HazMat Adventures

img_3241Our Nelson place is the eyesore on the block. We bought it because of that. It was affordable and well situated, and that created the possibility of bringing it up to neighbourhood standards and eventually reselling it for a price more in keeping with the rest of the strong housing market.

The house has four bedrooms that would make it a great choice for a family with children attending any of the very nearby schools, but it has only one bathroom, off the kitchen. That’s not exactly the way 21st-century homes allocate their square footage. More typical would be two or three bathrooms for a four-bedroom house.

img_3234So we decided on a two-phase home improvement project. For the first phase we would increase the height of part of the upper story to allow for the installation of a full second bathroom. We would then turn the upper story into a master bedroom suite. This photo shows the south end of the upper floor as it was when we moved in. There is a dangerous steep staircase which pops up into a long dark space with limited headroom. Behind the camera is a bedroom defined by the same sorts of ancient walls and ceiling: uninsulated, smelly and with an “attic” aesthetic.

We got a great local architect, very experienced with building codes, local construction and local architecture to draw us up some plans. This end will have the roof elevated on the left side of the photo, and that’s where the bathroom will go. The stairs will be replaced and the remainder of the space will be gutted, insulated and re-drywalled with the addition of skylights and extra windows.

It took all summer to get a building permit. The city apparently considers the addition of headroom to equate the addition of floor space. The floor space is actually the same, of course. “Oh, but you’re increasing your finished floor space,” they said. No actually we’re not; it has been finished (panelled, carpeted) for decades. “Oh, but you’re increasing your usable finished floor space,” they countered. Okay, whatever; you can’t fight city hall, right? An engineer had to be involved. A major expense. But she worked quickly and efficiently, and finally it all came together. The contractor showed up at the end of September and got to work.

img_3269The gutting of the space proceeded really quickly. Footings were poured in the basement. New beams and supports were retrofitted into the basement and main floor to support the new portion of the roof. New joists went into the upper floor to support the tub. Fortunately old vermiculite and cellulose found in the knee wall tested negative for asbestos. Things were very exciting for a while.

But then WorkSafeBC showed up with information for our contractor about a new policy on hazardous materials testing for all homes built prior to 1990. This involved much more extensive testing of any materials being disturbed. Work had to stop until a certified person completed a full site review. Another big unanticipated expense.

Because this policy is new and sweeping, the system and the people serving it are swamped. It took a while to get a certified guy in to collect the samples, and even longer to get the results of the tests back from the lab. “Same day turnaround” turned out to mean “different week turnaround.”

The first results looked great: the flooring and vermiculite upstairs were completely clear of asbestos. But then the last few tests came back showing problems. The greenish stuff stuck to the chimney, some of the vinyl flooring that was a couple of layers deep on the old stairs and all of the drywall joint compound were found to contain asbestos.

So that is where we’re stuck now. It means another wait. Now there’s a HazMat removal company that has to review the tests, look at the site, quote a price and do the removal. Presumably they’ll be wearing full-body hazmat suits and swanky respirators and will terrify our neighbours … and maybe we’ll have to vacate for the duration, I don’t know.

This new WorkSafe policy didn’t kick in until the summer, well after when we had expected to have the renovation underway, but while we were still held up by the building permit and Land Title glitches. No one knew that we would soon be faced with a huge additional cost. When we did find out we were at the point of no return, with our upper story gutted and partly open to the elements. So I guess we just have to eat the cost, and put up with the delays. Fortunately so far the construction crew has been excellent at containing the mess and keeping the parts of the house we have to live in clean and habitable.

img_3289A little bit of new siding will be going up as we complete the modifications upstairs, so we figured it would make sense to consider the second stage of our remodelling, which will be exterior upgrades. We had fun imagining all sorts of Nelson-esque colour schemes, surveying the neighbourhood and looking for houses we really liked the look of. We settled on blue, with cream trim and purple-red accents. I painted one side of the garage in the last snatches of fall sunshine and warmth to make sure we were going to be happy with it. I think we are. It sure beats the peeling 1970s white and barn-red.

This part, at least, has been straightforward and enjoyable.

 

My friend in Nairobi

screenshot-2016-10-10-14-28-52Almost a year ago I attended a meeting of local New Denverites who were interested in the idea of sponsoring a refugee family. Out of that meeting, the Slocan Valley Refugee Coalition formed. We opened a bank account and started fund-raising and submitted our “we’re ready!” paperwork in January, requesting to be matched with a family. The program we’re using is the BVOR stream …. “blended visa-office referred,” which means that our case is referred by the visa office (rather than being someone we know) and that the funding is shared between the government and our sponsorship group. Because New Denver is far from Canadian government immigration services, we could not take a family from the stream of 25,000 Syrian refugees who were fast-tracked during the early part of 2016; those refugees were part of the GAR-stream (Government-Assisted Refugees) and that meant they could only settle in larger population centres where government support was available. Instead we waited for the still-just-trickling pipeline of approved cases coming through the BVOR stream.

It took some tech creativity, but eventually we got matched with a family. So few cases were coming through, and so many sponsorship groups waiting, that we had to aim for near-instant decision-making and response. Slack and IFTTT were very helpful in that respect! Luck finally went our way at the end of July. We had our match, to a family of 8 Somalis currently living in Nairobi. We were told that we would likely get notification of their travel itinerary in 4 to 12 weeks. At that point we’ll have a week or two, and then they’ll be here.

