School on the Road: Here’s what my kids did while I was stressing about their schooling

This week, my Facebook feed reminded me that just about everyone we know is starting a new school year. On the day our kids would have returned to school, we were doing this on the Oregon coast:

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Not that I haven’t thought about it – obsessed is probably a more accurate description. When we were planning this trip, the biggest question mark for me was how we were going to handle the boy’s schooling. To begin with, neither Danny nor I are trained as teachers and, apart from Sunday school, haven’t done much teaching. Our kids have been in public school from 8am to 3:30pm every day since age three. Thankfully, neither of them experience any significant learning challenges, so Danny and I were minimally involved with their teachers.

Technically, we supervised Nico’s homework, but we usually did the minimum. Tired after a day at the office, and distracted by my constantly buzzing smartphone and the stack of dishes in the sink, I usually rushed him to “just get it done” so I could get to where I really wanted to be: in front of Netflix in my pajamas. I demanded to see evidence of him learning, which, to my mind, meant he had to be sitting at the dining room table, hunched over a notebook, for at least 20 minutes. More often than not, we argued, and I’m not sure he learned very much.

So the idea of suddenly taking over responsibility for their education while we were on the road caused (me) some anxiety. What if we completely screw up and they actually get dumber? Or, maybe they keep up with their studies but they forget all their social skills and then spend years in therapy blaming (me) because they have no friends?

More importantly, how was I supposed to transition from the role of mom – someone who basically prepared their meals and nagged them to take a shower – to a teacher/coach/learning mentor? Half the time I couldn’t motivate them to put on their shoes in the morning, and now I was supposed to get them to learn Algebra?

Determined to figure it out, I dove enthusiastically down the Google rabbit hole. After about five minutes, I was already confused and sidetracked by what seems like a very lively debate about education outside of formal schools. Now, it seemed, not only did we have to figure out the boys’ education for a year, we also had to figure out which movement we were joining: homeschooling? Unschooling? Road schooling? Roadschooling sounds good! There seemed to be no strict membership requirements for the Roadschooling Club, and we were going to be doing this in a van, so…

The next order of business was to wade through the approximately gazillion resources available online. There’s no complete, agreed-upon list of what kids are supposed to know by grade level, but the Common Core standards are online, as are the Middle Years standards for the International Baccalaureate degree. This was something of a relief. Maybe we should just pick an online curriculum and have them click their way through? But when were they going to do the clicking, without wifi? And would they, or would I be nagging them relentlessly to stop playing that video game and do schoolwork?

We decided to buy some time but putting off introducing any kind of structured schooling for at least two months. After all, it was summer break, and we were moving around to a new place every few days.

And I have to admit, once I put aside that image of “school” in my head, the one of them bent over notebooks, I noticed they were picking up some pretty useful skills. The practical demands of living on the road, in and of themselves, push them to learn new things. Each time we set up camp, the boys get busy putting up the tent, starting a fire, preparing food, and after dinner they fetch water to wash dishes and help hang the bear bag. Nico manages our budget, entering all our expenses into a spreadsheet and reporting to us every two weeks.

When we had a house and a routine, Nico complained often that he didn’t have time to be creative. Now, without the nuisance of school every day (as he put it), and without my nagging, he got back into writing the novel he’d started before we left. He also cajoled friends and family to give him feedback, whenever we’d stop to visit someone. When we went on long hikes, he would muse aloud about his plot development, wondering what his characters would do or say next. He also composed two songs and a movie trailer, and revved up his blogging. He did all this mostly without me, because I was off worrying about how we were going to educate him.

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Oscar seemed thrilled to be outside most of the time, and began exploding with questions. Maybe he was always that way and I didn’t notice it before, busy as I was with other things. At first, I thought it was my job as his new kindergarten teacher to answer these questions, accurately and authoritatively. When we saw lightening strike in the distance during a hike in the Badlands, he wondered, “What makes a thunderstorm happen?” Aha! I thought, I am going to give this kid a lesson in physics! But while I scoured my little brain for an answer, trying to locate the spot where I’d stored that information from ninth grade physics, and making a mental note to Google it when I had wifi again, Nico stepped up and explained the whole thing. (Something to do with electrons. I don’t even know.)

