Monday, April 26, 2010

Play! A Video Game Symphony

Mackenzie and I went to see Play! A Video Game Symphony this weekend, and I don't think I've ever seen more 10 - 15 year old boys at the symphony ever. In fact, at intermission there weren't even any lines for the women's bathrooms, something I've never experienced. And how often do you hear whistles and thunderous applause in the middle of a piece of music at the symphony (by the way, this was encouraged by the conductor, so the audience wasn't being rude, just ebullient!)

This is a touring concert (coming next to Vancouver, Canada), but each city that hosts it uses their own symphony and choir. Here, it was guest-conducted by Andy Brick, who is a composer of game music himself and did an excellent job in the conductor's role. He was also a great speaker who is obviously very conversant with the world of video games and so he did a good job introducing all of the pieces. Also, in the audience on the night we saw it was Jeremy Soule who composed my favorite piece of the evening, the theme to Elder Scrolls Oblivion.

One thing I really loved about the concert was that they had three huge screens above the stage. They not only showed clips from each game as the theme was being performed, but they had several cameras set up within the orchestra and chorus and a particular instrument or instrumental grouping played, they would show that instrument on the screen. So you would hear the timpani drums, and at the same time you would be watching the drummer, or watching the piccolo player during the flute sections of the music. I thought that was a brilliant stroke because for kids (or for anyone not conversant with the orchestra), it's great to be able to connect what you're hearing with what instrument is making that sound. Otherwise, how do you know that the reedy part is played by the oboe, by that person with their lips all pursed together around that funny little reedy instrument? The other benefit of the cameras within the orchestra is that we got to see the conductor from the orchestra's point of view, which was interesting to watch.

I also liked seeing how the choir was used basically as an instrument. In most of the video game pieces, the choir doesn't actually use any language, they are just singing notes with an open vowel sound. So in essence, they are more like an instrument than a chorus. There was only one piece where they had any lyrics, and I couldn't tell if it was in Latin or in some made-up language like Orcish or something.

Mackenzie's favorite pieces were Zelda which, as he says, has some of the best video game music ever composed. He was a little disappointed that they didn't include any music from the Ocarina of Time, or Epona's Theme which is another popular piece of music from the Zelda series. We both thought that the piece they played for the encore, One Winged Angel from the Final Fantasy series was probably the most intriguing of the night. Apparently the composer Nobuo Uematsu said in an interview that this piece was designed to be a fusion of the musical styles of Igor Stravinsky and Jimi Hendrix!

All in all, we had a terrific evening, the symphony and choir were great as always (for such a small city, we have terrific arts and music). Although Mackenzie is a classical music lover anyway, I do think it's cool that the symphony is reaching out to new audiences in unique and creative ways.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

But What If Unschooling Doesn't Work?

After posting about the unschooling piece on ABC, I got into several conversations IRL and on email and Facebook about the potential issue of unschooling not working. What if parents choose to unschool who then DO park their kids in front of a screen and feed them donuts? What if parents choose to more or less neglect their kids' education, and use the notion of unschooling as an excuse to do so? What if kids are being unschooled who then aren't exposed to a wide enough variety of things, or their parents don't bother following up on their interests? These are all valid concerns. And honestly, they probably do happen somewhere or other in the world. People wouldn't be human if some of them weren't screwing something up somewhere. There are two real questions that need to be answered when we think about unschooling not working:
1. Does the regular public school system ALWAYS work?
2. Should one educational path be closed to all if it doesn't work for some segment of the population?

On question number one, I think the answer is fairly clear. Our traditional public schooling option serves most of the population fairly well, and depending on location, school, and a family's goals and involvement levels can be extrenely successful. But there is no doubt in anyone's mind that children can and do fall through the cracks. A one-size-fits-all educational solution really doesn't work for every child. There can be a variety of reasons for this: classroom management issues, teaching to tests, the fact that a standard age-based curriculum will not always fit every kid's developmental level, bullying in schools, drug use in schools, the culture that is created when kids (and especially teenagers) are largely in a same-age peer group for a large percentage of their day, lack of parental involvement in children's lives and educations. Currently, the graduation rate for U.S. students is about 70%. So, depending on location and ethnic group, somewhere between 10 - 50% of kids in any given school are not "succeeding" even according to the schools' own definitions of success.