We were told the names, the family composition, their current location, birth years and the profession of the father. And that was all. We were politely asked not to contact the government office for at least 12 weeks.

But it turns out that Kenya, even in the crime-ridden refugee slum of Eastleigh in Nairobi, is pushing the global envelope with mobile communications. Almost everyone has a mobile phone. With banking either untrusted or inaccessible to many, with telephone land-line service having never been widely available, Africa is leapfrogging the rest of the world to innovate in the brave new world of mobile commerce. Nomadic tribespeople might have to walk two days to a village and pay to use a charging port, but they will then use their vodaphone to receive payment for the sale of some goats.

The ubiquity of mobile technology in Kenya meant something very important for our sponsorship group: it meant that the family we were matched to had an online social media presence. It was not easy to find them with the limited information we had, but it was not all that difficulty either. I did some digging, trying out different name and location combinations, and culling through dozens of possibilities until I found an entry that looked promising. I drilled down. I found photos that included children; I checked dates and ages. I read comments and found reference to family members’ names and it all matched what we had been told about our family.

I talked to my local group. I showed them what I had found. We mulled it over for a week. We talked to friends and family who had experience with refugee sponsorships and asked for their advice. The consensus was that we should definitely invite contact.

And so I wrote:

Dear ___. I believe your family may be matched with our Canadian refugee sponsorship group. If this is correct and you would like to communicate as we prepare to welcome you, please to add me as a friend. We are very happy and excited at the possibility of being in touch!

And thus began a veritable deluge of excited correspondence with my new friend in Nairobi. Although his family isn’t fluent in English, he is and so we text chat, voice chat, send photos, emails, links, information, questions and answers. Every morning it is his evening. Every evening it is his morning. We check in twice most days. We are gradually getting to know each other, and are sorting things out for his family’s arrival. Now I am putting the children at the school in touch with his children through their teachers.

They had no idea there was a community in Canada preparing to welcome them any day. They had only been told that their case file was at the final stage, and given that the process has been going for almost 8 years now, they had no reason to assume the final stage wasn’t backlogged by months or years. Now they know it is imminent and they know so many of the details! I asked them if it was difficult to have me stoking their excitement and making them so impatient to get here, while being forced to wait for the opaque Canadian bureaucracy to connect the dots for their travel.

“The impatience is nothing. We have so much hope now,” he replied.

Ten weeks and counting. Let’s hope they travel soon!

 

Physics is hard

img_3228Fiona has now been in high school for two weeks. It feels like a month! In both a bad way and a good way. Her life has been so crazy full that it feels like a month must have passed for all of that to have been packed in! But also … it has quickly started feeling normal and comfortable, not new and stressful, so it seems that surely she’s been at this for a while?

But “physics is hard.” This is something she’s mentioned a couple of times. It brings forward a lot of my own thoughts and worries and ponderings about education and parenting.

Because of our family preference for non-competitive activities and the sparse rural population of our area, almost all the group activities Fiona has participated in, even classes at the little school in New Denver, have been inclusive of a range of ages and levels. Community orchestra, STEM classes, dance technique classes, aikido, violin group classes and ensembles, choir … these have all been activities where there is no expectation that everyone be mastering the same material at the same level.

It has been a great way to grow and learn. She has been able to define her own learning trajectory and connect with people of a variety of ages and she has learned to be supportive and appreciative of those at different stages of their learning journeys. She has sometimes been a role model and at other times aspired to the models others provide, and she has not suffered the baggage of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that precocious natural learners often experience in comparative environments because they know they did comparatively little work for their high ranking. But for all that lack of measuring and comparing with matched peers, it’s been clear to her that she is a very quick learner. Often she is at the top end of a class. She’ll be the one who always gets what the teacher or coach is explaining right away, the one who already knows much of what is being taught, the one who helps kids who are struggling because she already accomplished her own learning task for the day, the one who is ready for the next thing soonest. If she is at the lower end of a class, she sees that the competence gap between herself and the most capable students decreases precipitously in size over time.

Now, however, she’s in a narrowly levelled group learning environment that has clear yardstick of grades. Honours Physics 11 is the first of three courses in the AP physics stream, and it’s populated by high achieving math-and-science-keen Grade 11 and 12 students. These are the most academically capable kids from the group that is 3+ years older than she. And it’s … different. She finds that she has to work longer and harder than some of the other students to understand the concepts and to complete the work. She’s not necessarily the fastest, most capable student. She’s not an outlier, in fact, by anything other than age (and that’s a relatively invisible exceptionality: she’s probably the only person in the room who knows she’s a 13-year-old tenth-grader rather than a 15-year-old one).

So she’s having to adjust her expectations for herself. She needn’t panic if she isn’t the first to grasp a concept. She needn’t panic if the homework problems are challenging. That is normal for most students. And it’s a New Normal for her.

It’s not that she’s never worked hard to learn something before. It’s that when she’s worked hard, she’s done so on her own timetable, with only her own desire for mastery as the goal. Failure would have been a personal affair, not a public one, and it would have been easy to dial back the pace or rein in the goals if the ambitions had begun to seem unrealistic. In the school environment, that privacy and control is minimal.

Chemistry 11 (non-honours) is still pretty much a cakewalk for her. And she has grades of 100% so far in both chem and physics, so these advanced courses clearly aren’t too hard. But having to work in order to master what someone else expects of you in a structured, graded, comparative environment … that’s something physics is giving her that is new.

