Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Rooty-Tooty Devil’s Flutes

A couple of weeks ago I put the final nail in the coffin of my sanity. I started a recorder club. Not just Daniel, but two of his friends, accompanied by various younger siblings. 

Let me be clear: this is not learning to use electronic recording devices. We are talking about rooty-tooty devil’s flutes, the small plastic instruments of torture that have been the scourge of primary school parents for generations. 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that I really like the recorder. Lots of people don’t realise that it is actually a ‘proper’ instrument but if you listen to Renaissance and Baroque music (think Bach, Telemann, Corelli) it features heavily. If you don’t believe me, go and YouTube it now! Or to save you the trouble, have a look here. You’re welcome. 

Of course, a beautifully played wooden Baroque recorder is a rather different beastie to the overblown screech whistle most of us are familiar with. But as a beginner instrument, I honestly think it takes some beating. Actually getting a sound out of it to start with is pretty easy so there is an instant result for a small child, and then they can focus on learning fingering and notation and so on. Learning a simple instrument is a good vehicle for tackling early theory (e.g. reading music), which is then transferrable to any other instrument, and many of the techniques used on the recorder are integral to at least the rest of the woodwind and some brass. 

And then, let’s face it, a recorder is the cockroach of the music world - widely detested, largely misunderstood, and absolutely indestructible. No matter how exuberant or heedless the child, or how many ‘accidents’ long-suffering family members are driven to engineer, it is virtually impossible to damage a recorder. How you feel about this will depend on your perspective but I like that it can be left around for the kids to pick up and have a go at frequent intervals rather than having to schedule formal practice sessions. It is also helpful not having to worry that the baby will get his hands (and mouth) on them. 

The only similarly robust instrument I can think of is the piano, which has the downside of being a very lonely experience at the beginner stage. Recorders can be played in groups - although whether they SHOULD is a point heavily contested by attendees of primary school concerts. 

So a few weeks ago I mentioned to the boys that I was thinking of trying them with the recorder (mostly Daniel, of course, but Adam always wants to join in). They weren’t quite sure what I meant so I fetched an innocuous-looking brown box from their shelves. I don’t think they had even noticed it before, sitting innocently under other things on one of the higher shelves. With the air of a conjuror, I opened the box to reveal a whole collection of recorders, tin whistles, and other tooty-blowy things. 

As an aside, because it’s my blog and I can digress if I want to, we also discovered an ancient artifact from my childhood: a battered and tarnished brass car horn with its rubber bulb gone. This came from the Beaulieu Motor Museum at some point in my dim and distant past, and was used to let us know dinner was ready (to save my mum bellowing across two acres of garden and the large field next door). When the bulb expired we took it off and just blew the thing instead, which produced a noice similar to the mating call of a large tanker. Needless to say, the boys were delighted with it and were most disappointed that I limited their time with it lest our garden should be invaded by a fleet of amorous container ships. We may live further inland than I grew up but we’re still not that far from the coast. Also, I like our neighbours and would quite like to maintain our good relationship. 

Back to the recorders. 

We invited a couple of friends to come and learn with us, did a bit of investigation into books and chose Recorder From the Beginning. I also got a couple of grade books for myself to remind me, since I don’t think I had played for about 20 years, and invested in a reasonably decent recorder for myself, the boys having commandeered the Aulos descants that belonged to me and my brother. This is what our sitting room looked like - three adults, three 5/6 year olds, four 2/3 year olds (one was borrowed), and two 6 month olds. 

I will leave you to imagine the noise. But after 20-30 minutes we had actually managed to cover the concept of tonguing (the older three are particularly good at this), how to play a B, where it lives on the stave, and they had all managed to make up a funny phrase and play it (i.e. play different rhythms). Not bad going! Then we sent them off to play, hid the recorders, and drank lots of coffee. 

Session two, over a fortnight later, revealed that all three older children still remembered how to play the B, what it was called, and where it lived on the stave! I was mightily impressed. We have now introduced A, looked at where that lives, and learned to recognise/say/play quaver and crotchet rhythms using the words ‘window’ and ‘door’. Don’t ask, it works. They’ll probably still be using those words when they take Music degrees. 

In the process of trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about, I have got myself completely hooked. Originally I am a violinist but I barely ever play these days because there is never enough time to get it out, and you can’t just drop it onto a table and leave it while you go and sort out World War 3 or a screaming baby. 