Okay, so that time they caught me off guard, but I – the Teacher – was going to be prepared for such questions from now on. When we entered Olympic National Park, I made sure to get one of those brochure thingies with all the information about the animals and plants in the park, and I read the whole thing while nobody was looking. It described the things that live at different tidal levels and why they live there. I waited for the perfect moment, when we were exploring the very tidal pools I had studied in the brochure, and then I went for it.

“Wow,” I said. “Check out these barnacles. Don’t you wonder why those barnacles live kind of halfway up these rocks but not all the way at the top of the tall ones?”

Oscar thought for a moment. “I guess because they want to get splashed sometimes so they don’t dry out, but they don’t want to be wet all the time.”

“Yeah,” Nico added. “They probably need to be where they can suck the minerals off the rocks but not where predators can get them. Any animal is going to live where they can get the most food and not get eaten.”

“Well, yes!” I said, a little stunned, but still determined to teach them something. “And look! These are anemones and they live at the lowest part because they need to be submerged all the time, and there are these little fish that live in the anemones, and…”

But Nico was scaling a rock wall about 20 feet away, and Oscar was having a swordfight with an imaginary foe about 40 feet in the opposite direction. Danny was standing there chuckling to himself. One little hermit crab looked up at me with some interest, but other than that, I was talking to myself.

There seems to be some law of parenting that for every iota of excitement a parent shows for a particular thing, there is an equal and immediate reduction in her children’s excitement for that thing. Maybe I can ask a psychologist about that when they are in therapy later on. Right now though, the important lesson was that they were learning plenty, when I got out of the way and let them explore the world on their own terms. (For the record, I don’t think there is anything special about my kids in this regard).

Does that mean they don’t need me at all, that my only use is driving the van and paying for groceries? Well, no, at least I hope not. I am still figuring it out, but I think it means my job is to (1) relax and (2) help create an environment where it’s easy and fun to learn. Turns out (1) is much harder than (2) because basically the kids tell us what they want to explore and what they need.

Does this mean they never hunch over a notebook? No. I never would have believed this if I hadn’t seen it myself, but they have begun asking for structured schooling. Two days ago, Oscar said to me, “Mom, can we do some math in my math journal?” He actually said that. I nearly fell out of my chair, and then I went and got the journal and worked with him a bit. Here’s the proof:

img_0353By way of contrast, I had what I still think is a fantastic idea for Oscar’s schooling – a plant and animal journal. I bought him a notebook, even put “Oscar’s Plant and Animal Journal” on the front for him. We have seen approximately 500 interesting animals on this journey, and I have shoved it in front of him, with colored pencils, at least a dozen times. That journal is completely blank.

Does that mean they will never learn algebra? Nope. Nico works through the curriculum on Khan Academy when we have wifi, and we also do Algebra on the beach, like this:

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Have I completely relaxed? Of course not. Now I’m obsessing about how we’re going to keep a good thing going when we inevitably have to deal with the distractions of jobs, wifi availability, and social life that a less nomadic lifestyle brings. I’m also besieged by the holy-crap-my-kid-is-a-genius syndrome, which hinders my ability to judge their work objectively.

But something tells me that if I stop worrying, it might all just work itself out.

12 comments

  1. What Julia said! You managed to capture so many of the obsessive tendencies that come with parenting school-aged kids that I know so well (particularly the DC-parts). Thanks for sharing so much of your thoughts, and your ups and downs. We’re learning from your bravery! xo

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  2. A beautiful (and humorous) meditation on what education is, could be, and should be! As you know, I think about this topic pretty much daily myself. Thank you for your self-aware and profound reflections!
    P.S. Nico’s novel is awesome.

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  3. What a beautiful (and humorous) meditation on what education is and can be! As you know, I think about this topic pretty much daily, so I very much appreciate your self-aware and profound reflection on it.
    P.S. Nico’s novel is awesome!

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  4. You are doing a great job Alys and Dan. This travel experience is the teacher. For this year you are just the guide and role model.
    Having them figure out how to find answers for their questions is a huge part of education. You don’t always need to be the “encyclopedia” with the answers.
    It will be educational for them to see you and Danny as “life long learners” with passions for learning in the area that interest you.
    This educator is thrilled that all of you are taking this road.

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  5. Of course your kids are genusis’s! After all you and Rob turned out to be smarter than your mom and dayud! I do wish my mother was here to take Oscar and Nico on puddle hikes as she did Lucas and Trace! Maybe I can continue that when you come visit the Knobs and fish!

    There s nothing more precious to learning than your children’s questions! Enjoy!

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