Avalanche run

As soon as I left home I could hear them: shells exploding, dropped by a helicopter as part of avalanche control efforts along the highway. So I wasn’t surprised to see a line of cars waiting to be given the all-clear to head up the pass. I had to turn back and do a couple of back-and-forth kilometres, killing time until the road opened.IMG_2886

Fortunately it didn’t take too long before we got waved through. It was a lovely sunny day, so I didn’t mind the delay anyway.

IMG_2888There was a little avalanche that had come down the chute at Nature Boy. I actually smelled it before I saw it … the scent of mud and fresh spruce and pine. This is where we had a big avalanche about seven years ago that closed the road for several days. Today’s was just a tiny thing that didn’t even reach the road.

Week 6

Screenshot 2016-02-07 16.27.19I’m proud of my 28 black boxes. They mean I have done some sort of aerobic workout (running, biking or both) every day for the past 28 days.  My total time spent exercising is going up by about an hour a week, with most of that increase due to running (the green bars).

This was the first week of SOS workouts. My first speed workout was really tough. My first tempo workout was fine; even with rolling hills I undercut my target pace by about 10 seconds per kilometre. The “long” run this week wasn’t really any longer than I’m used to (13k), so it hardly counts as long.

Next week will hold fairly steady for duration, intensity and distance. There will be another nasty speed workout, fewer intervals but slightly longer ones. The rest will be the same, which is nice, because it’s a Symphony weekend. I’ll probably even ditch one day on the bike trainer.

Something of Substance

Pace (grey) and Heart Rate (red) over twelve intervals

Pace (grey) and Heart Rate (red) over twelve intervals

This is where I really start training. It’s no longer about just building mileage through daily runs.

SOS stands for “something of substance” and it refers to runs that have a particular training focus. There will be three of these every week from now on. One will focus on speed (or later strength), one will be a tempo run at my goal marathon pace, and one will be the Long Run to extend my physical and mental stamina.

Speed is where I struggle. My legs probably have about six fast-twitch muscle fibres between them. I’m a slow-twitch gal through and through; that’s why I can add mileage so easily. So the speed interval workouts over the next five weeks are really going to challenge me. Based on my longer-distance performance, I “should” be able to run speed intervals at a pace of 4:53 per kilometer. I did it today, but even though the intervals were short, it was hard. I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to maintain that pace as the intervals get longer. Today’s only lasted 2 minutes: eventually they’ll last 6! Because today’s were short I had to run twelve of the damn things… and I lost count in the middle (on the graph that’s where I stopped and my heart rate dropped) and realized I had to do two more than I had briefly thought.

Tempo runs and long runs will probably be fine. I accidentally ran a 10k at almost tempo pace earlier this week and it felt pretty easy. And I know I can do long. Speed, though, speed kills.

The trainer


The trainer in the garage

Well thank goodness. I was just getting sick. That was why I was feeling so tired. Two days and three nights of low-grade fevers, aching legs, headache and fatigue. Then … nothing. My immune system seems to have won.

So, this is my bike trainer. I got it last summer, used, for $150. It’s a CycleOps Fluid2, which attaches to my rear axle and has a flywheel with silicon-fluid resistance. It’s amazingly quiet. I can watch episodes of The Wire on my little MacBook and can easily hear everything through its wee speaker. It has a really natural feel to it. As I increase my pedalling speed, the resistance goes up, just like wind resistance would go up in real life. It is stable, and smooth, and doesn’t slip.

What I can’t do is ride on Zwift, which I had really wanted to do. It’s a virtual social riding app which plops a Virtual You into various simulated cycling courses, with the scenery whipping by you in immersive virtual reality. Sadly they don’t yet support 650C wheels, the size that I have on my slightly smaller than typical road bike. And they don’t account for the aberrant decrease in viscosity of fluid silicon as it nears the 0ºC temperature of a Canadian garage in the depth of winter. That’s a double-whammy that means is that the calculations they do in order to determine my virtual speed and virtual power err on the side of the exceedingly generous. Because of the social nature of Zwift, the result is that when I drop my avatar into the environment — as I did during my free trial — Virtual Me begins merrily whupping all the other riders on the course. Which a few of them don’t take kindly to.

I changed my username to Sorry 650C-Tire. But people still didn’t get it; a few of them still nagged at me to “fix my power settings,” which unfortunately there was no way I could do. It would require some considerable explanation about my set-up to make them understand why, not something I wanted to have to do repeatedly in a tiny chat box, during a ride. And I couldn’t ignore the comments and just enjoy myself despite the snark, because I hate having negative vibes aimed at me. Too bad, because I really really loved the app.

