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.

Posted in Being active, Day in the life, Gardening, Out on the property | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Homeschooling, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


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.

Posted in Creativity, Fibre arts | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Family Matters, Homeschooling, School | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Family Matters, Moving on | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Homeschooling, Thinking about learning | Leave a comment

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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The lay of the land

Screenshot 2014-10-18 11.09.15
This is a sketch of how our week works. Brown travel-times are probably the first thing to notice, as they sandwich our Nelson days. We drive down Sunday evening, and back Monday evening. That gets Sophie there for the start of her week at school. We leave her there, and head back Wednesday afternoon, in time for Fiona to start her end-of-week run of activities. We stay through until Friday evening, when we bring Sophie home for the weekend.

This means Fiona and I spend three nights sleeping on couch and futon in the living room at the Crashpad, and four nights at home. Sophie’s split runs five nights and two. It also means that weekends are kind of precious, being the only days we’re all together as a family. So far weekends have mostly been about bulk cooking and baking, and spending cozy time in the living room in front of the wood stove.

An added complication is how mealtimes are over-run by travel and activities. Run your eyes across the schedule above in our traditional supper-time slot from, say 5:00 to 6:30 pm, and you’ll bump into the dark-green and mustard-yellow stuff that denotes the girls’ scheduled activities every single week-night. It’s crazy: not only are we trying to get food into various combinations of people in two separate towns, but we’re rarely available at the same, or the “correct,” time.

Meal-time and bed-hopping issues aside, what makes this work is that a fair bit has come off my plate. I’m not nearly as involved in music teaching or community volunteering in New Denver as I was in the past. And although it didn’t seem like a big deal, it is very liberating not to be running back and forth from the school in New Denver two to five times a day to drop off and pick up various teenagers (and sometimes Fiona) like I’ve done for the past few years.

I’m also finding that the spareness of the physical space in Nelson, and the spareness of the family schedule at home on weekends, is creating a kind of calm that helps a lot with this disjointed life.

The girls seem happy with their lives. Things aren’t falling apart. So far so good.

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Getting around

DSC04780Here’s our minivan. We bought it about 18 months ago and it transformed my driving experience. It made access to alpine hikes a breeze. Road trips and drive-in movies were awesome. I loved not having to hike in from the highway end of our driveway even once last winter, and knowing that winding mountain roads covered in snow were safer with our 4-wheel-drive and high ground clearance. The right-hand drive was easy to get used to, and while there are more and more of these beasts in the area, I also loved the mildly eccentric aura that it created around us. Fuel mileage has been pretty decent, and it’s a spacious and comfortable vehicle for five or more.

But the Delica is showing its age (it’s a 1994), especially since we’re such mileage-hogs. Our at-home family is smaller now, and I’m not driving five teenagers to choir practice anymore. In another month all three of my older kids will be in possession of driver’s Learners Permits (Erin and Noah having delayed attaining their full licensure due to a combination of temperament and lack of proximity to home). And really, what is the wisdom in having beginning drivers learn their basic skills in a right-hand-drive vehicle? So we’re planning to sell it and buy something new or new-ish. Something with all-wheel drive, but smaller and cheaper to maintain, considerably more fuel-efficient and with the driver’s seat on the left. I also like the idea of having airbags again. I’d like a few airbags. Hoping to make this a reality before winter hits full-force, since this is a pretty good time of year to be selling a snow-trampling monster minivan.

IMG_0042We’re now spending part of each week in a city. When we get to Nelson, we’ve been trying to leave the van parked at the house, and walk as much as we can. It’s been so much fun to poke our way around amongst the secret stairways and paths in a city where the terrain makes drivable roads a bit of an engineering challenge. Our house in Nelson is a mere 750 metres from downtown, but 100 metres above it with most of the elevation gain taking place over just 400 metres. Just getting home is a workout, and it’s a workout we tend to do at least a couple of times a day. The sidewalks run places roads can’t, and we love the feeling of winding our way amongst lovely homes and beneath hardwood trees with changing leaves, up “sidewalks” like the one pictured above.

So we’re spending three days a week in a walkable city, and when we’re home we hardly need to drive at all. We’re still doing two trips a week to Nelson, but soon that will be in a much smaller vehicle that gets double the mileage. Our carbon footprint should diminish dramatically in size this year.

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Emptiness, actual and metaphorical

Emptiness, actual and metaphorical

Our Nelson house — and our lives — feel strangely empty. Not that this emptiness is a bad thing. The empty space in both is pregnant with possibilities, and we’re looking forward to seeing how things evolve, to enjoying the process of filling them. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the space. Space to do splits and pliés and yoga and wander around playing violin. Space to breathe, to plan, to contemplate, to settle.

