which is just reaching fruition. It’s available for pre-order only at this point. I volunteered to participate in beta-testing, so I’ve got an early release device. It mounts on the laces or the heel of the shoe and talks to a smartphone via Bluetooth, and from there to the internet. Among other things I’m helping them look at creating a FootStrike Processing Software Engine that accounts for barefoot running, since the current software doesn’t do a good job with this. Overall the interface is a bit buggy but improving quickly as the team tweaks things at their end. It’s working really well for me now, at least when I run with shoes.

Next week I’ll start collecting data from my left foot and comparing. That will be interesting and probably quite confusing. I have a chronic bursitis behind my heel. Ideally I’ll get some clues as to why I’m having such trouble with my left foot, but I likely won’t be able to tease apart the causative mechanical habits from the resulting compensations due to pain and stiffness. Still, there will be graphs, and they will be epic.

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Pergola completed

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With lights and wattle railing panels installed

Posted in Out on the property | Comments Off


  • A little help from Limpet
Our “new” deck is almost five years old now. I always had bigger dreams for the square apron that extends towards the trees, but at the time we opted to put up a minimalist railing for safety reasons. Of course that had the effect of eliminating all the urgency of doing something else with the space.

A couple of weeks ago at Fiona’s behest I ordered some nice globe lights to string over the apron. We spend a lot of time walking around Nelson and, being new to the whole business of neighbourhood rambles, we enjoy noticing the neat things people have done with their homes and businesses. We were admiring a lovely lighted patio and suddenly the push was on to enact some similar ambiance at home.

Over the Easter long weekend, with all four of us home and available, we decided it would be an opportune time to push to get the project both started and [hopefully] completed. I had spent a few hours the previous week digging the screws and bolts out of the under-inner-side of the old uprights. Chuck had got busy reclaiming lumber from the remains of our old carport, cutting it down to the right dimensions.

When we got home from Nelson mid-day on Friday the girls immediately got busy with the measuring tape, some cardboard templates and the jigsaw. Spring is still toying with us: while the sun shows up from time to time, temperatures tend to otherwise hover just above the freezing point, and today was definitely on the cool side. The fire pit helped warm our hands up when we needed. Between them Sophie and Fiona did almost all the 40-odd decorative ends for the beams.

The first afternoon we got all the beams prepped and ready for assembly.

Then we hit a couple of snags. First … it snowed overnight. It took a few hours for the snow to melt. And then we realized that the 8″ lag bolts weren’t quite long enough to anchor the two corner posts that had to be mounted into diagonal braces. Eyeballs and guesses had been substituted for trigonometry. That’ll teach us! The building supply store was closed for the holidays, so we were stuck.

We did still manage to do a fair bit of assembly, using clamps and braces and gravity and what hardware we had. We got to the point of having the main structure standing, with the cross-beams laid overtop but not secured. The next time we have a chance to do some work, we’ll substitute in the proper bolts, attach the cross-beams, work on wattle railings and attach the light strings.

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Spring Forward

2015-03-08 14.13.44

The cat is learning to go outside. Hyper-vigilant much?

The time changed yesterday and today it felt like spring. Spring has been teasing us for at least a month. Yes, a month, since the beginning of February. We’ve had almost no winter this year and almost no snow since the week of Christmas. I’m grieving the missed skiing. But at some point you just give up and make your peace with the lack of winter, and decide it’s best to get on with spring. Which is why the cooler temperatures of the past couple of weeks were leading us to feel impatient. And then today here we are: it really felt like spring.

We got the trampoline out. Sophie and Fiona bounced and flipped. We raked leaves. I pruned the centre out of the pear tree. (It’s 18 years old this spring, being the tree we planted Noah’s first spring. It produced well last year but was due for a hard pruning.) We dragged some of the pruned branches over to the fire pit and burned them. We threw in some books.

2015-03-08 16.02.01

A good old-fashioned book-burning?

Books in the fire? Yes, we’re in purge mode. We’re getting rid of things that we don’t need anymore. If they’re likely to be valued by others, we’re trying to find ways to pass them along or donate them. If they’re dated, in poor condition or of limited use, we’re throwing them out. And in the case of some of our books, that means throwing them into a bonfire.