A $600 power meter would fix the problem. Or a $1300 smart trainer like the Wahoo Kickr. But, well, no, not happening. Someday Zwift plans to build wheel size options into their app.

Until then, it’s okay. If I was riding long hard distances five days a week in my garage I’d be desperate for it. But I do at most three short easy rides a week, and that’ll be dropping as my running mileage increases. So I watch episodes of The Wire and I’m fine.

Cumulative fatigue

It’s a good thing, supposedly. At least in this case. But I’m feeling it today!

The idea is to train your body for endurance without doing outrageously long or difficult workouts, but by simply doing them frequently enough that your body doesn’t recover completely in between. By pushing your body to do more work before it is thoroughly recovered, you are encouraging it to adapt to these new, tougher conditions.

In preparing for a marathon I need structure. This time I’m basing my structure on Hansons Marathon Method, from the book of the same name. I’m now 5 out of 18 weeks through the program. The first 5 weeks are about building a base and acclimatizing to daily running. The next phase adds speed intervals and tempo runs, as well as longer easy runs. The third phase changes speed workouts for strength-based runs, and the final 10 days are of course a taper to the race.

Having finished the first phase the meat of the program hasn’t really begun. I’m doing pretty well; I find the easy runs easy and I am not experiencing any over-use symptoms from running every day. But because I’m combining the six prescribed runs a week with three bike rides a week on my trainer, I’m starting to experience the fatigue.


This is so just the beginning. (See weekly cumulative mileage in the graph along the bottom.)


Some cross-training on the bike trainer. Also increasing.

There’s no doubt I’m going to have to give up the bike rides soon. The alternative would be to use them as substitutes for runs rather than additional workouts, but except for the fact that I can watch Homeland episodes on the trainer, I prefer running.

So far, haha.

Changing DL programs


For several years our family had been with the SelfDesign distributed learning (DL) program, an unschooling-friendly sort of virtual umbrella school to which we reported in various creative ways on a weekly basis in exchange for support primarily in the form of a resource allowance. Then the local school, a place full of humanity and creativity and innovation, started its own DL program partly at my urging. We switched our enrolment to them and were pretty happy there.

Last year, though, there were some personnel changes that created a whole new learning curve in the local program, and it also became apparent that Fiona was outgrowing the cohort of kids and the target age-range of the occasional workshop offerings. So when we happened to visit SelfDesign’s Nelson location in the spring for some casual homeschooler get-togethers, we were intrigued by all the options they were offering their high school learners, and by the enthusiasm we got from staff about creating enhanced options for “Gateways Learners,” students in Grades 8 & 9. We saw all the great elective courses they offered for Grade 10+ credit that were available for motivated Grade 9 learners as well. We were told about the great camps and retreats that were offered two or three times a year. With Fiona heading into Grade 9, looking for more independence, challenge and social connections, SelfDesign looked like the place to be.

So we switched, and started the year by reconnecting with our fabulous Learning Consultant (i.e. liaison teacher) from back in the day. Fiona decided to take self-paced Math and Science at the Grade 10 level at the local school through cross-enrolment, and that was all great too.

But then it turned out that there actually wasn’t a Gateways program this year. They were going to be working on a few ideas that they could hopefully roll out later. But nothing for now, just the same routine of home-based learning and reporting as used during the K-7 years.

The first learner retreat was to take place in late October, open to students from Grades 8-12. We got Fiona all signed up and enthusiastic. But then they decided the age-range was too wide and decided to restrict it (and all future camps/retreats for learners) to those aged 14 and up.

The next frustration came when they began rolling out their exciting new opportunities for Gateways learners. These turned out to be real-time video-based online meet-ups that, while they might have been interesting to learners who were entirely new to social media, missed the mark horribly for Fiona. Online pretend play with adult facilitators over glitchy software? She took one look, muttered something derisive and sarcastic and that was that. For a kid who had been rocking Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for years, this was meaningless and laughable.

I started advocating for something more meaningful. I heard from other parents that their tweens and teens were looking for more opportunities within the program. I began writing long messages to SelfDesign personnel and having Skype sessions with key people to discuss my ideas. They seemed interested.

