“Back to School” Becomes “Leave to Learn”

People keep asking (somewhat skeptically), “What about school during your trip — are you homeschooling?” I keep answering (somewhat defensively), “No; our kids will do the same work as they would do in school, with real teachers assigned to help them, so they won’t fall behind.” I expound on the educational benefits of the trip and explain that we’re taking the year off largely for the kids’ sake. But inwardly I’m less confident, and all summer I have worried about “back to school” — about the transition to schooling our kids on the road.

My "roads scholars" pictured earlier this summer near Tahoe.

My "roads scholars" pictured earlier this summer near Tahoe.

I know it’s kind of crazy, because we’ll encounter extraordinary educational opportunities at every turn. Plus, most wise people recognize that learning takes place all the time and is more apt to blossom outside the confines of a classroom. So why the worry and resistance to the idea of homeschooling?

At the root is my fear of being inadequate as a teacher, and anxiety that my kids won’t “keep up” with their peers. My knee-jerk response to anxiety is to try to control the circumstances and outcomes; hence, I got our school supplies in place, got the kids working on academic review workbooks, and envisioned us sitting around a table starting a half-day, five-day-a-week schooling routine on the same day their real school back home reopens (August 26). In other words, I felt determined to replicate their 3rd- and 6th-grade classroom experience during travel.

Thank goodness I had an epiphany (or more of a “well, duh” moment) that my approach might cause us to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us all to learn in a different, potentially better way. I came across information and encouragement, highlighted below, that has made me less stressed, less rigid and much more excited about our adventure in “roadschooling.”

First, some background on how “school” will work for our family this year: We are fortunate to be in a high-quality public school district that granted both kids independent study contracts for the school year. Kyle has a 3rd-grade teacher assigned to him from his elementary school, and Colly has a 6th-grade teacher assigned to her from the middle school. Last spring, we all met and devised a plan for the coming year. (This was fairly simple because, as luck would have it, another local family did this same thing the previous year and paved the way for us to follow their example.)

Under the contract, the kids will follow the core curriculum, communicate with their teacher approximately once a week via email and periodically turn in a sampling of work — enough homework and special projects so that the teacher can see the child is following the program and meeting the standards. It’s up to Morgan and me to do the bulk of instruction and review their work. We see it as a win-win: our kids get an educational plan designed to meet grade-level standards, plus a teacher to help them long-distance. They also get to feel like they’re still a part of their school. We parents get the structure of the curriculum and expertise of its teachers, and we avoid the bureaucratic and legal hurdles many homeschooling parents face when they pull their kids out of school. The school district, meanwhile, gets the daily attendance money from the state that it would otherwise lose if our kids un-enrolled; plus, the district gets two kids who will re-enter school the following year more likely to succeed, having followed the school’s program during their year away.

Kyle's summer workbook (click for amazon link). Colly did the Grade 5 - 6 one.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? My doubts crept in, however, when I grappled with how and when to teach my kids. As a warm-up, I bought them each workbooks in the Summer Bridge Activities series to review the basics they learned the previous school year, and to get us all used to “doing school” at home. The workbooks themselves are quite good — a nice mix of language arts, math, science and history, formatted in a manageable “daily dose.”

But after about a week, our workbook routine began to devolve from enthusiastic and fruitful (concepts reviewed, discussions sparked) to laborious and futile (kids groaning and rolling eyes while saying, “Do I have to?” … me hovering and overly correcting their work, repeating “Just get it done”). I see in hindsight I was too authoritative about determining when they should work during the day, and I set arbitrary deadlines for when they should complete the lessons. I beat myself up: In a mere matter of weeks, I made them view academic work as a chore and to dread having me as their teacher.

I took a deep breath, cut myself slack and tried to open my mind. (Easier said than done!) Here is some of the advice that helped me regroup and take a fresh approach to this year of schooling:

  • Have confidence that the kids will learn not only what they’re “supposed to” learn, but immeasurably more; and that what they learn on the road and through their own volition is more likely to stick and positively shape them. This point is emphasized by homeschooling experts such as Helen Hegener, who wrote that her children taught her to “relax and trust that learning was always happening, with or without my help, and the learning that happened without my assistance was much more likely to be useful and relevant.” I also heard this point made by other round-the-world blogging families such as The Andruses of Utah, who wrote: “On the road, school is a round-the-clock, ever-changing experience, a 7-day-a-week field trip that teaches them more about the world and themselves than they could ever learn at home.”
  • Try not to always measure their progress and productivity by traditional, quantitative means (e.g. minutes spent reading, number of answers correct), and don’t keep comparing them to their peers back home; rather, embrace this chance to let them learn individually and independently, more in tune with their own pace and learning style. Measure their success as much by the spirit of the process as by the end result. The confidence and love of learning they gain will pay off in the long run. I know this advice is hard for me to follow, so I’ll re-read those lines the next time I grow impatient by how long it takes my daughter to do a page of math problems or exasperated by how many seemingly simple words my son misspells in a paragraph. If she “gets it” and feels good about it, that’s great, no matter how long it takes; if he has bright thoughts and clever word choices driving those misspellings, then that’s terrific.
  • Stop thinking of myself as a teacher who can dump facts into my kids’ heads, as if I could program them to download information at my command. It helps me to recall a moment when we were in the Smithsonian last Spring Break. The kids kept wanting to run off and see something that caught their eye. Their voices bubbled with interest, “Look, Mom, check this out!” But instead, I held them back; I said, “No, wait, come here and listen to this,” and I would proceed to read out loud each exhibit’s caption. They grew bored and stopped listening to my lectures. Then they lost their eagerness to run and explore other exhibits — they just wanted to run away from me. It’s an all-too-typical example of how I can be overly controlling and fall into power struggles with the kids. On this trip, I’ll try to follow their lead more often, and to think of myself as a student alongside them, hopefully sharing and supporting their curiosity.
  • Be flexible with expectations and scheduling so that we can learn by exploring our surroundings, and by letting the kids follow their natural interests. (See point above.) How silly it would be to say “no” if the kids wanted to take a special hike or see a performance one weekday morning because we set a schedule to get through a textbook chapter during that time slot.
  • Try to practice the principles of Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen. This involves using encouragement and abiding by the belief that kids do well when they feel well; balancing kindness and firmness; coming up with solutions together to resolve conflict instead of threatening consequences; and letting children take risks, do things on their own and learn from mistakes. This book is one of the best and most effective parenting books I ever read. But it’s counter-intuitive to the way I’ve always done things, so I need to re-read it and keep working on it.

    One of my favorite parenting books, which helps with teaching too (click for amazon link).

We’re taking risks and have lots to learn. I’m sure we’ll make mistakes all along the way. But I’m going to try to view that as cause for celebration, not concern.

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