And then I started trying to get the corner posts off the deck apron. I want to replace them with tall posts that support an arbour. I already have the string lights on order.

And I started turning over the soil in pots and small garden beds. My recent interest is in hydroponics (more on that soon, I hope!), but I am hoping to also do a better job of raising a kitchen garden than I have for the past several years. I need to keep my ambitions in check because there’s no water or fencing out in the far garden, and that means there’s just no point in even trying. So I’ll focus on herbs and greens, and plant small beds and pots close to the house where there is water. Basil is germinating on the mantle.

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A time and place

Tech Club hackerspace

Tech Club hackerspace

Fiona started coding club this week. It was held at the Nelson Tech Club’s hackerspace. Three kids, all about 12, two of them on the autism spectrum and with their workers along for support, the others being boys. There may be a few other kids who come out of the woodwork as the program goes on. A homeschooling mom as the facilitator. They didn’t do anything particularly unique: they just fired up laptops, registered at CodeAcademy.com and starting working, each at their own pace, through the course on HTML and CSS.

Fiona really didn’t need help from the facilitator, certainly nothing that I couldn’t have helped her with. She asked a couple of questions specifically in order to make the facilitator feel helpful. She could easily have sat at home and worked through exactly the same content in exactly the same course. 

But there was a simple kind of magic which helped elucidate exactly what she seems to be craving right now. Because did she sit at home and decide she wanted to learn to code, and register at Code Academy and sit down and spend two hours enthusiastically teaching herself? No, she didn’t. It was not until I said “there’s this class happening …” and she said she’d try it out, and I took her at the appointed time, and left her in the company of others in this designated space. She emerged feeling happy and enthusiastic, having spent the full two hours glued to the course, making tons of progress. It was two hours she wasn’t moping at the house complaining that there was nothing to do, or else watching Netflix.

And will this experience result in her working on Code Academy at the house rather than moping and Netflixing? I highly doubt it. There’s something about the tidy compartmentalization of going to class at the Tech Club that makes it work for her.

We talked together and decided that what works so well is having:

  • a designated time
  • a designated place
  • a designated learning focus
  • fellow-learners present with a similar level of interest
  • a benevolent outside-the-family facilitator, willing to help if called upon, providing positive feedback for good work
  • attendance and participation entirely voluntary

I’m pretty sure Fiona would like three or four half-days a week exactly like this, covering a range of learning areas: math, science, writing, music theory, maybe a few things she hasn’t yet imagined. Sort of a homeschoolers’ study hall. Maybe throw in some facilitated discussions based on readings about philosophy, world religions, political issues, psychology, all voluntary of course.

We can dream, I suppose.

Posted in Homeschooling, Science, Thinking about learning | Comments Off

Looking ahead

1521721_834043066656083_7306683100154554155_nLast year Fiona had two siblings at home full-time, and lived in a home with all her stuff, reams of amenities and a bedroom of her own. This year she has no siblings (or siblings’ friends) around home, and half her life is spent sort of killing time at a house in Nelson that we share but don’t feel at home in, bereft of “stuff” and personal space. Dance is great. Gymnastics is good. Violin and choir are going fine. But in between there are a lot of hours.

Next year she wants to do more ballet, and Sophie will still be in school in Nelson, so we’ll still need an place there. But it’s clear we need two bedrooms, damn the expense. That will help.

But she’s also wanting more than just a comfortable place to watch Netflix or practice braiding her hair. She’s craving some organized and challenging learning opportunities. Opportunities where there’s a bit of external accountability, some new experiences and relationships, and the intellectual challenge she wants. She dreams big, and she feels the constraints of her chronological age keenly. She would very much like to be attending university in, say, Edinburgh or Auckland, preferably studying psychology or architecture.

She knows that’s not practical, though, because she is only just turning 12. And the baby steps (working through the Khan Academy MCAT psychology lectures online, for example) are not sufficient. While she finds open courseware and other online learning aids interesting, she isn’t so much craving the content of university as the experience.