Sadly, what began slowly rolling out continued to miss the mark and to suffer from logistical problems. The online clubhouse was basically just a message board system oriented around topics like Arts & Crafts with well-meaning adult facilitators but no structure. Furthermore, because it was built within GooglePlus integrated with SelfDesign’s site, Fiona was too young to get permission to participate. (Google requires social media account users to be at least 13. Fibbing wasn’t an option because her birthdate was determined by her school registration.) Similarly they began offering workshops as Google Hangouts; again, Fiona was too young for access. And the initial workshop topics (Reflecting on Your Learning, and Learning to Write a Weekly Report on Your Learning) were things Fiona had been doing for years and didn’t want any help with. And they were live workshops, always scheduled at times that conflicted with other activities that she’d committed to in September.

And then the kicker. Because she was working through Math and Science 10 quickly, she was going to finish them long before the end of the school year. She had hit all the learning outcomes for many of the Grade 9 “subjects” by November. And so she was keen to add more Grade 10 courses in order to stay challenged. But SelfDesign was unable to let her take any Grade 10 courses at all within their system due to governmental funding hassles. And furthermore they wouldn’t let her cross-enrol in more than 2 courses in a different school because, in essence, they feared it would “look bad” to the government to have her doing so much of her learning in a different program.

All of which we understood, but it was just so frustrating. As it turned out our wonderful LC was feeling hugely over-extended with her student roster, so when we told her we were jumping ship and going back to our local DL program it was a blessing for her.

Sure, our local DL program will never offer a meaningful social group or workshop activities for home-learners that will meet Fiona’s social and intellectual needs. But because it’s a public-school-based program rather than an independent program like SelfDesign, the rules are much simpler. We don’t have to report every week. It’s no longer impossible to combine learning at the Grade 9 and 10 levels. And the program is so small that they are happy to build what she wants.

So she’s doing half Grade 9 and half Grade 10 and she does a couple of courses online and a couple in the classroom (actually now just Science, since she wrote the Math 10 final exam last week) and the rest of her learning is capricious, self-led and self-reported in a basic blog that she makes an effort to post to once or twice a term. And life’s good.

The plan is for enrolment at the high school in Nelson next year. Documenting her academic level through some advanced courses this year should ensure appropriate placement without any hassles.

Here I go!

I took the plunge the other day and signed up for a marathon at the beginning of May. The idea had been rattling around in the back of my head for at few months and I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to committing, but then on a whim I clicked on an email link and within a couple of minutes that was that. Gulp.

Daily workouts for the last few weeks. Still only 5-6 hours a week ... so far!

Daily workouts for the last few weeks. Still only 5-6 hours a week so far. Building a training base.

The last time I wrote about running, I was pondering relatively low-mileage marathon training. I’ve kind of shifted my thinking since then. While I’m going to keep my Weekly Long Runs fairly short, maxing out at 16 miles, I’ve been getting into the habit of running (or alternatively riding my bike trainer) every day. I’m finding that it’s easier to start my day asking myself when I will do a workout, rather than whether I will do one, and if so, when. As the length of my daily runs builds from 5-7 km to ~ 8-20 km, that means my weekly mileage is going to end up being pretty typical for marathon training, peaking at around 90 km in March/April.

Screenshot 2016-01-28 10.01.11

The ideal winter running route for me.

Here is where I’m running four days a week. It’s a perfect route, flat as a pancake near the lake with a bit of elevation loss and gain getting to and from the green-dot start point (which happens to be where Fiona’s dance studio is). It’s about half well-trodden footpaths and half roads-and-sidewalks,. The lake tends to moderate the temperature, helping to melt snow fairly quickly even along the footpaths. A single circuit along the red route totals ~7 km, but by using the blue section I can create perfect 2.0k loops in the park to add to that. Until the snow is gone from the rail-trail, likely in early April, this will be my main Nelson stomping ground.

I’m home in New Denver on the weekends when I do my longer runs. I’ll have to run on the highways there until spring. “Highways” needs to be interpreted in a Kootenays context, of course: they’re two-lane winding mountain roads that are very scenic and little-travelled. I shouldn’t complain. But they’re full of hills, more open and much less interesting than trails, and there are no options for loops: always just out-and-back. So I’ll be very happy when the trails open up in the spring.

On being twelve

This isn’t about my own, current, 12-year-old, or about any of my former 12-year-olds. Maybe it’s a bit about the 12-year-old I used to be, and about who that has made me as a parent. It’s a copy and paste from a message board, where I was responding to a mom whose daughter had stolen some money from her. I wrote it a couple of months ago and forgot about it. Yesterday I stumbled across it with Fiona and was surprised by how much it resonated for both of us. That claustrophobic feeling of being confined and controlled, just itching for the world to take you seriously…

I stole money from my parents as a tween and young teen. I grew into an honest law-abiding adult. At the time I knew it was wrong. I knew lying was wrong. I felt badly about it. I still did it. Why?