I think the level is right, and I think the timing is right. Although I generally prefer internally-driven self-directed learning, I know that there are times and places in life when we have to be comfortable measuring ourselves against external benchmarks and mid-adolescence seems the right time to begin trying that out. I think she’ll calibrate her self-concept in this new environment and end up feeling successful.

A new year: school

It’s been not entirely smooth, Fiona’s entry into mainstream bricks-and-mortar schooling.

For those who have been keeping track, Fiona got her first tastes of regular schooling at our tiny local K-12 school. By tiny, I mean tiny. The high school portion has fewer than forty students, and even if you’re a homeschooled kid who rarely does local group activities, you know everyone there before you walk through the doors, students and teachers alike. Four years ago she joined the Grade 7/8/9 Intro to Spanish class for a semester.  Three years ago she dropped in for the math “independent directed learning” program at the same school for an hour or two a week. And then last year she enrolled officially in math and science courses there, which were taught in a multi-grade STEM classroom (more independent learning) during two morning blocks a week. So she has had little tastes of classroom academics.

But suddenly moving to a high school of 750 students, where she knows none of the staff and few of the students, with traditional grade-levelled classroom-style teaching, and attending full-time, that’s a very different experience. Naturally we knew it would be a big adjustment.

It’s the end of Week 1 now. The wrinkles:

On orientation day she received the timetable that for some reason hadn’t come by email the previous week. And the bad news was that she was scheduled for only two of the courses she had requested, both second semester. Her first semester timetable was essentially empty. She had submitted requests for seven courses, by the deadline almost six months earlier and had given alternates for almost all of them. She had been placed in one first-semester class, but it was for a course she had already taken a year earlier, which had shown up as completed with a rosy A on the report card we had submitted when we’d enrolled her. A mistake, obviously.

Although she did an excellent job of approaching people and getting her name on the right lists for urgent attention, the administration was putting out PR fires in the media and elsewhere over a wait-list situation, and didn’t get to her. The next day came and went. And the next day. She had managed to get herself invited to unofficially audit the physics course she had requested, but nothing official was happening.

And so I did the parent advocacy thing and wrote directly to the guidance counselor. The counselor was great, apologizing profusely for the gross oversight; somehow no one had told her there was a new student on her list for appointments who had no courses. It was well into the evening but she jumped back on her scheduling software and got Fiona into all the subjects she’d requested at appropriate levels. Near-instant gratification. I’m so glad I didn’t politely wait any longer for the student-led channels to start flowing.

For the last two days of this first week, Fiona went off to her now-scheduled classes. While it was a relief to finally know what her days would look like and to meet her teachers and classmates, that was when the next layer of stress kicked in. Wrinkle number two.

Despite her confident social skills and affability, Fiona is an introvert by nature. Coping with a brand-new large-group institutional environment for hours a day proved to be more stressful than either of us anticipated. She was arriving home absolutely emotionally exhausted. Compounding the stress was her realization that this wasn’t anything yet: she’d soon (next week!) be adding fifteen-plus hours of dance and music to her schedule.

We unpacked this a little during a heart-to-heart late one evening. We talked about how SVI, despite entailing really really long days, doesn’t feel nearly as exhausting. Sure, there’s some physical exhaustion that builds up due to sleep deprivation; that’s to be expected. But the scheduled hours of instruction and performances, and the social demands, those don’t feel tiring and stressful. And we talked about how comfortable and unstressful her time at the dance studio feels. So it’s not having a full structured schedule in a large-group setting that exhausts her. It’s new situations.

And school won’t be new for long. Pretty soon it will start feeling routine, and when that happens her adrenal glands will dial back their settings from “high alert” and “fight or flight” to “same old same old.” It’ll just take another couple of weeks probably.

Now that it’s the weekend she’s home in New Denver taking things very very easy. Barely socializing with her parents, even. Spending all day in her bedroom. It’s fine, it’s good. It’s what she’s going to need during the first few weeks.

As for the academic load, it’s obviously too early to know for sure whether it’s hitting the sweet spot or not. She’s got three Grade 11 courses this semester and initially she was worried that the academics at her previous school (where everything is individualized and kind people are there to help at every step and one might be excused for thinking the education is less rigorous) might not have been sufficient preparation. But she is easily one of the more competent students in her Chem 11 class. And in Honours Physics 11, which has a sizeable number of university-science-bound Grade 12 students in it, she is finding the material and the pace more demanding but is understanding the work fine and more than keeping up.

The week has been a lot for a 13-year-old who has never really been to school. But she’s coping, and is gaining confidence that it’s all going to be manageable.

A New School Year

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There she goes! Erin and her heavy suitcases, Boston bound.

First we drove Erin to Spokane. She flew out of the airport there with two giant suitcases (weighing 49.5 and 50.0 lbs respectively), her heavy messenger bag (carrying all the stuff that she unpacked from her suitcases to get them down to the 50-lb limit) and her violin. She flew into Boston to spend a few days at a guesthouse before moving into an apartment with a couple of roommates. The paperwork and financial calisthenics that were required to pay her tuition, get her visa, secure the apartment, procure a transit pass at student rates and wire money around to various people threatened to overwhelm both of us several times. However, I think it has all worked out. She was able to cross the border without incident, and when she arrived in Boston things were in order. Phew!

Now it only remains for her to acquire all her furniture and household goods, move into her apartment, get an American cell phone plan, a bank account, do her orchestra seating audition, get the food cupboard stocked and so on… She’ll handle it. She’s done this sort of thing before.