Yes, she’s probably romanticizing university a bit. But I get it. Her current unschooling doesn’t feel connected enough to the larger academic world nor is it providing a framework for her to challenge herself against. High school will only go part way, she knows that. She’s looking further ahead.

And at first, that university aspiration seemed impossibly far away. Even thinking about it made her feel hopeless. She wants to go the route of a high school diploma, and that requires completing 20 full courses at the Grade 10-12 level. She’s only “Grade 6 age.” So young still. But then we sat down, figured out where she’s at, and looked at what the options are ahead. That seemingly endless path from now to then got a lot shorter as we connected the dots.

This year, thanks to a double grade-skip in the DL program, she’s considered an 8th grader. She’s already got most of what she needs for a high school music credit in hand; she’ll just need to schedule the actual theory and practical examinations at some point in the next year or two.

Next year, as a 9th grader, she can register at SelfDesign as a DL student and take up to two high school courses. If we made those English and Science, that would give her two more courses prior to actually officially being in Grade 10.

The following year, as a 10th-grader, she could challenge the Math 10 course. (Since she’s already halfway through the course, that’s a no-brainer.) Then she could enrol in Math 11, and a slate of 7 other courses to make up a full course-load. She’d likely do the first semester through SelfDesign High, and the second semester in the regular high school in Nelson, where she could get labs and options that benefit from in-person learning.

That puts her up to 12 courses. That will mean she’ll only need a further 8 courses to graduate, and that’s a full course-load for one year. So the upshot is that within a few months of turning 15 she could have a high school graduation diploma.

Now, I doubt that she will actually want to head off to university at that point. I expect she’ll want to instead fit in some AP courses, some work, some travel and various other educational options and life experiences. I’m no way convinced that continuing to accelerate her academic learning to this degree is ideal.

But seeing that it is at least possible? That woke her up in a big way.

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I’d never heard of them until a couple of weeks ago when a booklet of college extension courses and workshops showed up and mentioned a weekend class teaching this “beautiful Japanese art of decorative embroidered thread balls.” I was curious, so I made a short stop at the University of Google and was entranced. True to my DIY nature the thought of signing up for the workshop never entered my mind. I ordered a book which was probably unnecessary, but it was nice to have a reputable guide to the basic tricks for establishing the geometry. And then I pulled out my stash of embroidery floss, some thrifted yarn and serger-thread spools and dove in.

Keeping the dorodangos company

My two completed temari keeping the dorodangos company on the window sill.


Dogwood design, a work in progress (ran out of white embroidery thread).

I’m running out of embroidery thread already. These things are addictive! Sophie suggested that at my current rate of 3 temari a week I could easily complete enough to fully decorate our Christmas tree (and the rest of the house) by next December. I’m pretty sure I’ll run out of steam soon, but for now it’s really gratifying.

I’ve been starting with 8 cm styrofoam balls. I wrap them with about 5 mm coating of light wool yarn, and then start with the “mari wrap,” which is done using regular sewing thread. You can see it as the bright pink layer in the dogwood design shown above. It takes a long time to get the mari layer opaque and consistent. The mari wrapping can be boring if it’s all you’re doing but is easily accomplished while listening to a podcast or chatting to your family.

Then with pins, marking threads and folded strips of paper you mark poles, map the circumference of the ball and start dividing it into sections in various orientations. Temari designs are organized by their basic hemispheric geometry, the commonest being quarters, fifths, sixths, eighths and compound eighths.

Years ago we had great fun making dorodangos. Temari and dorodangos are sort of the yin and yang of Japanese decorative spheres. They look pretty neat together on the windowsill.

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At the crashpad

SIMG_0009haring our lives out between two residences feels good in a number of ways. The travel doesn’t feel onerous: Fiona and I are doing two trips a week, just like we did all last year.

For Sophie I think it’s turning out to be an unqualified success. She’s happy, she has a nice social group, she’s challenged at school, she’s involved in peer tutoring and another support group for girls, she’s really excelling academically, she loves her teachers, she’s able to be involved in more extra-curricular activities. And she’s getting comfortable and confident with a certain amount of self-sufficient living, up to a few days in a row.