Well, in my case it was to right injustices that I felt (and still feel) very keenly. The injustices were personal but also to a larger extent societal. Twelve-year-olds are capable and intelligent; many of them are probably stronger and smarter than some adults. They are hard-wired to want independence and responsibility. Yet they are terribly infantalized by our culture: they have almost no control over their lives, almost no autonomy for personal decision-making, almost no ability to contribute meaningfully to the world. They have to get permission for almost everything they do, whether to eliminate bodily wastes (ask to go to the bathroom at school) or to eat or to walk their body 100 metres to the north or to buy a soda. They can’t work — they can’t even volunteer most places, due to liability and supervision issues. Like seriously: for someone who has near-adult capabilities, 12-year-olds have absolutely microscopic levels of freedom, power, autonomy. 

And here’s the thing: whenever we give kids just a little smidge more responsibility and independence, the instant they make a choice that doesn’t align with our preferences, perhaps because they’re just learning to wield it or perhaps just to be sure the choice is really theirs to make, we call that “not ready for the responsibility” and we punish them by restricting them even more. We ground them, we remove discretionary choices we call “privileges,” we shorten the apron strings.

Being an adolescent, especially a bright capable one, sucks. You are ready for so much more than society says is allowable.

And in our society money — like it or not — is a very potent symbol of those things that adolescents hunger for: freedom, power and autonomy. Snatching some money is an alluring way to feed a little bit of that hunger for control over your life. It will probably take your daughter, like it took me, a decade or two to understand the real reasons underlying her theft, but I’d be willing to bet she’ll ultimately come to the same conclusions I did. 

I can pretty much guarantee that your daughter knew what she did was wrong. She said as much; she cried, she’s sorry about the whole thing. I don’t think you need to do anything else to show her that you disapprove, that she was wrong. This isn’t rocket science. She knows.

What she needs help with is in addressing the feelings and impulses that caused her to do something that she knew was wrong. And here’s where I need to make a case for something that probably seems really counter-intuitive to you. I think that if you possibly can you should consider giving her more freedom, more responsibility, more trust and more money. Not less. If you are clear in how you discuss this with her, she will not interpret it as a reward for dishonesty.

I’d wait a few days and then take her out for an ice cream date, or to a favourite café for a heart-to-heart. Tell her that for her to do something so wrong, you know she must be really struggling inside. And you wonder whether part of what she’s struggling with is a desire for more independence and responsibility. You understand that it’s really hard being 12. At 12 the world still treats you like a child but in a lot of ways you’re practically as smart and as strong as an adult. As her parent you know that she is kind and good and strong and capable, though admittedly it can be hard for parents to let go and give their kids the freedom to look after themselves more and maybe even make a few mistakes. But as best you can you’d like to start treating her more like the adult she is becoming. And you’d like to enlist her help in coming up with some strategies for doing that. Ask her what she thinks would help.

Another marathon?

Screenshot 2015-11-22 16.30.50

5-6 workouts a week, totalling 3.5-4 hours. Definitely sustainable.

I’m vaguely thinking about running a marathon again this year. Maybe the one I ran five years ago in Vancouver. It was a nice route, and by running the same event I’ll be able to see how my fitness is holding up over the years. Also I have a kid attending school nearby and another one who is going to be performing the Brahms violin concerto with an orchestra in the area around that time.

Right now I’m just trying to figure out if I have the time and (more to the point) the energy and motivation to enjoy the amount of training I’ll have to do? I decided to mock up a schedule training program for November and December to test the waters. I created a schedule of about four runs and one or two cross-training workouts a week. Nothing too demanding in terms of length or speed, just an attempt at consistency. I figured if I ended up feeling tired or unmotivated with the near-daily workouts, that would be a sign not to build to a marathon. But so far it’s going well. My no-workout days feel weirdly empty, and I’m enjoying my runs a lot despite the gross November weather and the early sunsets.

A typical marathon training program has runners build the length of a weekly Long Slow Run from 10 to 32 km over about 20 weeks with a bunch of easier shorter runs filling out the week. A few of those shorter runs will involve intervals or speed, but a lot of them are just “easy 5k’s” or whatever.

Screenshot 2015-11-22 18.05.37

I expect my mileage graph will look less tilted than this.