It turns out, however, that 3 years of music at university and a brief foray into the clarinet during A Levels (I was working on Grade 8 when I gave up) is a pretty solid foundation for relearning the recorder after a couple of decades. Having said that, it must have been pretty firmly embedded somewhere in my memory because it was the only instrument I played until I was 10 and I seem to remember I was a constant member of my school recorder club from around 6 until I left primary school. Even after I left my recorder teacher persuaded me to go to a couple of adult recorder groups (no, take your minds out of the gutter!), which I really enjoyed. One of them is still running, I have discovered, and I am planning to go after the summer. In the meantime, to keep me busy, I am working on some Grade 5 exam pieces. The descant syllabus only goes up to Grade 5 so I think I might take that next term before I crack out my old treble recorder and continue torturing the family in a lower key. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Finding our New Normal

Since we got back from Israel, our home ed has shifted once again. This is something every home educator - and every parent - will recognise. You get into a rhythm that works and then BAM! someone has a massive developmental leap and/or hormone surge and you have to flail about until you find the new normal. We have managed to avoid too much flailing this time, thanks to it all coinciding with our trip away, thus giving us time away from the old routine (I use that word in its loosest possible sense) and space to observe, discuss and plan ready for our return. 

Reading Eggs and Maths Seeds have stayed. These make my life a huge amount easier so I am extremely grateful that Daniel loves them! For those not in the know, they are online programmes that take the child from the very beginning in reading and maths through to the standard levels for age 7 (RE) and age 9 (MS). There is a follow-on programme, Reading Eggspress, for reading at 7+. Each lesson takes somewhere around half an hour and uses games and animated characters to teach the material. Each game has to be passed before you can move on to the next one, and at the end of each ‘map’ (10 lessons in RE, 5 in MS), there is a quiz that must be passed before you can go on to the next one. You earn ‘eggs’ for each game that can be spent in the online shop to buy virtual furniture etc for a house with a little character, though Daniel has largely lost interest in that side of it (he was a bit obsessed for a while but calmed down when we introduced the rule that he could only go to the shop at the end of each map). As an added bonus, the programme sends me regular emails with a progress report so I have a record of what he has done and when; he doesn’t see these, nor the ‘estimated reading age’, but they are interesting for me to see and could be useful if our education provision were ever questioned. 

Anyway... after starting Reading Eggs at the end of last August, he is now on the final map and busy planning what we will do to celebrate finishing it. He will have a go at reading most things now, though has yet to tackle a whole book, but that will come. Maths Seeds he started in January and is now somewhere around the middle of Year 1. He is still finding it quite easy and often decides to do two lessons in a day so by September I expect he will have ‘caught up’ with where he would be if he were in school. I am impressed with how solid his grasp of basic number concepts is and love how excited he is by manipulating numbers just for the sake of it, not just in a practical context. Practical maths is obviously important (he is starting to tell the time and recognise coins, for example) but I also want him to appreciate the beauty of numbers in pure maths, and I am glad to see this programme encouraging that. 

So now to the new things. After years of fiercely resisting any kind of writing or even drawing, Daniel has suddenly started drawing, colouring, and even giving writing a go. At first it was just in birthday cards but gradually it has increased until he was happy to accept my suggestion that we look at how to write each letter correctly (his upside-down e’s were frustrating him). I gave him a choice of using the old write-and-wipe books or worksheets and he chose worksheets, so I have downloaded a free set and he is cheerfully working his way through the alphabet. 

Then there is Hebrew, with the Z’man Likro textbook I have used with many of my Bar Mitzvah students. He already knew the alphabet thanks to a story book we got him in the US 18 months ago, and now he is making great progress putting the letters together with the nekudot (vowels) and learning some very basic vocabulary. 

For the last year or so, Daniel has been desperate to learn Italian. We’re not entirely sure what inspired this interest (possibly a combination of Peppa Pig and the Go Jetters) but he has been impressively insistant about it. We briefly found a class that he loved, but it stopped for lack of numbers. An attempt to set up a home ed class with the same teacher failed for the same reason (we might try again in September). In the meantime, therefore, we are going to have a go at ten minutes each day of the Duolingo app. 

Finally, it felt like time to introduce some sort of music education. That deserves a post of its own. 

We don’t do all these things every day, of course - we are far too busy living life and enjoying all the activities summer offers. Perhaps 3-4 days most weeks we are doing at least some, aiming for a balance over the space of each week. Daniel seems much more settled and happy, and he and Adam fight much less, when he has had some time and space doing work. 