For Chuck and me it’s fine. I wish I had more to do in town. I’ve been running, and knitting, and reading, and catching up on my continuing medical education, and I do a lot of the housekeeping and all the shopping for the two households and a fair bit of taxiing of girls. Chuck spends a lot of evenings home by himself. Fiona and I are normally away two or three overnights a week, but there are another two days that we get back well into the evening. We got a kitten, christened Leopold Leopoldovich. Chuck and Leo seem to be fairly deeply bonded.

For Fiona, there’s good and there’s bad. The really good stuff is how much she’s been able to take advantage of activities in town. She’s been using the library, doing three hours of dance a week, two and a half hours of gymnastics, three hours of sewing workshop, an hour of choir and an hour of violin lesson. Dance is where she’s really been able to soar: doing the ballet technique class has resulted in huge leaps in her ability, and now in the New Year she’ll be adding two more hours of ballet. She really loves it, and without the crashpad there’s no way she could have poured herself into this with such talent and interest.

The not-good part is illustrated in the photo above.  This is what Fiona does most of the time she’s not at a scheduled activity. The house is too small and under-furnished to contain any of her personal possessions: we live out of overnight bags and carry just a few things back and forth with us. We don’t have any personal space: we sleep in the open kitchen/living area, so we don’t feel right spreading out and taking over, especially since we’re sharing the house with Sophie and another girl and sometimes the other girl’s mom. So it doesn’t feel like home to Fiona at all, and she just parks herself in front of her computer and watches videos, and tells me she doesn’t feel like doing anything else while she’s at the crashpad. And since dance classes wrapped up in early December, right now it feels especially bad.

And of course, introvert that she is, when she gets back home to her own bedroom, she loves to cozy up in there and decompress from the crashpad experience of feeling like a guest in a shared space. So … I worry. So much solitary time. So much screen time. So little creativity and initiative.

Like I say, it’s felt especially troublesome in the last week or two because she’s not as busy with dance, and that will get back in full(er) swing again in the New Year. But I think we will need to figure out a way of living a bit differently. She is not happy either about how the fallow time at the crashpad feels.

Still, on balance there’s more good than bad. We’ll figure it out, I’m sure.

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Orange is the new black

So we got a new vehicle. Compared to the old one it’s less boxy, less black, cuter and smaller. It’s also less backwards, having the steering wheel on the left, a fact that makes my three (yes three!) kids with Learner’s Permits much happier. I think that we now have some hope of actually getting one or two of them to the next stage of licensure.

IMG_0008The new car is a five-seater Subaru CrossTrek. Now that we’re rarely a family of six, or even five, we no longer needed the passenger space the Delica offered. Since the Deli was reaching its 21st birthday and beginning to show its age, we decided to opt for something newer, smaller and more fuel-efficient. I love the CrossTrek so far. It gets an extra 160 km from a tank of fuel compared to the Delica (and it was actually pretty good) and has the high ground clearance and AWD that are necessities where we live. Furthermore it has all sorts of nice safety features like airbags, ABS and traction control, things that are pretty standard these days but which the Deli was missing.

IMG_0011So we’re a three-L family, and I think we’ll be hard-pressed to share the driving experience out over the holidays. By rights Erin and Noah should already by onto the next stage in the graduating licensing, but it hasn’t happened. I really don’t know what it is about this generation that they don’t relish getting their driver’s licenses the way my generation did. It may be that this is regional, and that in other parts of the country it’s different. But here, there doesn’t seem to be a headlong dash towards learning to drive the instant kids turn 16. A few kids, sure, they’re in a hurry but a lot seem to have no interest. For my kids and the majority of their friends it’s just not a priority.

I wonder about a few factors. First, the graduated license program, which I completely understand the reasoning behind, has had the effect of pushing full licensure out of the high school years. In BC if you move quickly, you can have a partial license as early as your 17th birthday, but full licensure (meaning being able to carry more than one passenger without restrictions on time of day, etc.) has to wait until well into legal adulthood. So driving just isn’t part of the high school culture. Kids don’t see their slightly older friends enjoying the perks of being fully licensed, encouraging them to look forward to becoming so themselves.