But I know some things about myself and about the science behind distance running that are going to lead me to diverge from that typical plan. First, I’m not a beginner, so I’m starting at a higher mileage level, about 30k per week. Next, I know that I am one of those people who can push my distance pretty easily at any point. For instance I ran a really solid trail 25k in 2012, having not run anything longer than 8k in the preceding several months. I have little doubt I could finish a marathon tomorrow if I really needed to so I don’t need high mileage to build my confidence. Those really long training runs tend to mess with my running mojo when they come week after week. So I’ll avoid most of them.

I also know that slow runs between 60 and 90 minutes train your body to burn fat, the endurance fuel, and that there’s a law of diminishing returns on this count for runs of longer than 90 minutes. Not to mention an increase in the risk of injury. So I plan to do two or more slow runs in this middle range per week (or even, occasionally, the same day), rather than one massive run on the weekend.

And I know that my old stand-by workout, the 5k medium-speed run, is pretty useless from a training standpoint. It may be good for my state of mind, and it works the kinks out and helps burn calories, but from a training standpoint I’d be better off doing short runs of intervals or hills, or cross-training, or even taking a day off. So I’ll try to minimize those non-specific purpose-less runs.

Weird thing I noticed this week: my resting heart rate is really low. I got a new HR monitor after not having a functional one for a couple of years, to help me maintain my run intensity in the “low” range during endurance runs. I was lying down messing with my phone just before heading out for a run today and happened to glance at my Vivoactive watch. My HR was 46. I’ve never seen a reading lower than 50 in the past, more often around 52. Maybe my heart is just unwinding and will eventually slow to zero and that will be that? Ha, just kidding. I’ll take it as a sign of improved general fitness. Who knows why or how, but I’ll take it.

Permission to Christmas

Practicing Messiah music

Practicing Messiah music

I give up. Now that Voices West is over, now that the first snow has fallen, now that Fiona is into the thick of preparing for holiday performances, now that plane tickets are booked for the grown-up kids to get home, go ahead and start your Christmassing, girls. Put up a little tree and ornaments in the Nelson house. Make hot chocolate and listen to Christmas music while eating ginger snaps.  Make your baking list.

I’ve always held fast to advent, or at least December 1st, as the start date for the holiday celebrations, but this year I give up.

Choral festival weekend

Screenshot 2015-11-15 12.03.25

A fuller house…

Voices West was fantastic, even for Fiona and me, who weren’t directly participating. Two hundred and eighty singers, a performance hall packed with a thousand people, meals and billets and sight-seeing and travelling and meeting new people and finally hearing Kokopelli and Coastal Sound sing live … it was a great weekend.

We billeted four members of one of the Edmonton choirs, plus unofficially billeting one of Sophie’s out-of-town choir-mates. I love that the house now has enough finished rooms, bedding and mattresses of various descriptions to host guests. Perhaps not five at a time in future, not without adding a bathroom, but in smaller numbers easily: we even now have a designated guest room. This is something our New Denver house has never really been capable of. (The other thing I love about the Nelson house is that it has a living room that is large enough and shaped properly to function as a gathering place. What a treat!)

One-eighth of the Glory Bowl dressing we used

Our portion: one-eighth of the Glory Bowl dressing we used at the dinner

Fiona and I cooked for Voices West for the major pre-performance meal. The host choir director had responsibilities beautifully organized and distributed. Fiona had spent an afternoon a couple of weeks earlier in a church kitchen helping cook about 50 litres of Bengali Dal and get it into the freezer. We had baked our contribution of several dozen gluten/dairy-free cookies, and 3 litres of Glory Bowl Dressing at home, part of the distributed prep network. And then on the day of the big dinner at the hall, we showed up at noon and got to work. There was a beautiful industrial kitchen with four big ranges, two huge wall ovens and a floor to ceiling warming oven, a dozen 25-litre heavy-bottomed saucepans and everything else you could imagine. We set to work cooking and organizing and doling out. There were twelve of us, and so much had been prepped ahead of time that we ended up a little ahead of schedule which was lovely. Then at 5 o’clock the choirs began rolling through the serving line in waves. We served an average of one meal every 12 seconds for an hour and it worked beautifully. None of the soy, nut, dairy or gluten-allergic singers got sick. The only glitch was when a line briefly formed at the self-busing station and created some obstruction at the serving line; we got that untangled quickly.