Some Ikea stuff and some computer stuff, with the SFU tower in the background.
Some Ikea stuff and some computer stuff, with the SFU tower in the background. Noah’s pad.

For Noah things are a bit simpler. He decided to move out of his (mostly) furnished bedsit in favour of sharing an apartment with two guys in his program. So I merely had to show up with Chuck’s truck, empty his belongings out of the old place, take him to Ikea for a bed and desk and move everything into the new place. The new place is in a brand-new apartment tower within spitting distance of his university (Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus). It’s a good bit cheaper than the old place, so it made sense to spend some money on furnishings.

He really likes his roommates, whom he’s known for a couple of years already. They have a lot of interests in common, of course, which helps. But it seems like they’re well-matched for lifestyle and social style as well. I think he’s going to be very happy there.

Sophie is starting her engineering program at University of British Columbia this fall. She also successfully auditioned for a choir led by a director she knows through her Nelson choir’s involvement in various choral festivals, exchanges and tours. Rehearsals are Tuesday evenings, off campus. Adding this to a full roster of first-year engineering courses is a tall order. But she’s a master of organizational self-management.

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Looking out the dorm room window

She’s living in residence, which will of course be a change, but in the opposite direction from the change most post-secondary students experience. While most of her peers will be dealing with living away from home and having adult-like freedom and responsibility for the first time, for Sophie residence living at university may feel more sheltered and controlled than what she’s experienced the past two years in Nelson. She won’t have to grocery-shop, do meal-planning or cook for herself. Her classes are very close to her residence, and she’ll have public transit to simplify transportation off-campus. She’ll have some (minimal) residence rules to contend with. In a lot of ways her life will be easier. She’ll have fewer responsibilities and will be able to focus more narrowly on school.

The BGC. Bought used last year. Come to Nelson, my pretty!
The BGC. Bought used last year. Come to Nelson, my pretty!

Complicating the Vancouver trip was the fact that Noah’s new place had no space for The Big Green Chair. That meant that I carried it around Vancouver in the back of the truck under a tarp for a few days. I got pretty skilled at securing the tarp, what with the usual Vancouver weather (read: rainstorms). The payoff will come when I can move it into the office area once the Nelson renovation is completed.

Speaking of Nelson, the next phase of the back-to-school transition is getting Fiona moved down there and off to her orientation and first week of high school. She’s taken the opportunity for a trial run this week. She got Sophie to drive her to Nelson the day before we left for the big Vancouver expedition, and leave her there. That enabled her to get to her last summer aerial silks class, which she would otherwise have missed, and to spend a bit of time at the house by herself. (Yes, she’s only 13, but shhh… We could argue that supervision was provided, albeit in a virtual fashion.) She successfully navigated the vagaries of the inter-community bus system to return to New Denver on her own. It was sort of a solo urban version of the big end-of-summer alpine adventures we’ve enjoyed doing the past few summers.

Now that have returned from dispatching the older three and it only remains to get Fiona launched into school this week. She’s probably about to experience the biggest transition of all the kids. More anon.

Licensed!

14054048_10205413537777921_3568239984566249564_nSophie did it, she powered through the “L” (learner’s) phase of getting a driver’s license, and got to the “N” (new driver) stage. As I wrote a year and a half ago, things are not exactly set up well, nor is motivation terribly high, for my kids to become licensed drivers. Neither Noah nor Erin have bothered thus far. But Sophie figured she might as well take the leap and do her road test before moving away to university. Granted, she will not have access to a car, and will have free public transit, for the four years of her post-secondary degree, but she knew that the road test would not likely get any easier, and would only get more costly to practice for, once she’d moved far from home.

It turned out that the only appointment she could get for the road test in August was during the week Chuck and I were away in Ontario (and could neither drive her to the testing location, nor put the car at her disposal for the test itself). So she had to arrange with a nearby driving school to hire one of their cars, and pay an instructor to give her a pre-test lesson to familiarize her with the car and give her a quick professional brush-up. She did that. The car was great. The instructor was great. The road test went well, and she was awarded the Green N.

For at least the next two years, until she takes and passes the next level of road test, she’ll need to put a Green N on any vehicle she is driving. She’ll need to keep a clean driving record, have zero alcohol in her system when driving, not drive between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. and never carry more than one passenger. Since she doesn’t have a car to drive those restrictions aren’t a big deal.

In the week before she left for university, she did at least get the chance to drive on her own a couple of times.

Hughes Reunion

DSC09065We rented an island. We were looking for a cottage that slept at least 14 comfortably, somewhere within half a day’s drive of both Toronto and Ottawa. And the island was what we found.

Actually, my mom rented it, as a gift to all of us. I had hoped “all of us” would include not only my mom, my sister, my brother-from-England and his family, my brother-from-Ottawa and his family but also Chuck and all of my kids. But we ended up with a few people missing including Noah, Sophie and Erin who all had school or work responsibilities for the summer that conflicted. DSC09076

The cottage consisted of a beautiful main house with five upstairs bedrooms and a couple of other cabins. My brother Jon brought his power boat, so he taxiied us back and forth from the marina efficiently, and also helped keep the kids occupied with fishing and tubing excursions.

We spent a week there. The cousins (aged ~11, 13, 14, 15 and 17) got along beautifully. Various other visitors came and went over the week, including the almost-family foreign student we hosted for five years when I was growing up, my uncle and aunt, some of my niece’s friends. It was a nice mix of closer and more extended family and friends. DSC09077

There was a 1.5 km trail around the island that seemed to be crying out for some maintenance. Not having my favourite tools (mattock and McLeod rake) I couldn’t really do it justice but I managed to rake over the whole length, removing as many rocks and as much vegetation as I could with a regular garden rake.