Then there are the economic constraints. When I was 17, gas cost 23 cents a litre. Around here we’ve been paying more than five times that much. Inflation only accounts for about half that change. So cars are more expensive to buy, insure, fill and maintain, even taking inflation into account, and higher education costs more than ever. How likely is it that a university-bound young adult these days will own a car? Not very!

And then there’s other fallout of the graduated licensing system: it makes it expensive and inconvenient for teens to get enough practice to prior to doing their road tests, since (at least in our case) they’ve moved away from home by the time they’re age-eligible. Living in big cities, with ample public transit, thankfully, on shoestring budgets and with no access to a family vehicle, they are mostly limited to few weeks of rural driving in the summer to get the driving experience and confidence they need to do their first road test.

(I should say that I have a similar beef with the practice in some jurisdictions of pushing the legal drinking age well into adulthood — particular as old as 21. It means that it’s difficult for parents to provide support and guidance as their offspring venture forth into these new areas of responsibility. Hey kids, there’s something we think carries a bit of risk, so we’re not gonna let you try it until you’re a bit older and completely on your own.)

Finally, for my kids at least, there’s the fact that they’ve had a lot of autonomy and independence already. Erin travelled to SE Asia, and took herself to Alberta once a month when she was 14 and 15. Noah went to Cuba as well as various other Canadian locations with his choir and has couch-surfed a bit in Nelson. Sophie’s already living on her own a few days a week. All three kids made their own educational choices, whether as unschoolers or by choosing to attend school. Maybe a driver’s license doesn’t have the same symbolic value for them as a marker of the passage into independence and autonomy.

At any rate, it’s not part of high school culture because you now have to be older, and that makes getting enough learn-to-drive experience is awkward and expensive, and my kids have already got a fair bit of independence, so what’s the big deal with driving? Why bother to learn? In our case if you then add the disincentive of learning in a boxy high van with the steering wheel and controls all on the wrong sides and you’ll understand why we’re all stuck at the L stage here.

It turns out it may be Sophie pushing the older siblings forward here. She turned 16 recently, got her L and has actually seen the wisdom in knocking off as much of the learn-to-drive process as she can while she’s still living at home, even if the payoff may end up being many years down the line. Perhaps several years after graduating from university she’ll finally having enough income to buy her own car, and won’t have to pay to take a several-months-long Driving School course at that point.

She’s pushed herself past the “freakin’ stressed out” stage of being behind the wheel and is now to the point of enjoying our lonely rural drive back and forth from Nelson. She’s getting experience with all kinds of weather and is learning to keep her eyes peeled for black ice and deer eyes glinting in the dark. What she’s not getting enough of yet is dealing with traffic patterns in city environments, but Nelson is big enough that she’ll accrue that over time.

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How to know if your unschooler is learning

Q. How do you know if an unschooled child is learning?
A. He’s alive.

The point being that children are hard-wired to learn. You can’t stop them. Give them a reasonably rich environment, loving support and relative freedom and you really can’t go wrong.


We’re part of a Distributed Learning program, which means that at least according to the government’s rules, a teacher is supposed to assess Fiona’s learning. Recently I had opportunity to talk with the teacher and principal of our program about what I believe an assessment of unschooled DL students should look like. At first I had a hard time articulating my thoughts in a cogent way. I wanted to ask why kids have to be assessed at all. Why couldn’t DL teachers just trust that if the parent says things are going well, the child is learning well? Shouldn’t the teacher just develop a relationship with the family so that the understanding and trust is there? Forget the assessment part of things.

But if I’d just said that I wouldn’t have been talking their language and I wouldn’t have helped them feel like they were honestly fulfilling their responsibility to the government. They’re bound by pretty clear responsibilities. They’re supposed to assess. So I wanted to make it clear that if a teacher developed an understanding of the richness of a child’s life in an unschooling environment, that was an assessment.

As I tried to articulate my reasoning I harkened back to some phrases of education-ese I’d encountered years before from an unschooling-sympathetic pedagogue: assessment strategies can include “behavioural and affective indicators of competency.” These are indicators like: a child making connections between disparate interests, sharing enthusiasms conversationally, demonstrating curiosity, being highly engaged in an activity, exhibiting persistence and diligence, expressing delight and pleasure in the subject matter, making learning choices, setting goals, following through on ideas and plans.

