Roadschooling Part II: When the Van Parks – by Alys

IMG_0791About a month ago, Red rolled to a stop in Athens, Georgia. Until the end of the year, we are taking advantage of the outrageous hospitality of Danny’s brother Andrew, wife Ashley and family, and have moved into a sweet little one-room house on their land.

I guess it was inevitable that sleeping in the same place, and having a real fridge and bathroom and all that, would move us into something of a routine. Plus, we are surrounded by people with routines, so you know, when in Rome… (or rather, Athens…) Danny and I have regular volunteer hours – he works Mondays and Wednesdays, I work Tuesdays and Thursdays – so we tag team with the kids.

Falling into a routine definitely has its benefits. And yet, there is a fine line between routine and drudgery, especially for adventurous types like us. Walking that line is probably the biggest challenge for road schooling, now that the van is parked. When the kids were in school, they had three sources of motivation: their peers, the classroom environment, and their teachers. When we were on the road, they missed their peers, but the magic of America’s national and state parks made up for most of that, so Danny and I didn’t have to be all that interesting. Now that the classroom is the same place every day, they’re missing their buddies, and the pressure’s on Danny and me.

We now have a typical day, so let me describe that. We start by sleeping in. This may blow your mind, but it turns out that if you remove any possible interruptions to sleep (like jobs, school, or social obligations), you can sleep like 10 hours a day. We find it also helps to have a nightly Sleeping Competition, with bragging rights for the lucky soul who is last to open her/his eyes. I’ve only won twice, and Danny just a few times, but the boys are in it to win it every night. Often, as the morning light filters in through the window, they take it right down to the wire, squinting their eyes open for a sideways glance at their bedfellow to see if they’ve won yet.

Once the winner has been declared, the boys hustle out the door for morning exercise. Usually Nico runs a mile and does some pushups, and Oscar goes about ¼ mile or so. Our nephews let us bounce on their trampoline, too. Trampoline burpies are quick and fun way to work up a sweat first thing in the morning, if you can keep from bashing your face in (Oscar usually can’t). We follow that with breakfast, and then 5 minutes or so of meditation, so that usually by 9am we’ve got ourselves centered and ready to learn.



Now that we’re in a house with Wi-Fi and a proper table, we can do more of the kind of schoolwork I remember from my own education. (Meaning, kids hunched over notebooks with pencils.) With regular Wi-Fi access, we can find videos to help us with math and science, especially the dissections we’re doing for science class. Nico leads most of this because no one trusts Oscar with a scalpel.

Transitioning to more structured schoolwork has meant it’s more challenging to keep the boys working together. And for me, toggling constantly between 6th grade algebra problems and a kindergartener slogging through Hop on Pop is jarring. Nico will be like “Mom! To simplify 3x + x, it’s just 3x, right?” And I’ll jerk my head around and yell, “Cup on Pup!! Oh, sorry, no. It’s not 3x. Let’s look at it again.”

I try and find a way to get one of them working alone, and ideally quietly, so I can work with the other one. Oscar will wander off to the Lego pile when he needs a break, but just when I’ve forgotten about him, he pipes up with a question. Nico had his knife deep into a grasshopper abdomen the other day, and we were talking about how cool it is that grasshoppers have an eardrum (called a tympanum) on their belly, and out of nowhere Oscar yells, “What do you mean, Tin Pan-um?” and Nico nearly sent the scalpel flying.

We work together more on the home-improvement projects we’ve undertaken as part of our room and board here. So far, we’ve built a world-class (according to Danny) composting system, chopped some wood, planted some trees, winterized the garden by planting some leafy greens and cover crop, and built a hoop house for one of the raised beds. (Oscar christened the latter a ‘poop house,’ and it looks like the name might stick).

Nico is beginning to work with Uncle Andrew and Danny on more advanced carpentry projects (keep watching this space for more on those). By mid-afternoon, the cousins are home from school and it’s all fun and games from there.

I’d love to say that’s what our day looks like all the time, but it’s not. Some days, it’s a slog and others; we’re dealing with full-on rebellion. I can’t say why, but the mutinies have all happened on my days with the kids. (Maybe Danny should blog about that.)

Last Monday, as we sat down to make our work plans, Nico looked me right in the face and said “I’m not doing school today.”