 

DSC09080There was lots of food, of course, and Fiona and her Aunt Emma hit it off in the kitchen, churning out quiches, biscuits and langues de chat. We traded off for meal preparation, managing to keep the more vegetarian types happy while also allowing their carnivorous children free rein. 
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One day we made a trip to Smiths Falls to visit the railway museum housing the restored dental car that my grandparents worked on as staff dentist and dental assistant in Northern Ontario around 1960. I have a story my uncle, then in university, wrote about visiting them on the train over Christmas which I should dig out and post here.

We played lots of board games and cards, swam in the lake (so warm!), canoed and kayaked and just hung out. The olympics were on, so we would occasionally huddle around an iPhone screen and watch a sprint heat or other bit of video. It was a pretty lazy week, which was how we wanted it. It was a chance to get to know each others’ kids anew, as they were much younger the last time we were together in 2011.

IMG_3159There were big thunderstorms, downpours, crazy-hot sunny days, misty calm, wind chopping up the lake, and a power outage to round out the week. A bit of everything. Which was perfect.

On the way back to BC we were able to intersect with much of the Burkholder clan for a half-day visit at Chuck’s sister’s place. We had a fabulous time there as well. His family is much bigger (he is the youngest of 8, the next generation contains 20 and the generation after that is already almost that big) so even though we were missing a lot of them, it was still a full-to-bursting gathering.

We arrived home without incident feeling like we’d had an actual holiday, just in time to begin the headlong rush into the start of the school year.

Atop Idaho Peak

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Idaho Peak is the mountain that overlooks our property. It’s unique in the area in that despite being one of the highest peaks around, it has well-serviced forestry roads that allow the trail to the peak to be accessible to anyone without major mobility challenges, requiring minimal levels of fitness and stamina. It’s also the ideal launch spot for paragliders. The weekend before SVI I was a marshall and communications relay person for a trail marathon that brought runners through Idaho Peak, and while standing around waiting for the race to complete, I was able to watch a number of paragliders take off. If I had a bucket list, this would be on it.

SVI 2016

SVI has come and gone for another year. Registration filled extremely early this year (third week of March) and that allowed me to get a jump on the scheduling. We had most of the basics fleshed out by mid-April, which took some of the pressure off me in May-June, when things normally get fairly frantic due to the overlay of other things (tax deadlines, end-of-year dance performances, kids graduating from high school, etc.). This year I was able to shift my focus during that time, setting SVI on the back burner. Of course, the usual late cancellations upended the schedule more than once and left me frantically trying to re-do things well into July, but at least by then I’d had a breather!
DSC08732Fiona was one of the more senior students in the Advanced Chamber Music program this year, and Erin was hired to help with accompanying and chamber music coaching. That led to this situation: one sister coaching another sister’s quartet. Apparently it went well.

The ACM program got much bigger this year. We had a crop of kids applying for the first time, many of whom had been part of SVI for years and aspiring to the chamber music experience. We ended up with seven ensembles (one duet, five quartets and a quintet). The groups were all remarkably well-matched and the repertoire seemed to hit the sweet spot for them in almost all cases.

DSC08855Fiona had a lot of fun socially as well as musically. Like usual she enjoyed reconnecting with old friends. She stays in touch with many of them by way of social media throughout the year, and this option has been invaluable to a homeschooler who has few peers (and even fewer musical peers) 50 weeks of the year. They managed to pick right up where they’d left off musically and socially.

On average the institute has been getting more advanced over the last few years. That’s probably a function of the early fill date. Returning families know how early they need to register to ensure themselves of a spot, and they tend to get the jump on enrolment and fill the program before new students think about making plans for the summer. Next year we’ll set aside a portion of the slots for Book 1 and 2 students, since we want to keep a nice range of student levels for the good of the program.

Here is the advanced violin group performing with Fiona on the front left. We had fun assigning ensemble pieces that stretched their ears and technique in new directions by exposing them to new styles.

Distributed learning: the exit

Fiona took some online Grade 10 courses this semester: PE and Personal & Career Planning. She took them partly because she wanted these required credits out of the way so that she can focus next year on the academic courses that she’s excited to dive into. But we also figured they would be a good introduction to course-like structure, assignments, quizzes, working directly with a teacher, getting grading and dealing with “writing to task.”

We like it when our DL program doesn’t cramp our style. Benign neglect it good to a point. But there’s a basic difference between a child-centred, parent-facilitated individualized learning program at home that is benignly overseen by a DL teacher, and an online course delivered by the DL program where assignments are submitted directly to the teacher. In this case Fiona was submitting things and getting nothing back: no feedback, no grading, not even any acknowledgement that things had been received.

Screenshot 2016-07-04 16.39.57A week ago we received Fiona’s report card. Her grades in her online courses were based on course records like the one on the left. Marks are shown in the third numerical column: only four assignments show up as having been graded. These assignments were done in the first couple of weeks of the semester and were graded in April a few days before a meeting that I requested on Fiona’s behalf to check in. By the end of the year nothing more had been marked. The other course has no grades showing at all. And yet Fiona submitted every last assignment.

As it got close to year-end, I had stepped in again and nudged the teacher, reminding her that Fiona had submitted lots, courses were completed, and asking whether she needed anything further. No, the teacher replied, she was reviewing all Fiona’s blog submissions and the assignments in the online courses, and everything looked great.