If I see my unschooler exhibiting these things, I know she is learning well, because without top-down structure or coercion, the only reason for her to engage in educational activities is because she’s learning and gaining satisfaction from her growing competence and understanding. That makes these sorts of indicators extremely useful in a fully self-directed learning environment.

In school there are multiple reasons why students might engage in educational activities, thus exhibiting behavioural indicators. Sure they might do so because they perceive that they are gaining knowledge and competence. But they also might take part in learning-related activities to avoid getting in trouble, to fit in with peers, to earn approval from those in a position of authority over them, or to earn the reward of good grades. Because these other motivations can muddy the waters, engaging in an educational activity isn’t in and of itself sufficient evidence of learning in a school environment.

A school student assigned to learn about the invention of currency may or may not learn much at all from the assignment. Perhaps he sits on the computer and only pretends to research, or is given articles to read but doesn’t bother reading them. Or reads them because he’s told he has to, but doesn’t care that he doesn’t understand much of it. He goes through the motions for secondary gain (avoiding trouble, fitting in), not for the primary intended purpose of becoming educated. Thus it makes sense to ask for a report or have him write a test to look for evidence that some sort of learning went on.

However if Fiona starts asking questions about what currency is and how it came into being, and what existed before it, and decides to listen to a Planet Money podcasts about the topic, and muses aloud about bartering and the problems of divisibility and durability and how currency provides solutions, and babbles away about various ideas she’s had about this in the past and how her thinking has changed, she has provided copious evidence of learning. We don’t need a written report, a quiz score or a PowerPoint presentation to assure us that she’s learned something, because we’ve got self-motivation, excitement, curiosity, persistence, engagement, and so on. That is her evidence of learning.

This is what I want our DL teacher to do: to build enough of a relationship with me and with Fiona to be able to see that affective and behavioural indicators of competence are there in spades.

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The landscape of Distributed Learning

We’ve been part of three different Distributed Learning programs with the various kids over the years. In BC kids who are home-based learners have two broad choices. They can be registered as homeschoolers according to the Ministry of Education’s legal definition of such, under Sections 12 & 13 of the Education Act. This is as simple as registering with the Ministry, by filling out a form at a school, informing them that your child is being educated at home. That’s basically the end of the story. No one has any duty to support you, and you are not overseen or evaluated or granted permission or anything of the sort.

The other option, which 90% of home-based learners in the province avail themselves of, is to enrol with a Distributed Learning program. DL programs are considered schools, and funding on the order of several thousand dollars is provided to those schools to allow them to provide for their students. DL programs vary a lot. Some offer full curriculum-in-a-box support, some provide virtual classrooms, or moodle courses, or one or two days a week of educational enrichment activities, or experiential learning around a particular theme. Even the more highly structured DL programs offer a lot more flexibility and freedom in choosing one’s educational approach than would be available in a school setting. Some DL programs enthusiastically support out-and-out unschoolers.

There is typically some financial support for family-directed purchases of resources or services; in the past this has usually been in the range of $1000-1200 per child per year, but recently the government has reduced the amount to $600. We’ve used our money mostly for sports and music lessons, but have also purchased art supplies, tech tools like digital cameras and graphing calculators, a bit of curriculum and printer cartridges.

Over the years in addition to the financial support for sports and arts activities we’ve benefitted from things like computer loans, art classes, textbook loans, participation in week-long electives, software loans, a sense of community whether real or virtual, and a free downhill ski / snowboard program.

The flip-side of receiving all this support from a DL program is the accountability. When taxpayer money is being allocated on a child’s behalf, there are bound to be strings attached. The purpose of those strings is, I believe, to ensure that DL children are being effectively educated. But in typical bureaucratic fashion that broad aim is translated into a bunch of microscopic objectives organized by grade level and along extremely schoolish lines. To keep DL families accountable they are required to allow a teacher to oversee their home-based education. In fact, the government goes so far as to say that the supervising teacher has the primary responsibility for the child’s education, with the parent being the person to whom the implementation of that learning is “distributed” on a day-to-day basis. This double-think is what comes of using a school-based model on something that’s really not anything of the sort. But, whatever. If it doesn’t affect what Fiona and I do at home on a daily basis, we don’t really care if the government calls someone in an office far away her teacher.