Ask yourself, if 1/3 of all homeschoolers were unable to complete their education, what would the reaction be in the press and the government? Would homeschooling even be allowed? I've met large numbers of unschoolers along our journey, and overwhelmingly they are interesting, engaged kids who are passionately following their interests in life. If I had to hazard a ballpark guess, I'd say that far more than 70% of them go on to fulfill their goals and ambitions.

For question number two, you have to really think long and hard about question number one. Because if you want to limit unschooling and/or homeschooling because there might be a few families it's not working for, you then need to think about what you're going to do about our current educational system. I live in the community that spawned Kip Kinkel, who not only encountered many problems (bullying, etc.) in the school system, but whose parents were both teachers in the system. Should his school have been permanently closed for such an egregious failure that resulted in loss of life to so many? If people are worried so badly about unschoolers who (as stated in the video) are not exposed to things like different sports, they need to be equally concerned about the things kids are exposed to when they attend school.

Sure, my kids haven't been forced to play ten different sports in a P.E. class. They've also never experienced bullying first hand. They've never heard someone be teased about what they're wearing, never seen a fight between two kids, never been afraid of another child. So, there are trade-offs to everything. Unschooling is not school. Unschooled kids will have a far different experience than a schooled child. Some of that difference may be a net positive, some may be a net negative. By only focusing on the supposed "deficiencies" of unschooling, the media can throw out a red herring to distract us from the drastic problems in our educational system.  When they get that one fixed up, maybe I'll take their concerns about unschooling to be slightly more credible. Until then, it just doesn't worry me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So Let's Talk About ABC's Unschooling Piece

Where do you start with a media piece like this? With the obvious bias that the reporter carried into it, the fact that she didn't even make a feeble attempt to keep an open mind? Or with the fact that they deliberately focused in on a kid eating a donut and kids watching TV and playing video games in a transparent attempt to skew what viewers think of the family's lifestyle choice?. It wouldn't be nearly as controversial if you showed them eating a green pepper or reading a book, both things that they probably also do. What about the fact that they take what the kids themselves say and deliberately misinterpret it? Like this quote from 15 year old Kimi:"I haven't done the traditional look at a textbook and learn about such-and-such," she said. "If I wanted to go to college, then I would pick up a textbook and learn."

Basically she's saying what both of my kids know: If they have to learn something in order to achieve a goal, they can do it in a relatively short amount of time. This happened when Mackenzie wanted to take a computer science class for which Algebra was a pre-requisite. Problem? No, we just got a textbook and went over the Algebra and in a fraction of the time he would've spent on it in school, he had it down.If he has to do the same thing for college admissions, I don't think it will be a problem.

But the reporter chose to spin the teenager's comment this way: "{she}doesn't even know what grade she'd have been in if she had remained in school, and doesn't feel prepared for college." Where did she say she didn't feel prepared for college? Shoddy journalism at its worst. Maybe the reporter would've been better off unschooled? At least my kids know a fallacious argument when they see one.

So the story really didn't say much about unschooling other than it's radical, it's weird, the kids are unprepared academically and not exposed to other stuff in their lives, they eat like crap and watch too much TV, play too many video games, and are generally unprepared for life.

This is why I wouldn't sign my family up to appear on such a show, though you might remember that years ago our local paper did a front page article on unschooling featuring our family and they were much more open-minded and fair about it. I spoke with the reporter ahead of time and expressed my concerns about wanting an article that presented unschooling in at least a fair light without demonizing it, and I think she did a good job with it. Reading back through that article (written when my kids were 4 and 7 years old!), it's funny how what we were doing then is what we do now, just with older and bigger kids. And it's turning out just fine. I like my kids, they do such cool and amazing stuff. I can barely keep up with all that they do and only blog about a fraction of it, really. They're fun to be around, other people constantly comment on their politeness, their work ethic, their interest level and enthusiasm. I just can't see any way that these kids have been held back in life by being able to pursue their own interests fully. And yes, that often involves video games and sometimes involves donuts! Especially now that we're going to get a Voodoo Donuts shop right here in town. Yummmmm.... 

Oh, but I digress. For instance on the topic of video games, Mackenzie really really likes to play them. And yes, he even plays those first-person-shooter types like Halo, you know the kind that's going to make him into a violent maniac. Except that this weekend he also went with me down to my mom's house, since she had hurt her knee in a dancing accident (gotta love my mom!). He set up some stuff on her computer for her, helped around the house, went on a walk with her through historic Jacksonville (a gold rush town) so he could walk her dog, went on a nice hike with me through the interpretive trails in the gold mining area of the hills, and generally was just such a fun, nice, funny, and helpful guy you could hardly believe he's one of those dreadful teenagers, let alone one that plays those horrid video games.

