End of Semester 1

Fiona turned 14 last week and has just completed her first semester as a mainstream school student at a bricks-and-mortar high school in Nelson.

How are things going in the world of school? Pretty well. She had three Grade 11 courses last semester (Honours Physics, Chemistry and Art) and earned straight A’s with a 97 in the challenging physics course — and a 99% on the final exam. It is one of the five or six courses she’ll likely ‘declare’ on her university application when the time comes, and so at 13 she has nailed down a significant chunk of an academic record which will help propel her into the most competitive programs at the most competitive schools. Not that she necessarily wants to apply to a highly selective program, but it is nice to know you have options.

She does diligently do homework and study, but not obsessively, and I would not say this level is difficult for her. I think we slipped her into the curriculum at the right point for her. There were a few moments of struggle here and there early on in the semester, but they were quickly overcome, due mostly to lack of confidence as she was transitioning into a new format for learning amongst much older, more experienced students.

The school has been unable to hire a Spanish teacher, so Fiona has ended up with a gap in her timetable this semester as well. She has PreCalc 11 and two Grade 10 humanities courses. She’s happy for the spare block again, because she’s pretty busy for a former unschooler who has refused to give up any of her discretionary activities. This week is fairly typical; this is what it looks like:

Monday: School from ~8:30-3:15 with a one-hour block free in the middle. Then a short break, then two dance classes, home by 7:45 pm.

Tuesday: Same school schedule as Monday. Then straight to choir rehearsal, then straight to violin lesson, and home by 7:30 pm.

Wednesday: School from 8:30-3:00. Just enough time to get home and dump her books, then off to aerial silks class followed immediately (run!!) by two dance classes, home by 7:45 pm.

Thursday: School from noon to 3:00 only. Then she is free in the afternoon and has a long dance class after supper. Home at 9:15 pm.

Friday: Same school schedule as Monday. Then a short break to pack her suitcase, then three dance classes, then we drive home to New Denver for the weekend, arriving at about 10 pm.

The spare block gives her a half day off on either Wednesday or Thursday. This week it fell on Thursday, which made that a very easy day, since it’s her lightest day for extra-curriculars. Sometimes things are better balanced. The revolving nature of the school’s schedule lends new challenges to each week of the month. Feeding her is the biggest challenge for me; she’s often busy over the normal supper hour, and with physically draining activities that require sensible fueling. So my role is to meet her with bento-like containers of food I’ve prepped at home and transport her between locations while she eats. It’s chaotic, and it further erodes the sense of groundedness that she used to be to so easily replenish when her life was largely home-based and self-directed. That part is hard.

The other part that is hard is that there’s really not much opportunity to build social connections. She has school lunch hours, and a few minutes on the edges of her extra-curricular classes. But because her evenings are full and then we go back to New Denver on the weekends (and that is very important to both of us: we need to see Chuck!) there is almost no time to hang out with friends outside of school.

Sometimes she stays in Nelson for the weekend by necessity, for instance if there’s a weekend choir performance or if I’m off in Cranbrook for symphony and not able to drive her home. On such weekends she makes good use of the time, inviting friends over for movies or sleepovers or whatever. But those weekends come at a cost: she doesn’t get emotionally recharged by being in New Denver with her dad and the pets and the nice big kitchen and the wood stove and sleeping in her childhood bedroom….

But overall the year is treating her well so far. I especially love the connections she’s made with teachers. Her art teacher is male and serves as the rugby coach, and all her STEM teachers are strong charismatic women. There are stereotypes being busted all over the place here.

Zwifting on a Stac Zero

Yeah, a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have had any idea what the title of this post meant either. But for the past week, after more than a year of waiting, it’s become a part of my daily life. Well, at least part of my daily life in New Denver.

There are two bits of magic involved here. The first is Zwift, a virtual cycling app running on my laptop. By riding stationary on a trainer in my basement with Zwift, I am thrust into a virtual world complete with sights, sounds, terrain variation and scenery, as well as other cyclists (all in their own basements, presumably). The app offers a data-geek’s playground of stats, challenges, logs, rankings, customizations and file-portability. I can ride for fun, I can draft in a peloton on a group ride, I can push myself through particular sprints or climbing challenges, trying to rank as well as possible against all the day’s riders, I can compare my PRs, run tests of Functional Threshold Power (shorthand for one’s maximal aerobic strength), take part in structured training workouts or simply sight-see. Most days the Zwift map puts me in the mythical Pacific island of Watopia, where I can choose from various routes and directions, anything from a fairly flat 10 km to an epic double mountain pass route of 72 km. Like on a real ride, I can turn back early, decide to take a different turn-off and change my route, extend a ride or quit part way through. I can wave at fellow riders, chat with them or cheer them on.

