What Did We REALLY Learn "On The Road"
What Did World Schooling Look Like For Our Family?
I started writing this entry when we were at the start of our travels. I'm glad I didn't publish it because I've just gone back and deleted most of what I wrote. I imagined myself fitting in a relevant homeschool curriculum as part of our journey. I had some good plans, excellent math materials, suggested books, journal prompts. . . I am a teacher by trade after all. Look how neat my early "lessons" were with the kids.
Do you believe that certain people walk into your life at a certain moment for a reason? I do. For us, they were Lainie and Miro. Six weeks into our trip a mom and her 13-year-old son strolled into South American Explorers Club in Cusco, Peru. Always on the lookout for playmates for our kids, Noah noticed them in the courtyard. He thought the boy looked familiar so he went up to him and asked if he was Miro from one of the travel blogs we followed.
Why yes! Turns out they had recently arrived in Cusco and were renting an apartment only a few blocks away. The two of them had been traveling for the past 3 years together. The kids hit it off right away while I peppered Lainie with a barrage of “How do you . . . .?” questions. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of her “unschooling” approach to education. I had never even heard of unschooling, but she seemed happy and Miro an articulate, smart, thoughtful, well adjusted kid.
We were lucky enough to spend time together and we engaged in a number of subsequent adventures and conversations during the next two months. Getting to know people who truly live life to the fullest and trust themselves gave us confidence to do the same. Lainie's advice was a gift. The hardest to follow, “Let it go”.
I am thrilled to say that we did let it go. I use the word "messy" in the title not as a negative but as an apt description of what we found ourselves embracing in a real world environment. As Miss Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus" always says, "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"
Moving forward we decided to make the world our classroom instead of imposing some kind of classroom on the road.
Classes in our Unconventional Syllabus:
Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins.
– Cheyenne Teaching
The driving force behind our exit from the predictability and comfort of our “normal life” was the pursuit of perspective. Of course we were excited to see the world, but the specific places and experiences we chose were secondary. Looking back, it was the being away more than anything else that drove our learning. While traveling, our ever changing “normal” pushed us to prioritize and truly live in the moment. Our learning was often uncomfortable but unquestionably authentic.
Certain places naturally instilled perspective. In Mongolia we spent two weeks living with local nomadic families. On two occasions we had to drive around to try and find these families, since they had recently moved. There are miles and miles of literally wide-open spaces, no roads, or electricity, or fresh produce . . . The vastness of the land itself was humbling.
Every morning the entire Mongolian family would wake early and set to work caring for the animals, chopping wood, collecting water, and preparing food. The children were an integral part of family life and had specific and important responsibilities. Watching these small kids milking goats and carrying firewood (all with smiles on their faces) reminded us of the expectations we set for our own kids. In most of the places we visited, children had similar roles. This was something of a wake up call for Alex and Leah. Did they really used to complain about taking out the garbage once a week?
It is impossible not to notice that many people live happily with very few material possessions. We had some great conversations as a family about the nature of happiness, and work, and communities. Before this trip we knew in theory that most other people in the world did not share our lifestyle, but the opportunity to experience that reality first hand was priceless.
It is a happy talent to know how to play. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our extended time together gave us daily opportunities for play. We carried a deck of cards everywhere, got into pillow fights, raced, had spontaneous dance parties, made up outrageous stories while people-watching, splashed in the waves, practiced hand stands in the pool, skipped stones, engaged in epic "Apples to Apples" games, took over fooz ball tables, jumped into soccer games, threw the frisbee . . . you get the idea.
I have always believed that children (all people, really) learn and grow naturally through play. I know some wonderful teachers who manage to engage their students in learning without making it all about "work". However, as children get older, the time allowed for unstructured play tends to shrink dramatically. The nature of our trip and our daily lives managed in many ways set us free of the "fit it in" lifestyle - and we reaffirm that play, work, and learning are far from mutually exclusive.
Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn. -- O. Fred Donaldson
Communication becomes a REALLY BIG DEAL when you are traveling. Encountering new people and situations can be stressful - not to mention the importance of our family all being on the same page.
We started our trip in South America because I wanted for us to spend time living there and learning the language. Our first few weeks were really hard because sorting out the most basic daily tasks involved using our very beginning Spanish. We lived with a family for a month to avoid the temptations of seeking out other gringoes, and soon learned enough to read important signs, converse with taxi drivers, order from a menu, and arrange for laundry. The kids picked up many phrases and expressions that were NOT taught in our seven weeks of classes.
Living in Peru and interacting with the community in Cusco was by far the best natural teacher. We decided to volunteer two days a week at an after school program. We learned specific language skills while volunteering because we were in charge of a large group of children. Important statements such as: siéntate! (sit down!) tranquilo!(quiet!) despacio! (slow down!) dame eso! (give me that!) buen trabajo (great job!) maravilloso! (wonderful!) will stay with us! Both Alex and Leah were involved in teaching our English lessons and helped write and execute our bi-weekly plans. The local kids adored them and it was an even bigger learning experience for our kids to be in the teacher role.
Talking to Each Other
When we left Cusco after four months and continued to travel for another six weeks in South America it was with considerably more confidence than when we arrived. Our family communication continued to improve as well. There is nothing like sharing a single room to ensure the hammering out of misunderstandings in a timely manner. We had family meetings when there was a specific upcoming event or situation to discuss but we found that more often than not there is nothing competing with opportunities to talk - so we just did. I can't remember another time when I've had the luxury of listening to the long version of Alex or Leah's dreams on a random Tuesday morning. We continued to stay focused on trying to give each other affirmations and stayed away from the negative as much as possible. There were still challenging moments and personality style issues, but overall we found our groove.
RESILIENCE and CONFIDENCE
“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.”
― George Bernard Shaw
We asked a great deal from our kids, and they delivered. Oh sure, there was some complaining and eye rolling for sure - but when it counted they rose to the occasion. Admittedly, sometimes it takes other people to point out that our kids are cool and that we aren't crazy parents. Along our journey we have been blessed by meeting people who change our perspective and inspire us. We met Jessica during our trek in Torres del Paine and she wrote a great blog post about her adventure and even mentions meeting us as a highlight. The post is HERE and well worth reading. Here is a short excerpt about us:
"My favorite encounter by far was with the Van Loens. Alex,12 and Leah, 10 are two of the most well behaved and good spirited kids I have ever met. They're out here trekking with the best of us, enduring rain, cold, wind, and never once complaining. I doubt they realize it now, but they are the two luckiest people in the park. This is my favorite part about traveling; these encounters with people who truly stimulate the imagination and demonstrate what is takes to turn dreams into reality. The Van Loen's are proof that life is what you make it- the world is their playground and their classroom, and home is where the heart is."
As expected, we faced some hardships as we traveled. I won't chronicle them here - that would be a post in itself! I do know that with every night spent sleeping on the floor, encounter with strangers, longer than expected hike, or mysterious food item - we have grown. My worrying child now has lots of examples of how she made it through. We found that laughing about what seemed so dark at the time moved the incident quickly into part of family lore. For us, newfound resilience and confidence have come from dealing with disappointment, overcoming obstacles, and finding the joy (or at least the humor) in each day.
RESPECT and GRATITUDE
"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." - Thornton Wilder
People are our treasures. We have been blessed by both the support of friends and family at home and by the generosity of new friends we have met during our journey. The willingness of others to take us in to their homes and hearts has been humbling and inspiring.
Did we learn any Math or Science or Writing skills? Absolutely! Was it what they would learned if we had stayed at home? No way! We are grateful that we had the freedom to teach our own kids by taking them out of school. We discovered that this is a privilege not afforded to most families around the world. Yes, it was messy, but we wouldn't change it for the world.