After the dinner, the main performance

After the dinner, the main performance: audience and performers alike were packed like sardines

Once meals were served we had less than an hour to wash everything: three hundred place settings of dishes and trays, every last dish, pot, chafing pan and serving spoon, the tables and floors, and all the extra food also needed to be cleaned up, put in storage containers and packed away. We didn’t quite get it done of course, though the attempt was valiant and almost successful. Fiona worked incredibly hard, and with ruthless efficiency, as did others, but there were some details that had to be looked after during and after the performance.

It was Sophie’s birthday weekend, too, and it was a great way for her to enjoy it though we saved cake and family gifts for the following weekend. The cake had gluten, dairy and nuts in it after all!

Front Room

Old plaster-and-lath and gaping fir flooring in the front room.

Old plaster-and-lath, upside-down receptacle and gaping fir flooring in the front room.

Oh look. I did some things. The front bedroom was uninhabitable when we took possession of the Nelson house. Over the summer Noah, Sophie and friends stripped and then repainted the two gyproc walls, but the ceiling was flaky acoustic tile and two of the walls were this stuff: plaster and lath with a bit of vermiculite behind it, being held together by many layers of paint, wallpaper and press-board panelling. At the suggestion of our building inspector we chose not to investigate asbestos status but simply to leave everything intact and seal it off. The safest way, really. So I cleaned loose plaster away, shimmed the places where it was gone completely and got the walls passably flat.

New drywall, and electrical receptacle now right-side-up

New drywall, and electrical receptacle now right-side-up

Then I drywalled over it. The ceiling required ten-foot sheets. Chuck and I did those together with a single step-ladder and, among other things, a baseball bat. Not too many corners (or arms or toes) got damaged.

Taping and mudding and painting complete.

Taping and mudding and painting complete.

I actually kind of like taping and mudding drywall. Not that I’d want to do that for a living, but a single room is a gratifying project. I’ve done it before, but it had been years. I got better at it as I went. In the end I didn’t get obsessive and do a full skim coat, since the two walls that had been done by a previous owner weren’t perfect either. But I got a pretty decent finish in the end.

Walls painted, hickory flooring and moldings done.

Walls painted, hickory flooring and moldings done.

From there it was on to painting. I went with what was marketed as a sort of chic tan-grey but turned out to be not that far off the colour of raw drywall, but whatever. Neutral, so that redecorating won’t require repainting, since we’re not really sure what this room will be for over the medium-term, and may not own the house for all that long anyway.

Then the flooring went in. That was really fun. I had picked up enough surplus engineered hickory via the regional buy & sell website for a nice price. I floated it over an underlayment, gluing the tongue-and-groove together, staggering the joints. It took me about 5 hours, and this was where the room really began to pop for me. Adding the mouldings was a time-consuming final step but brought everything up to the next level.

Looking the other way, mountain dusk in the distance.

Looking the other way, mountain dusk in the distance.

Sophie liked the room enough to move into it, vacating the larger, slightly more private room on the other side of the house. Which prompted Fiona to move across into the now-empty “blue room” that had been Sophie’s.  All of which is good because it means that the room she was in, which Noah repainted during the summer, is now empty and can get a bunch of finishing details done. Then I can move into that, meaning the entire upstairs will be empty and we can start looking towards a major renovation up there in the spring. The plan for upstairs is to add a dormer with a bathroom in it, and turn the rest into a master bedroom. The extra bathroom is definitely needed in a house with four bedrooms. Last weekend during the choral festival we had Sophie’s friend plus four billets staying with us. The eight of us had enough space, but sharing one bathroom eight ways was nuts. The girls were great about it but … yeah, it was crazy.

Unschooled adolescents

Fiona’s primary enrolment this year is with SelfDesign, an independent umbrella program that supports home-based learners from Kindergarten through Grade 9 and their families, including loads of unschoolers. The support is primarily moral support, though there’s a little money available that can be used to fund things like sports and music lessons. I love the organization; the people are good-hearted and well-intentioned, and they really do understand unschooling. For the most part they sit back and act as cheerleaders as kids learn in whatever wild and wooly ways they want.

SelfDesign also runs a high school program for learners in Grades 10-12. Because of governmental constraints, this program actually delivers content to the students on a course-by-course basis. Assessments are required. Students interact directly with and are accountable to their teachers. Credits are awarded. Graduation with a provincial diploma is the presumed — though not required — goal. They are as sympathetic and accommodating as possible to self-directed learning, and allow some pretty outside-the-box options for meeting course requirements, but the format and expectations are still a world apart from the K-9 program. It’s not a bad thing. I think this is actually what most teens are looking for: some outside accountability and feedback and guidance as they forge outwards beyond home and family towards more independence and responsibility.