I always feel like I should open the basement door to let winter air in when I’m riding above Watopia’s snow line.

It all sounds pretty gimmicky and video-game-like, but as someone who has plugged through a lot of boring hours on her bike trainer over the past year and a half thanks only to daydreams and podcasts, the way this app transforms that experience is impressive. It takes you about 80% of the way from sweating and going nowhere in your basement to enjoying a real outdoor ride with a bunch of people. Even if I am planning to simply crank off some easy miles, even though nothing changes with respect to my bike which continues to spin on the level in the basement, I find myself pushing towards the summit of a climb and then dialing it back as I crest and start the descent. I huff and puff towards the finish line of a sprint, I try and keep up with likely-looking fellow riders. It’s almost dangerous: I often get lulled into pushing myself much harder than I need to, just because of the realism, the social aspect and the variability of the ride.

Whale-watching on Ocean Boulevard.

Zwift has been around for about 18 months and has evolved from a beta version with only a couple of tropical routes to an increasingly robust training platform with a variety of maps, including urban routes through London, UK and Richmond, VA. The worlds are only modelled on the real world, which allows the developers to create scenery and experiences in the realm of the fantastic. Ocean Boulevard takes you along a 2-kilometer submarine tunnel where fish and marine mammals swim around you. And yet the data files of a ride push through to Strava, the online log where I tally up all my miles, and look just like my real rides, complete with Google maps of the route. Yes, the Strava software engine has been talked into believing that Watopia is real.

I bought a third-hand CycleOps Fluid2 trainer last year for $100. It had a nice road-like feel, but unfortunately because my bike is a ‘petite’ bike with 650c wheels, Zwift wasn’t able to accurately estimate power (or actually power per kilogram of body weight, from which it generates somewhat-rider-equalized virtual speed on whatever terrain you’re on). I tried the beta version of Zwift when it was first being rolled out in 2015, and my smaller faster-rolling wheels confused Zwift into thinking I was faster and stronger than I was. The near-freezing temperature of the garage where I was riding at the time reduced the viscosity of the resistance fluid in my trainer, and further caused my power to be over-estimated. Normally I would have been content to simply work for relative improvements in my power and speed, not worrying about the absolute accuracy. But the social nature of Zwift meant this was problematic: on a moderate ride I could wup the yellow jersey off even the elite riders, and they weren’t all that impressed. They had worked hard for those jerseys.

Slapping a power meter on my bike would have got rid of the need for Zwift to (poorly) estimate power. But power meters are $500-1000. Yup, really.

img_3492That’s where the Stac Zero comes in. My third-hand CycleOps trainer had two issues. It had been leaking small amounts of fluid, and it had caused a fair bit of tire wear. So when I saw a Kickstarter campaign and a glowing prototype review of the Stac Zero trainer, I jumped aboard and backed the version with the integrated power meter. The Stac, made in Canada, uses eddy current magnetic braking to slow the spinning of the aluminum rear wheel of my bike. This video shows the magnetic drag effect using electromagnets that are switched on to stop a swinging pendulum. In the case of the Stac Zero trainer, the pendulum is replaced by the rim of a bicycle wheel and the electromagnets with a bunch of always-on rare earth magnets. There is no contact between tire and the trainer, so there is no tire wear and no sound from the resistance mechanism. The only sound is that of my bike’s drivetrain itself. A no-calibration-needed power meter integrated into the trainer completes the set-up, transmitting to my laptop. Zwift gets accurate numbers, and puts me properly in the back half of the pack where I should be.

It is so quiet that it doesn’t matter that I’ve put it in the basement right beneath Fiona’s bedroom. For me that beats the garage: it’s warm enough for my laptop and cool enough for me. And Fiona doesn’t even hear it.