When her report card came, her grades for her two online courses showed up as “100%” and “Incomplete” respectively. When I questioned the Incomplete, the teacher took a look again in the online course, presumably noticed the other 19 assignments and quickly changed it to an A with “Well done” in the written comments section.

In what world is this considered an appropriate amount of feedback for a lifelong unschooler submitting her first-ever written assignments for the express purpose of gauging her readiness for a heavy academic program the following year? The government paid our school district $800 to administer each of those clunky courses. Is this really the kind of educational value for money that the taxpayer (or student!) expects?

I expect this was a one-off situation. Certainly our experience in other DL programs, and in this DL program during different years and with different teachers, has been much more positive, much more diligent, responsive, supportive. The School District superintendent, whom I’ve written to, was as appalled as I was about the oversights and I’m sure nothing like this will happen to anyone else. Not least because the teacher in question is leaving. But it sure wasn’t a great way to go out.

Web Development

Screenshot 2016-07-02 23.10.25 Screenshot 2016-07-02 23.09.46I’ve been working on a couple of Udemy courses for the past month or so. I signed up for one in April but I didn’t really dig in for a while. Once I did I decided I needed more so I’m working through both in parallel.

The Bootcamp course is the better of the two. It has more emphasis on the concepts underlying the code, and the increments and exercises are more carefully and sensibly laid out. But the Complete course has some interesting exercises and some additional content areas. Doing the two together is helping reinforce the learning and allowing me to make connections that I might not otherwise get.

When I was in high school there were no computers. The year after I graduated they began offering a course that used Fortran on a university mainframe. In the summer of 1987 I bought myself a Commodore 64 and did a ton of programming in Basic. In 1992 I did a university distance education course in TurboPascal on my first PC.  I first got into building websites in about 1995. I worked from scratch in a text editor and got pretty good with HTML3. I could edit little bits of javascript to do mouseOver effects and could build framesets (ew, remember those?) and nice layouts with tables. But when CSS came into vogue and browsers began getting more powerful, I had moved onto blogging platforms for my day to day web work, and I no longer stayed current on the scripting side. I could hack my way through php installations of bulletin board scripts and got fairly good with WordPress plugins. But there was so much beneath the admin interface that I didn’t have a clue about.

Because I manage the Valhalla Fine Arts website I decided I should get a more robust understanding how it really works. Sooner or later something will break or need a major overhaul, and I’d like to be able to upgrade it with something more customized and up-to-date when the time comes. It is currently based on a root Wordpress installation, with a php-based registration module that was installed by someone else which I don’t have a clue about.

If I’d stayed on the crest of the wave of web development back in the early 2000s I would have been fine. But a decade and half of neglect has left me in a deep hole. I’m not sure how long it will take me to climb out, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m wrapping up my learning about front-end javascript right now. While I don’t find programming easy to learn, I do enjoy the satisfaction of cracking a problem and getting my code to run so it’s good stuff.

Conventional wisdom and unschooled teens

DSC07934All four of my children grew up unschooling through their primary-school-aged years. Their learning was wide open, uncoerced, simultaneously lagging in some areas and massively precocious in others. It was typically highly efficient, mastery-oriented and interest-led.

And then they all chose to attend school starting sometime between age 12 and 14. In some cases, at times, they attended part time. But even Sophie, who has attended consistently full-time, has continued to work away at academic areas in unschooled ways outside of school. So I don’t think it was that they felt home-based learning had failed them. They all speak fondly of their years at home and it’s clear that they attach a lot of value to their quirkiness and unconventional upbringing. Around adolescence though, they all began to feel that, at least given our rural location and the resources at our disposal, school would best fulfill their evolving needs.

DL programs and homeschooling parents often struggle with adapting to the changing needs of adolescents. This year has been complicated and at times frustrating for Fiona and me, trying to find a way to serve her needs and satisfy her goals while interfacing with two different DL programs, a bricks-and-mortar school and the Ministry of Education. In this province in particular there’s a stark administrative line that runs between Grades 9 and 10, and that compounds many of the transitional issues. I’ve had a lot of conversations with various people about how DL programs can better serve the needs of young teens over the course of these transitional years. But while it can be tempting to fall back on common wisdom about the changing needs of adolescents, I’ve noticed that common wisdom doesn’t necessarily apply to unschoolers.

Since my kids have had unconventional childhoods, I’ve become skeptical of all sorts of conventional wisdom. For instance, the much respected Gesell Institute, experts in developmental ages and stages, talks about a period of tenseness, defiance and negativity between ages 5.5 and 6.5. Now, for my kids it was quite the opposite: it was a simply golden stage of curiosity, optimism and helpfulness. So perhaps it’s the commencement of academic schooling, and not age and development, that causes the disequilibrium that the Gesell folk think of as normal and typical. As another example, I certainly trust the statistics that associate spending more than 2 hours a day sitting in front of screens with an increased risk of childhood obesity, but those statistics will not have any predictive value for unschooled kids who are not also spending several hours a day sitting in school. An unschooled child who sits in front of a screen for 4 hours a day still has 10 to 12 waking hours available for creativity, running around burning energy, exploring, imagining, conversing, interacting with the real world, and playing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but maybe conventional wisdom knows nothing at all about unschooled kids. Maybe social scientists who tell us what kids are typically like are doing the equivalent of drawing conclusions about the behaviour of lions by studying only the lions in zoos.