Currently there are five hours of scheduled activities in Nelson for Sophie and Fiona. Those five hours span four days of the week. Next week that will jump up to seven hours. The following week we’re up to 12. But without school having started as originally expected, there’s a lot of fallow time. It’s been lovely; we spent two and a half days in Nelson this week “playing house.” We can walk downtown, stop at the artisanal bakery for brioche, linger over vintage paper designs and décor possibilities in a nifty new store, meander by the library. We can drink tea and read and explore the pathways that short-cut the trip to the high school (I’m speaking literally here, though in Fiona’s case you might wonder). Currently the only utilities hooked up are electricity and water. Next week we’ll get internet, but for now things are very simple.


The house has two semi-automatic dishwashers, imagine that!

Next week Sophie will stay on her own for a couple of days, because Fiona has no real reason to be there the whole week and we’re trying to maintain a family life at home too. With little in the way of structure to her days and not much of a social network in place yet, I imagine she’ll be glad of the company when we arrive. Still, she’s relishing the prospect of solitude and the independence. The school strike has given us a very lovely way of transitioning stress-free into our part-time living-elsewhere arrangement.

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A slow start

I had anticipated that last week would be a crazy mess, trying to get all three of the older kids off to their various places and ensconced in their new schools. As it turned out, Chuck took Noah to Surrey, and I was left to deal with getting Erin to Kelowna and on her way back to Montreal and Sophie moved to Nelson. Which turned out to be a lot easier than I’d thought.

Erin, of course, is starting her fourth year in Montreal, and is an old hand at this. She organizes, packs and is ready, and then I just have to do the four-hour drive. We’re almost to the point where I don’t even bother to park at the airport, just doing a rolling stop to dump her near departures. This time I did park, but then wondered why, especially since it created stress over how I would handle passing out my parking chit at the exit, alone in a right-hand-drive vehicle with the booth on the left. Luckily I found a meter on the street and didn’t need to deal with the short-stay lot. Sophie and Fiona and I shopped a bit for things we can only get in the big city, and then headed home. It was a single, routine overnight trip.

And then it was time for Sophie’s slow start. It’s slow because there’s no school yet, and none for the foreseeable future, thanks to the teachers’ strike. We did take a trip down to get some stuff moved in and get utilities arranged. But there was no urgency: we waited until the middle of the week and went at our leisure. We didn’t eat there, and we didn’t stay overnight, and we didn’t need to leave Sophie there to fend for herself. Next week we’ll go twice, for dance classes and violin lesson and we’ll probably stay over a couple of nights, but together. We’ll get a cellphone for Sophie (no land line at the house) and at that point all our ducks will be in a row. The following week Sophie might spend there on her own. Choir and gymnastics will be starting, and I imagine there will be less mid-week work for her here (she’s still picking up shifts at her café job while the tourist season lasts).

It has given us plenty of time to get organized. I think the new place is going to work well. She’ll have a room-mate, and Fiona and I will be there a couple of days a week using the guest bed, as will her room-mate’s mom, but she’ll have a lot of independence regardless. In the meantime, we’ve been doing a few other things. We got some work done on our mud room, and a load of gravel delivered to finish the driveway levelling and make the now-complete garage more useable. And other accomplishments …

  • The war on house mice has been in high gear here.
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Drinnon Pass Hike

It’s becoming an annual tradition: a big alpine day-hike by the female members of this family to cap off the summer. Last year we hiked the Alps Alturas and Lyle Creek Basin areas. This year we decided to trek into the southwest corner of the big wilderness park that has formed the backdrop to our lives here over the past two decades: into Valhalla Provincial Park through Drinnon Pass to Gwillim Lakes.

The drive to the trailhead took quite a while: more than an hour after we hit gravel. The road was a bone-rattler, but not unduly steep or exposed. The hike took us past a series of lakes at various elevations within a cradle of craggy peaks and huge granite faces. Each lake and ridge brought a different spectacular view. While the Gwillim Lakes basin was our picturesque final destination the cliff edge that preceded it, with its spectacular views down over the Slocan Valley to Kokanee Glacier park almost 50 kilometres in the distance, was unsurpassed. It inspired upside-down-lying-backwards viewing over the edge. No glasses were lost.

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A working summer

Last year we managed some spectacular alpine hikes to cap off the summer. This year, so far at least, has felt much more like a working summer. There have been a few afternoons at the beach, but little hiking (yet) and it has felt like we’ve all been quite busy. Between us we’ve had multiple bits of travel, several day-camps, a kazillion work shifts for different people in different places and a couple of major events to organize and execute.

Fiona did a week as a mentor at the Music Explorers program. The video here is absolutely entrancing.

She then did a week of dance in Silverton. It was a decent experience, though she wished the group had been older and more focused on learning. Although originally intended for kids 12+, the average age of the group ended being about 11.5. So there was more in the way of games and entertainment, and less “serious” work on dance technique and physical conditioning. She’s looking forward to her fall dance schedule in Nelson where she has been bumped up a couple of levels.

Fiona at dance camp (centre of frame, pink t-shirt, leg up)

Fiona at dance camp (centre of frame, pink t-shirt, leg up)

Then she was busy preparing for SVI. She entered very well prepared this year, with her ensemble parts all solidly learned. She was definitely a solid participant in the Advanced Chamber Program this year.