But there’s always a tension for DL families of the more child-led or unschooling persuasion. It’s a tension between the government’s expectation that DL students are receiving educational programs identical to what happens in school under the supervision of qualified paid teachers and what is actually going on: the parents and the children themselves are highly autonomous and DL education may look nothing like school in either format or content. And in between the government’s unrealistic preconceptions and the reality of an unschooling family’s daily life sits the DL teacher.

In various programs the teachers align themselves differently in the no-man’s land between family realities and government policy. They’re charged with generating the school record for their DL charges. Some view themselves as the enforcers of the government’s expectations, evaluating students to ensure that families enact a sufficiently school-like model at home. (And some parents actually want that accountability and the reassurance that they’re doing “school” in a conventional way at home.) On the other hand some DL teachers view themselves as the parents’ allies, translating whatever naturally happens into school-like perspectives and language in order to satisfy the government that appropriate education is occurring. We’ve always tried to make sure we were allied with the latter type.

When our current DL program began it was at my suggestion. Erin had begun going to school, and as a school parent I was invited to a meeting to discuss the long-term viability of the tiny school with its falling enrolment. I suggested that if a DL program were housed within the school, there were probably up to a dozen or so homeschooled students who would welcome the opportunity of being involved, happy to be keeping funding in our community and feeling a greater sense of connection here. The response from the school was immediate and enthusiastic. How can we do this? What do these families want? they asked.

At a couple of meetings I and some other parents explained why we were homeschooling: to avoid coercion in education, to put our kids in charge, to allow them the freedom to follow their passions, to avoid evaluative mentality and the idea that learning is something you do to please others and earn kudos. “Bring it on!” said the school staff. “We want to support this!” They told their own stories about a few of the amazing formerly-unschooled kids who had joined the school as teens, and how refreshing they’d found the energy and enthusiasm those kids had, how many amazing skills and bits of knowledge they had.

I know it sounds weird, that this was the reaction, but our school happened to have a bunch of people who were really keen on outside-the-box approaches to education. They made it clear that the DL program was in no way a strategic move to hook our kids and reel them into bricks-and-mortar school enrolment. “We want to support what you’re doing. This is exactly what an innovative community-minded school in a tiny village should be doing: supporting all kids, no matter how they want to learn.”

And it’s been great. The principal of the DL program was the woman who led those first few meetings. She was strongly in favour of creating individualized learning plans, primarily written by the parent, to ensure that families still had the flexibility they wanted. The teacher ended up being a wonderful, gentle trusting guy whose starting point was “What do you want from me?” He met with us in person towards the end of each term and the subtext at these meetings was “I trust that your child is learning like crazy. If you can share some of that with me, I’ll be able to do the paperwork that enables your lovely unschooling to continue.” Perfect.

Eventually the DL principal moved on to become the big cheese in the school district. She was replaced by a teddy-bear of a guy who seemed cool with anything, so long as everyone was happy. The atmosphere in the program continued to be defined by supportive trusting relationship we had with the DL teacher. But this year not only did the principal move on, but the teacher we’d had since the beginning took a sabbatical. And neither the new principal nor the new teacher had any experience with Distributed Learning.

Without continuity or any understanding of the original philosophical intent of the program, the two new staff have been working, I think, from institutional documents and preconceptions in trying to figure out their roles. I believe they’re both good-hearted people who want to make things work for the DL families. They have steep learning curves to climb, and they’re trying their best to do so quickly. But I think that so far they’re climbing a different hill from the one I’m on.

Term 1 meetings are imminent. We’ve been asked to bring evidence sufficient for evaluation. I am having trouble explaining by email, or even elucidating for myself, what the disconnect is between me (and other DL parents, based on a couple of casual discussions) and them. They’re trying, but I feel like we’re speaking entirely different languages. So far we’ve been communicating mostly by email, and a couple of times on the phone. We’ll have to see how the meeting shakes down next week. I was clear when all this started: I will not be part of a DL program that requires me to change the successful and efficient educational path we’ve chosen to tread. Fiona is a dynamo: she’s so bright, and clearly very capable and knowledgeable. I refuse to fix what ain’t broke.