Of course, Adam is now asking to do ‘work’ too, so our new normal is about to change again to accommodate that, but for Daniel we seem to have found what works. For now, anyway!

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Hummus and Hypercausts

We have just (well, a couple of weeks ago) come back from Israel after a whirlwind 11 days visiting family and being as touristy as we could manage. DH has a lot of relatives in Israel and we have gone several times but not for the last four years, so Daniel was the only one of the kids to have been before (just before he turned 2). 

Long flights with three small children is never going to be relaxing but we all managed pretty well. For a start, we flew from the tiny airport 15 minutes from home, changing planes in Paris. And when I say tiny, I mean about 200 yards from the taxi drop-off to the check-in desk, and the same distance again to the gate. I swear there were more staff than passengers! Coming back, we had a very early start but less than an hour after landing we were home and lunch was cooking, which was utter bliss. Well worth the long layover on the way out and not-quite-long-enough transfer time on the way back. 

First stop, after a day settling in, was the Persian synagogue. It is beautiful... and Orthodox. Which means that I (and all the other women) was upstairs in a gallery, taking no active part in the service, and I had all three kids with me. I didn’t even bother picking up a prayerbook. Keeping two active small boys and a 5 month-old baby quiet, reasonably still, and gainfully occupied for a couple of hours requires a superhuman level of multitasking which definitely does not leave room for following the service with more than half a braincell. Other kids there run in and out of the men’s section and play in the hall but Daniel was too shy and Ben too small. Adam did go and sit with DH and his dad for a bit, and I had an arsenal of peggies and matching cards, story cubes and picture books. Even so, I spent my entire time shushing them... until another toddler suddenly acquired a whistle, which no one rushed to remove from her, at which point I figured I wasn’t doing as badly as I had thought. I even got an approving smile and pat on the shoulder from the Rabbi’s wife, who rules the ladies’ gallery with an iron hand, AND when she came over at the end of the service to find out who I was and where I came from I actually managed to conduct the entire conversation IN HEBREW! This was the first time I’ve had enough Hebrew to cope with a whole (basic) conversation. It was gratifying to know that the intensive study I had done in the couple of weeks before we went had been worth it (I didn’t reach my goal of finishing the Teach Yourself book but managed 10 chapters out of 18). 

Shabbat over, it was time to get out and about. Coming from a part of the UK that is flooded with tourists (known locally as ‘grockles’), I have spent years battling a deep-seated aversion to appearing at all grockly when we go anywhere, but I seem to have finally conquered it and we embraced our grockleness and grockled as hard as we could. 

The excavations at Caesarea were amazing and Daniel was hugely excited by the archaeology. I have always wondered if I was flogging my own interest in history a bit hard for him but here I was just following him around from one place to the next as he enthused about the tiered seating at the side of the arena, mosaics, baths, and hypercaust systems. That made my heart happy. 

In Haifa we visited the incredibly beautiful Bahá’i gardens (the bottom bit, not the near-vertical 45-minute walk down from the very top of Mount Carmel) at the boys’ request, after they saw a picture in one of their books about Israel. We have friends who are Bahá’i and recently went to a Persian New Year celebration with their community, so that tied in nicely. Then off we went to Akko, at a family member’s recommendation, and spent an afternoon exploring the old Crusader citadel. We will definitely be going back on future visits, maybe with an overnight stay to fit more in, but this time we were concentrating on enjoying just a few things rather than packing in so much that everyone was exhausted. Oh, and halva ice cream is a thing. A thing I need more often in my life, so I must try to find a recipe, since travelling all the way to Akko isn’t really very practical on a regular basis. If you do happen to be in Akko, however, go to Endomela on HaHaganah Street. You won’t regret it. 

The following day we spent on the beach in Herzliya Pituach, and I rediscovered some things I had forgotten about it: 

1. The sea is warm. I had forgotten this was possible. Even Ben enjoyed going in. 

2. There are sparrows everywhere but not a single seagull (widely reviled in our part of the world for their tendency to steal food out of people’s hands). This I could live with. 

3. Very pretty orange shells. The kids collected loads, which we then left in a cafe later in the day. Boo. 

Another day, we pootled over to Beit Shemesh to see the stalactites in the Avshalom Caves. Note to self for next time: The English tours are at 11am and would avoid the ear-splitting chaos of endless Israeli school groups. Still, much oohing and ahhing. Then a fantastic evening with DH’s cousins, who have produced several more kids of their own since we last saw them. Adam bonded with the smaller ones over mud pies in the park, while Daniel regaled an adult cousin at great length with tales of dissecting a squid at the aquarium a few weeks before, and his birthday party at the Lego shop. 