That voice in my head – the one that comes from that angry little dude in Inside Out – whispered to me, “Oh NO HE DIDN”T! Not do school? He is ABSOLUTELY going to do school!”

But I held my cool, and said, “I beg your pardon?”

“I’m not doing school today. I want to build a city out of cardboard.”

“You want to what?” (And I’m thinking, how exactly does that meet any Common Core Standard?)

“I’m doing that too!” Oscar piped up. “What do you mean, cardboard?” he said to Nico.

You already know where this is going. Kids: 1, Mom: 0. There wasn’t any cardboard available, so they used paper. I’m not sure how it meets state educational standards, but we got this great little city, and I think they picked up some geometry and teamwork skills in the process.

Oscar clearly learned from this experience, because the following day, when it was time to do math, he announced, “Mom! Today we’re going to do LEGO MATH.” He smiled triumphantly. I was willing to give it a try. I waited for an explanation, but he just proceeded to grab a Lego minifigure and move it into a fighting pose.

I waited still, and then asked some clarifying questions. “Can you show me how it works? Do we add the Legos up? Are we making different shapes with them? How about I write you an equation and you do it with Legos?”

No answer came, just more wiggling of the minifigure, and avoidance of eye contact. Parents beware; don’t fall for it! There is no such thing as Lego Math. It is a stalling tactic, and not a good one.

Other days, they stage a sit-in. Nico has always possessed an extraordinary stamina for non-cooperation, one that would make any peace activist proud. He’s been known to sit at the table for over an hour, taking no bathroom breaks, without producing a single letter of schoolwork. Lately, his tactic is to gaze up at the heavens, and then quietly place his forehead on the computer keyboard and let out a long, heavy sigh.

Perhaps other parents would have more patience. Perhaps others could wait it out, take a deep breath, and think of the precise words to motivate these children to do the work in front of them. I would like to know some of those parents but I think they only exist on TV.

Me? On my best days, I leave the room, and I sit outside taking deep breaths until one of them comes out to show me the work that he finally decided to do once I got off his back.

On my not-best days, it’s not pretty. Earlier this week, I heard “I’m not doing school today,” for what felt like the millionth time. In retrospect, I think what they were saying was actually, “I would like to build a sculpture out of driftwood on the banks of Lake Superior, or climb inside a Redwood tree today, instead of sitting here with this notebook.” But at the moment, all I heard was rebellion, and it sent me over the edge.

“Seriously? You think you can just say you’re not going to work? DO you have any IDEA what the real world is going to be like? How lucky you are? There are children all over this world who would LOVE to have the kind of day you get to have. Your parents put SO MUCH TIME and ENERGY into trying to plan a school day you will LIKE and ALLYOUDOISCOMPLAINANDI’VE HAD IT!!! I’ve just had it! I can take you RIGHT NOW to the school down the street and dump you there and be completely HAPPY!”

The kids were looking at me like in that scene in A Christmas Story when the dad is battling with the furnace. Oscar turned back to his Legos.

“Did anyone hear what I just said?” I asked, giving them both the stink eye.

“Uh. You said something about the school down the street?” Nico offered.

That’s it. That’s all they heard. And I’m over there sweating with frustration.

I wish I could say we worked it all out right then, or that we came to a better place as a family. I wish I could offer some great lesson about how to handle motivating kids when they’re stuck. But the truth is, I still don’t know and I bet I never will. This isn’t Leave it to Beaver and we don’t resolve all our problems in 20 minutes. (For the record, I don’t vacuum in heels and pearls, either).

All I can say is, eventually they did their math and settled into their corners with Legos and a book. I took a nap, and then we played baseball outside until the sun went down.

And you know what the beautiful thing is? Tomorrow, when they finish their Sleeping Competition, they’re going to give me another shot at this roadschooling thing.





  1. You seem to think that teachers have a magic wand to ensure their students are motivated to do their best each day. In the real world, students in a regular school also have “off” days. We all just power through it as you do and hope they retain a joy of learning.


  2. Love you guys! You’re all doing great. I hold out hope that Oscar really has a plan for Lego Math and just hasn’t quite figured it out yet. And I am pretty sure that Nico’s urban planning experiment is TOTALLY education – so what if it’s not Common Core. ;>


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