SVI also, of course, took a lot of my time. In some ways I felt calmer and more confident about the administration this year: it was my second time holding most of the bag, and there were definitely some efficiencies realized. On the other hand, the feeling of ready support amongst the local Suzuki community has been slipping away. I know there are still people willing to help, but I don’t see them regularly anymore, and so there isn’t the sense of a tight Suzuki community standing right behind me. If I’m to continue helping drive this program, I need to get serious about organizing more help. Not just of the “please drop off a salad for the faculty dinner” type help. More of the “please take on managing this part of the event” type help. Carving out a few days for my Silvery Slocan circle adventure came at the cost of fuller days before and after, but was worth it for the refreshed state of mind it brought. And the SVI experience and the sense of community it created amongst all those amazing people! They were just so wonderful. It was all worth it, not just because the joy and energy helped fill my cup, but because I could see just how magically the cups of all those kids and parents were being filled.

Erin was SVI’s senior student for many years, but then missed a couple of years of SVI entirely because of NYO. For the last couple of years she’s been around during the week and has been a helpful observer and hanger-on. This year she played a stunning solo Beethoven Sonata movement with Peter as part of the Faculty Concert, as well as performing in the Faculty Orchestra. She loves being here during the week, understands very well what is involved behind the scenes, and it’s clear that she’s interested in making the leap into the administrative and operations end of the organization. I’m hoping to put her to work next spring. Unless her quartet wins another surprise expenses-paid performing trip to Europe next year, she’ll be available at the time of year when the majority of the work vetting music, assigning and distributing ensemble parts, and piecing together the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle that is the master SVI schedule database, needs to be done.

Erin and Peter performing Beethoven Sonata No. 7, 1st movement

Erin and Peter performing Beethoven Sonata No. 7, 1st movement

Erin has also been getting very fit this summer. She’s been running the Galena Trail several times a week (thanks to my connector trail, of which we’re both very big fans), and doing strength and conditioning workouts regularly. We run together from time to time and while I probably still have a bit of an edge on her when it comes to endurance, she’s definitely at least as strong as fit as I am!

Sophie has been working 25 to 30 hours a week at a café in Silverton. The hours are better and the work more varied and enjoyable than her dish-monkey restaurant job last summer. At first she wasn’t sure she wanted a job at all after the crazy stress and chaos of spring with the deaths on the lake, the tour with Corazon in Ontario, Noah’s grad, and then all the weirdness of the teachers’ strike and whether there would be exams or not and which ones and when…. But eventually she discovered that she was bored, and so the job happened. They love her, and she’s happy for some summer income to help lubricate her increasing independence as she heads into next year.

Up, up it goes!

Up, up it goes!

She’s also got her violin out recently. She quit lessons almost two and a half years ago, although she did lip-service to some trio playing for a year or so after that. She also got did enough work to fit into the chamber music program at SVI in 2013, but it seemed like that would be her last kick at the can: she hadn’t really found the motive or the means to play since then. But in the last week or two, she’s become our treehouse violinist. She heads across the lawn, ties her violin case to a rope, climbs the ladder to the treehouse and hoists her violin up using a pulley system. Then she practices. She’s playing things she’s dug up on her own, post-Suzuki stuff that she’s researched as good stepping-stone repertoire. The Kabalevsky violin concerto, for starters. And she’s good! There’s so much more maturity and drive behind her practicing. She seems to have if anything gained technical skill during her year-or-more hiatus, and whatever ease and conditioning she lost has quickly been made up.

Emma and Noah on the day of the Big Event

Emma and Noah managing operations on the day of the Big Event

Noah has spent the summer being a grown-up. He got a job at the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre and he’s been using all his amazing tech-skills to full advantage, as well as growing a few new skills we never thought he’d master. Like setting alarms and getting up in time for things, keeping track of a moving-target schedule, answering the phone, managing his own meals and transportation (within the constraints of uphill grades and searing weather) and so on. The Centre had its big 20th Anniversary gala and community celebration the day after SVI ended, so he and all the other staff were very busy with that.

Since he’s moving away to start university studies in computer technology he decided he should have a functional computer of his own. (His low-end, aging laptop is limping along without sound or wifi much of the time: he’s relying on his Device — which is what he calls his SIM-card-less iPhone — for computer connectivity lately.) While I was typing this he messaged me to tell me that his new laptop had been delivered at the post office, asking if I could possibly pick it up for him as he’s working all day. He got the job, earned the money, decided how much to allocate, researched the product, got out his credit card and made the order, pretty much entirely on his own. My involvement is just in signing for it at the post office.

The remaining two weeks of summer might hold some R&R for us. Hopefully we’ll squeeze in at least one alpine hike. I suspect we’ll be pretty busy with summer jobs and the packing and planning for the school moves. And now, I have a laptop to pick up before the post office closes for lunch, and a homeschool planning date with Fiona.

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