Next stop, Jerusalem, with an overnight stay in a very nice hotel, courtesy of my father-in-law. We spent a day at the Israel Museum seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls and other cool things, and then the next day exploring the Old City and visiting the Western Wall. Daniel and Adam went to the men’s side with DH and got to roll a Torah scroll. Ben and I on the (much smaller) women’s side... got to walk up to the wall. Being Friday afternoon, it was quite quiet, but as always I was acutely aware that blokes have a much better deal there. It is a special place with a wonderful atmosphere but the stranglehold of the Orthodox authorities makes it far less inspiring for me than it could be. The shuk was as fascinating as ever and Daniel chose a new menorah and Adam a new kippah. 

The trip ended with a massive party for all the extended family members, with lots of time in the swimming pool. I tried out my Hebrew, then retreated to hide behind their (invariably superb) English, and enjoyed a brief foray into French with an elderly relative who went to an ‘Alliance’ school in Iran 60-odd years ago. If Wikipedia serves me correctly, these were French-speaking Jewish elementary schools set up across the Middle East. It was the best language we had in common so we each dredged up as much as we could from the depths of our memories, knocked off the rust and had an extremely ungrammatical but lovely conversation. My grandmother (a French teacher) would have been proud. 

So that’s about it. The kids enjoyed the apartment complex swimming pool; Adam’s record was 5 hours in one day, Ben’s was an hour and a half. It was fairly cold water but he must have realised that it was the most comfortable he would be all day. The heat was exhausting at times but no one burned (apart from me and DH a bit at the beach - nothing awful). The kids coped extremely well with all the changes and strange people, though the Israeli tendency to fondly ruffle the hair of any passing child horrified Daniel to the depths of his very English don’t-touch-me soul. Story cubes were a great icebreaker for him. We even survived the airport security, including the passport control lady who told us absolutely seriously that we should change our surname so she would know we’re definitely Jewish. 

As usual, I am determined to keep up with my Hebrew and be fluent by the time we next go. We’ll see! I do love visiting Israel - archaeology everywhere, being in a place where Judaism is the norm (from a mezuzah on every door to kosher cafes and restaurants everywhere), the food (I am a certified falafel addict), Israelis’ love for kids (only surpassed by the Italians’), wonderful family and more. Obviously the place has its problematic elements but I am so glad we get to go at least every few years. 

Having said that, it was lovely to get back to manageable temperatures and plenty of green! 

Monday, April 30, 2018

One of those days!

It’s been one of those days. It started (rather earlier than I would have liked) with the discovery that Adam had wet the bed. Our bed. On the side without the waterproof mat. 

My get-up-and-go was definitely elsewhere this morning so we were running late to get to music class. In my hurry, I forgot that the parking app likes to make absolutely positively completely sure that you definitely want to pay for parking and missed the umpteenth ‘confirm’ button, resulting in a bright yellow ticket on my windscreen when we got back. 

We arrived home to find a ‘we tried to collect’ note from the courier company who delivered a completely mashed piece of furniture to us several weeks ago and have so far failed to turn up to get it on multiple occasions. Apparently the voicemail and email we sent on Friday within 10 minutes of their message telling us they’d be here today weren’t enough to get across that I wouldn’t be home. Next time I might try a ouija board. 

Next I checked my email and picked up a reply from the gardening glove company that supplies the local gardening centre. I wanted to know why their leather gauntlet gloves only come in a size so massive that I might as well wear boxing gloves for all the good I can do in them. I received a very polite response informing me that the gauntlets only come in large (er, that’s why I was asking...) and recommending instead the flimsy beflowered ladies’ gloves that reach no further than my wrist. Well, that’s me told. I shall go and do a little light weeding and potting while the men in my life gird their Y-chromosomes and venture forth into the testosterone-fuelled battle against the brambles. When I have finished I shall take up my embroidery until it is time to prepare cold beer and a hearty meal ready for their victorious return. Alternatively, I may temporarily suppress my indignation and pay two and a half times the price for the rival company’s smaller-sized gauntlet gloves and then go and vent my unladylike rage on the prickles. After I have finished my tapestry fire screen. 