IMG_2312So back to adolescents. When I think back to my own 14th year, I remember feeling a strong push towards individuation, autonomy and freedom. I was questioning the values I’d been raised with, I was trying on new (and sometimes risky) interests and behaviours in an attempt to define myself as different and separate from my parents, I was desperate for more control over my own life, I wanted opportunities to stretch my wings and cast off the rules and constraints of childhood. I pushed hard for these things; it was a time conflict and testing of boundaries. I think my experience of adolescence was pretty typical; it certainly fits with what conventional wisdom says about the teenage years.

And so, unsurprisingly, parents and teachers expect adolescents to start wanting more freedom and autonomy. We start gingerly handing over a little more control to them including in the educational realm. Teachers in high schools might no longer check homework every day. Assignments might be more open-ended, allowing choice over the subject matter and presentation format.  All of which is great. It’s high time!

But maybe this move to greater freedom and autonomy only makes sense for the lions in the zoo.

What if you have a savannah lion, a kid whose education has always been based entirely on what his interests are and how he learns? What if he has been celebrated and supported as he’s learned in his own particular way even when that path has been asynchronous and non-conforming? It would not be surprising if a kid like this felt less need to start pushing to “become his own person” at age 13; after all, he’s freely been his own person all day every day, meaning that much of the work of individuation has already been done. He may not arrive at adolescence with a burning desire for alternative, creative, experiential opportunities in his schooling because he’s had that flexibility all along. Since he has not had his world restricted and tightly controlled, since everything has been as freely available to him as possible, he probably won’t constantly want to push against limits.

It’s likely, in fact, that he’ll want to do the opposite.

As he’s preparing himself to take up an independent place in the wider world, several of the things his schooled peers are rebelling against will make perfect sense to him. It’s likely he will want some guidance from experts instead of continuing to self-teach. He may want to set goals instead of leaving things loose. If so, he will want to structure his progress towards those goals, setting up commitment devices and a system of external accountability. And having had years and years already when he’s been able to flit from interest to interest and follow rabbit trails wherever they lead, he’ll likely become much more focused on the pathway he wants to pursue, choosing to constrain his learning for a while in service of that specific goal and focus.

Everyone is different, of course. Some unschooled adolescents are no doubt thrilled to continue to learn organically, led by whims and serendipity, without setting goals and with minimal input from experts. But a lot seem to become more focused and driven at this age. Because their upbringing has been so different from that of their schooled peers, that focus and drive doesn’t end up turned against authority and academic structure; instead it turns towards those things.

rsz_photo-1432131578171-252835d174b4In light of this, it doesn’t seem all that strange that at an age when schooled teens are questioning authority and bucking against the system, a lot of unschooled teens are enthusiastically giving themselves over to the system and asking for the guidance of teachers and mentors. They want more structure than they’ve had in the past, not less. Because they’re savannah cats.

Upgrading the trail

I began working on a connecting trail from our property to the linear park below almost three years ago. I hacked in a goat-path of sorts: narrow and full of switchbacks. It changed my life, in that it made one of my favourite running trails a mere 3-minute scrabble from my door.

Yeller McLeod, my birthday present to myself. He's a combination of tamper, rake and hoe.
Yeller McLeod, my birthday present to myself. He’s a combination of a tamper, rake and hoe.

But it wasn’t a great trail, technically speaking. Parts had a grade of more than 15%, it was narrow, there were a couple of places that were subject to erosion and the tight switchbacks meant that you couldn’t ride a mountain bike on it.

Last summer I did an IMBA trail-building workshop and learned more about how to lay out ride-able, sustainable trails. Armed with this knowledge and my new McLeod rake, I set out to improve my trail. I laid out a new route at the top, eliminating three of the most problematic tight turns. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working on that portion, about 75 metres in length.

Now I’m dealing with one of the three remaining switchbacks that can’t be edited out. Ideally it should be a loopy turn with a loop diameter of about 25 feet. The problem, of course, is how one creates a relatively level 7-metre-wide platter of earth on the side of a mountain with a grade of 30-40 degrees, made of clay, roots and rock, with nothing more than a mattock and my trusty fire rake. I’m figuring high-speed flowy bike turns will have to be compromised in the name of preserving my sanity. I’m shooting for a 4-metre radius, something that will require  and even that is going to require a herculean effort. I thIMG_3082ink I’ll be able to snake my way through that at lower speed without falling over. I’m about a quarter of the way through my first such turn, and have spent probably 10 hours at it. So … yeah … this trail may end up being a lifetime’s work.

Still, I am having fun riding my bike up and down the piddly first 150 metres.

Distributed Learning: The Final Episode

We are now nearing the end of what will be our last year of home-based learning. And the last part of the ride has been a bit bumpy.

We started the year with Fiona (12 at the time, and officially “in Grade 9”) enrolled with SelfDesign, a DL program we’d had some experience with but hadn’t been part of for several years. We had left SelfDesign in 2010 to throw our enrolment weight behind the upstart local DL program, not out of any sense of dissatisfaction. In the intervening years they had created SelfDesign High, a Grades 10-12 program sufficiently aligned with the provincial high school graduation program to allow for the awarding of a government graduation diploma. Because they were now actively helping their pre-high-school students prepare for a structured high school expereince, we enrolled Fiona in their Grade 9 program, hoping that what they provided would be creative, flexible and proactive. Fiona was more than ready for high school type structure and we had always been pleased with SelfDesign’s willingness to look beyond grade levels and support learners over a range of levels.