And still on the topic of video games, Mackenzie has taken to making Youtube videos that explain various stuff in some of his favorite games. Like Blockland, a Lego-based building game, he's made a couple of videos for that. He loves to check back and see the comments, especially if people find his videos helpful and informative. So he's gotten a lot of experience using Windows Movie Maker and is currently helping me with a video project of my own. It's all in a day's unschooling, and contrary to what ABC might have you believe, it's all good.

So as a final antidote to that piece of yellow journalism, here's a bit of what our week holds:

A train trip to OMSI yesterday, the science museum in Portland, which has a nice NASA exhibit right now. 
Asa is spending the afternoon at a friend's house, they are choreographing a duet dance for an audition (ballet, jazz, hip hop). Auditions are tonight
Asa has rehearsals for Little Shop of Horrors
Mackenzie is helping me film my video project
Mackenzie is doing some writing on his first novel
Both kids have their usual classes: Asa has Mime, dance, theater, karate. Mackenzie has computer science, karate
Mackenzie is doing some configuring of our home network
Mackenzie has a couple of hours of work at his web design internship this week
Asa is practicing writing in cursive (another example of a kid wanting to learn something that I didn't even want to learn in school!)
Asa has been doing more and more cooking in the kitchen, for herself and for others.
Both kids are planting and working in the garden

and on and on and on. Such deprived kids!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Time Machine Pranks and Hijinks

While Mackenzie and I were on the road this weekend, we had a long discussion about the best pranks to pull if you had a time machine. Here were our top three:

3. Dress as a Native American and when Lewis and Clark come to your village, helpfully show them a large full-scale modern topographic map of America, conveniently printed on Tyvek that they can take with them.

2. Be sitting at the top of Mt. Everest munching on a PB&J when Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay arrive. Bonus points for having planted the flag of some tiny country like Liechtenstein  prominently on the summit ahead of time.

3. After Neil Armstrong utters his famous "One small step for man..." speech, jump out from a crater wearing a green bug-eyed alien suit.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I was supposed to be grocery shopping, but the sky turned black and inky blue while the sun shone slanted and gold beneath the storm clouds. I couldn't help but stop and take some photos.

As a mom, I've put my career on hold for many years. In fact, I don't think I'll ever be going back to anything resembling my old career (in software). But little by little, my photography is starting to bloom and take hold as not just a passion but a job as well. For the last few months, I've actually gotten paid to do photography, in a variety of ways, and there are yet more opportunities on the horizon. I'm just starting to put together my photographer's web page, so I'll let you know when that's up and running.

The storm-lit evening was a great reminder that although my job as a homeschooling mom is still my number one priority, following my passions just as I help the kids follow theirs is a very good thing.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Those Rainy Rainy Days

This time of year it's bound to happen, you get teased with spring sunshine then BAM you're hit with a long string of rainy days. The garden is planned, but you can't start planting. The kids want to go to the park, but the swings are soaking wet. Baseball and BBQs beckon, but the cloudbursts won't quite cooperate. So what's a housebound homeschooling family to do???

Here's some of our favorite ways to while away a rainy day:

1) Get creative in the kitchen: Time to pull out a recipe book or two and cook something new and different.My kids have both enjoyed cooking from the Dorling Kindersley Children's Cookbook. I swear they've checked this thing out of the library about a half dozen times, I think I probably should just purchase a copy. From a mom's point of view, I love kids' cookbooks that are straightforward enough that the kids don't need your help to complete a recipe from start to finish. This time around, Mackenzie made sushi from their recipe, and it turned out yummy. Last time we were at the library, Asa went berserk checking out cookbooks, so we've got a big assortment right now to encourage experimentation in the kitchen. A rainy day is the perfect time to tie on aprons and try something new.

2. Board Games. Our family is all about the board games. If I showed you a photo of all of the closets and spaces that we have board games stashed away you'd laugh. I scour the thrift store shelves for old favorites, plus Mackenzie has been going to a weekly gaming group lately and coming home with new recommendations. Our favorites lately in the old standbys category:  ClueScrabbleMastermind, the Memory game (which we have with wooden tiles, though it can be played with cards), Mancala, and a card game called Spite and Malice that my family played when I was growing up. It has been released as Uno Skip-Bo , but you can play it with three decks of regular playing cards if you read up on the rules online.