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Those teen years…

With Noah reaching the official age of adulthood, Erin now into the start of her fourth year away from home and Sophie launching into a new, semi-independent life in another city, I’ve been thinking back to the post I wrote in 2007, entitled “Adolescence? No thanks.” Back then, with kids aged 4 through 13, I wrote:

“….adolescence is a social construct that comes of shortening childhood through the pressures of media, consumerism and peer-culture and delaying adulthood through impoverished expectations of teens and twenty-somethings.”

My plan was to compress the in-between state to as short a period as possible. Adolescence is an awkward stage of being no longer a child, having adult-like physical and mental capabilities, but not yet being afforded the responsibility, freedom and self-determination of the adult world. I remembered how nasty the in-between-ness had felt when I was a teen and I wanted my own children to spend as little time there as necessary.

At the time, Erin was a shy backwoods homeschooled girl who at 13 was still not entirely comfortable being away from home and family overnight. She seemed light years away from wanting the independence, freedom and responsibility that most teens eventually fight tooth and nail for. But I said to myself that once she starting pushing for independence, I’d do my very best to grant it rather than resist. “We’re not doing adolescence around here,” I told myself. I really hoped that if I when my kids pushed up against the limits and expectations of childhood I immediately moved those boundaries, they wouldn’t need to rebel, our relationships wouldn’t become conflict-ridden and I wouldn’t have to wail and gnash my teeth. So I crossed my fingers and hoped that when the push for independence came, it would be in a form I could make peace with and yield to.

I had no idea how quickly things would shift! Within a year the girl who couldn’t endure a sleepover at a friend’s house had decided she would like to accept the invitation of some adult friends to go backpacking in southeast Asia for more than two months. From there she never looked back. Soon she was an old hand at spending weekends in Calgary, doing overnight Greyhound bus trips, working, touring with her choir and spending summers away at university campuses and on tour with the National Youth Orchestra. When she came to us at age 16 and said that she wanted to move to Montreal, we had a hard time remembering the 13-year-old who was still too tightly attached to home and family to got to a sleepover. And we said yes.

In our quest to vault over adolescence we allowed her to forge ahead whenever she felt she was ready. The more she did, the more confident she became, and so she rode an accelerating course all the way to independence. We’ve kept to the same strategy with the other kids, though their needs for independence haven’t turned on a dime in quite the same way. Noah grew his independent streak considerably later and more gradually. Sophie was more independent as a child so her blossoming into a self-sufficient 15-year-old wasn’t nearly as much of a shock to her parents. Fiona seems to be following in Sophie’s path, though time will tell.

It’s not simply that I hate in-between-ness. Nor is it that I dislike conflict and wasn’t relishing battling with a succession of teenagers for the better part of two decades. Nor was I trying to win parenting points by producing mature young adults on an accelerated schedule. It’s primarily that I think people, including children and teens, are usually right about what they’re ready for, and when we second-guess them and subject them to impoverished expectations, the resulting frustration they feel can cause them to live down to those expectations.

So we trust them and let them try what they think they’re ready for. After all, if they happen to be wrong, and they’re not really equipped for the responsibility, I’d rather they fail while I’m still there to help pick up the pieces. I’d rather they learn to make good decisions by making decisions. I’d rather they make mistakes when the costs of those mistakes are smaller. I’d rather they have to opportunity to learn from mistakes while they’re still within my sphere of influence and support.

And I won’t lie: mistakes have been made. Social and romantic relationships have blown up. Alcohol has been vomited. School suspensions have been issued. I’m sure there are a few things I know nothing about. But lessons have been learned early, and the result is that my three older offspring are strong, capable, mature, independent young people.

I’m about two thirds of the way through my career as a parent of adolescents. At this point I feel even more confident that this approach — which is really my kids’ approach, because they have the reins — is the right one.

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