The problem is that there is nothing in between these two extremely different models, and no way to combine them. It’s as if there is a tall stone wall between them. If you’re on the K-9 side, you can’t even peek over to see what is happening on the other side; you’re just expected to keep playing in the garden with the younger kids.

The people at SelfDesign have recognized that the learners in Fiona’s age/grade group would benefit from something that spans this transition a little more proactively. But I have found myself frustrated over and over again this year by how their efforts have been wrong-headed, fallen short or been stymied by technical or organizational constraints. I’m trying not to gripe or complain; I’ve expended too much energy already being exasperated over some of the stupid things that have happened. Instead I’ve spent much of my energy over the past couple of weeks trying to nudge along some positive changes by thinking, writing, chatting, Skypeing and otherwise advocating for what I see as the needs of this group of kids. Here are excerpts from a long piece I wrote to the administrators:

Around adolescence I’ve seen my four homeschooled children develop a desire for a change in learning approaches. I know not all children are the same; some Grade 7-9 self-directed learners are happy to keep learning organically on their own in the context of home and family. But I know that there are many — my own four among them — who have begun looking for something new. They have pretty mature levels of self-awareness, understand where their interests and affinities lie and want to dig into more advanced learning with mentors and communities beyond home to help them get accountability, validation, challenge and feedback.

I think this normal adolescent tendency towards expanding one’s orientation outward is compounded by another factor in unschoolers. What I’ve noticed about learners who grow up entirely in charge of their own learning is that wanting less choice and less flexibility is a common, understandable and entirely valid choice as they grow through adolescence. They are beginning to come fully to grips with the enormity of the possibilities before them, and want to set up some constraints to at least temporarily narrow things down a bit. I don’t see this as a failure of imagination and courage in the face of self-direction; instead I think it’s an organizational strategy, one that mature life-long learners often use. They want to give themselves the clarity of some structure and extrinsic expectations so that they can move forward towards new knowledge and skills with a sense of direction and purpose.

It seems likely to me that a significant portion of your young adolescent learners are experiencing similar shifts in their needs. In a year or two they’ll probably be taking courses where they’ll be required to submit work for assessment and feedback and will be subject to external expectations. They’ll either have deadlines or they’ll have to self-structure to ensure completion of coursework. I think that they should be able to get a taste of this sort of learning if they feel ready for it during Grades 8 and 9. SelfDesign with its large enrolment and robust online interface is ideally suited to offer students the option of familiarizing themselves with structured expectations like “writing to task,” completing readings on a schedule, the expectation of contributing to a group discussion, submitting work by a deadline…

I don’t think you can get the momentum, critical mass and coherence you need for a real “community of learning” without some semblance of structure and leadership, not amongst a diverse group that has only virtual contact with each other…

I understand the desire to be inclusive and to avoid over-emphasizing a narrow academic orientation. But I see what I am proposing as broadening the range of learning approaches that are directly supported and thus having ways to meaningfully include more learners. I believe this is a crucial component of the offerings available to learners on the cusp of the transition to a course-based diploma program and something that fits well with the developmental shift that many adolescents experience in their learning orientation.

As I wrote this out, and edited it over and over again, I came to a new realization. When mainstream children are young, their learning is pretty much plotted out for them by their schooling. As they reach adolescence we encourage them to start moving towards greater autonomy, self-direction and ownership of their learning. We reduce the level of control: we stop daily homework checks and workbook corrections. We let kids fly on their own wings a little more.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily the ideal shift for a child whose entire educational life has been defined by full-on autonomy and self-direction, for a kid who has been joyfully flying about on his own wings for years. I think that many unschooled kids tend to become more focused and goal-oriented around adolescence. Yes, they’re capable of immense amounts of self-direction and autonomy, but they often recognize that in moving towards goals they have for themselves it is helpful to create some structure and accountability around their learning.

So I think that unschooled learners mature through adolescence we need to look at things differently. We need to view their desire for structure as a healthy organizational strategy rather than as a failure of self-direction. We need to view their desire for accountability to a mentor or teacher as a self-chosen commitment device, not a failure of motivation or passion.

The good news is that I think we’ve managed to give Fiona enough of a slice of life on the other side of the stone wall this year to serve her needs. We just haven’t been able to do so within SelfDesign. We’ve paid for online courses, she’s moved into a more challenging program in ballet, she’s with a much more demanding violin teacher, and with the co-operation of our open-minded local bricks-and-mortar school we’ve been able to cross-enrol her in a handful of Grade 10 courses. She’s smart, and has some disciplined artistic interests, so she’s doing okay. It just seems a shame that it should be this complicated. I feel like SelfDesign could easily offer some opportunities like this in-house.