Other games that we've come to love are: Small World (a kind of crazy civilization game where everyone is a unique combination of races and you have to succeed in the "small world" that you inhabit), Cranium Whoonu which is really fun to get to know friends or neighbors better, Munchkin (and all of the many variations thereof), Fluxx (we have the Monty Python version, as well as the original), and The Ungame (we have the version for kids). I was very surprised that the kids really took to The Ungame, and I love how whenever you play it, you really learn new things about the people around you.

3. Pajama days, pillow fights, setting up obstacle courses in the house with pillows and various household objects, jumping on the bed, getting a tent out in the middle of the floor, sometimes restless rainy day energy is best if channeled into fun indoor activities.When I was little, my mom kept a "rainy day fort" that was just a square bit of material painted like a house that she would put over our card table to make a special place to go on these kinds of days. I still can remember exactly what it looked like, so I know it made a good impression on me.

4. Crafts - Now I'm the most craft-impaired mother on the planet but even I can scare up some glue sticks, cut up magazines or construction paper, make paper bag puppets or collages, sort buttons or sew little pillows out of felt. These kinds of days are made for kid-crafts (as long as you don't mind cleaning up the mess afterwards!)

5.. Curling up on the couch with a good read-aloud book. I have to admit that we're in between read-alouds right now, so if you've got a good one that would be exciting for a 10 year old girl who loves horses, dogs, and anything else animal-related and a 13 year old boy who likes adventures, orcs, trolls, wizards and the like, I'm all ears.

5. When all else fails, get out in the yucky weather anyways! A good pair of wellies (rubber boots) and a jacket are all it takes to brave most rainy days. Sometimes if you just get it all together and set out, you feel a lot better for having gotten yourself out of the house. A hike along a favorite trail can look different in the rain, and you can appreciate the misty views from the top of a local hill for their own unique rainy day atmosphere.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Proud Geek Mom

This week as I was coming home from working, Mackenzie came bounding out of the house to greet me with a big smile. I knew something momentous had happened that he was just busting to tell me about and sure enough he came out with it just as I climbed out of the car...

"Mom, they fired up the Large Hadron Collider today! And it didn't even create an earth-swallowing black hole!"

Yeah, that's my boy :)

The quote I like best from the live coverage of the collider was this one:

11.28am: Hilarious. A Cern physicist has just been talking about creating black holes. He worked out that to make a black hole, you need to compress 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 protons into the space of a billionth of a millionth of a millimetre. That number of protons would make up three times the population of Geneva. Apparently.
This from Brian Cox on Twitter:
"If anyone else says "black hole" today I'm going to come round and chin em".

Although there's lots of great sci-geek info tucked into the commentary, like this:

"What would the effect on living tissue (other than the assumed cold) of these high-energy beams be?"
A good question.
In the mid-70s, a Russian physicist called Anatoli Bugorski was checking a faulty accelerator when the proton beam came on and hit his head. He says he saw a bright flash "brighter than a thousand suns".
His face swelled up and skin started falling off. He lost some hearing but otherwise his brain remained in quite decent shape. He could still function, but got tired quickly. It was a crazy accident to have happened.

And this:

11.37am: i: manipulating the Higgs field isn't going to happen any time soon. You'd need to heat your part of the universe above 10,000,000,000,000,000 degrees to influence it. Which isn't really on. A bit dangerous too. If you change the Higgs field, you'll alter the size of atoms (though not their mass very much), and destablise normal matter. That's not a good thing to do. 

Or perhaps this:

9.48am:  I refer you to the priceless exchange between Robert Wilson, former director of Fermilab, and Senator John Pastore, during a Congressional hearing over the value of building a new particle accelerator. Pastore is sure there must be something about the machine that can be steered towards a defence app:
Pastore: Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?
Robert Wilson: No sir, I don't belive so.
Pastore: Nothing at all?
Wilson: Nothing at all.
Pastore: It has no value in that respect?
Wilson: It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with, are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean, all the things we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except perhaps to make it worth defending. 

Friday, April 02, 2010


From little sister to big brother: "You don't need to give me advice. I don't recall asking for a childhood mentor!"