To cap it all, as I set about preparing three different lunches while muttering darkly about misogyny in the cabbage patches of Great Britain, I managed to burn my own food just enough to make it unpalatable but not quite sufficiently to justify throwing it out and starting again. I finally sat down, with a grumpy wriggly baby whose mission in life at that moment was to knock my food onto the floor, to discover that my much-needed and lovingly made coffee was now lukewarm and had a skin on top. Blech. 

So there you go. Admittedly the afternoon was less full of catastrophic and infuriating happenings but it has still been a day I am happy to see the back of. 

Time for a cuppa, methinks. 

Thursday, April 05, 2018

A Passover Journey

Of all the Jewish festivals, Passover is definitely my favourite. There’s a great story with plenty of audience participation, edible props, bonkers traditions and a lot of singing - what’s not to love? 

This year we decided to get hands-on with the story and talked about what we would take with us on the kind of journey the Israelites made into the desert. 

Food and water came up first, and cups for getting more water from streams. Daniel considered string would be pretty useful, while Adam fancied tools (he got a toolkit for his 3rd birthday recently). After some debate, we concluded that a Swiss Army knife would do as most other tools could be replaced by rocks of various kinds along the way. Matches would help with fire for warmth and cooking (some conversation about alternative methods such as flint and steel, or rubbing two sticks together), while a picnic blanket would provide something to sit on, sleep under and shelter in. Finally, a first aid kit seemed sensible. 

Then we made our own matzah, following the tradition of allowing no more than 18 minutes to elapse between the water hitting the flour and the dough going into the oven, to ensure that no leavening could take place. While it was in the oven, we read the story again, packed everything into our rucksacks, and put on our walking boots. Adam, who had grasped that the desert is hot, sensibly insisted on his sun hat too. 

As soon as the matzah was ready, off we went! 

Our trek took us up the road to the park, followed at one point by some rather noisy Alsations (we decided they were the Egyptian army), whom we escaped by crossing the road (or Red Sea, depending on how you wanted to look at it). There we settled down to a brief and slightly chilly picnic of matzah, hummus and charoset. 

The original plan was to continue to the Promised Land (cafe up the road) for the fabled milk and honey (hot chocolate) but we ran out of time so headed for home, talking about modern-day refugees on the way. 

I can see this activity growing with us and becoming a family Passover tradition, maybe a proper hike in years to come, and hopefully inspiring conversations about refugees that lead into positive action like our amazing friends here

The matzah wasn’t bad, either!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Constipated Hi-Fi

Many moons ago, when Daniel was a toddler, he posted a piece of tailor’s chalk into my hi-fi. It was one of those multi-CD changers and the next time I pressed the button to change the CD deck there was a nasty crunching and whirring and the mechanism seized up. I always meant to take the side off and see if I could fish out the offending item but since it was the spare hi-fi and not much used, I never got round to it. 

Yesterday, however, the stars aligned, a screwdriver was in the right place, I had a spare ten minutes, and off I went. Predictably, I was interrupted halfway through and ended up leaving it partly dismantled, so when I resumed today I had a fascinated audience who had spotted that something was afoot and switched on their mummy-is-up-to-something radar. 

At first they just watched while I gradually took the thing apart to try and get inside the CD unit (becoming increasingly doubtful that I would ever manage to put it back together again) but after a while I concluded that the only way to get at the two CDs stuck inside was to sacrifice the hi-fi. Since we have another we use more often and have managed perfectly well without the constipated one for at least four years, this wasn’t a major trauma. 

And so the fun started! Adam did a bit of "I fixin’ it!" with his wooden hammer but Daniel spent several hours (with breaks for swimming and dinner) carefully dismantling every part he could get to. He tried out different screwdrivers, pliers and a hammer; unplugged wires; experimented with bending copper; and had involved conversations with DH as they pored over circuit boards. He extracted two small motors and used pieces of his electronics set (a birthday present when he was 4 and played with often enough to understand the basics) to make them work, much to his delight. Well after bedtime he was still racing up and down the stairs with ‘one more’ component (including a fan) and a huge grin: "This stuff is AMAZING!" He only agreed to go to bed when we promised to leave out the rest so he could carry on in the morning. 

I think he needs his own set of screwdrivers for his birthday next month! Meanwhile, I need to invest in an idiot’s guide to electronics. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Living in Narnia

"Mummy, there’s a problem," said Adam. "It’s not floor snow, it’s just window snow."

"You mean you can see it falling but it’s not settling?" I said. "No, it’s the middle of March, it won’t settle this time. Definitely not."


On the up-side, our lovely neighbours lent us their sleds as we trudged past to the park to admire the 7-foot snowmen.