House progress

I really love our Nelson house. When we bought it I was sold on it as an investment, a fixer-upper, but I think I’m falling in love now. It has a really nice feel to the living space. It’s open and light and airy during the day, and yet at night it feels cosy and welcoming: the best of both worlds! I love the absence of clutter and the simplicity of the space. I know it’s probably just a matter of time, but I’m determined to do whatever I can to keep the junk from accumulating. (Maybe it will help that Chuck doesn’t actually live there!)

Now that we’re establishing a fall routine of back and forth-ing, I’m love having repair and renovation projects I can pick away at when I’m there, rather than just feeling like I’m killing time during the girls’ activities. This week I did a fair bit of outdoor work, dealt with a couple of filthy floors and completed the stripping of a white bookcase in preparation for repainting it black. I’ve also been researching historical colour schemes for the exterior. The big project for next week will hopefully be drywalling the front bedroom. I’ve been making extensive use of Kijiji (our version of Craigslist) and have scored some lovely hand-scraped hickory to re-do the flooring in there too. Sophie is hosting three choir festival billets the first weekend of November, so I hope to have that room finished by then!

  • Finished converting my 1989 black Stumpjumper into a mountain city cruiser

The school year, times 4

For the first time all four of my kids are officially enrolled in school.

Fiona (12) is enrolled one-quarter time, taking two courses at the local school. She’s doing math and science for two hours on each of Monday and Tuesday mornings. Age-wise she’s Grade 7 age, placement-wise she’s “in” Grade 9, course-wise she’s taking the Grade 10 courses in these two areas, and classroom-wise she’s in with all the Grade 10, 11 and 12 students. And funnily enough her main beef with the classroom experience is the immaturity of the other students. But she likes the teachers and the structured expectations, and can self-pace through much of the material, which is close to her level and occasionally challenges her, so I think it will probably work well.

For the rest, she is in a distributed learning home-based program through SelfDesign. The “program” is really just a system for reporting on whatever self-led learning she does. She likes the liaison teacher we report to, and we are hopeful that she’ll enjoy some of the camps and retreats that are offered to SelfDesign high school students. So this means that the remainder of her week is free. We are making a quick trip to Nelson on Monday afternoons for violin lesson and ballet classes. Then we head down again Wednesday afternoon for more ballet classes and stay through Thursday (for gymnastics) and Friday (for more ballet). And in the midst there’s time for plenty of other stuff: home-improvement projects, practising violin, watching movies, reading, writing, cooking, helping Sophie with her newspaper route, trips to the library, scouring thrift stores, whatever works. She is planning to attend school full-time in Nelson next year, so the combination of classroom time and Nelson time will serve as a good segué I think.

Sophie (16) is in her final year of high school in Nelson. She is flush with credits already but is broadening and deepening her transcript while participating in all sorts of other things. She’s got the aforementioned paper route, she’s mentoring 10-t0-13-year-old singers in a youth choir, she has her own longstanding choir, she’s auditioning for another one, she is working as an official TA in a Grade 11 math class as well as doing some out-of-timetable tutoring, she’s got gymnastics twice a week, after-school AP Physics 2 classes weekly and an on-line Spanish course she’s doing on the side. And of course she is dealing with all her own meals and housekeeping and the like. It sounds like a lot but it seems to all fit neatly into her week, and she still has her weekends mostly free so that she can come home if she likes.

Noah is in his second year at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. He’s discovered that he has a real gift for coding as well as excellent skills in digital design, a combination that is pretty rare and will probably make him ultimately very employable. He has two of the toughest courses on his schedule this semester, so I haven’t heard from him much. He is living in a shared house in New Westminster this year, closer to public transit and to stores and other amenities, so hopefully that’s simplifying his life a little.

Erin is in her last year at McGill. She’s got a nice scholarship, and most of her major requirements already fulfilled so she’s filled her schedule up with a lot of ensemble playing. She’s also freelancing a bit, playing with Pronto Musica, a new Montreal chamber orchestra that’s doing some pretty nice work. She’ll be auditioning for Masters programs her teacher feels would be suitable, likely in the US, following the scholarship money hopefully! She’s planning to continue her Suzuki teacher training (which she began last year) so that she can do some teaching on the side as she continues her performance studies.