Saturday, July 23, 2016

Boatschooling in Session!
By Michael

Our cruising friend, Matt, now
lives in American Samoa and
gave Eleanor and Frances surfing
lessons. On two different days,
they paddled out. Eleanor really took to
it and says she wants to do more in Fiji.
The prospect of educating one’s own children is daunting for many parents who want to cast off with their kids. We’ve learned that every family does it differently. Behan, Sara, and I researched the varied approaches to homeschooling and covered them in Voyaging with Kids. We also covered the legal stuff. I’m going to talk here about what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and how it’s all been going since we embarked on this cruising life aboard Del Viento. 

We started homeschooling our girls almost 2 years before we left D.C. They were then ages 3 and 5 and schooling wasn’t a big stretch academically, but I think the experience gave us a sense of competence. Engaging with a local homeschooling cooperative and being surrounded by other homeschooling parents and homeschooled kids, for us normalized the reality of our new roles as parent-teacher. When we quit our jobs, closed on the house, and drove away with a trailer full of boat stuff, we counted ourselves lucky not to have to deal also with a schooling transition.

Windy’s not a teacher and I’m not a teacher. We are college educated. But I don’t think our educations or the fact that we’re not teachers means a hill of beans with regard to our ability to homeschool our kids. In our experience, and for many others we've known, homeschooling challenges are rarely academic in nature, but more often about personalities clashing, about temperaments, about expectations.

Okay, the academics.

For many topics, learning happens organically through a conversation on the bus, or at the dinner table, or while hanging out with friends. Every day one of us breaks out the dictionary, an atlas, or offline Wikipedia. Our kids naturally gravitate to the humanities, especially reading, writing, and art, so our job there is mostly limited to keeping new books and notebooks and art supplies available. We consider this natural learning to be ideal, and we’re content to act as facilitators, or at the very least, to get out of the way.
Eleanor getting ready to paddle out.

For the rest of their learning, for subjects such as math for which we have an expectation of progress along a continuum, our approach has been more structured.

Officially, the girls are responsible for five subjects each day, Monday through Friday. Weekends are free, assuming they've completed their workweek work. Instruction generally happens earlier in the day, but no mind is paid to the clock—it’s up to each kid to get started and sustain momentum. (The girls are keen to keep most of each day and weekends free for themselves, so with that motivation, one of them has learned to drive herself forward and resist distraction, the other is climbing that hill.)

That sounds very regimented, but we always keep an eye open to the real world and to our interest in the places we visit and the people we meet. Practically, this means there are many days the girls are excused from a normal day’s schooling. For example, during passages there is no structured school (audiobooks are a lifesaver for fighting boredom and seasickness). And of course the location-specific opportunities our lifestyle offers are one of the reasons we are out here. We recently spent a couple of days with friends in American Samoa learning to sail Optimists. In Tonga, the girls practiced free diving. And now that we’re in Apia, Samoa, they are learning about Robert Louis Stevenson in preparation for seeing his gravesite on Monday.

We have on board an evolving collection of textbooks, workbooks, iPad apps, novels, games, and craft supplies for the more structured schooling. At the moment, Frances is making her way through Singapore Math books while Eleanor learns from the Doodlemath and Xtramath apps on an iPad, and Khan Academy online. Frances is working through a multiple-subject BrainQuest workbook. Windy quizzes Eleanor from a similarly themed deck of BrainQuest cards. For the past 8 months, Eleanor has been teaching herself Japanese, using primarily TextFugu online. Frances is working on a puppet show that tells the story of the Ramayana, building paper puppets from Thailand her aunt gave her. The girls enjoy competing against each other in spelling bees Windy hosts frequently, drawing words from lists of those commonly misspelled. Next week is likely to look a bit different.
Can you spot Frances on an American
Samoa beach?

There is not a whole lot more to report. It’s been much the same for the past few years and I think it will be much the same for as long as we keep cruising (though Eleanor is increasingly self-directed in her learning and I expect that trend to continue, and for Frances as well).

Still daunted? Remind yourself that the day you became a parent, you automatically assumed primary responsibility for your child’s education—even if you had them enrolled in a conventional school. You were, and continue to be, responsible for all that we can’t leave it to schools to teach, the other stuff, the stuff that is even more important than academics. Like modeling positive social interactions, like showing what kindness and decency looks like in our day-to-day world, like staying inquisitive and interested in learning new things, like giving time to your kid and others when it’s needed, like all the practical lessons like learning to change the oil in the family car. You were your child’s first teacher and you remain their only continuous teacher, whether on land or at anchor. Remember that and academic studies can be seen as the straightforward knowledge acquisition they are.

I’m happy to answer any questions about our boatschooling experiences (just send an email or leave a comment), but I don’t know how much value our experience offers. It’s just what’s worked for us. But hopefully our history is affirming to anxious parents planning to go cruising. I will add that obviously homeschooling is not wine and roses for every family—and not always for us. I think it’s important to be flexible and to keep in mind that any stress you bring to the learning environment (perhaps from a concern that your kid is falling behind) will not be conducive to making progress. Just do your best, cut yourself slack, and give yourself time to see if things are working and then be open to trying new things.

That’s it from Del Viento, where the men are good looking and the kids are above average.


P.S.—My friend Behan aboard Totem just published a spot-on post about the socialization concern people have about cruising kids, the other big question we get from non-cruising parents and relatives and pretty much everyone else not out here with us. The subject raises Behan’s hackles—check out her feisty response.

Frances waxing her board.

Eleanor emerging from the tube.

This kind of learning happens periodically. I'll get a thought
in my head like, "Do my girls know what a lock washer is and
how it works?" Which will lead to a structured class
on all the types of fasteners and what they're used for.

Frances walking her steed in after a sailing lesson in American Samoa.
The girls can identify more fish and sea creatures than I
knew existed at their age.


  1. Curious: Does Eleanor use the long board or the short one, primarily? Is one more challenging than the other?

  2. And - another thing - is that a tattoo I'm seeing on your left arm in the photo where you're talking to the girls about fasteners? So curious!


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