Alas, there turned out to be a new and unexpectedly firm grade-level boundary between Grades 9 & 10 within the SelfDesign program, the result of complicated aspects of governmental funding. This hadn’t been the case in previous years, but within a couple of weeks of enrolling we received notice that Grade 9 learners could no longer be enrolled in Grade 10 SelfDesign courses. Fiona had already completed Grade 9 math and science curricula more than a year before, so we were forced to cross-enrol her in those subjects in our local school to allow her to move ahead to the next grade level.

While we loved the teacher we were working directly with at SelfDesign, the transitional “Gateways” program turned out to be a real disappointment. Not only was Fiona excluded from their real-life offerings due to her young-for-grade age, but the online workshops and get-togethers were far below her academic and maturity level and thus entirely unappealing. I tried hard to nudge some more enticing possibilities along and my voice was definitely welcomed by those in charge of Gateways, but two things became apparent: change was going to be too slow in coming to benefit my kid, and anything new was going to come on a software platform that she couldn’t access because of her age. (I’ll spare you the complicated explanation about user agreements, school liability insurance, international software platforms and integrated IDs.) Suffice it to say that there was nothing in the Gateways pipeline for an academically precocious 12-year-old wanting meaningful online interactive learning through a DL community.

When she finished her cross-enrolled Math 10 course by early winter, the grade-level boundary turned out to be even more problematic. SelfDesign would not allow her to pick up any additional Grade 10 courses to fill out her second semester. Again, it seemed it was mostly due to fear over how the government would react to the funding intricacies. She could take more Grade 9 courses with SelfDesign, but could only take two Grade 10 courses by going elsewhere, and now that she had finished those up in half the allotted time with high A’s, she couldn’t take more.

So we switched back to our local DL program. They were not bound by the supposed impenetrability of the Grade 9/10 boundary. They were perfectly willing to allow her to sign up for additional Grade 10 courses to round out the latter half of her year. So in December we settled on a DL subject roster that looked like this:

  • Social Studies 9
  • English 9
  • Music 9
  • Foods 9
  • PE 9 (completed)
  • PE 10 (online)
  • Planning 10 (online)

In addition, in the classroom at the local school she was taking

  • Math 10 (completed)
  • Science 10 (nearly completed)

The Grade 9 level stuff was to be unschooled, and reported on anecdotally, for which we set up a blog where Fiona would write occasional entries. Grade 10 was organized through structured courses, whether online or in the classroom. This all fit with Fiona’s goal for the year, which was to document her current learning level on her school record so that next year, when she enrols in a high school in a district that doesn’t know her at all, there is no argument about placing her in appropriate classes. It all looked good.

Hoop-jumping entries on her blog
Hoop-jumping entries on her blog

The wrinkle was that Grade 9 DL students in our local program were expected to work with a liaison teacher in another community on a day of the week when we couldn’t get there. We had assumed Fiona would be able to stay with the same local teacher she’d worked with for years, who was already supervising her STEM classroom and administering her math course at the local school, but for various administrative reasons that was not possible. So the principal of the DL program (who is also the principal of the local school) offered to step in and be Fiona’s liaison teacher. It was an accommodation we really appreciated.

But there are cracks as wide as floorboards in this arrangement. We are getting nothing other than a paper trail from it. We’ve had almost no contact with the principal. Fiona is a tiny post-script to a job that is already kind of an afterthought for this person. The online courses have been abysmal and full of busy-work. They’re plagued by broken links, meaningless assignments, missing forums and inappropriate (corporate-sponsored) content. Fiona has met briefly once in the past five months with the principal (and that was at my request) to touch base about her course submissions which had not been acknowledged or graded. It’s now a month later: three out of 30+ assignments have been graded and there has been no other feedback. We’ve received no newsletters, no invitations to DL parent meetings, no notification of school-based events that we’re supposed to be welcome at and had specifically requested we be informed of, no communication whatsoever except occasional replies when Fiona emails about a course-related problem. There has been no learning resource funding, no provision of materials, no support at all, other than access keys to two ancient online courses. A report card turned up in the mail a couple of weeks ago saying things like “Fiona has begun working through the Planning 10 course.”  Grade: A.

Here in BC we have the option to enrol through a DL program or to register as legal homeschoolers. Registering is simple, hands-off and provides complete educational freedom. The DL option necessitates a certain amount of reporting, and comes with the expectation that the student’s learning will be measured against the prescribed provincial curriculum (even though it really doesn’t matter, at least prior to Grade 10, whether that measurement is favourable or accurate).

We’ve been with DL programs for a lot of our homeschooling years, and we have got two really worthwhile things from our enrolment: financial and resource support, and positive meaningful relationships between the kids and their liaison teachers. Last year with staffing changes necessitated by a teacher’s sabbatical year we didn’t get the second part. This year we’re getting not getting the first part either.

So why are we still there? Sometimes I wonder! Basically we’re being left alone, which isn’t necessarily a problem for us since as a family we have a lot of experience and confidence not only with home-based learning but with kids entering public high school. Yet Fiona is still having to play by the rules of DL reporting and to toe the busywork line for the online Grade 10 courses she’s taking. The only reason we continue is because this is the simplest way to ensure she gets what she wants for next year: course placement in appropriately challenging Grade 10 and 11 courses at a new school. And so we grin and bear the hoop-jumping and lack of meaningful contact with the program. One month to go.