Unlike almost every other Kickstarter project I’ve backed, the Stac delivered on time. That was a pleasant surprise, and it helped propel me out of the depressing spiral of inactivity that has plagued me this fall. I’m supposed to be training for the Boston Marathon but my knees have been inflamed for mysterious reason and the swelling, by pushing tendons and ligaments out of alignment, is producing pain whenever I run. Boston may or may not be off the table in April, but at least with the bike trainer to play with in New Denver and the Nelson Nordic Ski Club tracks to ski in during my time in Nelson, I can stay fit and active.

Post-asbestos progress

img_3363-1It set us back about three weeks and cost a lot of money, but the asbestos is gone, and the renovation is moving ahead again.

First the roof came off. Then it poured rain all weekend. Of course.

There were tarps up, but they leaked. It could have been worse. We lost a light fixture. Some old drywall got wet in a few places and will eventually need to be replaced. The bathroom mats were sopping. The house survived.

img_3403The new roof went up. And the old part of the roof got two skylights and a new skin of dark grey shingles. The addition has dramatically changed the overall appearance of the house. It’s not longer a squat 1940s gable-and-shed-roofed block. Now the roofline appears more interesting and broken up from all angles.


As the crew throws up partition walls and roughs in for fixtures, we’re starting to get a sense of how the interior will feel. The airy height of the staircase and hallway is great. We’ll probably be tucking a reading/study area in against the wall, which will eventually have a row of four small windows under the eaves on the right.


The bathroom is harder to appreciate properly at this point without the fixtures, cabinets or window. It seems much bigger than it will be eventually.

The stairs themselves feel immense. They used to be narrow, enclosed and more ladder-like, with lean-back-and-duck head clearance and irregularly-sized treads. Now they are completely to code, which makes them about 50% longer and a dream to climb. They also have natural light from the skylight, and are open to the living room for the bottom five steps which also gives them a sense of spaciousness. Getting upstairs no longer feels like a trip to a maltreated servant’s garret.

We’re now at the point of ordering tile and flooring, which is exciting. It will be another couple of weeks before it goes down, but reaching this point was enough to inspire me to start assembling the IKEA cabinetry.


First school term

Fiona has reached the end of the first term of the first semester of her first year fully enrolled in school. She has a part-time course load, with just three out of four time-slots filled. She is taking Art 11, Chemistry 11 and Honours Physics 11. By age she in an eighth-grader, by enrolment she’s in 10th. (I have no idea why she’s in Art 11; she asked for an Art or Ceramics 10 class; I suppose this is the only course that would fit into her schedule.)

Detail, ripped paper trompe l’oueil (pencil and pencil crayon), Fiona 2016

Anyway, the spare block was intentional as a transition strategy. She has hours and hours a week of extra-curriculars so it made sense to set a schedule with a little wiggle room during the first few months. It has worked out well, because Honours Physics is definitely the most challenging course she’ll have this year. Next semester she’ll have three Grade 10 level humanities courses and PreCalc 11. The content will be easier, even if the schedule is fuller. She thinks she’ll be able to handle it.

If/when she applies to university, it is possible that the science courses she is taking now will be among the small handful of ‘declared’ courses she’ll submit with her application. (Declared courses are the Grade 11 & 12 high school courses that the university programs care particularly about, a sort of portfolio of high school achievement. How many courses need to be declared in what subjects and at what levels varies depending on the university and the program, but there is a chance that one or more of Fiona’s grade 11 science courses might end up being on that list.) It’s a fairly high-stakes way to start your school career, especially at age 13.

But so far things are looking good. Her grades are mid-to-high 90s in both academic courses. She’s madly resolving multiple cosine law equations and vector diagrams to solve complex multi-step projectile and tension problems. She’s done some pretty cool art projects. The chem and physics labs are decent. I’m really impressed with how much she is learning, and with the level of challenge she’s being provided.

More importantly, she loves her teachers. Her science teachers are both female and the school is very encouraging of girls in science. There has already been a women-in-science trip facilitated to a nearby college, and there is an upcoming three-day physics trip to a couple of university campuses (among other things) with an optional women-in-engineering luncheon she’ll be attending. I can see now how Sophie was swept up in the engineering track once she began attending this school.

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

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.

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.


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. 

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


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.